Thursday, June 22, 2017

Expanding the Meaning of "Deep Ecology": Guest Post by Judith Newton

Judith Newton is professor emerita at U.C. Davis in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies. Judy is at work on the second in the Emily Addams Food for Thought Series. Oink. A Food for Thought Mystery was published in April 2017 with She Writes Press.  Judy is the author of five books of non fiction. Her memoir, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen, came out in 2013 with She Writes Press and won twelve independent press awards. Read her post on Mystery Fanfare: What's Corn Got to Do with It? How Food Can Define a Mystery's Worldview. 

Judith Newton:
Expanding the Meaning of "Deep Ecology"

My novel, Oink. A Food for Thought Mystery, is a sly send up of universities in general for their ever increasing devotion to profit, individual advance, the big and the strong. It is also an affirmation that communities organized around a thirst for social justice have the power to revitalize a different set of values, values that emphasize community and the common good and that give importance to the smallest life forms. In Oink the latter set of values is embodied in characters who participate in a political alliance among faculty in women’s and ethnic studies and who resist having their programs defunded by a newly corporatized administration. (The story is based on real life experience.)

Since Oink is set at a land-grant university known for its agricultural past and its biotechnological future, I couldn’t help but relate this clash of values to the ecological issues in which so many scientists on campus were involved. Many scientists, for example, in life and in the book, support a view of the natural world which gives value to community, the common good, and the importance of the smallest forms of life. This support is often referred to as “respect for biodiversity,” “biodiversity” being most simply defined as the variety of natural life. Biodiversity is often studied within particular “ecosystems,” communities of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. To show “respect for biodiversity” means attaching value to the smallest kinds of life in such environments and it means understanding that harm to one form of life poses a threat to all the others to which it is connected.

Some scientists and many non-scientists as well extend “respect for biodiversity” to incorporate “deep ecology” which posits a more intimate connection between humans and the natural world. According to Chris Johnstone, deep ecology “involves moving beyond the individualism of Western culture towards seeing ourselves as part of the earth. . . . It means experiencing ourselves as part of the living earth and finding our role in protecting the planet. “

In Oink, the Native Elder Frank Walker expresses respect for biodiversity and deep ecology both when he speaks about “ecology as a way of thinking about life that brought together the sacred source of creation with plants, animals, human beings, and the light of the sun. . . . We do nothing by ourselves. We are part of a continuum extending outward from our consciousness, living in harmony with living things. Even rocks are living energy . . . we cannot hurt any part of the earth without hurting ourselves . . . always remember your grandmother is underneath your feet."

The novel’s protagonist, Emily Addams, experiences something similar to this when she enters her garden after a particularly hard day: “I opened the dining room sliders and entered the quiet of the yard. Off to the side lay a vegetable garden where full red tomatoes and pale green tomatillos lingered. Black figs hung heavily, like wrinkled pouches, upon the large tree. I could smell their winey ripeness. Song swallows made warbling sounds. A hummingbird whirred in the air feeding on purple salvia, and a bronze monarch silently winged its way past. I listened to the quiet. The garden surged with life, and I was a part of it, receiving and tending to it. But all the while it went on without me.”

That many animals and plants just appear in Oink as the human characters are carrying on their daily business is meant to enforce this deep sense of interconnection between human and natural worlds as is the fact that many characters are described as looking like plants or animals. The Vice Provost with her long nose reminds Emily of a hummingbird. The scientist Tess Ryan makes Emily think of a “young and vigorous stalk of corn,” and the villain, Peter Elliott, is compared to a pig by another character though the actual pigs in the novel are far more charming than he.

Ironically, as Emily observes during a meeting over the latest budget crisis in the university, it is possible to have respect for biodiversity in the natural world without extending that respect to biodiversity in human communities as well. Many scientists at the meeting, for example, anxious to preserve money for their own research projects, propose to offset the budget crisis by raising student tuition and cutting staff, thereby further burdening the staff who remain. Emily regards these sentiments as expressions of disrespect for biodiversity in the university community, a disrespect that is potentially harmful to the university as a whole since its research and administration are supported by and, indeed, dependent on overworked and underpaid staff.

Another example of disrespect for human biodiversity is suggested by the fact that the programs in women’s and ethnic studies are being threatened with extinction, despite their significant contributions to the university, because they are small and staffed by those who have been historically regarded as marginal. Were the women’s and ethnic studies programs to be defunded, Emily points out, the university would be robbed of experts who devote their research to exploring the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality structure human societies and culture. The university would also lose those most devoted to mentoring marginalized students and to providing a sense of community to faculty who might feel isolated because of race or gender in their own departments. All of this would undermine the university’s formal espousal of “diversity” as one of its central goals.

Oink, therefore, tries to expand the meaning of respect for biodiversity and deep ecology to include human communities as well, and, in so doing, it implicitly modifies Chris Johnstone’s line about “deep ecology”: Deep ecology, involves moving beyond the individualism of Western culture towards seeing ourselves as part of the earth and part of a human community as well and finding our role in protecting the planet and the people living on it.


Patricia Dusenbury said...

What a great example of enriching a story by incorporating larger issues, expressing your worldview in a story without burdening the narrative. I have not read OINK yet, but it had just found a spot on my to be read list.

Judith said...

Thank you so much, Patricia. This is just what I meant to do.