21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Editorial: Critical Environments

Deborah Lilley


In Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behaviour, environmental crisis arrives in a remote Tennessee town in the form of the migrating Monarch butterfly. As the novel progresses from the protagonist Dellarobia’s initial myopic struggle to recognise the massed insects to her developing awareness of the changing climate that their presence is understood to represent, she wonders:


How had she failed to see them? She felt stupid, or blind, in a way that went beyond needing glasses. Unreceptive to truth. She’d been willing to take in the run of emotions that stood up the hairs on her neck, the wonder, but had shuttered her eyes and looked without seeing. (52)

The arrival of the butterflies opens up the rural landscape to its farming inhabitants anew, drawing the locals to nature outside of their daily routines. At the same time, the spectacle also draws attention to the ways in which their surroundings are seen, putting into fresh perspective the economic and ecological difficulties of the area, and raising questions of land use from agriculture and logging to tourism and education. Additionally, it opens the community out to the wider world, revealing the interconnectivity between environmental changes near and far, on geographical and temporal scales, and the growing urgency of recognising these links and their implications.

Disrupted from their ‘previously stable pattern’ (228), the butterflies’ unexpected appearance unsettles the previously familiar outlines of habit and understanding that underpin the everyday. As these outlines begin to be redrawn in response to contemporary conditions, new recognition is demanded of the enmeshed natural and social worlds that they represent, and new approaches to the environment that can begin to account for that recognition. Concurrently, though, through Dellarobia’s reflection upon her willingness to enjoy the butterflies and reluctance to accept or address the circumstances that they signify, it also raises questions of how to respond to such insights. Her realisation demonstrates a capacity for selective vision, due to deliberate or circumstantial factors, or a mixture of both, and its appeal alongside the difficulties brought into focus by a wider viewpoint.


Monarch Butterfly

Flight Behaviour: revealing the globalised interconnectivity of eoclogical change

[Image by docentjoyce under a CC BY license]


Through these questions of sight and receptivity, Kingsolver’s novel draws attention to the issues of perspective that are opened up by the recognition of the likely causes and possible effects of climate change and are under scrutiny in contemporary ecocriticism. The novel depicts what Ursula Heise, in Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008), has called ‘a cultural moment in which an entire planet becomes graspable as one’s own local backyard’ (4). At the same time, it makes plain the complexity of Heise’s observation in practice, belying the simplicity of her description. By way of the realisation of the ‘ironies’ of climate change, which in Timothy Clark’s words, ‘bizarrely link the intensifying devastation of the world with such things as a person’s day-to-day driving, shopping or eating habits’ (2010, 48), the novel captures the unintelligibility of the global scope that Heise describes.

As the locals struggle to understand the instability and uncertainty that the butterflies signify, the scientists and environmentalists drawn by their appearance similarly struggle to communicate their understanding of the situation. Through a ‘Sustainability Pledge’ (327) checklist offered by activist Leighton, for instance, it becomes clear that the inhabitants of the town are far from the privileges of profligacy that their new visitors urge them to reconsider. However, they are not removed from the likely effects of its consequences, whether it is the misguided migration of the butterflies, the rains that have been hampering their daily lives and are coming to threaten their livelihoods, or the arrival of the Delgado family, displaced by the loss of their village and their business in Monarch tourism by the landslides in Angangueo in Mexico in 2010. While biologist Byron attempts to convey ‘the evidence […] staring them in the face’ (230), for Dellarobia, the knowledge catalysed by the visitors is difficult to reconcile: ‘nothing stays the same, life is defined by a state of flux; that was basic biology […] She was an ordinary person. Loss was the enemy’ (307).

The novel illustrates here what Tom Cohen has called the ‘perpetual cognitive disjunctures that come up against the ecocatastrophic present’ (17). Clark describes these conceptual challenges through the idea of ‘scale effects’, writing that ‘scale effects in relation to climate change are confusing because they take the easy, daily equations of moral and political accounting and drop into them both a zero and an infinity’ (2010, 151). Referring to the ways in which environmental problems firstly are relative to the scale by which they are measured, and secondly, how ‘zooming’ between scales in this context is not smooth – as the measurement of the effects is contingent upon the scale – he explains that ‘as a result what is self-evident or relational at one scale may well be destructive or unjust at another’ (151). As the impact of an action or event differs according to perspective, multiple and concurrent scales of comprehension are required in order to attempt to map accurately the scope and complexity of the problems. This understanding entails practical difficulties of its own, of course, as Claire Colebrook elaborates:

We are at once thrown into a situation of urgent interconnectedness, aware that the smallest events contribute to global mutations, at the same time as we come up against a complex multiplicity of diverging forces and timelines that exceed any manageable point of view (52).


Sunday Drive

Sense of Planet: Critics such as Ursula Heise and Timothy Clark emphasise the connection between our daily habits and the planet as a whole

[Image by Rachel under a CC BY-NC license]


As Clark and Colebrook explain, the challenges of understanding and representing climate change go beyond the methods and metrics by which the world is related and understood: it demands viewpoints that exceed our own, and at once puts our viewpoints, and the ideas that stem from them, in doubt. Timothy Morton describes such problems as ‘hyperobjects’: ‘massively distributed entities that can be thought and computed, but not directly touched or seen’ (37). For Morton, ‘this is the moment at which massive nonhuman, nonsentient entities make decisive contact with humans, ending various human concepts such as “world”, “horizon”, “Nature” and even “environment”’ (39).

Versions of the drastic re-thinking of the planet and the ways that it may be understood that are speculated upon here can be seen in numerous other examples of climate crisis writing which, like Flight Behaviour, present a vision of the world on the brink. The ecological and meteorological signs of climate change in the novel bear comparison to recent works such as Liz Jensen’s The Rapture (2008), Maggie Gee’s The Flood (2005) and The Ice People (1998), and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2008). In these examples, signs of environmental crisis are accompanied by the possibility of its narrow aversion through recuperative change, though are often followed by global catastrophe. However, in Flight Behaviour, signs of crisis are recognised and tipping points are identified and exceeded, but the threat of apocalypse does not directly occur. Instead, the novel draws attention to the challenges of acknowledging the realities of climate change, and points towards the difficulties of the effects of such acknowledgement.

As Frederick Buell suggests in From Apocalypse to Way of Life, recalling Rachel Carson’s call to action via the threat of environmental disaster in Silent Spring (1962), catastrophe itself requires reconfiguration in the context of contemporary environmental conditions:

Since Rachel Carson, environmental crisis has rapidly evolved and substantially changed in form, not just in nature, but also in human discourse about it. Announcing itself as apocalypse […] The world (as of the writing of this sentence and presumably also the reading of it) has not ended; eco-apocalypse hasn’t happened. Yet people today also accept the fact that they live in the shadow of environmental problems so severe that they constitute a crisis (ix).

The novel attends towards the ways that climate change disrupts and distorts familiar patterns of knowledge and understanding by showing how it infiltrates and problematises actions considered both serious and mundane. Most importantly, I suggest, it acknowledges the ways that climate change enacts these effects even if it goes unrecognised or unremarked. Whether the characters are ‘look[ing] without seeing’ or struggling with what is on view, the incipient crisis that becomes apparent in the novel remains ‘unmanageable’, resisting and in the process reshaping modes of conceptualisation.

Accordingly, whilst for Lawrence Buell, for example, environmental crisis appears at odds with ‘the traditional protocols of protagonist-centred fiction’, Flight Behaviour demonstrates the ways that it is irrevocably part of its contemporary texture (663). Similarly, though Dominic Head has disputed the efficacy of the ‘characteristic features of the form’ as a means of addressing environmental crisis, specifically ‘the focus on personal development, on social rather than environmental concerns, and on time rather than space’, here we are shown that in this context, these distinctions themselves are faulty (196). Rather than ‘treat[ed] as background or period-colour, or as a subsidiary to the main concerns’, as Richard Kerridge has put it, here environmental crisis is irrevocably woven into the fabric of the novel (243).


Rural Tennessee 2

A recognisable present: the remote Tennesse agricultural setting of Kingsolver's novel is a far cry from contemporary (post-)apocalyptic texts

[Image by biotour13 under a CC BY-NC-ND license]


In this way, the novel bears relation to works such as T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013), where the landscapes of these fictions are already drastically altered by the effects of events of environmental crisis. Yet Kingsolver’s novel does not offer a post-apocalyptic future vision of the possible outcomes of environmental catastrophe, but instead presents a recognisable version of the present that is nevertheless radically re-imagined in the wake of environmental crisis. That Kingsolver’s writing is informed by contemporary science and has come to parallel recent real-world ecological events arguably intensifies the effect of its reimagining.

Flight Behaviour opens up some of the issues of scale, perspective and complexity that are under scrutiny in contemporary ecocriticism. In so doing, as Mike Hulme advocates in Why We Disagree About Climate Change, the novel moves away from the abstractions of apocalypse and toward the challenges of interpretation and reception posed by environmental crisis (Hulme: 233). In the process, both crisis and responsibility become commensurate with the everyday. Signs of crisis are shown to be more subtle, more disparate, and more common than discourses of apocalypse display. At the same time, though, the novel makes plain that the causes and the effects of environmental crisis exceed the scope of human perspective and understanding. That these points of correspondence and excess coincide is at the heart of the conceptual and representational challenges addressed by the contemporary critical environments explored in this issue.

In the articles that follow, the ways that environmental concerns can unsettle, provoke and transform ways of looking, interpreting and representing human-nature relations and the material world are considered in various forms and contexts. In ‘Reapproaching Urban Nature', Astrid Bracke questions ideas of nature by exploring its urban and rural designations, borrowing from urban studies to find alternative ways to express and interpret contemporary landscapes. In ‘Performing Carbon (in the) Capital’, Sam Solnick analyses the possibilities and the difficulties of the application of art to advocacy in the use of performance art as a means of communicating climate change. Louise Squire discusses the ways that the potential finitude of all human life figures in the treatment of death in contemporary fiction in ‘The Thoughts in our Head’, and in ‘Changing the Climate of Writing’, Matthew Griffiths examines the repercussions of the complexities of climate crisis for narratorial form in the representations and responses it generates in nature essays.

As these ‘Critical Environments’ illustrate, contemporary ecocriticism is grappling with the challenges that environmental crisis poses to familiar modes of thought, and the demands that it makes to establish ways of thinking that negotiate and themselves challenge the ways that environmental concerns are approached and understood.


CITATION: Deborah Lilley, "Editorial: Critical Environments," Alluvium, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2014): n. pag. Web. 24 September 2014 http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v3.1.01.


Dr Deborah Lilley completed her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London working in the field of contemporary literature and theory. She has recently relocated to San Francisco from London and is working on a monograph based on her doctoral research entitled The New Pastoral in Contemporary British Writing.


Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).

Boyle, T. C. A Friend of The Earth (London: Bloomsbury, 2000).

Buell, Lawrence. ‘Toxic Discourse’. Critical Inquiry 24.3 (1998), 639-665.

Buell, Frederick. From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (London: Routledge, 2003).

Clark, Timothy. ‘Derangements of Scale’ in Cohen, ed. Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Volume 1. (Michigan: MPublishing, Open Humanities Press, 2012), pp. 148-166, http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/ohp.10539563.0001.001.

Clark, Timothy. ‘Some Climate Change Ironies: Deconstruction, Environmental Politics and the Closure of Ecocriticism’. The Oxford Literary Review, 32.1 (2010): 131-149, http://dro.dur.ac.uk/7145/1/7145.pdf.

Cohen, Tom. Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change. Volume 1. (Michigan: MPublishing, Open Humanities Press, 2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/ohp.10539563.0001.001.

Colebrook, Claire. ‘Framing the End of the Species: Images without Bodies’, Symplokē, 21.1-2 (2013): 51-63.

Gee, Maggie. The Ice People (London: Telegram, 2008).

Gee, Maggie. The Flood (London: Saqi, 2005).

Head, Dominic. An Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Heise, Ursula. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Hulme, Mike. Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Jensen, Liz. The Rapture (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

Kerridge, Richard. ‘Ecothrillers: Environmental Cliffhangers’ in The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, ed. Laurence Coupe (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 242-252.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Behaviour (London: Faber & Faber, 2012). Kindle Edition.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road (London: Picador, 2009).

Morton, Timothy. ‘Poisoned Ground: Art and Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjects’. Symplokē, 21.1-2 (2013): 37-50.

Rawson, Jane. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (Victoria: Transit Lounge, 2013). Kindle Edition.

Winterson, Jeanette. The Stone Gods (Boston, MA: Houghton, 2008).



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