Learning to Love Our Multispecies Roommates

Nathaniel LaCelle-Peterson

For Emanuele Coccia, ecology starts at home. At home—a “temple of love,” as Coccia put it—we share an order with people and beings we love. We must learn to “imagine the world as a huge house, where everything is in order—like your apartments,” Coccia said. And whether we like it or not, all living creatures, whose ecology has been deeply altered by the planetary environmental destruction of climate change, have moved in.

Coccia is an associate professor of philosophy at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. He made these remarks during his invited lecture at Yale on September 29, “Loving the Planet: How to Turn Ecology into Planetary Erotics,” which explored the absence of love from ecological thinking, and what it would mean to take seriously the notion that we can love all species. From a commercially inflected origin as “animal economy” to the thermodynamic language of “equilibrium,” noted Coccia, ecology has, since its dawn, taken vocabulary and metaphors from a wide range of fields to describe the complex relations between species in the web of life. This search for apt metaphors has lead ecology far and wide—yet it has somehow remained, in Coccia’s words, the “least erotic kind of knowledge that we have.”

But why do we insist that there is no love to be understood in ecology—between and among species that could include our own?

Inês Forjaz de Lacerda, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, introduced Coccia’s lecture and moderated the Q&A that followed. His work The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, envisions capital “N” Nature as a foundational aspect in our understanding of what it means to be—to think and be a part of this world we share. “Professor Coccia’s talk today,” she emphasized, “encourages us to think along similar threads—or should I say vines—regarding our intimacy with flora and fauna surrounding us.”

“His work seems particularly relevant as a whole, as a continuum that interconnects his education in a Rural High School that was mainly centered in agricultural education (or a general education through agriculture),” Chair of Spanish and Portuguese Jesús Velasco, who invited Coccia to speak as part of the Iberian Connections Series at Yale, told me. “His work is eye-opening to me because it shows, first, the way in which you can think about nature (which is always second nature, an institution) and about ecocriticism (with all its nuances about the term); second, and more important to me, it shows the need of thinking with but also outside the language of the canon, and the correlative need to invent a new style, a new set of concepts, new metaphors, a certain creative freedom that keeps its political and ethical relevance.”

Among other suggestions for rethinking ecology with a bit of love, Coccia proposed that a familiar feature of many households might be a useful model for how love can inform our sense of ecology, and with it, the planet: dogs. Coccia noted how some studies suggest that as dogs were slowly domesticated, humans could lose their sense of smell—the dogs took care of the sniffing. When we understand such changes as part and parcel of a relationship of love, Coccia suggested, we can see how love for nature cannot work as a museum-like respect for the natural world that tries to preserve it, unchanged, as if under glass. Instead, he invites us to embrace the lived-in love of a home—one in which our multispecies roommates shape us as much as we shape them.

(Coccia’s talk was sponsored by the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Fund at Yale University, Iberian Connections, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.)

Nathaniel LaCelle-Peterson is a graduate student in Comparative Literature and Film and Media Studies broadly interested in ways of thinking about material and form from the nineteenth century to the present. He is also a Whitney Humanities Center Graduate Fellow in the Environmental Humanities.