David Whitley argues that environmental education needs imaginative literature.

Ecoliteracy was a term that gained currency in environmental education from the late 1990s.  During the period leading up to this, the concept of ‘literacy’ had been extended to encompass a whole range of new areas – even including ‘emotional literacy’ – where existing cultural norms seemed inadequate.  In response to our prolonged and deepening environmental crisis, the term ecoliteracy began to circulate in educational contexts to address pervasive gaps in knowledge deemed essential for children’s development as environmentally aware citizens.  Although the term was frequently criticised for being too broad, its all-encompassing vagueness was perhaps useful in some respects, in that it could be adapted flexibly to nearly any context.  What has been perhaps less generally recognised, however, is that, like its equally all-encompassing corollary ‘sustainability’, the concept of ecoliteracy carried a strong bias towards the cognitive and instrumental aspects of our complex rela-tions with the natural world.  It did not engage as fully with the emotional and imaginative aspects of those relations. 

It is here that the arts play a vital role, of course.  Perhaps the deepest rooted of all the arts, from an environ-mental point of view, is poetry, which has always asserted a strong, primary connection between human consciousness and nature.  As even that most sophisticated of American writers, Wallace Stevens, put it, “there must be something of the peasant in every poet”.  Poets enable us to feel our connection with the natural world not only through disseminating intimate knowledge of the animals, plants and processes of change we are caught up in, but also through images, rhythms – through literally breathing life into words.  This is language that speaks to us through the body, in other words, which remains rooted in nature in a way that our minds sometimes forget.  In America there is a long tradition of poets – from Thoreau and Emerson through to Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder in more recent times – who have both written in poetic forms and mounted powerful discursive arguments about how the primary sources of our being in nature are distorted and threatened by aspects of devel-opment in the modern world.  In Britain, the tradition that runs from Wordsworth, Clare and the Romantic poets through Ruskin to recent writers such as Ted Hughes, Kathleen Jamie and Alice Oswald, has performed a similar function.  Britain also has an extraordinarily rich tradition of nature writing, combining factual, scientific knowledge with personal experience and feeling that draws on a range of poetic modes for its expression.  This kind of writing is enjoying a boom in popularity at the moment. 

It’s not only in poetic forms that the arts have a vital role in developing awareness and depth of feeling about our connectedness to the earth, of course.  Children’s literture is rich in both prose fiction and picturebooks that explore this connection.  Often this takes place in highly anthropocentric forms but, in the best literature, it also admits understanding and engagement that goes well beyond this.  Novels too – from the Brontes and Thomas Hardy through to recent environmentally engaged writers such as Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood – have provided rich stories in which the ethical and emotional consequences of changing patterns of human interaction with nature have been tested in moving and memorable ways.  And the visual arts – perhaps especially landscape painting – provide sensitive renderings of how we may perceive our connection to the earth that both capture particular qualities of our ‘common ground’ in vivid, compelling ways, and can also uncover areas of contestation and change. 

The popular arts are perhaps the most neglected – from an academic point of view – in terms of their potential to foster environmental engagement.  Films produced by large corporations such as Disney have been the subject of particularly stringent critique for the sentimentalized, distorted images of nature they are deemed to purvey.  Yet the eminent film scholar Leo Braudy argues that pop-ular cinema in what he calls the ‘genre of nature’ has provided a forum within which unresolved, often contradictory attitudes and perspectives – that are not dealt with adequately elsewhere – can be explored.  In our current crisis, we surely need to be aware of the positive potential of resources available to us across the whole range of the arts, as well as developing our scientific and more practically oriented understanding fully.  Ecoliteracy is a potentially highly flexible and inclusive concept that could embrace communication and understanding across the full spectrum of the modes in which we represent and try to get to grips with our current dilemmas.  If the discourse of ecoliteracy has, in the past, tended to stress the more factual and functional aspects of the knowledge competencies needed to address our environmental education needs, then there is a strong case now for emphasizing the emotional and imaginative aspects just as much.  The arts have just as vital a role to play in enabling a fully developed response to the challenges we face as do the sciences and more practically oriented domains such as the politics, economics and technologies needed for a sustainable future. 


David Whitley taught film, poetry and children’s literature at Cambridge University. He is particularly interested in the way the arts offer different forms of understanding and engagement with the natural world. He is the author of The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation (2012). 

This article was published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education [Vol 118], which was distributed to members in June 2018.  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

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