Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory

Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Editors), Forward by Stacy Alaimo, 2017, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 667 pages, £58.

Reviewed by Dr. Sue Smith

Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory is a groundbreaking project dedicated to bringing a critical, non-normative perspective to environmentalism by intersecting Disability Studies with the Environmental Humanities. Edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, the book consists of a ‘Forward,’ ‘Introduction’ and twenty two essays that are usefully grouped under two headings titled, ‘Part 1. Foundations,’ and ‘Part 2. New Essays.’ As the title suggests, ‘Part.1 Foundations’ introduces seven pioneering essays written by academics and activists who have laid the foundations for opening up and developing an important dialogue between Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities. Logically, these formative essays are presented in order of their original publication. Primarily, this is to emphasize each essay’s historical significance in terms of theoretical innovation, conceptual boldness, and interdisciplinary complexity, as well as to offer a sense of each essay’s emerging and interlinking conversation between and within disability studies and environmentalism.

While Ray and Sibara admit that other important and groundbreaking work could have been selected, their final choice is based upon how these particular foundational works influence essays that appear in the second part of the book. To briefly list the foundational essays and their authors, they are: 1. ‘Risking Bodies in the Wild: “The Corporeal Unconscious” of American Adventure Culture’ by Sarah Jaquette Ray: 2. ‘Bringing Together Feminist Disability Studies and Environmental Justice’ by Valerie Ann Johnson: 3. ‘Lead’s Racial Matters’ by Mel Y Chen: 4. ‘Defining Eco-ability: Social Justice and the Intersectionality of Disability, Nonhuman Animals, and Ecology’ by Anthony J. Nocella II: 5. ‘The Ecosomatic Paradigm in Literature: Merging Disability Studies and Ecocriticism’ by Matthew J.C. Cella: 6. ‘Bodies of Nature: The Environmental Politics of Disability’ by Alison Kafer: and finally 7. ‘Notes on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure’ by Eli Clare. In ‘Part 2’, the ‘New Essays’—of which there are fifteen—expertly draw from and talk back to authors and themes introduced in ‘Part 1.’ Written by scholars who, like in ‘Part 1,’ are prominent in their particular fields of study and well acquainted with the complexities of interdisciplinary research, these fifteen essays appear under five themed subsections titled: ‘Section 1: Corporeal Legacies of U.S. Nation-Building,’ ‘Section 2: (Re)Producing Toxicity,’ ‘Section 3: Food Justice,’ ‘Section 4: Curing Crips? Narratives of Health and Space,’ and ‘Section 5: Interspecies and Interage Identifications.’ However, before I discuss these essays further, I first of all will start by outlining Alaimo’s ‘Forward’ and Ray and Sibara’s ‘Introduction’ in more detail.

Stacy Alaimo’s ‘Forward’ passionately advocates the urgent need for establishing and developing an alliance between Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities—disciplines she argues have much to contribute to one another but which, as she also acknowledges, have ‘rarely converged.’ Helpfully, Alaimo highlights the problems that have historically troubled these two disciplines as well as outlining the risks involved in establishing an alliance between the two. For instance, Alaimo argues that: ‘While we might wish that all our ethical and political commitments would align and become so beautifully articulated as to be inseparable and synergistic, it is nonetheless often the case that historically rooted discursive and ideological formations mean that ethics, politics, and scholarship take place within more messy, vexed, and contradictory terrains.’ The inevitable ‘messy vexed and contradictory terrains’ of Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities of which Alaimo speaks are, as she states, ‘hardly a neutral oversight,’ but rather the outcome of a long practiced ‘separatism.’ Here Alaimo openly declares the challenges that face Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities. For example as a discipline which, historically, has been overburdened by an ableist prejudice, the Environmental Humanities has actively excluded and / or denigrated disabled people in the name of radical environmentalism. In turn, Disability Studies has viewed Environmentalism with hostility and suspicion. Inevitably then, according to Alaimo, developing new and fruitful alliances between Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities will require ‘bold attempts—that refuse ready answers.’ However, as she finally concludes, this is precisely why Ray and Sibara’s ‘volume’ of essays is ‘so significant.’

Alaimo’s ‘Forward’ skillfully acknowledges the historical limitations, the enduring contradictions, and the future potentiality of intersecting Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities. Ray and Sibara’s ‘Introduction’ provides the reader with an in-depth account of their ambitious project, including its historical emergence and development as well as its rationale and structure. For those who may be unfamiliar with this newly emerging scholarship, in the ‘Introduction’ Ray and Sibara thoughtfully offer useful advice on how the reader may navigate their way through the diverse range of interdisciplinary styles and approaches, which ultimately define this unique collection of essays. And what a collection it is! Starting with Sarah Jaquette Ray and her essay, ‘Risking Bodies in the Wild,’ the reader is immediately thrown into a provocative debate about extreme American Adventuring, with Ray arguing how the macho concept of experiencing the outdoors has promoted an ableist ideology of risk which heavily relies on the fear of becoming disabled. In Ray’s account, the idea of the wild is revealed as a construct created by pro-environmentalists who assume that nature can only accommodate one kind of body, namely, the non-disabled-body.

While Ray reveals the inherent ableism that lies within environmentalism, Valerie Ann Johnson’s essay, ‘Bringing Together Feminist Disability Studies and Environmental Justice,’ intersects personal maternal concerns with gender and disability as she speaks of her experience as a mother of a disabled daughter who is passionate about the environment and conservation. For Johnson the tricky question is how does environmentalism accommodate a young disabled woman whose difference is often incorporated into a polemic about the disabling effects of environmental pollution on humanity and its fragile planet? Following Johnson is Mel Y. Chen’s brilliant essay, ‘Lead’s Racial Matters,’ which examines race, disability and the materiality of toxic lead as a politically re-imagined deadly entity detected in toys manufactured in China and shipped to unsuspecting innocent consumers living in the affluent white middle class suburbs of North America. In Chen’s account, the global boundary crossing of lead is portrayed by America’s public health industry as a contaminant seeping into and damaging the able bodies and minds of a nation’s citizens. Meanwhile the impoverished lives and health of those producing cheap and affordable toys for the West are either ignored or regarded as simply the inevitable outcome of being a racial other who is, as Chen reveals, rapidly devalued and denigrated by western discourses of disability. In Chen’s essay it is the question of who counts in a discourse of environmental pollution and disability when global capitalism, race, class and US national interests overlap and come into conflict with one another.

Next is Anthony J. Nocella II’s ‘Defining Eco-Ability’—in which he provides a personal account of his own plight as an eco and pro-animal rights activist. Here Nocella describes his painful experience of being marginalized by a media that has at once pathologized his cognitive difference and criminalized his disability identity because of his lifestyle choice as a vegan and for his ecological and pro-animal politics. Crucially, in this article, Nocella highlights the unjust treatment of a disabled activist who advocates non-speciesism by a media that undermines his politics and devalues him as a human being. Moving on, in ‘The Ecosomatic Paradigm in Literature,’ Matthew J.C. Cella offers a fascinating reading of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1997) in order to demonstrate how literature can further ‘advance the goals of ecocritics and disability scholars alike.’ In Cella’s reading of The Road, the novel’s imagined environment of extreme ecological devastation forces its protagonists to negotiate and survive an alternate hostile barren landscape, and by doing so, deconstruct the conventions and norms of human embodiment. Equally in the novel, Solar Storms, Cella analyses a disfigured female protagonist and her encounter with an irreparably altered homeland, which productively becomes a turning point in reclaiming and reconstructing her own permanently altered appearance.

Continuing the theme of opposing idealized norms and reconstructing human difference through productive disability encounters with wilderness is ‘Bodies of Nature’ by wheelchair trekker Alison Kafer. In her essay, Kafer highlights how ‘social arrangements are mapped onto natural environments’ as she negotiates her own disabled embodiment with a disability discourse of outdoor adventurism which she argues needs to accommodate human failure as a valid part of grappling with the environment. Importantly, Kafer advocates that environments that are adapted to facilitate able-bodied humans access to nature, must be fully inclusive, providing access to all humans.

Finally, Eli Clare provides the last essay in this section, which is titled, ‘Notes on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure.’ In this work, Clare discusses the interconnection between animals, land and humans in a world, which, as Clare explains, is interminably modified by unceasing cycles of activity and change. Significantly, Clare thoughtfully draws attention to the difficulty of quantifying the concept of nature suggesting that it is better to conceive the world and our place in it as more of an ongoing process of activity in which ideas of damage and repair make it impossible to return to or achieve an original pure state of nature or being. As Clare poignantly states, for some, there is no original pure state of perfection only a state of ‘brilliant imperfection.’

Building on the foundational essays in Part 1 are fifteen essays that follow in Part 2. Space does not allow a full exposition of each essay but this brief overview should provide a taster of the excellent research conducted in the second part of this book. To begin with, in Section 1, titled, ‘Corporeal Legacies of U.S. Nation-Building,’ four hard-hitting chapters collectively seek to recuperate and validate the eco-culture of disabled indigenous people historically subjected to the horrific effects of ‘slow violence’ reaped upon them and their environment by American colonialism, militarism and corporate imperialism. In Chapter 8, titled, ‘Blind Indians: Kateri Tekakwi:tha and Joseph Amos’s Visions of Indigenous Resurgence,’ Siobhan Senier rereads and rehabilitates disabled Mohawk woman, Kateri Takakwi:tha, who was ‘[b]linded and scarred by smallpox,’ and assimilated into seventeenth century Euro-American culture by the Catholic Church. Similarly, Senier draws attention to the recent revival and recuperation of the spiritual figure, Blind Joe Amos, a man who led an indigenous revolt against white settlers attempting to strip his native land of its natural resources. Productively in these re-readings of disabled identities, human diversity and racial difference are generatively aligned with the reclamation and defense of eco-diverse, indigenous homelands. Similarly in Chapter 9, ‘Prosthetic Ecologies: (Re)Membering Disability and Rehabilitating Laos’s “Secret War”’ by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials; Chapter 10, ‘Reification, Biomedicine and Bombs: Women’s Politicization in Vieques’s Social Movement’ by Victor M. Torres-Velez; and Chapter 11, ‘War Contaminants Environmental Justice: The Case of Congenital Heart Defects’ by Julie Sadler, the devastating effects of an Imperialist U.S. warring culture on global communities and the resulting gendered, inter-generational and indigenous resistance to the violence and toxic effects of U.S. weaponry on the aforementioned countries and their people are sensitively debated and discussed.

In Section 2, ‘(Re)Producing Toxicity,’ Chapters 12 and 13 consider America’s chemical industry and its long term effects on the health of future generations both in the U.S. and abroad. For example, in Chapter 12, titled, ‘Toxic Pregnancies: Speculative Futures, Disabling Environments, and Neoliberal Biocapital,’ Kelly Fritsch explores the toxic legacy of America’s chemical industry on the physical and cognitive development of the nation’s yet-to-be-born fetuses. While in Chapter 13, titled, ‘“That Night”: Seeing Bhopal through the Lens of Disability and Environmental Justice Studies,’ Anita Mannur considers the ongoing literary responses to Bhopal’s Union Carbide Disaster in India. In particular, Mannur’s reading of Anglo-Indian literature reveals a nation’s desire for environmental justice that desires to shift focus away from the disaster as a single moment in history, to foregrounding the ongoing impact of ‘slow dying’ on a town’s population as it plays out today. Overall Mannur’s analysis consciously rejects ‘considering the disabled as a metaphor for the disabled nation.’ Instead she brings disability in conversation with Environmental Justice Studies in order to maintain a spotlight on Imperialist Corporations that have to date ignored their culpability in the disaster.

In section 3, titled ‘Food Justice,’ Chapter 14, ‘Disabling Justice? The Exclusion of People with Disabilities from the Food Justice System’ by Natasha Simpson and Chapter 15, ‘Cripping Sustainability, Realizing Food Justice’ by Kim Q. Hall argue first of all for the urgent need to reconcile food justice with the problematic representation of disabled people as the undesirable outcome of an inaccessibility to food; and secondly to stop using disabled people as ableist metaphors for visions of idealized futures in which disability is erased. Section 3 deals with the problem of disability as a negative trope in debates concerning food poverty and environmental justice.

In Section 4, titled, ‘Curing Crips? Narratives of Health and Space,’ four chapters confront and complicate environmentalism’s ableist narratives that equate physical and cognitive difference with environmental problems in need of fixing. For example Chapter 16, ‘The Invalid Sea: Disability Studies and Environmental Justice History,’ by Traci Brynne Voyles; Chapter 17, ‘La Tierra Pica/The Soil Bites: Hazardous Environments and the Degeneration of Bracero Health, 1942-1954,’ by Mary E. Mendoza; Chapter 18, ‘Cripping East Los Angeles: Enabling Environmental Justice in Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them,’ by Jina B. Kim; and Chapter 19, ‘Neurological Diversity and Environmental (In)Justice: The Ecological Other in Popular and Journalist Representations of Autism,’ by Sarah Gibbons; collectively work to deconstruct and critique the relentless association of disabled and racial others with global catastrophe and environmental contamination. Instead, by detailing the historic realities of racial and disability oppression and the shameless exploitation of human labor, and bodies made vulnerable by U.S. imperialism and capitalism, the four essays reveal an ambivalent and contradictory image of the outdoors as a place usually understood as unequivocally healthy and health giving. In the case of Sarah Gibbon’s article for instance, it is autism that is the marker for society’s fears over environmental pollution and contamination. However, as Gibbon states, it is through the act of reading life stories like that of autistic anthropologist, Dawn Prince-Hughes and her work with gorillas that it becomes possible to avoid ‘abstracting autism into a disease’ and instead ‘consider how environments might influence autistic people while leaving out the assumption that autism is a problem.’

Gibbon’s discussion of environmentalism and the generative possibilities of interspecies relations as a ‘way of thinking through’ autism is an intriguing one, which continues in Section 5, ‘Interspecies and Interage Identifications.’ In this final section, Chapters 20, 21 and 22 explore the unique and potential kinships that can exist between neuroatypical humans and non-human animals. In Chapter 20, ‘Precarity and Cross-Species Identification: Autism and the Critique of Normative Cognition, and Nonspeciesism,’ David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder discuss the interspecies relations between a young autistic boy, Christopher, and the animals he encounters in the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), written by British author, Mark Haddon. In Mitchell and Snyder’s account it is Christopher’s non-hierarchical attitude towards non-human animals, an attitude which Mitchell and Snyder term ‘nonspeciesism,’ that foregrounds Christopher’s importance as an autistic character in popular western literature. Similarly in Chapter 21, ‘Autism and Environmental Identity: Environmental Justice and the Chains of Empathy,’ Robert Melchior Figueroa challenges normative images of autistic people as individuals incapable of experiencing empathy. Here Figueroa’s challenge aims to end autism’s association with environmental problems that repeatedly emerge in medical discourses and the popular imaginary as ‘autistic clusters’ and ‘antivaccination advocacy.’ Finally in Chapter 22, titled, ‘Moving Together Side by Side: Human-Animal Comparisons in Picture Books,’ Elizabeth A. Wheeler calls for what she terms ‘a “prosthetic community,”’ in which ‘human and non-human relationships transcend service and companionship.’ In such a community Wheeler asks for the recognition of ‘the personhood of animals and children with disabilities and their common membership in the living world.’ As Wheeler rightly claims; ‘The greater this recognition, the more humans can claim their kinship to nonhuman animals.’ Overall, in this final section, authors avidly promote the value of disability and difference as a shared vulnerability—a common experience—that dispels ableist myths of animals and disabled people as species without personhood.

In conclusion, Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities: Toward an Eco-Crip Theory provides high quality research that collectively seeks social justice for all. DS&EH is a bold and theory rich anthology. It is a coherent book that consists of stand-alone research papers, which allow the curious reader, scholar and activist to dip into a broad and varied range of specialist areas within disability and environmentalism. While the essays may be read as stand alone pieces, each bringing an innovative and fresh, critical disability studies perspective to the Environmental Humanities, they also form an important dialogue with one another. In this respect, the reader would benefit from embracing the book as a whole. Doing so would first of all lead the reader to recognize the socio-historically constructed and often exclusory nature of the Environmental Humanities. Secondly, it would allow the reader time to appreciate the complex and essential unruly nature of Crip Theory and its invaluable contribution to the Environmental Studies. DS&EH is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking collection. It foregrounds humanity’s messy relationship with a world that is irrevocably altered by human activity and fosters critical debate and activism across crucial issues that continue to emerge and overlap between these two important academic disciplines. For these reasons, DS&EH is an important book for cripping an eco-future in which social justice and change requires envisioning and advocating inclusivity through a non-normative critique of health and wellbeing.


Sue Smith is an Independent Scholar with a research interest in Disability, Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities. She has published articles and reviews in journals such as the BMJ Medical Humanities, Journal of Cultural and Disability Studies, Femspec, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction and The Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation.

(Visited 3,869 times, 2 visits today)