The Origins of Environmental Writing…
Ever since people started writing, people have been writing about the environment. Though environmental writing really became a movement once the Industrial Revolution came around, when the world became seemingly separable into the “natural” and the “man-made”, that doesn’t mean that people weren’t writing and aware about the environment way before that — it was just on a smaller scale (and without the word “environment” which didn’t exist yet).
In the 630s Abu Bakr commanded his army “Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food” and in 676 Cuthbert of Lindisfarne created the first protective legislation for birds in the world on Farne Islands.
In the 9th to 13th century such Arabic thinkers and philosophers as Al-Kindi, Qusta ibn Luqa, Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Jazzar, al-Tamimi, al-Masihi, Avicenna, Ali ibn Ridwan, Ibn Jumay, Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, Abd-el-latif, Ibn al-Quff, and Ibn al-Nafis wrote about “pollution, such as air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, municipal solid waste mishandling, and environmental impact assessments of certain localities” in relation to the spread of illnesses and plague, and William the Conquerer established forest law to protect forests and animals (with punishments for offenders that grew more severe with his successors).
In 1306, King Edward I banned sea-coal burning in London because of the problems the smoke caused.
“Use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer.”
In a poetic social commentary, William Blake wrote about a uniquely Industrial Revolution issue through his paired poems “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence  and Songs of Experience .
The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Experience)
A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.
Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.
And because I am happy, & dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.
in the William Blake Arts and Experience Library
In 1739, the Pennsylvania Assembly signed a petition to stop tanneries from dumping waste, which Benjamin Franklin wrote about in his Gazette—and though they argued their case well, they failed to change the situation, though Franklin would continue to be involved in waste management and urban planning projects in Pennsylvania.
The Merriam-Webster explains the origins of the word “environment”: Descending from the Middle French preposition environ “around,” environment, in its most basic meaning, is “that which surrounds.” The first known use of the term was in 1827, in the middle of the industrial revolution.
While concern about the environment and humanity’s sometimes destructive influences on it may seem like a new phenomena, it was a concern for many people historically as they saw the effects of greater urbanization. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote Binsey Poplars about trees near where he lived and walked getting cut down. He had it published in a magazine because he was so unhappy about what had happened and wanted people to know about it. (Fortunately, they were since replanted).
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew —
,Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
,To touch, her being só slender,
,That, like this sleek and seeing ball
,But a prick will make no eye at all,
,Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
,Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
The 19th century (also known as the 1800s) was hit with an explosion of new interest in the environment.
In 1828 Carl Sprengel came up with the law of the Minimum (economic growth is capped by the scarcest resource); in 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson published Nature; in 1845 the term carrying capacity was first used (it’s the maximum population of a species that can be sustained by their environment); in 1848 Henry David Thoreau published Civil Disobedience, and after that made numerous addresses and published many more books. In 1862 John Ruskin published Unto This Last, an economic book with environmental preoccupations, that would end up influencing Gandhi. In the early 1970s the chipko movement in India was formed to stop logging, and succeeded.
A whole wave of new inventions, new regulations, and new theory were created, along with newly-coined words:
—ecology (1866, as “oekologie”, by Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel in Generelle Morphologie der Organismen)
—acid rain (1872, by Robert Angus Smith in “Air and Rain”)
—smog (1905, by Dr. Henry Antoine des Voeux in “Fog and Smoke”)
Along with all this, the artistic movement Romanticism was big in the first half of the 19th century (1800-1850). Unlike more overtly environmental or scientific writing it didn’t talk about specific problems and solutions, but it took influence from what was going on in the world. Romantic writing had a focus on nature as a concept in a sense that earlier works did not have—could not have, before the Industrial Revolution offered up an antithesis. Romantic works idealized nature and the poet or artist’s personal relationship, with many references to classical themes, folk and childrens literature, and focused on a spontaneous aesthetic and emotional experience that takes place between humanity and nature.
The Romantic movement prized originality and inspiration. It also emphasized that being alone with nature was good for you (something that science caught up on eventually). It had a contemporary preoccupation with inner states of consciousness and the individual as such, something which would find expression in Freud’s [1856-1939] scientific hypothesis of the existence of the subconscious, as well as a sense of restlessness, seeking, longing, and nostalgia, apprehension, horror, and awe.
Since the 19th century, there have been too many works published to summarize.
Nature writing, by people such as Emerson and Thoreau, led eventually to the genre of environmental journalism, which has subgenres of science writing, environmental interpretation, environmental literature, and advocacy, in addition to nature writing.
Any environmental topic can become the subject for environmental writing. From the most scientific and technical to the personal and experiential, the key is that it’s about the environment. And what’s the environment? It’s “that which surrounds.” So if the entire world seems like too much to focus on—and it surely is—take inspiration from the past, and focus on what’s around you, and what you can say and do about it.