Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

July 14, 2009

Subsistence and Resistance

In a recent column in Orion (May-June 2009) Derrick Jensen criticized the “simplicity” movement and what he says is one of its core questions, “If our world is really looking down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?” Jensen’s criticisms of simplicity living are multi-faceted, but the heart of his argument, as I understand it, is that this culture is “killing the planet” and must be stopped, just as a psychopath rampaging through your house and killing your family members would need to be stopped. In light of the severity of the problem (a culture that is killing the planet), lifestyle choices are insignificant and resistance is imperative.

Reform or Revolution?

Yellow squash plant

Lush yellow squash plant

While I agree wholeheartedly that we need to resist and stop the globalized industrial capitalist patriarchy that is killing the planet, those of us living in the “developed” world desperately need to create vastly changed human cultures that live in a way that benefits nature and benefits humans. In many “developing” countries ancient and sustainable subsistence cultures still remain more or less intact outside the cities and land areas taken over by development. But in the developed world the takeover by globalized patriarchy is so complete that almost everyone is dependent on the captor (globalized patriarchy) for their basic means of living – food, shelter, water, clothing, fuel. In subsistence societies where the earth is healthy (as it was prior to patriarchal civilization), basic needs of life can be met by every person either in direct interaction with the earth or with members of their own local community.

The value of individual lifestyle changes depends largely on whether the purpose and effect of the changes are reform or revolutionary change. For example, buying efficient, “green” consumer goods is an act aimed at reform. While the “green” products may be an improvement over older, “legacy” goods in terms of environmental impact, consuming the goods supports continued large scale industry and business almost as usual. Production of the products is far more likely to harm the earth than help her. In contrast, the development of subsistence cultures that benefit the earth and replace globalized patriarchy is revolutionary change. People living in lands now dominated by “developed” nations can take steps toward developing matriarchal, subsistence cultures. When they do, their individual lifestyle changes contribute to revolution. Just as acts of resistance to globalized patriarchy can attempt to reform society (leaving massive industrialization and male dominance in place) or effect radical change, daily living practices can intend and produce reform or revolution (or perpetuate the status quo).

Post-Patriarchal Living

I don’t think that we can “stop this culture from killing the planet” without both resistance and creation of new/old subsistence cultures. We need to both stop the patriarchal earth-destroying culture and create new earth-loving cultures. The devastated earth needs the restoration and caretaking that humans in matriarchal, subsistence societies can provide her. Freeing the earth of possession by patriarchy and seeing nature begin to recover is a big motivation, but people also need to be able to envision and experience post-industrial, post-capitalist, and post-patriarchal ways of living. For most people in “developed” nations an end to globalized industrial capitalist partriarchy would seem like suicide – an end to the basic necessities of life (as well as the treasured frills). By starting to create subsistence cultures now, more people in the developed world can believe that there is a path to take out of globalized patriarchy and industrialization that allows life, including their own, to continue.

We also need to influence the form of the subsistence societies that will follow globalized patriarchy. Globalized patriarchy is heading toward collapse because it is taking from nature at a rate that exceeds nature’s ability to replenish herself. Subsistence living will follow collapse, but past and present subsistence societies have frequently been patriarchal and harmful to women. As a woman I greatly fear male violence and other attempts to control women during and following societal collapse. Beginning to consciously transition to subsistence now can help create cultures that are matriarchal – egalitarian, based in strong bonds between women and respect for all of life. The end of globalized patriarchy can be a door opening into a far better world, but not if any form of patriarchy continues.

Building Subsistence Cultures

At the heart of any human culture are the ways people relate to the earth to provide for basic needs – shelter, water, food, heating. As members of the “developed” nations turn to subsistence living, new subsistence cultures will develop from humans meeting their basic needs through direct relationship with local nature and local human community. These are “lifestyle changes” that create new subsistence cultures. Subsistence gardening is one activity that begins to build subsistence cultures. As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, without fossil fuels and machinery many more people will need to become involved in growing food. Using techniques such as Ecology Action’s Grow Biointensive (Jeavons, 2002, How To Grow More Vegetables, 7th Edition) people can work with nature to grow more food and more nutritious food on less land. (One person can be fed with the crops grown on as little as 4000 square feet using Grow Biointensive methods while “modern” agriculture requires 15,000-30,000 square feet for the average U.S. diet and much more for heavy meat eaters.) This method of horticulture grows topsoil as well as crops, benefiting nature. With large numbers of people gardening small areas of land, the land can be well cared for and areas of former farmland can be returned to nature. People able to grow their own food (including staples such as grain and potatoes) lose a big chunk of their dependence on globalized patriarchy and become freer to resist.

Sweet corn, oats, comfrey, astragalus

Sweet corn, our first attempt at oats, comfrey, astragalus, sage

Gardening can be more or less an act of building subsistence culture. At Cedar Hill our goal is to help build a subsistence, matriarchal culture, not just to grow a few tomatoes. We are a long way from an ideal of growing most of our diet and using no outside inputs, but we are moving in that direction. We’re growing at least some dietary staples like dried beans, potatoes and, this year, a few oats. We use mostly heirloom and other open pollinated seeds and are saving the seeds. We use hand tools exclusively so the energy used to grow and maintain the garden comes from the sun and human power (though the hand tools are well crafted 20 year old industrial-made tools). We’ve never used chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but we have brought in alfalfa meal, greensand, manure, worm castings and compost produced off site over the years. Now we are getting very serious about the compost pile(s) and planning what crops to grow so we’ll have enough carbon and nitrogen in the residues to create enough compost to fertilize the entire garden. We collect water off our roof into big stock tanks (again industrial-made) and water by hand, so we are trying out plantings that can get by without much irrigation in our very hot summers. We are still trucking in mulch, wonderful ash shavings from a local handle factory, but we did use oak leaves for one potato bed this year with successful results.

Lina Sisco Bird Egg heirloom beans, Tomatoes

Lina Sisco Bird Egg heirloom beans, Tomatoes

The men who sold us industrial society were first rate snake oil salesmen. Regaining our lost connection to nature (and to human community) should make up for many supposed “losses” that come to people in the “developed” world with an end to massive modern industry. Subsistence gardeners begin developing a real relationship with the earth – the smell of her soil, the wildly colorful food crops, the native plants returning to the lands freed from agriculture, the insects chomping their way around the garden, the precious predator insects, bug-snarfing toads, the feel of the rains and winds on their own skin. With connection to nature can also come the directly experienced spirituality that so many people in globalized patriarchy have been futilely searching for. Replace patriarchy with matriarchy and “heaven” comes down to earth!

Stop Globalized Patriarchy Now!

Subsistence and resistance. Resistance and subsistence. We need both. But, practitioners of each need to keep their eye on the ball. Globalized patriarchy is destroying the earth. We don’t need minor adjustments and reformist change. The small cuts in fossil fuel emissions by 2020 promised by the current version of the ACES bill in the U.S. Congress does next to nothing to reverse global warming, a frightening example of the failure of the reformist approach. We likewise can’t afford to get so busy out in the garden that we forget to resist. Subsistence is in some ways easier than resistance as one could co-exist without active opposition to globalized patriarchy (at least until the waters rise, the bug-eating toads go extinct, or cancer strikes home).

On the other hand, a singleminded focus on resistance prioritizes the public (traditionally male) sphere over the “private” (traditionally female) sphere, as Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen (The Subsistence Perspective, 1999) and Sharon Astyk (Depletion and Abundance, 2008) have pointed out. Politics with a capital “P” and economics with a capital “E” characterize male-dominated, large-scale societies, while daily living and the women who typically provide are more important in small-scale subsistence societies. Revolutions in industrial societies have consistently produced only male-controlled, domination-based societies.

We have to live during and after the revolution and the living could even be the revolution if only everyone, including the power holders, walked out on patriarchy. There isn’t much sign that most people in the developed nations are leaving their modern gadgets (and the rest of globalized industrial patriarchy) behind, so we need resistance and subsistence. As Jensen argues, we need to stop this culture from killing the planet.

May 25, 2009

Sustainable or Business Almost As Usual? (III)

My mother and father moved into a suburban house with a large yard in the late 1960s, after living many years in more constricted living arrangements. The yard seemed to call for a dog and for my father’s 54th birthday I bought him a six week old Dalmatian puppy. My father went with me to pick out the puppy, but we did not consult with my mother ahead of time. When we arrived home, puppy in arms, my mother opened the garage door, screamed “Oh no” at the sight of the puppy, and slammed the door in our faces. Within a day or so mother was completely enchanted with the puppy and she dearly loved him until his death at age 17.

I eventually found out that part of her reaction to seeing the new puppy came from the loss of her family’s dog when she was in high school. Her family had recently moved to Kansas City due to the failure of my grandfather’s trucking company in the Great Depression. Their dog was out in the residential street in front of the house when a group of young males gunned their car right at the dog and purposefully ran him over. They had attempted to run the dog over before and were jubilant that this time they succeeded in killing him, loudly exclaiming “Got it”. Over thirty years later my mother did not want to risk loving another dog.

This story of male cruelty and violence is one among millions that women have told during the centuries of worldwide feminist resistance to patriarchy. Feminists have called western patriarchy a death-loving culture in part because of its long history of violence and bloodshed including, but not limited to, rape, war, cruelty to animals, sexual degradation, lynching, racism, incest, slavery, and environmental destruction. Feminists have already had plenty of evidence of the death orientation of western patriarchy, but by now everyone else should be wondering too.

A consensus has emerged among the scientific elite that industrialized society is creating dangerous climate change that, unless stopped soon, will put as many as 30% or more of the world’s species at risk of extinction. What does it mean that this society has acted in a way that endangers a third or more of earth’s life forms? What does it mean that most of the concern about global warming focuses on its effects on human societies, not other forms of life? Global warming provides indisputable evidence that globalized, capitalist patriarchy is a powerful life-destroying force. The fact that many feminists, indigenous peoples, and other resistors have known for a long time is now the province of everyone in the developed world: something is terribly, terribly wrong here!

Efforts at abating global warming focus on lower carbon use, more renewable energy, and reduced waste and pollution. But there has been so much delay and resistance by the developed countries in initiating these changes on a large scale that even a lower carbon “developed” lifestyle cannot extend to 7 or 9 billion people. Extreme and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are now needed. A “developed” lifestyle cannot safely be extended to developing countries, nor can the U.S. continue with anything remotely resembling “the American way of life.” We must face up to this reality honestly and scale back our society in a purposeful way, eliminating much while reconstructing institutions that can be of real value such as education, health care, or disability supports (see The other options, denial or Business Almost As Usual (BAAU – see Part I and Part II of this blog) are a catastrophe for humans and for huge number of species likely to become extinct if temperatures rise much further.

Global warming has reached an emergency level with temperatures rising and ice sheets melting at far faster rates than projected by the most recent IPCC reports issued in 2007 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, 2007). The IPCC operates using a form of consensus that results in assessments that are overly influenced by conservative forces such as the OPEC nations and the former Bush administration. Most of the research (118 scenarios) included in the latest IPCC report focused on what will happen if CO2 levels reach 485-570 parts per million (ppm – 560 ppm is double preindustrial levels). The IPCC barely studied scenarios of a world that put more serious limits on greenhouse gases: just six scenarios studied projected CO2 levels of 350-400 ppm. Even these lowest studied CO2 levels are predicted to increase global temperature 2.0-2.4°C over pre-industrial times.

Many nations, including the European Union, view a 2°C change in temperature over pre-industrial times as a maximum for preventing “dangerous climate change.” Increasing numbers of scientists and non-governmental organizations now call for limiting temperature even further, with some suggesting 1°C over pre-industrial as the long term goal (see Worldwatch’s 2009 State of the World for a summary). However, we are already at .7°C (387 ppm) and there is a time lag, which means that even if no more fossil fuels were burned, temperatures will continue to rise to well above 1°C over preindustrial.

The earth requires an immediate lowering of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet emissions have continued to rise despite the Kyoto treaty and escalating worldwide concern. Although there are some hopeful signs from the Obama administration such as the decision that the EPA will regulate CO2 as a pollutant, both the Obama administration and the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) legislation propose much smaller cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than the European Union advocates. [The EU calls for emissions 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020. The Obama administration wants to skip the 25-40% cut and return to 1990 levels by 2020. (Kansas City Star March 29, 2009 and New York Times March 31, 2009.) ACES confuses the issue by calling for 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Of course, 2005 levels were much higher than 1990.] If there is any hope of reaching any of the lower goals for greenhouse gas concentrations, emissions must peak by 2015 and begin a rapid decline.

The BAAU plans are running out of time, have probably already run out of time. Ross Gelbspan, the Pulitzer prize winning author who has written two books on global warming, says that we have waited too long to make the necessary changes and there is no hope now of stopping the rising temperatures at a safe level ( The Worldwatch 2009 State of the World report recognized the need to limit temperature rise to 1°C, but could not project a way to reach this goal without relying on carbon capture and storage, a technology that has been used only on a small scale trial basis. The safety of carbon capture and storage, which buries CO2 captured from power plants (or even from the atmosphere) underground, is highly questionable. Imagine an earthquake and the earth burping out massive quantities of carbon unsafely stored underground. This is not a comic book fantasy. A similar event happened 55 million years ago when a natural methane “burp” released over a trillion tons of methane from the ocean floor and sent temperatures soaring by 18°F causing mass extinctions. (See Fred Pearce’s book, With Speed and Violence:Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change.) Technological solutions, like carbon capture and storage or far more science fiction type possibilities, are the wave of the future if BAAU plans are followed and are likely to cause far more problems than they solve.

We must instead begin to realize that BAAU plans won’t limit climate change adequately or create equity among the peoples of the world. But, there is still a way to turn climate change around and end world poverty and inequity by making radical, not BAAU, changes. Radical change is change that goes to the root of the problem.

First, we must recognize that industrialization on the enormous scale it is currently practiced must be severely curtailed. I don’t know if there is a safe way to use limited industrial production or not, but at the very least we need to reduce industry to producing essential and very efficient, durable goods that help take care of the basic needs of all the billions of people on earth. Perhaps any industry is so destructive of nature and of our human nature that it will best be eliminated altogether.

Second, we must address the root of our problems by bringing an end to the social system of globalized, capitalist patriarchy (and other forms of patriarchy as well). Economically, as Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen (see their book The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy) have explained “Subsistence is the Alternative”. Politically, Matriarchy is the Alternative. By matriarchy I mean an egalitarian society that is strongly based in bonds between women, similar to many of the matrilineal, matrifocal societies that exist now or that have been described by anthropologists in the past. By turning to subsistence and matriarchy, societies can develop that are able to meet the needs and hopes of people in a way that globalized capitalist patriarchy never even attempted. The time for change is right now, before each of us in developed countries becomes responsible for the extinction of many of the earth’s species and the creation of a world that will give all of the earth’s children and grandchildren a life no one wants for them.

Nikki, Jeanne and Chase, Zora, Shyla

Nikki, Jeanne and Chase, Zora, Shyla

Tonight (9 PM) there is a low fire in the woodstove. Paula’s antique irons are heating on top of the stove. We have one 15 watt light on in the center of the house. Women, dogs, and one cat are drawn together to the heat and light. Two flats of tiny seedlings – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil – are stashed behind the stove keeping warm overnight. I am not at all certain what the future will bring, but tonight I am warm and content, happy to be sharing this 40 year old couch with dreaming dogs. Tomorrow the dogs will go on the run they are dreaming of now (their legs are twitching) and I will take another step toward subsistence.

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