A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In the early 1970s, ecologist Barry Commoner defined as a ‘law of ecology’ the simple precept ‘everything is connected to everything else.’ Implicit in his definition and in the evolution of ecological thought is a fundamental recognition and respect for the threads that connect the parts of the whole.
Humans, however, like categories. In the face of disorder and discomfort our instincts compel us to seek, to imagine, and sometimes to impose order upon the chaos. When it comes to matters of social inequity, issues that often overwhelm and paralyze human action, even the most well-intentioned human may ease into the escape of easy answers and categorical thinking. As a result, we often lose sight of the interplay between animals and land, rights and justice, breath and death, the injustices that perpetuate and protect one another in what Dr. Martin Luther King famously and beautifully described as the ‘inescapable network of mutuality.’*
The cycles of poverty, for example, rely on systems. When we imagine the absence of basic necessities, of a warm meal of soup and bread, of shelter from cold winds or scorching temperatures, it is quickly apparent that the yeast and flour that it takes to make this bread, and the wood and metal it takes to create a small shelter, have a material source, and that access to these sources is only granted to worthy. In most western social structures this worth is determined by financial agency, and this agency is determined by the economic value of what one can contribute to the system through valued work. Meaningful work is made possible through access to training, apprenticeships, and education. Any human who has spent even a short amount of time working for economic justice has an intimate understanding of how these intersections are embodied in the dinner scene: the image of steam rising from a warm bowl of soup and the sound of a door closing behind someone entering safe shelter after a day of work that feeds their bodies and spirit. In these bare necessities we regularly witness the ecology of human and nonhuman nature sustaining us.
Perhaps this is why it is astonishing to me that we are still reticent when we witness how this plays out on a larger scale for issues of environmental justice. When news came from the Brazilian medical community of the correlative outbreak of the Zika virus and rise in microcephaly in newborn children the social discourse surrounding this crisis immediately began looking for sources: Where did the virus originate? How did it travel to a new continent? Important first questions. Soon, though, the inquiries turned to economics: What did this mean for the future economic viability of the region? Would Olympians and their often privileged spectators be at risk? The stories began with images of suffering infants and fewer images of ill and heartbroken women, but these lives were generally used as tools of pathos, catching human interest so that we could begin talking about what really mattered. When authorities of Brazil and other Latin American countries announced that their advice was for women to delay pregnancy until 2018 the public, even if for a moment, began to consider the oppressive systems of patriarchal social structures that limit access to affordable birth control or deem it as immoral. What seems more difficult for the distant observer, however, is to take this examination one step further, the admission that these systems are inherently bound to and embedded within a human animal’s daily experience of nonhuman nature. One might explain this as a merely journalistic practicality: these connections take more time and depth than is possible within the confines of reporting. Perhaps. But I think that there is something more going on here, and I think this is a reverberation of our desire for categories. We relegate conversations about the human place amidst nonhuman nature under headings such as “environmentalism,” ‘nature studies,’ or the trendy simplification “green issues.” The fact that we even have such categories, when twenty years ago they likely would not have even existed, is progress. Science tells us, though, that this is no longer enough. We are in a moment that calls us to pull such conversations from these artificial categories so that we might more fully examine the inherent threads of connection. Unless we make a deliberate decision to focus on these intersections, our emotional and intellectual psyches will continue to validate artificial categories, implicitly limiting the transformative potential of even our best efforts to achieve environmental justice. The way human animals relate to their material surroundings, be it nonhuman nature, built environments, or to one another, is part and particle of all oppressive hierarchies. It is impossible to separate this from how we think about race, gender and economics, just as these cultural identifiers are intimately connected to one another. As long as we keep trying to relegate questions about human and nonhuman nature to its own box of study or pretending that there are ever instances when these questions do not matter, then we will ultimately fall short in our work for all forms of justice.
Shortly after news coverage of a link between an outbreak of the Zika virus and increased rates of microcephaly began, reports from Argentinian researchers suggested that the birth defects that were first, and quite easily, associated with the Zika virus might in fact be the result not of the virus but possibly of pyriproxyfen, a larvicide that was introduced into the drinking water supply in 2014, thus making the newborns’ illnesses the result of humans’ attempts to manipulate nonhuman nature. The World Health Organization denies this linkage and describes it as scientifically unfounded, though the use of pyriproxyfen has still been temporarily banned in these regions. More long-term research is clearly needed before a sound declaration is made in either direction. The coverage of these debates, however, and our conversations in response, seem conveniently focused on scientific data and political blame games. While informed research of cause is of course necessary for authorities to proceed with a response plan, I wonder why amidst our news coverage and sensation surrounding the debate attention to the environmental living conditions of so many of these women and their children is diminished as merely the backdrop for the crisis. Whatever the cause of this public health epidemic, the victims are the same, the victims are those who are already marginalized and alienated due to gender, ethnicity, and economics, who live with limited water supplies that require their communities to make water cisterns of swimming pools in an attempt to savor the water that is available to them, hence increasing the likelihood of mosquito breeding grounds in proximity to living spaces, living spaces that are most often an unaffordable travel distance from the medical care that their ill children will require for the rest of their lives.
I wonder why we are not talking more about the systems that render the poorest communities of our world the most vulnerable to environmental realities and impact: the communities that have no voice in the decision-making about how human nature responds to these impacts, the communities that are at the mercy of the same hierarchy that exerts control over nonhuman nature in the interest of profit for the few. The only difference is that their tactics of oppression do not work in the same way in the face of the pervasive environmental impact. Human hierarchies alter nonhuman nature and the result is not a clean and categorical consequence, but rather a pervasive and recalcitrant dissolution of the order that the human animal so fervently seeks.
In this seeking we have become alienated beings. We have convinced ourselves that we have the luxury, if one can call it that, of not caring about the water supplies of distant communities, that a woman’s limited access to proper health care is somehow separate from human animals’ relationship to this earth. We have severed, or at the very least neglected, the threads that connect our story to hers. This disconnection is not separate from our alienation from other sources of sustenance, from our food source, our energy sources, our control over the complex economic networks that we rely upon. The way we encounter nonhuman nature has an implicit bearing on how we relate to human nature. Our present environmental crisis is unprecedented; it demands a level of human empathy that our constructed hierarchies have attempted to silence. In contemporary western cultures we are beginning to return to some of these nonhuman sources, sometimes arrogantly bringing forward the conversations as if we are the first to consider the connections between human wellness, sustenance and environment, but the piece of this system that we still have not fully identified is the fact that human alienation from nonhuman nature dramatically alters human interaction, that our disconnection from our own bioregions diminishes our capacity to see that ecological principles map action and consequence and stifles our instincts about how we relate to our human animal community.
If we are to confront the urgency of our environmental crisis, our industrialized human communities must relearn how we will exist with our food sources, our natural resources, other species, but we must also reimagine how we relate to other human animals and the communities that they create. It requires that we imagine what it is like to be a parent of a toddler in Flint Michigan, wondering if the glass of water that she guzzled down after the playground will harm her brain development, controlling guilt over the fact that her family’s economic situation renders her an innocent victim. Such imagining demands that we hear one another’s stories. Such imagining demands a vulnerability that is perhaps counter to some of our socialized animal instincts, but for which, as sentient beings with imaginative capabilities, we are well designed.
For many humans living in an industrialized society this is a new way of dwelling on this earth. It requires that we see the ecological threads that connect all identity factors and all oppression and moreover that we accept our own privilege as one of these threads. It requires that we desire something different; that we desire it enough to work for the survival of all human animals. Perhaps we can begin by sitting down to the rising steam of our soup and the creaking roofs of our houses and ask one another, what next? David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College once wrote “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” This isn’t a hope that permits us to retreat to our desks, our iPhones or our warm firesides. It is the sort that demands that I look at you, and that you look and me, and that we reintroduce ourselves to one another’s stories of inhabitation so that we might move beyond ourselves, for once, and for good.
*This phrase is in the fourth paragraph of Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail:
‘Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.’
Copyright 2016 Christine Cusick