Cuteness In Contemporary Environmental Culture: Developing Ecopoetic Practice

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Department of English Literature


Encountering cute animals, from bunnies to kittens, monkeys to hedgehogs, is an everyday experience for most of us. They appear on tea towels, cakes and videos gone viral on social media. The cute animal might even be our pet. The simple, benign nature of cuteness means it goes unexamined, especially in the context of the environmental crisis where the aesthetic is likely to appear irrelevant, if not irreverent. This project overturns such thinking by asking: Can cuteness prompt care-giving behaviour for environments? What power dynamics exist in the 'cutification' of animals? What fate for 'uncute' species? Exploring these questions, the project brings to light the role of cuteness in environmental culture in order to advance creative practice and critical thought in literary environmental fields. This focus enables impactful activity through collaborative creating and testing of communication material for conservation campaigns. It will also allow me to establish an ecopoetic community of young writers via ecopoetry workshops and an international competition that includes mentoring as its prize.

Ecopoetry often recounts 'awe-struck' rather than 'aww-struck' reactions to nature. 'Nature, red in tooth and claw' may seem worthier, weightier subject matter than nature, doe-eyed and furry. Environmental concerns are typically associated with in-depth knowledge and seriousness. It is no surprise, then, to find ecopoetry and the broader field of the environmental humanities overlooking cuteness, especially given its associations with sentimentality and anthropocentrism. In contrast, the emerging field of cute studies has dedicated itself to exploring the aesthetic of cuteness. However, little attention has been paid to how this aesthetic presents itself in environmentally-focused subjects. Joining the dots between these creative and critical disciplines, the project engages with care ethics, speciesism, conservation and extinction narratives.

David Attenborough states that 'no one will protect what they don't care about'. Cuteness is, I argue, profoundly implicated in his maxim given its capacity to trigger care-giving responses in viewers. A major concern of this project is the role of cuteness in raising awareness of species extinction. Key to the project are partnerships with the Oxford University Natural History Museum, the Severn Rivers Trust, the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust. I will maximise the opportunities for impact here through a series of collaborations, one of which will influence and seek to improve strategies used in nature conservation communication. My work with young people - namely, my creation of ecopoetry workshops with the Trusts and the competition with the Young Poets Network - will develop the 'next generation' of ecopoets, supporting young people and setting new agendas for creative practice.

The interdisciplinary connections I will forge between ecopoetic practice, cute studies and the environmental humanities will shape agendas in creative practice and critical thought and form a clear pathway for my development as a leader. The Fellowship will have a transformative effect on my career by enabling me to reach selected communities of emerging and established academics with the aim of fostering new networks. My recent activities with non-academic institutions have been unavoidably short-term; this project's engagement with partners over 14 months will significantly enhance my research capabilities and, for the first time, allow me the opportunity to demonstrate research impact. Having experience in teaching adult writers, my project's aim to inspire creativity in young people will develop my skill-set and determine an exciting new audience for me to work with in the future. The project's doctoral training workshop and one-day symposium will allow me to provide intellectual leadership in areas in which I have an excellent track-record.


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