by Bethany Hindmarsh
I need you to do more than survive. As writers, as revolutionaries, tell the truth, your truth in your own way. Do not buy into their systems of censorship, imagining that if you drop this character or hide that emotion, you can slide through their blockades. Do not eat your heart out in the hope of pleasing them. The only hope you have, the only hope any of us has, is the remade life.
— Dorothy Allison, “Survival is the Last of My Desires”
I am fifteen. My back rests against the crinkling paper of the medical examination table. My heels are in the worn stirrups. My legs are spread wide. I am breathing slowly, as instructed. The voice of the pediatric gynecologist is brusque, but her hands are not ungentle. I count up to four and back down again as she inserts the speculum. I have not seen a speculum before. To me, it looks like the shining beak of a grey duck.
The pediatric gynecology office ceiling is covered in postcards. As the doctor proceeds to give me my first biopsy, she asks me to look at the cards above me. To tell her about the places I would most like to visit. I stare at the pictures of Caribbean beaches. At the Duomo. At the Blue Mosque. At Haida Gwaii.
I count to four. I take another breath.
I can’t choose, I say.
There are revolutions that we feel in our bodies as they happen. There are revolutions to which we offer our labour. There are revolutions that we do not recognize until they have already changed us.
A few months later, I am back in the same office. There is a new diagnosis for me now, and a new prescription. I am not in any danger, but there is a chance that my illness will prevent me from ever carrying a pregnancy to full term. This does not bother me. I am fifteen. I want to be thinking about the postcards on the ceiling.
My late teens and early twenties are filled with more grey-billed specula and some surgeries. By my mid-twenties, the chance that I will not be able to carry a pregnancy to full term has hardened into certainty: I am told that it is clear that I will not be giving birth in my lifetime. I am given a great deal of advice about taking care of my emotions. Doctors, therapists, friends—they are careful with my heart, and I am grateful to them.
To me, however, the not-yet-ness of biological motherhood is too difficult to understand, let alone grieve. The future does not feel more certain than the flesh of my body. It feels, now, as if I do not have my fertility, just as I do not have wings. My body is a firm fact; from me, it demands acceptance. There are directions in which it will not bend. The fact I cannot fly does not feel like a loss.
I do know that, for many, infertility does not feel like this.
I also know there is at least one flaw in my description of my emotional architecture. There are dangers in pitting an indeterminate life against the seeming solidity of the present.
So much of the uncertainty of the future is already alive in our bodies.
As surely as it can help us to live openly, uncertainty can be abused. It can become alienation. It can become stasis.
How do we grieve something that has never been?
How can we be responsible to those who are not yet living?
I am learning, slowly, that the choice between imagining the future and grieving for the past is a false one. So often to do either is to do both. To love the earth means to mourn for it and to fight for it at one and the same time. To love my own changing body means to accept that it is a site of both loss and hope.
Canadian novelist Anne Michaels writes: “There’s a moment when love makes you believe in death for the first time. You recognize the one whose loss, even contemplated, you’ll carry forever, like a sleeping child. All grief, anyone’s grief…is the weight of a sleeping child.”
In my fourth year of university, I find the orange spine of Vandana Shiva’s book Staying Alive resting on a low shelf in the campus library. This book is a revolution that takes hold of my body.
I sit in the back of my economics classes, paging through Shiva’s work. I am learning (shamefully, for the first time) that women of colour, women in the global south, poor women, women in island nations, women who do the bulk of the world’s subsistence farming—and especially mothers—are disproportionally affected by climate change. I learn that we do not experience the biophysical commons as equals.
Reading books and essays by both Vandana Shiva and Arhundati Roy, I begin to see that effective responses to the climate crisis must align with the pursuit of justice for people of colour, for women, for those in poverty, for mothers, and for children. Shiva writes that we cannot sustain human life on the planet while demanding the greatest sacrifices from those with the least to give. She demonstrates that many contemporary development paradigms operate according to the same logic as colonization and the industrial revolution—a logic that produces, rather than precludes, violence against nature and against women.
Destruction is not the only theme I find in the arguments of these writers, however. Shiva and Roy also concentrate on resistance and regeneration. Roy writes that our greatest hope for the planet lives “low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.” There is less despair, she notes, among these people than among the middle class. There is also less complacency.
I am surprised to find that Shiva’s thinking satisfies my desire for representations of my experience, embodied and embedded in the world, infertile but here. I am, after all, not among those most impacted by climate change or other forms of ecological destruction. I see a fundamental disanalogy between my body and any life-giving land. Yet Shiva responds directly to not only my search for ways to survive, but also my longing for new political and imaginative possibilities.
I still cannot not explain why I feel seen by her expression of ecofeminism—by the connections she draws between the oppression of women and the destruction of ecosystems—especially when many of the criticisms levied against her are levied by people who have so much in common with me: people who feel compelled to point out that not all women have uteruses. People who are reluctant to link female experience with the fertility of the earth.
Nevertheless, this link is the path I am following when I find my way into an environmental justice collective, into fossil fuel divestment organizing, and into fracking and pipeline resistance in Atlantic Canada.
Given that I have followed this path, it is perhaps strange that I find it difficult to talk with other environmental justice organizers about reproductive justice. I find that it is often easier to talk about the seemingly intractable problems that face much larger human collectives than it is to talk about the choices that face us as individual, vulnerable bodies.
Choices seem to demand defences, definitions, explanations, justifications. Some choices appear to be judgments on other choices. Choices about reproduction demand a sincere reckoning with the future.
I am beginning to learn that for many activists I admire, having conversations about having children means taking the risk of sounding regressive; of appearing to favour an ideal of the nuclear family that does violence to lives and bodies and relationships that do not fit traditional Western paradigms.
There is the risk of sounding individualistic, too, when we consider the way that our choices about reproduction will be constrained by the climate crisis in the years to come. The vocabulary of choice captures neither the intimacy nor the magnitude of the crisis that we face.
In spite of the discomfort involved for everyone, I have begun to ask young people in my life about what their understanding of climate change has done to their plans for reproduction. Over coffee, in meetings, at work.
For some of the environmental organizers with whom I speak, the question of reproductive choice is one of scarcity. It is framed by a fear that safe drinking water will not exist for future generations. It is framed by worries about the carbon footprint of Canadian children. It is framed by concerns about reproducing beyond the replacement rate. It is framed by uncertainty about how to raise a child in a world that grows less livable each day.
These are not choices I will ever have to make. None of these fears are written on my own body, and yet I can feel the silence that surrounds them.
I am torn. I admire the discipline of those who believe that they must give up their hope of having children for the sake of something like a smaller household carbon footprint or an end to population growth. I respect those who have never wanted to be parents in the first place. However, I believe the only moral arguments about reproductive responsibility and climate justice that I can endorse, with integrity, are arguments for solidarity and imagination. Not arguments for population control.
One afternoon I am in a bar, talking with a friend who is a parent. He says that the moment of becoming a parent was, for him, the moment that “everything got real.” The moment that the climate crisis became a force that he felt an urgent responsibility to resist.
“I want my son to be exposed to nature, and I want him to use his imagination out there,” he says. “I want him to know what it is to play outside for long periods of time.”
I ask whether he feels as if his life as a parent is valued by the people he works with on environmental justice projects. “It’s valued through a theoretical framework that considers intergenerational injustice,” he says, “but the on-the-ground reality is different.” There are also differences between white organizers and communities of colour with respect to the value placed on parenting, he notes. “White people,” he says, “so often have an especially difficult time connecting the theory with the experience.”
One environmental justice organizer wrote to me from Montreal last month: “The relative reproductive injustice that our generation faces is something that causes me much sadness and anxiety.” She is not alone in this anxiety; it is rare for me to ask colleagues about motherhood and not to hear about similar fears.
Yet many of the people with whom I have spoken say that they feel alone in their experiences and concerns. Climate change touches our bodies and decisions and relationships. It changes the way we shape our collective future. It also affects what we allow ourselves to imagine.
The absence of spaces to talk about family and parenting—about hopes gained and lost—further narrows our range of imaginative possibilities. This narrowing also makes some of us less hospitable to people who are already parents. It keeps us from incorporating the wisdom of Indigenous communities, non-Western communities, communities of colour.
A friend once said to me that “white people are bad at community.” I am afraid that this is, broadly speaking, true of some of the climate justice circles in which I have participated. I am afraid that it is also true of some of the ways that I structure my own relationships.
This is no small problem. Hospitality to the emotional labour of reproductive decision-making and to the emotional labour of parenting is crucial not only to the health of local relationships, but also to the work of centring and amplifying the voices those most impacted by the climate crisis. Not because all women are parents. Not because all people want to be parents. Rather: precisely because we are all different, and because difference should not mean isolation.
Over coffee, another friend tells me that reckoning with the climate crisis has meant that she has had to give up the image of the future family for which she had been waiting throughout her teenage years and early twenties. This is becoming a common theme in my conversations.
Has there been grief, I ask, in the process of reconciling your views about climate justice with your hopes about parenting?
“Yes,” she says. “There has been so much.”
We wonder, together, why so many of us put so much responsibility on female bodies. Why do so many of us target those most harmed by climate change and blame their reproductive decision-making or their community birth rates for the climate crisis?
We need not only to avoid the patterns of thought and speech that identify the fertility of bodies with the roots of ecological destruction; we need also to generate new patterns.
In her essay “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons” Zadie Smith writes, “There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: ‘The new normal.’”
In this melancholic, uncharted territory, how do we make space for the emotional labour that is required of us as we confront climate change? How do white, settler organizers hold space without despair, without complacency, without false hope? How do we better listen to those who are on the front lines of resource extraction? How do we make room for the weight of the grief? How do we keep working, given its heaviness?
I have very few answers. Perhaps, though, we do this work partly by remembering that love and lament are always connected; that radical imagination always demands action. When we work to protect the earth, we do this work in bodies. We will never be finished searching for the intimate words or the honest forms of wordlessness that will help us to bear witness to the transformations of the world around us. Yet non-defensive listening is a political act, whether we are attending to our own bodies or to the voices and actions of others, or to the quiet breathing of the land on which we live.
Such listening is the opposite of barrenness.
What can we do to take care of the climate that would be more helpful than targeting nations with high birth rates or holding fertile bodies to account for the climate crisis? What can we do that would be more helpful, more meaningful than blaming mothers for bringing children into the world? We can do so many things.
We can name violence.
We can end wars.
We can open borders.
We can make heath care better and freer.
We can cultivate fiercer, gentler moral imaginations, offering more—not fewer—options to those who are pregnant. To those who might be pregnant. To those who never will be.
We can do the internal work inside our meetings, inside our organizations, inside our relationships, and inside ourselves that will make environmental justice organizing more accessible to those who are most harmed by environmental injustice.
We can aim not just for social and environmental equilibrium but for tenderness; for deeper love for our communities, for the land from which we come, and for the land on which we are guests.
So much of this, I am learning, is more than the work of survival. It is the work of turning uncertainty into love.
Bethany Hindmarsh is a graduate student in philosophy at Dalhousie University and a grateful guest on unceded Mi’kmaq territory.
“Mother/Earth: On Choosing” is from our MOMS Issue (spring 2015)