Over the last two centuries, books by American nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir have shaped individual behavior, inspired the creation of environmental organizations, and influenced public policy. Ecocritical scholars have shown how such texts encourage non-anthropocentric values and awareness of nature. Yet these classics of environmental literature, and subsequent ecocritical scholarship, have unintentionally promoted absolutist views of nature that entrench environmental conflicts and shut down communication, a problem rhetorical scholars call "ecospeak."
In this dissertation I examine how writers might overcome ecospeak. I not only argue for alternative environmental narratives, but also propose a new approach to reading all environmental texts. I call this approach "pragmatic ecocriticism" as it draws significantly on John Dewey's philosophical pragmatism, by weakening dualist understandings such as that of "humans and nature"; by examining value pluralism; and by focusing on narratives in which writers make decisions and take action in the face of complex and uncertain social-environmental situations. Such a rhetorical approach draws heavily on Kenneth Burke's notion that literary texts serve as equipment for living through dramatic rehearsal's role in moral imagination.
I examine whether and how three recent texts avoid the problem of ecospeak by offering more pragmatic narratives: The Pine Island Paradox by Kathleen Dean Moore (2004); Hunting for Hope by Scott Russell Sanders (1998); and Having Faith by Sandra Steingraber (2001). Although all of these books are part of the larger genre of environmental writing and literature, they pragmatically engage the complexity of contemporary social and environmental issues facing readers today. Moore links human-centered and nature-centered ethics and values in the context of decisions Moore encounters daily. Sanders emphasizes social hope and bounded conflict rather than despair and divisiveness in the face of social-environmental crisis. Steingraber addresses the relationship between human health and environmental pollution in the context of pregnancy and childbirth. As a result, these texts constitute a sub-genre of environmental writing, representing more pragmatic texts able to move beyond ecospeak and encourage readers to engage each other in more productive ways.