Call of the Wild
It's thrilling to watch people pulling together against global warming. Fights and fissures lie ahead. But a green Christmas from St. Louis to St. Petersburg has, for this panicked moment, inspired some previously unimaginable alliances. Businesspeople are lying down with regulators, Democrats with Republicans, religious fundamentalists with scientists.
Amateur porn stars with Amazon Indians.
I refer to Fuck for Forest, the brain- (and bod-) child of a pretty, young Norwegian couple named Leona Johansson and Tommy Hol Ellingsen, who describe their project as "concerned humans" who "use their sexuality and love to direct attention to and collect money for the earth's threatened nature."
Fuckforforest.com, founded in 2004, is an "ecological porn site." It recruits tree-hugging exhibitionists to donate photos and videos of their pleasure-taking, signs up subscribers at $15 a month, and sends the proceeds to rainforest conservation and reforestation efforts in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Brazil.
For a site dedicated to wild nature, FFF is pretty tame. Skinny, pierced and tattooed white people cavort in leafy settings. The occasional vegetable is introduced, as is mild fetishism. In one video, Leona in a blue wig employs an enormous leek to flagellate another woman. On the homepage, a woman in a gas mask kneels before a floating chainsaw. It's all rather . . . Norwegian.
But Fuck for Forest is also an unprecedented hybrid. Leona and Tommy probably don't know it, but their project represents the bridging of a historic divide between two political discourses, two heretofore separate spheres of activism. If we are going to save the Earth, it's a gap worth closing.
On one side of the divide are the discourses of desire - the politics of sexual liberation and personal freedom. These are the values of the Age of Revolutions, including our own, with its inalienable right to pursue happiness. For better or worse, they're also the values of capitalism, with its confederate desire, its promise gratification, and its job to cycle the two in endless escalation.
On the other side are the discourses of restraint, where environmentalism resides. Here, need - as opposed to desire - and limited resources are assessed; a just and sustainable balance of the two is sought. Economically, restraint is closer to socialism than to capitalism, or at least to regulated capitalism than to unfettered free markets.
If the pleasure people's Utopia is Dionysian, the restrainers' is Apollonian. It seeks satisfaction in rational moderation, and in saving some for later. Sustainability is by defintion a principle of delayed gratification.
There are aesthetic differences between the two, as well as a kind of culture-nature divide. Broadly speaking, the pleasure politicos embrace technology, fashion, the contemporary arts, media, speed, novelty. The restrainers prefer the rural; they like slow processes, durable, old things, things that are born, not made. John Muir, co-founder of the Sierra Club and widely seen as the father of American environmentalism, found spiritual and emotional succor in nature. Like many of his successors, he had less use for the products of human imagination. "One day's exposure to mountains," he wrote, "is better than a cartload of books."
Neither side is monolithic or doctrinaire. Indeed, pleasurites are often critical of the consumer economy, especially its inexorable imperative to grow, obsolesce and discard. But they also take in stride the contribution that commerce makes to culture and community, identity and sexuality. Transpeople, for instance, are not above shopping the surgical and pharmaceutical mart to create bodies that match their self-images. And activists like FFF, the casual heirs of category-smashing movements from Pop Art to pro-sex feminism, regard as academic the lines between commercial and fine art, or porn and erotica.
For their part, some of the most sophisticated restrainers - such as Adbusters or Reverend Billy, whom I wrote about last month - humorously, even affectionately, twist the tropes of the mainstream media and use it to get the message across.
But there's a strain of moral environmentalism that would throw the baby out with the gray water - that is, the imaginative, juicy, fun aspects of consumer culture with its devastating consequences. For such people, it's not enough to love your bicycle; you have to hate your TV, too. It's not enough to buy less and buy green; you have to condemn the whole enterprise of shopping as a crime and a sin and look down on shoppers (yourself included) as advertising-addled, instant-gratification-addicted zombies. Substitute a cartload of DVDs for Muir's cartload of books and you get the gist.
So it was into this little DMZ that Fuck for Forest innocently stepped. There they discovered . . . a market niche! Green wankers! In its first year, 2004, the site raked in $100,000.
Then FFF got stranded on one shore of the divide.
No mainstream environmental organization would take their money. WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) in Norway and the Netherlands declined. "[W]e cannot connect our brandname and logo to certain sectors of industry," read the latex-protected prose of the latter. A San Francisco reporter calling American environmental organizations for comment on FFF met with "terse brushoffs."
You could charge the envirocrats with plain prudery. Giving them more credit, you could countenance their worries that some constituents might consider FFF a pack of exploiters, even sexual assailants of women. But sex itself, even sexism, was probably not the whole of it (for one thing, many of FFF's models are men). Nor could these organizations have honestly objected to hawking product. After all, WWF Netherlands was defending not its principles but its pocketbook - its "brandname and logo," metaphor of both.
Seems to me that what made FFF's lucre so filthy was the site's cheerful marriage of sex and money. While Tommy and Leona were trilling about nature (sex) teaming up with nature (forests), their critics saw the commercial exploitation of naked bodies and the commercial exploitation of rainforests as a cynical alliance: Both despoil sacred nature for profit.
In response to these snubs, FFF expressed bemused exasperation. "What is morality when people are destroying the world?" Tommy asked the San Francisco reporter. The real obscenity, his comment suggested, is the rape of the emerald forests. But, good at getting it up again and again, FFF trekked south and found warm welcome among biologists and indigenous activists laboring to save both the nature and culture of the Amazon. Maybe these new beneficiaries are more relaxed about sex. Or maybe they just can't afford to be picky.
Who's right? In one sense, both. The important tension between the two - restraint politics focus on the public good, pleasure politics on the rights and desires of the individual - is almost three centuries old. And it's not about to dissolve. That's because it's the tension at the heart of any live democracy.
But let's not create conflicts where none exist. Some things are a matter of morality, others just of taste. I can compost my vegetables and still love watching "Deadwood." You can titillate me with tits and ass and also move me with seed conservation. Go to FuckforForest.com. Get off on the picture of two bare butts ascending a tree. Pause for a cup of fair-trade coffee. Then spin another kind of fantasy gazing at the picture of a straw-hatted farmer tenderly planting a seedling.
POSTPONED: Environmentalist Bill McKibben and Judith Levine will have a public conversation about activism across the two-discourse divide on February 14 at 4:30 p.m. in Middlebury College's McCardell Bicentennial Hall, Room 220. Free Info, 443-5355. POSTPONED UNTIL WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 21. CALL FOR INFORMATION.
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