There are many established ways of knowing the relationship between the capitalist economy and the environmental crisis, but what happens when we add a consideration of heterosexuality to the mix? This chapter roughly sketches the links between economy and environment, and then considers how the domestic relations—the structure we might refer to as “heteronormativity”—are part of this bigger socio-economic-ecological structure. In addition to bringing these aspects together, we need to add heteropessimism into the mix. This involves a descriptive task, asking how heteropessimism relates to the economy and the environment. And a more speculative or utopian one: in what ways can a critical hetero-optimism help us reconfigure the horizon of intimate relations, in addition to or differing from queer ecologies, in a time of ecological crisis? As the ideas in this chapter are still developing, at present the way we bring the concerns together is not in perfect synthesis but to consider key terms that can assist with connecting economy, environment and sexuality to heteropessimism.
The connections between economy and environmental crisis run along several fronts. Fossil fuel extraction generating energy surplus to allow for certain forms of unchecked development; profit motives driving the resistance to end coal and gas extraction; runaway greed; high consumption (or over production and voluminous waste); the globalisation of supply and waste chains, urbanisation itself and so many more. In addition, there are ongoing debates around which economic system is the “best” one for supporting mitigation of and adaptation to climate crisis. Questions such as the following are being asked: is it possible to “green” capitalism ? Do we need an eco-socialism? What about a “doughnut” economy? Or, a range of smaller community economies? One micro aspect of this large-scale and ongoing project of socio-economic adaptation for environmental sustainability—whether it is done through transforming or overthrowing capitalism—is a simultaneous change in domestic household practices.
Regarding our investigations into the different aspects of heteropessimism, it is important to note that the contemporary “heteronormative” nuclear family household—the stage upon which the heterofatalistic kitchen-sink drama plays out—is itself a capitalist construction. The familiar modal of private dwelling, centred around homeownership and the nuclear family, is a vital feature of the logic of social organisation that supports capitalist economic relations (Engels, 1884; Rubin, 1975). Thus it follows that any substantial macro level economic change, will in some way impact, if not significantly transform, the household.
The dominant points of views on the subject of shifting domestic practices takes for granted that it is possible to “green” the normative household. This is done by advocating a form of sustainability that simply replaces existing practices with different products. In the context of a domestic household such a greening project involves, for example, renewable energy plans and electric car purchasing instead of privately using coal and petrol power. Or, replacing toxic chemicals and plastics with eco-dish liquid and compostable scrubbing brushes. That is, not changing existing domestic practices, family relations or structures in any way, but shifting to more quote-unquote sustainable versions of the same products and practices that currently support domestic life under capitalism.
In line with the volumes of research showing the unsustainability of the capitalist system itself, many critical thinkers, activists and concerned citizens recognise that even on a local scale the task is much bigger than simply changing one’s dish lick. In fact, even thinkers that may not be avowedly revolutionary in their ambit see something more substantial needs to shift. In addition, on a global scale, standards of living and scales of consumption are so varied. So, adaptation to environmental crisis requires more than eco-friendly commodities for middle-class homes in the developed world to make a difference. Such a shift arguably is not only about the items we consume in the current economy, but the constitution work and the actual day to day practices and social structures that make up the economy. And here, where we are thinking about how different material practices shape mundane domestic relations, that heteropessimism comes into most direct and friction-filled contact with environmental crisis.
When it comes to the domestic sphere, Climate Change has potential implications for the ways in which domestic relations are organised. There is a lot of scholarly and eco-activist work that is set on transforming the household. But in this chapter and associated interviews, we take a step back and begin to investigate how heteropessimism—as a curious and persistently negative feeling towards the dominant domestic relationship structure—and environmental crisis can be thought of together. Moreover, if we are thinking that domestic practices need to change, we might think of heteropessimism (negativity, frustration, exhaustion) as possibly being indicators people want out of this trap. But it is not so simple; the pessimism can reinforce the logics, indicate stubborness and resistance to change, or even a desire for these household logics to work, even as they fail. So, we look at the links between the dominant mode of sexual and private economic relation and environment by examining how the socio-economic structures that support heterosexuality are related to the economy and, as such, to environmental crisis. Through this, we can also study, theorise and speculate on how to change domestic relations. But to do this we have to fully interrogate the links between intimacy, affect and economy.
If, as Seresin’s claims about heteropessimism suggest, this pessimistic attitude is in lieu of a more expansive critical regime explicitly interrogating the nature of the dissatisfaction, this thinking needs to push beyond the horizon. Critiquing heteropessimistic logics to edge towards a critical “hetero-optimism” that celebrates difference and does not disavow desire, also lures us to consider the ecologies that incubate these troubled intimacies as well.
We have one further caveat before we move to the keywords section. While we consider heteropessimism in relation to economic and environmental issues, as is the remit of this project, there is a tension here between thinking about heterosexuality as a structure of feeling and sexual or romantic desire, and what is known as “heteronormativity”, or the more mundane and pragmatic domestic arrangements that are yolked together with heterosexual romance. We ask a related question of Asa Seresin in the first chapter’s interview:
When talking about heteropessimism we’re obviously talking about negative feelings and attitudes towards “heterosexuality” – some people will think of this primarily in terms of desire for a particular kind of opposite gender, others will think of it in terms of family and living arrangements (and of course it is both, and then some) to what extent are you talking about the family/relationships created by heterosexuality and the institutions that support that or are we talking about desire/sexuality in and of itself?
You can go back and listen to Seresin’s argument here. But the upshot is that because of the way romance and economic pragmatism come together in heterosexuality, the lines between the two principle dimensions of heterosexuality are blurry. Although heteropessimism as a whole courts focus on desire and affect, because of the interest in environment and economy we’re also necessarily interested in the material practices and the doing of domestic life: housework, drudgery, architecture, mortgages and so on. We’re interested in investigating how the former (desire) is enrolled in the latter (material practices).
FOR RETHINKING THE HETEROSEXUAL HOUSEHOLD IN RELATION TO THE ECONOMY AND ENVIRONMENT
A WORK IN PROGRESS
Housing is a major aspect of heterosexual relationship, and the status of housing to the economic structure of intimate relationship is rising as the cost of housing increases. Recently, scholars have started talking about how we’re living in an “asset economy” where home ownership is a better indicator of personal wealth than one’s salary. Certainly the ideal of heteronormativity is connected to the private nuclear family home. The architecture of this house varies depending on where you live, but in majority anglo settler colonial states such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, the single generation household where the couple lives and raises their family is the iconic standard, even as it changes.
Before discussing this aspect of the issue, when writing about this subject from the physical context of Australia as a white person in a settler colonial nation, another vital thing to note is that the context within which one lives in a domestic setting is always and already a colonial artefact: property carves up Country into sellable lots. A poem by Brenda Saunders and a painting by Chris Pease starkly represent this history by overlaying the past and the present in place.
Brenda Saunders’s Poem “Sydney Real Estate: For Sale” (2012) represents the simple—yet entirely complex—fact of how domestic life in Australia is physically overlaid on Indigenous Country:
Walk to work
the Gadigal way
the great shark
Brenda Saunders, Looking for Bullin Bullin (Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2012).
Similarly, but in the visual mode, Pease’s work is in the style of a colonial-era bush paiting of Aboriginal dwellings and people, where the Australian bush is represented in a defamiliarised way. At the same time the image is surveying the landscape for potential holdings. The overlaid plan for a one bedroom dwelling is anachronistic, but captures precisely the logic of Saunders’ poem. What is being bought and sold in the present, was initially stolen through violent acts of disposession. Each sale of residential property replaying the logic of dispossession.
Open Plan Living 2 by Christopher Pease 
The structure of romantic relationship based on the couple form and romantic exclusivity. This also then informs the structure of the normative family relationship, and also the normative relationship in terms of domestic work.
The durational nature of heterosexual relationship is put into context when it is thought of in terms of reproduction. So it is not simply a couple together in a private home in relation, but more often than not also this household includes members of the “next generation”. Social Reproduction Theory is a branch of scholarship that combines economics and gender inquiry — often Marxist feminism – to interrogate the economics of how society reproduces. This field grew up in the absence of clear recognition of the importance of unpaid labour in delivering the worker to the factory, for example. In classical economic theory, says Tithi Bhattacharya, the worker just turns up to the factory (for example!) fed, and watered and ready to work. Social Reproduction Theory is the study of all the mostly unwaged labour and care work that goes into the raising of the next generation.
Housework / Domestic Drudgery
“The doing of domesticity involves labor that is physical and affective as well as ideological, and women generally get the brunt of it.”
(123) Susan Fraiman, Extreme Domesticity.
The unwaged and socially devalued labour that goes into the cleaning and superficial maintenance of a household is housework. completed by women. Such labour is primarily still thought of as “women’s work”. The gendered division of labour in the household is still statistically greater than gender division in the waged workforce. For tasks such as cleaning, tidying, shopping, cooking, childcare women do more work than men. This is famously referred to as ‘the second shift’ as workers of all genders return home at the end of the day, statistically workers of the feminine gender do more around the house than others. This zone of housework is a key site of contestation and possibly a cornerstone of the way explicit heteropessimistic attitudes manifest in relationships.
Given many examples of heteropessimism are glib, and neither explicitly physically nor necessarily psychologically violent, it would be perhaps conceptual overreach or at very least oversimplification to say that heteropessimism is on a spectrum of negative affect that naturally ends with DV. But the idea of the domestic sphere as incubator for negative affect and attitudes, and the way that domestic partnerships can habitually replay negative emotional patterns as they is related to epidemic of domestic violence. In See What You Made Me Do: Power Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Hill explores how a toxic shame reaction—a sense of exposure, vulnerability and fear of self-revelation—underpins many forms of domestic violence, it is relevant to consider how pessimistic attitudes towards one’s romantic partner have the potential to turn violent.
Public / Private
The binary opposition between public and private is important when thinking about the domestic sphere and sexuality, which is traditionally understood as the realm of the “private”. In the past, to focus on the private home, housework, unwaged labour and the private sphere is seen to be the realm outside of politics. But feminist theory and sexuality studies have successfully shown how the personal is political. Our domestic retreats are not separate from the realm of politics. But that these conceptual divisions operate is important to consider in terms of how heterosexuality is understood as a private and personal issue, but that has both its own private politics, but also has a bearing on the public sphere and civic politics.
Time / Space
While we might tend to think of heteropessimistic domestic life as a spatial phenomenon in the present (e.g. people living in a house together today being grumpy), the dimension of time is really important. In her literary and cultural study of the diversity of literature on homemaking Extreme Domesticity (2017), Susan Fraiman argues that “domesticity always requires a thick description in historical as well as spatial terms” (138). Meaning when describing heteropessimism from inside the home, as an economic and ecological relation as well, we’re not only talking about the arrangement of practices in the present (composting in the backyard, dishes in the kitchen, conversation in the loungeroom, misery in the bedroom, for example) but how we got there. How the house came into being in the first place.
This temporal dimension of the household relates to the keywords colonialism, property and social reproduction.
References and Links:
Cooper, Melinda (2017). Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone Books)
Cooper on Family Values on The Dig: https://www.thedigradio.com/podcast/family-values-with-melinda-cooper-2/
Engels, Frederick. (1894/2021). Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (London: Verso).
Fraiman, Susan (2017). Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins (New York: Columbia University Press)
Hill, Jess (2020). See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Melbourne: Black Inc. Books)
Lewis, Sophie. (2020). “If heterosexualism existed we wouldn’t have to make it up” Verso Blog https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4572-if-heterosexualism-existed-we-wouldn-t-have-to-make-it-up
Lewis, Sophie. (2021) “My Octopus Girlfriend” N-plus one Mag https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-39/reviews/my-octopus-girlfriend/
Lewis, Sophie. (2020) “COVID-19 is Straining the Concept of the Family, Lets Break It”, The Nation https://www.thenation.com/article/society/family-covid-care-marriage/
Liu, Petrus. (2020) “Queer Theory and the Spectre of Materialism” Social Text 145 38.4: 25-47 (PDF – Jen can upload)
Rubin, Gayle. (1975) “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex” Raina Raiter (ed) Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press. pp. 157-210
Saunders, Brenda (2012) “Sydney Real Estate: For Sale” in Looking for Bullin Bullin (Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers)
Tallbear, Kim. (2019) “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family” in Clarke and Haraway (eds) Make Kin, Not Population (PDF available: https://uwethicsofcare.gws.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/TallBear-Making-Love-and-Relations-Beyond-Settler-Sex-and-Family.pdf)