Whose Better? (re)Orientating a Queer Ecopedagogy

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Previous invitations to queer environmental education research and practice have fallen largely silent. This paper seeks to address that silence by orientating ecopedagogy toward a phenomenology of queer experience. Inspired by the utopian promises
  11Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 18, 2013 Whose Better? (re)Orientating a Queer Ecopedagogy Joshua Russell, York University, Canada Abstract   Previous invitations to queer environmental education research and practice have fallen largely silent. This paper seeks to address that silence by orientat-ing ecopedagogy toward a phenomenology of queer experience. Inspired by the utopian promises of the “It Gets Better Project” and ecopedagogy generally, the author suggests that queer phenomenology can offer new insights into ecopeda- gogy. The hope of a queer ecopedagogy lies in its inclusion of diverse beings and its celebration of (dis)orientating experiences that might lead to more egalitarian and democratic futures.  Résumé  Les invitations à la recherche et à la pratique en éducation environnementale homosexuelle ont cessé en grande partie. Le présent article aborde le vide ainsi créé en orientant l’écopédagogie vers une phénoménologie de l’expérience homosexuelle. Inspiré par les promesses utopiques du projet « It Gets Better » et par l’écopédagogie en général, l’auteur affirme que la phénoménologie homosexuelle  peut donner lieu à des éclaircissements sur l’écopédagogie. L’espoir de créer une écopédagogie homosexuelle repose dans sa manière d’inclure des êtres différents et d’engendrer des expériences d’orientation (voire de désorientation) pouvant mener à un avenir plus égalitaire et démocratique. Keywords:  ecopedagogy, queer phenomenology, experience “Just hold your head up and you’ll go far. Just love yourself and you’ll be set… and I promise you it will get better.” Jamey Rodemeyer, ‘It Gets Better, I Promise!’ As I watch Jamey Rodemeyer’s YouTube video, entitled “It Gets Better, I Promise!” I am struck by the poise, certainty, and most of all hope that the young man shares with his faceless, nameless online audience. In the video, Jamey speaks about his trouble with bullies and the dark thoughts that move in and out of his life. In the end, however, he finds support and love from many unexpected places—he talks in particular about pop star Lady Gaga as an inspiration—and describes feeling “liberated” from his struggles and free to be himself. Jamey’s message is clear: learning to love yourself is the key to overcoming obstacles and finding a community who can and will love you back. He posted his video in May 2011, after coming out as bisexual to some of his closest friends. In September of that year, Jamey committed suicide at the age of 14.  12Joshua Russell These kinds of events are all-too commonplace within the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, and queer (LGBTQ) community. Canada’s Centre for Sui-cide Prevention reports that LGBTQ youth are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to re-port suicidal ideation and 1.5 to 7 times more likely to report having attempted suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers (2012). While this problem is not new, a string of suicides in 2010-2011, including Jamey’s, brought new focus within the North American media on these statistics. Dan Savage, an openly gay columnist and gay-rights activist, responded by starting the “It Gets Better Project” with his partner Terry Miller. The project involves a series of online testimonials and video blog posts shared by celebrities, politicians, organizations, and “average” citizens declaring support for the struggles that face LGBTQ youth. The core message of each story is that no matter how difficult life is currently—in the face of bullies, intimidation, violence, and conservative politics denouncing queer rights—things will get better. The testimonials are often very personal, describ-ing the teller’s own experience with these issues during their teenage years; but others, both within and outside of the LGBTQ community, simply offer support. Most of the stories end by referring those watching to seek the aid of organiza-tions that specialize in counseling LGBTQ youth, such as the Trevor Project, or to offer financial support for such projects.As a gay man, I continue to agonize over these suicides, remembering my own struggles as a teenager questioning his sexuality within my Catholic fam-ily, as a student in a Catholic, all-boys secondary school, and as a member of various sports teams—some rife with machismo and homophobic language—throughout high school and university. I am deeply touched by the messages that brave individuals post online in support of LGBTQ youth, and it is my hope that those messages have and will continue to save lives. Yet, as an educator with a deep interest in and commitment to not only LGBTQ rights and other humanitarian crises but justice and care for all beings and the natural world, the project’s message strikes me as a familiar one: things are bad now, but the future holds promise and hope for renewal. I often wonder what these messages of hope for the future ask of those of us living in the present, and how they tie us to various narratives about the past. 1  It seems to me that the promise, even certainty, of a better future—whether it is based on personal experience, opti-mism, or even borne of necessity—requires critical reflection. Whose version of “better” are we offering up as hope after all? In this paper, I describe and interpret pedagogy as a fundamentally orientating endeavour, concerned with guiding subjects—children, adults, parents, teachers, even researchers—toward particular objects of inquiry and areas of personal and political action (van Manen, 1997). This orientating effect draws those of us interested in cultivating ecologically and socially  just pedagogies into a position of responsibility for the ways in which unique and diverse experiences or narratives are invited into or are silenced by our educational practices. As an example, I present the “It Gets Better Project” as  13Whose Better? (re)Orientating a Queer Ecopedagogy a pedagogical intervention raising many important questions about both the political and personal struggles facing LGBTQ youth around the world. In this essay, however, I am more interested in how the project implicitly works to homogenize queer experiences of being orientated into domestic, reproductive, and consumption-orientated versions of heterosexuality; what Lisa Duggan describes as the “new homonormativity” (2002). As a result, I claim that the “It Gets Better Project,” while seemingly outside of the discourses of environmental education, requires critical, ecopedagogical attention. Yet, too few LGBTQ and queer voices are present within our field at this moment.In response to this dilemma, I outline steps toward a queer ecopedagogy: a kind of “pedagogic thoughtfulness” (van Manen, 1997) that blends various aspects of phenomenological enquiry, queer theory, and the ecopedagogy movement. The resulting practice I propose attends to the (dis)orientating effects (Ahmed, 2006) of queer subjects and bodies in an extremely diverse, more-than-human world (Abram, 1996). Queer ecopedagogy promotes embodied attentiveness and reflection on being or feeling queer in the world, as well as various personal and political commitments for engaging with dominant “political, bureaucratic, or ideological structures” (van Manen, 1997, p. 154) that oppress and silence a wide range of beings, not just LGBTQ-identifying humans. My emphasis in the title on “(re)orientating” arises from a recognition that at least two groups of scholars have invited environmental education theorists, practitioners, and researchers to actively “queer” their work (see Gough et al., 2003; Russell, Sarick, & Kennelly, 2002). While no clear, organized response has followed those invitations, to my knowledge, they still remain foundational for subsequent ecological, queer pedagogies. I suggest that newer approaches to queer thinking—in particular Sara Ahmed’s phenomenological exploration of “(dis)orientation” in her book Queer Phenomenology (2006)—might reinvigorate queer thought’s contributions to environmental education broadly, and vice-versa. Queer ecopedagogy invites all of us to experience and imagine ways of being and acting that challenge our notion of what constitutes a “better” life, including those that seek a more radical change in the world. Pedagogy as an Orientating Endeavour “It gets better. You don’t know that now. You don’t know what you don’t know, but I know: it gets better.” Novelist Anne Marie MacDonald, ‘It Gets Better Canada’ In the quote above, Canadian novelist Anne Marie MacDonald suggests to her presumed audience of struggling LGBTQ youth that “not knowing” about the future places them in a vulnerable position. But she knows what they do not, which is that their struggles will melt away and they will find happiness and suc-cess in life. I suggest that MacDonald is exemplifying a position of love and hope  14Joshua Russell for LGBTQ youth in the world; she wants them to trust that her experiences and knowledge about life are a kind of prototype. She has lived through the pain and is now enjoying her adult life, a life that youth such as Jamey Rodemeyer have been denied. Many of the “It Gets Better Project” testimonials take on a similar message, that given enough time and perseverance, youth’s struggles will turn into adult happiness. It is suggestive of what Joseph Campbell (2008) refers to as “the road of trials” (p. 89): a period of tests, temptations, and struggles through which a hero must descend and be renewed in their faith to success-fully move forward in life. But, as Campbell notes, “the psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today… must face alone, or, at best, with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance” (2008, p. 87). Arguably, our guidance through such trials comes from our pedagogical introduction to generations and “heroes” whose lives follow a similar path, individuals who come to embody perpetual hope in a better future.Hannah Arendt argues that “the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world” (1968, p. 171). She contends that human children are new members of a strange world, requiring careful and spe-cial introduction to that world; as such, parents and educators are responsible for overseeing such introductions. Arendt notes that the child is in a state of “becoming,” that they enter into “a world that was there before him [sic], that will continue after his death, and in which he is to spend his life” (1968, p. 182). What makes humans unique, in her view, is that not only does the child develop in their “functions of life,” but they are also fundamentally tied to a historical world and society that sees them as a renewing force; as such, educators and parents are also tasked with protecting the world, with providing for its continu-ance. This fundamental relationship that Arendt establishes between children and educators, parents, and the wider “world” exposes the spatially and tempo-rally orientating nature of pedagogy. Arendt’s utopian concerns with the protection of children and the renewal of the world suggest the anticipation of trials and tribulations along the way, difficulties for which education prepares us. Arendt’s conclusion makes this dra-matic vision of life more clear: Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to as-sume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices… but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world. (1968, p. 193) Educator Max van Manen takes up a similar theme in describing “pedagogic competence” or “tactfulness” concerned not just with loving children or teaching, but in orientating the young to “what is worthwhile knowing and becoming” (1997, p. 158). While van Manen and Arendt are focused upon  15Whose Better? (re)Orientating a Queer Ecopedagogy children, we need not be so narrow in our views of pedagogy; those who work with adolescents, adults, immigrants, or in any pedagogical situation recognize that there is a desire to steer students toward new knowledge, skills, and even actions. This is particularly relevant for ecopedagogical work. Orientating Ecopedagogy: Phenomenology and Critical Pedagogy Influenced by the critical pedagogical work of Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, and others, Richard Kahn defines ecopedagogy as an educational and cultural movement which pairs the Freirian hope for justice with a “future-oriented ecological politics” (2010, p. 18). This “ecopedagogy movement” has two intertwined goals: first, it seeks to oppose the global forces of neoliberalism and capitalist imperialism, and second, it promotes a democratic and culturally attuned vision of ecoliteracy that is rooted in various ecologically ethical precepts. The vision of ecoliteracy that Kahn proposes links traditional notions of environmental literacy espoused by environmental education—knowledge of ecosystem functions, biodiversity, and threats to environmental stability, to name a few—with “varieties of social and cultural literacy” (Kahn, 2010, p. 11) such as peace education, social justice education, or human rights education. One particular focus for the ecopedagogy movement, in espousing this broad understanding of ecoliteracy, is to address the “cosmological” dimensions of social and environmental change. Kahn, echoing Arendt above, suggests that fundamentally questioning and challenging our cultures’ historical worldviews and imagining new and better futures ultimately draws our attention to the “education of the young,” a process which “comes to embody the social hope that even the most undeniable of outcomes can be trained for, grasped, redirected, and transformed” (Kahn, 2010, p. 37). Ecopedagogy—insofar as it espouses this looking backward to move forward, anticipates difficulties ahead for all beings, and seeks to intervene and “guide” them toward utopian futures—is thus an orientating endeavour. Kahn notes that there are no explicit connections between these other ap-proaches to “ecopedagogy” and the “ecopedagogy movement,” but I believe they are both radically orientating projects that compliment each other. Philip Payne and Brian Wattchow in particular provide an example of a  phenomenologically influenced ecopedagogy, what they call “slow pedagogy:” Slow pedagogy is, we feel, a candidate for a radically different approach to, and lived form of educational practice, or ecopedagogy. It encourages meaning- makers to experientially and reflectively access and address their corporeality, intercorpo-reality, sensations, and perceptions of time, space, and [place]. (Payne & Wattchow, 2009, p. 30) This version of ecopedagogy builds on what van Manen (1997) refers to as the four “existentials”: space, embodiment, temporality, and relationality. These existentials highlight subjective experiences within various environments,
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