The Absence of Neoconservatism and Ecocriticism in Canadian Literary Studies


At first glance, the title of this Preface may well seem metaphysical in the Johnsonian sense of a violent yoking together of contraries. What possible connection can there be between ecocriticism—the study of "the relation between literature and the environment…in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis" (Buell 430)—and the bundle of economic and social policies that have come to be known as neoconservatism and, mutatis mutandis, neoliberalism and neosocialism. The answer is very little, for, as any reader of such doctrinaire neoconservatives as The Globe and Mail’s Terence Corcoran will readily attest, the philosophy that made the Iron Lady has nothing in common with the thinking behind the Green Movement. Then why the juxtaposition? The answer lies in a discussion that followed an address by Malcolm Ross at the 268th Convocation of the University of Western Ontario in June 1997. The address was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by those attending Convocation, and it is worth quoting in full:

I remember vividly the day I graduated from the University of New Brunswick in the Spring of 1933. We were in the very depths of the Great Depression. At a graduation luncheon the speaker dwelt painfully on the difficulties we would surely have to face in finding a job (in those days no one ever dreamed of "jobs, jobs, jobs"—just a job). Then, in dark funereal tone, our speaker went on to warn us of a gathering storm, of a cloud on the horizon as yet no bigger than a man’s hand. A comical little fellow with a square mustache had come to power in Germany and was already rattling his sword. But, he cautioned, we would be wrong to laugh at him. We should, we must prepare to stand on guard.
     But we did laugh. We were not dismayed. For we had been reared in a time of marvels. It was only twenty years or so since, in my Fredericton home, the oil lamps were put away forever.  I think I was only six when we got a telephone, seven when the last horse-drawn taxi vanished from our streets, and eight when the first airplane flew noisily and low over our house. Soon after came the wonder of radio. Yes, "such a marvel does time allow." Depression and the rumours of war may have dimmed a thoughtless optimism. But neither then nor in the turbulent years so soon to follow did we let go of hope.
     The Class of ’97 lives in a very different world. For one thing, yours is a world of much mightier marvels—space flight, the Internet, television and burgeoning technologies that proliferate at ever increasing speed and variety. Your world is indeed shrinking rapidly into Marshall McLuhan’s "global village." It is a world ruled increasingly if indirectly by the trans-national corporations and such agencies as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and, of course, by those ‘high faluntin’ gambling dens on Wall Street, Bay Street and their sister streets in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
     Once upon a time (in the Great Depression) ruined millionaires leaped to their deaths from skyscraper windows. Today, our millionaires are becoming billionaires even as the parades to the food-banks lengthen. And as poverty deepens in most of the industrialized countries, the pollution of earth, air and water spreads everywhere like a plague. We grow sick from the waste-matter of our wealth. Every day, in mute warning to all survivors, whole species of living things vanish forever.
     Nevertheless, I think the Class of ’97 has more reason to hope than we had in 1933. We did hope in my day, but it was a hope half-blind. True, in the recent, wild gold-rush of globalization, human rights and environmental health have been sacrificed. Prophets of the piety of this time would have us put our trust in market forces, our faith in holy greed. In devout obedience to this creed, we downsize, privatize, computerize. And, of course, we also "out-source." We skilfully shrink the national deficit by shrinking health care, education and social welfare. Meanwhile, the true but unacknowledged authors of deficit and debt wallow in hitherto unheard-of opulence.
     This novel and ingenious process of "reform" (modified at times by an election or ungrateful public protest) may have even more adventurous remedies in store for us. For instance, VIA Rail is disposing of its conductors. In several provinces, we have the prospect of privatized prisons—prisons for profit. "Distance education" with computers in every home gives promise of incalculable savings. It is even being suggested that in the coming "home-university without walls," our abandoned campus buildings might well be used to house the indigent homeless who have been liberated from toil by the blessings of technological advance. However, I am happy to say that I have been assured on good authority that there is no truth in the rumour that Air Canada is about to fly without pilots. Such flights are at least five years away—unless, of course, there is a sudden need of further financial restraint.
     The end of a millennium, even more than the end of a century, I suppose, is a time for looking back as well as ahead. For many of my generation, the new is still defined by the old, the future by the past. Do we not now speak of our time and our culture as post-colonial, post-modern, post-Christian, post-civilized? Some would add "post-mortem." I would not. Despite our greed, despite man’s inhumanity to man, despite our criminally irresponsible degradation of nature, I believe we could if we would approach and enter the new millennium with hope. Not with optimism but with hope. Certainly we should not pretend that all manner of things will be well if we merely keep the course, if we continue to put our trust in market forces, our faith in holy greed.
     Not long ago I was given an exhilarating new perspective on our global village and on both our hope and our fears for the time to come. I heard on radio a brief account of an interview with Roberta Bondar, the Canadian astronaut. She had said that when she looked out from the spacecraft and saw from afar the planet Earth she was suffused with a sudden rush of love and awe. For the first time she saw her home, not just Canada, but all of it—the whole world was home! All of it!
     And I wonder if perhaps she did not turn her telescope left and right, up and down—to gaze in sad surmise at those bright, dead specks of star and planet that throng infinity, awful in their warning to us. And did she wonder—those scoops and scars and channels on the planet Mars, were they once rivers and seas flowing with water and life? And might she have wondered if one day far-off, refugees from planet Earth would, from their space platforms, look down on scoops and scars that once were Hudson Bay, the Mississippi, the Blue Danube and the Black Sea. I thought of this as I read John Bemrose’s review of A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright (this was in a recent issue of Maclean’s magazine):

              the book is saved by its strong central plot, a certain wry hu-               more and a powerful visionary core. Wright offers an unfor-               gettable view of an England where jungle and myna birds               have colonized the ruined Parliament buildings, and de-               formed fish and animals still endure the evil spell of civiliza-               tion’s long-lived toxins. Lambert also discovers the evidence               of civil war, mass euthanasia and widespread slavery and tor-               ture. It seems that mankind went anything but gently into its               final night. Much has been written about the dangers of the               modern world’s profligate ways. But few writers have imag-               ined the future with such compelling and tragic urgency.

Bizarre as such a vision may seem at first glance, we are slowly but surely moving in this direction. It is a direction we need not take. It is your generation, the Class of ’97, which still has the chance (or should I say the duty) to cry "Halt," "Left Turn," "Quick March." This is the cry, the command of Hope; it is a call to action and an end to drift. It is a demand that environmental destruction be brought to an end. As David Suzuki asserts "this is not just a matter of recycling, becoming more energy efficient or planting trees. These things are important. But we need profound changes in our economic system, in government structures and priorities, in the organization of our communities and the way we live."
     And I would add, while we have to begin these changes on our own street in the global village, Canada is not an island unto itself. Nowadays nothing happens in the global village anywhere that does not happen to us. As industry enters the Third World the sickness of the global environment worsens. Sweat-shops and child labour compromise and degrade the wealth of all nations. As Maude Barlow recently observed, "Canada’s corporate and political leaders are becoming part of a global élite who have more in common with each other than they have with their own people. Together they have created a world in which the top twenty trans-national corporations have twice the combined revenues of the bottom four-fifths of humanity."
     We now live in a predominately materialistic culture. Ours is a society of consumers bargaining for products. We even talk of our culture industries—the industries that produce books, music, art. Some universities (not this one, I trust) refer to their graduates as their "product." When we talk of globalization, we are talking in the main about trade—the exchange of products. Even the promotion of our books and art in other lands is justified as an aid to the sale of other products.
     We must not "stay the course"—not this course! Hope, an authentic hope requires us to change course, and not just in our own corner of the global village. Our home is larger than this. It is the home Roberta Bondar saw from the spacecraft. Nothing now happens anywhere on the globe that does not or will not eventually happen to us in our small corner.
     For the very success of our science, our professional and business skills, has brought us to a climactic point in human history. There has been more radical change in what we can do and what we can undo in the last hundred years than in the previous nine hundred. The speed of change continues to accelerate. In pursuit of economic wealth in our consumer society natural wealth, the real wealth of land, sea and air, sickens and dwindles. This is immoral.
     Before it is altogether too late, can we hope to devise an economy which functions in obedience to morality? Certainly it is not moral to strike trade deals with countries where child labour is rife and where the minimum wage in the sweat-shops is as low as twenty cents an hour. This is obscene.
     Is it beyond human wit to create jobs in all the global village that are fairly rewarded, to re-shape the economy to meet human needs (and no longer to fabricate unneeded wants)—and to do this without the pillage and the pollution of the natural world? And as technology replaces more and more of the work-force with artificial intelligence, (the smart and smarter computer) will it not be possible as well as necessary to redistribute wealth by a guaranteed annual income to all who give service to society—the care-givers, the home-makers, to everyone who contributes to the common good?
     Not practical? Mind you, this in not the way of "common sense." Perhaps common sense has done its worst. Perhaps it is now time for uncommon sense. Is it more practical to go on making sick the sky, the soil, the sea? Is it not really practical to become what we are—or were meant to be—the stewards and shepherds of our world for our good, for the good of all creatures great and small?
     In 1997 we are already well into a global crisis. Unlike the rapidly rising flood in Manitoba, our global crisis advances slowly, inch by inch. But it is time now to begin building dykes. They must be built to last. The threat is never ended. Nor should our vigilance and our resistance end.
     To believe this is to recognize that the morality strong and sure enough to keep the economy in its place is, deep-down and at roots religious. Its birth was and is in faith, hope and charity. What I have been trying to say is meant as a prayer—a prayer for the Class of ’97, for this new millennium.
     It is my prayer for the planet.

At the dinner for honorary graduates that followed convocation, Malcolm Ross was seated at the head table beside the Chancellor of the University and the President of the Bank of Nova Scotia, Peter Godsoe. As the dinner progressed, the discussion focused almost inevitably on the role of the Bank of Nova Scotia in promoting or, it might be, damaging the social and ecological health of the countries in which it has economic interests and a physical presence. Are the Bank of Nova Scotia and other multinational corporations a cause of the "global crisis" described in Ross’s address or are at least some of them—those that have enlightened policies regarding local environments and cultures—providing a secular answer to Ross’s prayer? Polarized from the outset, the discussion became increasingly so: to the right, literally as well as philosophically, one dinner guest proposed that the key to social and environmental renovation lay in individual effort and the resulting prosperity; to the left, again both literally and philosophically, a group of guests proposed that, on the contrary, the solution to the "global crisis" lies in communal activism on an international scale of the sort undertaken by Greenpeace and other organizations. In many ways it was a typical confrontation between the New Right and the Old Left, an argument in which no genuine dialogue (let alone agreement) was possible because of the "contrasting certainties" or "plural rationality" (Schwarz and Thompson 3, 6) of the two positions.1 It came as no surprise that Aldo Leopold was as unfamiliar to one side as Friedrich A. Hayek was to the other. Given the influence of both of these thinkers on Western thought in the late twentieth century, this was dismaying enough. Even more dismaying was the subsequent discovery at a gathering of members of Western’s English Department that no one present had heard of The Road to Serfdom (1944) and only one person had read A Sand County Almanac (1949): the study of literature in Canada is being conducted, it would appear, without informed reference to two of the major streams of contemporary thought, neoconservatism and environmentalism. Thus the title of the present Preface.

The reasons for the absence of neoconservatism and the near absence of environmentalism in the Canadian literary academy are by turns simple and complex. Dominated to a large extent by men and women who came to maturity in the ’sixties and early ’seventies, English Departments in Canada exhibit a profound and paralysing ambivalence towards the values that surround them, both in the society at large and in such departments as Economics and Psychology—an ambivalence born of a concatenation of left and left-liberal ideology with a way of life predicated on job security, more-than-adequate income, and pension funds that have used such investment vehicles as mutual funds to reap the benefits of multi-national and neoconservative prosperity. As a consequence, of the "thought style" of their culture (Douglas), members of the Canadian literary academy find themselves in a deeply conflicted position: on the one hand, their socialist predispositions inclines them to despise neoconservatism and embrace communitarianism; on the other, their way of life implicates them in the system that they purport to detest and encourages them, as consumers, to participate in the degradation of the planet and the exploitation of "feeder" countries such as Chile and India. Four responses to this double bind are possible: hypocrisy (a conscious or unconscious concealment of the disjunction between the ideal and the practice); blindness (a refusal, again consciously or unconsciously, to acknowledge and confront the urgent issues raised by neoconservatism and environmentalism); akrasia (a weakness of will in face of the attractions of consumables and the inevitability of environmental disaster);2 and action—active involvement through personal commitment and scholarly engagement, with the origins, evolution, implications, and consequences of the movements and ideologies that are now shaping the human-and-natural world for better or worse.

The modest but significant and growing number of books and articles with an ecocritical component that have been published in Canada in recent years is tangible evidence of the increasing interest among Canadian scholars is situating literature in an environmental context. If precedents for this burgeoning interest were required, they could readily be found in the work of the Confederation poets, especially in the poetry and prose of Archibald Lampman and Bliss Carman. Some of Lampman’s essays, most notably "Poetic Interpretation" and "Two Canadian Poets[:] a Lecture," deal directly with the relationship between literature and the environment, as do several of his contributions to the "At the Mermaid Inn" column in the Toronto Globe. Indeed, Lampman’s first and final entries in "At the Mermaid Inn" address environmental issues, the former the effect of the seasons on human mental and physical activities and the latter "the awful destructiveness of the human race" as evidenced by the disappearance of Canada’s "magnificent forests" and the near extinction of "the buffalo…and the wild pigeon" (339). For his part, Carman was continually alert to the myriad affinities between human beings and their natural surroundings, affinities to which he attests nowhere more compellingly than in the essays gathered together in The Kinship of Nature. "[A] cherry-tree…waving in the sunlight…bears some thousands of leaves, no two of which are precisely alike," he observes in "The Ritual of Nature"; "[i]t would seem, then…that Nature is strictly a formalist in dealing with her tribes, that she permits them just so much liberty of action and freedom of thought as shall conserve the interest of the individual, and not enough to imperil the integrity of the sect" (203-04; and see Bentley, "In Summary" 186-88). Such passages are certainly open to the charge of anthropocentrism, but more than most people of his era and generation Carman succeeded in placing human beings and human productions in an environmental perspective. "[I]t is really the best portrait of all," he wrote in 1927 of a photograph of himself in the Rocky Mountains, because "it sub-ordinates the physiog[nomy] (which is immaterial) to the environment (which is vital in pictures of poets)" (Letters 36). Needless to say, the poetry of both Lampman and Carman is fertile ground for ecocritical study, as is the work of numerous other writers of the post-Confederation period such as Charles Mair, whose "Canadian Poems" express, in Norman Shrive’s words, his "personal bitterness" over "the corruption of…Canada’s previously unspoiled land by Europeans" (xxvii), and Isabella Valancy Crawford, whose Malcolm’s Katie has already been given a compelling ecocritical reading by Diana M.A. Relke.

Nor is pre-Confederation writing wanting in subject matter that would be amenable to ecocritical analysis3 or—though this is much rarer—congenial to the ecocritical spirit. In their very nature as records of assiduous searches for lands to appropriate and materials to extract, the writings of Canada’s explorers and fur-traders exist in the border of literature and the environment, and the numerous accounts of emigration and settlement in poetry, fiction, and non-fictional prose by writers such as Oliver Goldsmith, Susanna Moodie, and, of course, Catharine Parr Traill (see the Documents sections of the present issue of Canadian Poetry) are just as obviously fertile ground for ecocritical study. Here is Thomas Anburey in 1789 on the future of the Canadian fur-trade and the predicament of Canada’s animals:

the fur trade, which still is the greatest resource of wealth to England,…must in process of time be annihilated, from the very great destruction of the animals, which every year diminishes them so fast, and occasions their flying to remoter parts, that the trader has hundreds of leagues farther to go in search of them; the necessity, therefore of encouraging husbandry, will appear evident…. [The animals of Canada], as everything, sooner or later, in this terrestrial globe, [have]paid tribute to the sovereignty of man; that cruel power that has been so fatal to every living creature…. No sooner had our luxury led us to make use of their skins, than the natives waged perpetual war against them….4 (1: 225, 228)

And here, seventy years later, is Alexander McLachlan’s Old Pioneer on the shooting of a deer by one of his fellow emigrants:

The creature made a desperate leap,
With a cry so wild and deep,
Tried to make another bound
Reeled and sank upon the ground;
And the sound the rifle made,
Woke the herd within the shade,
We could plainly hear them rush,
Through the leaves and underbrush,
Fled afar the startled quail,
And partridge with her fan-like tail,
Whirring past with all her brood,
Sought a deeper solitude.

There the gentle thing lay dead,
With a deep gash in its head,
And its face and nostrils o’er,
Spattered with the reeking gore,
There she lay, the lovely hind,
She who could outstrip the wind,
She the beauty of the wood,
Slaughtered thus to be our food.
                                               (3: 123-42)

Both Anburey and McLachlan attest to the deadly consequences of European imperialism and consumption on wildlife in Canada and both refer to the processes of retreat—the "flying to remoter parts" and the seeking of "a deeper solitude"—that would eventually lead to the existence and need throughout North America and, indeed, the "terrestrial globe," of places where living creatures other than humans could be relatively safe from their most destructive enemy.

While the essays in this special issue of Canadian Poetry focus almost exclusively on twentieth-century Canadian texts, they all present ecocritical perspectives and approaches that shed light on writing in Canada from its beginnings to the present. They are offered collectively not in attempt to define or delineate the ecocritical study of Canadian writing but as a small contribution to the necessary and urgent project of revisioning the place of human beings and all their activities in the world that has in recent years been garnering increasing support in the Canadian academy. In the March 25, 1904 number of Science, Carman’s brother-in-law, W.F. Ganong, concluded an article on "The Cardinal Principles of Ecology" by conceding that "ecology is but in its beginning" (198). In the as yet unsilent spring of 1998, it must be conceded that ecocriticism, too, is "but in its beginning" particularly in Canada. Yet in the work of Andrea Lebowitz, Dorothy Nielsen, Susie O’Brien, Diana M.A. Relke, Elizabeth Thompson and David Wylynko, the ecocritical study of Canadian writing is well begun, and rich in potential both for the objects of its study and for the objectives of the environmental movement.




  1. A bright light is shed on such dialogues of the deaf by the work of Mary Douglas, Michael Thompson, and their associates, who argue that all cultures exhibit four primary "thought styles" that are characterized by, among other things, very different perceptions, constructions, or "myths" of nature. Douglas labels these four distinct kinds of culture "Active individualism," "Backwater isolation," "Conservation hierarchy," and "Dissident enclave" (43), and describes their "myths" or versions of nature as follows:

    A [Active individualism] Nature is robust. This version justifies the entrepreneur who will not brook his plans being blocked by warnings that carbon dioxide pollution or soil erosion may cause irreversible damage. His cultural alignment is to a way of life based on free bidding and bargaining. He needs nature to be robust to refute the arguments of those who are against the transactions he has in mind.
    B [Backwater isolation] Nature is unpredictable. There is no telling how events may turn out. This version justifies the non-alignment of the isolate. He uses it as his answer to attempts to recruit him to any cause.
    C [Conservative hierarchy] Nature is robust, but only within limits. This is the version that issues from the hierarchists’ platform, their justification for instituting controls and planned projects. The hierarchist wants to manage the environment. To justify imposing regulation on the entrepreneur’s projects he needs nature to be not completely robust.
    D [Dissident enclave] Nature is fragile and pollution can be lethal. This position is entered in fundamental disagreement with the policies of development entrepreneurs and with organizing hierarchists, and with the fatalism of the isolate. It is the version that justifies the anxiety of the green lobbies.

         In Cultural Theory and Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and Social Choice, Thompson and his co-authors use the terms "Individualistic," "Fatalistic," "Hierarchical," and "Fatalistic" to describe the four kinds of culture and their attendant myths of nature (see especially Cultural Theory 26-81 and Divided We Stand 4-11, 56-80), though in the earlier book the system is complicated by a fifth culture. Predictably, "Neo-Austrian [economics]: competition without equilibrium" falls into Douglas’s category A and "socialism" and "the Greens" into her Category D (see Schwarz and Thompson 5-7 and 66-67 and, as a cavent, Hayek’s discussion of the distinction between "true" and false individualism in Individualism and Economic Order 1-32). Douglas’s extremely astute observation that "if environmentalists were to be very effective in organizing beyond protest demonstrations or propaganda, they would need to institute internal authority" (189) points towards the need to combine the culture of "conservative hierarchy" with environmental awareness—to reinvent organic or "Red Toryism" as "Green Toryism"—in order for human beings to accept and exercise their responsibilities and duties—their stewardship—vis-à-vis non-human nature (see Bentley, The Gay] Grey Moose 6-7 and 275-76). Several of the essays collected by William C. Clark and R.E. Munn in Sustainable Development of the Biosphere are useful for the light that they shed on the relationships between political cultures and the environment. [back]

  2. See Douglas 115. Akrasia is, of course, a term borrowed from Aristotle. [back]

  3. See Ramsay Cook’s "Cabbages Not Kings." [back]

  4. Anburey also makes the point that, prior to the European demand for furs, "the few [animals] that the natives destroyed for their food and clothing, were of little note in such a prodigious multitude" (1: 228). [back]


Works Cited


Anburey, Thomas. Travels through the Interior Parts of America. In a Series of Letters. 2 vols. London: William Lane, 1789.

Bentley, D.M.R. The Gay] Grey Moose: Essays on the Ecologies and Mythologies of Canadian Poetry, 1690-1990. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1992.

——. "In Summary." In Bliss Carman: a Reappraisal. Ed. Gerald Lynch. Reappraisals: Canadian Writers 16. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1990: 184-88.

Carman, Bliss. The Kinship of Nature. Boston: L.C. Page, 1903.

——. Letters to Margaret Lawrence, 1927-1929. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley, assist. Margaret Maciejewski. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1995.

Clark, William C., and R.E. Munn, ed. Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Cook, Ramsay. "Cabbages Not Kings: Towards an Ecological Interpretation of Early Canadian History," Journal of Canadian Studies 25 (Winter, 1990-91): 5-16.

Douglas, Mary. Thought Styles: Critical Essays on Good Taste. London: Sage, 1996.

Ganong, W.F. "The Cardinal Principles of Ecology," Science 19(1904): 493-98.

Hayek, Friedrich A. Individualism and Economic Order. 1948. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

——. The Road to Serfdom. London: George Routledge, 1944.

Lampman, Archibald. At the Mermaid Inn: Wilfred Campbell, Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott in The Globe 1892-93. Ed. Barrie Davies. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1979.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. 1949. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

McLachlan, Alexander. The Emigrant. Ed. D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 1991.

Relke, Diana M.A. "The Ecological Vision of Isabella Valancy Crawford: a Reading of Malcolm’s Katie," Ariel 22 (July 1991): 51-71.

Schwarz, Michiel, and Michael Thompson. Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and Social Choice. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Shrive, Norman. Introduction. In Dreamland and Other Poems; Tecumseh: a Drama. By Charles Mair. Literature of Canada: Poetry and Prose in Reprint. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974. vii-lii.

Thompson, Michael, Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky. Cultural Theory. Political Cultures. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990.