The field of ecopsychology has lately undergone a post-normative reassessment with some creative results.[i] Drawing some discussion points from a special issue of the European Journal of Ecopsychology, Vol. 3 (2012), following is an exploration of the notion of “queering ecopsychology.”
Here I will define the verb “to queer” as to challenge the very idea of normal, to attempt to uncover various assumptions about human nature, particularly notions of sexuality. We can use a queer lens to begin to see and to question a great many assumptions which might affect the approach to ecopsychology.[ii] Before proceeding, let us note that great care must be taken with critical theory to prevent our questioning stance from proceeding from a set of answers—as when we ask questions as if we already know the answers. I would call such a stance more “cynical” than “critical” and representative of yet another normative proposal, another imposition of concepts upon reality which continues to block our capacity for intimacy, for surprise and awe and wonder. Furthermore, so much of critical theory generates a deeply disenchanted world in which only the human ego is thought to possess consciousness. It seems to reflect a worldview in which humans alone “produce worlds” with their ideas, as if there were no deeper drama at play than the conscious, human one! As such, it appears to be territory ripe for creative re-engagement from an ecological perspective.
Among the more obvious examples from the existing exploratory literature of queering ecopsychology is the questioning of the Darwinist and neo-Darwinist idea that we’re dominated by the urge to “survive and reproduce.” That we humans and all lifeforms are driven by this supposedly primary natural law has been ingrained in the culture as the objective, scientific truth, whereas Bruce Bagehmil has researched and published on homosexuality amongst nonhuman fauna and advocates an alternative idea of “biological exuberance,” which includes all the choices made in the natural world which do not reflect heterosexual reproductive drives.[iii]
Our assumptions filter our experience of the world to a fascinating degree, and create narratives which do not account for actual phenomena, and exclude other beings and other ways of being. As Goethe exhorts us, “Everything in the realm of fact is already theory…. Let us not seek something behind the phenomena—they themselves are the theory.” In his article “From queer spaces to queerer ecologies,” Gordon Ingram asks, “Could a queer ecologies framework free us further from anthropomorphic biases in acknowledging other species?”[iv] I would go beyond an acknowledgment of other species, as if the planet were only about the human, and wonder if a “queering” view might help free us to actually converse with the consciousness of the nonhuman and form deep, reciprocal relationships with these other beings? That these others have a language and are able to communicate is something which can only be experienced outside of the prevailing scientific worldview which casts all nonhuman as insentient and unfeeling. To effectively challenge the anthropocentric notion of “normal communication” or “normal (human) consciousness” might admit the radical otherness of our planetmates so that we can learn what it is they need, how they may flourish, how we can co-exist in Earth community and not deny others their existence.
Another example of a queer perspective on ecopsychology comes from Deborah Anapol, who proposes the gender queering of Mother Earth.[v] Some ancient peoples think of a MotherFather Earth, without any gendered distinction, for example, Australian Aboriginal peoples and the Dagara of West Africa. Anapol suggests the possibility that the rise of “male supremacist” thinking in European culture coincided with the gendering of the Earth as “female,” thus enabling its desecration, as might not have happened to an image of “Father Earth” in that same culture.[vi] She asks, “Did eliminating Father Earth from our [European] collective consciousness create a vacuum for humans to rush in, to ‘husband’ the earth – which in the consciousness of the time equated to ownership, control, and domination?” It’s an interesting idea and one which does have implications for ecopsychology and how we approach the Earth, and what sort of archetypal forms are available for our relationships, particularly considering the European lineages within modern psychology and ecology.
We can find a broader movement around ecosexuality, which changes the metaphor from Earth as Mother to Earth as Lover. I wouldn’t malign the idea of Earth as a parent, but parents have needs, too! To see the totality of Earth being, rather than just its parent aspect, might be part of the maturation process of the industrialized human. The human relationship with the Earth is not a one-way proposition, particularly these days with our extractive technologies which have reduced our intimacy with the needs of the Earth, obscuring the fact that we have to give in order to receive. In truth, a deeper understanding would be that we have to be able to receive, in order to give, and that speaks to gratitude, to moving beyond simply “taking” something without regard for the input of the other, and attending to the deep relationality which makes our lives possible. Some authors suggest that the heteronormative presumptions around biological imperatives underpin the perception of a rapidly renewing, infinitely exploitable Earth—that it will just keep producing and producing, no matter what pressures we put on living systems.
Now I would like to broaden the queer lens a bit and play with this word “queer” as a sort of anti-concept. It’s an anti-concept in that “queer” really resists being mapped out in neat, dissecting quadrants; it’s slippery with language.[vii] “Queer” in this sense means resisting the dominant paradigm—and the dominant paradigm is ALL about rigid categories and ideological frameworks for interpreting and understanding. Here I would suggest that “queer” resists comparison with the so-called “normal,” it resists confining the human spirit to a set of categories and pushes us towards a radical freedom of self-discovery, which actually provides for the greater disclosure of the “others” we encounter.
It’s a curious fact that to be present to another, we have to first be very present to ourselves—to listen deeply and to bear witness to another is an active engagement. Presence requires us to not create stories about others to represent or animate hidden or disowned pieces of ourselves, but to rather hear the actual story of the other being in front of us. It’s quite as one spiritual teacher phrased it: once you understand how another person makes sense of his or her own life and experience, you will fall in love with them—and I would extend that avenue of falling in love to nonhuman persons, as well.
We seem to be living in a time in which relationality is direly needed as the capacity for presence and attention to our relationships, across the spectrum. The curious, open questioning stance of a queer ecology, a queer ecopsychology could offer so much towards this. As a mountain once said to me, “To belong is to include.” To belong is to include. It is a wonderful riddle, and one which points towards a living recognition of our fundamental interdependence, not just for our survival, but to blossom, to thrive, to celebrate the beauty of Earth.
[i] Refer Mortimer-Sandilands, C. & Erickson, B. (eds.) (2010). Queer ecologies: Sex, nature, politics, desire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press
Gaard, G. (2004). “Toward a queer ecofeminism”, in S. Stein (ed). New perspectives on environmental justice: Gender, sexuality, and activism (pp. 21–44). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press,
Eco Homo? Queering Bodies, Queering Sustainability – an hour-long film of a “textual choreographic conversation dance” between Cate Sandilands and Michael Morris: http://vimeo.com/45655772,
Ecosexuality: Reorientations/Reterritorializations, a blog maintained by Michael Morris at http://ecosexuality.wordpress.com/
[ii] Will Keepin’s definition: “Ecopsychology refers to a variety of endeavors—theoretical, applied, and clinical—that bring together the methods and understandings of ecology and psychology to address the psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual roots of the ecological crisis.“
[iii] Bagemihl, B. (1999). Biological exuberance: Animal homosexuality and natural diversity. Boston: St. Martin’s Press.
[iv] Ingram, G. B., “From queer spaces to queerer ecologies,” in the European Journal of Ecopsychology, Vol. 3 (2012), p. 59. Note: “Anthropomorphism” refers to the act of projecting human qualities onto the nonhuman, and while that is certainly something to be vigilant against, this is not to say that humans share nothing in common with the nonhuman, including sentience.
[v] Anapol, D., “Gender queering Mother Earth,” in the European Journal of Ecopsychology, Vol. 3 (2012), pp. 104-8.
[vi] Riane Eisler weaves together a narrative account of the rise of patriarchy in Europe in her work in cultural history, The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future (2nd ed.). New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Carolyn Merchant gives another account in The death of nature. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1980.
[vii] Thank you to Barry Perlman for these perspectives shared in his talk with Jessica Lanyadoo “Queer Talk on Client Work” at the July 2013 Queer Astrology Conference at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco.