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In this video Jennifer Mae Hamilton introduces the notion of eco-criticism as a tool for intervening in the way nature is written, understood and made
Eco-criticism is a subfield of literary studies and cultural studies that looks at representations of the more-than-human world in poetry, film, and fiction. In the early days of the ’80s and ’90s, eco-critics didn’t have a very complicated idea of nature in their work. But since then, the real problem of naturecultures has been taken on by eco-critics and now is at the centre of the discipline.
Eco-critics can help in the project of reimagining nature in numerous ways. But one way I think that’s particularly important is the historical perspective awarded by scholars that look into the history of artistic representation to show up how nature or the more-than-human world has been represented across time. We tend to think of the world that we inhabit now as the true, right, and only one. And what eco-critical study can show is that there’ve been other ways of reading and understanding the more-than-human world in history, and that can help denaturalise the present.
So my book project This Contentious Storm is a historical reading of Shakespeare’s play King Lear. And many of you will know it has a very climactic storm event. And we tend to think of that as a metaphor for Lear’s mind or political chaos. But what my book does is to try to take the storm on it’s own terms, as this material meteorological presence at the heart of the play. And I ask, how does our understanding of the play change when we take the storm seriously?
So there’s something quite apocalyptic about the mainstream imagining of climate change. It’s about ice caps melting, really, really powerful storms, extinctions of all species, and death to humans. And I think that we need to take the challenges of climate change really, really seriously. But at the same time, we also can’t just imagine it in apocalyptic terms. And one thing that eco-criticism can do is show us how the apocalypse has had different incarnations across history. Every generation has had its own apocalypse story. So in some ways, our present crisis is no different, and it’s just a series of— a part of this bigger history. But at the same time, we need alternative visions for the future.
We need different ways of thinking about the future that aren’t all fire and brimstone. And poets and artists, particularly operating in a speculative fictional sense, can help us to get out of this apocalyptic vision and think differently about the future.
So storytelling, and particularly narrative storytelling, is emerging as central to the Environmental Humanities project. And this is because it offers a different way of representing information. So on the one hand, eco-critics look at the structure of stories, the formal techniques, the history of different modes of representation. But Environmental Humanities scholars in different disciplines are using story as a way of presenting their research, and disseminating their research to the world. So whereas a scientist say, broadly speaking, might use facts and figures, an Environmental Humanities studies scholar is using story. And I think that story is really important because, as Donna Haraway said in her recent article in The Environmental Humanities Journal, it matters what stories story stories.
So the stories we tell about the world, matter the world, and actually have an impact on the way that we behave, and the way that we live, and the way that we imagine the future. And so stories, both fictional and non-fictional are really important to this broad project.
In this video, UNSW alumna Jennifer Mae Hamilton introduces the notion of eco-criticism as a tool for intervening in the way nature is understood, imagined and made.
Jennifer describes how eco-criticism emerged as a field of study that explores the inter-relationships of literature and the environment, not simply as a mode of critique but also as a means of effecting change. Her talk takes up the provocation: how can, and do, literary and poetic forms help to trouble mainstream thinking about the environment?
The video ends with Jennifer contending that storytelling — particularly speculative forms that offer alternative visions of the future — is an important tool for engaging with environmental challenges. You will gain more experience with storytelling in later weeks, particularly Week 4, as it is a popular method within Environmental Humanities.

What do you think?

What can ways of exploring the relationship between literature and nature, such as eco-criticism, offer? How can stories, and the analysis of stories, be used to intervene in environmental crises?


Dr. Jennifer Mae Hamilton (Ph.D., University of New South Wales) is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney funded by The Seed Box: A MISTRA-FORMAS Environmental Humanities Collaboratory at Linköping University, Sweden. She is also an adjunct lecturer in Ecocriticism at New York University (Sydney) and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence in the History of Emotions. Her book, ‘This Contentious Storm’: An Ecocritical and Performance History of King Lear (Bloomsbury Academic, Forthcoming) traces the changing significance of the play’s famous storm scenes in order to explore the West’s shifting but consistently ideological relationship with the weather across time.


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Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

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