When rethinking our relationship to the planet, should one consider love?

This summer, I lived alone with my parent’s dog. A pet that had joined the family only after I left for college, I wasn’t very familiar with her. But after a few weeks of being around functionally no one else, our day-to-day experiences became entangled in a way I hadn’t expected. It was at this point that I started having dreams with her in them–not as a dog necessarily, but rather as a familiar presence, another being in my life. This experience, the “living alongside an intense anonymous life without recognition,” is the basis for Emanuele Coccia’s definition of love.

Emanuele Coccia is the Associate Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, author of numerous books and essays spanning topics from medieval philosophy to fashion to ecology, and a former member of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America. His talk ​​“Loving the Planet: How to Turn Ecology into Planetary Erotics” was held at the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities on Wednesday evening. It was here that Coccia spoke about what he refers to as “the erotic problem” of ecology–our inability to love the planet–and his proposed method of shifting our relationship to the environment: the replacement of ecology with planetary erotics.

The Heyman Center Second Floor Common Room was completely full. In tightly packed chairs, soft murmurs of Portuguese, French, and English floated about as people sifted into the room (I later learned that most of the guests were students in Patricia Dailey’s graduate-level English seminar called “Trees”). A picture of a woman’s face covered in butterflies was projected on a screen as Coccia and Heyman Center members set up the Zoom call for the virtual event attendees. “Deep breaths,” Coccia laughed as the Zoom call failed for the third time.

Once things were finally up and running, Coccia began the talk by introducing the Grimms’ fairytale The Frog Prince. Originally from the Weil Family of Kassel, Germany, The Frog Prince tells the story of a complicated love affair between a human princess and a frog. In the story, the princess drops a golden ball into a well and cannot retrieve it without the help of a frog. In exchange for retrieving the ball, the frog asks the princess “let me be thy companion”–to be her lover–a request that the princess deems ridiculous given that they are two different species. She accepts, viewing the proposal as impossible, but when she does not go through with the “companionship,” her father threatens to punish her for breaking a promise. When the promise is kept, the frog reveals that he is a prince cursed by a witch and that he can only become human once again through love.

Coccia used the story of the Frog Prince as an analogy to describe the current “perverse relationship between humans and the planet.” The frog/planet wants to be the princess/humanity’s companion, but the princess/humanity refuses because all they see is an unresolvable difference. Only through the threat of punishment (the disasters brought on by climate change), does the princess/humanity work to reframe their relationship to the frog/planet. That reframing is what Coccia refers to as Planetary Erotics, working to love the planet by understanding our connectivity and intimacy with the natural world, “losing ourselves” in the environments that we are part of.

Underscoring this idea of intimacy or “eroticism” with the environment, Coccia, in the typical style of a medieval literature scholar, walked the audience through the history and etymology of the word “ecology.” Stemming from the root oikos meaning “home” or “basic societal unit” in Greek, ecology at its core focuses on the study of an enclosed, “domestic” space (think: economics, etc.). This is seen again in 1935 when Ecologist Arthur Tansley coined the term “ecosystem,” following in a line of thought regarding different spaces as multi-species shared spaces with mutual benefit, kind of like household. Coccia argued that we must use this framing of the environment as a deeply connected web of “spaces with mutual benefit” (or what he calls a “multi-species polyamory practice”) in order to become properly intimate with the planet. 

Continuing with this metaphor of the home, Coccia brought up the ways we already do this. “Like the dog, cat, or canary who lives in your home, you stop consider[ing] the species and start to focus on the being,” Coccia said. Like me and my parent’s dog, cohabitation can exist without constantly thinking about how I am a human and the dog is a dog. We’re just two beings sharing a space, and there’s no reason this understanding couldn’t be expanded to how we evaluate our relationship with the environment.

Evocative in its wording, Emanuele Coccia’s arguments for a more intimate and interconnected relationship with the environment are ultimately nothing new. Vietnamese Zen Buddhism, Jainism, and other philosophies have articulated thoughts similar to Coccia’s for hundreds of years prior to the coining of the word ecosystem. While Coccia’s work is novel in using this line of thought to reconstruct European literature and thinking, the prevalence of work like his today is more a reaction to the impending forces of climate change and the panic that has arisen as we try to address this global, and deeply interconnected, crisis.

Coccia’s slide featuring an image from Smeccea via Charlotte Slovin