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  • Writer's pictureKate Morley

Ways of being… in nature… will the future forgive us?

Updated: May 3, 2023

When Environmental Justice Meets Disability Justice

As mentioned in my last blog post I have started a part-time PhD exploring disability and urban nature and how reflecting on the inclusive potential of nature settings through a disability lens, can alter our perceptions of these spaces.

Last month I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Professor Catriona McKinnon, as part of the University of Exeter’s Perspectives of Personalised Ecologies lectures. It was one of those ‘goosebumps’ moments, where my random muddled thoughts coalesced into a clear framing of many of the big issues around Disability Justice. Disability Justice is ‘a social justice movement which focuses on examining disability and ableism as they relate to other forms of oppression and identities such as race, class and gender’. The Disability Justice movement seeks to explore how “systems of oppression are intertwined”, and a ten-point framework of Disability Justice has been developed. The ten principles of Disability Justice include; Intersectionality, Leadership of those most impacted, Anti-capitalist politic, Commitment to cross-movement organizing, Recognizing wholeness, Sustainability, Commitment to cross-disability solidarity, Interdependence, Collective access and Collective liberation. I thought I would summarize these principles by pyrographing the 'Tree of Disability Justice':

Cedar wood with burnt image of a tree that depicts the ten principles of Disability Justice

Image: Tree of Disability Justice, pyrographed on repurposed UK-grown Cedar (K.Morley)

In the lecture, Prof McKinnon discussed the concept of ‘Extinction of Experience’, which is where ‘there is a progressive loss of human/nature interactions’. What Prof McKinnon termed “intergenerational blinding” (1) involves the “ethically objectionable imposition of ignorance by one generation to another” leading to shifting baseline syndrome, which I explored in a previous blog.

The notion of an ‘extinction of experience’ could be queried amongst people and communities- including many disabled people- who are not afforded equity of experience in the first place. Many disabling barriers to nature have been identified, some of these include;

  • Lack of local nature

  • Physical barriers such as steps and uneven paths.

  • Limited and/or inaccessible information.

  • Lack of accessible toilets and changing facilities.

  • Lack of accessible transport.

  • Poor maintenance.

  • Limited range of opportunities to connect with nature in different ways.

  • Attitudinal barriers including lack of confidence, and other people's attitudes and prejudices which may make disabled people feel out of place or unwelcome. (I plan to explore disabling barriers to nature in more depth in a future post)

However, when the ‘extinction of experience’ in nature is considered what is the ‘norm’ of ‘nature experience’, against which other people’s experiences are held/compared? Who decides what that is? What does that mean for people, who due to disabling barriers, for example, have had to improvise to forge connections/experiences with nature that might diverge from the norm or people who can only access nature that has already been supposedly ‘damaged’ in some way?

Do experiences of disability, ableism and/or disablism diminish one's connection to nature? Many commentators and papers explain how disabled people might experience nature differently. So, to look at an ‘extinction of experience’ could be deemed ableist as society is ‘normalising’ what a nature experience should be.

The disabled writer, Naomi Ortiz offers some insights into how disabled people perceive ecological destruction;

“Maybe non-disabled people can disassociate more from what’s happening, because they can access some of these wild spaces that are further in. They can get to spaces that are more isolated, more untouched. But I can’t. Whether I’m in a parking lot or just on a dirt road, I’m present with the man-made, extracted stuff. It’s harder for me to not be in constant relationship with the impact of what’s happening." This is what they call, developing a “witnessing relationship.”

One of the most striking moments in the talk was when Prof McKinnon explored Nozicki’s Experience Machine Thought Experiment. This thought experiment explores hedonism, the desire to increase pleasure (and decrease pain)… it’s a similar concept to the plot of The

Matrix film! In his 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick outlines the Experience Machine:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel that you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life's experience?'

'What (if anything) is wrong with a life lived in the experience machine?'

'Plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct ... perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality.'

Black and white image showing a happiness machine with a child central and a man dressed in black operating the machine. Bolts of electricity leave the machine. It is shown to depict the Nozick Thought experiment Image by Yescela Vorazan

There is debate as to whether those who are ‘plugged in’ to the machine know what state they are in, and whether there is an ethical concern about who does the ‘plugging in’. Prof McKinnon stated that it can be argued that if a person plugs in another without their knowledge or consent, then ‘a grievous harm’ is done to the person in the tank… does this have parallels with how society curates so-called accessible nature experiences in the UK, in the present?

Often outdoor experiences for disabled people are carefully choreographed. Loaded with risk assessments and perceived accessibility needs, the nature experience of a disabled person can become so sanitised that the health and well-being benefits of being in nature are diminished.

There has been some debate about the potential role of Virtual Reality (2) in promoting access to ‘nature’ amongst disabled people, or other individuals without other forms of nature access; to what extent is this an acceptable replacement for an embodied nature encounter in situ? Is virtual reality better than, doing the bare minimum to create limited access to nature settings? Are either of these approaches ‘enough’ or ‘reasonable’?

Prof McKinnon spoke about the experience machine in terms of social, environmental injustice and intergenerational injustice. Perhaps it’s time to add disability injustice to the list. Intergenerational injustice is a threat to people living in the future (the generations yet to come) who are ‘radically vulnerable’ to present people’s actions or inactions. Future generations cannot alter the past so are reliant on the people of the present to ‘do the right thing’… The people of the future cannot hold us to account for what we choose to do, or not do now, in the face of climate and ecological emergencies.

In her presentation, Professor McKinnon stated, “There is no group of human being more vulnerable to us in the present than those in the future.” Without denying the agency of disabled people, one could argue that many disabled people experience these power differentials and abuses of power, in the ‘here and now.’ Those expressing concern about intergenerational injustice for humans living in the future could expand their awareness by recognising the ableist societal structures, systems, and policies that are compromising nature experiences amongst the current generation. Eli Clare writes about this in his Brilliant Imperfection : Grappling with Cure book, where he states that disabled people have "a life to live here and now, a life that will be made better by material and attitudinal access... we mustn't ignore the ways in which research's future-focused commitment has served to devalue people in the present." How are disabled people, present or future expected to ‘fit’ – or achieve equity of nature experience- in a society that is designed to favour non-disabled people and that actively disables people from living the life that they would choose?

When we talk in terms of intergenerational injustice for non-disabled people where does this leave disabled people? How could radical societal reform turn the tables from disabled people being viewed or ‘othered’ as ‘less than’ or disposable? How could society be reconfigured to challenge and address how it disables people?

The failure to value disabled people was thrown into stark relief during the Covid 19 pandemic when 60% of the people who died in England, were disabled.

Owl and Buzzard Feathers and crow feathers arranged in circle on grass  with violets and celandines depicting 60% of people who  died of Covid were disabled

Image: Remembering the 60%. Six Owl and Buzzard feathers, and four Crow feathers. (K.Morley)

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on disability rights and the potential for eugenic practices which are also being hotly debated around the Parliamentary Assisted Dying Bill. If a society fails to value the lives of disabled people in the present, where will that leave the disabled people of the future?

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson explores the ideas of 'world building' through a disability lens, where "ideological and material separation of citizens into worthy and unworthy (are) based on physiological variations". She questions "How can disabled people in our shared world now and in future worlds inhabit those worlds effectively?" When disabled people are valued and their differences embraced rather than eliminated, 'conserving disability' can be seen as a way of valuing human 'biodiversity' and variance.

As Riva Lehrer states in her wonderful memoir, Golem Girl, “Disability is the great billboard of human truth. Add it to any discourse and we can see what humanity truly values.”

Disability rights activist Syren Nagakyrie writes in ‘Nature is a Human Right’;

“Disability is a normal and natural way of being embodied. Disabled people have always existed, indeed as humans age, most of us become disabled in some way. It is beyond time for disability to be recognized as the natural part of human experience that it is. It is not separate from nature, not separate from humanity, not better or worse than any other way to experience life.”

Picture of green book cover "Nature is a Human Right' on green mossy tree

In her article, 'Accessible Outdoors: Opening the Door to Nature for People with Disabilities,' Bonnie Lewkowicz discusses how society can make nature experiences more equitable with and for disabled people;

“George Covington, the former White House adviser on disability, said it best: “You have to ramp the human mind or the rest of the ramps won’t work.” It’s not just about obeying a law; it’s about wanting to share what we all get from contact with nature and the outdoors. For those of us who believe passionately that a connection with nature is a powerful tool in making the world a better place, we can start by welcoming the opportunity to share the natural world with people different from ourselves. After all, the more of us there are going out into nature to do these things, the more likely it is that those mountains, rivers, and shorelines will be preserved for all of us for many more years to come.”

By exploring ‘Futures Philosophies’ of the lives that will be lived by disabled people and those people who are not disabled yet, we may be able to gain insights into how to live well together, within environments that are increasingly challenged by an inhospitable climate and catastrophic biodiversity loss, whilst also taking action to minimise such risks in the first place. Disability studies theorist Michael Dorn argued that because the disabled body “remain[s] attentive and responsive to changing environmental conditions,” it “exhibits a mature form of environmental sensitivity” and calls this ‘heightened attention to the environment’, "geographical maturity." Riva Lehrer writes:

“… what defines strength in a time of crisis? In the coming decades, humanity must reimagine how to do every damned thing in the world. Disabled people are experts in finding new ways to do things when old ways don’t work. We are a vast think tank in plain sight. A bottomless well of ingenuity and creativity.”

By turning to disabled people and involving them in the quests for solutions to these big societal challenges, we obtain a richness and wealth of lived experience that can leave a better legacy for all.

Thanks to the brilliant Dr Sarah Bell for all her input and discussions in the creation of this blog post!

Links and further reading:


Note on the Tragedy model of disability in climate and environmental justice discourse:

It’s worth picking up here on some of the vocabulary used in climate and environmental justice. Using language that equates disability to something negative (eg blindness) has been highlighted as ableist, or as Sara Novic explores in this excellent article on the complexities ‘linguistic microaggressions’. With dire consequences of climate inaction, some educators inadvertently slip into doom-laden ‘Personal Tragedy Models of disability’, hoping by so doing, shock people into action.


Use of technology:

From a personal perspective; for twenty years I have worked alongside the medical profession and had a career in audiological rehabilitation, working with people with hearing loss to minimise the impact that this has on their day-to-day lives, for me, these newfound ways of viewing disability are sometimes hard to grapple with. Technologies that may minimise disabled identities can also assist disabled people in living their lives.... which is why I wear hearing aids every day... Rosemarie Garland-Thomson discusses the complex relationship that some disabled people have with emerging technologies in her 'The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled' essay: "technologies- were what kept me out; they are now what let me in," and goes on to say "The built and social environments make disability, and they can help unmake disability as we know it." The long-term potential impacts (both for good and bad) of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR) on the lives of all people are yet to be fully realised. Certainly, the Audiology profession has been wrestling/embracing these technologies for a while now and the impacts that this will have on how Audiologists practice and the profession as a whole, will be vast.

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