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Book Review: Ecocriticism and Ecologism

Written by: Yiyi He

Ecocriticism and Ecologism by Chinese ecocritic Wang Nuo constructs a theory of ecocriticism with uniquely Chinese characteristics, comprehensively discussing ecologism as one of the foundations of ecocritical theory and analyzing and responding to more than one hundred of the most controversial and mystifying issues[1] in the field of ecocriticism and ecological thought both at home and abroad. Ecocriticism and Ecologism as a monograph, confronts both intellectual and academic issues concerning the definition of ecocriticism and ecological literature, the basic principles of ecological aesthetics, the legitimacy of ecological literature and ecocriticism in advocating on the behalf of nature. The text is instrumental in promoting the study of Chinese ecological civilization at a deeper level as well as being a reference on Chinese ecological civilization and on improving ecologically driven developmental strategies.

The Greek word for “ecology” is Oikologie which is composed of the Greek words “home” (oikos) and “learning” (logos). Therefore, ecology becomes literally “the study of home,” which is concerned with a view of living things in their home environments. As a natural science, ecology (evolved from “oecology”) was originally a subdiscipline of biology. German biologist Ernst Haeckel first proposed ecology as a separate discipline in 1866, referring to it as the science of the relationship between living things/organisms and the external world (61). The etymology for the word “environment,” originates from the word “environ,” which describes one’s surroundings with humans as the center of interest. This indicates an anthropocentric tendency specifically, which makes it difficult for environmentalism to shake off foundational limitations.

In Wang’s opinion, “ecological culture” (including eco-literature, eco-philosophy, eco-aesthetics, eco-history, etc.) is not the ecologization of culture, nor is it a cultural system that simulates or imitates the morphological characteristics of an ecosystem; nor is it the study of culture through methods of ecology, biology, and other natural sciences (2). Although eco-culture is related to natural sciences such as ecology, it is not the object of natural science research, nor is it simply the sum of ecology and culture (3). The term eco-culture is composed of two parts, “ecological” and “culture”, with the qualifier “ecological” referring primarily to ecological philosophy, which is guided by ecologism (3). Thus, ecological culture is a culture based on a holistic ecological thinking.

At its core, ecologism is ecological holism, which is the result of a systemic, connected, and harmonious view of ecology, straight from the ecological thoughts of the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles Darwin, Martin Heidegger’s ecological philosophy, as well as contemporary holistic ecological concepts such as land ethics, deep ecology, and the Gaia hypothesis (58). The core foundational concepts of ecological holism are to regard the overall interests of the ecosystem rather than the interests of human beings as the highest value; to see whether a thing is conducive to maintaining and protecting the integrity, harmony, stability, balance and sustainable existence of the ecosystem as the fundamental measure of all things, serving as the ultimate criterion for judging human thought and culture, lifestyle, scientific and technological progress, economic growth and social development (141). Wang’s ecologism advocates pluralistic coexistence and therefore welcomes all ideas, research, and actions that advocate the protection of nature and oppose traditional anthropocentrism, regardless of whether they are based on weak anthropocentrism or dualism (8). In contrast, so-called “environmentalism” springs primarily from either weak anthropocentrism or modern anthropocentrism (58). The basic principles of environmentalism are to protect the environment for the sake of the sustainable survival and development of human beings and the basic rights of future generations, predicated upon the realization that the natural environment is deteriorating and threatening the survival of human beings; to use environmental resources rationally and to expand human ethical concerns to include animals, plants and non-living things; and to uphold anthropocentrism and dualism through the preservation and moderate improvement of the existing culture and modes of production and lifestyles of human beings (63-64). Wong also distinguishes anthropocentrism from humanism. He contends that humanism includes two main aspects. One is to advocate for human rights within the human-oriented social sphere and the second is the assertion of human centrality and dominance in the relationship between humans and nature, which is the core of anthropocentrism (118). The latter is a key site of contention between eco-holism and environmentalism.

Sharp ideological confrontations between environmentalism and ecologism are both profound and widespread. They differ on such major issues as anthropocentrism versus ecological wholeness, dichotomies versus unity, the objectification of nature versus the subjectification of nature, conquest and plunder versus harmony and sharing, possession versus survival, motivation based in the satisfaction of desire versus motivation based in personal development, consumer culture versus the simple life, subverting the laws of nature versus an observance of the laws of nature, sustainable development versus affordable development, technological supremacy versus green technology, environmental protection versus ecological protection, and the culture of reform versus the culture of change (67-70).

Despite the differences between ecologism and environmentalism, the two are obviously not opposed to each other in every way. Ecologism fully recognizes the important contributions of environmentalism to the protection of the environment as well as the popularization of environmental awareness. There is a respect for its ideas and even a consideration for environmentalism as an ally, developing side by side with environmentalism while maintaining its own ideas in a clear-cut manner (8).

The promotion of ecological thinking and the construction of an ecological civilization is a long and difficult process but academic debates between ecologism and environmentalism should strive to promote such exchange and cooperation based on shared values rather than impeding one another based on differences in approach or theory. This book serves as a guide book for ecocritics in China and beyond to delve deep into relevant key concepts and debates in the field.

Wang, Nuo. Ecocriticism and Ecologism, People’s Publisher, 2013.

[1] For instance, the distinctions between ecologism and environmentalism, ecological justice and environmental justice, ecocentrism and ecological holism, ecologism and ecological humanism, affordable development and sustainable development, etc.

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