Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Resisting Burnout is Revolutionary: Marisol Cortez at ASLE

I just heard the most amazing paper at the ASLE conference ever! Marisol Cortez, of, talked about the importance of slowing down our feverish reactivity to "multiplying crises" of environmental injustices, climate change, the ascendance of white supremacy, etc.  (Update: You can find her paper now published here).

She and her partner, Greg Harman, have experienced debilitating mental health problems, prompting them to leave their secure jobs for the precarious lives of freelance writers and activists.  She talked about the "disabling assumption" that our "bodies can sustain constant conflict, constant crisis."  All action-- chasing fire after fire, working, working, working to resist-- reflects a logic of capitalist extraction, a "production imaginary" undermining capitalist growth ideology, that affects corporate life for sure, but also academia and even grassroots activism, Cortez bemoans.

In contrast, she said, deceleration, degrowth, is a praxis of environmental justice.  The "logic of 'not-enoughness' is disabling to activism."  In other words, the overwhelming feeling we all have to increase the amount of work we do in response to the increased urgency and onslaught of crises is not sustainable to the "marathon" (Bullard's word) of environmental justice.

Thinking of the "pace of life" expectations around productivity--either in the corporate sphere or the grassroots sphere, and deceptively so, perhaps even worse in the latter given our historical moment-- as "disabling" is so brilliant. Cortez just blew my mind.

Finally, Cortez rejects "resistance" because it nurtures conflict-- the very conflict that disables us.  It "internalizes not-enoughness", while "deceleration rejects our exhaustion with resistance," which can be "boring" and "joyless."  Drawing on Gloria Anzaldua, Cortez purposes instead that "inner work, public acts," is a better mantra to live by.   I love that Cortez engages disability studies' critique of productivity in this paper, politicizing self-care and mental health as a praxis of environmental justice.

She cites the new Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era anthology as a key work; in it, an essay on "care" -- especially care of the self-- argues (as I understood Cortez's summary to say), that we should resist the debilitating forces of production, exhaustion, not-enoughness, action, extraction of our labor, acceleration, accumulation, and the emotional and affective results of these values (despair, nihilism, impotence, depression, etc).

Although the feminist in me bristles a bit when somebody tells me that "care" is the antidote to capitalism, but I take her point: I never feel I have the time it takes to do the care of myself, my family, critters, and my friends and loved ones. I resent those humans and non-humans that demand care from me, because I am compelled, torn to do the important work so needed to resist!

But what Cortez is saying, I think, is that I needn't feel so conflicted, and that if I prioritized care, I might care for myself as much as the other critters that need care, instead of cutting self-care in favor of hard work and care of others.  In short, Cortez's paper prompts me to  rethink the complexity of "care", especially as the discourse of "self-care" surfaces in a post-election moment.

I was struck by the arguments about temporality implicit in Cortez's paper.  Cortez talked about the work of environmental justice that is invisible even within the counter-hegemonic work of justice, the slow, daily, monotonous work that is taboo and uncool in the fight to "resist": self-care, writing, thinking, creating, tending to relationships, tending to our joys and loves. She says that our unwillingness to "count" this work as valuable is a reflection not of our selfishness or our inadequate commitment to justice, but rather of the capitalist logic of extraction and productivity.

If Rob Nixon's theory of "slow violence" helps make visible the forms of violence caused by environmental injustices dispersed over time and displaced across time, then perhaps what we might call "slow activism"-- which may not even look like activism-- surely is the response to surviving it.


  1. Thank you for posting this - for those of us unable to make the panel and for everyone, what a potent reminder of how radical acts of care can be. And that care for ourselves can be expressed by redefining and reclaiming what a 'productive' life looks like, can start by recognizing that our speeds may/should stutter and at times be imperceptible, and can continue to recognize that layers of temporalities exist in every single moment of our lived realities. <3 Thank you, Marisol!

  2. Thanks for your comment, April, and to Sarah as well for attending our panel and responding to my paper here...can't tell you how gratifying it is to know that this analysis resonates with folks. Sarah, looking forward to exploring your blog and your publications. Your work is really exciting to me, in particular intersections of EJ analysis and disability.

    1. Oh--and if either of you (or any readers here) are interested in developing something to submit to Deceleration, we would be interested! As I mentioned to Sarah, the site right now reflects more of Greg's career in environmental journalism, but the overarching vision is to link reporting with more theoretical and creative analyses, building Deceleration as an online journal for environmental justice/enviro humanities thought. If you'd like to submit, just contact us at

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