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Precedents to sustainability in nineteenth-century literature and culture
John Parham

This essay argues for a more historicised conception of sustainability that transcends contemporary preoccupations (e.g. with climate change) in constituting part of modernity’s long counter-tradition. It is suggested that proto-ecological discourses of sustainability emerged from the formulation of the concept of ‘environment’ (milieu) in nineteenth-century European intellectual culture before being articulated in literary works informed by that tradition. The essay looks at William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890) and, in detail, at Emile Zola’s La Terre (1887). Zola’s novel is imbued with the ambiance (Leo Spitzer) of an environment coloured by the struggle of reconciling human, social, and economic needs with the earth. Sharing contemporary preoccupations – the possibilities and perils of technology, global capitalism, human folly – Zola concluded that human sustenance compels careful, productive action in environments we must ‘cultivate […] in order not to starve’. Far from offering a template for the ‘stationary state’, Zola recognised, as should we, that sustainability is a dialectical, contingent, ongoing project.

in Literature and sustainability
Concept, text and culture

Sustainability is a notoriously fraught and slippery term, and yet one that is now well-established in mainstream usage across the contemporary world. While sustainability is widely discussed and theorised across range of disciplines, this book sets out to consider what innovations literary scholarship might bring to the sustainability debate, and indeed what sustainability as a concept might bring to literary scholarship. Putting forward a range of essays by leading and upcoming scholars, this book takes a non-prescriptive and critically reflective stance towards the problem of sustainability – a stance we describe as critical sustainability. Essays in this collection accordingly undertake a range of approaches, from applying tools of literary enquiry in order to interrogate sustainability’s paradoxes, to investigating the ways in which literature envisages sustainability or plays out its tropes. Overall, this book seeks to demonstrate how sustainability’s difficulties might open up a productive opportunity for interrogation and exploration of the kind that literary scholars and ecocritics are ideally placed to carry out.