- Destructive Environmentalism:The Queer Impossibility of First Reformed
Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?—Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1978)
On April 14, 2018, David S. Buckel, a prominent human rights lawyer, gay and trans rights advocate, and environmentalist, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. A passerby who saw the smoke reported it to the police as a brush fire.1 In a 1,276-word letter he had sent to media outlets and left on the scene of his suicide, Buckel drew a parallel between his death and the disastrous impact of fossil fuel dependency. "Pollution," he wrote, "ravages our planet, oozing [un]inhabitability via air, soil, water, and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early [End Page 3] deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuels reveals what we are doing to ourselves."2 Buckel's act did more than spectacularize the impossibility of sustained life in toxifying atmospheres. He sought to detoxify these atmospheres by making his combustion his ultimate carbon emission. He explained, "It may be clear that staying in the world is doing more harm than good. … A lifetime of service may be preserved by giving a life."3 To live, as Buckel noted, is to make waste and so too lay waste to the worlds we wish to protect. Buckel's deoxygenated remains figured the species extinction they were meant to defer.
On April 23, 2018, nine days after Buckel took his own life, Dennis Dickey, a border patrol agent, ignited a wildfire that spread to the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. Dickey had invited family and friends to a gender-reveal party, a ritual in which expectant parents announce the gender to be assigned to their future child. His plan was to shoot a rifle and hit a target containing Tannerite, a highly explosive substance whose detonation would produce pink or blue powder. The fire that ensued ravaged forty-seven thousand acres.4
The first tragedy pertains to a person's death (while evoking mass extinction). The other pertains to an ecosystem's decimation. Both locate queerness in proximity to environmental peril. Buckel's suicide, which according to his husband was inspired by the self-immolation of some Buddhist monks, belongs to a queer genealogy of direct action that frames death as protest.5 Buckel reduced himself to cinder and ash in public. Similarly, in the 1990s ACT UP members scattered on the White House lawn the ashes of individuals "murdered by AIDS and killed by government neglect."6 Buckel's death also extends a morbid strand of queer theory's antisocial thesis—a strand, developed in part by Lee Edelman, that figures politics from the refusal and, in this case, the impossibility of reproduction and futurity.7 Buckel's self-annihilation points to a contradiction that environmental politics too often straightens out: that to live today is to accelerate extinction. Queer theory has long recognized that by saving life we work to destroy it. What makes Buckel's action disturbingly timely is the link it draws between queerness and a general intensification of the antisocial thesis by climate change.
Whereas Buckel's immolation merges intentionality and inevitability through the synthesis of individual suicide and species extinction, the Coronado National Forest wildfire highlights the immeasurable environmental cost of flippant acts of destruction. The latter case differently fuses sex and death. Rather than adopting queerness as an orientation toward death, Dickey used lethal [End Page 4] explosives to protect the integrity of the gender binary. But his attempt to label a child "naturally" female or male unleashed the queer negativity it had attempted to repress; his turned out to be an "act against nature."8 As the wildfire melodramatized, reproduction kills; each newborn comes with a carbon footprint that threatens the planet. While queer theory's antisocial thesis makes the "sinthomosexual" and the "gay...