The Ambivalent Joys of Queer Ecology
The Ambivalent Joys of Queer Ecology: A Manifesto (yes, another one)
“They forgot only one thing; they did not live their animal.”
As a queer ecologist, I’d like to say something about population. But I can’t.
What I’d like to say is that all men and women lacking sexual desire for members of an opposite sex are uniquely positioned as ecological ensigns of population decline. That is, (if I could) I would issue a clarion call to all queer people—to lesbians and reproductively indifferent hetero women interested in surrogacy— keep the reproductive speciality buns not your own, out of your ovens. To gay men and straight men lacking the overwhelming urge for progeny: think twice before you provide the butter to make the specialty buns cooked in rented ovens. I would like to publicly issue such calls, but I can’t.
What I’d like to say is that, as queer people who want families, we are uniquely positioned to raise and develop the multitudes of the neglected and unwanted. Yes, cleaning up the procreative messes of straight people sounds unsavory, but altruism of this nature carries a noble ecological heft.
I’d like to share the stories of my contra-sexed and coupled friends who tell me that, if their truth be told, they really just don’t want to have children. They recognize that modern parenthood is based more on market consumerism and human ego than it is on securing some imagined brighter future. I want to tell the world what they’ve told me, but I can’t.
I’d like to say to all such couples come with my partner David and I and we’ll spend out lives drinking wine from local vineyards, growing food in our backyards, playing music, walking in parks with stray dogs and designing small, sexy, efficient homes while enjoying more evening sunlight and wind storms and bird migrations. We’ll stop buying one another useless gifts for hollow made-up occasions. We’ll indulge our senses for no reason at all, at any time we like, never beholden to weakly justified, absurdly explained, consumption-based holidays. They’ll be no need for greeting cards, gift certificates or specialty cakes.
I’d like to say, the best thing you can do for children is to have fewer of them. Or, ma’am, if your precious ballerina princess in her magenta tutu and sparkle-striped socks pushes her mini shopping cart flagged ‘customer in training,’ into the back of my heal again, I’m calling the cops. Or, Sir, pick up your screaming child. You’re a primate for God’s sake. Touching means you give a fuck about the development of your offspring.
I’d like to say all of these things. But I can’t.
I can’t say that most parents are incompetent and many of their kids are zombies.
I can’t say these things because I’m just some gay guy. I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a parent. Criticizing parents and their children is like telling people to stop breathing because you’re annoyed with the mouth noises they make.
I can’t say these things because of God and because of market capitalism and because of Macy’s and Disney and Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods and Boeing and every other company that automatically defaults to the imago of the family as the single most effective means to sell a product. I can’t say these things because I believe in politically protected, procreative personal choice and self-determination.
But because people like me cannot say these things and be taken seriously, there is no serious conversation taking place surrounding the damaging effects of today’s reproductive cultures. I’m just some self-centered white guy who has sex with other self-centered white guys while we spend a lot of money, drink a lot of wine and experience pleasure for no reason at all. Gay men like me have no reproductive value. Our sexual efforts and our self-centered biology amount to nothing. But there it is, isn’t it? That’s precisely the point I wish to make. That is what is going to save the planet. Nothing. We need more humans engaged in more activities that amount to more of nothing.
So this queer polemic, then, is no call to action. There are so many of those today. I’m not comfortable heaping one more item onto a person’s already steep ecological agenda. More to the point, this is a call for inaction. I espouse the benefits of doing nothing. Embracing a queer ecology is very much about withdrawal—doing nothing as a strategy for ecological renewal.
In large measure, the reason I feel justified in criticizing human parents and parenting and human children and childhood-ing is because I study animals. I study primates and I seek desperately for that critical vantage point from which to draw the focus of environmentalism away, temporarily, from wilderness preservation and the conservation of ecosystems where no humans live, and help it focus more on actual human habitats. We are apes who do ape things with a very distinct human twist in habitats we call cities. We need language and art and philosophies more suited to our primate heritage. We don’t address the science of human apes in their habitats because our conservation efforts are inordinately focused on the lives of other species. Environmentalism, as we’ve come to know it, often doesn’t begin with studying the evolutionary taxonomy to which we belong.
Mother apes (and the occasional father ape) hold their babies until the infant has to let go to survive. If we knew this first, how apes operate, we may well solve a host of sociological problems by ensuring that the neurochemicals most needed for a healthy social development, produced by a parent constantly touching an offspring, take root early in life. Don’t want to hold your babies? Don’t have babies. Strapping them down into plastic molds welded to multi-axled push carts, some double wide with lofts and large cargo holds, not only isolates and frightens babies, it disrupts the calm of other apes in coffee shops and on public transit, at concerts and Baseball games. Not only does not holding baby apes make cranking mal-adjusted adult apes, it pisses off many other apes just going about their business not expecting to have a phalanx of plastic machinery disrupt a comforting cup of hot chai. I criticize parents and children because I’m concerned about the species to which I proudly belong. We’re aping what it means to be an ape.
I also criticize parents and the parenting fetish because I see dear friends racked with guilt at not being a good parent. I see them suffer severe depression, bearing the scars from the slaughter of modern medicine. Caesarian sections have sky-rocketed due to profit driven health care, an arrogant prejudice against mid-wifery, and cultural selection driven by male sexual fetish favoring petite women with big boobs and tiny waists. Small waists and hips severely handicap childbirth. Sexual fetish overrides the damaging effects to reproductive characteristics that natural selection should favor—big female everything.
But, no worries, human ingenuity has got this covered. Modern medicine, the most enlightened product of the masculine agenda, knows how to cut open, peel back, pull out, cut off, poison, stuff and replace, stitch up, wash off, authorize bills, lick stamps and fire up weekend yachts. Never mind wives with the two-foot scars strafed across their gut. It’s below the bikini line. Never mind the effects of such trauma—low colostrum production, no microbe transfer from Mom’s groin to baby’s micro biome, no elevated stress hormones produced in the baby’s brain induced by the challenge of natural childbirth which aids in the production of beneficial neurochemicals like oxytocin and dopamine, chemicals that are essential for health later in life for both mother and child. In other words, we’re doing reproduction wrong.
I criticize parenting because I see the epidemic of rampant consumption (truly a Victorian disease) instilled at an early age, which never goes away. Even at one’s beloved Trader Joe’s one is menaced with swarms of neo-liberal consumers-in-training dressed in synthetic tutus and bright knee-socks tearing off chucks of heal flesh with the front wheels of their trolleys as they are distracted by filling there little carts full of organic gummies and salted caramels.
I criticize parents and parenting because I see my dear friends forced to come out of nonreproductive closets and declare they aren’t having children, only to face the shock and dismay and disappointment of family and friends. Called selfish and self-serving, they face as much distain as many gay couples do. But this kind of self-centeredness (not selfishness, but a concern for the responsible ecology of the nonprocreative individual) has an essential role to play as an ecological imperative.
Without the child, the queer human has the opportunity to do less. Without the child the queer person is more self-centered. Without the child the queer person has the opportunity to do more of nothing. Doing nothing becomes a characteristic of a culturally selected ecology of contraction, which can lead to both a cultural and ecological thinning.
So just what does queer ecology expect from us or us from it?
Queer ecology can be, no doubt, a field for lovers of the esoteric. It is yet another playground for the self-appointed intellectual elite. It uses big words to create big ideas that excite big crowds who travel in big planes to attend big conferences hypocritically espousing simpler lives. They (we) are some of the most nothing-challenge group of consumers. Bit I imagine this ecology going deeper, past social constructivism, past gender performance theories, and past transgressive sexual practice. Queer ecology goes to the heart of a now hundred-year-old, old-world Darwinism that assesses the fitness of life forms exclusively in terms of numbers. The more, the better. The bigger, the better.
At its heart, queer ecology has an opportunity to act as a register for behavioral traits that address the problem of surplus. The surplus mind manifests in human sociology via social constructions, discourse, and culture that virtually creates who and what we think we are. This sociology pits visions, signs, and gestures against biological itches, urges, and instincts. Much of human sociology creates itself from the inside out, interpreting and transposing images of the body onto images of its environments. This sociology is constantly concerned with the management of excess. All surplus thoughts, abstract and shadowy, dreams, obsessions, and symbols erupt through our psychic conceptual membranes separating day to day survival of human biota, eating, sleeping and shitting, from the human socio-biota, collecting, hoarding, sorting, and projecting excess thought and memory into complex social structures. The human creates an eternal self, a virtual socio-psychological state that Arthur Shopenhauer described as a state where “everything is powerfully enhanced by his thinking of the absent and the future whereby anxiety, fear, and hope come into existence […]” The human biological entity gets covered up by complicated social norms.
Human virtuality stands in stark contrast to Claude Levi-Strauss’ idea of the savage mind, “which is neither the mind of savages nor that of primitive or archaic humanity, but rather mind in its untamed state as distinct from mind cultivated or domesticated for the purpose of yielding a return.” “Yielding a return” is the meme around which much of human culture turns. What happens when individuals aren’t successful procreators? How does nonprocreative sexuality, a savage, uncultivated, undomesticated, zero-sum sexuality, influence natural selection, particularly within human ecology and the environments we construct? This arm of queer ecology is an attempt to address sexuality not based solely on comparisons to normative social standards of behavior, though that will be paramount when we examine how humans construct their social definitions, but see this behavior as an ancient ecological manifestation, having existed long before many behaviors we associate with modern humans.
Queer ecology challenges all that is normative or what is in danger of becoming normal. Marriage equality laws, while becoming normal, are in danger of continuing to prop up damaging practices of consumer capitalism and unchecked human growth. But I think it goes way beyond this.
Queer ecology mounts a challenge to a fitness-focused Darwinism by examining the importance of human behaviors that appear to accomplish nothing. It compels us to study ecological limits and the urgently needed social mechanisms of limiting. If choosing to limit our behavior becomes a vital part of human ecology as we address climate and habitat change, how do we creatively learn to desire less, buy less, procreate less, eat less, think less. Limits are essential to the study of any ecosystem. But this worldview doesn’t mean a wholesale return to primitivism. Doing less opens up avenues of more. Trade more. Have more non-procreative sex. Walk more. Dance more. Bike more. Observe more. Wonder more. Relax more. Feel pleasure more. Less of one thing leads to more of another.
When you think less of yourself as human and increase your ape-awareness, you have the opportunity to think less of the culture that made your self and more of the forces that produced your species. When you think less of the self and more of the species, you become wonderfully strange. You become queer. You enter the strange poetic beauty of Robinson Jeffers.
“Mankind in neither central or important in the universe; our vices and blazing crimes are as insignificant as our happiness.[…] Turn outward from each other, so far as need and kindness permit, to the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity.”
Queer ecology asks us to include at the Thanksgiving table the announcement of the able-bodied procreators (straight and queer alike) that they are not having children. It begs that announcement be greeted with as much rosy-faced adoration as the announcement that a couple’s fourth and final child will be that beloved girl for which the couple and family have waited on for seven long years. Queer ecology asks us to include the choice of nonprocreativity into the brave, thoughtfully conceived and beneficial pantheons of life choices all given social cache and cheerful acceptance. But is this even possible? Can we allow people without progeny to help shepherd a human ecology into and through contraction? Is there a way to eliminate human exceptionalism ethically and compassionately and with some degree of enjoyment?
Fewer children are okay. Fewer parents are okay. Less commercial parenting from the parents we do have is okay. The fear of what will happen to children compels so many of our most destructive behaviors. The terror of the unfulfilled childhood leads to expensive fertility science, market-driven consumption of plastics—toys, bottles, tutus and striped sox, mountains of diapers. The fear of what will become of children has fueled the hysteria of overly-sanitized environments, the occupying of every second of every day by music lessons, soccer matches, weekly summer adventures to water parks and far-off magic kingdoms. Every year, upgrading game consoles and cell phones and personal computers. This obsessive parenting doesn’t promote survival. It inhibits resilience and adaptability. Securing the future for children is a folly as grand as predicting weather or winning the lottery. The future these children will inherit will be as surprising and strange as the future you thought of as a child but have now forgotten because the present demands you forget your own childhood dreams and prepare for adult futures no one can ever practically predict or prepare for.
Kids figure shit out.
This does not mean that gay white men should hates kids. I don’t hate people of any age. This does not mean that college funds are useless or worrying about safe schools or good food is pointless. Exposing kids to sports and music is wonderful and leads to many beautiful, helpful things. But so does doing nothing. Let cars sit idle. Walk to parks. Have a designated day of boredom. Books are still worth reading. Watching squirrels at backyard birdfeeders and visiting neighbors require no fossil fuels. Entertainment without energy consumption may well be a painfully boring contraction but then nothing never promised this would be easy.
What being a queer ecologist may mean (though we bristle at definitions) is less means less. Queer ecology is an ecology of contraction. What it means to contract as a choice (culturally selected behavior) as opposed to having contraction forced upon you (via natural selection). Less now or later. We can do this the hard way or we’ll end up doing it the harder way. The problem with choosing contraction, a life with less, is that our social constructions, predetermined before we were born, demand increase. Increase in progeny, in economics, in comfort levels, in influence. Increase is what defines both Victorian Darwinism and American-style consumer capitalism. Increase equals happiness. Contraction equals death and chaos. In a culture hoarding seemingly limitless stores of different commodities, any loss, no matter how small, causes panic.
We experience less stuff as the loss of all stuff. Having three fewer pairs of shoes does not mean you have no shoes. Having one vehicle per family is not the loss of transportation. Not flying for a year is not the loss of freedom. Attending one less conference or invitation to speak is not the loss of social engagement or political expression. Decreasing population by consciously and deliberately embracing one’s own weak call to procreate is not the loss of the human species, but the recognition of but one of the many helpful, but often maligned human ecological states—the joyful participation in ecologies of contraction.
Human ecology is not a stagnant concept. It is not just the race for the more or the better or the smarter. At it’s core, one of the key components of natural selection always staring down the organism as it slogs through its day to day is limitation. What are the constraints of the environment with which a newly formed organism with some fancy mutation comes into contact and how does that meeting produce adaptation or extinction. What element in the environment prevents an organism from being the thing it’s used to being. One could argue that we haven’t reached this limit yet in physical terms. We’re still reproducing at remarkable rates. But we are reaching conceptual thresholds where human consciousness is reacting culturally to the possibility of physical limits. CO2, heat, and water—these are our limits. These are the three global limits that every being now faces. But because these measurements are globally consequential they are hard to quantify locally. Most of us in the developed world will have to think our way into change, while many of the world’s populations will be forced into it or they are already there.
The loss of a green front lawn should reflect the limit of available water. But is that really a loss? Rocks and drought-loving sagebrush make beautiful front lawns. But many still see no green lawn as a catastrophe. I can’t live where I want, with the precise aesthetics that I want and this is tragic. Do I suggest, then, that we give up everything we have all worked so hard for? Yes.
Even those of us who are concerned with these issues can no longer hang our hats exclusively on the well-intended efforts of sustainability. Very little, if anything at all, about our lives is sustainable. And yet we still want our way of life to remain the way we planned it. We don’t want change.
One very hard-boiled reality of thinking like a queer ecologist is that there is now no normal. No normal highs or lows in temperature. No above or below normal rainfall or snowpack or water levels. During times of dramatic ecological shifts in ecosystems there is no normal. Here’s where queer theory comes in handy.
Normal is made up. Normal is based on what excites and girds power structures. Ski industries, mono-culture agricultural, oil producers, stock markets, daily calorie counts, wedding planners, diaper makers, plastics—all established and maintained by white procreative men. If it serves the land-owner, the general, the CEO or the politician, normal can be manipulated according to conditional metrics designed to best maintain control. How is it possible to wrest control from the mechanisms fueled by increase? Do more of nothing. We can choose to do less of what keeps these institutions in power.
How then to navigate contraction? How to live with more of nothing, more of expenditure without return? More sex without babies. More home gardens instead of home businesses. More walking without weight-loss goals.
How do we reinvigorate and untether Darwin’s grand ideas from the elitist coopting engineered by the sexist and classist Herbert Spencer, that natural selection does not favor just the fittest or the most numerous, but simply that thing which adapts. Adaptability means tossing overboard all that we consider normal—all our measurements, all our records, all our bedtime stories, all that tells us how the world was and how to keep it that way. Being ecologically queer amidst normal means dropping everything to the ground to stare change in the face—this burning house, these melting walls of ice, this explosion of insects, these whirling winds, this present, terrifying but terrifically ecstatic moment in time.
This message may be first a message of caution to the gay community—a community to which I count myself a proud member. I worry about gay people becoming normal—normally reproducing, normally over-consuming, normally aerating thick green lawns coached enthusiastically by the wealthy oil executive next door who has recently evolved on the issue of gay marriage. There may be a danger that gay becomes less queer and the push against all that is normal becomes sluggish. The same power structures remain. Being accepted into a society (and for Americans that generally means being accepted as a well-vetted, well-vested consumer) has been the long sought after prize for the gay community. If not that integration, then why all the years of political and emotion struggle? Shouldn’t the prize also include the right to remain queer? Shouldn’t the prize include having a place at the table to make the announcement that my partner and I have decided not to marry, not to have children? And shouldn’t that announcement be met with the same raised crystal full of sparkling chardonnay as the news that the newly married same-sex couple’s surrogate has produced a successful conception?
Living with less seems impossible inside current normativity. The existential shift from growth to contraction is inconceivably frightening. After all, contraction, in economic terms, means recession. This shift must be championed by people who worship less. Maybe gay folks need a moment to examine what our place could be as material agents of change as nonprocreators. Can we establish and lead others into these ecologies of contraction? Can we initiate such shifts willingly and joyfully and alongside many of the current consumptive practices as those practices rearrange themselves? We can contract thoughtfully or such contraction will be forced on us by the terms of those limits that we know are there but refused to engage until there is the urgent need.
Social and ecological contraction, if those are even appropriate terms to use, currently has very little influence in current social structures or in the foundations of cultural organizations. Humanism, that most welcomed reordering of man in the universe has now come of age and begins to senesce. Human exceptionalism, the elegant first born ontology of humanism lords over us as material states push against human reason and ingenuity. Humanism covers up our ape-ism. Our sapience dominates our homo-ness. We forget that we are simians—glorious cousins to an even more glorious and ancient group of creatures. We have forgotten that very much of what is normal for great apes is also normal for us.
Queer ecology is a post-humanist ethic that seems impossible to embody or enact. Acting more like an ape does not mean shedding clothing and copulating in front of strangers in public parks or stealing food from off the tables of outdoor cafes. But we can adapt to our new and changing habitats by re-examining the genus to which we belong. Letting go of normal sexuality means understanding more the unique ape-ness of homo sapiens. Letting go of what is socially appropriate and embracing more of what is ape-congruent means letting breasts hang out with no cover when a child is hungry. More ape, less human means strapping a child to your chest wherever you are for as long as the child needs. It means freeing those infants from the plastic cocoons, strapped and restrained and disoriented. More ape, less human means taking cues from our cousins, the bonobos (pan paniscus) and use sex as means of social organization and recreation. More ape less human means we know where our food comes from. We know where we leave our shit. We see once again our naked bodies. The queer ecologist asks that we uncover ourselves. The queer ecologist asks that we drop the robes, wipe off the make up, put down the implements, cease using so much language and simply see flesh and bone as they exist without the manipulation of human culture. Less speech, more grunts and groans.
There is one glaring question that confronts the queer ecologist. Do I care that humans exist at all? If I don’t care to create a new human life, then that must mean that I value my own life and the lives of others less than those who seek so desperately the chance to father and mother a human child. That question spawns so many more. Are humans exceptional? Are there tears to be shed should humans go extinct? No and yes. Queer ecology asks us to live with any and all possibilities. Selective ecological ambivalence is a plain looking, uninteresting lad. He’s maybe a little too caught up watching clouds and counting bees in the chamomile blossoms. But ambivalence has the remarkable ability to produce nothing. Ambivalence allows for more of nothing. If I care less about looking like my neighbor, I use no water to feed a thick green lawn. If I care less about not being seen in the same outfit in a single week, I buy fewer sundresses. If I care less about going fast, I ride a bike. If I care less about marriage and making families, I don’t buy that ten thousand dollar wedding.
Ambivalence to a human future does not mean I undervalue the life I have. It does not mean I feel nothing when I see my godchildren walk for the first time. It means that I feel the same feelings when my pit bull puppy cozies up to my roommate’s hairless cat. Ambivalence means if humans live past this century and thrive for millennia, ecological mindful and less destructive, into a future I will not see, I am happy for that. Ambivalence means that if humans do not make it another two or three hundred years and other more adaptable, more ancient, more seasoned life forms fill up the vacancies we leave behind, I am also happy for that. Being a queer ecologist means I value all life equally. And being that I value all life equally, I necessarily value human lives less. Being a queer ecologist means I am ambivalent toward what we think is a normal human future.
The possibility of contraction is mostly unthinkable because the effort needed to reverse our destructive habits in the short amount of time we have left will be painful. Whether we start now or struggle to sustainably carry on, the bills are coming due. The world we want necessarily demands that we contract. This is a world demanding less from a human culture still eating its cake while the one in the oven burns.