Ponce de Leon Alejandro

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for February 2024 is Kent Linthicum.

Kent Linthicum is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. He earned his Ph.D. from Arizona State University and was a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology before accepting his current position. His work focuses on coal in nineteenth-century anglophone cultures, especially the relationship between industrialization and slavery. Dr. Linthicum’s work has appeared in Environmental Humanities, Studies in English Literature, and European Romantic Review. He has also published articles in The Atlantic and Slate, including one on how coal came to be a stocking stuffer for the naughty.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities? 

Three things happened to me at the end of my undergraduate career that really crystalized the value of the environmental humanities for me and set me on my current path—I took an introduction to geology course; I read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded; and I took a class on Ecocriticism. Originally, I took the geology class for the fun of it. I needed another general education class in the sciences. In that class, beyond just learning about the science, I also learned the basics of climate change. If I had had more time, I would have minored or double majored in geology. At roughly the same time, I read Hot, Flat, and Crowded based on my father’s recommendation. I know that Friedman and that book have been subject to some criticism, but at the time it helped me see climate change as a problem that could be solved (or at least addressed). And I got to take an ecocriticism course. It might have been the first ecocriticism course offered at my alma mater, University of the Pacific. In that class, I saw that literature and culture broadly shape environmental values. The paper I wrote for it—focused on Poe’s gothic nature—was what I used to apply for graduate school. Ever since then, my work has been inflected by the environmental humanities.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

Like so many of us, narrowing down a favorite is hard. I would like to recommend an environmental game that I think most everyone in ASLE could play, Terra Nil. Some folks might remember the SimCity franchise from the 90s, or more recently Cities: Skylines, games where the objective is to build large, sprawling cities while balancing a range of competing interests. Terra Nil claims to be a “reverse city builder” where the player is tasked with rewilding polluted or urbanized spaces.

The gameplay is fairly simple: players are given a desolate patch of land, and then using a range of technologies they rehabilitate the landscape including bringing back unique flora and fauna. This requires balancing the resources you have at hand and the needs of the beings you want to flourish. And it teaches some basics of ecology, like the importance of wildfire to certain ecosystems. Critically, the last step in any scenario is clean-up. Rather than just leaving behind all the infrastructure—the windmills, the heat pumps, the greenhouses, etc.—the player has to clean it all up. So, by the end there is a ‘pristine’ landscape. The game isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure it completely captures the fantasy of rewilding in detail. It also is a bit misanthropic. But as a media object I think it provides a counter to the typical gameplay loops that see players advancing extractive horizons. Furthermore, on an emotional level, there is (for me) no small catharsis in the ability to pretend to rewild a landscape. And I think it could be an interesting place to start a discussion about how games can help us think about the natural world, building on or towards the incredible work of the games scholars within ASLE.

Terra Nil is widely available: it is playable on most computers or the Nintendo Switch. I think the most interesting platform, though, is Netflix. If you have a Netflix account, you can download the game for some mobile devices, specifically an Android phone or tablet with Android 8.0 or on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iOS/iPadOS 15 or later. Even if readers don’t identify as ‘gamers’ I think Terra Nil is an easy enough game to get and play that it could be an engaging environmental text for a few days or for a week of class.

What are you currently working on?

I am mere sentences away from finishing my book, Crowning Coal: Slavery, Fossil Fuels, and Literature 1755–1865. In fact, I hope that by the time readers see this Spotlight in their inbox, I will be finished (and just working on formatting issues). I’ve been interested in coal ever since I read Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital (2018). As I started to read and research about the adoption of coal as an industrial fuel, I kept coming across the idea that coal and steam power ended the demand for chattel slavery. This is not true, of course, as a number of historians have demonstrated, such as Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1962). This anecdote—coal power ended slavery—made me wonder, how did coal and slavery relate to each other in literature? And, inspired by Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong’s article “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” (2020) I wanted to think carefully about the relationship between industrial Britain and the slaveholding United States. The answer, I hope to show, is that coal and slavery reinforced each in literature. Black peoples, regardless of enslavement, were compared to coal and to steam engines.

Similarly, coal and steam engines were analogized to enslaved Black people. The relationship is a profoundly negative one: the analogies which compared enslaved Black people to coal-powered machinery made it easy to dismiss the subjugation, pollution, and violence inherent to both those systems. In other words, analogizing an enslaved person with a machine allows the writer to dismiss that person’s humanity, while analogizing a steam engine to a slave excuses the harm done to factory workers, and so on.

I want to recover this relationship for two reasons—1. to help show that not only were industrialization and chattel slavery entangled on a material level, they were also entangled on a cultural level. People in the nineteenth century, on some levels, thought about coal power and slavery together. 2. to demonstrate the complex connections between energy systems. Frequently, the energy humanities treat energy cultures as discrete, e.g. today as an ‘oil culture.’ There are good reasons for this, but I want to show that we also need to be aware of the ways that energy cultures interact and alter each other. With any luck, I will have all the sentences written out and the formatting squared away soon.

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? 

I just read Jaime L. Jones’ Rendered Obsolete (2023) which was just excellent! In it, Jones traces the literary and culture history of whale oil as an energy system. Whaling for industrial fuel (among other materials) is a central part of US history—as demonstrated by Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) which Jones addresses multiple times—and yet is so brief (compared to other energy sources). Jones recovers a fascinating trove of cultural sources from cartoons to Moby-Dick paraphernalia to tourist brochures to the story of a travelling whale corpse and so on.

Rendered Obsolete is such a rich work. For me though, it’s the way that Jones connects this all to today that I admire the most. An academic monograph on the culture of whale oil could have been very myopic in scope, just appealing to a handful of historians and Melville scholars. Jones though shows how obsolete energy cultures continue to structure our lives today. I find that work quite meaningful because of the way that it connects with other parts of energy and environmental studies broadly. It speaks to other scholars focused on energy, be they humanists, social scientists, artists, or activists, and asks them to pay attention to the ways that “obsolete” energy cultures continue to influence the ways that we are today. For me, Rendered Obsolete is a model of the ways that humanities research can bear on pressing environmental issues.

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

Of course, there are so many people whose work I find to be extraordinary. I want to focus on the many scholars working on developing the field of empirical ecocriticism. I think that empirical ecocriticism is helping give us in the environmental humanities a better sense of the kinds of claims we can make regarding the impact of environmental literature. We hope that people who read a cli-fi novel will be inspired to think about and respond to climate change.

Empirical ecocriticism shows us that those novels can affect people, just not always in the ways we might think. Critically, these empirical ecocritics are approaching texts with care (rather than the blunt approaches I see employed in other fields that sometimes utilize literature). These scholars also show that one does not need to be a master of quantitative methods to start researching and writing about the impacts of environmental texts. Rather, we need to do the thing that the environmental humanities have always argued for: be interdisciplinary. I’ve got Empirical Ecocriticism: Environmental Narratives for Social Change (2023) edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Alexa Weik von Mossner, W.P. Malecki and Frank Hakemulder on the top of my “to-read” stack and am looking forward to learning more.