Sunday, March 27, 2011

Should We 'Queer' Ecology?

Orion Magazine recently published an article entitled, "How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time."  Normally I don't post comments on their site, but this time I thought the author's suggestions merited a response. I posted the following under the handle "TrueProgressive":

I applaud Alex Johnson’s desire for a conversation about the complex situations in human and non-human life. His piece is worthy of careful consideration and I hope that by giving his essay the careful consideration it deserves, I can in some way further that conversation.
Johnson’s overarching suggestion in the article is that we ought to engage in a project that he calls ‘queering ecology’ or ‘queering nature’.  Based on his description, queering nature involves rejecting the claim that any specific sort of behavior (especially heterosexual behavior) is normative and, likewise, that any sorts of behavior (especially homosexual behavior) are normatively deviant. Further, queering nature involves celebrating the complexity and irony present in, at least, human and non-human social relationships. 
Johnson’s case for denying that any particular behavior is normative stems from his suggestion that we should, as he puts it, “let go of ecological mandates.” He contends that this letting go of mandates is justified because there are always exceptions to the generalizations that people use to support such mandates. Further, he seems to hold that discovering what happens in the world around us cannot tell us anything about what we rationally or morally ought to do. By contrast, instead of generalizing about people and viewing some behavior as normative and other behavior as deviant, we should celebrate the irony and complexity of nature in all its forms.
Consider Johnson’s suggestion that we ought to let go of ecological mandates.  The first question we ought to ask about this suggestion is, what, exactly, is an ecological mandate? Johnson approaches the question obliquely by critically analyzing David Quammen’s essay, “The Miracle of the Geese.” Unfortunately for us, neither Johnson nor Quammen provide a precise definition of the term. Based on what Johnson and Quammen say in their respective essays, an ecological mandate seems to be a principle in nature that, if violated, will have bad consequences for members of that species, if not for the species as a whole.  Johnson portrays the alleged sexual ecological mandate for geese and humans as follows:

“If you are a male, then you must find a female. You must partner with that female, provide for that female, fertilize that female, and love that female for the rest of your life. If you are a female, well, you’ll know what to do.” Ostensibly, non-sexual ecological mandates would include, “don’t consume poisonous things” and, “evade pursuing predators.”
With a working definition of “ecological mandate” in place, the second question we ought to ask is what, precisely, letting go of ecological mandates involves. I can think of at least two things Johnson might be asking us to do here.  First, Johnson might be asking us to refrain from believing that any ecological mandates exist. Second, Johnson might be asking us to behave in ways that are contrary to any alleged ecological mandates.  For present purposes, I will assume that Johnson is asking us to reject belief in ecological mandates.
Why should we think that ecological mandates don’t exist?  Johnson claims that the problem with believing in ecological mandates is that the case for their existence relies on false or misleading generalizations. For example, whereas Quammen urges heterosexual monogamy based on his observations of heterosexual, monogamous geese, Johnson cites evidence indicating that some twelve percent of Canada geese establish homosexual pairs. Likewise:
Red squirrels are seasonally bisexual, mounting same-sex partners and other-sex partners with equal fervor. Male boto dolphins penetrate each other’s genital slits as well as blow holes. Primates exhibit all sorts of queer behavior between males and males and females and females.
In short, Johnson contends that even though most Canada geese are heterosexual, many are not. Mutatis mutandis for humans and other animals. Thus, it is unreasonable to argue for human heteronormativity based on an overly simplistic generalization about the sexual habits of geese (or humans, for that matter).
Although Johnson may have the statistical facts straight, his case for the rejection of belief in ecological mandates is unconvincing. The mere presence of organisms whose behavior deviates from a particular pattern does not by itself provide good reason to think that ecological mandates, sexual or otherwise, do not exist. Even if twelve percent of geese exhibit homosexual behavior, it still seems true that if enough members of a particular goose species did not exhibit something akin to monogamous, heterosexual behavior, that species would eventually die out as a result. Likewise, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of what would become of a species if its members decided en masse to start consuming poisonous things or to stop evading hungry predators. In short, contrary to what Johnson would have us believe, it seems reasonable to think that at least some ecological mandates do exist. Organisms that fail to follow these mandates fail to pass on their genes to the next generation. If enough organisms fail to follow these mandates, the species dies out.
Another important question at hand is not whether ecological mandates exist, but whether moral mandates exist and whether observing nature can help us figure out what these mandates are, if there are any. Here, Johnson is correct to criticize Quammen’s argument. Just because members of a particular non-human species exhibit certain behavior, it does not follow that humans ought morally to do likewise. It is well known, for example, that if a male lion successfully challenges another male lion that has already sired offspring, then the victorious challenger will kill the vanquished lion’s cubs and mate with the lioness. Surely, it is unreasonable to think that humans should follow the lead of lions in this case. Forcibly attacking a man, killing his children and having sex with his wife would be morally unconscionable, to say the least.
Still, it does not follow from this that all efforts to, as it were, ‘read morality off of nature’ are doomed to failure. It does not seem unreasonable, for example, to think that an action is morally wrong if and because it is in some way environmentally unsustainable. More specifically, it seems that one can sensibly argue that the typical American lifestyle of consumption and waste is fundamentally immoral because if enough people lived that way (and, unfortunately, enough people do seem to be living this way), it would have disastrous consequences not just for the planet, but for humanity as well. What this seems to show is that any lifestyle which, if followed by enough people, would bring about the end of humanity within a century or two is a bad lifestyle. Minimally, a lifestyle of this sort is not something we ought to encourage.
But by this same standard, the homosexual lifestyle is also a bad one. If everyone lived a homosexual lifestyle, humanity would end within a century or so because no new humans would be born to keep the population going. That seems like a pretty disastrous consequence. Since the homosexual lifestyle is unsustainable in this way, it is not something we ought to encourage. One might object that we could use combination of artificial insemination and adoption to keep our species going, and therefore a homosexual lifestyle is sustainable and therefore okay. But by the same token, one could argue that since we can clean up pollution in one area while we pollute other areas, a consumptive and wasteful lifestyle is sustainable and therefore okay. I leave it to the reader to determine whether this would constitute a plausible defense of the sustainability of the typical American lifestyle; mutatis mutandis for a homosexual one. For better or worse, since my main concern is Johnson’s contention that we ought to queer nature, the above considerations on the issue of homosexuality will have to do for now.
Although I suspect that not many readers will be moved by what I have said about homosexual lifestyles, they should seriously consider whether queering nature is consonant with pro-gay values. I contend that it is not. As noted above, queering nature involves celebrating the ironies found in the world. As Johnson puts it, we ought to “give a round of applause to the delicious complexity” found in nature. For his part, Johnson provides the following irony:

“We have come to believe, over our Western cultural history, that heterosexual monogamy is the norm, the natural. People who call gays unnatural presume that Nature is pure, perfect, and predictable. Nature intended for a man and a woman to love each other, they say. Gays act against Nature. And yet: we rip open the Earth. We dominate the landscape, compromising the integrity of the living world. We act as though civilization were something better, higher, more valuable than the natural world.”
If we take Johnson’s suggestion seriously, we ought to celebrate this irony. We ought to give a round of applause to the fact that some of the same people who call gay behavior unnatural also ruin ecosystems. But what, exactly, is worthy of celebrating here?  At best, the people he has in mind have simply failed to see that their values are inconsistent. At worst, the people he has in mind are hypocrites.  Johnson doesn’t say what it is about intellectual inconsistency or outright hypocrisy that is worthy of our applause, but neither of these things seem worthy of celebration by anyone who cares about other people or the facts.
The problem with Johnson’s suggestion becomes more apparent if we use a starker example. The complexity of human social interactions sometimes includes “gay bashing”—the physical or emotional abuse of a man or a woman because he or she is thought to be gay or lesbian. If we follow Johnson’s suggestion, we ought to celebrate the fact that our world is complex enough to include gay bashing. I fail to find anything worthy of celebration in this situation, and I should think that Johnson doesn’t either.
Perhaps one could remedy Johnson’s suggestion by urging that it’s the complexity of the situation itself that we ought to celebrate, not the gay bashing. I think there are several problems even with this suggestion. Among other things, it seems that if gay bashing and other acts like rape or genocide did not occur, our world would be less socially complex than it is, but it would also be a better world. Isn’t this the point of opposing such awful deeds? In other words, sometimes a simpler situation is more worthy of celebration than a more complex one. If so, then the mere complexity of a situation cannot itself be something worthy of admiration or celebration. Rather, whether a complex or ironic situation ought to be celebrated depends at least in part on whether the components that make the situation complex or ironic are themselves worthy of celebration. 
Like it or not, some ecological mandates exist. Further, there is nothing inherently worthy of celebration in complexity or irony itself.  Sometimes a simpler or less ironic situation is the one we should seek to create and applaud. In short, queering nature is a bad idea. Things in nature are bad enough as it is these days. Let’s instead work on improving nature.

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