Adrian Ivakhiv, York University, Canada



A paper prepared for and presented at Cultures and Environments: On Cultural Environmental Studies, an On-Line Conference hosted by the American Studies Program, Washington State University, June 20-22, 1997.


Responding to recent calls for a "cultural environmental studies," "environmental cultural studies," or "green cultural theory," this paper sets out to map out a direction for this field, one which follows in the tradition of critical social theory, but complements it with recent work in environmental thought and radical ecology. Among the distinctive traits of such an ecocultural critical theory (and the ecocultural studies which ensue from it) are: (1) a simultaneous critical focus on human-nonhuman or human-environment relations, human intra-social and political relations, and the interaction between these two categories, and (2) an emphasis on the cultural dimensions of these relations. In this paper, I articulate the socio-ecological and institutional contexts for the emergence of an ecocultural critical theory, outline a set of goals and research directions for ecocultural studies, discuss some theoretical controversies, focusing especially on the debate between social-constructionism and ecological realism, and argue for the relevance and distinctive contribution of ecocultural critical theory to scholarly as well as activist work in the areas of cultural and environmental politics.

1. Contexts: environmental thought, cultural studies, and the ecological crisis

The emergence of the field of environmental studies has taken place, in part, as a result of a growing recognition of a deeply rooted, global ecological crisis. Whole ecosystems are imperilled; species are going extinct at a faster rate than ever before in the history of humanity; the global climate is changing, with results no one can securely predict; the human population continues to grow, exacerbating gross inequities in living conditions, health, and wealth; and the potentiality for widescale genetic mutations is increasing rapidly, both from environmental pollutants and toxic chemical mixes and from a rapidly evolving and poorly controlled multinational genetic engineering industry. Though the scientific basis behind some of these phenomena is much debated, taken as a whole they suggest that human-caused environmental change has taken on enormous proportions, and it can be doubted whether humanity is well equipped to deal with the ramifications of such changes.

Many environmental activists and theorists believe that these conditions cannot be effectively addressed through strictly technical measures, because they are intertwined within a crisis of politics, of values, and of worldview. From an anthropological and cultural perspective, the ecological crisis is not merely a scientific fact, but it is more importantly a cultural fact: it is conceived, imagined, discussed, and acted upon through the diverse cultural expressions of humanity. It is "made sense of" culturally, and our responses to the crisis are enabled as well as constrained by our imagination and interpretation of the crisis.

The development of the field of cultural studies in the last few decades has provided a number of theoretical and analytical tools useful in understanding the ways "culture" in its many forms is implicated within the perpetuation and contestation of relations of power. The emancipatory focus within cultural studies regarding questions of class, race, gender, identity and difference, is extended, within an "ecocultural studies", to include examination of the power exercised by humans over their extra-human environments, and to encompass questions of "ecocultural identity and difference" -- that is, relations between different modes of human interaction or "immersion" with(in) nonhuman nature (via productive labour, leisure, scientific research, religion and myth, etc.) and the politics within which these are imposed, resisted, legitimized and/or marginalized. Ecocultural studies sees culture as the "battleground" or terrain within which different ideas about nature and the environment, human-environment relations, and environmental politics and action, are articulated and contested.

2. Objectives of an Ecocultural Critical Theory [note 1]

Combining the perspective of critical environmental thought and cultural studies, then, ecocultural critical theory (henceforth, ECCT) and ecocultural studies (ECS) respond to a perceived, broad and deeply rooted crisis in the relationship between humans and what is casually, and increasingly problematically, called "nature." Their aims include the following:

(1) To critically assess the ways nature and nonhuman species, ecosystems and collectivities, have been defined and treated in scientific discourse, technical practice and popular culture (for instance, as objects, resources, commodities, lifeless mechanisms, cybernetic systems, transcendental agents, etc.).

(2) To critically assess the cultural representation of relations within and between human societies (including their gender, race, and class differences), relations between humans and the extra-human world, and interactions between these two sets of relations. This simultaneous focus on intra-human and human-extrahuman relations, and the assumption that the two are intertwined and mutually determining, constitutes a core feature of ecocultural critical theory.

(3) To encourage alternative or counter-hegemonic modes of interaction between human communities and the broader extra-human world. In present social conditions, this involves questioning or critiquing contemporary industrial society's anthropocentrism (the systematic domination of other species and beings, at the expense of natural-cultural communities developed over long periods of time, and justified by the unquestioned assumption of human, and specifically Western, superiority)[note 2], its resourcism, and the increasing dominance of consumerist and commodity relations between humans and the nonhuman. In response to these, ECCT aims to develop ways of speaking and representation which recognize that we humans are reflectively immersed within an animate world in which we are participants, and that a variety of forms of such "participation" have developed throughout history and are possible today. Where alternative forms of human participation in biotic communities (i.e. alternative natural-cultural relations) are facing pressure from dominant-hegemonic forms, ECCT would challenge the latter.

(4) More generally, to articulate the challenges faced by a society increasingly defined in terms of a world economy, impending ecological crisis, increasing cultural displacement, deterritorialization and mobility, and an ever more technologized lifeworld -- a composite, arguably "postmodern" society in which terms like "environment" and "nature" have become politically weighted signifiers, whose relation to their many referents is problematic -- not least because some of these referents threaten to disappear altogether.

In summary, ECCT is particularly concerned with asking: How have human ideas and concepts of nature, earth, landscape, and the relation between humanity and the nonhuman, reflected, constrained, or enabled our actions in relation to the extra-human world, and how do they condition our actions today? How do these ideas interact and intersect with particular kinds of human social relations? And what are the possibilities for strategic intervention aimed at resisting the expansion of capitalist-resourcist relations between humans and extra-human nature, and supporting the conditions for pluralism and difference in human-human and human-extrahuman relations?

3. Disciplinary contexts

Both cultural studies and environmental studies have developed as highly interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary endeavours, and as a hybrid of the two, ecocultural studies is similarly transdisciplinary. It fits comfortably neither within the social sciences, the natural sciences, nor the humanities, but draws on disciplines and methodologies within all of these, selecting among them on a basis that is pragmatic, strategic, and self-reflective, so as to produce the knowledge required for particular research projects and to critically articulate the relations between culture and environment.

Like other recently emerged, critical interdisciplinary practices (such as women's studies and feminist theory, Third World and postcolonial theory, native studies, gay and lesbian studies, critical social studies of science and technology, as well as cultural studies and environmental studies), ecocultural critical theory shares an interest in redressing perceived inadequacies in conventional ways of thinking, conducting research, and acting. To their quasi- or inter-disciplinary critiques of the gendered, eurocentric, and other presuppositions underlying much of Western intellectual thought and culture, ECCT adds a thoroughgoing critique of (among other things) anthropocentric resourcism and environmental injustice, and highlights the interconnections between different forms of oppression and exclusion involving inter-human and human-extrahuman interactions.

Arising at the intersection of environmental and cultural studies, ecocultural studies would thus include and/or draw on work in numerous fields and research programmes, most obviously the following:

(1) Environmental thought and philosophy (e.g., Evernden 1985; Davis 1989; Drengson 1989; Oeschlaeger 1991; W.Fox 1990; Bigwood 1993; Callicott 1989, 1994; Gare 1995; Abram 1996; Light and Katz 1996; Katz 1997; Gottlieb 1997), including radical ecology or ecophilosophy [note 3] (e.g., Leiss 1974; Merchant 1992, 1994; Zimmerman 1993, 1994; McLaughlin 1993), political ecology (e.g. Eckersley 1992; The Ecologist 1993; Lipietz 1995; Martell 1994), and accounts of various popular environmental and eco-justice movements (e.g., Taylor 1995; Peet and Watts 1996);

(2) Environmental media and discourse analysis (e.g. Burgess 1990; LaMay and Dennis 1991; Killingsworth and Palmer 1992; Bennett and Chaloupka 1993; Hansen 1993; Cantrill and Oravec 1996; Muir and Veenendall 1996; Myerson and Rydin 1996; Dale 1996; Herndl and Brown 1996; Neuzil and Kovarik 1996);

(3) Environmental literary criticism or "ecocriticism" (e.g., Kroeber 1994; Buell 1995; Murphy 1995; Glotfelty and Fromm 1996);

(4) Environmental history, historical ecology, and the social history of nature (e.g., Gold 1984; Merchant 1987, 1990; Bird 1987; Worster 1988; Horigan 1988; Smith 1990; Cronon 1992; Evernden 1992; Harrison 1992; Haila and Levins 1992; Simmons 1993; Soper 1995; Crumley 1995);

(5) Cultural geography and the study of perceptions of landscapes and the social construction of space and place (e.g., Tuan 1974; Cosgrove and Daniels 1988; Katz and Kirby 1991; Shields 1991; Short 1991; Anderson and Gale 1992; Keith and Pile 1993; Duncan and Ley 1993; Gregory 1994; Harrison and Burgess 1994; Harvey 1996);

(6) Anthropological and cross-cultural studies of nature, landscape and human-environment interactions (e.g., Benterrak, Muecke, and Rowe 1984; Milton 1993, 1996; Bender 1993; Greider and Garkovitch 1994; Hirsch and O'Hanlon 1995; Feld and Basso 1996), including the study of indigenous and traditional forms of environmental knowledge (e.g., Nelson 1983; Booth and Jacobs 1988);

(7) Works of cultural studies which include a focus on the environment, place and space, landscape, or animals and the nonhuman (e.g., Neal 1985; Wilson 1991; Ross 1991, 1994; Slack and Whitt 1992; Slack and Berland 1994; Larsen 1994; Luke 1995; Cronon 1995);

(8) Sociological studies of the changing relations between people and environments in the context of globalization, "postmodernization" (Crook, Pakulski, and Waters 1992), "deterritorialization" (Appadurai 1990), and so on (Gare 1995; Lash, Szerszynski, and Wynne 1996; Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994), including the growing field of environmental sociology (Yearley 1992; Redclift and Benton 1994; Beck 1994, 1995, 1996; McNaghten and Urry 1995; Hannigan 1995; Hajer 1996; Eder 1996).

(9) Historical, philosophical, and sociological studies of science and technology, especially as the latter forces shape and determine human-environment relations, enabling or constraining human perceptions of and actions in relation to extrahuman nature (e.g., Haraway 1989, 1991, 1992, 1997; Wright 1992; Hayles 1996; Robertson, et al. 1996).

4. Theoretical controversies and issues

As the field of ecocultural studies develops and a more identifiable community of ecocultural researchers emerges, numerous theoretical issues are certain to emerge as foci of debate and controversy. These may include the relation between theory and practice/advocacy; the possible contradictions between specific environmental/ecological and cultural or political movements; the identification of key terms, and debates over the centrality and limitations of such concepts as "anthropocentrism"; the extent to which experiences of place and landscape are changing as a result of processes of globalization, post-fordism, "postmodernization" and "deterritorialization", and the adequacy of such terms as "postmodernity", "reflexive modernity," et al. to represent these changes [note 4]; and many others.

Given the field's emergence at the intersection of cultural and environmental studies, one notable tension which has already become a source of some controversy is that between the methodological assumption that humans socially construct our world(s) [note 5], and the recognition that a broader-than-human world both pre-exists and interacts with human society in ongoing and polyvalent ways. As this is likely to remain a key theoretical debate within the field as it develops, I will focus on it in greater depth here.

Social constructionism vs. ecological realism

In general, researchers working in the fields of sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and science studies, have tended towards a broadly social-constructionist perspective, while some radical ecology theorists (notably "deep ecologists") and conservation or preservation advocates have favoured a more conventional scientific realist perspective. Recent debates between advocates of social constructionist approaches to environmental issues (cf., e.g., Cronon 1995) and defenders of ecological realism or naturalism (e.g., Soule and Lease 1995; Sessions 1995a, 1995b, 1996; Foreman 1997) have exacerbated these tensions, but offered little in the way of a rapprochement.

In order to deal fruitfully with this tension, it is useful to map out the views on the relationship and interaction between human social agents and nonhuman "nature." Most modern social theory, at least since Descartes, has taken for granted a strict qualitative and ontological, across-the-board distinction between humans and the nonhuman: in its simplest form, this is the assertion that humans -- and only humans -- are subjective agents, capable of abstract thought, willful, conscious action, and rational, purposive behaviour. In light of the looming environmental crisis, and also of the shifting boundaries between the cultural and the natural in our technologically dynamic and increasingly artificial world, this intellectual legacy has become questionable, and the culture-nature "boundary" has been critiqued as a social construction which sanctions a rationalist anthropocentric humanism aimed to advance human goals at the expense of the nonhuman world.

Recognizing the limitations of such a nature-culture dualism, many have argued for a break with this dichotomous tradition. In their stead, they have proposed various interactionist views, post-Cartesian and "postmodern" scientific worldviews, or forms of non-anthropocentric constructivism. Some scientists and philosophers, for instance, have allied themselves with efforts to promote a "postmodern science" or a "reconstructive postmodernist" worldview which specifically intends to correct the anti-ecological effects of modernist science (Griffin 1988) [note 6]. Dialectical biologists (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984; Haila and Levins 1992) have presented a relational model of nature (sometimes specifically allied to a left-wing social-ecological politics), according to which organisms and environments are seen to be interlocked within a perpetual interaction and an active interpenetration of each other; they pose this view in opposition to such research programs as sociobiology, with its reductionist notion of the "selfish gene" [note 7]. Numerous social theorists, anthropologists and philosophers have also argued for a break from the dichotomous nature-culture tradition (e.g., Ingold 1988, 1992; Reed 1988; Keller 1989; Noske 1989; Bigwood 1993; Oelschlaeger 1995); and environmental historians (e.g., Bird 1987, Merchant 1987), historical ecologists (Crumley 1994), "new human ecologists" (Steiner and Nauser 1993), and environmental sociologists (e.g., Beck 1996), among others, have attempted to propose different analytical ways of focusing on interaction between the human and the nonhuman.

Perhaps the more radical proposals have come from those who have embraced some form of social constructivism, but expanded on it so as to include nonhuman forms of agency. In effect, these theorists propose to overcome the anthropocentrism inherent in much of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, deconstructing the nature-culture dichotomy in the process. Prominent among these are the efforts of Donna Haraway (1989, 1991, 1992, 1997), and the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and others (Latour 1986, 1993; Callon 1986; Callon and Latour 1981, 1992; Singleton and Michael 1993; Lee and Brown 1994; Ashmore, et al. 1994). Related attempts include the "constrained constructivism" of Katherine Hayles (1991, 1995a, 1995b), the "heterogeneous constructionism" of Peter Taylor (1995), and Ulrich Beck's (1996) notion of a "reflexive realism." In analyzing social-natural relations, actor-network theory, for instance, proposes to bracket out the assumption of who is an "actor" or "agent" and who is not, and to focus instead on the linked heterogeneous networks of interaction and relationship involving humans and nonhumans [note 8]. Within these relational actor-networks, "identities" and "differences" are constructed, negotiated, and contested; rather than assuming that these pre-exist social relations, they are seen as emerging out of an interactive web of such relations.

5. Conclusions

The field of ecocultural studies is an open-ended field that is currently being defined and articulated (under several names). This paper has attempted to propose and map out a more specific, critical-theoretical direction within this field, a direction I have called "ecocultural critical theory." The main distinctions of ecocultural critical theory are that (a) it combines the critical and radical impetus within environmental thought with the political critique found in most cultural studies, resulting in a theoretical practice with the potential to serve in the emancipation of "natural-cultural difference" (that is, a diversity in relations between human communities and their specific extra-human environments); (b) it does this in a way which questions the tendency to dichotomize and separate a universal human "culture" from a universal nonhuman "nature"; and (c) it focuses on the cultural dimensions of these issues. One of the theoretical controversies which has already made itself felt within the emerging field already is the tension between postmodern and social-constructionist perspectives and, on the other hand, realist and naturalistic approaches to human-environment interaction. As this and other debates arise and develop, the field will likely crystallize into a distinctive community of researchers, contributing to the broader discourse on culture, environment, and the ecological crisis.


1. My original term for this proposed field was "critical ecology." Other terms have been proposed, such as "cultural environmental studies" or "environmental cultural studies." The term "environmentalism" has been critiqued, however, as privileging an anthropocentric and universalistic human figure around whom nonhuman organisms serve as a mere backdrop and context, and as meaning anything and everything (i.e., built environments, organizational environments, etc.). In contrast, "ecology" assumes multiple levels of interaction and interrelationship, though its frequent association with the science of ecology may be a drawback. In choosing the term "ecocultural" I am following Slack and Whitt [1992], who argue that an "ecoculturalist" perspective would provide a non-anthropocentric alternative basis for cultural studies.

2. I use the word "anthropocentrism" in its "strong" sense: that is, just as Ptolemaic geocentrism understood the earth to be at the centre of the (physical and moral) universe, so anthropocentrism understands humanity to be at the center of the moral and historical-evolutionary "universe." There is a "weaker" form of anthropocentrism which argues that humans cannot help but to see things from a human perspective; this is an obvious (and perhaps trivial) point to make, but it is not the same as arguing that all of humanity is on a "higher" categorical level than all of non-humanity. The latter form of anthropocentrism is a cornerstone of modern thought. My specification that such domination occurs "at the expense of natural-cultural communities developed over long periods of time" is meant to recognize that anthropocentrism is not a free-floating intellectual abstraction, a "mind-set" which hovers above concrete social relations, but rather that it has been part of a socio-economic complex of ideas and practices whose effect has been to displace alternative forms of human-extrahuman relationship and co-adaptation.

3. "Ecophilosophy" has been described as a response to the "environmental crisis" and a radical critique of the philosophical foundations of Western industrial society; it seeks a reconciliation between human society and nature, a "moral and political order where human civilization is brought into harmony with the natural world" [Davis 1989:xix]. It is customarily subdivided into various schools of thought, including environmental ethics [Rolston 1986, 1990; Hargrove 1989; Oelschlaeger 1995], deep ecology [Devall and Sessions 1985; LaChappelle 1988; Naess 1990; Livingston 1994; Sessions 1995; Drengson and Inoue 1995], social ecology [Bookchin 1982, 1986, 1989; Clark 1990; Rogers 1994], ecofeminism [Warren 1987; Shiva 1988; Plant 1989; Diamond and Orenstein 1990; Biehl 1991; Gaard 1993; Plumwood 1993], ecosocialism or socialist ecology [O'Connor 1991; Pepper 1993; Dickens 1996], spiritual ecology [Spretnak 1986; Sheldrake 1991; Gottlieb 1996], postmodern ecology [cf. Oelschlaeger 1995; Zimmerman 1994], bioregionalism [Andruss, et al. 1990], and the environmental justice movement [Di Chiro 1995]. Though these submovements often disagree on the "root" causes of the ecological crisis, and promote varying responses to it (e.g., slowing down population growth, phasing out fossil-fuel use, democratizing technological decision-making processes, restructuring society along nonhierarchical lines, abolishing wasteful consumption patterns, overcoming patriarchy, altering people's basic world views), they generally share a desire for a multi-levelled social, cultural and ecological transformation. ECS draws on all of these critical theories, but acknowledges the connections between the domination of nonhuman nature and the domination of other humans along lines of race, class, and gender; and between anthropocentric resourcism and the commodification of the world brought about by industrial capitalism.

4. In an increasingly technologized, economically globalized, and culturally composite and polyglot world, natural landscapes are diversely interpenetrated within cultural landscapes or, as Appadurai [1991] puts it, ethnoscapes or "landscapes of group identity" the "warp of [whose] stabilities is everywhere shot through with the woof of human motion." This mobility includes that "of tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guestworkers, and other moving groups and persons" [1991:191-2]. Exacerbating this "deterritorialization" are the ever deepening influences of communication technologies, the creation of "virtual communities" and the potential development of an "informational apartheid," a division of power based on access to information

5. Social constructionism varies from a "strict" type, which makes no claims about "reality" outside of socially produced claims and interpretations, to a "contextual" constructionism, which more explicitly assesses the relative validity of "reality-claims" by considering their social and historical contexts. An increasing number of sociologists and geographers have been applying social constructivist methods to studying environmental problems [e.g., Bird 1987; Yearley 1992; Greider and Garkovitch 1994; Hannigan 1995]. Useful discussions on the limitations of strict social constructionism are Best's [1993] and other authors' articles in Holstein and Miller [1993].

6. Among the theoretical currents associated with such "postmodern science" and with radical ecological sentiments are Gaia theory; the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead and its organismic, relational view of nature; the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson; certain versions of cybernetic or systems theory [e.g., Bateson 1980, Harries-Jones 1995]; theories of emergent evolutionism [Jantsch 1980, 1981], autopoietic systems and enactive cognitive biology [Maturana and Varela 1980, 1987; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991], holographic models of reality [Bohm and Peat 1987], and self-organizing, dissipative structures [Prigogine and Stengers 1984]. In general, these scientists tend to represent nature in organismic as well as cybernetic terms, and to emphasize the development of emergent properties (such as will and cognition) within evolving organisms and systems. Whitehead's organicist "process philosophy" (also called "processualism" or "transactionalism" [cf. Weichhart, in Steiner and Nauser 1993]) is particularly interesting in several respects. Processualism presents a temporal conception in which the universe is made up of events rather than of things. As a result, life is redefined as process, development and transformation, and experience, whether for humans or nonhuman organisms, is understood to be subjective, intentionally directed and inherently meaningful. Pre-dating more recent postmodern critiques of Cartesianism, Whiteheadian metaphysics presents a rival paradigm which responds to some of the problems that the dominant paradigm has found elusive (e.g., in relation to the generation of complex, organized forms in brain function and in embryonic development, etc.). Though its influence within the physical sciences has been quite limited, process philosophy has been taken up by philosophers and theologians [Griffin 1988; cf. Birch and Cobb 1981, Goodwin 1988, Sheldrake 1981, 1988].

7. Developmental biologist Susan Oyama [1985] articulates this kind of interactionist view further: she explains that what is passed on in human beings is not an active genetic essence exercising a formative influence over inert matter, but rather a thoroughly interdependent, multilevelled ensemble of interacting influences -- "ecologically embedded developmental systems" -- none of whose levels (physiological, psychological, ecological, etc.) is any more real or causally determining than others. This view of an interactive "entanglement" in the "tangled bank" of living, dynamic, organismic interrelationships and interdependencies [:168] would appear to provide a way out of the dichotomous thinking that has characterized the discourse of nature and culture for some three centuries.

8. Latour, for instance, calls for a "double deconstruction," a simultaneous attempt to break out of what he calls the two "Great Divides" structuring the "Modern Constitution." The first of these socially constructed dichotomies has separated "culture" from "nature", humans from nonhumans, and rendered humans as social and cultural agents while leaving the nonhuman world a passive backdrop to our activity. The second has separated "Us" -- modern Westerners, equipped with an access to Nature provided by the instruments of modern science -- from "Them," the Others who are supposed to lack that unmediated access to an objective Nature. In practice, Latour argues, we have never been modern; but the ideology of modernity, by its dichotomous constitution, has allowed the "hybrids", "translators," and "monsters" (technological and other kinds) that fill the "Middle Kingdom" between Nature and Culture to go unrecognized; and as a result these hybrids have proliferated to dangerous levels. Latour calls for an "anthropology of the modern world" according to which "the ethnologist of our world must take up her position at the common locus where roles, actions and abilities are distributed -- those that make it possible to define one entity as animal or material and another as a free agent; one as endowed with consciousness, another as mechanical, and still another as unconscious and incompetent. Our ethnologist must even compare the different ways of defining -- or not defining -- matter, law, consciousness and animals' souls, without using modern metaphysics as a vantage point" [1993:15].


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