Miles Lewis’ Thoughts on Queer Ecology
Miles Lewis, a guest speaker at our July meeting, discusses Queer Ecology as it relates to Environmental Justice. Miles is a visual artist and art and environmental educator. Click HERE to learn more.
One way of understanding the environmental movement is in two strategies:
- Technocratic: Focus on the technological, political, and economic problems of environmental destruction and preservation. By avoiding identity and typical human rights concerns, we simply focus on benefiting everyone, regardless of identity. This is generally representative of the earlier movement.
- Environmental Justice: Undercut technological, political, and economic systems that are causing environmental destruction by emphasizing the human cost. Focus on the people who have long been most affected by industrial and governmental marginalization. This is generally representative of the current movement.
These two mentalities are necessary and complementary. From 1 to 2, they chart an evolution from impersonal policy fix to collective self-understanding. They define the players in the problem and the solution, and coordinate the team. They don’t also create the culture that makes our political efforts easier. They don’t envision who we can become when we fundamentally identify our bodies and our interests with the whole natural world.
I want to propose some ideas from “queer ecology” in the interest of this cultural reformation.
I want to suggest that we move from the despairing recognition of human failure, through the strength of human solidarity, to the joy of universal identity.
In practical terms, this means confronting three major concepts:
(1) Natural VS Unnatural
We have to be far more holistic and ethical in our understanding of the “natural” and “unnatural”. Most every form of domination – whether of women, animals, or ethnic, gender, or sexual minorities – has been rigorously defended as “natural” at different times. Broadly, “natural” is a kind of pseudo-scientific synonym for “moral”. It operates just as easily in a religious or secular context. It’s highly recognizable as a term of acceptance or opposition in the campaigns for gay and trans rights. So much of the gay movement has been about pushing people to incorporate what they’d previously understood as artificial, decadent, and aberrant (in other words, “cultural”) as “natural.”
We can continue to use this totalizing word as a way for creating a more meaningful moral basis for environmental activism BUT we’ve got to be aware that its definition will always have to change. Just as “reality” and “humanity” are constantly expanding spheres for the claims of science and the humanitarian project, “nature” must be ever-expanding in order to support the scope of problems, solutions, and our self-understanding. Fluidity is key.
CLICK HERE to read a good real-world discussion of this understanding is occurring around our understanding of native and non-native species and climate migration.
(2) Fear and Shame Around Bodies, Sex, and Death
Two of the primary functions of the biological world are sex and death. Many of the cultures in which 350 operates are preoccupied with the fear and shame applied to these central elements of existence. In the end, there is nothing we can hold on to. Everything will age. Everything will go extinct. This is not bad or scary, it is factual and natural. All of us living things are the product of highly random chemical interactions and that is not alienating. It is factual and natural.
Our rejection of these natural phenomena have dramatic real-world effects:
Designing for size and the illusion of permanence: overlarge structures that spatially and materially resist erosion. The extraordinary use of sand and concrete. Commitment to the classical idea that we must dominate and terraform to optimize (e.g. clearing forests).
ii. Plastics as an invention that deeply channels our desire for separation from the ravages of nature. Seemingly undying materials that have long been advertised and propagated as miraculous for health, safety, convenience, and quality of life.
iii. Burying our dead in extensive encasements that waste land, metal, wood, concrete, water, etc. We’ve only very recently prioritized tombs and caskets as something for the general public (and not aristocrats and celebrities).
iv. The priority of sexualization over sexuality. This allows for the industrial capture of desirability and visual acceptability. The fashion and cosmetics industry, as currently composed, are based on high-level manipulations of what the public (especially women) need to look like in order to be professional, attractive, or acceptable. The less that people are allowed to accept and adapt to their own physicality, the easier they are to sell. Sharing our bodies and space (sexually or non-sexually) is basic to human identity and, when affirmed and prioritized, can undercut a whole host of manufactured desires.
v. When we use words like “ass, pussy, asshole, dick, cunt” etc., we’re involved in a strangely common tradition of insult through bodily denigration. We attach a potent negative meaning to essential parts of the body, that are also broadly a part of human sexuality and our connection to ecological cycles (through excrement). It’s worth considering why and if this should continue. It certainly stands as a reference for considering how we use words and how they connect us to or separate us from the environment.
Dualism is very much a part of our inherited concept of “naturalness.”
Major relevant examples include: Living VS Dead, Organic VS Inorganic, Animal VS Human, Individual VS Collective, Valuable VS Invaluable, Male VS Female, Natural VS Unnatural
Recent embattlement about transgenderism and non-binary identity shows how much of a trigger dualistic thinking represents. It’s a well-worn path for the queer movement, where “feminine men” and “masculine women” have historically been criminalized, fired, and scorned.
Dualism prevents us from understanding things as complex, evolutionary, and diverse. It prevents us from framing systemic solutions to systemic problems.
Human VS Animal
This is probably the most philosophically and emotionally fraught because of deeply acculturated intuitions that we should both protect and use animals.
The term “animal” is also a long-standing category of creature that is subject to our exploitation, including humans (e.g. black peoples as livestock, jews and immigrants as vermin, queers as predatory beasts, women as baby machines).
The animal rights project is often a part of queer ecology. We affirm our animalness and fight against the exploitation of this category.
Organic VS Inorganic
Air and soil are basic and constantly overlooked essentials to our self-understanding. The public tends to see them as major, relatively static natural bodies that sandwich the biosphere. They are in fact the extraordinarily dynamic and continuous web of inorganic and organic bodies that are a kind of vital scaffold for our everyday life on Earth. The potential and complexity of soil’s role in carbon sequestration, agricultural sustainability, water cycles, and food justice are only recently recognized. The fact that soil can be described as a dynamic communal organism has constantly evaded our dull, popular understanding of the Earth as dirt and water with green stuff on top.
Valuable VS Invaluable
We somewhat damningly call the natural world invaluable. In any wise economy, the value of a thriving environment is calculable, useful, and sets the standard for all other values – whether in medical, cultural, agricultural, or real estate terms. We’ve entrenched, completely artificially, the value of natural destruction. The idea of a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers should include this revaluation for the sake of a green economy.
THOUGHTS ON PRACTICE:
When you think about your environmental work, you probably now also wonder:
Who exactly is this hurting the most?
What laws and structures allowed that to be so?
How do we elevate those voices to make our successes more substantial, faster, and tied to a larger objective of an environmentally and humanistically whole democracy?
With a little practice and sensitivity you can expand the scope of that objective:
Pushing for environmental reform that creates a culture that is:
- less self-hating
- fearful of sex and death
- concretely positive in its connection between human culture and nature
- inclusive of animal and natural rights
- constantly affirmative of people in their bodies, in space, RIGHT NOW.