Sustenance from the past
Precedents to sustainability in nineteenth-century literature and culture
in Literature and sustainability

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.

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Literature and sustainability

Concept, text and culture

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