The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005) is a work in which Buell attempted to categorize the entirety of the diverse genre of ecocritism, while at the same time outlining his vision for the future of the genre. The work was tremendously important to the genre as a whole, and his idea of the two phases of ecocritism was almost instantly embraced by the whole of the genre’s scholars. This is because it displayed all aspects of the movement concisely, and in a manner that made no scholar’s contribution more or less important to the genre as a whole.
The first phase outlined by Buell, called Phase 1, is a period in which, consciously or not, writers viewed “nature” and “society” as separate entities and chose to focus on “ecocentric” values (Buell 26). This stage of ecocritism is reminiscent of the movement during the late 1970’s, during which individuals where publishing works of “nature writing” (Branch 754). Writers would set aside a period of time during which they would immerse themselves in nature and produce a personal novel describing their experiences observing nature. However as Buell suggests this involvement with nature is inherently constructed as to establish nature and humanity as two separate entities. In this scenario man is a developed outsider looking in on a serene nature.
We see a classic example of phase one ecocritism in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrimage at Tinker Creek (1973). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1975, Dillards work was inspired by a period of time during which she spent in a cabin at Tinker Creek (Lavery 61-62). The novel chronicles various relationships and observations she reaches through her time among nature. One passage that adequately captures the style of this novel that makes it as such a compelling example of phase one ecocritism comes in her observation of Tinker Creek itself. In the moment she writes,
“It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale. So many things have been shown so to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.” (Dillard 69)
In this selection we see that Dillard obviously sets herself as an outsider from the nature she is observing. She accomplishes this by describing nature continuing regardless of her actions or desires. Dillard then takes the enlightenment she obtain through observing this “other’ and applies it to her life.
The second phase of ecocritism, according to Buell, contains the work of the majority of the work of scholars of the late 20th and 21st century. It is driven by more “socially oriented,” models, which include schools of thought such as ecofeminism and social ecocriticism (Buell 16). More specifically, according to Buell second-wave critics have started “to question organists models of conceiving both environment and environmentalism,” by pointing out how the categories of the “natural” and the “man‐made” are irretrievably mixed and imbricated with each other, and by arguing for a revised environmental ethics that includes the vexed issue of “environmental justice” (Buell 22). This portrays an entirely new idea of nature in comparison to phase 1 ecocritism. No longer is nature a separate entity from humanity but instead an entity that is undoubtedly a part of humanity.
One excellent example of Phase Two ecocritism is Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2008). Animal’s People was written in response to the terrible Bhopal Gas Tragedy. The tragedy ultimately caused 11,000 casualties and 558,125 injuries (Magnier). Due to complex legal structures regarding foreign owned business in India the citizens of Bhopal received little to no compensation for their suffering (Mukherjee 216, 218). A common feeling in the area was that by taking away their rights as human beings they were treating the men and women of Bhopal instead as animals (Mukherjee 219-220). It is upon this premise that Animal’s People was written. The work chronicles the life of a teenage boy who survived a similar disaster to that of the Bhopal Gas Disaster and as a result rejects his humanity, choosing instead to live his life as an animal.
In terms of adequately serving as an example of Phase Two ecocritism, Animal’s People very effectively serves as a textbook example. It is a rich text concerning itself with question of the role of nature and humanity in a postcolonial, capitalist economy. One scholar describes these elements in the novel by saying,
“The tragedy raises questions about the international framework of law, justice and right (or lack thereof). The legal wrangle over accountability and compensation seemed to expose the premises that environment, and indeed, the very concept of the human carried radically different values in the global north and south… Animal’s People, provides us with an opportunity to look at some of these issues within a literary culture framework, and in turn raises several questions about the general relationship between the environment and culture of the world’s post colonial zones.” (Mukherjee 216-217)
This work is very obviously concerned with complex ideas of nature viewed in tandem with social issues indicative of a phase 2 works as defined by Buell.