Ecocriticism in the English Class in South African High Schools

In South Africa today we face many environmental concerns. The floods in KwaZulu-Natal are a tragic example of the effect of climate change on our lives. The ongoing poaching of rhino and pangolin are examples of the ways in which humans treat animals as if only human interests matter. The pollution that arises from burnt material and plastic waste is another example of the challenges that we face as a society.

In the 1960s, the visionary scholar Rachel Carson wrote the well-known book Silent Spring. At that time Carson wrote of the dangers of pollution and the lack of care expressed by humans towards the environment. Many decades later Carson’s words still have value and provide insights into the human relationship with the environment.

Ecocriticism is a discipline that draws inspiration from Carson and other authors who have explored the human relationship with the environment in a literary rather than scientific manner. Because the discipline has a literary focus, it is an appropriate topic of study for the English class in South African schools.

The critic Greg Garrard has addressed the discipline in a best-selling academic book entitled Ecocriticism. He makes the point that there are several sub-topics within the discipline, such as wilderness areas, animals, pollution and an environmental apocalypse.

In addition, there are various theoretical positions that have developed as part of this concept, which include: deep ecology, ecofeminism, environmentalism, and the group Garrard refers to as the cornucopians. Members of this latter group, says Garrard, see the environment simply as a resource for humans.

An example of a text that can be studied through an ecocritical lens is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which nature is in disorder because of a conflict between Oberon and Titania. Other texts include J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, in which the central character, Michael K is a gardener. While gardeners have knowledge of nature, in that they work with flora, they also shape nature to human purposes.

The critic Brooke Stanley addresses South African ecocritical concerns, and comments on Zakes Mda’s The Whale Caller, concluding that Mda advocates that both human and nonhuman lives have value, but that he warns against ‘sentimental anthropomorphism.’

I believe that a more extensive engagement with this topic in your publication could be of value in South African schools.