I’ve written about the fact that one standard reaction to the sign I displayed at Zuccotti Park (BECA– USE THEY’RE TRYING TO DRIVE OUR PLANET OFF A CLIFF) was a claim of incomprehension. “What does your sign mean?” “Who’s they?” Another frequent reaction, and one that depressed me increasingly the more I thought about it, was, “Oh, you’re talking about the environment!” I would usually say something like, “Well, yes, that–and the endless wars, the terrible inequality….” But I would be left with a troubling sense that so much I had wanted my sign to imply had been effectively foreclosed via the application of a reassuring label.
I’m talking about murdering the world (“the porous world that breathes, and can be killed,” I wrote in a long-ago poem). And you are translating my speech into something you understand as representing a preoccupation with a setting, a platform, even a sort of backdrop for the real action. Oh, yes, “the environment.” That. We must definitely make sure to save “the environment,” along with all else in need of saving.
There are at least two problems here. The first is the failure to understand that there is no “the environment” apart from us, and no “us” apart from the environment. We are not just autonomous mental beings that happen (inconveniently) to breathe air; we are the breath and the air that circulates through our bodies. We are not just in need of a certain amount of water as a “resource”; our bodies are made of water. We are a species that evolved on a given planet under certain geological conditions (the relative stability and temperateness of the era known as the Holocene, which did not just favor us as an individual species, but favored great webs of life with which we grew intertwined). The clever mental gymnastics to which Western thought has dedicated itself at least since Descartes, combined with all the technical savvy of the folks who brought you fracking, tar sands, the “peaceful atom,” and depleted uranium munitions, are not going to make that reality go away.
The second problem with translating my sign to mean a concern with “the environment” is the assumption that the life of the biosphere is something distinct from social issues like war and inequality. Unfortunately, too much activism that gets labeled “environmentalism” in this country has operated as if this assumption were true, thereby helping promote the ridiculous idea that concern for the planet’s natural systems and processes should be expressed exclusively in terms of middle-class American notions of aesthetically pleasing landscapes and “pristine wilderness” preservation. (Don’t get me wrong–I like a “wilderness” hike at least as well as the next white, middle-class person from the Pacific Northwest.) This reductive view still has a lot of currency despite insights from an environmental justice perspective demonstrating that poor people, indigenous peoples, and “less developed” or global South nations are most at risk from the massive disruptions of terrain and atmosphere that characterize our new, human-dominated geological era, the Anthropocene.
I’ve been reading the introduction to a new essay collection focused on literary texts that in some way reflect a consciousness of how colonial legacies condition relationships to land and natural systems. It is called Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment (ed. Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley, Oxford University Press, 2011). The editors quote Edward Said, from Culture and Imperialism: “Because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, the land is recoverable at first only through imagination.” I find what Said is saying here about the possible role of the imagination suggestive for our (planet-wide, locally various) efforts to fashion narrative and symbolic tools to cope with life in the Anthropocene. Because of the presence of [U.S. imperialism] [the capitalist drive to maximize resource extraction] [ruling-class tactics referrable to the “Shock Doctrine”] [endless warfare] [the internal combustion engine] [YOUR CRITIQUE HERE], the biosphere as a self-sustaining system is recoverable at first only through imagination.