n. 11 Apr 2010 Tereza Salgueiro
n. 7 Aug 2009 Marco Moro
n. 6 Jun 2009 Marco Martuzzi
n. 5 Apr 20089 Serenella Iovino
n. 4 Aug 2008 Seamus Egan
n. 3 Apr 2008 Giovanni Allevi
n. 2 Feb 2008 Marco Bicego
n. 1 Nov 2007 Jan Garbarek

Online bimonthly
Reg. at Vicenza Court No. 1165 on 18 December 2007
Editor and director Bianca Nardon
Redazione STEP Srl ContrĂ  Porti, 3 Vicenza

Year III n. 5 March/April 2009

Meeting with Serenella Iovino

Lecturer of Ethics
Department of Education
University of Turin

President of EASLCE
European Association for the Study
of Literature, Culture and Environmentl

Author of
ECOLOGIA LETTERARIA. Una strategia di sopravvivenza.
Edizioni Ambiente 2006

'Literary ecology' is the title of your book. What does this mean?
Ecology is not only a science, but the idea of the interconnection of phenomena within and with their environment. These phenomena may be living organisms, but also ideas, cultures, forms of imagination. The English epistemologist Gregory Bateson defines the process of reciprocal actions that take place between ideas, and more generally between nature and culture, ideas and environment, as 'ecology of mind'. Literary ecology is a form of ecology of mind. It represents an attempt to approach texts in the light of an idea of ecological interdependence. A relationship of action and back-action affecting several levels is created between the text and the world: the action of the world on the text and, more so, the possible action of the text on the world. To literary ecology there is a relationship between nature and culture that is not only one of proximity but of reciprocal action; and literary works may have the function of evoking the values related to this reciprocity. It is thus an idea of literature and culture with a precise ethical-educational aim. In the age of the ecological crisis, literary ecology supposes that narrative texts, if read with 'ecological awareness', can orient the interactions between human beings and nature (human world and non-human world) and provide tools for ethical-environmental education. This 'ecological' reading of texts takes place within an interpretative methodology called 'ecocriticism', which appeared in the US at the end of the 1980s.

How can culture help to overturn the human-environment relationship and in what sense is it, as you claim, an 'evolutionary response, a successful survival strategy'?
After Darwin, saying that culture is an evolutionary strategy drawn up by the human species is almost self-evident: forms of culture, association and performance are means by which human beings adapt to their natural environment. However, it would be rather dubious to say that, in general, culture contributes to our survival or to saving the environment. The ecological crisis, which threatens the well-being and survival of both man and nature, is also the result of precise cultural models. It is more correct to say that culture may be a survival strategy if it is able to evolve its own models, to correct itself, to become the means of a 'conscious evolution' of the human being. Although selection occurs fundamentally by chance factors in natural biological evolution, cultural evolution can make an intentional and 'mindful' selection of models that ensure a greater probability of survival than others that are recognised as destructive. Ecological culture is intended as a 'survival strategy', because it springs from knowledge of the material and cultural dynamics that threaten this survival. It is thus a project of ethical-environmental education that starts from a fundamental premise: recognising the interdependence of human and non human. This implies replacing educational models based on dualism and competition between forms of life (according to a perspective that is called anthropocentric-instrumental) with educational models based on horizontality, interdependence and complexity.

Can you indicate recent examples of ecocritical literature, apart from those cited in your book?
Every work potentially lends itself to an ecocritical interpretation. Indeed, more or less explicitly, every literary work is historically or thematically related to the physical world from which it arises. Contemporary literature may lead to open political-environmental claims, precisely because it arises in a world affected by the ecological crisis (which it is worth recalling is a crisis affecting natural as well as social balances). It may thus convey a message of awareness about environmental pollution, the conflicts of industrial societies and our relationship with non-human nature. If we look at Italian literature we find utterly significant cases: Italo Calvino, for example, who wrote two proto-ecological stories between the 1950s and '60s, La nuvola di smog and La speculazione edilizia, describes in Marcovaldo the alienation of a simple man before an 'adulterated' nature - one who literally fless the industrial city. Or Giorgio Bassani, who as president of Italia Nostra made strong appeals to the safeguarding of our cultural and natural landscape (Italia da salvare). On the poetic side, Eugenio Montale and Andrea Zanzotto (Dietro il paesaggio) come to mind; two artists that are more than mindful of the lyrical osmosis between subject and landscape, a landscape seen in all its physical, historic and vital modulations. But works by authors who are not yet 'classics' may also be of great interest in ecocritical terms. Think of the impact of Gomorra by Roberto Saviano, a reportage-novel that shows not only the social but also the environmental dynamics related to the activities of organised crime, which, when it destroys the health of the land and its inhabitants, is undoubtedly a kind of ecomafia. And, talking of ecomafia, I think that the joint initiative of Edizioni Ambiente of Milan and Legambiente to dedicate a series of 'noir' short stories to these themes (VerdeNero) is an interesting example of how literature may become a vehicle of social communication.

In your book you refer to state constitutions in which the fundamental rights also include the rights of the environment. Can you remind us of some of these?
A couple of examples come to mind: the constitution of Honduras, which speaks of the need to maintain 'a satisfactory environment for the protection of everyone's health, and that of South Korea, which declares the right to a 'healthy and pleasant environment' as fundamental. The constitutions of Portugal and Brazil also dwell on the right of each person to a 'healthy and ecologically balanced' environment. It is always necessary to compare these aims for environmental balance with more or less serious situations of social imbalance. However, I think that sanctioning the health of the environment as a constitutional principle is a huge step forward, also for healing the ills of society.

Can you talk to us about the forms of change and development of the concept of 'God' in the sphere of thinking on the environmental crisis? Are there any specific theological studies?
It is known that one of the questions that opened the ethical-environmental debate was a religious-historic one. Lynn White Jr., an American scholar of medieval history, identified (not only provocatively) the roots of the ecological crisis in the Judeo-Christian mentality. I am not a theologian, though, so cannot give a comprehensive answer to your question. But I may restrict myself to recalling the importance of a thinker like Leonardo Boff, a South American theorist of liberation theology, for his reading of the bond between earth, creator and creature in highly ethical and social terms. Boff's thinking is marked by a Christianity in which the value of solidarity is turned not only to the disinherited and oppressed but also to the earth. It is a Christianity of environmental responsibility that goes beyond the Judeo-Christian theo-anthropocentrism in the name of a consideration of the intrinsic value of non-human living forms. Furthermore, a theological reflection has developed naturally within noteworthy theoretical currents like deep ecology and ecofeminism. And some high profile figures in the ethical-environmental debate are of a theological background, such as Holmes Rolston III, for example, who is a Presbyterian minister (it is interesting to note that Rolston's perspective is holistic and non-anthropocentric). It must also be remembered that John Paul II spoke with sensitivity on the 'ecological question' in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, defining destruction of the environment as the result of the 'anthropological error' of the consumer society. Finally, as has been announced, the theological reflection in the next encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, will focus on problems of global social justice, redistribution of resources and protection of the environment.

You state that: '...The transformation may also be an ethical-cultural transformation, based on the understanding that our intervention on the earth's balances does not move in a linear direction but a circular one, and includes all forms of life.' How is the path of this 'circular' direction drawn?
Answering this question is a way of summarising the message of Ecologia letteraria. The sense of the book is precisely that of an ecological culture that, as its first principle, questions the preconceived centrality of humans and of a certain self-representation of the human: that which we have been given by western culture. Ecological culture, which is a development of humanism, extending the attributes of value to the non-human natural world, is in itself inclusive, anti-ideological, horizontal. So this circular path is simply drawn in the moment when human beings give up their hierarchical predominance and recognise that which surrounds them (be it a landscape, an ecosystem or a non-human animal) as bearer of a value that an 'evolved' humanism can and must help us to preserve.

Why has a highly visible transverse movement capable of more radically and urgently soliciting a commitment to environmental questions, crossing over the different social categories and various centres of interest, not yet been established in Italy, but also at a world level? Do you think the intellectuals of ecocriticism could be the driving force behind a more forthright movement?
Italy is a long way behind in environmental awareness. The fact that environmental problems (which in our country are also linked to the enormous criminal business that Legambiente defines as 'ecomafia') are not yet clearly perceived or recognised, at times not even at a legislative and penal level, is the result of an obsolete mentality, still tied to a short-range model of economic development and certainly unsuited to defining the real costs to the environment of our activities. But I do not agree at all that there is not and never has been a, not necessarily political, 'transverse movement' of environmental protection in Italy. I am thinking of people like the Milanese Laura Conti?herself a physician, an educator, and an environmentalist?and of the battles she fought after the Seveso disaster; people like Aurelio Peccei and the important work of the Club di Roma, and all the professionals and scholars (Gianni Mattioli, Giorgio Nebbia, Virginio Bettini, Massimo Scalia) who have inspired debates of fundamental importance to our democratic life (I'm thinking of that on nuclear energy, still very much alive and more relevant than ever). The fact that all this is not visible is a genuine problem of the democracy of communication: media visibility is certainly not a neutral mirror of events. In reality, it is enough to shift the gaze to see that a 'transverse' attention on the conditions of the community's well-being is more and more widespread, especially at a local level (which is the ecologically most interesting one). The question is a different one: whether these forms of 'transverse' and 'bottom up' environmentalism reflect the level of awareness of the communities or the town in which they are set. In other words, whether they reflect the level of education, information and literacy on the questions to which they are associated. If there are not adequate programmes of environmental awareness in a country, everything that happens depends on the good will of individuals. Luckily there are now numerous channels of information and self-education, and they are not restricted to institutional ones. I think that the internet is a basic tool. But, once again, it is not enough and the traditional channels of education cannot be replaced. Serious, widespread programmes of ecological education are therefore needed, which must be promoted as an integral part of the individual's education. And the fact that they do not now exist does not mean that this absence can actually last: this is imposed by the current historical moment, prelude to a period in which traditional energy sources will be increasingly scarce and less accessible. So I think that necessity will impose a change of thinking. Here, too, it will be a question of an evolutionary change (this time more necessary than ever) in our cultural models. The alternative is extinction. I think the role of intellectuals is fundamental. The culture behind ecocriticism foresees precisely this kind of education and schooling, and literary texts can be a very useful tool to attain this goal. Ecocritics almost always act in an interdisciplinary context, and are very often involved in activist movements and environmental protection projects at various levels. When, like me, they have the opportunity to have an academic role, they advance precisely this ethical-educational discourse.

Italy holds one of the records in Europe for the clash between the beauty of the natural landscape and architecture. I am referring particularly to the buildings of the 1960s and '70s, but also to more recent examples that, in the case of the North-east, have turned entire regional areas into distressingly ugly 'city sprawls'. How can a harmony of landscape be regained? To whom can we entrust the task of re-educating us to the 'beauty' and 'balance' of forms?
The ugliness (Pasolini would say the 'unreality') that is spreading in our landscape springs precisely from these disastrous cultural models. And a history of political and economic choices that are clearly unable to appreciate the beauty of a unique cultural and natural landscape corresponds to these in our country. Recovering an aesthetic of the landscape requires a landscape ethic. It is necessary to perceive the landscape as a value (and perhaps even achieve an economic appreciation of beauty), and not allow it to regress to being mere 'space' in which to erect simple, useless, ugly 'cubes'. To human beings, beauty is and must be recognised as an ecological value. But it must be relearnt. It is necessary to rehabilitate beauty, because a beautiful environment is also and primarily a healthy environment: a place in which one lives better, in which it is desirable to live and which is desirable to visit. Restoring beauty (and the sense of beauty) to the public is an operation of civic education on happiness. I think that this is the fundamental task of a ruling class worthy of the name.

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Online bimonthly
Reg. at Vicenza Court No. 1165 on 18 December 2007
Editor and director Bianca Nardon
Redazione STEP Srl Contrá Porti, 3 Vicenza