Over the last several years, National Geographic published a spate of articles with titles such as "Female Fish Develop 'Testes' in Gulf Dead Zone," "Sex-Changing Chemicals Found in Potomac River," "Mercury Poisoning Makes Birds Act Homosexual," "Animals' Sexual Changes Linked to Waste, Chemicals" that connect pollution to the undermining of sexual differences. The issues in these write-ups are serious, but the titles sound like science fiction accounts of gonadal "deformities" and sex mutations that are more sensational than sincere.
It's true that organisms are responding to changes in their environments. Polar bears, alligators, frogs, mollusks, fish and birds: Hormone-altering pollutants have affected more than 200 animal species around the world.
The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment and the North Carolina-based International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry have been diligently investigating the impact of these substances, which are known to alter reproduction in organisms. The new SCOPE-IUPAC report says endocrine disruption can be expected in all animals, including humans, in which hormones trigger physical change.
Other instances of "unnatural" sexes have appeared in low-oxygen zones in the Gulf of Mexico, where female Atlantic croaker fish are developing testes instead of ovaries. The masculine females are not known to fertilize other female eggs. However in the Potomac River, chemicals from industrial and residential sources have caused male bass to produce eggs that can be fertilized by their former gender mates. Changes in the reproductive cycle of fish can decimate populations, but as these bass teach us, perhaps other futures are possible.
I wonder how we can address the impacts of toxic substances on vulnerable people and animals without appealing to society's basest fears about sexual disruption. Can we foster environmental responsibility without invoking anxiety that our most intimate reproductive environments have been infiltrated by an industrial world?
Fear of impending gender perversions is simply queer-fear and fails to address the broader consequences of pollution. The headline "Kermit to Kermette" is lurid, but while the herbicide Atrazine causes hermaphroditism in frogs, exposure to carcinogens, neurotoxins and mutagens affects all of us. It is the reality of our everyday lives. The possibility of cancer, diabetes, immune system breakdown and heart disease are a few of the bodily crises that we all face. These more common diseases, many of which are environmentally induced, are killing people and other animals in alarmingly high numbers. This ought to be our rallying call rather than a cri de cœur—a cry from the heart—about degenerate sexes.
Is there a way to re-evaluate ecological resilience—such as the sex-changing response—and meet the future organisms that we are becoming? This is not an easy question, and probably has no single answer, but it is a crucial place to begin.
Watching the planet slide into catastrophe is traumatic. How do any of us cope with shock? Deniers of climate change and environmental destruction are merely reacting to the effects of crisis; denial is no more or less dangerous than proclaiming Armageddon has arrived. I am not suggesting that we encourage denial, but we have to understand the force of this fear. It isn't so much that disaster awaits us, but rather that we are already living in ruination. Eden is dirty. Industrialism has released its progeny through the garden gates. Things can get worse, and probably will, but life for earthlings is already dire.
Since the Victorians, the wilderness and the natural world have been imagined as locations of health and moral uplift against the perversions of urban environments. For example, John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, advocated that the industrialized cities of the east were "polluted" by non-European immigrants, making necessary "clean" spaces for white Americans.
It is also no surprise that by the late 19th century women were entering the industrial work force in urban areas—gender was also becoming polluted. However noble the conservation of wilderness might be, our investment in the natural—as a pure place—has also helped to stabilize American values of rugged individualism, masculinity, independence and moral virtue.
As I think through the issue of toxic natures, I am reminded that many animals change sex on their own accord. Some marine fishes can change their sex when necessary. For example, a school of clownfish—the colorful lead character in Finding Nemo, 2003—is organized around a female; she is the hierarch. When she dies, one of the males changes his sex and takes her place. And while I was on the coast last week I saw limpets clinging to the rocky shores. Similar to the clownfish, these little snail-like creatures develop as males, but after a couple of years they change sex to become females. Sex change is not so extraordinary.
Life histories about gender-swapping bring to mind an interesting, if also troubling, article by Christine Johnson. A transgender author, Johnson correlates the presence of DDT in the environment and the increase in transsexual populations. Johnson relies on the research of Dr. Gunter Dorner, who advanced Silent Spring author Rachel Carson's original point that DDT continues to alter human reproductive systems.
Now, I don't believe that a single environmental factor could explain transsexuality; the assertion is ridiculous. But it does open the realization that bodies are lively and practical responses to environments and changing ecosystems. For Johnson, transsexuality is not a willful act, nor purely biological or psychological, but an adaptive response, an alteration of the "natural order" of things.
Instead of toxic sex change as a sinister force that threatens all life, it might be about reinvention, as well as about political and economic systems that affect everyone, including animals. As Bailey Keir, an environmental scholar, has proposed, the transsexual fish of the Potomac "might just be the 'fittest' in the dance of life and death." Rather than denying environmental disaster or reveling in the coming apocalypse, I feel that we must embrace the wounds of the world and see their beauty as we work toward environmental safeguards.
As someone who is coping with the life-threatening consequences of cancer and an autoimmune disorder, I prefer to think of myself as living with rather than being a victim of illness. We are all in chimeric borderlands where new forms of life are emerging. We are vulnerable to one another; our bodies are open to the planet. Perhaps Eden needed to be destroyed in order for us to truly care for the planet.