and Money -
Desire and Need
by John Scull
of Everyday Life:
Rethinking the Desire for Nature
by Chaia Heller
Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999
ISBN 1-55164-132-1, paperback, 182 pages
ideology of neo-liberalism and social Darwinism which almost dominates
our times leaves many things unexplained. Why are paintings and
musical instruments some of the earliest pre-historic human artifacts?
Why have artists of all kinds been willing to give up material success
for their art? Why do people join groups and hunger for community
and show solidarity with others? This book offers some interesting
and provocative answers to these questions.
Heller is on the staff at the Institute for Social Ecology, the
anarchist and ecofeminist social ecology organization founded by
Murray Bookchin. In Ecology of Everyday Life she mostly avoids
the confrontational style that makes much of Bookchin's writing
both enjoyable and irritating, yet her work is firmly grounded in
Bookchin's anarchistic social ecology as well as in ecofeminism.
While it was much friendlier than Bookchin, this book was really
heavy going. Heller's style is that of the scholar and philosopher,
with every sentence fraught with complexity and meaning. While this
does not make for light reading, her carefully crafted arguments
are compelling. The struggle with the prose was more than worth
it for the new ideas, insights, and connections it has brought.
of further reviewing the book, I want to write briefly about some
of Heller's ideas which seem to me to be very relevant to the theme
of ecopsychology and art. I will briefly describe her ideas on desire.
presents us with a distinction between need and desire. The ecology
of need is related to production, consumption, and reproduction.
It includes the usual subject matter of scientific ecology and such
social issues as resource depletion, poverty, pollution, and global
warming. It is objective, quantitative, and linear. When we are
dealing with the ecology of need, we are usually dealing with win-lose,
ecology of need is contrasted with the ecology of desire
-- the erotic, sensual aspect of our relationship with nature and
with each other. Desire is qualitative, subjective, and non-linear.
We can satisfy our erotic desires without limiting the opportunities
of other beings to satisfy theirs. Desire is cooperative and social,
concerned with relationships rather than objects. Social desires
usually lead to win-win, non-zero-sum systems. The discourse of
environmentalism needs to include both ecologies. To focus only
on the ecology of need is to miss the aesthetic, sensual, and spiritual
qualities of nature; to focus only on the ecology of desire is to
lapse into romanticism.
drawn this distinction, Heller brings us an important insight --
that the two ecologies always exist side by side -- it isn't an
either/or situation. Poor people in developing countries desire
beautiful and healthy natural surroundings as much as do rich people
in industrialized countries. Country people need resources as much
as city people. The love of nature and concern for issues such as
climate change are two sides of a single coin. From an evolutionary
perspective, sensory desire serves an adaptive function in creating
social bonds and guiding us towards the behaviour required to meet
our metabolic and reproductive needs. In Maslow's hierarchy, social
desire rests on a foundation of biological need, reflecting the
same materialist bias that informs economics and politics. In Heller's
system, desire and need are both fundamental.
of the rest of the book is devoted to the anatomy of desire. She
shows that desire is largely interpersonal -- its satisfaction almost
always involves other people -- and is best characterized as the
"socio-erotic". Desire is modified by culture and learning.
The important point, though, is that desire, like need, cannot be
denied or wished away. She presents us with five forms of social
desire. The first is sensual desire, the desire to know and
make connection with our environment. This sensory desire is the
basis of all forms of eroticism and sensory enjoyment in both human
and biological communities. Associative desire is the desire
to know others, the basis of all mutualism and communications in
both human cultures and natural ecosystems. Differentiative desire
is the desire towards self-knowledge and knowledge of the world.
Developmental desire is the desire to become everything we
are capable of becoming. Oppositional desire is the innate
sense of justice; the desire that leads to resistance to all forms
of oppression. All these desires together make up the socio-erotic
-- a fundamental quality of humans in society.
must be taken not to interpret desire in terms of the discourse
we dive into the vast blue world of the socio-erotic, we no longer
define desire as the singular will to satisfy an individualistic
longing for that which we do not have, nor do we reduce desire to
material need. Instead, we may explore desire as a rich dialectic,
as a yearning to unfold all that we can feel and do together within
a free society. In particular, social desire represents an organic
and profoundly social spectrum of potentialities, inclinations,
or tendencies. It represents a will to know ourselves, each other,
and the world."
capitalism is able to make desires into commodities, they exist
independently of their commodification.
then extends her analysis of desire to non-human nature, identifying
the "eco-erotic", with the principles of sensory connection,
mutualism, differentiation, and development in nature corresponding
to four of the five aspects of social desire. She goes on to tie
biological and human desire together in a seamless whole from "first
nature" to "second nature" and sees human society
as continuous with ecology but making conscious that which was unconscious.
ideas seem important for a consideration of art, aesthetics, and
ecopsychology because she presents the erotic (in the broadest sense)
as a fundamental aspect of both human and non-human nature. The
pursuit of enjoyment, connection, self-knowledge, and both personal
and social development are not mere by-products of the energy and
matter exchanges studied by ecologists or the money exchanges studied
by economists. Instead, relationship, beauty, and enjoyment are
seen as existing for their own sake. Preventing global economic
disaster and creating a more beautiful world are not alternatives,
they are complementary.
has shown us that we can build a non-hierarchic world view. Heller
has exposed the hierarchic nature of the view that desire is somehow
secondary to need. She provides us with a sound philosophical basis
for valuing pleasure, community, and self-development for their
own sakes; for elevating many human activities to the status of
art forms; and for elevating the artist to an equal level with the
scientist, engineer, administrator, or entrepreneur.
the context of liberal capitalism, the full range of cooperative
and creative potentiality lies largely undeveloped while a narrow
spectrum of competitive and instrumental abilities are nurtured
every generation, artists have stood in opposition to this narrowing
of human motivation. In our generation, radical ecologists and ecopsychologists
can remember to honor the artist in all of us and in all of nature.