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what would you do if this was your home?

jo's picture

Somebody came up and said, "You talk about your home as if it were part of your own body." And they were right, this landscape is a living, breathing part of me. I consider it something to protect, like I would my own body. That's an idea that's been passed down from generation to generation. - Judy Bonds (found here)

    Much of our ecology and ‘Ecoliteracy’ 360 began with conversations and questions about home, community, and belonging, and that makes sense, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so, until I came across Timothy Morton and his Ecological Thought, at which point I didn’t know what to think; his argument simultaneously illuminated complexities and made them more confusing. Morton argues that "Fixation on place impedes a truly ecological view" (Morton 26), a claim that I find problematic based on personal experience people I know. Morton says that in order to improve the various crises faced by our world and the human species, it is necessary for us humans to stop thinking of ourselves as apart from Nature-with-a-capital-N. What we need, he says, is ‘the ecological thought’, which he defines in many ways: "a virus that infects all other areas of thinking…It has to do with love, loss, despair…compassion…depression and psychosis…capitalism and what might exist after capitalism…race, class, and gender…society…coexistence.” (Morton 2) He goes on to even broader and more abstract descriptions of the ecological thought:

(I)t is always to come, somewhere in the future. In its fullest scope, it will have been thought at some undefined future point. You find yourself caught in its tractor beam… You didn’t mean to. You must have been thinking it all along. But you had no idea. The ecological thought sneaks up on you from the future… (Morton 3)

This is all to say that the ecological thought is a way of thinking that both allows and requires one to break down barriers that our minds put up between self and other; between home and away; between humans and Nature; even between good and bad, right and wrong; and recognize all those things as connected and intersecting and overlapping.   

     At first read, this is incredibly appealing. We are all connected, we are all One! It speaks the romantic claims of every new-age-spiritual-pacifist-hippie ever (I do not say this antagonistically as I identify with all of those terms to some degree). But it goes even further than that. Morton doesn’t just see ecological thought as a unifying force with the potential to solve the ecological crisis our world faces; he problematizes ways of thinking that don’t fit with the ecological thought, that contradict it in some way.

Ecological collectivity decisively can’t be rooted in 'place'....'my place in the sun' marks the beginning of all usurpation. 'Place' contains too much “at-homeness,” too much finality, for the ecological thought. Localism, nationalism, and immersion in the ideological bath of the lifeworld, won’t cut it anymore… (Morton 127)

According to Morton, attachment or connection to certain locations, feeling a sense of home or belonging in any particular place, is dangerous and problematic because it gets in the way of feeling the true connection or ‘porosity’, as we’ve come to name it in our 360 (based on Stacy Alaimo’s “Porous Bodies and Trans-Corporeality”, 2010, found here) While I agree with some of Morton’s claims that nationalism and localism are large factors in the deterioration of our world, being at the root of many wars and elitist ‘Not In My Backyard’ campaigns. That said, there are aspects of his critique that completely contradict my experience with environmental justice activism.   

     I’ve been part of a campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia for the past three years. Specifically, I’ve been working with the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT, pronounced ‘equate’), a Philadelphia-based direct action group targeting PNC Bank for their large investments in mountaintop removal (otherwise known as the practice of blowing up mountains to access the coal close to the surface). About a year and a half after I got involved, I traveled to West Virginia and saw the Appalachian Mountains and mountaintop removal for the first time. I also met some amazing Appalachian activists, people who have lived on and near these mountains all their lives, whose ancestral history with this land spans generations. These activists, supported by allies like EQAT and others, are the heart and soul of this movement, and we intentionally lift their voices above the rest of ours because of their position on the frontline.

I grew up at the foot of a mountain named for my mother’s side of my family, Cook Mountain, home of my ancestors. My family and I would visit the 200-year-old graves of those who were laid to rest there… When I speak out, I like to think I carry with me the voices of the people of Appalachia’s past, present, and future who are victimized by this horrible extraction process. I do it because I feel that I owe my very existence to these mountains. My blood is in these mountains, and these mountains are in my soul. - Dustin White (found here)

When I was a boy, we had 60 families living here. We had a general store, a school, and a church. This place has been in the family more than 235 years. From this place, we didn’t just get our shelter, our warmth, our food, our medicine – we got everything we needed in life… My mother gave me birth, but this land gave me life… People ask me why I still fight for these mountains. I ask them what they’d do if this was their home. - Larry Gibson (found here)

My family settled this area before coal was discovered, but since that discovery, I and my family before me have lived the history that the coal industry has left in its path. We have lived through all of the booms and busts, manmade catastrophes, and massive deaths and sicknesses that are part of coal’s history in Southern Appalachia… Numerous scientific studies show that we who live near mountaintop removal mining are getting cancer, suffering major diseases, having babies with birth defects, and dying far too young. - Maria Gunnoe (found here)

I’ve met some of these people and others like them, been so inspired by their words and their stories. In large part, they and the friends, family and neighbors they represent are the reason I do the work I do. And for them, sense of place and belonging is  central to their fight. The quote at the beginning of this paper from Judy Bonds, another Appalachian hero, illustrates, home and self were inseparable for her and inseparable from her activism (she died a few years ago). This seems directly in conflict with Morton’s claim that sense of place goes against the ecological thought and therefore makes it impossible to effectively combat what Morton refers to as “climate catastrophe” (Morton 4). How can these people be expected to "think ecologically", to "become...radically open" (Morton 8) to the world beyond appalachia? How on earth can they possibly not focus on the destruction of their backyards and their bodies. Is the concept of porosity - everything is connected, physical boundaries don't matter - actually oppressive to those whose identities are already marginalized?

     In fact, I argue that Appalachians who oppose mountaintop removal are the true ecological thinkers (they just don't put it in the same fancy academic terms that Morton uses). Their position in "coal country" provides them with a unique perspective that most Americans and many humans don't have. Historically, coal mining has dominated the economy of Southern Appalachia, and most families depended on the coal industry for their livelihood. There was great pride in the coal miner identity, strong men who risked their lives and suffered extreme health effects for the sake of their families and the country. Even today, these men see their jobs as an honorable sacrifice akin to serving in the army. And the truth is, we DO need their services. The way our country and our society is set up, we would not be able to function without the services of these men and women. Appalachians can see this better than anyone, and they are far more aware of the source of their electricity.

     At the same time, they also experience first hand the negative influence of coal. As mentioned above by Maria Gunnoe, proximity to mountaintop removal sites has been proven to lead to high rates of birth defects and cancer (among other serious health impacts). As Morton says, ecological thought "is thinking about where your toilet waste goes", (Morton 9) something most people actively avoid, just like they avoid thinking about where the energy comes from to keep their houses lit, their showers warm, their cars running. Appalachians have no choice but to think about that, because coal mining is a reality they literally live and breath, and the drastic economic effects of the coal economy are inescapable.

     They might live in falling-apart houses coated with coal dust, surrounded by poisoned air and water, suppressed by economic degradation, and with limited formal education, but many Appalachians are thinking the ecological thought, and they are doing so without Morton's advice or permission. And at the same time, Appalachian anti-mountaintop removal activists have a strong sense of place and connection to their home, the mountains. This helps their ecological rather than hindering it as Morton argues.

     While Morton posits some important claims about the dangers of ignoring the interconnectedness of all things, my experience with Appalachian activists has shown me that it is possible to think ecologically AND be oriented to place at the same time. It might even be impossible to make the kind of change our world needs without both types of awareness. I see the ecological thought as a way of thinking that attempts to hold all the contradictions of humanity and our place in the world at once, even as it is impossible to do so. We could all learn a lot from the people quoted above, whose lives and experiences make such contradictions painfully visible.


Anne Dalke's picture

environmental acting

This essay makes such an interesting pairing with your first one, which focused on your own profound sense of not belonging. Here you explore, in contrast, a deep sense of attachment to place--that of the Appalachian people who oppose mountaintop removal. To counter Morton’s claim that such place-based identification is dangerous, “because it gets in the way of feeling the true connection or ‘porosity,’” problematic because it puts up “barriers” between all that is “intersecting and overlapping,” you offer the testimony of these activists, working to save their mountain home.

What I admire here is your willingness to take on a distinguished critic, from the location of your own experience with environmental justice activism. Your doing so reminds me of Dorceta Taylor’s telling us how important it is to use our own experience to challenge what others tell you-- and then your using your experience to challenge hers!

Key to your critique here, I think, is the query of what difference location makes, in the critique of investment in location: rather than being freeing, you ask, mightn’t “dislocation” actually be “oppressive to those whose identities are already marginalized?” A luxury of those with the power and money to “move”?

In asking these questions, you are bringing to light a central gap between ecocriticism and postcolonialism. As Andrew Wallis explains in a recent essay called "Toward a Global Eco-Consciousness” (ISLE 20.4, Autumn 2013, 837-854),

postcolonialists tend to focus on hybridity displacement, cosmopolitanism, and uncovering history,              while…eco/environmental critics foreground purity, place, nationalism, and transcending human history/time…. Nature and environmental writing is justifiably replete with…the “poignancy of the local”…paeans to a river, a mountain range, or a small town, or writing that attacks...the de-naturing and abstraction of a place and space. Such approaches can…seem insufficient in an ecologically, economically, and culturally interconnected world….present circumstances…seem to be calling for “bigger” narratives and are seen by some as a lynchpin of the ecocritical enterprise…challenging assumptions about border and scale….

Wallis ends his essay by recasting “’placeness’ within a global consciousness,” calling for a “local-global dialectic” that understands space “as a heuristic concept that shapes and is shaped by an imagination informed by geography, cartography, financial networks, shipping lands, free-trade zones, and dumping grounds.” He uses Ozeki’s novels as examples of fiction that “ties the regional to the global while providing a critique bound up within the class implications of a ‘cosmopolitan’ intellectual ‘elite.’”

I think you are doing the same thing here. The Appalachian activists you describe are not just “ecological thinkers,” as you claim, but environmental actors, working ecologically with an awareness of the larger energy-and-environmental dynamics at play in the very located work they are doing.