The Living Body & the Ecological Crisis

More than a century-and-a-half ago, in 1855, Walt Whitman published his now-classic poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” one of the 12 poems in the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

Among the poem’s opening lines are:

The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.

Whitman wrote these word at a moment in U.S. history when technology was still a magical marvel, when the mighty iron horse — the steam railroad — proclaimed the future and the new communications medium of the telegraphy was being introduced.  The world was changing, the nation industrializing.  Innovation marked humanities triumph over nature, a foretaste of what was to come.  America was younger then, it’s so much older now.

At Whitman’s time, voices were being raised concerning the technological future that could be faintly glimpsed ahead.  None was more prophetic than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – or The Modern Prometheus first published in 1818.  Still other voices came from radical utopians in communities like the Shakers, Brook Farm and Oneida.  These efforts were but warnings as to what might happen — and what would be lost — in the face of runaway science and industrialization.

Since the colonization of the country, Americans have never known how to relate to nature, whether it be the natural world or their human bodies.  Those in power, whether economical, political or moral, saw the natural world as a terrain of plunder; while serving a social end (e.g., agriculture, building materials, petroleum), it was – and is — a vast cash machine there for the taking.  The nature of “human nature” has, however, undergone fundamental change.

Early colonial settlers of the new nation conceived human nature, especially the human body, not dissimilar to how they perceived the natural world that enveloped them and the native peoples they felt threatened by.  Nature was to be conquered or, as with the original inhabitants, decimated.  And so too human nature.  Bodily functions were shameful, private, something to be denied, shunned; they were denounced as sins of the flesh, whether of procreation, pleasure or excretion.

Today, the natural body has been fundamentally transformed.  It is revered as a living commodity, valued in terms of its exchange value; like the natural world, it is something to be plundered.  The marketplace is the domain in which the living body is turned into — and experienced as — a thing, a self-consciously realized object.  And products and services exist to meet all bodily needs, whether for health, hygiene, beauty, fashion or mere functionality.

People, particularly in the West, are educated to be not only accommodating workers and citizens, but “smart” consumers.  From infancy, they (we!) are educated as to how to buy and sell, to give and to get what they want in a market-mediated society.  They, like the most well-informed gardener, know how to turn a living natural terrain – their bodies! — into a profitable object of artistic self-expression.

Modern capitalism conceives all people as consumers, with class, race, gender, age and sexual inclination as marketing attributes, demographics to be “targeted,” i.e., ripped off for maximum profit.  Under modern capitalism, consumers are ceaselessly presented with endless, ever-more marvelous, ways to spend their ever-harder-earned money.  America’s #1 freedom is the freedom to consume.

And no more profound expression of modern capitalism’s “freedom” to consume is a person’s ability to (re)configure his/her “self” – especially their body — into a socially acceptable type, a recognizable commodity.  This involves self-consciously fashioning one’s body into one of the myriad aesthetic representations of acceptable “beauty” established by the dominate corporate and social institutions.  This ability is most obvious expressed in latest bodily fads – the ensemble of tattoos, piercings or beard – that define hipness.  They distinguish the most sophisticated consumer.

The latest fads that redraw the physical character or expression of the body are epi-phenomenal occurances that will – in time – be replaced with still others.  This is a keu feature of modern capitalism, a defining attribute of U.S. consumer society that first took root in the early 20th century with the commodification of female sexuality.  It lives on today.  More troubling, however, is how human nature, especially the living body, is being transformed by the deeper, more profound ecological changes now underway.


A Google search reveals very few listings of serious research regarding human sexuality and either the “ecological” or “environmental” crisis.  What is considered tend to be general overviews about human life and the crisis.  Two studies consider human biology and temperature’s impact on human reproduction.

Human beings are living nature, biological creatures.  Two scholars, Prashant Bharadwaj (UC San Diego) and Tom Vogl (Princeton), note in their 2015 research paper, “Crisis and Human Biology,” that human nature is being affected by a series of six social and natural crises — famines, epidemics, natural disasters, environmental disasters, recessions and wars.  They point out that such crises can take place at one of three levels: (i) at the individual or family level (e.g., a parent loses his job or dies); (ii) at the local level (e.g., a plant closes or a draught devastates an agricultural community); and (iii) striking an entire population or economy (e.g., a famine or epidemic).  They argue, “the impact of crisis in one domain mediates its impact in another.  In other cases, the impact in one domain complicates estimation of impacts in another.”

The scholars review a vast body of academic literature about crisis and human nature.  Weather plays an important role in triggering, for example, famines and the intensity and duration of a famine often results from “failures of policy and political will.”  Like famines, epidemics have direct effects on human biology; from the Black Death of the 14th century to the 1918 influenza to the HIV/AIDS and to the current Zika virus, not only a massive number of people are killed but human survival is affected, the body challenged and changed.  Natural disasters like earthquakes and floods often result in loss of life and property; changes in the weather in terms of heat and extreme cold can be better managed as evident in the adoption of air conditioning and, in the U.S. over the last half-century, the population shifted from colder to warmer climates (although this might change with global warming).

“Natural” crises that affect human nature are compounded by “human” crises.

For example, nuclear accidents and the dramatic increases in air pollution profound effect mortality rates and health.  Astutely, the writes note, “fertility, the effect of natural or environmental disaster can be positive or negative.”  Another of their more challenging points is about economic crisis, notably recessions: “Perhaps the most striking finding in this literature is that population health improves during economic downturns in wealthy countries.”  They note, “sedentarism, smoking, drinking, and fat consumption are pro-cyclical, consistent with opportunity cost effects from higher wages and job stress.”  Finally, they find: “Wars and other conflicts are disruptive along social, political and economic lines, with significant potential to affect human biology.”  Looking specifically at civil conflicts, they note that genocide “leads to decreased height (relative to trends in neighboring countries) … when exposure occurs at a younger age.”

A second study by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed the impact on “temperature shocks” on U.S. birth rates.  It assessed monthly temperature data and birth rates from the years 1931 to 2010 and found that when it rose above 80˚Fahrenheit there was, approximately nine months later, a significant decline in the birth rate.  Equally intriguing, they found that birth rates rebound to a certain extent in the following months.  The research suggests that hot days can negatively affect conception and that conception rates start bouncing back in cooler months.  In other words, birth rates dip in the spring and a peak during the summer, indicating that conception rates were higher in the fall and winter.

* * *

The natural world is whole.  The destruction of the environment takes place simultaneously with the plunder the natural world and the human body.  The plunder of the body occurs on many levels, some driven by the best intentions (e.g., medical advances) and the worst opportunism (e.g., non-medically-necessary cosmetic procedures).  Both conceive often the living body as a marketable commodity.

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert chronicles current examples of the ecological catastrophe playing out across the globe today.  Other studies raise alarming questions as to the long-term consequences of factory farming, especially in terms of the use of genetically modified seeds or the horrendous conditions of the livestock farm sector.  Still others detail the consequences of global warming and the pollution of the air and water.

Reports of drastically changing temperatures and other unprecedented weather patterns are alarming and occur almost daily; Native Americans at the Standing Rock Reservation are battling to block the Dakoda Access Pipeline; the Zeka and other viruses quickly spread throughout the globe; and the United Nations just held its first gathering on antimicrobial resistance microorganism.

Over the next century or so, humans will likely destroy the natural world and generate tumultuous geo-political crises.  Their (our) likely practices will lead to the end to much (if not all) of human and animal life on the planet.  The planet, and nature in old and some new forms, will persists like it did after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Alienation is the great deception of capitalism.  In the 19th century, as Marx showed, it redefined the primary economic relation, the selling of one’s labor power as a commodity.  In the 20th century, as Benjamin, Marcuse, Foucault and others showed, it came to define social relations, the disconnectedness one feels toward one’s self and others.  In the 21st century, alienation defines the separation one experiences from the natural world – including from one’s own natural being, one’s physical body.

Alienation, especially among   ordinary people in the U.S. and other over-developed nations fashions the natural world as separate from the individual’s living being.  Nature now exists as something foreign, a constellation of things separate from one’s true or inner-self, one’s “soul” or conscious being, one’s very body.  Alienation renders each individual’s body — and the natural world in which s/he lives – as something other, not a subject but an object of existence.  Only when people of the 1st world recognize their own physical self-destruction as part as the larger ecological crisis will we be able to halt the plunder of living nature.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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