Ecocriticism As Vegetarian Activism

Ecocriticism, sometimes called 'environmental criticism' or 'green studies,' is a field of study that began only a few decades ago, primarily in university English departments. It focused on environmental literature (for example, the nature writing of famous vegetarian advocate Henry David Thoreau). Today, with all kinds of environmental crises all over the world, the scope of ecocriticism has broadened immensely. People from fields as seemingly diverse as art, history, politics, economics, and biology are applying it to their work. More importantly, they are drawing connections between ecocriticism and various social, economic, and political theories, including those related to animal rights, feminism, and Marxism.

As a new field, people are still working out its precise definition, theoretical underpinnings, subject matter, and methodologies. A common thread expressed by most writers is that ecocriticism analyzes relationships (1) between nature and culture focusing on people's involvement in those relationships, and (2) between human and non-human entities (such as dogs, cows, elephants, rivers, mountains, Earth, etc.). The study is always done in a "spirit of environmental praxis," according to Lawrence Buell, a Harvard literature professor regarded as one of ecocriticism's foremost scholars.

'Praxis' refers to the union of theory and practice. Ecocritics, then, write to promote environmental activism. In this article, The VRG proposes some ways that vegetarians can enter the ecocritical discussion.


One very simple way that vegetarians may enter the ecocritical discussion is to stop using or ignoring discriminatory language that reflects similarities among classism, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, speciesism, homophobia, and, now, 'ecophobia.' Through the use or passive acceptance of certain words or phrases, people continue to ingrain these forms of domination throughout society, leading to unstated beliefs that they're acceptable. Examples include using 'dirt' with its environmental connotation when referring to the urban underprivileged class of people, 'raping the land' or 'virgin forests' when talking about environmental degradation in sexual terms, 'chick' when referring to women, or 'dog,' which anti-Semites repeatedly called Shylock in Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice. Such usage belies the fact that - as Peter Singer argued in Animal Liberation in 1975 - racism, sexism, and speciesism have fundamentally identical roots in one group's domination by another. (The same could be said about the other '-isms' listed above.) Ecocritics expand the moral circle even more to include the environment.

Ecocritics, like some vegetarians, counter anthropocentric notions that place humans at the center of the universe. Many environmentalists disagree with this idea as well. In fact, many vegetarians and environmentalists believe that humans should not have dominion over all other beings, yet many environmentalists (and ecocritics) continue to eat meat.

Vegetarian ecocritics, using the United Nations' Livestock Long Shadow as support, may engage meateating environmentalists in discussions and offer arguments about the extent of the environmental damage that results directly from livestock grazing and raising. (See Issue 2, 2010, of Vegetarian Journal or

Also, in discussions and in communication with government officials, educators, and business leaders, vegetarian ecocritics may dispel pastoral myths associated with country living, often found in environmental literature, especially ones depicting farm animals grazing peacefully outside on sunny days. We know that, today, even 'free-range' eggs almost always come from large henhouses holding thousands of birds who never see daylight except through an opaque window and are fed human-edible grains. (See Issue 2, 2007, of Vegetarian Journal or

Environmental racism—for example, when toxic dumps are located next to poor, often African-American or Hispanic communities—is another topic on the ecocritical agenda. Simon Estok of Sejong University in South Korea often writes that ecocritics should pay more attention to this form of racism. (He also advocates vegetarianism on ecocritical grounds.) Vegetarian ecocritics can join the discussion by pointing out that intensive animal agriculture businesses, when not treating wastes properly, may be considered toxic dumps that pollute the environments of nearby communities. Other concerns, such as the health and safety precautions that agribusiness takes to protect employees (often poor immigrants), should also be investigated to see if environmental racism is present and to what degree.

Another result of Estok's work in ecocriticism has been to shift focus away from wilderness to metropolitan areas (i.e., toward constructed 'environments' rather than just 'natural' environments). This makes sense given that most humans live in urban areas. Urban vegetarian apartment dwellers/ecocritics can request or install rooftop vegetable gardens, rainwater tanks, and compost tumblers, all in the name of environmentally conscious living. This has already been accomplished in several large cities. Vegetation on rooftops has other environmental benefits, too.

Raising Vegetarian Ecocritical Children

Ecofeminist Greta Gaard has outlined ecopedagogical criteria for children's books in an article titled "Children's Environmental Literature: From Ecocriticism to Ecopedagogy" (Neohelicon [2009] 36:321-34). In this article, she discusses the themes of several children's books that raise consciousness against forms of domination, such as those against other animals and the environment. Titles include the following:

  • Oi! Get Off Our Train! by John Burningham
  • 'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey
  • Rani and Felicity: The Story of Two Chickens by Radha and Aparna Chakrabarty
  • Mojo's Story of Clara the Chicken by J. Greene
  • Lena and the Whale by Deirdre Kessler
  • Buddy Unchained by Daisy Bix and Joe Hyatt
  • Abigale the Happy Whale by Peter Farrelly
  • The Harvest Birds (Los Pajaros de la Cosecha) by Blanca López de Mariscal and Enrique Flores

Gaard's list is unique from other 'green' lists of children's books in that it is "activist in orientation, dedicated to teaching children and their adults the strategies of sustainability, connection, and democratic community-building that considers and involves all life on earth." She states that her form of ecopedagogy "can illuminate the many anti-ecological features of economic globalization, particularly its effect on food production… around the world, [people] are abandoning traditional diets centered around plant-based foods in favor of unhealthy Western-style fast food and a meat-centered diet."

As Livestock's Long Shadow from the United Nations pointed out, this transition often involves more intensive animal agriculture and exacerbates environmental problems.

Ecocritics explore the sense of 'place' (i.e., the 'setting' in literature) that people have/develop with their physical environment. Aldo Leopold, author of the famous "Land Ethic," stated that weeds in a city lot can convey the same lessons as redwoods to those open to hearing them. Indeed, even cities as huge as Los Angeles or New York cannot exist separately from the ecosystems of which they are parts.


Bioregionalism, focusing on the specific locale of a community and the connectedness that exists between residents and the physical region, is thought of as a complement to ecocriticism. The successful Foxfire approach to education, in which Appalachian students collected and published oral histories and folk knowledge from community members during the 1960s, is one example of bioregionalism. Vegetarian parent ecocritics can encourage this approach at their children's schools in relation to local food production.

Erik Ryberg, a concerned citizen living in Montana with graduate-level training in English, offers another example of how bioregionalism can directly affect the environment in relation to food production in one's local area. Ryberg successfully appealed a number of grazing allotment renewals (i.e., permits for private companies to graze their livestock on public lands). He stated that such documents are understandable and can be successfully appealed. Environmental impact statements (EISs), offers of timber sales on public lands, and state water appropriations bills are other documents that are available to the public and often subject to public appeal. Vegetarian ecocritics could use evidence presented in Livestock's Long Shadow and similar literature to formally appeal decisions. They could bring another viewpoint to the decisionmakers, one that differs from that of livestock owners and agribusiness seeking such permits, and affect real environmental change on the local level.

Furthermore, vegetarian ecocritics can use Livestock's Long Shadow and similar documents to do some work on the global level. Recall the 1987 Montreal Protocol that led to a global ban on ozone layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). If ecocritics' demand leads to a similar collaboration concerning the causative role of animal agriculture in environmental problems, changes in both local and global food production could result.


Another global issue of concern to vegetarian ecocritics involves genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Some individuals, such as Biopiracy author Vandana Shiva, fear environmental 'neocolonialism,' in which Western scientists or governments work with biotechnology companies to 'buy' genetic resources in developing countries for their own profits. The genes are manipulated in labs and then inserted into other organisms to create hardier species (e.g., faster-growing or drought-resistant organisms). This occurs in the case of both plants and animals.


Ecopedagogy, or 'green language arts,' is another complement to ecocriticism that may be of particular interest to vegetarian parent ecocritics. Simply put, ecopedagogy brings environmental awareness and focus to reading, writing, and media studies. Interested readers may find more information at


Much work in the field of ecocriticism remains to be done as environmental problems around the world continue to multiply in both scale and number. Vegetarians have much to say and much to do on practical levels to further the goals of ecocriticism as it applies to food production's role in environmental issues.