Externalized environments, bodily natures and everyday exposure
A Thought Leader Series Piece
by Stacy AlaimoNote: Stacy Alaimo is Professor of English and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she served as the Academic Co-chair for the President’s Sustainability Committee and directed a cross-disciplinary minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies. She is internationally recognized as a leading scholar in the environmental humanities, ecocultural theory and science studies; has presented plenary talks across the U.S., Canada and Europe; and has served on the prestigious international evaluation panel for Sweden’s major environmental humanities grant competition.
Sustainability plans require data to capture the extent to which universities, businesses, cities and even nation states are minimizing their environmental impacts. Such information is invaluable for tracking the progress of efforts to cut carbon emissions; to reduce the use of energy, water and toxic chemicals; and to reduce waste and pollution.
Even as this sort of tracking is essential – indeed it needs to become more prevalent, more precise and more inclusive of different sorts of environmental harms – it nonetheless contributes to a mode of thinking and being that diminishes the urgent importance of sustainability itself. For the very idea that data can be captured and conveyed in orderly grids not only suggests the comforting notion that humans have things under control, but that environmental problems can be managed and contained in official realms apart from everyday life.
Picture this scene: faculty, graduate students and administrators from across the disciplines are gathered together to discuss new directions in environmental and sustainability research. Nearly everyone is seriously committed to the difficult work of conceptualization, collaboration and problem solving. But even academics need sustenance, so, fortunately, some refreshments are served. Cookies arrive on plastic plates, coffee in Styrofoam cups and water comes in one hundred tiny plastic bottles.
Pan out. The room is too brightly lit, the projector is left on and the temperature is – no doubt – too cold in the summer and too hot in the winter. If the event takes place in a hotel conference room, toxic “air freshener” (the hotel’s “signature scent”) may be piped in, causing a certain percentage of the attendees to have headaches, nausea or other symptoms.
The fact that this scene is “normal,” and that no one notices or comments upon the contradiction between the lofty aims of sustainability research and the material realities of the event itself, reveals a disturbing disconnect. The immediate surroundings somehow vanish.
This scenario suggests the prevalent tendency to externalize the environment as a place or a concern that is always somewhere else, rather than always at hand. This mode of thinking imagines our minds as disconnected from our bodies, and our conference rooms, laboratories, offices and classrooms as isolated from the rest of the planet. When the actual places people live and work seem to be immaterial and the environment is externalized, the possibilities for people to effect systemic change and engage in everyday practices of sustainability are curtailed.
I’ve long been concerned with how to counter the tendency to imagine the environment as something “out there,” since this mode of thinking and being can render environmentalism as optional and unimportant. It also leads us to ignore the many invisible threats to human health in ordinary life.
In Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, I investigate environmental justice and environmental health movements, arguing for “trans-corporeality” – which means thinking of ourselves as physically part of the flows of material substances that cross through people, places and other living creatures. I also stress that consumer objects harbor both legacies and agencies. Instead of assuming that the plastic water bottle, or even one’s own living room couch, only does what it is supposed to do – deliver water or offer a place to sit – it is important to consider how these objects may act in unexpected ways, such as off-gassing toxins or killing marine life.
The networks of harm for even our most everyday actions may be global in nature, as the processes of extraction, production, transport and disposal for those water bottles may implicate us in risks and destruction for humans and nonhuman creatures across the planet. Tracing these networks is discomforting and demanding. It also involves new modes of ethics and politics, since the boundaries between person, place, object and substance cannot be maintained. It makes no sense to think of the human as safely separate from the “environments” we have transformed.
My new book, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times, argues that we need to begin by recognizing our own inescapable exposure to “the environment.” Environmental justice and climate justice paradigms are essential for taking account of the precise ways in which some groups of people are more exposed to environmental harms than others.
The concept of the Anthropocene, which stresses the enormity of human impact on the planet, emphasizes that everything we do is intimately and thoroughly connected with different networks of environmental risk, harm and injustice. Rather than trying to step back and consider the state of the planet from a transcendent perspective, and rather than taking refuge in technocratic paradigms of sustainability that seem to afford human control over an external nature, we need to think, feel and act as the very stuff of the world.
Sustainability practices, with their intricate challenges and their many tangible pleasures, are always at hand.
Alaimo has more than 40 scholarly articles and chapters – published and forthcoming – on such topics as the paradigm of sustainability, gender and climate change, the Anthropocene, ocean conservation and other topics such as her concept of “trans-corporeality,” which is widely cited. Her books include "Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self" (2010), which won the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment book award for ecocriticism, and "Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times" (2016).Alaimo’s work has been/is being translated into Swedish, Portuguese, Polish and Greek. She is currently finishing the book "Blue Ecologies: Science, Aesthetics, and the Creatures of the Abyss," and starting "Liquid Carbon and other Unthinkable States."