Green Action Week: Virtual Display

This week (20 to 24 February) is Green Action Week across the University, hosted by the University’s Environmental Sustainability team and featuring a host of exciting events that empower and celebrate environmental action.

Our first display this term focused on Pastoral Poetry, and if you’ve seen it in the library you may have wondered what pastoral themes look like in contemporary literature. That’s where the Green Action Week display comes in!

Modern versions of the pastoral are often associated with activism, for example around climate change or other environmental concerns. They might aim to raise awareness or inspire action, celebrate green choices and explore ethical concerns, or incorporate environmental awareness into literary and wider humanities research.

For Green Action Week, we’ve brought together some examples of literature from the EFL’s collections which show the huge range of environmental issues, discussions and activism in contemporary literature. You won’t find any dystopian sci-fi or fantasy in this selection, but if that’s something you’re interested in have a look at our blog post from last term.

Some of the choices here might seem surprising, but they all tie into the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy, focusing on the themes of Biodiversity, Research, Travel, and Sustainable Food. Read on to find out more about the books we’ve selected, and check out the list of sources and resources at the end if you’d like to find out more.

And don’t forget to have a look at the full event programme for Oxford Green Action Week – whether you’re interested in science, research, activism, comedy, art, literature or food, there’s an event for everyone!


Identify and address the University’s principal biodiversity impacts through its operations and supply chain and enhance biodiversity on the University’s estate.

‘… because she was a scientist in love with the English language, and an observer of the natural world with few peers, her ability to communicate what she saw increased exponentially.’

(L. Lear, review in Environmental History, Summer 1993, p.32)

Cover for Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The background is green. In the centre is a photo of a leaf with the shape of a bird cut out of the middle. The title is in white text at the top, and the author's name in white text at the bottom. The subtitle is in brown text above the title, it reads: 'The classic that launched the environmental movement.'Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962).

Silent Spring was Carson’s response to the death of wildlife and birds as a result of chemical pesticide use. She was an accomplished scientist who amassed a huge amount of research and evidence, bringing public attention for the first time to issues which scientific organisations, governments and the chemical industry ignored or hid. But more than her scientific knowledge, Carson was a gifted writer.

Carson’s belief that we must balance human needs and actions with nature was radical among scientists at the time. Today, no informed person would countenance the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides – but with ongoing biodiversity loss and environmental damage, have we really learnt anything?

This edition was published in 2002, to mark the 40th anniversary of the original publication.


Increase research and engagement in environmental sustainability.

‘… climate change fiction builds worlds in which readers might be immersed and creates characters with whom we identify in order not merely to evoke emotional response but to provoke ethical reflection.’ (p.54)

Cover image for Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel by Adeline Johns-Putra. The top half is light green, with the title in black text and the author's name below it in black text. The bottom half is a photo of snow, featuring a lump of ice with the black silhouette of a person walking and reading inside it.Adeline Johns-Putra, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019).

It’s not just the sciences which conduct environmental research, and nor are humanities scholars limited to helping scientists communicate with the public! Ecocriticism in the humanities is an important and growing approach to research. From explorations of climate change in fiction to the terms in which we discuss environmental issues, literary studies have a lot to offer our understandings of environmental issues, and how people can be encouraged to engage with them.

In Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel, Johns-Putra interrogates and problematises the ways literature inspires environmental activism. In particular, she takes issue with appeals to posterity – the idea that we should protect the natural world for the sake of our children and grandchildren – which is a common centrepiece of calls to environmental action.

Johns-Putra makes a vital point, that we cannot limit our ethical concerns to the legacy we leave for the next generation, nor can we assume they’ll ‘fix’ the problems we create. It’s a powerful demonstration of the value of ecocriticism in literary research.

This book is also available online with your Oxford SSO.


Limit transport emissions by reducing the need to travel, encouraging walking, cycling and the use of public transport and managing the demand to travel by car.

‘Transit time is experienced so differently across modes of transport – with trains in particular, your attention is manipulated by the anticipation of particular stops and the way a timetable becomes a measure of distance between stations. Your route rolls along a set of tracks, and that can make you less alert to the present moment.’

(Helen Oyeyemi, interviewed by Sarah Neilson for Shondaland)

Cover for Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi. The cover is dark green, with a line drawing of a train track extending from the bottom of the cover into the middle distance. There is a dot of light in the middle of the cover, which the tracks run to. Around the light, the title 'Peaces' is written six times in gold text that increases in size. The author's name is in gold text at the bottom.Helen Oyeyemi, Peaces (2021).

Peaces is a surrealist fantasy novel which takes place on a train. The Lucky Day is a former tea-smuggling train, now home to its reclusive owner, Ava Kapoor, and her friends/employees Allegra and Laura. When Otto and Xavier Shin embark for their not-honeymoon honeymoon, the train and its inhabitants begin slowly revealing their secrets.

This may not be your traditional train, but Oyeyemi’s intricate and playful novel nonetheless explores the possibilities and potentialities of train travel. Aboard The Lucky Day, ‘barrelling forward toward an unknown destination of unknown import, lurching back and forth between the interiors of eccentrically decorated train cars and the playfully enigmatic interiorities of the characters’ (from New York Times review), you can’t help but think – this is so much more fun than driving!

Sustainable Food

Reduce the carbon emissions and biodiversity impact of our food.

‘Violence is part of being human, and how can I accept that I am one of those human beings? That kind of suffering always haunts me. […] Eating meat, cooking meat, all these daily activities embody a violence that has been normalised.’

(Han Kang, interview in World Literature Today, May/August 2016, p.64)

Cover image for The Vegetarian by Han Kang. The background is a close-up of a leaf in pink and purple. A large white wing is in the centre. The title is in white text in the centre, and the author's name is in pink-purple text beneath it.Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel (2018).

Food can become a fraught issue when we start to consider the environmental impacts of what we eat. There are certainly implications for climate change – we can choose to eat locally grown food, avoid pesticides, and limit our consumption of meat. But there are also ethical considerations which go to the heart of our relationship with animals, nature, and indeed each other – and it’s these ethical questions which Han’s novel explores.

Following horrific dreams, Yeong-hye, a hitherto dutiful and obedient housewife, announces she will no longer be eating meat. Her decision is met with astonishment and contempt. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is a response to the violence she has seen perpetuated against animals, but it leads to violence against her (including force-feeding, sexual objectification and abuse), and her eventual refusal to eat anything at all.

This is a deeply disturbing read, pitting one woman’s ostensibly personal (albeit extreme) decision against the inflexibility of the patriarchal society around her. Amid the violence, it may seem the novel doesn’t have much to do with food choices. But it prompts us to ask: how can we respond to human violence against each other and our planet, and can our dietary choices make a difference?

Sources and Resources

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962).

Work by Carson at the EFL 

Carson, Silent Spring (2002).

Carson, Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment (2018). Edited by S. Steingraber.

Articles and reviews 

Atwood, Margaret, ‘Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 50 years on’, in The Guardian, 7 Dec 2012. [accessed 31 Jan 2023]

Lear, Linda J., ‘Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”’, in Environmental History Review, 17:2 (1993), pp.23-48.

Maxwell, Lida, ‘Queer/Love/Bird Extinction: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a Work of Love’, in Political Theory, 45:5 (2017), pp.682-704.

Adeline Johns-Putra, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019).

Work by Johns-Putra at the EFL 

Johns-Putra, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019).

Johns-Putra, The History of the Epic (2006).

Articles and reviews 

Buckley, Chloe Germain, ‘Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel by Adeline Johns-Putra (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019)’, in Open Library of Humanities, 8:1 (2020).

Johns-Putra, Adeline, ‘Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theater and ecopoetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism’, in WIREs Climate Change, 7:2 (2016), pp.266-282.

Johns-Putra, Adeline, ‘“My Job Is To Take Care Of You”: Climate Change, Humanity, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, in Modern Fiction Studies, 62:3 (2016), pp.519-540.


Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel (2016).

Work by Han at the EFL

Han, Human Acts: A Novel (2020).

Han, The Vegetarian: A Novel (2018).

Articles and reviews 

Kim, Won-Chung, ‘Eating and Suffering in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian’, in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 21:5 (2019).

Lee, Krys, ‘Violence and Being Human: A Conversation with Han Kang’, in World Literature Today, 90:3-4 (2016), pp.61-67.

Tai, Yu-Chen, ‘Hopeful Reading: Rethinking Resistance in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian’, in College Literature, 48:4 (2021), pp.627-652.


Helen Oyeyemi, Peaces (2021).

Work by Oyeyemi at the EFL 

Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl (2005).

Oyeyemi, White is for witching (2010).

Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel (2014).

Oyeyemi, What is not yours is not yours (2016).

Oyeyemi, Gingerbread (2018).

Oyeyemi, Peaces (2021).

Articles and reviews 

Bingham, Chelsea, ‘PEACES by Helen Oyeyemi’, in Harvard Review Online, 13 Aug 2021. [accessed 3 Feb 2023]

Kleeman, Alexandra, ‘Helen Oyeymi’s New Novel Is Not a Fairy Tale’, in The New York Times, 6 April 2021. [accessed 3 Feb 2023]

Silcox, Beejay, ‘Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi review – a hurtling hothouse of a novel’, in The Guardian, 3 Nov 2021. [accessed 3 Feb 2023]

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