by Eric Earnhardt
June 17th, 2015: NASA reveals that humans are permanently depleting half the world’s aquifers. June 18th: Pope Francis calls for a revolution to combat the global threat of climate change. June 19th: a study shows that extinction now occurs at rates orders of magnitude greater than pre-human levels.
June 23rd: over 900 members of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) gather at the University of Idaho for five days. ASLE members often greet news stories like the above with the same feelings of anger, fear, despair, shock, fascination, and disbelief expressed by the general public. ASLE members, however, are unusually determined to take scientists’ statements about environmental ills as seriously as they are stated, and to think critically not only about what information is to be trusted, but also why it isn’t trusted when it is so evidently well-supported.
From its beginning in the early nineties as a small offshoot of the Western Literature Association, largely focusing on the literature of wilderness experience (often male, white, Western, and wealthy), to its current instantiation as an international, cosmopolitan organization engaged with urban/rural ecology, science and culture, and issues of environmental and social justice, ASLE continues to be the premier venue for environmental scholarship in the humanities.
As a result of such a focus, ASLE is by nature an organization in which activism and scholarship cross-pollinate. At a time when congresspersons disregard empirical evidence by claiming not to be scientists, those tasked with teaching the skills necessary to assess information, to evaluate and criticize arguments, and to engage with literature that sensitively represents human experience and behavior, inevitably strike an activist pose. My part in this year’s gathering involved the organization of a panel on anthropomorphism and animals attended by over thirty conference-goers. George Hart of California State University Long Beach served as respondent and talked about the pathetic fallacy as discussed in his recent book on Robinson Jeffers and the Biology of Consciousness. Our panel was one in a “stream” of panels on animals & animality. Other streams concerned literature of the anthropocene and climate change (Cli-Fi); energy and extraction; indigenous cultures and postcolonial ecologies; sex, gender and bodies; plants, food and agriculture; science and poetry; and more. Headline speakers included Linda Hogan, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Ann Fisher-Wirth.
ASLE members seek to understand the ways in which the stories we tell, the rhetoric we use, and the experiences we record shape our human approach to environmental issues.