Seeing the Forest for the Fags: Reimagining Sustainability as a Queer Project

Cameron Butler

An Introductory Throwing Down of the Gaunt
   I wrote part of this paper sitting on the couch next to my father, who was watching the National Geographic show “Wild Nights,” where a documentary crew travels to different cities, marveling at the ‘exotic wildlife’ inhabiting those landscapes. This particular episode was about Rio de Janeiro. I wasn’t paying attention until a certain scene made me look up. The host went with undercover police to catch parrot smugglers. She said that parrot catching and selling was a lucrative opportunity for poor people in Brazil because there is a high demand for such “exotic” pets in the United States. After a short chase and struggle, the police arrested the smugglers and ‘rescued’ the birds. The birds were brought to a sanctuary for rehabilitation; the smugglers were charged and sent to prison. The host happily spoke of how the birds had been saved — this was a win for animals rights! It was also a damning indictment of the failure of environmentalism and the mainstream sustainability movement (MSM) to be anything liberatory or revolutionary.
   This anecdote highlights a number of trends in environ-mentalism. There is no understanding of the power dynamics at play. Absent is the discussion of how Western societies have commodified and demanded ownership over “exotic” animals. Absent is also the denouncement of globalization, capitalism, and Western imperialism that have created and perpetuated poverty globally. Instead, sole responsibility is placed at the feet of a marginalized few. Poor people of colour navigating a global system of exploitation are painted as villains. Poor birds are rehabilitated; poor people are criminalized. At every moment in this process, birds of colour are ascribed higher values, both economically and morally, than people of colour. And on top of this, the entire ordeal is packaged and sold to Western audiences to reaffirm their own progressiveness.
   Environmentalism, with it narrow-minded call to protect and preserve “nature”, provides the moral validation for this violence. The MSM has upheld and based itself upon oppressive narratives that harm both humans and non-human nature. Since its inception in the 1960s, the MSM has always been a privileged movement that has ignored systemic oppression (Seymour 14). Its sustainability ultimately sustains white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and speciesism. What is necessary is a radical deconstruction and reshaping of sustainability discourse, and a prioritizing of marginalized voices.
   Critical race theorists, ecofeminists, and social justice activists such as Phaedra C. Pezzullo, Ronald Sanders, and Joan Martinez-Alier have been making important contributions to this radical sustainability project. Queer theorists have been slower to engage with sustainability, but I believe that queer theory, and queer ecology in particular, have important contributions to add. Queer ecology strives to create “a sexual politics that more clearly includes considerations of the natural world and its biosocial constitution, and an environmental politics that demonstrates an understanding of the ways in which sexual relations organize and influence both the material world of nature and our perceptions, experiences, and constitutions of that world” (Mortimer-Sandilands et al. 5). Thus far, queer ecology has been especially rooted in literary analysis, though some works have moved into presenting a queer environmentalism. One especially important work in this effort is Nicole Seymour’s 2013 Strange Natures. This paper seeks to build upon the ideas presented by Seymour and others, and further ground these ideas into a sustainability politic and activism.
   Before proceeding with the paper, I’d like to discuss the purposeful choice of the acronym MSM to stand for the “mainstream sustainability movement.” MSM was a term created by epidemiologists in the 1990’s for “men who have sex with men,” because many of those engaging in cruising (having largely anonymous sex in public places) did not identify as gay or bisexual, so a behaviourally-based term was created (CDC). It has been especially used by police in their surveillance and arresting of men cruising in parks, as part of the state’s attempts to rid the public sphere of queerness (Maynard 211). Parks are conceptually heteronormative spaces, meant for families to engage in socially-acceptable, wholesome activities. Queers, as socially corrupt(ed/ing) individuals, are polluting threats to families and are thus not allowed to shape the uses of the space (Gosine 150). This justifies the police surveillance, threats, and violence towards queer men in order to ‘preserve’ the park.
   A fundamental, and unfounded, argument used against cruising queers, and of particular importance to sustainability, is that they cause environmental degradation through littering (Gosine 155). The logic of environmental protection is used to harm and marginalized queers, while cries of being “unnatural” invalidate queer lives and experiences. So I take joy in connecting sustainability with men having sex in parks, with queer eroticism in a “nature” that does not fit within MSM’s solar-powered utopian vision. I use it in the hopes that those who care about sustainability feel discomfort when they read it. I hope that each mention reminds them that uncritical talks of “nature” has real and harmful consequences for marginalized communities.
Straight Plays on the Global Stage
   Agenda 21 of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are critically important international documents in the MSM. While aiming to promote global sustainability, both documents are embedded within oppressive logics of colonialism and heteronormativity. Emma Foster argues that the victimization and infantilization of non-Western women in Agenda 21 “works to legitimize the operation of a neo-colonizing Western economic project, further projecting Western hegemonic ideals of ‘development’ and framed through a Green (in)security narrative” (Foster 143). This economic development project ascribes a state of poverty to individuals for their lack of participation in the market economy (Foster 142).
   There is a clear parallel with the way queer liberation has become understood to be inclusion in marriage — in both cases, the goal is to slightly expand an oppressive system, rather than work towards its dismantling. Homonormativity, a concept established by Lisa Duggan, “promis[es] the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Sbicca 39). The MSM strives for the same privatized and depoliticized culture of green consumerism and corporate social responsibility. Its rhetoric “champion[s] personal responsibility while dismissing structural violence and institutionalized inequality” (Seymour 31).
   The issue of overpopulation is ubiquitous within MSM discourse, especially Agenda 21. In decrying reproductivity in the Global South, the bodies of poor brown women are demonized for their potential to threaten white nationalist ideals (Sturgeon 124). MSM organizations in the Global North have a long history in promoting xenophobia domestically and racist sexual regulation globally (Gosine 157). In Agenda 21, overpopulation is addressed through the promotion of education, which is limited to abstinence in countries with anti-contraception and anti-abortion beliefs. This positions sexuality solely as an act of reproductively that exists only within marriage. (Foster 145) Principle 9, declaring that “the family is the basic unit of society and as such should be strengthened,” (UNCED) exemplifies the unquestioned naturalization of heteronormativity in MSM rhetoric. This narrow focus on family as the all-encompassing societal relation also erases the notion of communities, of broader networks of support and solidarity. MSM solutions are located within families and the state is there to push people into them.
   The Kyoto Protocol also works to further Western neo-colonialism through its development of tradable emission credits and promotion of carbon sequestration projects. Backram argues that “responsibility for over-consumptive lifestyles of those in richer nations is pushed onto the poor, as the South becomes a carbon dump for the industrialized world” (Bachram 11). Indigenous communities are forcibly removed from their lands, which are turned into mono-crop sequestration plantations. Significantly, the disconnection of emission sources and sinks allows the perpetuation of environmental racism, as the disproportionate exposure to harmful pollution experienced by poor and racialized communities is left unchallenged (Bachram 17). Carbon sequestration projects and emission credit trading increases environmental racism and imperialism globally while shielding privileged white people in the Global North from all consequences from their destructive systems. Similarly, the Kyoto Protocol also extends and enforces heterosexist reproductive valuations of nature. Land areas are ascribed value based on carbon sequestration capacity and then monetized accordingly. Landscapes become reduced to economic potentials and singular capitalist-determined purposes to serve the Global North.
No History, No Future
   MSM discourse divides culture, encompassing all human activity, and nature, encompassing the pristine, idyllic non-human. Noël Sturgeon argues that “mainstream environmentalists, in their emphasis on wilderness, species extinction, and in general seeing the environment as excluding human beings, often fall into services to this dominant Western logic of seeing the natural as pure, unchanging, untainted by social influence and without history” (Sturgeon 263). The nature/culture binary has two major implications for the MSM worth highlighting here. First, social injustice, inequity, and oppression are separated from ecological degradation. The interconnectedness of exploitation, hierarchies, and power imbalances that drive social and environmental violence are hidden. As a result, the MSM has not taken social justice efforts seriously (Soltys 21).
   Secondly, the nature/culture binary strips “nature” of its histories, construction, and subjectivity. Conservation efforts have developed out of this ahistorical construction, striving to protect ‘unspoiled’ nature and minimize (negative) human impacts. By stripping nature of history, ecosystems are forced into in a strange state of petrification. Any impact caused by humans is deemed “unnatural” and must therefore be stopped/reversed, whereas “natural” changes are taken to be the result of evolution. But with the pervasiveness of human activity, what ecological changes can’t be traced back to people and thus become undesirable? The denial of human history in ecosystems leads to paralysis.
   Capitalism has deeply shaped the ways ecosystems are (de)valued. An ecosystem’s worth is dependent on its perceived capacity to be productive in economically quantifiable ways. American wetlands provide a clear example of this. Beginning with European colonization in the early 1600’s, wetlands were considered unproductive bogs, with the vast majority destroyed and turned into “productive” agricultural land. A shift started taking place in the 1970’s, when they were found to be highly efficient at ‘ecosystem services’ like water filtration and carbon sequestration (Dahl et al.). As a result, massive efforts have been made to reclaim wetlands. The historical disdain and contemporary desire for wetlands are both rooted in anthropocentric capitalism. The ecosystem matters only insofar as it can fulfill current economic demands.
   Connected to this are the similar ways in which nature and sexuality supposedly require “constant monitoring and restrictions to access, so that it may be free of undesirable elements” (Seymour 144). Attempts to control and shape nature, to regulate it, are intertwined with the regulation of desire (Seymour 107-8). The erotic potential of nature — its capacity to exist, flourish, and (re)produce in ways that are not economically useful, pretty, or desirable — is stamped out and crushed. In place of this potential, resource management strategies are developed to control ecosystems and maximize returns. The MSM adopts the rhetoric of ecosystem services and management in order to provide economic legitimacy for environmental concern and by doing so, renders itself unable to challenge the inherently unsustainable capitalist system.
   The MSM’s role in the domestication of nature is inseparable from legacies of colonialism and white supremacy. For example, the creation of wildlife preserves and conservation areas has dislocated indigenous peoples globally (Gosine 152). At the same time, discourse around “land reclamation” magnifies the MSM complicity in colonialism. As a greenwashing PR strategy, many resource extraction corporations, such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers,  turn their focus to “land reclamation”, the process of removing contamination from heavily polluted ecosystems. The term, used by indigenous communities to describe efforts to regain rights over their traditional territories, has been taken by corporations to justify inflicting intense violence and destruction upon these very same communities. Within the MSM, there is no reflection on what it means to “reclaim” land, who can reclaim it, and from whom is it being reclaimed. The goal is to simply  return land to a pre-human state and thereby erase histories of the indigenous people who lived in those territories.
Complicating Nature
   Queer ecology provides a poststructuralist platform to critique “nature” in ways that further understandings of ecological violence (Seymour 109). The MSM addresses environmental issues through institutions. Incorporating a Foucauldian understanding of power, I’d like to shift focus away from specific institutional configurations to underlying power dynamics that drive ecologically destructive systems (Foucault 92). As Catriona Sandilands posed, “to queer nature is to question its normative use, to interrogate relations of knowledge and power by which certain ‘truths’ about ourselves have been allowed to pass, unnoticed, without question” (Sandilands 22). A queered sustainability becomes an “anti-essentialist, anti-assimilationist, and heterogeneous” exercise (Seymour 25).
   Queer ecology complicates our spatial understandings of environmental injustice. Environmental racism and classism are often discussed in terms of spatially-fixed models, looking primarily at where communities live (Seymour 74). Queer ecology supports this work by constructing spaces as simultaneously safe and unsafe for different people moving through them, such as domestic workers’ exposure to cleaning chemicals while working in suburban homes (Seymour 77). Pushing this idea even further, a biopolitical lens positions the human body itself as a site of ecological harm and resistance, as demonstrated clearly in the writings of Eli Clare that situate the body as home (Di Chiro 199-200). Deborah Slicer draws parallels between landscapes and the body to propose a queer ecological justice that (re)defines the “natural” as self-possession, shifting away from a state-based construction and towards one that is relational (Seymour 35). These queer ecological works show how the conceptual “ecosystem” and “nature” can be made temporally and spatially transient.
   Foundational to queer ecology has been Donna Haraway’s proposed concept of “natureculture,” positing that “the very idea of nature itself is not natural; nature is cultural”, though that is not to say that nature is subsumed within culture (emphasis in original, Bell 143). In collapsing the nature/culture binary, we also collapse the us/them and self/Other divisions, which reveals an interconnectivity of humans, nonhuman beings, and landscapes. This radical undifferentiation drives an ethics of care and collective responsibility to come out of the dissolution of stable identities (Seymour 176). Through this non-identitarian responsibility, a queer ecological sustainability prioritizes coalition-building across all forms of oppression, taking demands for justice outside of the realm of personal affronts and into the general discourse of solidarity and mutual support (Seymour 97). This directly challenges individualist narratives of capitalism and creates space for broad justice resistance work. As an example, lesbian separatist farm communes engaged with this environmental ethic in their treatment of the land as a partner to live with and guide to learn from (Unger 181-2).
Queer, Ugly, and Ironic
   In rejecting heteronormative (re)productivity in the organization and valuing of humans and landscapes, queer eroticism can present new ways of relating to and with others. Erotophobia limits understandings of non-(re)productive nature, and queer ecology must tackle this (Gosine 165-6). By centering queer eroticism within nature, there is potential for new, alternative interrelationalities that engage in valuation as a communal activity. Different bodies and beings will need and/or want different relations with spaces (Sbicca 37). By employing a queer empathy of collective value-creation, space is created for coalition-building and a radical restructuring of interactions within nature (Seymour 11).
   An explicit engagement with and support for the ugly becomes especially pertinent in a queer ecological imagination. Western constructions of “ugly” landscapes have historically been those populated by Indigenous, racialized, and poor people — the politics of beauty are inextricably tied to racism, classism, colonialism, and sexism (Seymour 164). Landscapes and humans can all attest that, just as Beyoncé says, “pretty hurts.” Community organizer Mia Mingus calls for bodies that are “moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.” A queer ecological sustainability must meet this call and extend it across bodies and landscapes. It must deconstruct beauty, find magnificence in the unwanted, revel in the ugly.
   With its commitment to dismantle beauty, queer sustainability rejects privatization and commodification of bodies and land, focusing on care instead of profits or compensation (Seymour 109). Rejecting the privatization of nature allows ecosystems and people to be supported as unmanaged and uncontrolled, building a broader (re)imagining of how humans and nonhumans can live in unproductive and magnificent ways. The queer ethics of care is built upon the emotional dimensions of interpersonal relationships and shared Otherness (Perpich 225). It is important to acknowledge that these understandings of care are indebted to indigenous peoples and thus must be part of anti-racist solidarity (Seymour 168). These ethics of care are predicated upon attentiveness, reverence, and patience; in shaping care through these attributes, along with sympathy, empathy, and identification, landscapes, humans, and non-humans can be given space and support to explore the ephemeral and unfamiliar, as opposed to the “useful” or “normal” (Seymour 166). This queer ecological ethic of care is one “not rooted in stable or essentialized identity categories, a care that is not just a means of solving human-specific problems, a care that does not operate out of expectation for recompense” (Seymour 168). It is one that works to sustain and improve the well-being of bodies and landscapes, while being critical of how spatial and temporal conceptions of well-being are constructed and embedded within broader politics.
   Seymour argues that irony, often thought to be incompatible with sincere environmentalism, can be employed to subvert logics driving ecological degradation (Seymour 149). She argues that it is deeply ironic to act on firm beliefs of environmental ethics and social justice while maintaining a critical skepticism of the categories, boundaries, and distinctions employed in those ethics (Seymour 180). Importantly, a queer environmental irony as one that is not “cruel or dismissive” but rather “simultaneously compassionate, introspective, and good-humoured” (Seymour 172). It can thus be a tool to highlight the gaps of hypocrisy wherein oppression manifests. The use of MSM as a term, with its dual meanings, is meant to be an example of such queer irony. A playful twist of words to stake out a point of queer resistance against sustainability’s heteronormativity, a serious critique that does not take itself too seriously.
   The MSM, in its narrow focus on protecting a construction of pristine and untouched nature, has built itself upon oppressive politics and heteronormative capitalist logics that prevent it from achieving the goals it has set. These political underpinnings must be challenged and destabilized as part of the queering of sustainability. A queer sustainability is one that is deeply skeptical of our categorizations of nature and yet still works to support our ecological communities through care, solidarity, and communal valuation. Queer ecology can bring unique contributions to our articulations of self, community, and relational possibilities, but it can only be part of liberatory projects when engaging in solidarity with communities of colour, poor communities, communities in the Global South, disabled communities, landscapes, ecosystems, and all communities that are devalued and Othered.
   In closing, it’s worth returning to the parks. Undergrowth and bushes were commonly removed as a way of preventing men from having necessary cover for cruising and this harmed the park’s ecosystem (Gosine 160). A queer sustainability recognizes the irony in saving the environment by destroying it and resists oppression through that irony. It is a sustainability wherein “one can both love an adulterated landscape and criticize its adulteration, and recognize beauty in ecological disasters without condoning the disaster itself — just as one could recognize a landscape as ‘ugly’ and still decline to do violence to it” (Seymour 164).

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