The proliferation of nationalist and anti-immigration populism in western democracies during the Trump presidency underscores potential problems with place-based politics anticipated in Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet
. Heise presciently analyzes environmentalism’s common recourse to regionalism as a form of “reterritorialization” that “attempts to realign culture with place”1
in reaction to global neoliberal capitalism’s deterritorializing influence. Responses to such displacement abound in environmental criticism, ranging from neo-nationalist protests against box-store homogenization (such as Paul Kingsnorth’s complaint that we are becoming “citizens of nowhere”2
) to progressivist critiques such as Rob Nixon’s analysis of impoverished peoples in developing nations who experience “the loss of [−] land and resources beneath them”3
at the hands of multinational corporations. While local activism is, in many instances, a necessary and appropriate means to push back against globalism’s socio-ecological costs, Heise urges caution in uncritically embracing place-based politics, given that in “tracing one’s own roots in a particular locale and defending it against despoliation, it is sometimes but a small step to a class-based or even racially tinged politics of exclusion that seeks to preserve it for the benefit of a specific social group against the interests of others.”4
The problem Heise identifies goes beyond mere NIMBY-ism wherein economically privileged classes seek to minimize environmental pollution in places where they reside in favor of outsourcing it to less privileged communities. When place-based consciousness is allied with xenophobia, as has become prevalent in right-wing populist movements and the rise of race-based nationalism in countries such as the US and Britain, this creates a toxic parochialism wherein citizens define themselves by othering those who live outside local and national borders as threats to the purity of a people and their place. Such a response to contemporary neoliberal capitalism is ideological in a classic Marxist sense, insofar as it responds to real and pressing socio-ecological problems stemming from globalism by creating false solutions to these problems. Having conveniently scapegoated non-white immigrants as “others” which
supposedly threaten the prosperity of local communities, the Trump administration sought to tighten America’s borders and to punish so-called sanctuary cities while simultaneously deregulating governmental oversight of the fossil-fuel industry that is driving climate change and producing socio-ecological crisis around the globe. In the face of such alarming developments, Heise’s challenge that we develop an “environmentally oriented cosmopolitanism”5
wherein socio-ecological politics “might be formulated in terms that are premised no longer primarily on ties to local places but on ties to territories and systems that are understood to encompass the planet as a whole”6
is more pressing than ever.
In exploring both the promise and pitfalls of place-based advocacy, it is important to acknowledge at the outset that such thought encompasses a broad range of political commitments, from progressive bio-regionalisms to fundamentalist “prepper”/redoubt culture and (further right still) race-based separatist movements. My purpose in this paper is not to suggest that all bio-regionalisms are inherently reactionary or to deny the importance of place-based political activism.7
Rather, my goal is to illuminate ways in which place should be regarded as an historically informed and ever-evolving phenomena, rather than a means to escape modernity by essentializing regional identity. The ideological association of place with the biological homeland of a people (articulated as “blood and soil” politics in totalitarian regimes), or with fortress-like communities of like-minded survivalists are forms of place-based consciousness that ignore the problematic legacy of racist colonialism and nationalist fundamentalism(s). Or, to put it another way, my critique focuses on visions of place that deny (or repress) its inescapably uncanny
qualities—how the areas we inhabit are haunted by the traces of peoples and more-than-human lifeforms that have been displaced, erased, or oppressed in the name of territorial identity. As an alternative to essentialist place-based consciousness, I will explore visions of place emerging in Anthropocene theory which valorize the struggles of diverse agents negotiating the challenges of socio-ecological precarity in the Capitalocene.8
If one of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene era is that it is no longer politically useful to valorize “untouched” landscapes (such as wilderness) while evading the question of how we might live more sustainably in anthropogenically altered ones, this implies that place-based advocacy must break free of older dualistic models which link reterritorialization to a rearguard rejection of modernity. Inspired by contemporary accounts of the Anthropocene developed by thinkers such as Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Anna Tsing, and Donna Haraway, my paper’s working hypothesis is that place-based advocacy must be queered
in order to include an awareness of colonial history’s socio-ecological costs and a commitment to future trans-species justice if it is to play a role in progressive ecological politics. Moreover, I argue that Jeff VanderMeer’s contemporary fiction imagines inhabitation
along such lines as an historically contingent process of place-making
that involves diverse, trans-species actors rather than as an essentialist phenomenon that legitimates one form of identity while denigrating others.
Queer ecology, as explored by Mortimer-Sandilands, Timothy Morton, Greta Gaard, and others, shares many of the concerns of Anthropocene theory, not the least of which is how to process feelings of grief or “eco-melancholy” that often accompany the loss of places to environmental destruction. Rather than fetishizing pristine locales in an idealized past, queer ecology typically addresses how diverse groups can channel grief in order to build sustainable communities in damaged places of the present, with a view to transforming future ecological politics. In her influential essay “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies,” Mortimer-Sandilands asks readers “what would it mean to consider seriously the environmental present, in explicit contrast to discourses of ecological modernization, as a pile of environmental wreckage, constituted and haunted by multiple, personal, and deeply traumatic losses rather than as a position from which to celebrate their demise by consuming them …”9
As an attempt to develop a politics of mourning for more-than-human beings normally excluded from the status of subjects worthy of grief within anthropocentric culture (a project that parallels activism to legitimate the mourning of queers lost to AIDS in homophobic culture) eco-melancholia constitutes a potential catalyst for a radical new politics insofar as it is an experience wherein subjects allow themselves to be transformed
by the experience of loss, haunted by lost places, peoples and/or animal others. As such, it is a means of politicizing what Rob Nixon characterizes as the “temporalities of place,” or the idea that place is a “temporal attainment
[my emphasis] that must be constantly negotiated in the face of changes that arrive from without and within”10
including the “slow violence” of environmental toxicity and destruction disproportionately suffered by the world’s poor. If “place” is irreducibly enmeshed with time, then remembering and memorializing the past can be a step towards meaningful ecological reform. Or, as the editors of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
put it, “every landscape is haunted by past ways of life” and, under conditions of neo-liberal capitalism, “anthropogenic landscapes are also haunted by imagined futures [wherein] we are willing to turn things into rubble, destroy atmospheres, sell out companion species in exchange for dreamworlds of progress.”11
To avoid perpetuating such violence, queer theory asks us to get in touch with our collective (normally repressed) experiences of socio-ecological loss, to see past destruction but also the trace of an imagined—more sustainable—future in ostensibly ruined environments.
Although Jeff VanderMeer’s surreal fiction may initially seem like an unlikely source for transformative visions of place relevant to “real-world” politics, close engagement with his work reveals the extent to which he challenges readers to re-imagine place as a temporal phenomenon shaped by global capitalism and haunted by its socio-ecological costs. The weird post-apocalyptic wasteland in the Borne books illustrates the degree to which place has become newly uncanny in an Anthropocene world shaped by global climate change, miasmic toxicity, forced migration, species extinction, and runaway biotechnology. Nonetheless, diverse groups of marginalized humans, more-than-human “people” and feral lifeforms manage to create homes in these drastically altered environments. In these storyworlds, place-based consciousness does not emerge from characters who share common familial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or species identity banding together to recover a traditional, earth-based lifestyle purified of the taint of modernity. Instead, VanderMeer imagines ways that vastly different beings damaged by capitalist colonialism survive and eventually thrive by participating in rhizomatic, trans-species networks. A sense of place emerges in his fiction as an historically informed negotiation of global and local phenomena marked by eco-melancholic losses, but also hope for a future in which all lifeforms on the planet might thrive in the environments they share.
One of the most important dimensions of VanderMeer’s handling of place-based consciousness is the way he excavates the his...