What non-monogamy can teach us about climate advocacy

Polyamory is centered around fostering relationships and building community. We need that energy in the climate fight.

A close friend of mine will hit the 3 year mark with her partner this July. Recently, they decided to “open” their relationship, meaning their relationship will not just be confined to the two of them, but also other potential romantic or sexual connections. They said the decision came with an outlandish number of obstacles—like the countless trips they had to make back into “the closet” around queerphobic peers—but it has opened up a new avenue for perceiving their love. They believe their love has moved away from one rooted in possession, towards one that fulfills a myriad of different needs. This couple is especially political and they find that polyamory has given them room to build solidarity and community through their love. 

In the climate space, we always stress the need to build community as we build climate-resilience, be it during the calm or the storm. I wondered, what role can polyamory play in the way we organize and build community within climate activism? Stick with me, I promise this isn’t a wishy-washy piece pushing the gay agenda.  

Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for types of relationships that don’t strictly adhere to monogamy. Polyamory, on the other hand, is a type of non-monogamy that could involve multiple romantic, sexual and/or strictly platonic  relationships. The relationship style could take different forms within different relationships but the principles of transparency, communication, and certain mutually agreed-upon guidelines and boundaries remain constant.

How do these values translate to building community? Currently spoke with Dee, a queer polyamorous student from Bangalore, India, about their own experiences with polyamory and community. 

“The way we think about communities is family and kinship. Polyamory provides a more expansive and authentic space to create your own communities,” they said. “If four people share a space, they share responsibilities, they share emotional labor. That template can be difficult to carry out because within our normative patriarchal ideas of father, mother, brother, sister. I have always pondered on how freeing it would be to have a different version of community, away from the traditional family unit.”

They said this version of community that polyamory encourages, may lead to a greater sense of agency in interpersonal relationships among those involved,  which is crucial in building solidarity in movements. Monogamy, as projected and reinforced by society, can sometimes feel like an immutable monolith without space for variation. A focus on the nuclear family can be isolating; creating smaller, more insular, units without the scope for building community. Non-monogamy, on the other hand, is inherently tilted towards fostering community. The climate fight requires radical new solutions. This includes the way we connect and relate with each other. Non-monogamy can provide this space for new ways of thinking. We can and should be more anarchist with our relationships, to build camaraderie and community.

“The way we think about communities is family and kinship. Polyamory provides a more expansive and authentic space to create your own communities,” they said. 

Dee spoke of how certain circles can be casteist or alternatively queerphobic. 

“For my context, living in post-colonial India, as someone who is resisting fascism, I cannot expect traditional solidarity circles to take this up. Most young queer radical people don’t feel at home in these spaces because they are not exactly accepting of different ways of being and existing. If we can destigmatize this linear way of thinking of relationships, we can make solidarities and connections richer and fuller,” said Dee.

Non-monogamy is not a hot new concept some media portrayals make it out to be. It has existed in many Indigenous and non-western cultures for centuries. The lack of its presence today can easily be attributed to colonization and the “white man’s burden”. Before the crimes of colonization, the norm for many cultures was extended kin groups, plural marriage, polyandry and polygamy. Marriage— especially monogamous marriage— has never been a private affair, much less a dominant worldview. Cultures across the world were “saved” from their “savagery” by the white man, and enforcing monogamy was part and parcel of this mission.

Rob Dellinger, a marine biologist and climate activist from Los Angeles, who identifies as polyamorous, speaks to how polyamory allows for the sort of interpersonal healing and abolishment of toxicity that create communities.

Dellinger said, “In a way, I see polyamory as a form of abolition to what is the normative relationship. When we practice that abolition, we are forced to come up with new ways of dealing with relationships we have with people that aren’t based on vengeance or damage. This is very similar to the situation of incarceration. I know that is quite a leap to make, but there is a similarity with how we treat people who make mistakes. We often want to get back at them, we want to punish them. Polyamory allows us to move away from that and assess how we can heal relationships, instead of focusing on damage. This helps us to heal and look at a new way of forming relationships.”

Engaging effectively with our communities requires this form of relationship building. To mobilize any group, it is important that people feel safe and familiar with each other. Considering the highly polarized digital space that climate activism occurs in, we need to allow room for mistakes, learning, and unlearning as we fight for a more liveable planet. 

The system we live in is built around protecting and upholding structures of monogamy, and therefore, also, white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism. Dellinger also spoke about how the anarchist nature of polyamory challenges the structure of capitalism which fuels the climate crisis. 

“I am in community with a lot of people who are non-monogamous and there is a lot of unlearning we do together,” Miles said. 

“We grow up with these ideas of what it means to be in love. We are sold on these expensive institutions that are built around it, for instance, the diamond industry— all these corporations that profit off this idea of what love is. In a way, we are in direct opposition to what society is telling us is normal.” 

Currently spoke with Emily Miles, an Indiana-based host of In This Climate Podcast, who identifies as a queer non-binary non-monogamous person, about how she applies principles of non-monogamy to connect with nature.  

“I am in community with a lot of people who are non-monogamous and there is a lot of unlearning we do together,” Miles said. 

“My understanding of non-monogamy is non-hierarchical, where one type of relationship is not more important than another. My best friends and romantic partner are at an equal standing. When you apply the core principles of built connection, mutual co-liberation, support, autonomy, and access that we practice in non-monogamy to other beings and life— that goes a long way. To look at a tree and say my goal is to connect with this tree, to support the autonomy of this tree and to support the access of this tree— this is the fundamental re-understanding of what we are with the world.”

Miles said she views love as a form of connection. Capitalism and consumerism exist to separate us from each other and from our earth. To love and to connect is in opposition to that. Most of us watched the same TV shows growing up, we understood the idea of love that was sold to us. We modeled that. Now it is together that we unlearn this discourse.

This isn’t to say that everyone should consider non-monogamy. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the need for community exists everywhere, not just in the climate space. We are undeniably at the brink of multiple crises. In a world where countries wage war, there is always room for more love. It is the one thing that excites all of us while also uniting us. What we can all learn from non-monogamy is new ways of relating with each other, of sharing pains and laughs in an uphill battle.

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