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Today's Walden: English Studies and Eco-Criticism Take Center Stage
"A truly good book ... is so true that it teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down and commence living on its hint. ... What I began by reading I must finish by acting."
Not surprisingly, American author Henry David Thoreau was keenly aware of the connection between literature and the world around us - especially the natural world. The famed author of "Walden" is one of many literary voices urging the need for self-reflection and environmentalism. But Thoreau also includes a call to action that resonates more than 150 years later.
A critical look at environmentalism in literature has been a growing field among English scholars for the past two decades. And under the direction of Dr. Stacy Alaimo, Professor of English and an internationally recognized authority on eco-criticism, it became the central theme of the Department of English's Hermanns Lecture Series last fall.
"If you say you want to make changes in how humans act toward the environment, it would not be enough to only look at science," Alaimo said. "It's not as if we're only rational creatures and only do what science tells us. If you want environmental change, you need to look at text, films and popular culture. Conversely, if you want to look at why it is we seem to go down the wrong road, you have to look at text, films and popular culture."
The annual lecture series is intended to enable English undergraduate and graduate students to listen to and interact with national and international scholars on an industry-related topic. In October 2009, Alaimo and her colleagues presented "Greening English," a series of lectures, roundtables and workshops that examined how environmental studies are impacting academic circles and beyond.
"The theme, 'Greening English,' was meant to convey the energy and excitement of environmental studies in English today," said Dr. Neill Matheson, Assistant Professor of English and a member of the event's leadership committee. "Scholars have been interested in environmental issues for decades, but in recent years there have been new developments in literary and cultural studies and theory focused on the environment, and more generally a sense that this is an important emerging field."
Assistant Professor Dr. Amy Tigner said the Hermanns lectures were designed to showcase the importance of the field as well as make the connection between literature and the environment.
"Eco-criticism has gained popularity in the last 20 years," Tigner said. "It's a ball that's rolling and gaining momentum. Literature is an effect of society. It reflects on society and also comments on it. ... Since literature is the way in which we tell about our world and they way in which we read about worlds in the past, it's important for us to be talking about those issues that are current."
Buzzwords like "going green" and "sustainability" and "carbon footprint" were not a part of popular vernacular when Alaimo wrote her dissertation in 1994, one of the early pieces of eco-criticism research for a field that did not yet exist. She was commitment to the environment before it became fashionable for Big Business to reduce its waste and consider alternative energy, before consumer recycling and conscious shopping became en vogue. Her work led to speaking invitations around the world and a spot at the forefront of a unique, albeit personal, academic field.
"You can't solve a problem as huge and ubiquitous as the environment without looking at everything and how things are connected," she said. "You have to look at artistic work ... [and] science doesn't exist apart from these things."
Alaimo said a major component of eco-criticism is how scholars in humanities engage with scholars in science. She said fear and a difference in perception and thinking has been a significant roadblock in the field. However, she said, awareness and education on a variety of levels has pushed conversations out of the classroom and into the public arena.
"Environmental humanities needs to engage with science because the environment is a physical thing and based in science," she said. "As a public policy issue, I think Americans need to understand science more than they do. You can't have a good understanding of environmentalism if you don't understand any science."
Part of Tigner's research has included a look at the pollution of 17th century England as industrialization began. Nature, which at times was considered "evil and wild," was slowly being tamed and changed — forests cultivated, waterways diverted, the skies filled with the toxic burn-off of progress. Agrarian society gave way to urban planning and the struggle to find environmental balance continued its centuries-old cycle.
"How we think about the environment and sustainability and keeping what we have is in opposition to and an antidote to industrialization," Tigner said. "What's going on in the Gulf [of Mexico] right now is a prime example. Who in Texas doesn't drive a car to get somewhere? We all need the oil. But we're horrified by what we've allowed to happen by deep sea drilling."
Tigner said the intent of the 2009 Hermanns Lecture Series was not to produce an army of eco-warriors, ready to trade pen and paper for plows and megaphones. Instead, the goal was to raise awareness of the field for English majors and to encourage those in attendance to think about how they make an individual impact — negative or positive — on their environment.
"[The Hermanns was] all about an exchange of ideas, and in this case, an exchange of ideas about the environment," Tigner said. "Part of it is raising awareness for even the small things ... How can you change a little bit of your life to make an impact?"
Matheson, who is researching the connection of humans and animals in Thoreau's work, said it was imperative the department's lecture series have a real-world connection.
"We wanted to use the Hermanns series to provide a forum for environmentalist work," he said. "We also wanted the lecture series to support UT Arlington's focus on sustainability campus-wide."
Alaimo's own work on the President's Sustainability Committee is further proof of her commitment to putting words in action. In addition to working with public relations students on a campus-wide marketing project for UT Arlington students, Alaimo has served as an expert on campus and abroad: She attended a conference in Copenhagen last year that was heavily attended by European politicians and United Nations officials. She said it was validating to see so many policymakers listening to her peers and the researchers within the field.
In the end, Alaimo hopes the Hermanns lectures and subject matter will encourage all of us to make the right decisions and changes that make the world a better place.
"Ideally, students, faculty and anyone from the community who wasn't interested in the environment before took something away," she said. "[The topic] connects with everyday life. It should impact everything you do. Everything we do as humans has an impact on our environment.
"There's all kinds of ways you can think through your daily life: how you want to live, how you want your neighborhoods to be and what kind of world do you want this to be? ... I think we need to do everything we can."
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