Derek Gladwin, Ecological Exile: Spatial Injustice and Environmental Humanities

Derek Gladwin, Ecological Exile: Spatial Injustice and Environmental Humanities (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 214 + xi pp. £39.99 eBook, £120 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-138-18968-3

At a point when each day’s news seems to bring further examples of environmental catastrophe and climate activists such as Extinction Rebellion ramp up political protest (a Rebel Camp takes place outside the Scottish Parliament as I write in June 2019), Derek Gladwin’s new book could scarcely be more timely. Published in Routledge’s Environmental Humanities series, which recognises the essentially cultural nature of what we call ecological crisis, Ecological Exile tackles the impacts on people and places of unjust political and economic structures as they are refracted through writing, art, and other visual media. Firmly and evenly grounded in theory, real-world case studies, and close readings of creative and cultural artefacts, Ecological Exile demonstrates how the interdisciplinary approaches of the environmental humanities contribute to greater understandings of today’s ecological problems, the histories that produced them, and people’s responses to them.

Ecological Exile pairs environmental concerns with theories of space and place to show how spatial injustices (such as distributions of wealth and material resources) are interwoven with ecological damage on a local and global scale. The book is divided into three sections oriented around space, oil, and climate. The early chapters of each section present and helpfully summarise the relevant theoretical frameworks, in ways that also provide useful introductions to these areas of theory and criticism in themselves. Chapter 1, for example, gives an overview of theories about the social production of space and draws out their relevance to ecocriticism and ecological thought.

Chapter 2 shifts attention to the environmental humanities more broadly, to explore, define, and defend the value of this interdisciplinary field. A central concept elaborated here and used throughout the book is Glenn Albrecht’s notion of ‘solastalgia’, or the feelings of loss, displacement, or homesickness resulting from environmental transformations to one’s home, even though one is still living there. Narratives, Gladwin argues, can act as sites of resistances to the forces and processes that produce such changes. How we narrate place serves to socially produce that place as one thing or another – such as available for exploitation or in need of preservation. Creative texts, of a variety of forms of media, have the capacity to ‘reconstruct the narrative in the social order’ (pp. 44-5) and thus to affect collective thinking about environmental issues and challenge the social systems in which they are embedded. Gladwin illustrates this point with an analysis of Greenpeace’s activist video LEGO: Everything Is NOT Awesome (2014), which led directly to LEGO parting ways with Shell and seeking alternatives to oil-derived plastics, and a poem and short film, to demonstrate the importance of multidimensionality to the work of the environmental humanities.

Chapter 3 begins the second section, Oil, claiming that ‘[t]he story of oil and its confirmed cause of climate change is the story of our lifetimes’ (67), and links between the two accordingly percolate through the rest of Ecological Exile. Chapter 4 explores the concept of the Anthropocene, and introduces the interdisciplinary field of the energy humanities, which, like the environmental humanities with ecology, urges recognition of energy’s social and cultural, not just technical, nature. Fossil fuel use is tied to the current economic system and leads, Gladwin argues, to spatial injustices caused by the struggle of resources and places to meet the speed and mobility of capitalist development. John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil (1973 and recently staged by the Dundee Rep in 2015), as the next chapter explores, dramatises that conflict by using its narrative structure and agitprop approach to juxtaposethe political speed of the fossil fuel economy’ (95) with the pace of Scottish social history.

In Chapter 5, Gladwin again shifts form and media, this time examining the 2014 filmpoem Sullom by Roseanne Watt. Sullom Voe, Shetland, is a ‘petrospatial coordinate’ (109), a key location in the history of North Sea oil, which Watt’s filmpoem visits from the perspective of a Shetlander, linking oil as material and idea to the land and to people. Using its dual media of words and film, Sullom ‘underscores the combination of real and imagined experience that ultimately reclaim and construct narratives about socially produced spaces of oil and gas’ (121). The last chapter in this section analyses the 2010 documentary The Pipe, concerning the pipeline built in County Mayo, Ireland, and local protests to its construction.

The final section on Climate pulls few punches about the current statistics and predictions about the extent and impacts of global warming. Gladwin emphasises the scientific consensus on the situation, in order to highlight the discrepancy between the established information and the extent of political and social inaction. While that is partly due to vested economic and political interests, it is also partly, he suggests, because climate change and its effects ‘are difficult to comprehend or accept because of their spatial and temporal magnitude’ (152) at an individual level. Chapter 8 explores the relatively new sub-genre of cli-fi (climate fiction) that sets out explicitly to address climate change and its implications now or in the future. Here Gladwin offers a defence of Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010), arguing that its unsympathetic protagonist stands for the social disintegration or fragmentation experienced in the face of climate change. Narrative texts, Gladwin argues, play a vital role in making global warming graspable and meaningful, for example by displaying the real effects on a Greenland community in documentary Village at the end of the World (Chapter 7), or using fantastic literary devices such as the airborne icebergs in China Mieville’s ‘Polynia’ (Chapter 9) that make it impossible for London’s urban population to ignore environmental impacts.

Ecological Exile is a rich source of analytical perspectives on multimedia and multidisciplinary engagements with environmental concerns. Its textual readings are often astute, and it marshals an impressive body of research. This can make chapters dense to read at times (not helped by several clumsy or misleading phrasings, e.g. ‘forced construction [of pipelines] with little to no consent from multinational petroleum companies’ (132) presumably means ‘consent sought by’?). That is a minor pity, however, in an overall rigorous and eye-opening book with much appeal to readers interested in the value of creative written and visual narratives to our ecological crisis, which Ecological Exile persuasively demonstrates.

Emily Alder, Edinburgh Napier University