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Show me where it hurts.

calamityschild's picture

See rough draft:   /oneworld/changing-our-story-2015/damage-renewal-and-purity

Is the Earth more inherently resilient than human beings? We seem to think so. I believe that when it comes to the way we perceive the damage humans sustain, either physically, emotionally, or mentally, we tend to employ what is called damage-based thinking. According to Eve Tuck, the term “damage-based thinking” refers to “testifying to damage so that persecutors will be forced to be accountable” (Tuck, 414), where we do not assume the damaged entity to be its own source and means of recovery. This approach focuses on what has been destroyed, what has been injured, and uses it to identify the parts that deserve attention. The danger of damage-based thinking is that its “theory of change itself may be unreliable and ineffective...damage-centered research involves social and historical contexts at the outset, the significance of these contexts is regularly submerged” (Tuck, 414-415). However, I want to explore the possibility that applying damage-based thinking to the environment, rather than people, affords the damaged party a greater sense of humanity, and would provoke a stronger response by those possessing the ability to mitigate real change.

The storylines in Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation deal with different kinds of damage: environmental, emotional, and physical. As the activist group the Seeds of Resistance fight environmental destruction, by organizing protests and performances to promote their agenda, other characters are confronting their own injuries in their lives. The characters tend to view ruination as a corruption of an entire system. In terms of emotional relationships, it is demonstrated that injuries made in the past are irreversible. Yumi’s reunion with Elliot resurrects a lot of past anger, and although she had spent decades of her life trying to move on from her bizarrely interrupted childhood, she can’t quite shake him. She tries to tell herself that she has matured since she last saw Elliot, saying: “The particular collection of cells that comprised her, the ones Elliott had stroked and f*cked, had long ago been sloughed off and replaced by new ones. Cellular turnover occurred in seven-year intervals, didn’t it?” (Ozeki, 208) Elliot’s reentrance into her life is a sharp reminder of the memories she had tried to bury after running away. At this point, in this relationship, there should’ve been mature, sensible communication between the two. Instead, they revert to acting as childishly and impulsively as they did at the beginning of the book. Elliot scarred Yumi with the damage he inflicted, and because of that, she shows an inability and unwillingness to recover from it.

The portrayal of bodily damage is also shown to be irreversible in the book, where the characters cannot escape their own bodies and the injuries they have sustained. For example, the aging process was not kind to Lloyd or Momoko, and their attempts to retain their dignity are often made impossible (I’m thinking of Lloyd’s colostomy bag and Momoko’s mental condition). In a very literal way, the destruction that occurred to Charmey is permanent. Additionally, Yumi’s abortion, which many characters would consider a kind of damage Yumi sustained, has lasting consequences. She is perpetually shamed and apprehended for her abortion, even though she made peace with her decision a long time ago. In the book, much of the damage that people bear is talked about as if it cannot be reversed. Yumi believes that “three wonderful children ought to more than make up for one lousy abortion,” but Lloyd’s rigidity is a sign that she hasn’t done anything that could absolve her of the offense she committed when she had an abortion (Ozeki, 240). This is supported by Elliot, who was the very reason she had to seek an abortion, when he asks Yumi to have his child to compensate for her aborted one. “We took a life, Yumi. Life is sacred. I want to make amends,” he says, but his proposal is met with resistance (Ozeki, 386).

In the book, the earth is believed to harbor greater restorative powers than humans do.  In terms of the environment, the characters see in the earth a latent property of regeneration that humans do not have. When Lloyd trips as he’s walking through his field, he thinks of his soil, “built up carefully with generous rotations of nitrogen-fixing crops, year after year. Recycling nutrients. Never taking more out than you gave back. So different from the way they farmed potatoes now.” To Lloyd, the “soil still had life” (Ozeki, 254). Even though the farming practices his land is undergoing changes its composition and its character, Lloyd still senses a deep life force within the ground. Having worked with the land over the decades, and having cultivated incredible yields of potatoes from the same soil every year, he has developed a faith in what the environment can provide. Beyond a simple respect and admiration of the earth, this belief is extended to suggest that the earth can heal itself, despite the destruction it has endured on behalf of surreptitious chemicals and modified strains of crops. The “life” that Lloyd thinks of is gestures towards his view that the land contains an intrinsic durability, irrepressible by any human endeavours, no matter how ambitious they get.

Tuck’s point that “contexts” get “submerged” in damage-based thinking may not be relevant when it comes to imagining the earth’s pains, because the earth interacts with its inhabitants in a different way than, say, a tribe (Tuck, 414-415). Furthermore, the earth is a repository of history that is subject to treatment that is different from what a group of people would receive. The earth is universal in a way people are not. I imagine that the drawbacks of damage-based thinking, when applied to the environment, would not be expressed in nearly the same way as it would when it is applied to groups of people.

If the public viewed the environmental crisis the way they view the catastrophes that occur to people, perhaps more action would be taken to scale back the damage that humans exact on the planet. The Seeds of Resistance form in response to the indifference of the public in regards to the use of genetic modification. To raise awareness of the damage that has occurred to the earth, they take to dramatic displays and ridiculous acts to catch peoples’ attention. On the other hand, it doesn’t take much for people to dwell on issues that other people face. If people began to think of the earth in terms of damage-based thinking, as they do with people, its injuries become much more pronounced. If the Earth was unable to heal itself, like Yumi, who can’t atone for her sins on her own, then its pain would reasonably be interpreted in a different way. I believe that the perception of earthly damage is buffered by the assumption that nature is self-repairing. I think that once we see the earth as being susceptible to desecration in the same way humans are, we can begin to respond to its crises in a more urgent and empathetic way.

Works Cited

Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. New York, New York: Penguin, 2004. IBooks. Penguin Books, 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Tuck, Eve. "Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities." Harvard Educational Review 79.3 (2009): 1-20. University of San Diego, California. University of San Diego. Web. 6 Nov. 2015.


Anne Dalke's picture


Wow. I think you've done something pretty important here. I've cited and referenced and taught Tuck's article for years now (we are currently using it in our 360 on Arts of Resistance) and have long found it an important intervention in matters of social difference and control. But your turning it to use in environmental questions really does shift the terms of the debate, in asking us to think of the Earth as "worthy" of damage, and as "incapable" of self-repair, as humans are.

This move really intrigues me, in large part because we are now moving, in the course trajectory, from our short-term, humancentric focus to something longer-term and not-just-human. You are arguing that we actually need to do so by anthropomorphizing the earth, conceptualizing it not as resilient but as fragile, liable to irreparable harm. In doing so, you anticipate the argument developed by Bruno Latour, in the essay we've selected to end the course, his "Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene." Thank you for leading the way in this direction!