In an essay at electronic book review on "ecocriticism," Andrew McMurry writes:
. . .The resources of poetry and literature and art are not particularly suited for stopping or even slowing the headlong rush into destruction (and this is where I differ from some in ecocriticism. . .who imagine that poetry and art and film can help us tread more lightly on the earth) because the roots of the problem go far deeper than culture can penetrate. Still, a study of culture helps us to understand what sort of creatures we are that we can effectively choose to immolate ourselves and the planet. Literature, as we all know, is the human pageant distilled; but it's equally the transhistorical record of a sad and furious primate, a mirror held up to our species' ugliness. Passed through the interpretative lens of ecocritical theory, literature reveals instance after instance of our inability to project, limit, and control the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities in our environments. In simple terms, the price we have paid for the complexity of our things is the decomplexity of earth's things. As a species, we have the power to modify our surroundings to suit our needs but not the wisdom to suit our needs to our surroundings.
This seems to me an admirably succinct account of what might be called the unromantic school of ecocriticism (disencumbered of the notion that literature can and ought to be deployed as a weapon in the battle to stave off our "headlong rush into destruction," that it might "help us tread more lightly on the earth"). It recognizes that the "resources" of art and literature are wasted when expended on agitprop and ill-disguised moral instruction, and it doesn't insist that writers exchange art for "relevance." McMurry clearly enough believes that literature does have relevance of a sort, but it isn't the kind that must be channeled into particular programmatic or ideological forms.
But he is stuck with a conception of literature that equates it with "content," that reduces it to its role in facilitating our understanding of "what sort of creatures we are," its status as "transhistorical record." Literature, through providing "a mirror held up to our species' ugliness," offers us information about ourselves, in this case disturbing information further clarified "through the interpretative lens of ecocritical theory." Literature's mirror and criticism's lens reflect back to us in a handily focused and duly intensified image "instance after instance of our inability to project, limit, and control the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities in our environments."
That works of literature do frequently reveal "the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities" is undeniable, although this is so mainly because serious writers do not shy from portraying human activity in all of its manifestations (many of which are ugly indeed), not because ecological degradation in particular seems especially pertinent. One might just as easily say that, viewed in the right way, literature reveals "the highly erotic quality of all our activities" or the necessarily "economic" character of those activities. An "interpretive lens" of any sort that directs its attention to what a literary work "reflects" is necessarily going to distort the work, in most cases extracting from it what it hoped to find in the first place, but approaches as determined to "see" only content as ecocriticism puts into high relief this tendency to appropriate the incidental characteristics of the work for external and purely utilitarian purposes, leaving the "merely literary" properties of novels and poems and stories to those who, in this case, seem blithely unaware of the overriding need to save the planet.
(Which is not to say that ecocritical insights never contribute to our understanding of particular works. To add such an insight to others that might be gathered in considering a given text is a perfectly sound strategy, but of course in most cases the ecocritic would likely not appreciate ecocriticism being subsumed to the broader goal of literary understanding in this way. It only makes the ecocritical agenda seem secondary to the protocols of reading literature efficaciously.)
Thus while McMurry is able to resist concentrating the interpretive lens of ecocriticism even more narrowly on the therapeutic possibilities of literature (convincing us "to tread more lightly on the earth"), he remains content with the metaphors of literature as mirror and criticism as lens. There's no doubt that all works of literature refer us to and illuminate human reality, if not always so directly and so simply as the mirror metaphor implies. But Stendhal's notion of the "mirror in the roadway," when taken too literally, too quickly sanctions the assumption that literature is important for its content and that its most immediate use is to enlighten us about this or that "issue," to serve as the "subject" of some such mode of analysis as ecocriticism. By deflecting attention away from the work itself and onto the "reality" it supposedly reflects, the mirror metaphor encourages us to ignore those elements of literature without which literary texts would be no different than any other species of writing: form and style.
In fact, Andrew McMurry might go some way toward easing his own dyspepsia caused by the depravity of human nature if he were to pay some attention to the aesthetics of literature. By putting aside the mirror and considering the way fiction and poetry transmute human experience into complex and challenging verbal forms, he might come to appreciate one kind of human activity devoted to creating rather than destroying. He might learn that art is one way by which the human imagination is able to realize its more beneficent possibilities. It's all right there in front of us, but sometimes we seem too busy staring at our own reflections in the mirror to see it.