During the pandemic, I acquired three Khaki Campbell ducklings, a domesticated duck bred for laying.
Privileged enough to live in an idyllic suburb in the northeastern U.S., we are equipped with a backyard hen house and run from previous owners who raised chickens. My family and I decided to raise ducks for eggs in an effort to begin the shift to a more regenerative lifestyle as best we could in a modern suburban town. I come from a long line of bird lovers and bird keepers, some of whom still maintain hobby farms, so I figured I’d give it a go, hoping I carried this ancestral knowledge. We chose ducks because they aren’t prone to lice or other diseases common in chickens. Each duck consistently lays one magnificent egg a day nearly year-round.
One morning in early spring, when I went to collect the eggs from the duck house, a disturbing thought entered my mind. I wondered if I was like the antagonists in Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. I had recently presented a workshop on the reproductive justice aspects of the climate and ecological crises, using a visual from the TV series adaptation as one of my slides. I wondered if I was now an aggressor; here I was, keeping female waterfowl in an enclosed area to reap the benefits of their reproductivity. If they were free to roam, they’d likely waddle out into a heavily trafficked street, or become food for the watchful red-tailed hawks. While they enjoy frequent free roaming under close supervision, they’re primarily kept in an enclosed space for their own safety. Perhaps it’s easier to split off the moral injury of using an ‘other' for my own means so I justify my act of domination to skirt the uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame, putting aside the human-centered aspect of my reasoning.
Leve, in a chapter about the dilemmas of egg “donation”, argues that the neoliberal global economy commodified the female body, giving rise to exploitation of women as “mother machines”.1 Does that make me an exploiter of ducks as “egg machines”? If human egg donation (also known as vending) is believed by some to be a form of labor, is my own participation in animal husbandry forced labor? It is, after all, some form of commodification of animal maternity, is it not? It is believed that animal husbandry emerged in the Neolithic Revolution around 10,000 years ago, perhaps earlier. This form of agriculture provided food security and allowed for permanent settlements. It served as a way to cope with the uncertainty inherent in life on earth. I choose to participate in this practice to cope with the existential anxiety of potential future social collapse and food insecurity brought on by the planetary crisis.
Katie Gentile describes this kind of anxiety as a “catastrophic not-knowing” that “disrupts our capacities for expectation and anticipation.” She writes that the magnitude of this psychic catastrophe “threatens our very psychic organization, such that a future of catastrophe and the resultant annihilation anxieties can function as a seismic disruption to being."2Gentile explores the relationship of assisted reproductive technology (ART) to the hyperobject of our planetary crisis, writing that,
actively intervening to create and monitor fetal lives enables both acts of preemption and the management of time and space. And, of course, doing so by controlling not just the timing but the process of pregnancy enables the fantasy of dominating (mother) nature during a time when our relationship with nature is contracted like war, with nature staging destruction everywhere and humans as the innocent, childlike victims.3
It is well documented that global temperature changes are inversely related to human fertility rates. As humans grapple with increasingly erratic global climate changes, it is reasonable to conclude that interventions and technologies such as ART may become more necessary for reproduction. Actively intervening to control uncertain outcomes is easier than accepting responsibility for our own destruction of the planet and making reparations accordingly.
We move from one great invention to the next, unable to accept the limitations of our biology. The realities of life on earth in a rapidly changing climate further ignite our vulnerability. We hope for superhero-like technologies to save us in the nick of time. One ghastly new invention being considered to stave off the consequences of our behavior involves solar geoengineering to block out the sun, a technology that involves reflecting away sunlight to artificially cool the planet. I remember the movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day that terrified me in primary school. The story involves a group of children in a classroom on the planet Venus where the sun only comes out for two hours every seven years. Because the weather is inhospitable at all other times, humans live underground in a network of tunnels. With solar geoengineering, there are, of course, considerable risks, including devastating disruptions in regional weather patterns and further delaying decarbonization. Furthermore, once such a project was under way, it would lead to the risk of catastrophic rapid warming if later stopped.
Somewhere between my backyard ducks and the potential nightmare of dark days ahead, I became more fully aware of modern humans’ interdependency with all that exists outside our human bubble. As a member of the human species in an interconnected web of life, the idea of dependency is difficult to acknowledge because it renders us vulnerable. Nothing on the planet exists alone. We are the product of dynamic relational networks interwoven throughout the earth systems we inhabit. We interact with, and are molded by our social and natural environments. Most of us in the modern world have either passively or actively participated in the destructive practice of industrial agriculture. The difference between my backyard husbandry and industrial agriculture, however, is one of relationship. Acknowledging this relationship and interdependency gives rise to overwhelming gratitude for all that I take from the other-than-human without permission, and all that we need as a species to endure.
While modernity renders many aspects of life easier, it remains based on the belief in human exceptionalism and deprives us of our right to connection and relationship. The complex and fast-paced global machine leaves us with little time to reflect on the systems that drive our behaviors and choices. In the “culture of uncare,” profits are valued over human and planetary wellbeing.4 Furthermore, much of what those of us in the global North consume is separated from its other-than-human form. There is no longer a relationship between us and that which we depend on. This is in stark contrast to indigenous cultures who hold deep respect for the land they inhabit, as well as the plants and animals they consume.
My backyard animal husbandry requires its own ethical considerations and further reflection, yet I believe we have a relationship based, at least on my end, of care and concern. I make sure to provide daily clean water and fresh food and regular greens, herbs and protein sources. There is a felt experience of connection as I greet them in the mornings and hold space for reciprocity, exchanging what was once a dark and lonely one way path of consumption for a rich and lively two way pathway of gratitude and care. Perhaps my embodied awareness of shame gives rise to the deep respect I now hold for my fowl land mates. I turn to a question asked by Joe Brewer, bioregionalist and founder of Earth Regenerators:
Are you dead sunlight re-animated by burning fossil fuels that will walk steadfast into collapse unaware of your true condition in this larger pattern? Or will you learn to see that a pattern of thriving can be found that is far from your perceptions of normal in these extremely bizarre and unprecedented times that all of us were born into?5
Merritt Juliano, Co-president, Climate Psychology Alliance North America
1Leve, M. (2016). The bodies and bits of (re)production: Dilemmas of egg “donation” under neoliberalism. In Gentile, K. (2016). [see below]
2Gentile, K. (2016) [Ed.] The Business of Being Made: The Temporalities of Reproductive Technologies. New York: Routledge.
3Gentile, K. (2016), p. 216.
4Weintrobe, S. (2021) Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare. New York: Bloomsbury.
5Brewer, J. (2021). The Survivors Will Be Bioregional. Medium. Available online at: https:// medium.com/@joe_brewer/the-survivors-will-be-bioregional-ad5f2187f4a6.