Thinking climate futures through the image of the child and reproduction smuggles conservative assumptions into our understanding and forecloses utopian possibilities.
“Won’t somebody think of the children?” It is the pithy question espoused by policy makers, media platforms and environmental NGOs alike, the catchphrase that is meant to make the consequences of climate change meaningful to generic families. We are urged to give a shit about it and consequently to modify our lives by driving less, turning our lights off, voting for a particular party, or going to a demo - because the futures of our descendants are assumed to be dependent upon the environmental conditions we create today. The innocent face of the child looming in the future demands that we enrol ourselves in a particular political field and, thus, in a particular form of politics.
We have previously argued against the future promise of environmentalism, embracing the slogan of the punks and queers: no future:
As an utter necessity we must abandon the future, for we cannot win there. No future, for we will never convince the majority to fight for the sake of a time they cannot imagine. No future, for capital will always defeat any strategy based on a next-ness, for against airy notions of tomorrow’s world, they can posit the cold hard facts of today counted out in wages and jobs. No future, because, right now, there is literally no future, right now we are condemned to collapse.
Nearly everywhere we look, we are confronted by forces that call us to action in the name of that which is yet to come. But the demand of future human generations - what Lee Edelman hyperbolically calls the "fascism of the baby's face" - constitutes an overwhelming and overarching logic that structures the very symbolic field of nearly all politics. In the regime of all-pervasive reproductive futurism, we are rendered blind to the already grown-up, incipient demands for ‘utopia now’. We de-prioritize those demands emanating from our contemporary catastrophe, urgent irruptive demands for altered modes of life and of living together that should begin in the present. In submitting to the faith that tomorrow will be rendered hospitable for the Child, we defer our responsibilities to the present (and our actually existing children, for that matter) by investing our desire for A Better World in such images.
These politics of the Child are structurally conservative, reproducing the future as iterations of the same. In the environmental mode, this means an eternal deferral: Nature is rhetorically constructed as both 'out there' spatially (we are urged to reduce our ecological ‘footprints’), and 'out there' temporally (the threat always looms on the horizon, it’s always our ‘last chance’ to save the Children). What is excluded are the conditions of social reproduction, the multiplicity of forms of kinship, and the immanent possibility of rupture. Against the structurally conservative politics of reproductive futurism, we need a structurally open politics which affords utopian possibilities.
Reproductive futurism seems, as such, to saturate the political to its core. As Edelman argues, political futures are rendered so dependent on this symbolic Child (who is quite obviously heteronormative, but also white, suburban, etc) that our politics ends up fighting over the Image of the Child rather than cutting across its fictions.
The image of the Child, not to be confused with the lived experiences of any historical children, serves to regulate political discourse - to prescribe what will count as political discourse - by compelling such discourse to accede in advance to the reality of a collective future whose figurative status we are never permitted to acknowledge or address.1
The figure of the queer, Edelman shows, is thus very broadly rendered as a threat to the symbolic and moral order. This gesture, commonly associated with far right discourse, explicitly casts homosexuality as an affront to the family and thus to life itself, and it is not difficult to find and criticize examples of such ’family values’ rhetoric coming from the right. Yet through the lens of reproductive futurism, this structurally queerphobic element becomes visible in a far broader swathe of mainstream politics. One can easily begin to see the ways in which the discourses of the Left (liberals, social democrats, and even many of our anti-capitalist allies) and particularly the ecological or ‘green’ Left, are rendered complicit with this queerphobia through their overt reliance on figures of reproductive futurism.
Once we understand reproductive futurism, we begin to find images of the child and uses of actual children in ecological politics almost everywhere we look. The climate science documentary Thin Ice opens quite strikingly, simply, with a silent, extreme close-up of a white infant’s pursed lips and blue eyes. Billboards in 2009 in the run-up to the COP15 global summit on climate change enjoined their audiences to “Hopenhagen” for the sake of small blond children. A recent protest of LEGO’s alliance with Shell involved 50 children “building their favourite Arctic animals out of oversized LEGO bricks”, linking both the futurity of children to that of non-human species.
As we recently wrote elsewhere, Naomi Klein’s recent book This Changes Everything ultimately holds up the naturalness and desirability of birthing and reproduction as a beacon (despite wavering for a moment with the possibility of a different, queerer, partially non-reproductive politics, as we note below). What is at stake in these discourses is always the defence of an imagined proper, natural, and secure social order. As Edelman argues:
Nature [is] the rhetorical effect of an effort to appropriate the ‘natural’ for the ends of the state. It is produced, that is, in the service of a statist ideology that operates by installing pro-procreative prejudice as the form through which desiring subjects assume a stake in a future that always pertains, in the end, to the state, not to them.2
To highlight the pernicious effects of reproductive futurism is not to be against children, reproduction or heterosexuality per se. It is to show that when reproductive futurism structures politics, we are incapable of inventing forms of political thought and practice demanded by climate change. Reproductive futurism denies agency to children, rendering them mere vehicles for our political desires. Without putting in place the material conditions of reproductive justice for many or even most women, it intensively celebrates women’s capacity to gestate and birth infants as a free service for capital. It ropes many queers into a futile endeavour to prove themselves to be worthy, proper, white settler citizens with ‘family values’.3
Reproductive futurism does not simply structure the heteronormative desires of the political field and social order; it also renders any threats to that order meaningless, and thus disposable or killable. Andrea Smith astutely points out that “the value of ‘no future’ in the context of genocide, where Native peoples have already been determined by settler colonialism to have no future”, requires further elaboration.4 Smith forces us to realise that the seeming harmony of reproductive futurism is based on a series of great silences – some enforced by the social order, others present in any critique of future-oriented politics.
For an example of this logic at work, one need only to look to Palestine. Israeli settler-colonialism is typified by a visceral and arbitrary violence which attempts to produce just such a state of continually endangered existence outside the recognized social order. Eyal Weizman notes the existence of an Israeli military document called Red Lines, which specifies the precise threshold quantities of vegetables, meat, milk, and other ‘essentials’, below which mass starvation - and charges of genocide - would result. The Israeli state then seeks to restrict aid flows into the Gaza Strip to this threshold level. Weizman quotes Dov Weisglass, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."5
The Palestinian population is thus forced to bear a survival circumscribed by its proximity to death (a situation Achille Mbembe would call “necropolitical”).6 Power is played out through a combined destruction of social and human life; a checkpoint is closed and a neck is choked, a mosque is burnt down and a skull is caved in. To put a people so close to death is to position murder as a minor escalation. The genocidal tendency that animates the occupation emanates from this proximity.
What does reproduction mean in such a context? In July 2014 the Israeli lawmaker and member of parliament, Ayelet Shaked, shared the following text on Facebook:
They [the Palestinian people] are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.7
The next day, three Israelis snatched Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16 year old Palestinian, from a street in East Jerusalem. The police would later find his body in a nearby wood.8 . Here we see clearly that reproductive futurism is not a monolithic entity pertaining to all children, but rather a series of antagonistic and mutually exclusive articulations: the occupation puts the Palestinian child into a fundamental conflict with the child of Israel. Indeed, whenever reproductive futurism is enrolled by the nation-state, hierarchies of which children’s lives are rendered liveable or expendable become visible. To the Israelis the future of their children is fundamentally threatened by the presence of the other-kid, of the “little snakes” who present a mortal danger to their young ones.
Andrea Smith points to an example from US settler colonialism: “Colonel John Chivington, the leader of the famous massacre at Sand Creek [in 1864], charged his followers to not only kill Native adults but to mutilate their reproductive organs and to kill their children because ‘nits make lice.’”9 In the context of the antagonism of national futures, the indigenous or colonised child exists in contradiction with the children of the settler; “the Native Child is not the guarantor of the reproductive future of white supremacy; it is the nit that undoes it.”10 If ‘no future’ were to merely mean that one “not fight for the children”, one would abdicate responsibility for the fact that children (and images of the child) are often fighting to destroy each other. This nationalistic logic is clear in the xenophobic approach to refugees, with the EU proposing joint military action to destroy boats to prevent refugees fleeing Libya. While the war is the proximate cause of their flight, climate change is playing an increasing role in conflict and displacement, particularly in the middle east/north Africa region.
Therefore, there is not one overarching symbolic Child, but rather a multitude of antagonistic children that reproductive futurism – especially in global climate change discourse – deftly papers over in the name of the unmarked Child-as-such. As Nina Power puts it, (in the UK at least) “Politics is so pro-child in theory because it is so anti-child (and anti-woman) in practice.”11 The political system ultimately recognises the need for children within society, yet at the same time has very little desire to aid actually existing children and their kin.12 Thus we find that reproductive futurism neither depends on one overarching symbolic Child, nor on all forms of caring for children per se.
Reproductive futurism is a vital component to an understanding of capitalist hetero-patriarchy, but it is not a universal structuring field of politics, as Edelman sometimes suggests. Indeed, this lack of nuance means that we must be wary of merely inverting the binary opposition of “pro-reproduction” and “anti-reproduction” without challenging the very grid of intelligibility which centres reproduction in the first place.13 To note the prevalence of reproductive futurism in climate change politics invites us not simply to revalue non-reproduction or anti-futurity, but to go beyond the political limits, both of centering reproduction, and of thinking futurity through reproduction.
In our critique of Naomi Klein’s reproductive futurism, we noted that she also gestures towards the possibility of a “kinship of the infertile”, a regenerative politics that would allow us to escape reproductive futurism. Whilst reproductive futurism infects the vast mass of climate change politics, there is also within that mass the promise of a new movement, one that shifts itself towards the politics of what we would call regenerative cyborgs.
Like Donna Haraway, we would rather recognize our finitude, our partial and everyday situations within networks of technology, care, and communication, than the imperial and destitute politics of All Future Children. For Haraway, the cyborg is:
resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household.14
The politics of regenerative cyborgs would thus refuse the pure and innocent future imagined and defended by ecological politics, instead understanding our present selves and our lives with children and other species as transversed by technical, social, and queer connections. Instead of focusing on the ephemeral images of white children, it would instead reorient us towards the material conditions of our lives. This would, as Silvia Federici argues, reopen “a collective struggle over reproduction, reclaiming control over the material conditions of our reproduction and creating new forms of cooperation around this work outside of the logic of capital and the market."15
By broadening the grounds of the struggle over reproduction to include the general material conditions of social life, the politics of regenerative cyborgs would include the agriculture we will need to feed ten billion people, the oceanic gyres, jet-streams and weather systems which will shape their lives and the carbon cycle which will itself shape those shaping forces. To posit ourselves as regenerative cyborgs pushes us to think of our partial positions within a complex network composed of machines and organisms, an entanglement of the living and the non-living, a cyborg Earth.
In this vast network, we cannot reduce regeneration to mere reproduction, with its tight bonds to heteronormative and survival-based notions of human life. For that which is being reproduced is far greater than the merely human. Thus, what is more fitting here is a politics of regeneration in the sense that Jasbir Puar writes of it;
what is at stake [is] not the ability to reproduce, but the capacity to regenerate, the terms of which are found in all sorts of registers beyond heteronormative reproduction.16
Through regeneration of the material, social infrastructures of care that makes our lives liveable and meaningful, we begin to imagine the transformative gesture of our previous call for ‘no future’. No future, we argued, means nothing without its corollary: utopia now. The struggle for utopia now is defined by our desire to create ourselves in ways previously impossible, to live lives of complexity and beauty, free from the horrors and constraints of capitalist hetero-patriarchy.
Rather than ‘no future’ being an alternative to reproductive futurism, we can therefore see it as a reflection of it under conditions of catastrophic climate change. In the context of business-as-usual climate change, the reproduction of the same is no future. A politics of regenerative cyborgs brings the conditions of social reproduction back into view, thus opening up the possibility of the non-reproduction of the same: utopia now.
We can regenerate and emerge as the cyborgs we always-already were. A cyborg praxis gives us the space to understand difference, to see that reproductive futurism desires little white settlers for children, and seeks to destroy all those who are young and outside of this category. A cyborg praxis allows us to see that the fetishism of the child and the mother in the abstract is inseparable from the actual and total violence perpetrated against children and their kin. But perhaps more than anything else, a cyborg praxis offers us a chance amidst the ruins. It means the refusal of the lifeboat ethics demanded by the defence of the national child, but also the embrace of that which lies beyond them, the entwined possibilities of regeneration and transformation which open the utopian horizon.
- 1Lee Edelman, No Future, Durham; Duke University Press, 2004, 11.
- 2Ibid, 52.
- 3Commenting on the increasing acceptance of ‘homonormative’ lesbian and gay family norms, Jasbir Puar notes that “the capitalist reproductive economy (in conjunction with technology: in vitro, sperm banks, cloning, sex selection, genetic testing) no longer exclusively demands heteronormativity as an absolute; its simulation may do.” Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, Durham; Duke University Press, 2007, 31.
- 4Andrea Smith , “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 16, Number 1-2, 2010, pp. 42-68, 47.
- 5Eyal Weizman, The least of all possible evils, London; Verso, 2012, 83.
- 6Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”, Public Culture, 2003, Vol.15(1), pp.11-40.
- 7Ali Abunimah, “Israeli lawmaker’s call for genocide of Palestinians gets thousands of Facebook likes”, The Electronic Intifada, 07/07/2014.
- 9Smith, “Queer Theory”, 47.
- 11Power also criticises Edelman’s view that all politics is based in reproductive futurism, pointing to those communities in which children do not motivate political and social practices. Power studies those kibbutzim which either decided not to have any children at all, or alternatively experimented with radical forms of collective child care, and thus attempted to deconstruct the particular investment of parents in “their” children. Nina Power; “Non-Reproductive Futurism”, Borderlands, Vol. 8:2, 2009, pp.1-16, 5.
- 13"By assuming that reproduction is at the center of futurity and the platform against which future-negating queer politics should be orientated, Edelman…ironically recenters the very child-privileging, future orientated politics he seeks to refuse…” Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, Durham; Duke University Press, 2011, 211.
- 14Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism In The Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature, New York; Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181, 150.
- 15Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, Oakland; PM Press, 2012, 111.
- 16Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, 211