ECOCRITICISM AND STORYTELLING: A NEW LENS TO
UNDERSTAND OUR CONNECTION TO THE ENVIRONMENT
6 April 2021
by Khaled Alqahtani



    Whenever the human-nature relationship is brought up, one might immediately assume it’s better explained through atomistic science and environmental studies since they provide accurate data based on models and statistics. What, however, if this conventional approach to this special relationship is transformed, and instead of looking at science, we started to look at literature? Hamoud Ahmed, a professor of English at the University of Hodeidah, is a pioneer in ecocriticism, a literary field that looks at the human-nature relationship. And he’s transforming the limited scope of ecocriticism to include Arabic poetry.
    Scientific studies are portrayed as an “accurate” tool to describe the human-nature relationship. However, people in these studies are often counted solely as numbers and statistics. There is a  lack of personal narratives and how they’re impacted and transformed by the environment along with its changes. Scientific studies often leave out the overall impact of environmental changes and degradation on people and their lands, especially if they are in the form of colonialism and ongoing occupation. The numbers and accurately calculated statistics exclude the emotional devastation and mourning people endure, which is an essential element of the human-nature relationship. To holistically understand dynamic relationships underneath raw data, a field of literary studies known as ecocriticism provides special insight.
    Environment and literature may seem quite distinct. However, they are more connected than one may think. Ecocritic Cheryll Glotfelty writes, “literature acts on people, and people act on the world.” Ecocriticism is the literary

field that bridges the gap between these fields to better understand the human-nature relationship. From poetry to prose, ecocriticism studies and analyzes literature that has natural and environmental elements. For example, when reading a novel, not only do ecocritics look at how the characters and plot impact the environment, but they also look at how they are impacted by it. Ecocrotics do so by asking some of the following questions: how does literature influence harmful actions (toxic and nuclear waste, destruction of rainforests, etc.) on the environment? How does literature propose alternative approaches to the harm being done? How can literary criticism become a part of the environmental movement?
    While ecocriticism does provide more insightful analysis to the human-nature relationship, it is still a growing field with many flaws. One of them, according to Glotfelty, is being “predominantly a white movement.” This means that the answers ecocritics look at to investigate how people impact their environments, and how their environments impact them, are limited. This is because most of these answers come from the perspective and literature of white American and Europeans figures — leaving so many voices and experiences behind. Ahmed is attempting, through his research, to break this cycle by applying the field of ecocriticism to an entirely different language: Arabic. He applies Arabic poetry written by Palestinian poets. “In Arabic literature, however, ecocriticism is still in its infancy,” said Ahmed. “In other words, it is still quite unknown and opening up the field in Arab academia is immensely valuable for incorporating Arab voices in the recent ecocritical arguments.”


    By expanding the genres and texts investigated by ecocriticism, more facets of the human-nature relationship will be understood. Settler-colonialism in general is one of these facets. Both in Palestine and globally, they’re the root of many environmental crises currently taking place. This is a direct result of the exploitation of both Indegenoious peoples and their land. By studying the literature of Indigenous communities that highlights their connection to the land, ecocriticism is centering the experiences in which they are  disproportionately affected. Ahmed’s approach is transformative because he’s utilizing ecocriticism as a method of analysis that looks at the interaction between people and the environment through literature by prioritizing the experiences of those most vulnerable to these crises and changes.
    The need to extend ecocriticism to non-white literary figures is not merely to satisfy a need of representation. It is in fact a pillar of ecocriticism — how can we understand the human-nature relationship if we don’t look at the literature of communities disproportionately affected by environmental crises? How can we be more holistic in understanding these crises when the only type of literature thoroughly investigated is the one concerned about the impact of these crises, rather than their roots? Not only is there a need to transform the traditional lens used to understand the human-nature relationship (science), but there is also a need to criticize the basic approach in the alternative that is being proposed (ecocriticism). Ahmed is one literature critic who is trying to answer these questions and make ecocriticism more inclusive.
 

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