Environmental Body versus Environmental Risk Part One

Transcript Ep. 4 Autism and The Human

This week I want to talk about the concept of “Environmental/Ecological” bodies versus those bodies that are deemed environmental/ecological risks. This complicated subject meets at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. Today’s discussion will examine how this concept has impacted women, people living in poverty, disabled people, and many BIPOC communities.  

I must remind listeners to look on my WordPress blog for my works cited lists for each episode. You will find it under Autism and The Human with Limbic Noodle.  I will be referring to “The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in America” by Sarah Jacquette Ray as my source for part one of this topic. 

This week’s content will include discussions of ableism, racism, misogyny/sexism, eugenics, and economic oppression. If these are not topics you feel up to hearing about now, I recommend you take care of yourself first and listen to something else.

Having said all of that, let’s get into it. 

Environmental literature and adventure culture encourage the ideal body necessary for complete appreciation and enjoyment of wilderness spaces will be physically fit, undamaged, and whole. Adventure culture, according to Ray, has conveyed the idea that technology has severed our connection to nature. Adventure culture accuses technology of creating alienation from nature at the body level, making it more difficult to appreciate (Ray, 2013, p. 37).

My body is squishy, overweight, creaky and swollen. It would not be the kind of body featured in a wilderness exploration company advertisement. The body they lean toward is muscled, abled, and lean. Is the concept of the environmental body versus a body that is an ecological risk as simple as this comparison? 

The short answer: Not even close. 

Environmental movements have a history of weaponizing disgust against overweight, out-of-shape bodies. However, it is an oversimplification to say that disgust is only fomented against these bodies. The polarization of environmental bodies versus bodies that are environmental risks is extended to include pure versus polluted, poor versus wealthy, women versus men, BIPOC versus White, and abled versus disabled. 

Environmentalism historically focused on purity. It was applied beyond the physical conditions of natural environments. It was expected to reflect society’s order. A disordered body was a reflection of a disordered society. It was thought best to segregate disordered bodies from pure environments. 

Environmental purity is equated with bodily wholeness. Our bodies are our vehicle for understanding the environment. “Ecological Others” are described as not possessing agency. They are depicted as people from whom the world needs to be protected. Ray said, “…the figure of the disabled body is the quintessential symbol of humanity’s alienation from nature, and that it underpins other kinds of ecological-othering, including racial, sexual, class, and gendered othering within the mainstream environmental movement.” (Ray, 2013, p. 6) 

Environmentalism is fundamentally paradoxical, according to Ray, offering a point of critique of the relationships between capitalism and society while reinforcing old social hierarchies along the lines of race, class, and gender (Ray, 2013, p. 4).

In the mid-nineteenth century, disgust at disordered bodies was used to justify Eugenic policies. Social control programs such as eugenics were justified using Darwinism. Our evolutionary survival was classified as an environmental necessity. 

It wasn’t just disabled bodies considered disordered. The concept of disordered bodies was defined in ways that supported social hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ability. According to Ray, environmentalism evolved alongside social Darwinism, portraying life as a struggle for survival. Survival of the fittest extended to individuals, races, and the strongest dominating the weakest (Ray, 2013, p. 14).

Ray said scholarship has examined the social construction of disability, including how environments can disable people by failing to enable their full participation. However, Ray said that not enough attention has been given by academia to how the idea of “Wilderness” also is a social construction and how it can reinforce the social constructions of disability. 

The national ethos of the United States of America, and to a lesser degree Canada, is built around freedom. The concept of freedom is tied up with the idea that one should be able to move in urban and wilderness environments without impairments and without relying on assistance. As I mentioned in a previous episode, “Dependency” is considered a dirty word in most global north countries. 

The ethos of freedom, wilderness exploration, westward expansion, and the importance of protecting the environment was embraced by literary traditions, including Thoreau, and the historical mythology built around people like Theodore Roosevelt. When I say “Protecting the Environment,” in this context, I mean saving the environment for certain bodies by declaring it in need of being saved from other bodies. 

Ray said, “Although it may seem paradoxical that the early tradition of the American ecology wilderness movements—promulgated by Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman (whose names are associated with values of social acceptance and harmony with nature)—should share views of nature with Ernst Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, and Roosevelt (all strident advocates of racial and genetic purity), this sharing of ecological and eugenic philosophies suggests that environmentalism’s apparently transcendent structure of feeling is firmly grounded in a notion of national purity” (Ray, 2013, p. 16).

When one’s connection to the land is measured by how much one interacts with and experiences the land, neglecting these experiences is deemed environmentally harmful. People unable to engage in the prescribed rugged wilderness experiences are narratively transformed into environmental threats. 

There was an outcry when author Frederick Jackson Turner suggested the American frontier was closed. People believed being cut off from wilderness environments would damage the American national identity. It would cause men to fall prey to women’s “Feminizing” influences due to having no outlets for their “Masculine” interests. This was part of the push to create and protect pristine wilderness environments.

The idea that the American Frontier was closed was responded to with the push to create National Parks. Again, National Parks were meant to reflect the ideal environmental body. They were meant to reflect Roosevelt’s “Rough Rider” image of a strong, self-reliant man capable of living rough on the land. Since it was believed that, at the minimum, disabled people would require assistance to live rough on the land, disabled bodies were seen as the opposite of this ideal ecological body.

As I have previously discussed, dependency is disdained by many in our society. The genre of wilderness adventure writing was built upon the independent exploration of pure environmental spaces in ways designed to challenge the body. Successfully mastering extreme environments on one’s own is portrayed as a path to transcendence and purification. Part of risk culture is the unmediated connection between man and nature. If a person must rely on technology or other people to access these environments, their chance of a transcendent experience is seen to be diminished. 

Disabled bodies exist on the outer margins of social power and cultural value. Their bodies also serve as the looming threat to making risk culture meaningful. Part of the transcendent experience promised by risk culture lies in conquering an extreme environment with the knowledge that it puts you at risk of becoming disabled, losing independence, and losing the ability to experience nature in the same ways. The bind here is that once a body was damaged in pursuing this transcendent experience, it would become a body representing environmental danger. Ray suggested this kind of risk appeals to people who have resources and for whom the act of existing in their bodies in this world is not in itself a risk. 

A paradox is created by disabled people using technology to access wilderness environments. This is addressed by emphasizing the strength of the individual’s will and how technology allows them to be more independent. Since it is considered socially unacceptable to be dependent on other people within a risk culture, the paradox is counteracted by the idea of “Overcoming” disability. 

I told you at the offset that the concept of Environmental Bodies versus bodies that are seen as Environmental threats is more complicated than physically fit and abled versus physically unfit and/or disabled. I told you I’d be discussing racism, sexism, ableism, and economic oppression. I will shift to get more specific about the damage the concept of “Pure Wilderness” has done to Indigenous peoples. 

I already mentioned that National Parks began to be created in response to the idea that the American Frontier was closed. One might be asking themselves in what sense Frederick Jackson Turner believed the American Frontier was “Closed.” Here are my thoughts: After pushing Indigenous peoples off their lands and marching them progressively further West and forcing them to live on the most undesirable tracts of land, there was no more land settlers wanted to seize. This represented the closure of the American Frontier.

In the literature that expresses this American ethos of freedom and the concept of the environmental body, the bodies of Indigenous characters are described as shrunken and shrivelled, reflecting the loss of land, self-determination, autonomy and independence.  There has been a tradition in literature written about Indigenous people, but not by Indigenous people, to include First Nations characters with deteriorating bodies meant to symbolize colonization’s impact. The symbolism of these fictional bodies is hardly necessary when real examples of the effects of colonization on Indigenous bodies abound. Nuclear fallout, diabetes, alcoholism, and cancer all appear in Indigenous populations to a higher degree because of the disproportionate exposure to environmental pollution these communities face. Ray suggests that in this context, disability becomes powerful short-hand for Native American exploitation (Ray, 2013, p. 83).

The “Ecological Indian” stereotype assumes Indigenous people are inherently environmentalists. I happen to believe that nobody is “inherently” anything. However, I have lived long enough in Indigenous communities to know that traditional values include environmental protection. They will need these environmentalist values since it is also true that Indigenous communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental pollution. If you want to read more about this, try reading “A Mind Spread Out On The Ground” by Alicia Elliot. Another great resource is “There’s Something In the Water,” which you can watch on Netflix. 

The systematic dispossession of Indigenous people in the United States of America was justified by the need to protect pristine wilderness environments from ecological others portrayed as threats and to promote an ideal American body sculpted by conquering the wilderness. The creation of National Parks was part of this project. The exclusion of Indigenous peoples from the right to use National Parks was also part of this project.

Ray said Indigenous people live a paradoxical existence. They are represented as the “ecological Indian” who is at one with the environment while simultaneously being considered sacrificed bodies of sacrificed environments, thanks to colonization.

This paradox causes many Indigenous people to feel ambivalent about the environmental activism of non-Indigenous peoples. They have been used as mascots to represent healthy relationships with nature. Still, they often don’t take the time to hear about how Indigenous peoples were dispossessed by colonization and the creation of National Parks. They don’t take the time to listen to how Indigenous bodies and lands have been treated as “Zones of Sacrifice.” This amounts to a continuation of cultural imperialism. 

I’ve already said that bodies deemed to represent Ecological Threats are also thought to lack agency. Many environmentalists believe Indigenous peoples are a potential source of “Eco-Spiritual” alternatives. They are not supposed to have agendas of their own that they would want to prioritize over the concerns of non-Indigenous environmental movements. It enrages these movements when Indigenous communities exercise agency by opening their lands to commercial development, resource extraction, or waste disposal to lift themselves out of poverty or economic marginalization. It is viewed as a betrayal of the inherently environmentalist identity they are supposed to embody (Ray, 2013, p. 86).

Ray suggested that thanks to imbalances of power, Indigenous people are often forced to allow mainstream environmental organizations to use them as mascots and “Environmental Indians” because they lack the power to promote their agenda any other way. This can include feeling forced to misuse elements of their cultures to bring onboard allies. Non-Indigenous environmentalists sometimes seek authenticity through proximity to Indigenous peoples, as if they could be seen as being “inherently environmental” because they are closely associated with Indigenous peoples who are seen this way.

Non-Indigenous environmental movements seem to believe that Indigenous people exist to support and legitimize their agendas. They don’t seem to think Indigenous people should have agendas different from those prioritized by non-Indigenous organizations. An excellent example of this is how many environmentalists react to Indigenous people prioritizing their right to hunt and fish on the land. Ray said that if Indigenous peoples adopt the “Ecological Indian” identity as a tactical choice, one cannot assume that all the priorities put forward by mainstream environmentalism are fundamental to what Indigenous peoples think an environmentalist identity looks like (Ray, 2013, 124).

Ray said that environmental justice advocates are more likely to frame environmental issues in terms of health, pollutants, and structural inequality. At the same time, mainstream environmentalists are more likely to gravitate toward ecological problems. Their privilege has allowed them to avoid personally experiencing some of the terrible health effects felt by Indigenous communities. 

Ray suggested that imperialists often have converted landscapes in ways that made them feel powerful. They wanted to feel their presence was required for the land to reach its true potential. She used the example of a character in “Almanac of the Dead” who loved cottonwood trees to make her point. He had enslaved people uproot saplings from along the river and transport them into the desert. The Indigenous woman who was married to him at the time the events happened told her granddaughters that the trees spoke to the mother water in their natural environment, telling her what people were doing. In their new location, they represented slave labour, the murder of Indigenous people, colonization, disregarding her culture, and breaking promises. When these trees were fully grown, they were used to lynch the enslaved people that had been forced to carry them across the desert and nurse them until they thrived.

This Indigenous character’s experiences mirror the experience of the trees. She is uprooted. Her body is exploited to gain control of her people.

Ray said that mainstream environmentalism fetishizes place connections. It prioritizes the needs of nature over those of the people who live there. She pointed out the juxtaposition of how this man in the book loved the cottonwood trees but had no regard for the character of the land or the importance of keeping it healthy for future generations. He had no respect for the human history that was part of the land. 

The relationship between spatial and bodily violence, and between access and exclusion, according to Ray, can be seen at the United States of America-Mexico border. She said, “Discourses of national purity and pollution infuse debates about national security and dictate how to manage the border, as popular media treat the border as hermetically sealing the United States from the ‘tides’ of racial others—so-called economic immigrants, environmental refugees, and other ‘ecologically incorrect third worlders’…threatening to corrupt the nation.” (Ray, 2013, 139)

Ray said the perception is that America started empty, went to being populated by hardy settlers, and ended up besieged by Third World refugees and migrants. The bodies of undocumented immigrants are treated as the by-product (trash) produced by the push for globalization. They perform jobs that environmentalists consider “Unclean” so that they can continue feeling environmentally virtuous and then are scorned for doing it. She suggests this is racism being thinly masked as concern for the environment.

The ability to spend significant time in wild settings sends a message about one’s socio-economic status in a similar way that having pale skin had been a status symbol for Victorian women. Economic privilege allows people to leave dirty and crowded urban settings. People unable to escape the most congested and polluted urban areas often end up blamed for these conditions. 

As I mentioned earlier, urban spaces were considered feminized. This originated with the concept of gender roles. Women were deemed responsible for cleaning socially and corporeally messy urban areas while men escaped into pure environments to test their masculinity. Ray wrote, “Urbanization, unprecedented European and Asian immigration, industrialization, and changing labour, racial, gender relations all threatened to undermine the images of freedom and masculine ideals of independence that have been central to American identity and to thwart the progress that became the dominant intellectual and political current of the era. These crises inspired public hygiene reforms, immigration restriction, and environmental protection….” (Ray, 2013, p.37) 

The environment is invoked in ways that turn it into a matter of anti-immigration and national security. It isn’t just Indigenous people that are accused of “trespassing” on protected land when they enter national parks without permits. Those who cross the USA-Mexico border, many of whom belong to Indigenous peoples who existed on the land before there were borders, are accused of violating the land. 

Ray wrote, “They are thereby not just threats to the nation and to American ‘blood and soil,’ but threats to a very modern view of the ‘nation-as-ecosystem.’” (Ray, 2013, 141)

“White Replacement Theory” has existed for a long time, as much as we’d like to blame Tucker Carlson for its odious existence. 

Ray described the fear White supremacists have that America is committing race suicide. She suggested that when the medical model framed disability as a pathological threat to the social order, White panic and disability became the underpinning of environmental conservation movements. 

For a broader picture of how the bodies of women, the poor, BIPOC, the disabled, and immigrants are narratively portrayed as Ecological Others, please read “The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in America” by Sarah Jacquette Ray.

In part two of Environmental Body versus Environmental Risk, I will be delving into how this impacts Autistic people in particular. I will be discussing how Greta Thunberg is treated within the environmental movement and how she is treated outside of it. This will include speculations about how autism factors into all of that. 

After part two of Environmental Body versus Environmental Risk, I will be tackling the causal links between gun violence and mental illness. More precisely, I will be exploring the lack of causal relations between mental illness and gun violence.

I am on Twitter as Limbic Noodle. My Works Cited pages will be put up for each episode on my WordPress, under Autism and The Human with Limbic Noodle. I also have a Tumblr and Instagram under Limbic Noodle. 

Until next week, Keep on Noodling.

Ray, S. J. (2013). The ecological other: Environmental exclusion in American culture. University of Arizona Press.



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