Ecocritic ponders links between race, environmental crisis in new works
LAWRENCE — For Paul Outka, associate professor of English at the University of Kansas, the “slow-motion meteor strike” of environmental degradation and the accompanying “sense of looming, but not fully arrived, apocalypse … that unites us all is an ever-increasing precarity” have demanded his scholarly attention.
Those are quotes from his most recent writings in environmental humanities. As life and career took him from New York’s megalopolis to Florida to Maine to Kansas, Outka has moved his attention from individual writers like Walt Whitman to the current crisis.
Hiking in the mountains of Maine and pondering why so many of the people he met on the trail were white led to Outka’s acclaimed 2008 book, “Race and Nature from Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance” (Palgrave Macmillan).
He continues to explore that nexus in his most recent publication, “Slavery and the Anthropocene,” which is a chapter in The Cambridge Companion to American Literature and the Environment (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
His essay “Sustainable Ordinary,” in the forthcoming 10th anniversary issue of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, is a pandemic-induced appeal in which Outka called COVID-19 lockdowns an “example of a range of recent calamities that I think threaten the ongoing possibility of everyday life for many.”
“I started to feel restive about the kind of language that a lot of my field is engaged in,” Outka said. “I wanted to try to write differently. So that's a little bit less of an academic piece, for me, at least.”
He said, “Environmental humanities or ecocriticism comes out of this idea that our cultural practice should take seriously how humans and the natural world are related to each other, because that has real effects on the natural world as well as the human.”
One of the field’s foundational moves, he said, is to call into question the nature-culture distinction. That’s the view that humans are distinct from — and superior to — the rest of nature, rather than, as Outka put it, “part of the Earth that learned to talk.” Thinking of humans as an inseparable part of nature would reveal the folly — or at least the hypocrisy — of driving a gas-guzzling vehicle to a national park to view its pristine mountains and forests.
It’s the bent of mind that allows such duality that Outka explored in “Slavery and the Anthropocene,” Anthropocene being the term for the notion that the impact of human activity on the Earth is so great that it has triggered a new geological epoch, distinct from the Holocene.
Outka wrote that slavery did not trigger the Anthropocene, but it “naturalized the absolute dominance of those considered fully human over whatever they considered natural, a hierarchy that has made racial and environmental politics inseparable.”
It’s useful to ponder today, he wrote, because “the history of slavery and white supremacy provide(s) some vitally important contexts for how we think about our modernity. … (A)uthority without responsibility is at the core of our contemporary environmental crises because of the history it shares with white supremacy.”
Image: The environment demands the scholarly attention of Paul Outka, associate professor of English. Credit: Courtesy Paul Outka