Today’s Environmental ‘Waste Land’: Eliot’s Prediction of the Current Ecological Crisis

November 3, 2020 by Essay Writer

There is no denying it—our world is on the brink of a severe environmental crisis. Critical issues like pollution, global warming, overpopulation, natural resource depletion, waste disposal, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and urban sprawl need to be resolved, or else our earth will no longer be a sustainable environment for the population to live. In her five-part essay “The Waste Land as an Ecocritique,” Gabrielle McIntire presents us with a new interpretation of The Waste Land, showing us that it is an eco-poem that not only describes the desolate, polluted, and urbanized postwar environment of 1922, but also functions as a memorial for all that has been lost and destroyed, and lastly, sounds a warning about impending environmental disaster. It seems far-fetched that a little less than a century ago, a poet would have predicted the ecological crisis that we face today. However, as we view The Waste Land through Gabrielle McIntire’s eyes, obvious parallels of environmental crises emerge between the ‘waste land’ of postwar 1922 and the ‘waste land’ of today.

One of the most common features of the landscapes and cityscapes that Eliot presents in The Waste Land is the presence of pollution and waste. We can take the title to have both a literal and figurative meaning, as we are meant to imagine a barren, bleak, postwar land. Through the poem, Eliot fills that land with pollutants, smog, and trash that mar the once natural scenery. Powerful, pollution-filled images in this poem are often in accordance with descriptions of a river, specifically the Thames. Eliot writes “the river sweats/Oil and tar,” (266-7) and describes a scene while someone was “fishing on the dull canal/On a winter evening round behind the gashouse” (189-90). Not only are the images of the water dirty and “dull”, the fishing scene is also neither serene nor picturesque—a once natural setting has been turned industrial and unnatural by the “gashouse”. In her essay, McIntire affirms, “seeking sustenance in a place constructed for industrial and commercial transit, near to a ‘gashouse’—a site of manufacturing for modern petroleum fuel—will only lead the speaker to find polluted fare.” (181) The point is driven across even further when the speaker complains that “at my back from time to time I hear/The sound of horns and motors” (196-7). The effects of industrialization constantly pollute the serenity of nature. Even as Eliot addresses the river as “Sweet Thames” (176, 183-4), it’s actually characterized by its lack of pollution: The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends Or other testimony of summer nights (177-79) As McIntire notes, “Eliot’s portrait of the river remains marred by the garbage that is missing,” (180) and it comes as a surprise to the reader to see the river without all that waste, contrasting with the dirty, polluted river that “sweats/ Oil and tar” later on. This is a moment that highlights the lens with which many people view nature today. It is almost surprising these days to see a landscape that is not marred by pollution, waste, or an industrial structure of some sort. Living in Philadelphia, I walk by the Schuylkill River almost every day and nonchalantly watch the endless bottles, plastic bags, and other debris float slowly through the filthy water. Eliot has, a century earlier, foreshadowed a now commonplace view and expectation of pollution and waste in previously natural settings.

In addition to pollution and waste, another important aspect, specifically within the cityscapes in The Waste Land, are the impacts of urbanization, industrialization, and population growth. Eliot paints pictures of cities on the verge of apocalyptic collapse: What is the city over the mountains Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal (371-6) These cities are collapsing, and as Eliot is suggesting, presumably because of the “crowds of people” (56) filling cities to a point of literal explosion. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,” (62) Eliot writes, followed up later with almost an entranced, eerie chanting of the lyrics, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down” (426). Eliot clearly sees these cities, growing in population and industrialization, as a threat to humanity, which, as we understand now, is an entirely legitimate theory. The dangers that urbanization and overpopulation pose to our world today are huge: urban growth means greater poverty, the concentrated energy usage within these growing urban areas lead to greater air pollution, and the massive urban development means significant deforestation and loss of animal populations.

Somehow, Eliot also seemed to pick up on the threat of deforestation and loss of biodiversity in The Waste Land as well. He repeats the line; “the nymphs are departed,” (175, 179) suggesting that these Greek mythological nature spirits have disappeared because their habitats—usually rivers and woods—have either been contaminated or have just completely vanished. The larger idea that the natural has been lost to all human senses is expressed as “The wind/ Crosses the brown land, unheard” (174-5). This desolate, barren scene suggests a complete lack of nature—not a tree, a plant, or a leaf even in sight. Eliot even more specifically refers to deforestation when that same dirty river sweating “oil and tar” carries “drifting logs” (274), implying the exact process of deforestation is occurring, as the logs float down the already polluted river. There is also something to be said for the logs being in that river, among the other waste—it implies that not only are trees being cut down, but their wood is being thrown into the river with the other garbage, and not even being used for something useful.

Since the early 20th century ecological crisis that Eliot addresses in his poem, deforestation has become an increasingly important issue—it’s gotten to the point that an estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost each year, and the environmental consequences are huge. One of the most dramatic impacts of deforestation is the loss of habitat for millions of species, yet another thing that Eliot addressed in The Waste Land. This warning about the loss of biodiversity is never explicitly suggested, however, a pattern emerges when examining the different contexts in which animals are mentioned in the poem. Throughout The Waste Land, we encounter multiple rats (115, 186, 195), a “cricket” (23), a “Dog” (74), a “nightingale” (100), “gulls” (313), “cicada” (353), a “hermit-thrush” (356), “bats” (379), a “cock” (391), a “spider” (407), and a “swallow” (428). For the most part undomesticated, these animals are all linked to the different polluted, degraded, and decaying sites in the poem. To cite a few examples, the “cricket” is mentioned as it gives “no relief” (23) to the barren landscape that is described as “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter” (23-4). The “’Dog’” emerges in a warning to stay away from the “’corpse you planted last year in your garden’” (71), while the “nightingale” is perched in “the desert”—both animals in contexts that are associated with lifelessness. The pattern continues with the “gulls” placed with “Phlebas the Phoenician,” (312) a sailor who was “a fortnight dead,” (312) and the “cicada” and the “hermit-thrush” who are mentioned amongst the mad-sounding lament craving water: If only there were the sound of water only Not the cicada And dry grass singing But sound of water over a rock Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop But there is no water (352-8) Furthermore, the “cock” that “stood on the rooftree” (391) is placed—in addition to the “cicada” and the “hermit-thrush—in a decidedly lifeless environment: Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home. It has no windows, and the door swings, Dry bones can harm no one. (387-90) This “chapel” and graveyard that the “cock” is inexorably connected to is, just like the previously cited water lamentation, barren and connected death. The list of the surrounding that all these animals are tied to goes on, but this pattern of connecting them to dying environments implies that Eliot believed this biodiversity to be endangered in the future, which, yet again, he predicted correctly. Today, we face serious effects of biodiversity loss, which immensely impact ecosystems, greatly increase our food supply’s vulnerability to pests and disease, and decrease our supply of fresh water.

The decreasing supply of water in addition to other important resources is yet another environmental barrier that we are facing today. The fact is that the global population is at 7.2 billion and rapidly growing, while at the current demand, our resources are only good for 2 billion people. We are not using Earth’s resources in a sustainable way, and we already see the global affects of that craving for those depleted resources. This issue of resource depletion, yet again, is paralleled through warnings within The Waste Land. This poem is replete with landscapes that are desperately in need of resources. Water is a main concern throughout every part of the poem, and the desert-scape comes up frequently in Eliot’s writing, beginning in the second stanza as a setting is described as “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/And the dry stone no sound of water” (22-4). The warning “Fear death by water” (55) initially brings to mind drowning, but we must remember that one can die from lack of water as well—the are both death by water. The entire fifth section of The Waste Land, ‘What the Thunder Said’ centers around on the desperate need for water. The “thunder of spring” (327), which promises water in rainfall, is heard “over distant mountains” (327) implying that the water is far away and unreachable, however much one might need it. This section contains an actual description of this metaphorical ‘waste land,’ establishing that “Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water and the sandy road” (331-2). The dryness, dehydration, and need for water contained within the words reach almost a breaking point in the crazed, repetitive, stream-of-consciousness beg for water, cited earlier in accordance with the “cicada” and “hermit-thrush” that are mentioned in the lament. It is not just people (presumably the speaker) who need water, but the land and the plants and animals also can’t seem to satisfy that basic need, as Eliot talks about “the limp leaves” (395) that “Waited for rain,” (396) and jumping back to the beginning, we see the “dead land” (2) and “dull roots” (4). Literally and figuratively, the environments in The Waste Land desperately need water, as the inhabitants within this ‘wasted’ land crave the fundamentals for survival. In our current global state, we are not quite there yet, but based on the unsustainable way that we use our resources, Eliot’s harsh descriptions of these dry, barren lands could legitimately be what we will be facing in fifty to one hundred years.

Looking at The Waste Land from an ecological standpoint, the future seems grim. Eliot has predicted so many environmental crises that are affecting our world today, and painted such desolate pictures that it’s hard not to just sink into the inevitability of our dying world. However, as Gabrielle McIntire so simply put it in her essay, “such warnings contain hope” (McIntire 191). Though The Waste Land serves as a warning for the impending ecological deterioration because of human pollution, waste, urban development, and all of its negative effects, the poem is also not without hope. It contains brief respites from the degradation and desolation, and though initially the final lines of the poem are convoluted and confusing, if we look into the meaning, “Shantih Shantih Shantih” (433) translates from Sanskrit into “’the Peace which passeth understanding’” (McIntire 190). Eliot more or less tells us that his poem has provided us with the first piece—understanding—by sharing these warnings of the ecological degradation of our world and the deleterious effects that we, as humans, are having on the environment. However, he tells us, now that we have that understanding, we can have peace. Through this poem, we are shown our missteps and our tribulations in our relationship with nature, but in the end, we are given the opportunity to right the wrongs that were done.

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land; A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. Print.

McIntire, Gabrielle. “The Waste Land as an Ecocritique.” The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land. New York: Cambridge UP, 2015. 176-90. Print.

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