Beyond Ecological Democracy: Black Feminist Thought and the End of Man
Published in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 16, no. 2 at http://www.jcrt.org/archives/16.2/Meyer.pdf
Wildlife Services is a subbranch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that primarily operates in the Western half of the United States, receiving 100 million dollars of federal funding annually. One of the “services” that the agency provides is the slaughter of 100,000 native carnivores per year (primarily coyotes, wolves, bears, and mountain lions). This killing is accomplished with traps, poison, and, most dramatically, by gunning animals down from planes and helicopters; it takes place on public lands that are set apart, among other purposes, as habitat for just such creatures. The main purpose of the program is to prevent loss of livestock grazing on or adjacent to public lands, and the killing enjoys strong support among ranchers. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the program remains highly questionable. Only a tiny percentage of livestock losses result from predation, and killing major predators has occasionally, among other unintended consequences, increased reproduction rates in targeted populations. With huge costs and marginal benefits, it seems clear that cultural forces larger than the program’s stated goals sustain such biopolitical slaughter. Some latent animosity maintains this longstanding war on carnivorous neighbors.
In its critical moment, this essay seeks to name the political ecology that compels and validates the actions of Wildlife Services—or the more familiar abject exploitation of nonhuman animals in factory farming and medical experimentation. Through the lens of political theology, this excessive and shortsighted animosity toward nonhuman animals represents a secularized legacy of the theological tradition of anthropological exceptionalism (often rooted in the imago dei) transformed and amplified through the Enlightenment. Beyond the ecological context, neither the animosity nor the exceptionalism under consideration here follow the boundaries of the human species. The normative conception of humanity at the heart of anthropological exceptionalism and its ecological enmities also drives the cultural logic of racialized and gendered hierarchies through the association of some human beings with animality, such that the social benefits of “full humanity” are unevenly distributed.
In its constructive moment, this essay seeks to imagine an alternative political ecology by attending to the thought of Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and Delores Williams. These scholars, as Black feminists, each attend to gradations and slippages within normative conceptions of humanity that thinkers more commonly associated with political theology—such as Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben—pass over. One of the wagers of this essay, then, is that the thought of Wynter, Hartman, and Williams (among others) provides better guidance for the constructive work of political theology—especially a theology that takes stock of human interaction with nonhuman creatures. Taking Wildlife Service’s systematic slaughter as a touchstone example, both the critical and constructive portions of this essay will focus on normative conceptions of humanity in relation to proposals for “democracy” as a paradigm for the transformation of human-nonhuman political relations.
There is an impulse—especially within ecological thought and ecologically-attuned political theology, to turn toward democracy as the conceptual model through which we might best resist the exploitative degradation of Earth’s living creatures and their ecosystems. While I agree that explicitly political analysis provides the best theological approach to ecological concerns, I grow increasingly skeptical of democracy as the best model for transforming relations between human and nonhuman creatures. In large part, as this essay will demonstrate, this skepticism arises through a unique convergence of postsecular and decolonial analysis that fragments and particularizes purportedly universal concepts such as ‘nature,’ ‘humanity,’ ‘liberty,’ and ‘sovereignty.’ Of course, postsecular and decolonial discourses are not entirely aligned, but both have pressed poignant questions for the Enlightenment humanist tradition that nourishes modern liberal democracy. This essay attends to the thought of Black feminist authors in order to highlight an alternative framework for a political theology that resists ecological degradation, briefly sketching a postsecular and posthumanist political ecology marked by the fragmentation of any singular sovereignty into a pluralism of differentiated creaturely sovereignties. Democracy is not the only way of imagining divine justice in creation and may not be the best one.