CapitalismEssaysFeatureMedia/PublicsSex & Gender

Libidinal Ecology: Sex and the Anthropocene (I)

(Part one of a two-part introduction to an ongoing research collaboration between myself and Margret Grebowicz. Part two can be found here)

What is the carbon-footprint of your libido?

In 2013, reports starting circulating in the media that the global best-seller 50 Shades of Grey was beginning to outstay its welcome as a cultural artifact. In the UK alone, it sold 5.3 million copies to that point, even before the film based on the story was released. A large percentage of these books ended up in charity stores. Unfortunately, these stores could not resell the books, nor pulp them safely. As the Telegraph newspaper reported at the time: “the country has amassed a ‘paper mountain’ of unwanted copies of EL James’s erotic novel, suggesting that readers are bored with the ‘mummy porn’ trilogy.” The most salient point, however, was the fact that, “The books cannot be recycled because of the glue which was used to bind them.” A bad decision in the production process meant that these feasibly recyclable objects, dedicated to the consensual degradation of a young college student, were not, in themselves, biodegradable. In short, 50 Shades of Grey was an ecological disaster. An ecological disaster exacerbated by “mummy porn”; that is to say, the collective libido of (presumed) bored housewives. (Although by no means including only this sizable demographic.)

Does the libido come with a carbon-footprint? If so, how might we measure its size? How to account for its effects? What might the environmental “impact” of our personal and collective desires be? What are the key links between human sexual behavior and the anthropocene? Does the libido fuel the acceleration of climate change? Presumably yes. But how to track this phenomenon? Conversely, does climate change — or environmental peril, more generally — influence our sense of the erotic? If so, in what ways, and in what kinds of configurations? Are we living through the moment of “peak libido” — a concept that may in fact uncannily mirror the discourse of “peak oil”? 50 Shades of Grey is just one example of a potentially infinite list of cases where our erotic desires fuel environmental devastation.

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922), Freud states: “Libido is an expression taken from the theory of the emotions. We call by that name the energy (regarded as a quantitative magnitude, though not at present actually measurable) of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’” (emphasis added).

Interestingly, use of the word “libido,” in English, peaked between 1955-1965. This is as good a date as any for indicating the global-cultural moment of “peak libido.” Many would argue — in fact, have argued — that we have been steadily running out of this precious energetic resource ever since (most notably the French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler). 

During this spike, Wilhelm Reich became notorious in his scientific attempt to harness and create more Orgone energy with various devices and inter-personal innovations. Around the same time, Herbert Marcuse, more attentive to the media ecology of the boomer years, became concerned with the irresponsible siphoning of erotic energy in what he called “repressive desublimation.”

Indeed, the second-half of the twentieth century could be viewed as a paradoxical explosion of sexual displays, sensations, and materials, with an accompanying loss of personal and social libido. To borrow from the famous nightmare climate-change scenario popularized in the Hollywood film, The Day After Tomorrow, it was as if the sheer prevalence of erotic signs were diluting the cultural oceans, thus compromising the Gulf Stream — the tidal “fan belt” — which keeps the motor of history humming, and the general equilibrium of civilization. (This latter term itself being, according to Freud, nothing other than the crystallizing function and form of libido, or Eros.) As I have said elsewhere: The secret affinity between “peak oil” and “peak libido” can thus be traced between Mad Max and Mad Men.

As the sixties became the seventies, and the seventies gave way to the eighties, a critical tradition continued, lamenting the ongoing plight of the endangered libido, now weakened beyond recognition in the face of its rampant exploitation (even as the good old-fashioned practice of sex was in no way diminishing). The new technologies of birth control, nuclear weaponry, broadcast media, and digital computation combined to spawn generations of people who were increasingly incapable of controlling their own libidos, and who could no longer productively sublimate their rather random desires into the former foundations of the human project: art, spiritual nourishment, polis-building, scientific inquiry, and so on. The temporality of culture changed and with it the ability to postpone and transform erotic energy into sustainable projects, arrangements, or objects.

In his short chapter, “The Gesture of Loving,” Vilem Flusser writes: “to make authentic love, we must engage in sexual gestures, although in technoimagination, these gestures contradict the gesture of loving. And that is another way of saying that we are about to lose the capacity to love.” Similarly, in his book Seduction, Baudrillard warns of a kind of discursive global warming, when he states that “at present we are witnessing the slow and simultaneous erosion of all the polar structures” — referring not to the arctic and Antarctic, but to the melting of gender roles and distinctions. “Ecological libido,” Baudrillard writes in Fatal Strategies, “[is] a product specific to our epoch, spread out everywhere in homeopathic and homeostatic doses . . . Floating, it can be drained, diverted, magnetized from one niche to another, according to the flow. It corresponds ideally to an order of manipulation.”

Around the same time that scientists were chemically solving the problem of sustaining an erection, for men of all ages the libido became a problem of sustainability. Physical performance was privileged above emotional engagement or affective receptivity. Whether we provisionally decide that the libido is a frisky friend or formidable foe, one of the great challenges for the future of the human race, and indeed the planet itself, tends to go under the name of “sustainability.” This key term applies to the wider environment, but is also — tellingly — used in modern discourses of love and desire. How to sustain the resources on which we live: raw materials, energies, and desires? What we are willing to pursue, sublimate, or deny ourselves becomes (or is revealed to have always been) not only a question of personal or political identity, but also environmental influence, limitation, and potential.

Consider the popular online pornography site, Pornhub, which in 2014 launched the “wood for wood” campaign, in which the company offered to plant a tree for every 100 videos watched. A different but related initiative, by the same company, produced a press-statement which noted: “Every day, millions of hours of adult content are consumed online, wasting energy in the process and hurting the environment. At Pornhub we decided to do something about it. Introducing The Wankband: The first wearable tech that allows you to love the planet by loving yourself.” While such copy reads like an April Fool’s Day prank, this green yet “dirty energy” technology, described recently as “the AppleWatch of masturbation,” is apparently in actual development, and currently calling for beta-testers. So much for Bataillean exuberance, excess and waste. These can all be efficiently rerouted into the system, so that not a drop of libido is squandered.

We need only look to Japan’s population crisis to see an example of “peak libido” on a national or cultural scale. While from the outside, Japan tends to be portrayed as sex-obsessed and erotically eccentric, the data undeniably points to a lack of procreative intercourse compared to not only other countries, but compared to its own recent past. The red-blooded samurai-stock has been replaced by the timid or even affectless “herbivore man” or “otaku,” who seem to be only interested in manga girls made of pixels, fabric, or plastic. No doubt there is some postmodern Orientalism at work in the Western fascination with such figures, as if they represent a majority or reality of modern day Japan. And yet, the population crisis is real, and interviews with women in their twenties and thirties reveal a profound estrangement from the younger men who would normally be fathers to their children. Is Japan the canary in the coal mine, in terms of a future of population implosion, due to depleted or deflected libidos (and thus, eventually, no future at all, due to an inability or unwillingness to breed)?

Consider this recent campaign “Do It For Denmark,” designed to reverse this country’s own falling birth-rate. One could spend a great deal of time pointing out the manifold ways that the friendly faces of such a campaign mask a symptomatic mobilization of rather less beguiling biopolitical imperatives. But this would be all too easy, given how watermarked the whole thing is with Foucault’s legacy. This seemingly innocuous and cheeky footage concerns itself with highly ideological population management (is there any other kind?), stitching together nationalist narratives, government incentives, the gendered division of labor, “progressive” liberal agendas, and global tourism circuits (which themselves, of course, exacerbate anthropocenic conditions).

From a neo-Malthusian standpoint, less people is good for the environment, especially in the context of a global population explosion. (Japan, Denmark, and Italy are very much the exception that proves the rule, at this point, reminding us that this is a “problem” for the overdeveloped nations.) Less mouths to feed translates to less land required to exploit. Yet it is characteristic of the thinking of the age that what is good for the environment is bad for the economy; and the latter takes priority. Japan is worried because it is losing tax dollars that would have been paid by the missing millions, which means it sinks deeper into debt. The global financial system has no interest in ecological concerns, except where “green tech” or “fair trade” or other consumerist panaceas help boost markets (and delay hard questions about the origin of profits).

Another campaign speaks to the tensions between over-population as a demographic reality (with humans reaching seven billion people), and the implications for other animals, many of whom are the victims of the “sixth mass extinction crisis.” In response to these environmental pressures the Center for Biological Diversity launched the Endangered Species Condoms project in 2009, distributing “hundreds of thousands of free condoms across the United States . . . [w]rapped in colorful, wildlife-themed packages.” According to the CBD, “Endangered Species Condoms offer a fun, unique way to get people talking about the link between human population growth and the species extinction crisis.” Having less children is certainly one way to help minimize the impact of environmental damage and exponential extinction. And yet this kind of campaign is pitted against one of the most tenacious ideologies of modern civilization: the quasi-sacred status of the procreative mother. (One wonders if the time will come when having children of one’s own is considered as gauche, or even damaging, as smoking; or if the discourse of “natural” maternity is simply too powerful to be challenged by a more holistic sense of ecology, in which say, adoption is seen as the more socially and environmentally responsible option.)

To conclude this very brief sketch of today’s global “libidinal ecology”: there appear to be two key registers in which the concept of “saving” is used in the kinds of contexts and case-studies cited above. The first, in the sense of keeping or accumulating, and the second, in the sense of rescuing or protecting. The libido can, at least historically, be kept in standing reserve, as it were; held in check in order to amplify the power generated. This is the logic of sublimation. And we might call this the Whitney Houston principle, given her famous lyric: “I’m saving all my love for you.” But in the new age of environmental sensitivity, the libido also plays a role within a wider drama of salvation. So to say, while libidinal economy is often concerned with saving up, libidinal ecology is often concerned with saving for. The former relies on the equivalent of an erotic revenue stream — say a lover who can be relied upon to pay sexual dividends (or at least residuals) — while the latter describes the manifold ways in which, for instance, human desire trickles into, and inevitably dilutes or pollutes, an actual stream.

Also for you:

Dominic Pettman

Previous post

Constitutional Crisis in Poland

Next post

Libidinal Ecology: Sex and the Anthropocene (II)