Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

March 2, 2015

Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life – Part 4

Filed under: Ecofeminism,Global Warming,Jeanne Neath,Patriarchy,Subsistence Living — Jeanne Neath @ 3:50 am
Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy, Ocean Grove Pier - New Jersey, October 29, 2012.

In Part 1 of my Power With Nature blog, I quoted a pro-nuclear environmental activist who dismissed my concerns about high energy use and high consumption, saying: “I don’t really see a massive change in lifestyle; if you want to go live off the grid and grow all your own food, etc. good for you, but don’t expect the vast majority of Americans to join you.” This fellow, like many other environmentalists, seemed to assume that a change in lifestyle would entail hardships that most Americans would never accept. In his case, the risks of nuclear power were less a concern than loss of his and others’ lifestyles.

Many Americans, especially those in the middle and upper classes, do seem very attached to their material comforts and, for some, a life of material excess. And most everyone is so dependent on society for the necessities of life (e.g. shelter, water, food, heat) that they can barely conceive of a different way of life. This dependence becomes very evident each time disaster strikes an area (like Hurricane Sandy) and suddenly all electricity, food, communication, clean water, and easy transportation disappears. These are frightening circumstances and especially so for people who lack financial resources, physical capabilities and strong local communities to help them survive the crisis. But, increasing disasters – whether from climate changes or financial crashes – do not seem to shake the faith of many middle class Americans in the all too fallible capitalist patriarchal social system they rely on. Instead of fearing – and modifying – their dependence, most people fail to question what they consider to be a superior way of life.

Canada Lynx

Threatened Canada Lynx. This lynx has feet like snowshoes to help it navigate the snowy climate it is adapted to. There are fewer than 1000 left in the U.S. where they live in northern latitudes and high spruce-fir forests. Warming from climate change will force lynx populations further and further north. Should warming eliminate the cold climate they need, this species could move from threatened status to endangered or extinct.

Habitat loss. The sixth extinction. Climate change. Maybe these words are too abstract and middle class America is not getting the message in a hard punch to the gut (yet). I keep asking myself: How can so many middle class Americans think they have “the good life” when that way of life is creating a mass extinction (i.e. killing much of life on earth) and is leaving their descendents with a much poorer world?

Meanwhile, this “superior” way of life is threatening every person on the planet, including the privileged middle and upper classes, with losses far greater than a loss of creature comforts like air conditioning or a wedding in the Caribbean. Habitat loss. The sixth extinction. Climate change. Maybe these words are too abstract and middle class America is not getting the message in a hard punch to the gut (yet). I keep asking myself: How can so many middle class Americans think they have “the good life” when that way of life is creating a mass extinction (i.e. killing much of life on earth) and is leaving their descendents with a much poorer world? There seems to be an ethical problem here. And it isn’t as if life in capitalist patriarchy is actually a good time. We Americans are all living with the consequences of domination and that is never much fun -as I will discuss shortly.

Sold Out?

Are middle class Americans so self-centered, ignorant or shallow that they can be bought off by material goods? I don’t think so. After all, the rich and powerful decision-makers, mostly men, are the ones in control and this society is largely a reflection of their desires and visions. The middle classes are culpable for supporting the ruling class, but most of them are just going along with the status quo. A major consciousness shift and major commitment are required to do otherwise. There are good reasons why many people don’t make that shift.

Red Wolf

Endangered Red Wolf. Red wolves once roamed the forests here in northwest Arkansas, but now they are one of the world's most endangered members of the dog family. We think that some of the local coyotes may have a trace of red wolf blood as the species intermixed to some extent as the red wolf numbers dwindled. The red wolf once ranged through the eastern and southcentral United States, but the wolves were considered dangerous predators and populations were purposefully decimated by the early part of the 20th Century, much as has happened with the gray wolf. A captive breeding program has had some success and now over 100 red wolves roam their native habitats in eastern North Carolina.

Start with the fact that the rich and powerful control most of the institutions that shape consciousness (such as the media) and then stir in the power of the paycheck as a behavior modifier. As much as Americans want to see themselves as individualistic, our lives and thoughts are greatly shaped by our society. Thus, capitalist patriarchy creates ecological disaster and has shaped its populace to stand by and let it happen, sometimes denying reality altogether. The social influences corralling so many Americans into going along with the agenda of capitalist patriarchy go well beyond simple manipulations of our attitudes and behaviors. Even our inner selves are shaped by patriarchy and its patterns of domination. Today I want to focus on just one of the ways our psychological functioning becomes distorted: the suppression of emotion and creation of emotional distance between people and between people and nature. Without a great deal of emotional distance we could not watch bulldozers at work or tolerate the destruction of lands and the lives of people who depend on those lands for their survival. This emotional distance makes it possible to ignore the pain of others and avoid feeling the loss of nature all around us. We all need strong and sound emotional cues to make the shift in consciousness necessary for confronting and changing society.

But, wait! Patriarchy is just a human created social system. Our ancestors, the male ones I expect, started this monster that is patriarchy and it has snowballed with the growth of capitalism, but we can stop it. First step, explore how patriarchy shapes our inner selves to a) create the emotional distance that separates us from other people and nature and b) go along with the program of ecocide.

At the Core: Training Male Dominators

A society based in domination requires people who can dominate and people who will submit. In this patriarchy, men are trained as dominators through learning masculinity and women are trained for submission through learning femininity. But, everybody learns submission as children (who are constantly bossed around by adults) and also domination (as most everyone will fight back to gain some status in the pecking order). In Unmaking War, Remaking Men, Kathleen Barry explains that there is a “core masculinity” instilled in boys and men across many different cultures, classes, and races. Learning core masculinity trains boys and men to become dominators.

The social influences corralling so many Americans into going along with the agenda of capitalist patriarchy go well beyond simple manipulations of our attitudes and behaviors. Even our inner selves are shaped by patriarchy and its patterns of domination.

Endangered Mexican Wolf

Endangered Mexican Wolf. Once ranging parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, by the 1970s the Mexican Wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf was nearly extinct. In 1976 this wolf was listed as an endangered species. A captive breeding program was established and in 1998 11 Mexican Wolves were released in the in Apache National Forest in southeastern Arizona. Now there are about 83 Mexican Wolves living in the wild. Even with such a small population in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responsible for managing the wolves, will still issue permits to private individuals, such as ranchers, to kill wolves found preying on their livestock and limit the areas where wild wolves can roam. Green groups are suing FWS over rules like these.

This is how it works, according to Barry. Boys learn from an early age the frightening fact that their society is willing to sacrifice them in war. Training in masculinity helps boys and men handle their fears and the knowledge that their society considers them so unimportant as to be expendable in war. They learn to suppress their feelings and distance themselves from their fears. This disconnection is central to core masculinity. As expendable people, men are not supposed to protect themselves (i.e. stay away from war), but are supposed to protect women and children instead. This is not a very good deal for men and provokes rage that is turned against women. Misogyny is thus built into core masculinity. Men learn that the worst thing they can do is to be unmanly, like a woman. When men do join the military, training in core masculinity escalates to the point that many men lose the ability to empathize with anyone except their buddies.

Training in masculinity can be more or less effective, so individual men are not all equally cut off from their emotions, women hating, and unable to empathize. Similarly, while some women embrace femininity (and submission), others adopt at least some “masculine” characteristics, sometimes including emotional distancing, in an attempt to gain power and status. But, when women accept the submissive role, they are also pushed into suppressing or, at least, subordinating their emotions. As Dana Crowley Jack explains:

“Depressed women alert us to their experience of self-loss within unsatisfactory relationships. Seeking love and closeness a woman attempts to create intimacy by altering herself to meet what she perceives to be the needs of the man she loves. But, the act of altering herself – of putting herself ‘as a person out of the picture’ – results not in the emotional and spiritual rewards of authentic intimacy, but in a diminished self.” (Silencing the Self: Women and Depression by Dana Crowley Jack, p. 54)

I think I followed both the “masculine” and “feminine” strategies growing up as an only child in the 1950s. In my family both my father and mother assumed that my father, a veteran of World War II, was most important and had the ultimate say (though my mother did stand up for herself and my father was basically a nice guy). My mother had a tendency to become very emotional, highly agitated in times of high stress and I was frightened by her intense feelings at those times. At what must have been an early age I began emulating my father, who was much more emotionally controlled than my mother. Like my dad, I distanced myself from my own feelings. I didn’t want to take on what I saw as the low status of traditional femininity. But, later in my life, when I did start allowing myself to feel my emotions, I still found it very difficult to act based on what I felt or to let others know my feelings. More on this shortly.

Lost! Emotions, Empathy, Humanity

Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback Turtle. This 1100 pound sea turtle nests on the beaches of Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Despite the turtles' size their young are delicate. Leatherback Turtles are listed as critically endangered by IUCN. The temperatures on the beaches where they nest determine the sex of the offspring and climate change may bring an imbalance between the sexes, or make the sand to hot for survival of embryos and eggs.

What a loss to be unable to fully feel emotion! What happens when life takes a difficult turn and those unfelt and unexpressed feelings come bursting out, perhaps as uncontrollable rage, as happens for many men? Or maybe those strong feelings still don’t come to the surface. This happened to me. I started the process of learning to feel and recognize emotions only after I fell into a deep depression. I’d gotten married (to a man) right after college because it seemed like the next step I was supposed to do. Normally, emotions provide people with key information about what they want in life. But if your emotional compass is deeply buried, it is easy to follow social prescriptions rather than your own heart. Since I was out of touch with my emotions and not very aware about the option of living as a lesbian I trailed along the path prescribed by patriarchy. But, once married I wasn’t too clear where I was going. I knew I did not want to have children. I was enrolled in graduate school and working hard at my classes and that provided some direction. I became friends with several lesbians and began to experience a pull toward a lesbian life, but I had been raised Catholic and the social pressure to stay married was very real. Since I could barely feel or recognize emotions most of the time, I didn’t understand my dilemma very well and couldn’t resolve it. Hence the very deep depression that almost landed me in a mental hospital. My depression finally receded when I started to find and act on my feelings, slowly and painfully gathering the courage to extricate myself from a marriage that was not consistent with my (then) hidden lesbian self. But, I still had difficulty, even in my lesbian relationships, with revealing all of my feelings. I feared I would lose my lover if she knew all of how I felt. Eventually I realized that being myself was the most important thing I could do and that I had to go with my emotions, no matter how inconvenient or scary they seemed.

Being cut off from your own feelings is certainly helpful in carrying out acts of domination, but not in forming and keeping intimate relationships. I haven’t read any of the men/Mars, women/Venus type of books, but it’s clear that the real story is that men’s training as dominators hobbles their ability to be emotionally close and capable of intimacy in relationships. Many men, with their training in core masculinity and horror of being like women fail miserably at empathy with women, even the women and girls they are supposedly close to, their mother, girlfriends, wives, and daughters. Difficulty feeling and expressing feelings is problematic in itself, but even small acts of domination – expecting to be served, speaking disrespectfully, dominating conversations, raising one’s voice – create distrust and makes a power with relationship unachievable. When fear, abuse and violence enter into a relationship, as often happens in patriarchal society, the possibility for intimacy completely disappears as it is impossible to be open with someone you fear. Emotional distance allows acts of domination to take place, but participating in relationships of domination creates emotional distance.

The ability to feel one’s own feelings is essential to the ability to empathize with others. Empathy is likewise essential to intimacy. Kathleen Barry describes the complexities of human interactions based in empathy:

“In our interactions, if we are present, that is to say not distanced or dissociated, we are subjects to ourselves – feeling what we feel, bringing those feelings and our senses into the interpretations we are making. If we extend that feeling and sensing, that felt experience to another, not only do we act from our own subjectivity but we enter theirs. Interaction deepens as our subjectivities connect until we can put ourselves in the place of another and interpret what a situation means to that person.”
“By carefully attending to words being said, feelings and gestures and expressions that come with words, not flinching, being there fully, subject to subject, we restore each other to our shared human consciousness and affirm the value of human life. We are melting away objectification. That is the interaction that humanizes us, sparks our souls…. In this kind of interpreting the meaning of the other, we have found our empathy, the route to our souls. It is the nature of being human.” (Unmaking War, Remaking Men by Kathleen Barry, p. 49-50)

So, here we are, some of us, so well off in the industrialized world, living “the good life’, with all this stuff and creature comforts, but there’s this small problem: many of us, especially men, can’t feel very much and can’t get very close to anyone else either. We find it easy to discount whole groups of people when we close off our feelings toward them. Domination and oppression could not exist in any form without the dominator’s abilty to distance themselves from those they dominate, the “others” who aren’t important. And the “others” are not just women, but the whole tragic list of victims of capitalist patriarchy, including the peoples of the global South, people of color, people with disabilities, people living in poverty – and nature herself.

Lost and Found: From Power Over to Power With Nature

Endangered Bog Turtle

Endangered Bog Turtle. The scarce and tiny bog turtle makes its home in the wetlands of the eastern U.S. Already listed as an endangered species by the IUCN, the shifting weather patterns associated with climate change are likely to dry out or flood its habitat, which is already badly fragmented due to development.

Living here in the woods, I am able to get through most days without cringing at some new assault on nature. But, it is guaranteed that as soon as I get out on the highway I will experience one episode of destruction after another. There are always road kills, beautiful deer, raccoons, fox squirrels, skunks, an occasional barred owl, dogs and cats. Some days the county will have mowed the roadside (and sometimes my favorite plants) or run their giant chipper against all the tree limbs within 15 feet of the road, leaving the battered pale remains sticking out from the trees, visible for miles. Sometimes there are massive excavations, as new pipes are laid or the road expanded. Right now they have dug up a huge area along the White River and there are trenches eight feet deep and no plant life left. Another day there will be a truck full of caged chickens on their way to be slaughtered, with feathers strewn across the highway and an occasional dead chicken fallen out of the truck and landed on the side of the road.

These are all minor devastations, physical and emotional, compared to the truly grand assaults on nature going on in some places, from mountaintop removal to tar sands moonscapes to water contamination from oil spills and fracking. None of these activities could be carried out by people who care about the life and beauty they are destroying, who feel at home in nature. Naomi Klein has described the culture of fossil fuel extraction as “one of extreme rootlessness”:

“The workforce of big rig drivers, pipefitters, miners, and engineers is, on the whole, highly mobile, moving from one worksite to the next and very often living in the now notorious ‘man camps’ – self-enclosed army-base style mobile communities that serve every need from gyms to movie theaters (often with an underground economy in prostitution).” (This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, p. 343)

She goes on to describe the mentality of the workforce:

“…beneath the bravado of the bar scene are sky-high divorce rates due to prolonged separations and intense work stress, soaring levels of addiction, and a great many people wishing to be anywhere but where they are. This kind of disassociation is part of what makes it possible for decent people to inflict the scale of damage to the land that extreme energy demands. A coalfield worker in Gillette, Wyoming, for instance, told me that to get through his workdays, he had trained himself to think of the Powder River Basin as ‘another planet’.” (This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, p. 344)

These largely male workforces seem to have much in common with the military: the emotional distance needed to kill people or to kill the earth.

But, even the people not on the frontlines have to close off their feelings toward nature in order to enjoy the material benefits that are possible only because the natural world has been pillaged. Nature is our home and our lives are so much less than they could be when our emotional and sensory ties to nature are severed. By beginning to restore our caring feelings about nature we can move toward a power with nature connection and one day, perhaps, be able to meet nature as “equal face to face subjects” as the Native Americans in New England did (see the quotes from Carolyn Merchant in Part 2 of my Power With Nature blog). Power with one another and power with nature give us a connection worth far more than all the mansions, Mercedes, large screen televisions, and air conditioning units that people dream of. I am dreaming of a far different world and a life much more like that of indigenous peoples who know that the Earth is their mother and source of all that matters.

The “vast majority of Americans” have lost almost everything, and don’t even know it or feel it, tragically attached as they are to a bankrupt way of life. But, “the good life” awaits!

February 13, 2015

Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life: Part 3

Deer tracks in snow

Deer Tracks In Snow. Note the regular diagonally spaced steps. The snow is deep enough that the deer's feet are dragging as she steps.

The careless use of vast amounts of energy by people in industrialized societies is completely at odds with how other animals live their daily lives, practicing the art of energy conservation. I first learned that energy conservation is a key element of animal behavior through my studies of animal tracking. Let’s suppose you want to track a whitetail deer. Maybe you caught sight of a doe and fawn and would like to follow them to get a closer look. Maybe you are a wildlife photographer, even a hunter. You’re on the ground and you are in luck because the earth is damp and you see a few clear heart-shaped tracks. You start following along, but then the trail hits a patch of earth that is harder and drier and suddenly you can’t see the next track. What are you going to do to find those next “missing” tracks so you can get another look at that spotted fawn?

Deer track

Deer Track. Note that there are two tracks visible in the photo. The easily visible track is from the rear foot. The track underneath is from the front foot. In this case the front foot made a track, but then the rear foot came down almost on top of the front foot. The track from the front foot is visible just above the rear foot track.

One of the most useful pieces of information I learned early on about tracking was that 90% of the time animals are moving in their most efficient, normal, slow gait. So, if you know what the typical slow gait is for a given animal and you spot one track, you have some basis for predicting where the next track is likely to fall. If you can identify even a single whitetail track and you know that deer are usually moving at a walk (the energy efficient, normal, energy conserving gait for hoofed animals), then the next track for an adult whitetail is likely to be 18-21 inches ahead of the first and at a slight diagonal. (See Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking for more information.)

If you have a string of visible tracks you can confirm that the deer was walking by observing the diagonal pattern and measuring the distance between the visible tracks. Then you can look for that next “invisible” track by measuring ahead and looking closely for any disturbance at the spot where the deer was likely to have stepped. Often on close inspection you’ll see at least a portion of a track and then you can move on to the next “missing” track. But, even if there’s just one visible track to start with you stand a 90% chance that your deer was walking and you stand a good chance of finding the next track.

Not all animals use a walk as their efficient, slow gait – wide-bodied animals like raccoons and skunks are most likely to pace while rabbits and rodents do a slow gallop. But, the principle can be applied to any species if you just know what gait is the typical energy conservation gait and the distance typically covered. You can track animals this way because all animals practice energy conservation and normally move in the most efficient way for their particular body structure. Of course, there are the exceptional moments – the other 10% of the time – as when your deer catches your scent and bounds off, flaring that white tail!

Danger! Heeding the Warnings of the Birds


Carolina Wren.

Animals’ consistent practice of energy conservation allows a savvy observer to read more from a habitat than just animal tracks. Jon Young, a tracking and nature awareness teacher, explains in his book, What the Robin Knows, that it’s possible to detect the hidden movements of animals through a landscape by observing the behavior of the birds and learning “bird language”. Don’t worry! This isn’t like learning Latin. But, birds do have a distinct set of behaviors and vocalizations that they employ when danger threatens. Birds are constantly monitoring their surroundings, watching all the animals in the vicinity and making loud alarm calls when an animal that poses a threat comes too close. Like other animals, birds normally practice energy conservation so a careful observer can detect when the birds are disturbed and acting in an atypical (non energy conserving) manner. Jon Young calls normal, relaxed, energy conserving behavior “baseline” and explains that all the birds in an area may be in their normal relaxed state and together producing the sounds and appearance of baseline for their area. In other words, individual birds (or other animals) can be in (or out) of baseline, but so can a location. As soon as one bird moves out of baseline others pick up on the presence of a threat, like a hawk or cat, and may follow the first bird to also sound an alarm call, fly to a safer location, or otherwise alter their own behavior from baseline. Tom Brown Jr. calls these cascading effects the “concentric rings” of nature because a single bird’s alarm call can have an effect reverberating far out into the landscape as the birds and other animals continuously react to each other’s behaviors. (See Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking for more information on concentric rings.)

If you, as an observer, know what baseline for an area sounds and looks like (at a particular season and time of day), then any changes can let you know of the appearance of a threat. For example, one morning several years ago Paula and I heard the Carolina wrens that make their home near our house raising a huge ruckus out in our “back 40” near the blueberries. These wrens are normally fairly noisy birds, but the alarm calls they were making were much louder and more persistent than their normal calls. When we went to see what was disturbing them, we found a large timber rattlesnake coiled up just below the wrens (who were flitting about well above the snake and outside of striking distance). Large snakes are a primary predator for the eggs in bird nests and these wrens were not happy about this snake, clearly no longer in their normal energy conserving mode. Several years before this rattlesnake incident we had tried, unsuccessfully, to help another pair of Carolina wrens guard their nest, which was right in front of our house, from a black rat snake.

Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnake photographed at Cedar Hill by Paula. This is a snake photo from a different day than the wren incident. We often have visits from one or sometimes two rattlers in July or August.

According to Jon Young, all the various species of birds and animals in an area pay attention to any variations from the sounds and sights of baseline and use this early warning system to protect themselves and conserve energy:

“Energy conservation explains why animals have evolved to place such a high priority on the voices and body language of the birds and other animals in the vicinity. This principle lies at the heart of bird language… The birds, the deer, and the squirrels will always heed warnings long before the danger gets there, if at all possible (and it usually is). This whole dynamic is exactly why studying bird language works so well. It’s just much easier and energy-efficient for every creature if there’s time to casually hide or fade into the shadows.” (p. 16-17 What the Robin Knows)

So Paula and I were not the only ones warned of the presence of that timber rattler. Every bird and mammal in the area were likewise informed that potential trouble was afoot.

If Energy Efficiency Drives Evolution, You Have to Wonder…

Trackers are not the only ones to realize that the need for energy conservation drives animal behavior. Tom Wessels, an ecology professor at Antioch New England Graduate School explains the role of energy efficiency in key biological and ecological processes and principles such as natural selection and coevolution, specialization and biodiversity:

“In nature, energy is the bottom-line currency and, unlike human currencies it is rock solid: a kilocalorie of energy always remains the same fundamental unit. Since energy is a finite resource in ecosystems, natural selection always favors individuals or populations that develop energy-efficient adaptations or behaviors and selects out individuals or populations that are energy wasteful. Coevolution is always pushing species to become more energy efficient.” (The Myth of Progress, p. 85)

According to Wessels, coevolution is “the process by which species adapt to each other so that they can more successfully coexist” (The Myth of Progress, p. 144). Wessels uses the example of two very similar songbirds that typically share the same forested habitat(s): black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. Both species hunt for insects off the same trees. But, the nuthatch has developed a long beak that allows them to extricate insects out of the crevices in tree bark and a long back toe and claw so they can walk down a tree trunk searching for insects. Very tricky – walking down the trunk! The chickadee sticks to the twigs and leaves of the tree and has smaller rounded wings allowing it to hover at the ends of branches for its insect dinners. Its short beak does not allow it to get into the deep bark fissures that draw the nuthatch. The two birds have coevolved to have complementary niches and so can share the same trees and not compete.

You have to wonder: if energy conservation is a guiding force of evolution, then what does it mean for humanity to develop a global culture that is completely dependent on an enormous outlay of energy?

According to Wessels, competition is wasteful of energy and not beneficial to species:

“In the natural world species don’t seek competition, and more important, no winners emerge from its struggles. Although an individual or a species may prevail from a competitive interaction, they lose energy during the competition – more energy than if the competitive interaction had never occurred, so even those who prevail can’t be considered winners. It is such energy losses that cause species to move away from competition through time, through the coevolution of specializations that reduce the nature of the competition, such as dividing the foraging areas on a tree or being active at different times…” (The Myth of Progress, p. 82 )

Biodiversity and well integrated, energy efficient natural communities result from coevolution. Wessels continues:

“Coevolution is responsible for two important outcomes in ecosystems beyond reducing the size of species niches: energy efficiency and species that provide important services to each other. Together these allow for the development of highly integrated, stable communities. As species become more specialized, their efficient use of energy increases. This allows more species to exist in an ecosystem as the finite amount of energy is divided into smaller shares. There is also no waste in the ecosystem; every byproduct released by one species is a critical resource for another.” (The Myth of Progress, p. 87)

Globalized capitalist patriarchy’s use of terawatts of energy is clearly in violation of nature’s usual pattern where the need for energy conservation and energy efficiency guides animal behavior. As I’ve discussed, conserving energy is a required behavior for animals to survive. You have to wonder: if energy conservation is a guiding force of evolution, then what does it mean for humanity to develop a global culture that is completely dependent on an enormous outlay of energy? As Jon Young tells us:

“There’s nothing random about birds’ awareness and behavior, because they have too much at stake – life and death. Random behavior is a waste of energy, and any species that consistently squanders energy is ruthlessly eliminated from the game of life. (I can think of only one exception, and maybe this biped species will eventually pay the price.)” (What the Robin Knows, p. 10)

From the perspective of people of the industrialized world, entrenched in overconsumption and an energy squandering way of life, the idea of living in an energy conserving relationship of power with nature probably seems somewhere between absurd and impossible. But, which is more absurd, a way of life that is causing the sixth extinction and potentially human extinction (or perhaps even an end to life on earth) or finding a way to return to power with nature?

December 21, 2014

Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life – Part 2

Red Fox

Red Fox

In 1994, Paula and I traveled to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey to take a week long introductory course in “primitive” survival skills and nature awareness from Tom Brown Jr., “The Tracker”. Tom Brown was well known for his exceptional abilities as a wildlife and human tracker which he had learned, along with many other skills, as a boy and young man from Stalking Wolf, one of the few remaining elders of a band of Southern Lipan Apaches. The class we took covered skills from shelter building, to making tools from rocks, to starting fires with a bow drill, but for me the most eye-opening experiences were all related to learning a way to connect to the natural world without domination. I discovered through this introductory class and several subsequent courses that most of the ways I normally moved through my days both cut me off from nature and had me trampling roughshod over the earth.

Take the simple act of walking, one foot in front of the other. Brown taught us to “fox walk”, to walk slowly feeling the earth through our feet with every step, always perfectly balanced. He brought the lesson home in a later class when he took all his students for a long hike through the New Jersey Pine Barrens wearing blindfolds. We had to search out where to step next, using our feet as sensors and constantly aware of every nuance of the earth we traversed.I discovered that my usual “white man’s walk” was really a matter of lurching from one foot to the next, always out of balance, always assuming that a flattened earth was going to be there to support the next step and that there was no reason to be concerned about what that next step might be doing to the earth underfoot. My “white man’s walk” was perfect for concrete, completely insensitive to the earth, and left me disconnected, unable to feel the ever-changing earth underfoot. Brown told us that by fox walking we could move through the day in a dynamic meditation, a meditation you can live your life in, especially if we also learned to use “wide angle vision”.

Perhaps because the “white man’s walk” is so precarious (unbalanced), I discovered that Tom Brown’s suggestion to look up as we fox walked was good advice. When I observed myself at my usual walk I found that I spent a good deal of the time looking down and seeing the ground, not the living landscape that surrounded me. What’s more, I found myself very busy with my own thoughts when my gaze was directed downward. When I looked up, the internal dialogue blessedly shut up and I was able to engage my senses as I walked along, smelling the damp earth, hearing the bird calls, feeling the wind and seeing the flights of the crows and occasional hawk overhead.

Brown advised us to use what he called “wide angle vision” to take in the entire panorama available if we expanded our view to the full field of vision we were capable of. By not focusing on a particular object or small area we could engage the rods in our eyes and see things more like a deer does; instead of a very clear view of a constricted area or object we would be able to notice any movement occurring anywhere in our entire field of vision and have greatly enhanced night vision as well. Brown said with practice we’d be able to see the blink of a bat’s eye off in the trees (though I have to confess that this I have never achieved). Perhaps most important, the earth came to life with a dance of birds and squirrels moving through the trees, leaves carried by the wind. Instead of seeing an objectified landscape I could begin to feel and become part of the living earth.

By teaching us what amounted to an entirely different way to be in our bodies and minds – walking to feel the earth, fully engaging all of our senses, softening our eyes to view the full field of vision, and quieting the churning of our thinking mind – Brown was providing us with the tools to form a very different kind of relationship to nature than is commonly practiced in the modern world.

By teaching us what amounted to an entirely different way to be in our bodies and minds – walking to feel the earth, fully engaging all of our senses, softening our eyes to view the full field of vision, and quieting the churning of our thinking mind – Brown was providing us with the tools to form a very different kind of relationship to nature than is commonly practiced in the modern world. Although Tom Brown is of European American ancestry the skills he taught came through Brown from his teacher, Stalking Wolf, an Apache who was raised among a band that had evaded capture by American or Mexican forces and lived free in the old ways, shunning any of the technologies of the invaders. Many of the ways of being I learned from Tom Brown must be common to many (perhaps all) gathering/hunting peoples.

It isn’t difficult to intuitively grasp how the quiet, well-balanced fox walk, highly tuned senses, quiet mind, and awareness of the natural world would be essential for people hunting wild game, avoiding predators and needing to know and be able to find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of plants that provide shelter, food, medicines and many of the tools needed for daily life. If you are someone interested in academic documentation (as I am also), Carolyn Merchant’s book, Ecological Revolutions, fully documents the practice of sensory immersion and participatory consciousness in gathering/hunting (and also horticultural) tribes in New England and contrasts Native American consciousness to that of the colonists and, later, the capitalists who took over New England.

Among the many changes that occurred in New England as power and occupation shifted from Native American tribes to colonial farmers and then to market-based capitalism was a great change in the relationship between humans and nature. As Merchant explains:

“Indians constructed nature as a society of equal face to face subjects. Animals, plants, and rocks were alive and could be communicated with directly. For eighteenth-century New England farmers, nature was an animate mother carrying out God’s dictates in the mundane world. Plants and even rocks grew on the earth’s surface, but were created for human use and could be harvested as commodities. Nineteenth-century scientists, industrialists, and market farmers reconstructed them as scientific objects to be analyzed in the laboratory and as natural resources to be extracted for profit.” (p. 23 Ecological Revolutions)

This shift from the Native American relationship between humans and nature as “equal face to face subjects” to the colonial farmers view of nature as created for human use and then the capitalists’ complete objectification of nature is what I consider a shift from power with relations to nature (power sharing between equals) to power over nature (domination).

The relationship of humans to nature in globalized patriarchy is clearly a power over relationship; we bulldoze the land to transform it into cities and roads, fish out and trash the ocean, pollute the earth, burn fossil fuels causing the climate to breakdown, and are bringing about the Sixth extinction of life on earth. When we respond to the environmental crises we cause, our solutions are almost always based in power over, often under the guise of “managing” the earth. In 2008, 28 scientists from three continents met in Sweden and identified nine planetary ecological boundaries they believed we either had already violated (climate change, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss) or were in danger of violating with unknown, but likely drastic repercussions (see The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans by Mark Lynas). Obviously these scientists were concerned with preserving the earth, but their idea was to keep humanity from not crossing these potentially cataclysmic boundaries, not to end human abuse of nature and truly restore the earth. Their hope was that humans could manage the earth to stay on the right side of these deadly boundaries.

As the outcomes of our power over relationship to the earth become more and more deadly, the power over based “solutions” proposed become more deadly also – and preposterous. The plans of mad scientists to geo-engineer the planet’s climate by various means such as blasting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to create sulphur-based aerosols to block sunlight and cool the earth (at a cost of $50 billion annually) are now being taken seriously. We have become so used to living with top down structures and the managers who administer these hierarchies that we think we have become the “God species” capable of managing the complexities of the entire earth. Yet, we can’t even manage the traffic in our cities!

The best model available for re-establishing power with nature comes from the people who for millennia maintained relations based in power with nature, the gathering/hunting bands.

The best model available for re-establishing power with nature comes from the people who for millennia maintained relations based in power with nature, the gathering/hunting bands. Some of these bands survive today, although the pressures placed on them by globalized capitalist patriarchy are extreme – theft of land, forced removals, forced enculturation, and exposure to the diseases of modern societies still continue (See Survival International for more info). Information on the lifeways of hundreds of gathering and hunting peoples are available in the historical and anthropological records and can help us to relearn power with relations to nature and each other. The gatherer/hunter way of life was practiced by all of our ancestors for thousands and thousands of years, far longer than human “civilization” has existed. As “equal face to face subjects” with nature, gatherer/hunters did not view themselves as above nature or as separate from nature. As equals, the animals were important models for gatherer/hunters. In North America, for example, the fox could show people how to walk, the heron how to stalk. Gatherer/hunters survived by knowing nature very well and by fitting in with how nature functions, not by attempting to force nature to their will. For example, as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has explained about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa:

“But unlike agricultural and industrial peoples who want to influence the natural world, the hunter-gatherers wanted to join with it and use its powers. This, too, is one of the most profound differences between these hunter-gatherers and the rest of us. During a drought, we might visit a place of worship to pray earnestly for rain, trying to persuade our deity to alter the environment and make it rain. Not the Ju/wasi. They would feel the change in the air, notice the behavior of the clouds that built in the western sky, know that rain was coming, and make themselves ready to join with the oncoming storm and participate in its power. There was a rain song, for instance, and with it, a rain dance. But the dance was not meant to bring rain or make rain. No, it was used to gather the power of the oncoming rain and use that power to help people. (p. 267, The Old Way: A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas)

Our best hope for restoring the earth and restoring human societies is to practice power with nature and power with relations among humans. We can, through this practice, draw back from the precipice we stand on and re-learn how humans can fit in with nature’s way of doing things. One important way of ensuring survival by fitting in with the natural world is through the practice of energy conservation, a way of life common to all the other animals of the earth, as I discuss in Part 3 of my blog “Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life”.

October 30, 2014

Power With Nature: Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life – Part I

Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt achieves 99 miles per gallon equivalent running on electric power.

A man in an environmental group I belong to recently told the group that he had driven to the group meeting in his Chevrolet Volt (a plug-in electric car). The trip was over 50 miles and the car had used only a fraction of a gallon of gas. (According to Consumer Reports the Volt gets 99 mpg equivalent on electric power.) Even more impressive, most of the electricity to run the car had come from the solar array on top of his house. I was curious just how much electricity was required, as according to calculations I’d made, the solar panels at Paula’s and my house could never come close to running a car. I asked how many solar panels they had. Over 50 panels operated his house and two electric cars, with a small percentage of his electricity still coming from the grid. I just had to ask how many watts the 50+ panels provided. The panels weren’t all identical, but were all over 200 watts each. So, over 10,000 watts worth of solar panels!

Izuzu Trooper

Troopers are energy efficient in their own way. Our 1994 and 2000 Troopers were each purchased used and each has travelled over 200,000 miles. That long life means that massive amounts of energy and materials have not been used to manufacture more new vehicles.

I guess there will be no Chevrolet Volts getting charged up here at Cedar Hill where our array of ten mostly antique solar panels range from 35 watts up to the two newish 100 watt panels we bought two summers ago. Our solar budget is around 600 watts (on a sunny day), a tiny fraction of what the 50+ panel guy has. Never mind. A Chevy Volt would not survive a minute on our rough road and our cherished, but elderly, Troopers are energy efficient in their own way – each one has already travelled 200,000 miles and that long life means that massive amounts of energy and materials have not been used to manufacture more new vehicles. We consider ourselves quite fortunate to be able to operate a refrigerator here. We lived without one for eight years when we first moved here and had far fewer solar panels. Most of the year Paula gets to piece her quilts using an electric-powered 1949 Featherweight sewing machine. But, today, right around summer solstice when the days are long and solar power is normally at a yearly high, she’s back on her human-powered 1921 vintage treadle sewing machine thanks to what seems like weeks of endless clouds and rain. (We’re grateful for all the rain, but come on sun goddess!)

Paula's 1921 Singer treadle sewing machine. This sewing machine is entirely woman powered. You can use the foot treadle or add a hand crank - Paula has both options.

We don’t get 90% of our electricity from solar here, but 100%. We’re off the grid and we live on an exact budget determined by the sunshine (though we have resorted to a gas generator on rare occasions, usually when a carpenter required more energy to operate her tools than we could provide). I have a stack of “to do” stuff piled up next to the computer because there is no way we have enough electricity to turn the darn thing on. This electricity shortage is kind of annoying, but I also love it. I get to skip doing all that computer work (for now) plus my life is keyed into the seasons, the weather, in one more way and I’m just a little more disconnected from the mainstream culture, a culture I find more than a little troubling. We’re obviously far from perfect at conserving energy and reducing consumption – just look at those two fossil fuel burners sitting in the driveway – but we are certainly trying.

But, moving on toward my point… The 50+ solar panel guy generated a kind of visceral excitement amongst many members of my environmental group when he talked about driving his hundred miles per gallon solar-powered Volt to the meeting. Here was someone in the flesh living the sustainability dream – he could drive where he wanted, live the “normal” American lifestyle, but with fossil-free solar energy. (We won’t think about what energy and materials it took to manufacture that Volt or all those solar panels.) I could almost hear (some) people’s inner thoughts – “Yes! This is what we want! We can still have it all!” This 50+ panel vision for a sustainable future reminds me of the high energy/high consumption renewable energy paradigm that Vandana Shiva talks about in her book, Soil, Not Oil. According to Shiva:

“Most of the discussions and negotiations on climate change have been restricted to the commercial, consumption-oriented energy paradigm rooted in a reductive, mechanistic worldview and consumerist culture. Within this paradigm there are two dominant approaches: the approach of global business, especially the corporations that have promoted the fossil fuel economy, and the approach of those seeking renewable alternatives to support an energy-intensive consumerist society.” (p. 4, Soil, Not Oil)

Shiva offers an alternative to the high energy, high consumption paradigm based on a “people’s perspective in the Global South”. She tells us we must “power down energy and resource consumption” and “power up creative, productive human energy and collective democratic energy to make the necessary transition.” (p.4) In other words, she calls for less energy use period, but more human work and creativity, all taking place through political structures based in decentralized, living democracies that spread social power to ordinary people.

When I talk about my own attempts to live a relatively low energy lifestyle people are often impressed that we have solar electricity and live entirely off the grid. But, when they realize the extent of so-called deprivation that Paula and I live with – no running water, no flush toilets, no rototiller, no lawn mower, no tractor, no air conditioning, and, when it gets too cloudy or the days too short, no computer, no DVDs and sometimes no electric lights – most people (in the U.S) assume that they could never live the way we do. They also typically dismiss our way of life as irrelevant, assuming that so few people would choose a low power way of life that it makes no political difference whatsoever that we choose this way of life. For example, one fellow who was convinced that society needs nuclear energy in order to preserve the lifestyle of people in developed nations told me, “I don’t really see a massive change in lifestyle; if you want to go live off the grid and grow all your own food, etc. good for you, but don’t expect the vast majority of Americans to join you.” Other people say what we are doing is just individual change and not very politically relevant – kind of like changing your lightbulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent or LED. A good thing to do for the environment, but too small a change to matter. These critics are entirely missing the point; we are engaged in revolutionary change here at Cedar Hill, working to rebuild society from the bottom up.

If you want to create a non-hierarchical, bottom-up society your goal is to do away with the whole power over, top-down power structure and all forms of domination, replacing power over with power with.

As I recently discussed in my blog, “Stuck in the Mud”, many people think that social change can come only by influencing society’s decision-makers to make changes from the top down. People not at the top can influence what happens by applying various sorts of pressure on the top: lobbying, letter writing campaigns, protesting, boycotts, online petitions, civil disobedience and so on. But, if you want to create a non-hierarchical, bottom-up society your goal is to do away with the whole power over, top-down power structure and all forms of domination, replacing power over with power with. Power with is the concept commonly used by feminists (and now others) to denote social relationships where power is shared between equals and people cooperate to create outcomes that benefit everyone involved. Obviously, the top of a top-down structure is not going to be real keen on eliminating its own power altogether, so there isn’t a whole lot of point to pressuring the top.

Obviously, the top of a top-down structure is not going to be real keen on eliminating its own power altogether, so there isn’t a whole lot of point to pressuring the top.

Political work looks different when your goal is creating a power with, nonhierarchical society. You can work to abolish the top-down structures and/or work to build the society you want. Both strategies are essential. Since building a power with society from the bottom up requires that ordinary individuals (the “bottom”) do the building, the work we ordinary individuals do as individuals, as “families”, as communities to build power with, non-hierarchical households and community structures all counts as revolutionary action.

Since building a power with society from the bottom up requires that ordinary individuals (the “bottom”) do the building, the work we ordinary individuals do as individuals, as “families”, as communities to build power with, non-hierarchical households and community structures all counts as revolutionary action.

The revolutionary change called for by this time of environmental devastation includes not just a change in our social relationships, but also changing our relationship with nature from power over to power with. And as we will soon see (in Parts II, III and IV of this blog) a power with relationship to nature requires a low-energy, low consumption way of life. One way or another, by choice or by nature taking her turn at power over, “the vast majority of Americans” are most likely headed toward a low power future. The sooner we abandon the fantasy that we can use renewable energy to continue a high consumption lifestyle, the better off we will be on every dimension. Our attempts to dominate each other, constantly seeking status and material benefits, create great unhappiness. We cannot feel good about ourselves under a power over social system, as power over destroys feelings of genuine self worth for both the people “above” and the people “below”. A life of power with relationships to other people and to nature is the greatest hope for Americans and everyone else on this struggling planet and certainly for our relatives in the natural world.

May 25, 2014

Stuck In The Mud

Filed under: Ecofeminism,Global Warming,Jeanne Neath,Patriarchy — Jeanne Neath @ 11:21 am

“Oh, goddess! Did you hear the news about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet? Scientists have been warning for a long time that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (the little ice sheet compared to East Antarctica) may collapse and now they say it’s happening. A bunch of glaciers that flow into the Amundsen Sea have already melted so much that the collapse of one whole section of the ice sheet can’t be stopped. Even if we stopped using fossil fuels right now, the whole damn thing will melt away. Even worse, it’s likely to take the rest of West Antarctica with it. That would mean 12 feet of sea level rise over several centuries. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is projecting sea level rise between 4 inches and 3 feet by the year 2100, but they pretty much ignored both West Antarctica and Greenland melting in making that estimate, because they ‘lacked sufficient data’. Well, some of the data is in now and even NBC News is reporting that a three foot rise is looking like a middle of the road estimate. There goes New York City, New Orleans, Miami Beach…”
[See NBC News report and Mother Jones]

This undated photo courtesy of NASA shows Thwaites Glacier in Western Antarctica. Thwaites is about the size of New Mexico and Arizona together and is so connected to surrounding glaciers that it helps trigger loss elsewhere.

“I’d really like to do something to get us off fossil fuels. But, it all feels so hopeless. Our culture is killing off all these different species. The frogs are dying of a fungus we’ve somehow spread all over the place. But, when this climate breakdown gets really underway… They’re starting to call this the Sixth Extinction, but it isn’t a meteor taking out the dinosaurs this time. No, we’re causing it and we may well end up like the dinosaurs.”

“I know what you mean. The problem just feels too big. There’s just not that much we can do. I want to do something, but I just can’t think of anything that can work. The ice sheet melting is unstoppable no matter what now. But, this culture – it feels just as unstoppable to me. I mean, I’ll keep signing petitions and protesting Keystone XL and all that. But nothing feels like it makes a real difference.”

Change From Within, Change From Without

I don’t know about you, but I can’t begin to tell you how many conversations I’ve had that sound something like the one I’ve reported. But, not everyone is stuck in the mud, suffering from a stuckness of spirit like the women talking above. People who believe that the “system” can be changed from within know they have plenty of work to do. For example, where I live some folks are invested in the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, working to get a carbon tax passed by Congress and to convince conservatives that a carbon tax will benefit them . They may succeed. The ones I know have great determination.

Then there are the people who are determined to force change by applying pressure from outside the “system.” Some of them want specific major modifications (like not piping tar sands oil through the U.S.). Others are focused on broader revolutionary change. Again, near where I live, folks in Oklahoma with the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance have been using nonviolent guerilla tactics such as chaining themselves to heavy equipment to slow down the laying of tar sands pipelines . Some of these protestors have been camped out for what must be years now, dedicating their lives to stopping this environmental destruction. On an international level there is the 350 movement, organizing marches, demonstrations, boycotts and all manner of non-violent actions to attempt to garner the attention of powerful decision-makers across the planet. Another international movement, Deep Green Resistance, is in its early stages of organization and they are advocating an end to civilization, patriarchy and industrial society, including the use of violent action. None of these folks – the lobbyists, educators, non-violent protestors, or resistance fighters – are stuck in the way others of us are.

Trapped on the Ice, Stuck in the Mud

So, who is it that is stuck and why? Obviously there are people who are clinging to an old patriarchal world, powered by fossil fuels, distributing astronomical wealth and power to a small elite and distributing privilege to a middle class (and military) whose work and support keeps the system functioning. When I say we’re stuck, I’m not talking about the elite or the people who happily support the status quo. And, as I already explained, I’m not talking about the activists who lobby Congress or march on New York City or commit acts of civil disobedience and believe that these strategies will actually work. Nor, am I talking about the resistance fighters. It’s the rest of us. Call us the inactive activists. We know all too well how bad things are, from climate breakdown to biogenetic engineering to racism to nuclear energy to poverty to female sex slavery to extinction to ecosystem breakdown and you can name the rest, if you have room for the list. We’re conscious of at least some of these problems and, on one level or another, fighting, or at least hoping, for change. But, lobbying and protesting and even sabotage seem inadequate to the great change we know is needed. We know that changing light bulbs (a la Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth) or getting a carbon tax passed or even leaving the coal in the ground is not enough by a long shot. (You could stop all fossil fuel use today and the oceans would still be full or plastic and depleted of fish, the corporations would still be churning away turning nature into profitable products, men would still be raping and beating up women, and you get the picture.) We “inactivists” don’t have a strategy or even a vision for bringing about the level of social change needed to create societies that would nurture, not destroy, the earth (and us humans too). And maybe that allows some of us in the “developed” world to just take it easy, to do a little political work here and there, but to settle into enjoying our privilege and our earth-destroying lifestyles.

It’s hardly surprising we’re stuck given the depth of destruction created by globalized patriarchy, the failing natural systems, and the level of social change needed.

It’s hardly surprising we’re stuck given the depth of destruction created by globalized patriarchy, the failing natural systems, and the level of social change needed. The fossil-fuel driven, power mad, patriarchal world is self-destructing and that makes the whole situation overwhelming. Even the middle of the road three foot sea level rise prediction for this century will put some or all of major cities like New York City, London, and New Orleans underwater, not to mention huge sections of nations like Bangladesh and Holland, and entire island nations such as Tuvalu. How many governments are going to survive massive migrations as people flee areas made unlivable by drought, wildfires, storm surges, and permanent flooding? What happens when the glaciers providing water to the peoples of India, China, Peru, Bolivia finish melting away, causing rivers critical to billions of people to dry up? Which ecosystems are going to finally collapse as the extinction of that critical frog, micro-organism, or keystone predator comes to pass? What happens when the global food supply shrinks drastically due to a drought in a really bad location – say the main agricultural areas in China?

The globalized, industrial patriarchy will self-destruct, but will that happen quickly enough to stop the accelerating climate breakdown, loss of species, and loss of ecosystems (including the human-modified ones that produce food for 7 billion people)? What ways of life, social structures, technologies, economies, governments will replace the failing globalized and national systems? How can we stop this destructive way of life fast enough and come up with new ways to live? These are the kinds of problems that are overwhelming people who have plenty of political consciousness, but little to no faith in the ability of lobbying, marching, or civil disobedience to bring significant change to established political, economic and social systems. No wonder some of us are stuck!

Bottoms Up?

Back in 1989, EPA director William D. Ruckelshaus asked:

“Can we move nations and people in the direction of sustainability? Such a move would be a modification of society comparable in scale to only two other changes: the Agricultural Revolution of the late Neolithic and the Industrial Revolution of the past two centuries. Those revolutions were gradual, spontaneous, and largely unconscious. This one will have to be a fully conscious operation…”

Global society is faced with an enormous challenge – comparable in scale to the agricultural and industrial revolutions – and must make the big changes called for. Meanwhile most national governments and huge powerful corporations are, not surprisingly, resisting change, denying the extent or even the existence of the challenge we face. But, then, who would expect that the powerful, mostly male, elite who run governments and corporations, would want to shed their most treasured and central principles– domination and greed. Let’s face reality, Exxon is not going to cease its concern with providing a profit to stockholders (and millions of dollars to the CEO) in order to bring us back to 350 ppm carbon in the atmosphere. Some more truly democratic governments (unlike the U.S. where corporations control many politicians) may take some real measures to address climate breakdown (like the much needed carbon tax), but will never challenge capitalism, industrialization or runaway technological change.

What is there to do when you realize that a system based in domination and greed cannot address the problems that result from human practices of domination and greed? You can’t reasonably lobby that system or protest it because its investment in destructive practices lies at its very core.

The major institutions of modern society are all based in the exercise of “power over” or domination. They are top-down structures that use hierarchy to enable the people at the top to exert control over people below them and control over society. Our large-scale, top-down political and economic systems favor dangerous technologies that work with a large-scale, top-down approach. For example, most governments, especially in the developed and rapidly developing worlds, support and promote large-scale, industrial agriculture and not small scale market or subsistence farmers.

The activists who are lobbying and protesting governments may or may not lack full awareness of the extent of our problems, but they must at least have hope that those governments can adequately respond to the challenges we now face. Their quarrel is likely with specific laws or specific government or corporate activities and not with the top-down, power over structure of these institutions, the structure that generates all the problems. In contrast, those of us who are stuck do have a full understanding of the extent of the challenges we face, but lack hope that the top-down, power over “system” can respond. What is there to do when you realize that a system based in domination and greed cannot address the problems that result from human practices of domination and greed? You can’t reasonably lobby that system or protest it because its investment in destructive practices lies at its very core.

What actions are available to the activist once she realizes that the top-down system cannot rescue us? There are two that I am aware of: abolish the system or create a new way of living from the “bottom-up” that is based on “power with” and not on a top-down system (or power over/domination in any form).

January 24, 2010

My Fair Share

With “developing” and wealthy nations now battling over obtaining their fair share of global carbon emissions, the belief that all people will someday enjoy the standard of living of the wealthy nations has become an unmistakable fantasy. Human societies are already in overshoot, consuming the resources of one and a third earths every year. If everyone on earth were to consume as much as people in the United States, humanity would be consuming the resources of five planet earths and there would soon be little of nature – or us – left. Yet the rising and very numerous middle classes in rapidly industrializing nations such as Brazil, India, and China are joining the shopping spree. Meanwhile one fourth of humanity, 1.4 billion, live on $1.25 or less per day and are unable to meet their basic needs.

The belief that the poor nations and poor people of the earth would eventually catch up and enjoy an abundant standard of living has allowed well-meaning people in the wealthy nations to act as if their own high incomes and consumption were unrelated to the poverty of others. Now that the limits of the earth are at hand the question “What is my fair share?” is getting tough to avoid. I want an answer to this question. I don’t want to participate in destroying nature and I don’t want to be responsible for other people living with hunger. But, I do want to live. How much can I have?

heirloom corn

Stowell's Heirloom Corn from Seed Savers growing behind comfrey, astragulus, and sage plants.

To discover my fair share I started with statistics from the World Bank (World Development Indicators: 2008). The average per capita gross national income for the world in 2008, equalized by “purchasing power parity”, was $10,357. The purchasing power parity correction makes it easy to compare income in different countries, despite the fact that the same amount of money can buy much more in some countries than others. For example, you could buy half a dozen bananas in India for the same amount of money that would get you one banana in New York City (example from Norm Myers and Jennifer Kent in their book The New Consumers). The purchasing power parity correction rate for India is 5.35 (as of 2002). The international standard is the U.S. dollar so the same amount of money goes 5.35 times further in India than in the U.S. In other words if you are in the U.S. you can think of the $10,357 average world income as actual U.S. dollars. If you are in any other country, then you must use the purchasing power parity correction for your country.

But, the figure of $10,357 is the average gross national income, which is not the same as personal income because it includes things like the average amount of money your government spends on infrastructure. In 2008 gross national income in the U.S. was $46,970, but U.S. personal income before taxes was $40,189 and spendable income was $35,486 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, According to Myers and Kent, actual purchasing power for the world in 2002 was 60% of gross national income, corrected for purchasing power parity (and 70% for the U.S.). Let’s say then that my actual purchasing power would be roughly $6500 (somewhere between 60% and 70% of $10,357).

Whoops! What about Carbon?
But, wait! There’s a problem. At current levels of world income humanity is producing such a large quantity of greenhouse gases that we are threatening the continuation of human civilization and much of life on earth. The Global Humanitarian Forum, a think tank directed by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, estimates that global warming is already causing 300,000 human deaths per year. To reduce greenhouse gases either income and related production must be reduced from the current world average (meaning I’d get less than $6500), world population must drop significantly, or every dollar spent must result in much less carbon entering the stratosphere. Damage to the environment is commonly calculated by multiplying these three factors (i.e. Impact=Population x Affluence x Technology). Both population (.7% per year) and income (1.4% per year) are growing. The most palatable option for the world’s rich is the third option, commonly known as reducing carbon intensity.

Carbon intensity can be decreased by increasing efficiency (producing goods and services with less energy) and by using non-carbon energy sources like solar power. Over the past 25 years carbon intensity has improved by almost 23% worldwide. But, this downward trend has not been consistent over the years. Since the year 2000 carbon intensity has worsened worldwide. With worsening carbon intensity, increasing income, and increasing population the total amount of carbon going into the atmosphere has increased by 3.5% per year since 2000 (up from under 1% in the 1990s). This rate of increase is far higher than the rates assumed in any of the models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in making its predictions of future global warming. Even with the Kyoto Protocol, no part of the world has succeeded in diminishing its carbon emissions.

Prosperity Without Growth, a recent report from the United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission, has calculated the improvements in carbon intensity that would be necessary to offset projected growth in population and income between now and 2050 and still reduce carbon in the atmosphere down to 450 ppm. While in 2007 carbon intensity was at 768 grams of carbon dioxide per dollar we would need to get down to 36 grams per dollar by 2050. In other words carbon intensity would need to improve by 21 times! Remember that 25 years of technological improvements between 1980 and 2005 were only able to improve emissions 1.3 times (from 1000 to 768 grams carbon dioxide per dollar). This projection allows for slow income growth, but no equalization of income between rich and poor countries. If world income were to equalize at current European Union levels by 2050, allowing no income increases in the developed world, carbon intensity would need to diminish to 14 grams carbon dioxide per dollar, 55 times better than today. This last scenario presumes no income growth in the European Union, a loss in income for the U.S., and large gains in income throughout the developing world.

Prosperity Without Growth concludes that these levels of improvement in carbon intensity are not feasible and that economic growth cannot safely continue. Worldwatch attempted to put similar figures into perspective by pointing out that for everyone on the Earth to live at the EU levels expected in 2050 if “normal” growth continues we would need cars capable of getting 700 or 800 miles per gallon! It looks like even my fair share of $6500 is too much unless a revolution in technology dropped carbon intensity down to nearly nothing. Since new technologies take decades to come into common usage, the hope for such a revolution is just a fantasy, albeit a popular and dangerous one. The only other alternative – and this is just a personal solution – would be for me to find a way to spend my dollars on products and services that emit almost no carbon.

Shrinking Ecological Footprints
Carbon emissions are not the only constraint on growth. Globalized industrial patriarchy has been stripping the earth of every “resource” and is already butting up against other shortages such as water. The resource thieves in the “developed” world, myself included, must cut back their lifestyles. The world average gross income of $10,357 gives us a rough and too high upper limit and a clear message that drastic lifestyle cuts are called for since most people in the developed world have far higher incomes than this. Ideally, entire nations will take up the challenge to quickly dismantle their polluting systems and adopt new ways of life that involve far less consumption. While we as individuals are pressing for the massive social change needed, we can begin the process by changing own way of life and setting an example for others.

But, where to start? Whether setting about change at a national level or an individual level, a measure that quantifies how much different activities take from the earth is necessary. Here’s where calculating national or individual ecological footprints can help. With an ecological footprint analysis, the resources required to produce the specific products and services consumed can be estimated and translated into a land equivalent, measured in square yards, square meters, acres or hectares. For example, a pound of potatoes requires about 33 square yards of land if grown using industrial farming methods. The potato plants themselves use a small growing space, but the chemical input, farm machinery, and transportation to market all contribute to the footprint or land area required to produce the potatoes. Similarly, a kilowatt hour of electricity from the grid uses 31 square yards of land, while the solar equivalent takes under a third of a yard. A full ecological footprint for a nation or an individual is the land equivalent for everything consumed in a year.

In the United States the average ecological footprint for each person is 23 acres. But, if you divide the amount of productive land on the earth (2.8 billion acres excluding polar regions, deserts and deep sea) by the earth’s population of over 6 billion, the bioproductive land available to each person to produce everything consumed would be 5 acres. Therefore, in the U.S. we are each using 18 acres of land more than the earth can spare for us. These figures do not provide land for all the other species on the planet, so each person’s 5 acre allotment must be cut back further.

Jim Merkel’s excellent book, Radical Simplicity, provides detailed instructions for calculating your own ecological footprint, along with tables that show the land equivalent required for a wide range of products and services. As a longtime practitioner of radical simplicity Merkel has lived on $5000 and an ecological footprint of 3 acres of land for many years. His book describes scenarios for a life lived with a 1 acre, 3 acre, or 6 acre ecological footprint.

On 3 acres, an amount that is enough less than the world personal allotment of 5 acres to allow at least some room for wildlife, the sample lifestyle is far removed from that of the typical American. While plenty of veggies, fruit, beans and grains could be eaten, meat, dairy products, juice, and alcohol would be excluded from the diet because they require too many resources. The living space would be quite small (150 square feet or so) in a very energy efficient building such as a straw bale house. A very small allotment of fuel oil or firewood for heating would be possible. Transportation would be largely by bicycle or on foot with 50 miles of bus travel and a couple of gallons of gasoline allotted per month. Air travel would be impossible.

Returning to Traditional Lifeways: The Real Sustainability Revolution
If all of this sounds like returning to a third world way of life, then you are correct. The average ecological footprint of the low income nations is under 2.5 acres. The peoples of both Africa (3.4 acres) and Asia/Pacific (4 acres) consume less than their share of the Earth’s biocapacity while those in Latin America (6 acres) and the Middle East/Central Asia (5.7 acres) slightly exceed their share. People are obviously capable of living on less than a 5 acre footprint. Although some people in the global South have far too few resources, this does not mean that one cannot live well without overdrawing the Earth’s biocapacity. Deprivation results when traditional peoples have their ways of life disrupted by thefts of land, water, or other resources, as has happened to many, thanks to the powerful forces of first colonization and now globalization. Where necessary resources are still available and communities are left intact, traditional and truly sustainable ways of life continue (See Ecofeminism by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, 1993). The peasants and indigenous peoples still living largely traditional lives in direct interaction with the Earth and each other are the models that those of us living in the heart of globalized industrial patriarchy need. Although small scale, traditional cultures may (or may not) have problematic patriarchal social structures, these cultures are able to maintain the Earth’s fertility and health and do not require huge amounts of energy from dangerous energy sources.

People immersed in globalized industrial patriarchy view traditional ways of life as inferior because these lifeways have been the target of an enormous smear campaign since the era of European colonization and then the inception of industry. Traditional people (and this includes all our ancestors) leave the land and their traditions when the powerful forces of industrializing, colonizing or globalizing patriarchy take the land and destroy their communities. Forced into cities or other participation in the globalized patriarchy, the propaganda of the dominating culture eventually persuades most displaced people that the old ways of life are inferior or too hard. But, now it is time to reverse this process! We can recognize the value of traditional ways of life linked directly to nature and local communities, dismantle globalized industrial patriarchy, and build new subsistence cultures. The traditional lifeways of indigenous peoples, peasants of the global South, and our own ancestors are our models for sustainability. Many of these small-scale, traditional cultures are also models for equalizing distribution of resources and more equitable social relationships. Some have matriarchal social structures (matrilineal, matrilocal) and these cultures deserve the closest study. Low-tech, modern inventions like bio-intensive gardening and perhaps bicycling can also help us to build subsistence cultures, as can social practices like consensus decision-making and consciousness raising.

In contrast, the vision of “sustainability” put forward by most of the political and educated classes of the industrialized world leaves many of the deadly bases of the dominant society untouched: industrialization, consumerism, capitalism, inequity, domination, patriarchy. Almost all the books, government reports, and even non-governmental organizations proposing solutions to climate change assume that industrialized society must continue. They call for major changes in practice – energy efficiency, recycling, de-carbonizing energy sources, even sometimes for an end to inequity – but do not address the roots of the problem. How can a system based in domination (patriarchy) and greed (capitalism) and therefore dedicated to giving more power and more goodies to some people create equity among people and live in balance with the Earth? Why would a sane people who care for the earth want to gamble that an aberrant way of life can be reined in enough to preserve the climate when there are existing ways of life that have worked for our species for thousands of years? Perhaps there may (or may not) be ways to live with the earth that could include some benefits from modern technology, but revolutionary changes are needed, not a new consumerism and more of the same old patriarchy. Only by getting rid of the social elements that have created the climate crisis, poverty, and ecological overshoot – patriarchy, capitalism, domination, consumerism – will we save the Earth and save our Selves.

Writing about my fair share has not been easy, but the writing is the easy part. How will I ever get my income and ecological footprint down to a level that does not hurt the Earth and steal from much of humanity? One step at a time is my only answer. The largest part of our ecological footprint here at Cedar Hill comes from the miles driven in two four wheel drive vehicles, the firewood burnt for heating the house, and, to a lesser extent, the food we eat. Our automobile usage seems hard to modify at the present moment due to our remote location, rough roads, lack of public transportation and a commitment to eldercare for my mother. We are currently creating window quilts and sealing up the house more effectively to reduce firewood use. We’re also growing more of our food on site and moving away from trucking in garden inputs. Fortunately, reducing income does have a clear upside: less time spent working for money and more time available for fighting patriarchy, spending time in nature, and working and playing on the homestead!

January 5, 2010

Insanely Dedicated?

Filed under: Ecofeminism,Global Warming,Jeanne Neath,Patriarchy — Jeanne Neath @ 11:36 am

The lesbian feminist movement was sizzling, with formerly heterosexual women racing out of stagnant relationships with men and into the beds of their best women friends. This was the mid 1970s and I was going to graduate school in social psychology at the University of Kansas and undergoing huge life changes including a divorce, coming out as a lesbian, and then adopting radical lesbian feminist and lesbian separatist politics. No one suggested to me or to the thousands upon thousands of formerly heterosexual women that lesbian genes were required to be a lesbian. I stayed in graduate school for a little longer than an eternity because I was so involved in doing lesbian and feminist political and cultural work that I had little time and interest in my graduate studies.


Jeanne, age 32, in front of Spinsters Books, 1983

On graduation, with my PhD in hand, I continued working in a low wage horse tour job and devoted my best energy to Spinsters Books and Webbery, the lesbian feminist bookstore and women’s center in Lawrence, Kansas. My work at Spinsters was mostly unpaid and I lived with my Dalmatian and cat on about $500 a month in a small semi-finished garage. By 1984 I became somewhat dissatisfied with my life situation, not so much because of my low income, but because the feminist movement was cooling down and some of my friends had moved away. I continued on with the bookstore for several more years, but eventually I began to feel resentful and not properly appreciated for the work I was doing there. While I was living on a small income and devoting my best energies to Spinsters, other lesbians and feminists I knew were moving upward in their careers. My separatist and radical feminist political views elicited mostly defensiveness from much of the larger feminist community in Lawrence, though our collective at Spinsters held similar views. Eventually I had had enough of giving so much of myself to a fading feminist community. I no longer was receiving an adequate return for my work and I moved on to a new adventure, homesteading on lesbian land in the Ozarks.

Several years ago a young female student at Smith College interviewed a number of the lesbians involved with Spinsters and a local lesbian journal called Monthly Cycle for a class project in her “Queer Publics” course. This student had grown up in Lawrence and became interested in its lesbian herstory. Not surprisingly, from her postmodern, queer perspective she was unable to fully understand the motivation of the lesbians creating Spinsters in that very different era. Although she valued the contribution the lesbians of Spinsters and Monthly Cycle had made, the conclusion of the paper she wrote for her class implied that we were not quite sane. She seemed to agree with one of Spinsters’ collective members she had interviewed: the lesbians of Spinsters and Monthly Cycle were “insanely dedicated”.

As I look back now to my years at Spinsters I see quite the opposite. I admire the dedication that my younger self and her sister revolutionaries had. The problem, then and now, is with all of the women (and men) who aren’t dedicated to creating an ecofeminist revolution, who instead find their niche in patriarchal society, enjoy the rewards of overconsumption, and make their own contribution to destroying life on this planet. We did not give too much to Spinsters or to feminism. Others gave too little. If everyone, then and now, tried their hardest to challenge the patriarchal social system that is killing the planet and took only enough to live a quality life, then we could all be supporting each other with the gifts of our consciousness, our revolutionary fervor, and our lives of voluntary simplicity. We would create the life-loving and ecofeminist society we need.

In the 1970s it took a strong vision, like that provided by radical feminist or lesbian separatist theory, to be able to see how deadly patriarchal society was. We knew that the patriarchal society we lived in could not be reformed and we were committed to building an alternative ecofeminist society. At Spinsters we attempted, not always successfully, to manifest lesbian feminist revolution in our day to day work in the bookstore. We did not care about getting ahead in the larger patriarchal society because we wanted to radically change that society, not participate in it. To someone immersed in patriarchal society we may have looked crazy in our dedication. But, we already knew at that early date that patriarchy was destroying women’s lives and life on earth.

Global warming is now demonstrating to everyone who isn’t actively denying reality what we already knew back then. This society is deadly and has to be stopped. The kind of vision and dedication possessed by the radical lesbian feminists and lesbian separatists of the 1970s is what is needed now in order to stop globalized industrial patriarchy before it is too late. The results of this patriarchy’s practices are now clear for everyone to see. Thousands of the world’s top scientists are telling us that business as usual will have devastating consequences for humankind, plant and animal life, and the Earth’s ecosystems.

Unfortunately, much of the response to the problem of global warming is guided by the same patriarchal mindset that has created global warming. We desperately need to use the insights of radical feminist and ecofeminist theories and dismantle globalized industrial patriarchy. These radical ecofeminist insights can be used in conjunction with those of the world’s indigenous peoples, matriarchal peoples, and others still living close to the earth on the margins of patriarchal civilization. Those of us in the wealthy nations that have created global warming need to transform our own lives and our society, leaving behind our large incomes, our ridiculous overconsumption, our dependence on industry, and our domination of nature and other humans. We need to face up to the entirety of our problems. We need to insanely dedicate ourselves to creating an ecofeminist future, a future that ends domination, restores women to a central place in society, and returns the earth to the way she was before patriarchal civilization:

“From the air we breathe to the water we drink to the food we eat, every one of these has been altered from the way our ancestors experienced those things. The earth itself, when you pick it up and analyze it, is not the same. Everything has been changed. Yet if nature is sacred, it would be our mind to change it back to make it the way it was when it was supportive of life on the earth. This would mean to make the food the way it was, to make the water the way it was, to make the air the way it was, to make our bodies and everything on the planet the way they were, the way nature made them to be.” (from John Mohawk’s essay “Clear Thinking: A Positive Solitary View of Nature” published in Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future)

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.

April 19, 2009

Sustainable or Business Almost As Usual? (II)

Filed under: Ecofeminism,Jeanne Neath,Patriarchy,Subsistence Living — Jeanne Neath @ 12:11 pm

Part 2 of 3

Temporary clothes dryer

Temporary clothes dryer

Today I’m still worried, yet hopeful enough to stick with my subsistence activities and keep writing about my concerns. We don’t have running water on our homestead and do our laundry at a laundromat. This week I skipped using the gas drier and brought my wet clothes home to hang outside, even though it was raining. The weather radio had promised a dry, warmish day for Friday, the next day. My first activity Friday was to get the clothes hanging, but the weather turned out to be quite cold and very damp and felt like it could easily rain. I hung the small stuff inside near the woodstove and put my shirts and pants outside where it turned out they would not dry. Mid-afternoon I brought everything in the house where it did eventually dry, though things were congested around the stove. I’d probably have been better off with a more radical change – washing and drying a smaller amount of clothes entirely at home instead of washing a large amount all at once at the laundromat and assuming the weather was going to cooperate. Apparently Business Almost As Usual (BAAU) does not work so well even on a small scale.

BAAU (Business Almost As Usual) sustainability plans focus on changes in technology and efficiency without changing the root cause of environmental destruction and social inequity: globalized capitalist patriarchy. The BAAU approach to sustainability is so beneficial to powerful people in politics and business that no other possibilities for change are seriously discussed by government, the political class, or mainstream media. Decades of indoctrination against subsistence and rural living have made most of the populace in the developed world both completely dependent on society (e.g. food comes from grocery stores, not the earth) and scornful of rural life. Even environmental organizations like Worldwatch or Earth Policy Institute that are concerned with both environmental damage and social inequity propose BAAU plans to address poverty, global warming, habitat loss, and resource depletion, while failing to realize that their carefully crafted plans cannot and will not be carried out by a globalized, capitalist, patriarchal society whose very basis is oppression and theft from nature, women, and “developing” countries.

The leaders of the western world have been promising for decades that the “developing” world can “catch up” to the western “developed” world and many people in the West believe this promise. (See the book Ecofeminism by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva.) This “catch up” view ignores the fact that “advancement” in the developed countries is made possible by taking the natural resources, lands, and work of the people in the “developing” world. Who will provide the unpaid for and unaccounted for resources to extend western style abundance to the developing countries?

We are now seeing the answer to this question as several of the large “developing” countries, including China, India, and Brazil, have begun to catch up. Elites and middle classes in developing countries like these are moving to a western lifestyle while people formerly living sustainable subsistence lifestyles are forced off the land and into expanding urban slums. At the same time the inability of our living planet to support the level of pollution (e.g. global warming) and resource depletion (e.g. food and water shortages, diminishing oil supplies) for billions more people living a “developed” lifestyle has become apparent. The earth cannot support a new coal-fired power plant coming on line every week in China on top of all the carbon burning already taking place in the “developed” world. Likewise the earth cannot support a meat-heavy diet expanded to billions more people since livestock produce massive quantities of greenhouse gases as they eat and digest the grain needed to feel billions of people.

The idea that billions of people can catch up and live a western “developed” lifestyle is clearly incorrect. But now that the ecological truths have been revealed, the BAAU plans for sustainability still pretend that with greater efficiency, use of renewable energy, and new technologies billions more people could live a modified, “developed”, yet sustainable, lifestyle, all without changing the social underpinnings of patriarchy, class, racism, and capitalism.

Most people living a “developed” lifestyle have (so far) little interest in returning to a subsistence way of life. On the other hand, people living a subsistence way of life do not voluntarily choose development, but are forced out of subsistence when their land and ability to live are taken by the powers of globalized, capitalist patriarchy (See Ecofeminism by Mies and Shiva). These are not parallel situations. Development is not the all desirable good that people in the developed world have been indoctrinated into believing. People living in developed countries are so dependent on society, that the idea of living through direct exchange with the earth is frightening. We lack the knowledge and skills of our ancestors. Our dependence on globalized capitalist patriarchy is no accident. Most of us have ancestors who were once the peoples forced off our lands for the benefit of patriarchal powers. Think of the enclosure movement in England, the Appalachian farmers forced off the land by the coal companies, the genocide of Native Americans by Europeans taking over the U.S. Dependence on globalized capitalist patriarchy keeps us participating and supporting this undesirable social structure.

There must be a way to wash my clothes without a washing machine!

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress