Thoughts on Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation: The Rise of the Eco-Ability Movement

The text Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation: The Rise of the Eco-Ability Movement (2012) edited by Anthony Nocella, Judy Bently and Janet Duncan explores another dimension of intersectional analysis that has been neglected by critical scholars and activists. This ovular text was compiled by the editors who did a call-out for articles from a range of contributors, whether academics or activists (or the combination of the both) to bring together the oppression of the earth, other animals and people with disabilities into a text that would make their intersectionality palpable. With the basic understanding of eco-ability, and task of bringing all three issues together, Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation was compiled without rigid restrictions allowing for polyvocality and an exploration of all that eco-ability encompasses.

I am happy to have been able to read this text before the Eco-Ability online conference on July 26th!

Without succumbing to a standardized definition and understanding of the eco-ability movement, I will attempt to define it and incorporate the different directions expressed in the text. Nocella enunciates the definition of eco-ability in the broadest sense as “eco-ability is the theory that nature, nonhuman animals, and people with disabilities promote collaboration, not competition; interdependency, not independence; and respect for difference and diversity, not sameness and normalcy” (pg.9).  Eco-ability predicates the challenging of domination over nature, nonhuman animals and the political category of disability.

It is important to establish why it is conceptualized as an eco-ability and not eco-disability movement. Disability is typically understood as relating to characteristics of a person under a medical model that defines them as needing to be fixed, controlled or any other tool in order to transcribe them from abnormalcy to normalcy. Pursuing ‘ability’ on the other hand privileges a social model of disability, understanding it as largely a “political construct” orchestrated by those in power (pg. 10).

Michael Foucoult’s concept of ‘the archaeology of knowledge’ is useful to recognize the deep-roots and histories that cultural constructs have. This is definitely a liberating new mode of thought for myself. To not see dis-ability in the trangression nature normative society casts it as, it is just different embodiements, and is more common. Uprooting the need to conform to the idealized able body reminds me of advertisements towards women, forcing us into thinking we need to look like the thin-white model, which is not realistic. If I am willing to challenge and fight that conformity, I should also challenge and fight conformity to a ‘standard’ body.

I myself am person with a disability: hearing impairment. This has remained as something I have ignored, internalized and felt ashamed of especially when I constantly have to ask people to repeat themselves, or speak up. It has only been in the past few months that I have shifted the blame off of myself, and redirected it into seeing the people who are ignorant to my requests as albeist and not taking me serious. There is no need for people to get disgruntled by my requests for them to speak clearer and louder towards me. It is the fact that I am asking them to adjust themselves in a minor way to better our communication.

Ability is also a great term as it accounts for abilities along the lines of all shapes, sizes, ages as well as an assortment of ways to communicate and movements. This is considered a transgression to ‘normal’ paradigms and will allow for the western ‘naturalized’ hierarchies to be made visible and understood as barriers that we can change rather than focusing solely on fixing and conforming people with disabilities and other animals to be more ‘normal’. The greatest truism we can take from the earth is an understanding of true diversity and interdependence. This value of ‘bio/diversity’ is held in highest regards by most cultures however, through monocultural western thought we have begun to define acceptable forms of bio/diversity.

Pulling from all three of these issues and movements, it is imperative to form an analysis that focuses on the overarching powers that are trying to tame, control other animals, people with disabilities and the earth into manageable and subaltern existences.

One of the greatest connections is how the injustice towards people with disabilities and other animals is kept private, specifically institutionalized and segregated. When and if the injustices are revealed into mainstream media, the abuse and exploitation are not the central focus but the reasons as to why such acts are justified and necessary. This is related to the common approach towards both groups as being “acted up” rather than thinking of them as possessing feelings, thoughts and sociability (pg.183).

Justifying the institutionalization of people with disabilities is furthered by casting them as harboring potential violence. This sentiment is a cultural legacy of 1907 United States Congress Immigration Act that excluded all those potentially “mentally deficient” as they are all “potential criminals” waiting for the appropriate opportunity to act violently and disobediently (pg.228). United States legislation augmented this with propagating the fear of people with disabilities reproducing as witnessed in the extensive legislated sterilization acts. Like nonhuman animals, the biopolitics of their reproductive lives are controlled and managed by people in powerful positions.

As for other animals, their abuse and exploitation is institutionalized and hidden in slaughterhouses, research labs and entertainment facilities. When undercover investigators report on the deplorable conditions and abuses experienced by other animals the United States categorizes these whistleblowers as terrorists. Therefore, the issue of animal abuse is capsized by the more urgent issue of dealing the terrorists (read: activist). Therefore, both people with disabilities and other animals live perilous lives that are kept private and when there is resistance to abuse of other animals, peoples with disabilities and environmental degradation the whistleblowers are demonized and inscribed as having mental health issues.

An article in the text connected transnational feminism to eco-ability.  The article tackles the issue of people with disability, other animals and the earth constricted to understandings of dependency and not contributing worth on their own. In order to challenge this western paradigm of individualism, Peter Kropotkin’s idea of mutual aid is offered as an alternative. Kropotkin, an anarchist geographer, witnessed a blind pelican being fed by others. Compounding evidence like this supported his idea of mutual aid that replaces the Social Darwin model. Moreover, Vandana Shiva’s scholarly work and activism attacks “monocultures of the mind” that represent global capitalism which sees biodiversity as a threat and disorderly; both being qualities hard to control.

This mindset has fostered the proliferation of the idea of a monoculture earth’s landscapes from commodities, urban spaces, agricultural practices, and bodies (pg. 98). What is significant about this? It means that there is a colonization of the earth to embed western paradigms of control, domination and western constructs of normalcy that impede natures teaching of biodiversity to flourish. Moreover, transnational feminists have challenged the essentialism of women, which can be extended to challenge the normal body, which in fact is not representative of the masses.

Perhaps the article in the text that solidified by understanding of this intersection was Shocking into Submission. The goal of the article is to draw parallels between the use of behavioral modification techniques employed to train animals as well as people with disabilities, or emotional or behavioral disorders. The linchpin to drawing the parallel is the act to control the abnormal. But who decides what is ab-/normal (pg. 163)?

                  “It has been those in power who have influenced the social and cultural   norms
by which human and nonhuman animals must abide.”

                  “It is the Euro-American white hetero-normative male who holds power and
                  thus determines what is typical and what counts as a behavioral problem.”

The ‘other animal’ example used in the text focuses on canines and the humans itch to quiet, control and literally silent dogs to fit within our domestic spaces or desires for what a ‘dog’ should act like. Donna Haraway coined the term “caninophiliac narcissism” to explain the reflection humans wish to see in their companion canines (pg.164). This desired ‘reflection’ is couched in ideas of control, and following a dominant/submissive relationship.

On the other hand, the authors discuss The Judge Rotenberg Centre in Canton, in Massachusetts that specializes in B. F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov’s ideas of conditioning and socializing through punishment and rewards. Rotenberg Centre is something out of a nightmare. Techniques like ammonia capsules, white noise, and skin-shock therapy are used in order to ‘correct’ the wrong behaviours and emotions. The corollary in other animals is exemplified by shock-collars locked on dogs and other animal’s necks to punish undesirable behaviours. We need to call it what is is: abuse and torture. It is believed that eliminating problematic behaviours will result in normalcy.  But what is normal behaviour for a dog or other animal? 

Another dimension of control is seen in  techniques used against companion animals to “force [them] into establishing human-normative relationship with their legally-declared owners” (pg. 161). In fact, “in order to become the lovable companion that the dog [any other animal] “owner” wants, and to ensure that bonding occurs, the averse is put in place” (pg.162). There is an industry built upon controlling and manipulating companion animals to better serve the ‘owners interest’. This is nothing short of disgusting but touted as benign ways to make ‘your’ companion animal happier.

Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation has highlighted some of the initial directions academics and scholars foresaw eco-ability headed.    The scholarship on this intersection has only been gaining momentum in Critical Animal Studies. Topics that would have been interesting to talk about in this text are treatments of disabled other animals, whether domesecrated or companion animals, and thoughts surrounding the animal service industry or therapies as this is a key institutionalized relationship between people with disabilities and other animals.


About Stephanie

My name is Stephanie and this began as a blog for a course about Feminist Animal Liberation/Rights (toggling between the two) and my first steps into critical animal studies. The class is complete but I am going to keep this blog to continue the conversation and document future thoughts. I am a MSc student at Concordia University in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment where I study concepts such as: pest animals, environmental governance, biopolitics, urban spaces, domination, invasive species ..etc.. all within the frameworks of feminism (this encompassess a LOT), anarchist principles, post-colonial studies, critical animal studies, veganism, political palates/food accessibility and critical geography. I hope to one day also study animals in the tourist industry (a major interest of mine, that I am sidelining for the time being) such as the now-famous albino squirrels in Toronto. A little bit more about me, I co-habit with the most beautiful ginger lion named Burzum and elderbull Clementine, they both teach me daily. I am an animal liberationist and social justice activist, and plan to one day start a feminist collective/bookstore/resource/sanctuary for all beings/ space with my favourite person Sonmin.
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One Response to Thoughts on Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation: The Rise of the Eco-Ability Movement

  1. Pingback: Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 2 | Avocados & Glitter

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