Photo by Artur Debat

Queering nature won’t save it

We should stop projecting our fashionable concepts onto the natural world

Artillery Row

Kew Gardens will be launching a new exhibition at the end of September called “Queer Nature”. According to the website, its purpose is to explore the “fascinating science behind plants and fungi to the connections between plants and LGBTQ+ communities”. It also has a supplementary event, the “Queer Nature After Party”, where ticket buyers can “Expect music, cabaret, comedy, drag artists and talks alongside a sprinkling of queer joy, surrounded by some of the world’s rarest and most endangered plants”. The line-up of acts is something to behold, from Be More Mushroom Cabaret (“A place with no morels!”) to Bearded Drag Queen Timberlina, who will be “Celebrating the healing powers of queer nature … inviting you to embrace your eco-anxiety, release your rage and summon your innate queer power”.

There has been predictable (if understandable) scoffing in response to the event from the woke-fatigued, as well as anger from LGB people who reject the “queer” tag due to both its historic discriminatory usage and increasing contemporary meaninglessness. Kew Gardens hasn’t helped itself by trying to forge an actual scientific legitimacy to the event, rather than just letting it be a colourful cash grab:

Whilst the basic system of reproduction in lots of plants involves the fusion of male and female gametes, some individual plants do not neatly fit into binaries. For example, in some species, there are no separate female and male plants (they are hermaphroditic). Flowers can start off by being male and later the female parts become active (and vice versa). In fungi, even the basic system is anything but binary, with fungi having as many as 36,000 different mating types.

My own reaction was one of bored ambivalence. Amongst the things that have been “queered” in recent years are: Joan of Arc, Marks and Spencers sandwiches, clownfish, avocados, and Listerine mouthwash. It was only a matter of time before mushrooms copped it. As tempting as it is to launch into a reactionary dismantling of Why Queering Nature Is Stupid, I’m saving my breath. If you can’t instantly see why the sex lives of mushrooms don’t justify the existence of one hundred and seven genders in humans, you’re probably a lost cause. The more intriguing and pertinent matter is what the exhibition conceptually says about humankind’s resoundingly egotistical relationship with the natural world.

Climate change and conservation burn relentlessly in public consciousness — particularly for those who identify as left-wing progressives (towards whom the event is very much targeted). In such a time, it has never been more shamelessly touted that the natural world exists to serve us, rather than our being but a single species within it. When people talk of the need to save the planet, they can mean it in two ways: i) we need to save nature; ii) we need to save humanity. The two sentiments are not synonymous, despite often being conflated. I’m not lambasting people for being invested in the survival of the human species as priority, nor am I saying one can’t walk and chew biodegradable gum at the same time. It’s possible to want palm oil extraction to stop both because human civilisations rely on the rainforest and because you care about the orangutans who are having their habitat destroyed. The sheer narcissism of Queer Nature is depressing though. There’s nothing in the advertising, at least, that suggests a genuine appreciation of the diversity of the flowers as living things in their own right. Their value is determined by being able to validate the identities of the people in attendance. The “endangered flowers” are a mere symbolic prop for the tragic plight of the they/he.

Queer Nature is anthropomorphism, projecting our emotions onto plants

To be fair to Kew Gardens, humanity’s assumed superiority over the rest of nature goes back to at least 700 BC. The Bible decrees, “[God gave man] dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Whether creationist or evolutionist, this belief prevails. Although we may feel guilt at how far we’ve taken this entitlement, and found ourselves facing climate catastrophe because of it, there is a consensus — including from environmentally-conscious people — that as the species with the advanced problem-solving skills that led to our being (accidentally) on top of the food chain, we control Earth’s resources for better or worse.

Queer Nature is anthropomorphism, exploiting the human tendency to project our emotions and characteristics onto animals and plants. Of course, anthropomorphising the natural world is hugely beneficial to nature. As we are intrinsically self-centred, it means we want to protect it and can find our place within it. What feels like 90 per cent of folklore and children’s literature would evaporate if we weeded out all the fictionalised portrayals of non-human living things (although Peppa Pig would go with it so … swings and roundabouts). It can also unlock, particularly in children, a primal desire for wildness and the outdoors that we miss in our atomised and insulated lives as humans. I can’t have been the only child who went through a gazelle phase, the back garden my savannah.

The problem is, a meaningful movement to save and restore the natural world has to be rooted in humility. My husband, who happens to be an ambassador for wildlife conservation, told me something I have never forgotten: that reforesting is not just to give nature a place to live, but a place to hide. We need, in essence, to get some perspective: we weren’t here first, and we won’t be here last. The natural world did just fine without us for millions of years. Want to save it? Leave it the hell alone.

Again, to be fair to Kew Gardens, its business model depends on people coming in and looking at stuff. Of course there is a place for basking in the beauty of wildlife. The appropriation aspect of Queer Nature deeply discomfits me, though LGBTQ+ and its allies is a lucrative market. If it means more money for projects that will benefit nature, then great. Queer After Hours is not my cup of tea, but I hope those who attend have a good night. It’s just a shame that the flowers won’t be the star of the show.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover