Art and Money -
Desire and Need

by John Scull

Ecology of Everyday Life:
Rethinking the Desire for Nature

by Chaia Heller

Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1999
ISBN 1-55164-132-1, paperback, 182 pages

The 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.

Chaia 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.

Instead 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.

She 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, zero-sum systems.

The 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.

Having 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.

Much 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.

Care must be taken not to interpret desire in terms of the discourse of need.

"As 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."

While capitalism is able to make desires into commodities, they exist independently of their commodification.

Heller 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.

These 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.

Ecofeminism 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.

"Within 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 to extremes."

In 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.