When we write about the nature as just window dressing, then that ends up being how we treat it. You know those nasty drapes that have been hanging in your grandma's house for thirty years? They go unnoticed and uncared for, and then they get old and make her house stink like fried food and lemon Pledge. That's what happens to nature when we think of it as a backdrop to our own much more important activities. It gets forgotten, and it becomes really tacky. And then it falls apart.
I say that the land deserves the same rights and understanding as any human being or animal. Yes, that includes dirt, sand, granite boulders, and the Himalayas. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, says the Golden Rule. When you extend that idea to all animals, all plants, all mountains, and even all rocks and dirt, then you have a land ethic.
And when you have a land ethic, your literary representations of nature will be more thoughtful: it's a two-way street.
When you read about nature in literature, ask to yourself: is the author thinking like a tree, or is the author describing the tree as it fits into human concepts (for example, as something to climb, or as lumber for a house)? If the author uses nature only as a setting for his or her story, then he or she is taking a totally human-centered viewpoint. You can tell if an author lacks an ecological conscience if he or she views elements of nature primarily as lawn decorations.
To have an ecological conscience, you need to give up your human-centric view of nature and nature to understand nature as it understands itself. You should ask yourself: What is the life of a rock? How does a blade of grass survive a harsh winter? What is the life cycle of mud in the cracks in the driveway? It's all happening right under your nose, all the time. You're a part of it, and it's a part of you.
So often, it's all about the human, the whole human and nothing but the human. There are a lot of novels out there with self-centered characters who sit around in their yard in a bathrobe tossing cigarette butts into the koi pond. That's what I call anthropocentrism: it's when your focus is total on humans, with no regard for animals, the earth, or the environment.
The way a character interacts with nature will tell you a lot about how that character views the world. (It may also tell you a little bit about the author views the world.) Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick is—surprise, surprise—a totally anthropocentric guy.
Compare Ahab to Buck from Jack London's Call of the Wild. Buck is a dog, and London tells the story from Buck's point of view. This gives the reader the opportunity to experience the world from the perspective of a different species.
Now, I'm not saying that people should be canine-centric instead of anthropocentric; I don't think we should be "centric" at all. The best perspective is the one that takes everything—human, animals, nature—into account on its own terms.
Deep ecology means seeing the earth as a super-organism, or an organism made up of lots of other organisms. Humans are just a small part of a planet that's been kickin' it for millions of years without us and doing just fine.
Authors who wish to write authentically about nature need to incorporate this extended time frame because humans think on a much smaller time scale than the earth does. Our stories are tiny in comparison to the life history of the planet; we're all kind of like ants on the earth's picnic blanket. This smallness causes great authors a lot of grief, but deep ecology can expand how we see ourselves in a much larger picture, and that can also help authors and readers deal with that anxiety of being so small.
So, a lot of environmentalists and nature writers credit me as being their inspiration. Well, it was John Muir who inspired me, and it was the Romantic poets who inspired John Muir. (I guess every generation has at least one person who speaks for the trees.)
Now we've all been gathered together and thrown into one big pot with conservation scientists and activists and creative writers, and all of us combined make this stew called ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is about going back and reevaluating the literary tradition to ask how different eras and movements depicted nature, and how those depictions have affected society.
The world's a big place. We're only now realizing that the literature describing it deserves its own school of criticism.
If you want to be a good ecocritic, you have to be a switch hitter: you've got be know your literature, but you've also got to know your science. What other discipline asks you to mix some English field biology with your British Lit? You've got to be interdisciplinary if you want to do ecocrit.
A good ecocritic might consider the actual ecological sciences of England's Lake District and put that together with some analysis of William Wordsworth's poetry; that's the kind of thing that allows you to stop thinking like a specific British man and start thinking like an actual English countryside.