Some green shoots of rediscovery

There's a growing trend to take an ecological view of history and literature write Felipe Fernández-Armesto and Michael Schmidt in two reviews of key works from this expanding academic field
Click to follow

Something New Under the Sun by John McNeill (Allen Lane, £20, 448pp)

Something New Under the Sun by John McNeill (Allen Lane, £20, 448pp)

Ecological anxiety is a form of human self-flattery. We have convinced ourselves that, in the war of our species against the rest of nature, we have bludgeoned the enemy into retreat. We can colonise spaces that seem rationally uninhabitable. We can destroy or domesticate almost at will. We can explode landscapes, coat them in concrete or smother them with monocultures. We can squeeze the Aral Sea dry, strain the silt out of the Nile, turn deserts into gardens, prairies into dustbowl, fertile land to saline waste.

Cloning and genetic modification are in the locker. We have the forests on the run, the weather under watch and many diseases in check. We are reaching for immortality. Our mastery is so complete, says the ecological movement, that we must call off the fight: if we keep up our pressure on the planet, we will kill it.

Yet, so far, all our interventions have only scratched the surface of Earth. History is a path picked across ruins: all previous civilisations perished, and ecological mismanagements played a major or decisive part in every fall. Nature seems to have amazing powers of recovery and amazing patience in revenge. We are still at her mercy - vulnerable to a microbial revanche, a climatic catastrophe, or an asteroid attack.

Our power over the environment is insufficient for security. Recently, as John McNeill shows in his superb "environmental history of the 20th century", most of our efforts to warp the world to our needs and uses seem to have gone wrong. We should end them, not because they are too effective but because they are so incompetent.

McNeill is persuasive because he is quiet, sceptical, detached and self-critical, without a line of hyperbole, eco-freakery or environmental millenarianism. Yet he builds up a compelling picture in which two facts stand out. In the "prodigal century", human effects on the environment were unprecedented; and many of the most pervasive of them were unintended. The catalogue starts with exploding population, rampant industrialisation and urban hypertrophy - generators of intractable waste.

Mind-boggling extinctions and depletions of life-forms, forests, wetlands and waterways jolt eco-systems. The staggering turnover in fossil fuels - abetted by new inventions like chlorofluorocarbons, the internal combustion engine and petrochemical by-products - expands the kingdom of pollution, which now pervades the biosphere and reaches beyond it. Our trash litters the ocean, the slopes of Everest, even outer space.

There is nothing new in the essential facts or lines of argument, but McNeill makes them grip with three techniques. First, he has found a new yet simple way of presenting the material, by classifying human effects in environmental categories: the earth's crust, atmosphere, water and finally the biosphere, treated as an arena of encounter between people and other biota.

Secondly, he has a knack of sprezzatura. With hardly a note of condescension to the reader, or compromise of scientific rigour, he makes everything easy to understand. Finally, he writes a nearly perfect style: the pace is well judged, the language clear, the images forceful but uncontrived.

And, without truckling to populism, he packs in some wonderful stories of hubris and black humour along the way. Thomas Midgley, who achieved an unrivalled impact on the environment by inventing chlorofluorocarbons and putting lead in petrol, contracted polio and got strangled in the system of ropes he designed for getting himself out of bed. Thanks to his work on fertilisers, Fritz Haber made it possible for humankind to go on feeding itself in the 20th century; a wholehearted German patriot, he also made poison gas for the First World War. His wife killed herself in disgust. Later, the Nazis later exiled him because he was Jewish.

The comb jellyfish - an American predator introduced into the Black Sea - helped to win the Cold War by depleting Russian fisheries. Veracruz, in the oil boom, had six bakeries and 77 liquor stores. Like all the best tragedies, the environmental history of the 20th century is riven with absurdities.

McNeill's judgements are generally sound, though I think he is too dismissive of arguments for nuclear power and misrepresents economic growth as an ideology. His thinking is tough, his sensibilities tender. He unashamedly takes the "anthropocentric point of view" without personifying Nature or privileging other species. He would like to "esteem all individuals equally" but, when counting the cost of pollution in terms of human lives, he "prefers intellectually" to acknowledge that "the elderly have already made" their contributions and that the young "are very easily replaced".

He points out that rich communities are good at immunising themselves against ecological disaster, while deflecting the consequences to the poor. Occasionally, the complexity of the problems makes him haver. In successive sentences, he says first that human activity "probably accounts for the modest warming the earth experienced", then that "no one knows for certain if human actions are the cause".

Though his tone is mildly minatory, he offers no sententious reproofs or glib nostrums. The world is experiencing "something new" and anything could happen. Still, on McNeill's own data, we can be tentatively optimistic. The pollution war is probably being won. The ozone layer is reparable. We have no real shortage of resources. Ecological awareness has seeped into the environment of politics. All societies have "unsustainable" practices, always replaced by others, equally unsustainable, for a while.

Though McNeill points out that the connection between population and pollution is "hazy", all human interactions with the environment grow problematic when numbers increase and ease when they fall. We are on the verge of a historic downturn in demography - an end to the uncharacteristic buoyancy of recent history. Experience and logic both tell us that prosperity and mechanisation are effective agents of population control, because they make people want, and need, fewer children. Ironically, pell-mell economic growth, which seemed to put the planet in peril, will guarantee the reversal of the population trend and so safeguard more of the Earth. In the long run, this will go down as just one more item in the catalogue of unintended effects.

* Felipe Fernández-Armesto's new book, 'Civilizations', is published in October by Macmillan

The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate (Picador, £18, 322pp)

"What are poets for in our brave new millennium?" asks Jonathan Bate in his critical meditation, The Song of the Earth. By now we are on the penultimate page of his Tempest; and he declares: "Reader, allow me a final test of whether you believe in eco-poetics, whether you are willing to hear the voice of Ariel".

"Believe in?" Yes - every bit as much as Arnold, Eliot or Leavis, Bate has been proselytising, and at last he invites a leap of faith. Were sentiment our guide, we might gratefully leap, for he has been intermittently persuasive and invariably beguiling. But "believe in"? No. Poetry is scripture in one Book only; and Wallace Stevens is the last writer to invite "belief" in this sense.

Building on work initiated in 1974 by Joseph Meeker in The Comedy of Survival: studies in literary ecology, Bate is not so much setting out a new stall in the critical market-place as rearranging the fruit and veg in new configurations. He finds and, when he cannot find, imposes eco-readings on poetry.

The Song of the Earth addresses the general reader, and it is written in a delightful and delighting style, risking enthusiasm (for Les Murray, Clare, Cowper), hacking its way through the jungle of theory and philosophy. His tutelary spirit is Wordsworth, both the nature writer and the civic poet; his Caliban is Byron; his most compelling Ariel is Elizabeth Bishop.

Bate proposes a place and a use for poetry in the ecological twilight of our planet. Nature is dead or dying, but in works of the imagination it survives - just as when God was dying, the century before last, he was invited to take up residence in the hostel of poetry.

This book "is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home". Is the earth our home in this sense? Bate is a professor in Liverpool, but his ears are closed to the poetry of the city, to modernism. Bunting makes a brief appearance, Yeats flickers fitfully, but Eliot and Pound, Auden and Ashbery, are absent.

In the opening chapters, Bate considers the diverse implications of "nature" and "culture". He is in thrall to the 19th century, to notions of organic form, and to what Thom Gunn calls "the occasions of poetry" and how those occasions - weather, the political moment, a particular passion - affect creation and illuminate our reception of a work. The creative act is restored to the poet, the poet in time.

Bate's perspectives are radical, his strategies conservative. In his tone and his fascination with the gossip of poets' lives he entertains us as a classic essayist - Hazlitt, for example - might do. We are led but not, as we are by Hazlitt, persuaded.

Bate works his way through his arguments by means of contrasting texts and authors: Wordsworth and Byron and Peacock, Keats and Clare, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. These unexpected collocations are intended to disclose ways of eco-reading not confined to predictable "green" texts. The basic premise is that culture, self-consciousness, especially in language, set us outside nature. Our nostalgia or need for reintegration is the challenge the poet faces. Through language, through imagining, we can be momentarily reconnected.

The third millennium is too young for us to venture generalisations. Nothing new in literature has happened yet. But maybe in criticism it has. The Song of the Earth is, as the title implies, a little Mahlerian in its strains, elegiac because what we have in literature is residue. It can be reconstituted, but in imagination rather than in fact.

Unlike earlier eco-critics and eco-poets, Bate is under no illusion; he recognises how far from environmental action the literary arts in general are, and also how late in the ecological history of the planet he is writing. He is wary of the extremes of eco-criticism which issue in eco-fascism, and the simplifications of others who appropriate texts with a disregard of their wider implications.

Bate wonderfully brings W H Hudson back into play, and his close readings, of Elizabeth Bishop in particular, illuminate in unexpected ways. But then he, too, is guilty of didacticism and, worse, of appropriation. If he loves writers, he has to accommodate them, and this means laying them (as he lays Austen, Byron, Rousseau, Bunting and others) on a Procrustean bed. He makes them fit by continually re-nuancing his terminology, or redefining the contexts. Time after time he goes too far: a brilliant setting forth, and then the sun is covered by over-familiar clouds.

Yet, as popular cultural criticism, the book will have a considerable impact. It does over-simplify, as in its account of 20th-century literary criticism. It chops up the arguments of philosophers, theorists and poets in order to use the kindling for its own fire. But it will introduce new patterns of "theoretical" reading, and no doubt effect a change in the canon of texts we read and teach.

* Michael Schmidt's 'Lives of the Poets' is published by Phoenix