Whilst ecocriticism is foremost an academic investigation of environment, as opposed to an activist movement, it constantly challenges both contemporary ethics and politics. Much like the fields of postcolonialism, feminism, and marxism, ecocriticism looks poignantly about how groups have been historically othered and consequently subjected to abusive forms of power. However, ecocriticism does not focus on people, but rather, is concerned with representations of the non-human. In doing so, ecocriticism has called into question our perspective on nature to a radical extent. The value, sentience, and even political rights of our biosphere have been completely redefined by this relatively new cultural field.   

The cornerstone of ecocritical philosophy is its Earth-centred approach, making it interested in less the human relationship to the Earth, but the Earth in and of itself. By extension, ecocriticism is highly reactive to (and critical of) anthropocentrism: an ideology that is prevalent in both literature and contemporary politics across the globe. It is this anthropocentric view—that humans are the most important life on Earth—that ecocriticism challenges. Through its lens it is increasingly impossible to ignore that much of the way we have represented nature is at least inaccurate if not incredibly exploitative. In order to bring nature out of our own ‘othering’ we need to appreciate it as a viable, valuable existence. In the words of MacFarlane, culture must “recognise the more-than-human world as animistically, entanglingly alive”.  

A famous example of how ecocriticism dissects our anthropocentric worldview is through the dichotomy between the egocentric and ecocentric. Greg Garrard’s Ecocriticism demonstrates this by comparing the poetical works of William Wordsworth and John Clare. While both are classed as Romantic poets, Garrard is cautious of defining these writers as ecocritical. Just because Romanticism is attentive towards the natural world, that alone is not sufficient to constitute an ‘Earth-centred approach’. Wordsworth, though argued often to be “somewhat of a conservationist”, often writes about nature in an incredibly egocentric way. Garrard articulates how the poet “spends rather little time describing nature, and rather a lot reflecting upon his own and other people’s responses to it”. To put this in context with ecocriticism, Wordsworth very rarely takes this approach in writing, and is only interested in nature in relation to humans. When the poet says “I wandered lonely as a cloud” this is hardly true ecopoetry, or even an engagement with nature. In fact from the ecocritical standpoint, Wordsworth is an iconically self-interested writer. He rarely looks at nature as anything other than an extension of his own feelings.

In comparison, John Clare highlights a more biocentric outlook in much of his poetry. He does this through a clear interest in the non-human for its own value. Mina Gorji best articulates this in her analysis of the poem “Clock-a-Clay”, where Clare describes a ladybird hiding from a storm. The poem reads as a heartfelt observation, invested entirely in the insect itself, rather than a Wordsworthian projection of human emotion. For this reason, Clare is unparalleled amongst the romantic poets for his “celebration of unsung things in the natural world”. He is ecocentric because his representation of the natural world is just that: a representation of what the natural world is, not what it symbolises to himself.  

A broader dichotomy ecocriticism grapples with is the ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ binary. There is unlimited rhetoric that demonstrates how nature has been ‘othered’ from civilization, to the extent that the terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ must conflict with one another rather than coexist. To explore the binary in this article would be beyond its scope, but texts such as Heart of Darkness, King Solomon’s Mines, and The Time Machine are excellent examples of literature that displays a deep ‘othering’ of the natural world as a result of humanity’s conquest of it. Ecocritical analysis for any of these texts will display the exploitation of the environment not just through plot but through language, through the novels’ very linguistic conception of anything natural. 

This level of analysis is morally important because it challenges the integrity of the language we use when talking about non-human forms of life. Thinking of nature as symbolic, reflective, or even pretty becomes quite repulsive when looking through an ecocritical lens. Why? Because we suddenly appreciate that we are talking about nature as a passive object, not an existence equal to our own. Add the climate crisis on top of this, and the way we view our natural surroundings becomes an even more imperative agenda. If something is under threat, we need to advocate its worth and not repeatedly exploit it through language that undervalues it. Ecocriticism is essential for challenging our anthropocentric politics. If our art, literature, and media take an ecocentric stance, it could grossly increase the pressure for fundamental policy changes towards the planet. 

So, the next time you watch a film, read a book, or even pass an advertisement, I invite you to put on your green-tinted spectacles. When you see the newest car model on a billboard, along an empty road surrounded by beautiful pines, ask yourself is that really fair? Is it not in fact a gross misrepresentation, of the views our biosphere has graciously given? When you are an ecocritic, the way you see the world becomes increasingly frustrating. It becomes very hard not to want to change things, most likely, for the better.