Perhaps I’m just having a dark moment right now, or perhaps this is what I really think. I’m not sure. Right now I’m in the process of working out my thoughts on black ecology for Jeffrey Cohen’s University of Minnesota Press collection entitled Prismatic Ecologies. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what I have in mind by a “black ecology”. I know some general outlines of the concept:
1) Being is radically a-teleological or without purpose.
2) Life is no more privileged than inorganic matter within the order of being.
3) Positive feedback phenomena (systems running out of control) are every bit as common as negative feedback (systems that regulate themselves or strive for homeostasis).
4) “Ecology” does not signify “nature” (or that which is outside of culture), but systems of interdependent relations.
None of these claims are proposed celebrate or ignore the environmental apocalypse we’re now facing. Quite the contrary. On the one hand, I’m interested in foregrounding the normative grounds of our judgments about environments so that we can consciously take responsibility for them. Contra films such as Avatar that present and ideological vision of being where environments are conceived as “wise” (the sacred tree) and self-regulating in the face of destructive perturbations (the revolt of the animals in the film so as to right the unbalance), I think we need to understand that the universe is every bit as much a cruel beast prone to destroying environments and flying out of “balance”. In other words, we need to understand that there’s no providence or wisdom of self-regulation we can rely on to address these problems. We also need to understand that in these discussions we are expressing values as to what environments ought to be. Insofar as being is a-teleological, there is nothing that environments ought to be. In my view we need to foreground our utopian imaginaries as to what environments ought to be in these discussions, rather than implicitly appealing to a spiritualized concept of nature that somehow is supposed to be one way rather than another (Siberian Traps anyone?).
As for the thesis that ecology is not a discourse about nature but interdependent relations, here the issue is that I believe that eco-theory has missed a tremendous opportunity by defining itself too narrowly. When Eileen and I were approaching people to contribute to the first issue of O-Zone (devoted to the theme of ecology), people repeatedly expressed hesitation suggesting that they had nothing to say about ecology. No doubt this is because they immediately associate ecology with a discourse about nature, rather than the investigation of systems or networks of interdependent relations. Consequently, for example, a queer theorist might think “I have nothing to say about nature because the focus of my work is the queer”, despite the fact that in investigating queer subjectivity one perpetually is investigating relations in language, culture, power, institutions, the body, interpersonal relations, etc. When ecology is understood properly (or in the way I propose, anyway), we see it everywhere: the classroom, homes, media, economy, technology, the natural world, the formation of the body, etc. And here, this is not because all of these domains open on to the natural world (though they do), but because the analysis of all of these domains requires an analysis of interdependent relations. And here I’m aware that there are legions of media theorists and other cultural theorists that describe their work as ecological. The problem is that this hasn’t really caught on and become a commonplace.
So where is my pessimistic moment in all of this? For me the three key political issues are the environment, gender, and economy (in no particular order). And as I look at environmental issues today I find myself increasingly pessimistic and feeling as if environmental politics and thought has not been ecological enough in its analysis of these issues. When I say that it has not been ecological enough, I am not suggesting that it has failed to properly analyze climate change, but that it implicitly seems to repeat the nature/culture divide, treating the environment as if it’s something over there and out there, while ignoring the social, political, and cultural world. Yet under a properly ecological conception of being, we can’t neatly divide these worlds, but rather the human world is one formation of nature among others. Cultural worlds are not outside of the natural world, but are thoroughly situated within that world. And if this is the case, then this is because there is only one being and that being is nature (one of the theses of my flat ontology).
So why is this an issue? It’s an issue because while environmentalists prescribe all sorts of action we need to take to avert the climate catastrophe, it seems to me that in failing to engage in an ecology of social and political institutions they are whistling past the graveyard by failing to address the question of the conditions under which action is possible. Here’s the part where everyone gets angry with me. Given the way in which government and corporations are today intertwined, I don’t think there’s much we can do to avert the coming catastrophe. As Morton says, referring to logical time, “the catastrophe has already happened”. So what would it mean, I wonder, to take Morton’s thesis seriously? Here I know Tim will disagree with me. When I look at environmental discussions in popular media and from many around me, I see the discussion revolving almost entirely around consumers.
We’re told that we have to consume differently to solve this problem. I agree that we need to consume differently, but I don’t see any feasible way in which driving fuel efficient cars, using less heat and AC, eating less meat, etc will solve these problems. This is because the lion’s share of our climate change problems arise from the production and distribution end of the equation, rather than the consumption end. They are problems arising from agricultural practices, factories, and how we ship goods throughout countries and the world. The problem is that given the way in which governments and corporations are intertwined with one another, and given the way in which third world countries are dependent on fossil fuels for their development, and given the fact that only governmental solutions can address problems of production and distribution, we’re left with no recourse for action. We can only watch helplessly while our bought and sold politicians continue to fiddle as the world burns.
All of this leads me to think that green consummerism is a horrible symptom of our inability to act that actually exacerbates our problems by prolonging our confrontation with the reality we’re facing. And here’s the horrible thought that occurs to me in dark moments that everyone will slap me for: perhaps the truly ethical and right political response to climate change is not to jump on the green bandwagon and change all our consumption habits, but rather to consume as much as possible, especially with respect to energy. I just don’t see how there’s any feasible way we can get governments and industry to respond to these problems given the current governmental and economic ecologies. This seems to suggest that the only possible solution is to push ourselves over the ledge where fossil fuels are no longer available and where governments and industry are thereby forced to change. That’s my pessimistic thought for the evening. Let the demands for me to done a hair shirt commence.