Modestly proposing to bring into conversation two fields which have long been at odds with one another, Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara's co-edited collection, Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory, delivers a marvelous first-of-its-kind compendium in this quickly growing and dynamic intersection of artistic, activist, and scholarly inquiry. As Stacy Alaimo points out in the Forward, "it is precisely these bold attempts—that refuse ready answers—that make this volume so significant, positioning it as an invaluable point of departure for future scholarship" (p. xii). This collection's attention to the frictions between these fields and its inclusion of both foundational essays and new work at the crossroads of Disability Studies and the environmental humanities importantly underlines the materialization of the body, ecological relationality, and how critical conversations of race, long marginalized in both areas of inquiry, must be centralized in and across these fields.
Before turning to the contents of the collection and answering what is gained by putting Disability Studies and the environmental humanities together, it is useful to give some idea of the book's structure and temporal, geographic, and disciplinary scope. This book is decidedly a U.S.-centered one; the majority of scholars are US-based and most essays focus upon U.S. geographies and texts. That said, several essays employ a transnational frame in order to examine the dynamic influence between the U.S. and other countries, especially its (more often than not) destructive corporate, military, and environmental impacts. I will speak more to this below, but for now I wish only to say that it is refreshing that the editors are clear about this geographic and political limit and what that powerfully enables across the contributions as a whole. Temporally, the essays are firmly rooted in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with a few outlying essays coming from further back in time (e.g. the 17th century and the 1800's). Combined with these geographic and political boundaries, this historical frame, surveying many important issues over the last century, is a benefit to the collection and a resistance to insidious forms of presentism (a failing, noted by the editors, sometimes levelled at Disability Studies). In terms of disciplinary approaches, this text is highly interdisciplinary inside the humanities, ranging from discourse and media analysis to medical anthropology, and highly intersectional, employing theoretical tools from feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies, among others.
Finally, the book is structured around two large sections: a set of classic essays ("Foundations") and a set of more recent contributions ("New Essays") which both respond to and expand upon themes and trajectories in the foundational works. Set up this way, the volume makes an excellent resource for a senior undergraduate or graduate level course which prioritizes the intersection of disability and environmental approaches. Jay and Sibara explain that the aim of this structure is "to construct the anthology as a genealogical project" as they "believe it will benefit readers to see a lineage of thought collected in one volume" (p. 6). This genealogical narrative is a useful map for both individual research and ease of teaching across such a large collection.
For those new to environmentally-focused approaches to research, let alone the environmental humanities, one might ask: why put these two fields into conversation in the first place? What generative questions arise from such an intersection? What new avenues of inquiry? And, hopefully, what new ways of considering old impasses might be found from such an odd couple? As this review is set in Disability Studies Quarterly, let's begin from the side of Disability Studies. What is to be gained by considering the environment when conducting research that prioritizes disability experiences and communities?
As the editors and many authors in the collection note, mainstream environmentalism holds a poor track record when it comes to disability. Ray's essay from the Foundations section of the book, "Risking Bodies in the Wild: The 'Corporeal Unconscious' of American Adventure Culture," makes clear the ways in which, historically and continuing to the current time, mainstream environmentalist politics and activism both assume and imagine a highly, if not ultra, -able (white, male, youthful) body out of doors. In addition, Disability Studies itself hardly ever imagines disabled bodies out and about in the natural world on their own, let alone to risk their bodies rock climbing or to somehow "escape" the toxic influences of cities. As Alison Kafer points out in her classic essay included in the Foundations section, "Bodies of Nature: The Environmental Politics of Disability," the natural world is just as constructed to us as the built environment is and we would do well to consider the ways in which national parks and other highly managed green spaces have been designed to prevent the presence of disabled people in them.
While much can be discussed about what is gained in this pairing, what I'd like to focus upon in this review is twofold. First that this volume is most definitely not about "newfound" understandings of environmental concerns in disability but, rather, entirely about how these fields have been thought of as incommensurate when in fact they have much to offer one another. Second, that the pairing of these two fields importantly reanimates long overdue conversations concerning disability and race. Disability Studies has long been critiqued for its inherent privileging of whiteness and its marginalization of racialized bodies and experiences (e.g. Bell 2006) and this collection offers many powerful examples with which to re-think, re-invigorate, and re-imagine the central importance of race in Disability Studies scholarship.
Jay and Sibara open up their introduction by underlining how "disability studies challenges dominant perceptions of the body as separate from the contexts in which bodies live, work, and play" (p. 1) and that "[p]utting these fields in dialogue means identifying what we learn by recasting these concerns of the environmental humanities in terms that disability studies scholars enlist, such as ableism, access, and the medical model" (p. 1-2). This volume underscores the necessity of conceiving of the body in relational terms: disability is not an individual failing or problem, bodies and the environment are porous and vulnerable to one another, and, perhaps most importantly, this collection makes clear that humans and non-human (or more-than-human) species (plants, animals, and other biota) are in an intense relationship to one another. Or, as Alaimo puts it when considering the possible gain of this scholarly collaboration: "thinking of humans and all other species as they exist at the permeable, enmeshed crossroads of body and place, within wider networks and interchanges, may be much more revealing and generative than imagining environments as external resources and humans as discrete agents" (p. xv).
An excellent example of this form of collaborative, "permeable, enmeshed crossroads" can be found in Eli Clare's contribution to the volume. Clare takes up the environment and disability in an intensely entangled ecological relationship. Many conversations of "nature" and the "environment" only consider these terms as ideas, not as messy, lived, material realities. Clare's essay asks us: what does it mean to "crip" environmental studies and to "ecologize" Disability Studies?
Expanding on his earlier seminal work, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (1999/2009), Clare's more recent essay reprinted as the final essay in the Foundations section, "Notes on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure," powerfully pinpoints the messy entanglements, and productive promise of bringing disability and environmental thinking together. Walking with a friend through a tallgrass prairie, recently restored from a large cornfield, Clare reflects on the terms normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural:
As we walk I think about the words natural and unnatural, normal and abnormal. Does this fragment of land in transition from cornfield to tallgrass prairie define what natural is? If so, how do we name the overabundance of birch and goldenrod, the absence of bison? What was once normal here? What can we consider normal now? Normal and natural dance together, while unnatural and abnormal bully, threaten, patrol the boundaries. Of course it's an inscrutable dance. How does unnatural technology repair so-called abnormal bodies to their natural ways of being? Dismissing the distinctions between normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural, as meaningless would be lovely, except they wield extraordinary power. (p. 243; emphasis in original text)
Clare's musings upon these entangled and often illogical terms lead him to think in particular about the "politics of cure." He writes:
In creating a politics of cure, we need to hold both the desire to restore a pancreas to its typical functioning and the value of bodily difference, knowing all the while that we will never live in a world where disability does not exist. How do we embrace the brilliant imperfection of disability and what it has to offer the world while knowing that very few of us would actively choose it to begin with? (p. 250; my emphasis)
Holding this aporia of incommensurate thoughts and questions together is no easy task and the editors have chosen well to place Clare's newest work at the close of the first section. Seemingly aimed at the contributors of the New Essays of this voluminous text, Clare asks: "How can bodily and ecological loss become an integral conundrum of both the human and non-human world, accepted in a variety of ways, cure and restoration only a single response among many" (p. 255)? Springing from this question, the New Essays emphasize the importance of collectivity and relationality and the mutual vulnerabilities of bodies and ecological worlds that cannot, should not, be reduced to illogical definitions of ab/normal and un/natural or easy acceptance or understandings of the meaning of loss.
Alongside this intensification of human-non-human, bodily-environmental ethical relationality, the collection as a whole makes a compelling intervention regarding disability and race. "Many of the foundational pieces collectively demonstrate the value of humanities-based inquiries in identifying how mainstream discourses about disability and the environment have supported the interests of white supremacy and ableism" (p. 11). As the editors point out, in the first sub-section of New Essays, "Corporeal Legacies of U.S. Nation-Building," "one of the most productive points of contact between the fields of disability studies and environmental justice is U.S. imperialism" (p. 12). These essays form a kind of response to a history of the "implicit racism underlying disability studies, [and, one might argue, the environmental humanities,] which has discouraged ethnic studies scholars and scholars of color from engaging with the field" (p. 14).
The editors forefront this emphasis in the structure of the book itself. The first several sub-sections of New Essays deal head on with the oppressive, racialized dimensions of disability, including the effects of U.S. imperialism both in the U.S. and abroad ("Corporeal Legacies of U.S. Nation-Building"), environmental disasters precipitated by U.S. corporate interests ([Re]Producing Toxicity"), and the unfair distribution of and access to food in the U.S. ("Food Justice"). Across these and the final sections ("Curing Crips? Narratives of Health and Space" and "Interspecies and Interage Identifications") environmental justice appears as a frequent key word across chapter titles, indicating the wide interest in the ways that environmental degradation often produces disabling effects upon racialized bodies in and outside of the United States. Geographically these include North America (from the 17th century through to the present), Puerto Rico, the U.S.-Mexican border, Laos, Bhopal, and Iraq. This attention to US imperialism resituates disability concerns in the historical, ongoing processes of colonialism, as opposed to ahistorical presentism and identity politics that haunt and limit scholarship in Disability Studies.
Some examples are worthy of note. Somewhat anticipating Clare's essay, Valerie Ann Johnson argues in her Foundations essay, "Bringing Together Feminist Disability Studies and Environmental Justice": "Merging feminist disability studies and environmental justice forces us to confront the power dynamics that reinforce a narrow view of 'normal,' one that privileges a particular sense of the human body that is constrictive, not expansive" (p. 81). This expansive vision is embraced by other scholars that follow in this trajectory. For example, Siobhan Senier's contribution, "Blind Indians: Káteri Tekakwí:tha and Joseph Amos's Visions of Indigenous Resurgence," draws important attention to the historical and ongoing imbrication of ableism and U.S. colonialism, while Natasha Simpson's essay, "Disabling Justice? The Exclusion of People with Disabilities from the Food Justice Movement," casts new light upon the food justice activism of the Black Panthers in the late 1960's.
Finally, Anita Mannur's essay, "'That Night': Seeing Bhopal Through the Lens of Disability and Environmental Justice Studies," powerfully articulates the consequences of what Rob Nixon has called "slow death." Mannur grapples with the "devastating temporality" (p. 187) of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal in 1984. Quoting Nixon, Mannur labels the disaster a "slow dying," that is "the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological that result from toxic aftermaths" (p. 386, Nixon, as quoted in Mannur). Reflecting back to Clare's essay and other central contributions in this volume, Mannur argues that we must keep in mind how "the effects of violence are never contained by a single spatiotemporal moment" (p. 386). Paying attention to both domestic and transnational flows of U.S. imperialism and racism brings us closer to the ways in which disability and the environment need to be re-thought beyond singular spatiotemporal registers that nationalism and presentism minimize or erase. Such capacious re-thinking as Mannur, Johnson, and others demonstrate offers the tools for this theoretical re-working.
As outlined by Ray and Sibara, Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities is clearly intended for an academic audience. That said, the bibliographic and reference sections for each chapter contain rich resources for those searching for texts that bring disability and the environment into conversation in and outside of scholarly circles. For example, the last chapter by Elizabeth A. Wheeler, "Moving Together Side by Side: Human-Animal Comparisons in Picture Books" contains a wonderful bibliography of the picture books under study. In this vein it is also worth noting that many scholars, beginning with Mel Chen's and Valerie Ann Johnson's contributions in Foundations, identify the figure of the Child as the grounds upon which race, disability, and environmental concerns intersect and are fought over. The figure of the Child, whether unborn and the focus of reproductive rights, as a rallying point for racist media and policy interventions, or as a contentions figure in studies of autism is a powerful locus of political investments and normative futurity; therefore, this book makes for excellent reading for those in Child/hood Studies and related fields. As an academic resource, this volume would be a marvelous text for a senior undergraduate or graduate course, especially where intersectionality with race, gender, sexuality, class, nation and other processes are privileged. This is most obviously a useful text for those in Environmental and/or Disability Studies but would also be a useful resource for scholars and students in environmental justice/racism studies, animal studies, critical race and ethnic studies, feminist and women and gender studies, courses that focus on the body/corporeality, political ecologies, and temporality studies.
Though an overall solid collection, I had hoped for greater stretching "toward" eco-crip theorizing in the work's introduction. The book definitely showcases a wonderfully diverse array of approaches to eco-crip theorizing, but I wish that the editors themselves had helped to shape more of this work in their introduction. For instance, mapping the interconnections between disability and the environment by considering how ideological uses of N/nature have been entangled deeply with considerations of the in/human and the body and have been deployed through colonial and imperial expansions to the present time would have been welcome. In addition, a more solid genealogical mapping of the ways in which race has been historically omitted in Disability Studies and how it has powerfully become an important area in the field in relation to the essays in the collection would also have been useful, especially a robust expansion of the Introduction's bibliography for novice scholars concerning this topic. That said, the collection stands firmly on its own and should be a must-read for those committed to expanding Disability Studies into new and exciting avenues of research.
Complementary to Clare's claim that we must accept and find ways to value the scars, furrows, and never totally restored ecological spaces and bodies around us, Eunjung Kim's recent work, Curative Violence: Rehabilitating Disability, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern Korea, offers us one way that we might envision a move "toward" eco-crip theories that can attend not just to disability and environmental concerns, but concerns of race, transnational justice, and decolonization. Like Clare, Kim invites us to think of disability outside of normative concepts of time, outside of the crushing binary thinking of before and after:
Can we ever see a disabled body as it is, not as it was or as it should become? What makes the present with disability livable, unlivable, or something in between? The struggle to inhabit the present both with the body's history and with its future, after aging, characterizes life in folded time, as attention is exclusively paid to the past and future, projecting nostalgia about the "better" past and hopes for a "better" future on the disabled body. I might call folded time a time machine, whose purpose is to enable one to leave the present. Rather than simply arguing for presentism and dismissing the importance of the past and the future, or suggesting that we all need to live in the moment or do nothing, I am making the case for exploring how the registers of betterment and deterioration are configured. I am also making the case for imagining a future outside the binary of grandiose hope and despair, a future that is livable without violence. (p. 226; my emphasis)
Kim's invocation of the time machine provides a fruitful means by which we might imagine and reach toward a proliferation of many eco-crip theories which forefront transnational feminist disability theory, critical race studies, and other anti-colonial frames that seek to imagine the "possibility of life with disability without violence" that Kim calls for. An eco-crip theory then, as demonstrated by the authors in this collection, should never be prescriptive, but must always be imaginative, an ethical approach toward futures that we currently cannot see but in which we will eventually inhabit together.
- Bell, C. (2006). Introducing white disability studies: A modest proposal. In The disability studies reader, 2nd Edition., L. J. Davis (Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 275-82.
- Clare, E. (2015). Exile and pride: Disability, queerness, and liberation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822374879
- Kim, E. (2017). Curative violence: Rehabilitating disability, gender, and sexuality in modern Korea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.