Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions (excerpt)

Reflecting on the absence of work within the frame of U.S. environmentalism, Richard White explains, “Environmentalists so often seem self-righteous, privileged, and arrogant because they so readily consent to identifying nature with play and making it by definition a place where leisured humans come only to visit and not to work, stay, or live” (173). In White’s view, American environmentalism has been foolishly ignoring work as a useful context for progressive change. Seeing work as something that we stop doing to enjoy the leisurely experience of nature has not been enough to advance environmentalists’ causes; it merely supports the notion that “the original human relation with nature was one of leisure and that the first white men in North America glimpsed and briefly shared that relation” (White 175). In shifting our attention to the ecological frame I set forth in the introduction, I am inspired by White’s assertion that a focus on work can better inform discourse about the natural world.’ One benefit of thinking in this direction may be a clearer appreciation of human beings as part of a larger natural workforce that includes nonhuman nature. In her book The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us, Yvonne Baskin points out that “ethical and moral pleas for saving species still predominate” in American environmental efforts and that “human societies have a sad history of setting moral burdens aside while acquiring more comfortable or prosperous lifestyles.” She concludes that “stewardship” and “moral commitment ha[ve] proven a slippery foundation for conservation” (13-14). Baskin suggests that appealing to human interests in self-preservation may encourage greater advocacy for the “life-support services” of nonhuman nature, such as oxygen and food supply. She writes, “Self-preservation is no substitute for ethics, but it’s a strong companion, less easily brushed aside in the hubbub of business as usual” (223). Indeed, identifying ourselves as natural workers can move us toward greater compatibility with the work that nonhuman nature is doing. In other words, seeing ourselves as one type of natural worker may encourage us to better appreciate the ecological consequences of all our actions, whether they are related to our jobs or our recreation.

An ecocritical focus on work also has the benefit of more accurately representing the lives of Americans in the past. This could give us a better sense of the daily lived ecological experiences of African Americans during enslavement and other working Americans. As Al Young writes, “Most Americans [in the nineteenth century] … who knew anything about nature, knew it through work. They hunted and trapped or fished for food; they farmed and preserved” (Deming and Savoy 117). What does it mean when work, rather than leisure, is your central ecological experience? What does it mean when work is compounded by the inconvenient history of enslavement? What happens when work and enslavement influence our discussions about ecology in contemporary America?


Kimberly N. Ruffin. Black on Earth: African American Ecoliterary Traditions (pp. 26-28). Kindle Edition.

~ by Tichaona Chinyelu on July 20, 2012.

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