(The following essay may be used in whole or in part in an upcoming journal)
In recent years the debate around the desirability and sustainability of civilization has to some degree been thrust from the margins of fringe-radical theory into a surprisingly mainstream spotlight. While the topic is by no means ubiquitous or mundane, the popularity of Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Aric McBay’s books on the topic, coupled with increasing media coverage of the mass environmental crises of our times has made it so that you don’t have to lurk the small alternative coffee shops of Eugene, Oregon any more to get a decent dose of anti-civilization (anti-civ) theory. More established, long-time figures in the field, such as John Zerzan, are suddenly getting a bit more main-stream attention as a result as well. Interestingly, a few characters usually thought of as liberal-progressive celebrities, such as Arundhati Roy (author, God of Small Things) and Chris Hedges (Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist) have joined in the radical questioning of civilization.
Additionally, I believe that the revitalizing emergence of Zapatismo in the 1990s and an upsurge in decolonization theory by radical indigenous authors such as Waziyatawin and Ward Churchill, in some instances geared specifically towards anarchists, has shifted the center of anarchist debate toward a place friendlier to anti-civ thought. It has in part done this by helping to target the more problematic aspects of our collectively Marxist-influenced anarchist politics, questioning the logic of even collective or non-authoritarian settler/industrial society. The few trans anti-civ radicals that I have known personally have, for their part, tended to get to that position by a more esoteric route, sometimes drawing on the work of French philosophers that I find to be thoroughly confusing, or the likes of Stanley Diamond, an intriguing anthropologist who came to a kind of anti-civ stance because of his Marxism.
In any case, I think it’s relevant to note that one of those three authors mentioned at the beginning of all this, Lierre Keith, has been identified as a rabid transphobe (and Jensen at the very least an apologist). For some time it had been suspected, considering her background in radical feminist (radfem) and lesbian separatist circles. Suspicions were confirmed when she responded to questions about the issue prior to speaking at an anti-porn event with something of a transphobic polemic. In it she goes so far as to claim that she watched the concept of ‘trans’ be created by the porn and s/m culture during her own lifetime, though overall her attack is made up of the same tired tropes that we’re used to debunking.
Is it just a coincidence? Do her anti-trans and anti-civ politics overlap in any significant way? It appears to me that they are largely incidental, but also not particularly surprising. I have to imagine that she’s at least sympathetic towards Janice Raymond’s paranoid view of trans women as duped gunea pigs, fodder for the medical industrial complex’s evil scheming and ultimately monsters on par with Frankenstein’s. Within the context of her anti-civ analysis, she most likely sees transsexual people as naturally reactionary defenders of the industrial system, hopelessly addicted to a ‘medical empire’ that can’t last. She probably suspects, in as much as she might think about it at all, that trans people will simply wither away and disappear after civilization is brought down. Never mind the fact that we have existed in just about every place, in every culture, through the ages.
The issue is, however, one that cannot be dealt with in a single, cutting come-back. Calling the topic ‘complex’ would be putting it lightly. Everything from social/personal identity to physical survival is bound up in this stormy field of consideration. As someone who is actively seeking to medically transition in certain ways, and someone who has serious qualms with (particularly industrial) civilization, how to navigate this field is one of THE questions that I find myself preoccupied with.
I feel that “disability” politics are intimately bound to this discourse. For his part, Lierre’s co-conspirator Derrick Jensen has made it clear that when or if civilization comes down, the presumed lack of access to the drugs that he currently relies on for survival (he has a chronic, degenerative disease) will kill him. He says he’s ready to pay that price, and I believe that he means it. Plenty of folks have asked them both what they suggest people with various alter-abilities or conditions do in order to survive or maintain mobility, etc., in a post-civilized world. Their responses tend to be less nuanced than I would like, often hinging on crass admonishments to stockpile drugs or wheelchair parts, for example. That archeologists have made it fairly clear that people with various debilitating conditions were supported well enough to make it to reasonably old ages in plenty of ancient, pre-industrial settings is somewhat more comforting to me, but doesn’t come close to answering all of my questions.
On a scientific/environmental basis I agree with most of what folks like Jensen, Keith and McBay say about industrial infrastructure. For those not familiar with the basics of this position, essentially the creation, expansion and maintenance of this infrastructure, the whole complex of fossil fuel/electric energy and its metal and plastic components, is at its very base toxic through and through. Industrial civilization in particular is so destructive that it will eventually obliterate itself, and presumably anyone dependent upon it for survival. However, simply waiting for civilization to implode and then preceding from there is not much of a viable option since it’s likely to collapse the life sustaining capacity of our environment in the process. Therefore, if we want to survive, we need to bring civilization down sooner rather than later.
This stance is actually less ideological than it might sound. Both the United Nations and the American Museum of Natural History have released or endorsed reports stating that current industrially-prompted rates of species loss threaten human survival within the next hundred years. The millenarian/apocalyptic sounding notion that the next generation could be the last actually rests on a pretty firm scientific basis. Of key importance is that green technology is not the cure-all that it often promises to be. One report on the environmental effects of manufacturing solar panels makes the process sound more like a crazed, anti-nature poisoning rampage than a concerned and compassionate response to environmental damage. Perhaps the natural environment could indefinitely supply the materials for and remain resilient in the face of a few, scattered, miniscule electrical systems; something on the scale of a couple tiny back-yard mining and refining, machining and fabricating projects – but nothing more, and certainly nothing anywhere near the scale of what we have now. To my mind this situation is cold, hard and real. It is the independent variable that sets the parameters of other concerns. More nuanced critiques of pre-industrial, agriculture-based civilization for example, or the damaging social effects of cultural civilization and technology only complicate the situation further.
The fucked up part comes when you try to reconcile what I see as that prior scientific fact with our current social realities and concerns. Being the dependent variable that needs to conform to the surroundings doesn’t seem fair. As trans and queer people we’re used to being forced to conform to surroundings in the worst ways possible: it’s aggravating, painful, and often deadly. A million situations pop up that make me really want to tweak that prior understanding and its resulting stance. Frequently, after talking with social justice advocates or other radicals about my understanding of environmental sustainability, they will ask me why I want to make life hard for so many people, as if it really were my decision as opposed to simply my observation. At the end of the day, though, I get the distinct feeling that the physical reality of our environment, what it can and can’t tolerate, really is calling the shots. Essentially, it appears to me that social concerns simply cannot invalidate previously established physical constraints… and now I sound a bit like some of the very transphobic academics that I like to rail against. I feel there is a balance to be found somewhere in between working within natural limits and affirming unbound creativity. But where is it?
I worry about what I would say if I had my facial hair removed by electrolysis; afterwards participated in the destruction of the industrial economy; and then later was confronted by a younger trans person who didn’t get the chance to benefit from the same industrial process that I did. I recognize that it’s an improbable rhetorical device, but the prospect of it still leaves me feeling crazy. I think the experience would crush me.
From first-hand accounts I know that going without hormones can be a frustrating, painful and emotionally debilitating experience for those, MtF or FtM, who have been on HRT for some time. For trans people who have undergone surgery that alters their body’s production of hormones, being denied external estrogen or testosterone can be physically damaging. Of course this is not something we need to theorize about strictly within the confines of some imagined post-collapse future; today’s civilization regularly denies plenty of trans and non-trans people alike necessary healthcare through poverty or incarceration.
So what are our options?
I do not feel prepared to offer what I would consider to be appropriate, well developed solutions. Again I will have to suffice with observations.
Earlier I said that trans folks have existed throughout the ages. To be more precise, people have existed who we might today call trans when viewed through the lens of contemporary western culture, meaning people who perhaps looked physically “male” but exhibited feminine tendencies or had a female identity, and vise-versa (clearly this is a simplistic definition). This point has led some trans authors (notably Leslie Feinberg) to describe what might be called a universalizing historical trans narrative. Others contest this idea and point out that varying cultural understandings of gender and identity make it impossible to equate contemporary western trans/queer phenomena with historical or non-western examples of “gender variance.” Either way you have to recognize that what we today call gender variance or variety outside of a simple sex/gender binary has been a permanent feature in human communities.
Whether or not Elagabalus, Roman Emperor from 218 to 222, actually offered vast sums of money to any physician who could equip (her?) with female genitalia is irrelevant, the fact stands that this procedure was known in those times and probably earlier. A process generally referred to as castration is something that “trans feminine” (quotation marks are in this case being used to signify a western term being applied to a non-western context) people have been seeking out and undergoing in order to deal with what we now call gender dysphoria for ages.
It is fairly common today for “trans feminine” people in South Asia (generally hijras, Khwaja Saraa or kinnar depending on where you are) to undergo essentially similar operations today; this practice has been an established one in the region for some time. Typically only opium is used as an anesthetic. If performed at a suitably early age, this prevents many of the secondary sex changes that are associated with puberty. If, for example, I had acted on my own gender dysphoria at the earliest time that I had been aware of it (instead of feeling insane and ignoring it), using a comparable procedure, then I wouldn’t need to undergo electrolysis now.
Reports also indicate that at various times in antiquity “trans masculine” people, perhaps warrior archers, may have undergone mastectomies.
I would be lying if I said that the idea of surgery without the aid of modern industrial medical technology didn’t make squeamish. Honestly the thought of any surgery does. Certainly depending on how operations of this sort are performed survival rates can be quite low. The fact that complex surgery, even brain surgery, has been successfully performed even in “prehistoric” cultures does not reassure me all that much. I also find it discouraging that there aren’t very many reports of purely herbal hormone-shifting treatments producing the kind of body-shaping results that many trans people desire.
Dean Spade is perhaps worth quoting at length with regards to another angle that we might look at the situation from:
“Countless people who purportedly share my feminist values have argued to me that rather than having my body modified, the proper course of action would be to come to view it differently, such that it was not in contravention to my internal gender picture. Sometimes folded into this argument is a notion that trans surgery is a part of the capitalist construction of dichotomous gender. Rigid binary gender serves capitalism by setting a norm of extreme masculinity and femininity that none of us can achieve, so that we must constantly try to buy our way out of the gender dysphoria we all feel, In extreme cases, the argument goes, trans people buy gender transition procedures in order to cure ourselves of the fundamentally political condition of gender dysphoria, and we therefore sell out our own resistance to the binary gender system. I wholeheartedly agree with most of this analysis, except for the part where trans people are selling out everyone’s chances at gender resistance when we alter our bodies.”
This line of thinking is related to an idea that sometimes gets floated: after civilization is gone, and hopefully with it the current complex of hetero-patriarchy, then to some degree the forces which influence trans people to seek out (non-sustainable) body modifications will be relieved. Like Spade I agree that there is something to this idea, although it is also problematic. Additionally, those historical examples brought up seem to indicate that gender-related body modification is a more or less independent and constant feature of humanity.
So what exactly am I trying to get at? My point is not that, all other things being equal, trans people should immediately and without reservation opt for non-industrial medical procedures. My point is that all other things are not equal. The overall industrial infrastructure that makes modern medical procedures possible, if only usually for the wealthy, might well be attacked or torn down by environmentally conscious radicals within our lifetime. Otherwise, and perhaps more likely, it may collapse under its own weight and destructiveness. Overall, this should produce a net-positive result. I suppose my point is simply that in either case trans and other people will undoubtedly keep performing body modifications just like humans have been doing forever. If we are able to keep a hold of what legitimately helpful medical knowledge has been generated in recent times (detailed understandings of anatomy and basic sterilization techniques for tools used in surgery, for example), then we might additionally be that much better off than our predecessors. Without a doubt trans people, queers and our allies should 1) recognize the unique challenges that we may all face sooner or later, 2) organize so as to best be able to tactically defend ourselves through whatever turbulent times lie ahead, and 3) make plans now so as to best avoid needless logistical hardship when shit gets crazy.