Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

June 17, 2016

Earth In Danger! Climate Chaos and the Sixth Extinction

Filed under: Global Warming,Jeanne Neath — Jeanne Neath @ 11:10 am

The Paris Agreement of December 2015 reached an historic compact to limit global warming to 2ºC and to try for the even lower goal of 1.5ºC. Yet the current plans made by individual nations will cut emissions by only half the amount necessary. Each nation must put forth updated plans in future years in hopes that the 2ºC target will be met, but there are no legal requirements regarding how much each country should cut emissions, only that they publicly monitor, verify and report their activities. (New York Times, “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris”, Dec. 13, 2015). Some scientists consider the Paris Agreement bogus, including James Hansen, the prominent U.S. scientist turned activist, who told the Guardian, “It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘ We’ll have a 2ºC warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.” (The Guardian, “James Hansen, Father of Climate Change Awareness, Calls Paris a ‘Fraud’”. December 12, 2015)

Paris protest

Protest in Paris. Visit for more information.

Other scientists consider the 2ºC target unreachable. In its recent Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used a new method, the carbon budget, for assessing how much more carbon can be added to the atmosphere. The exact size of the budget is uncertain and controversial, but the IPCC estimated about 500 gigatons carbon (GtC), to have a two thirds chance of 2ºC warming. (IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, p. 27.) The amount of “permissible” CO2 is actually far less as there are other factors that can eat into the carbon budget, including future deforestation and non-CO2 emissions like methane, a relatively short-lived carbon-based gas that is twelve times more potent than CO2. If permafrost and/or sea ice thaw too much, vast quantities of methane could be released and bring us to one of the game-changing “tipping points”.

Emissions have grown dramatically since 1988 when climate change became widely acknowledged, despite efforts like the Kyoto climate treaty. The good news is that the growth rate for emissions has been dropping recently and it is possible that emissions for 2015 may be slightly below 2014. Still, this does not mean that emissions have peaked. There must be a rapid decline in emissions beginning very soon, a decline that will be fraught with difficulties. Richard Heinberg has written extensively about the problems of switching over completely to renewable energy, from intermittancy and storage problems with renewables, to low energy return on energy investment (EROEI), to the inability of renewables to provide the quantity and quality of energy available with fossil fuels. Heinberg concludes that renewable energy cannot “support our current growth-based industrial economy while saving the environment” and says we should ask “what kind of economy renewable energy can support”. (Resilience, “Our Renewable Future”, Richard Heinberg.)

Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester in Britain, points out that many studies modeling climate change are only able to produce 2ºC of warming by introducing “negative emissions” technologies like carbon capture and storage into their models. (Washington Post, Chris Mooney, “The Magic Number”, Nov. 29 2015.) Yet these are unproven technologies. Imagine a sudden carbon burp from gigatons of carbon captured and stored underground escaping! One group of scientists called for geo-engineering in a recent letter to The Independent. They said that the Paris agreement is far too weak to achieve the 2º C target and offers “false hope”:
“The time for the wishful thinking and blind optimism that has characterised the debate on climate change is over…. Our backs are against the wall and we must now start the process of preparing for geo-engineering. We must do this in the knowledge that its chances of success are small and the risks of implementation are great…We must look at the full spectrum of geoengineering. This will cover initiatives that increase carbon sequestration by restoration of rain forests to the seeding of oceans. It will extend to solar radiation management techniques such as artificially whitening clouds and, in extremis, replicating the aerosols from volcanic activity.” ( The Independent, “COP21: Paris deal far too weak to prevent devastating climate change, academics warn”, Jan. 8 2016.)

Then there is all the controversy about the safety of the 2ºC target. Under pressure from the island nations and their supporters, the Paris climate conference acknowledged that 1.5ºC degrees is a safer target. Yet we already have “dangerous climate change” with just a 1ºC rise in temperatures. Just ask the 14 million people of Pakistan who were left without homes after the flooding of the Indus River in 2010. Or those who lived through Katrina or Superstorm Sandy. The climate change resistance organization is so-named because prominent climate scientists say that we need to keep carbon in the atmosphere down to 350 part per million (ppm). But, we are already at 400 ppm. If the 2º C target is reached, carbon in the atmosphere will be in the vicinity of 530 ppm, a long way from 350ppm.

Climate chaos is only one environmental problem created by the disastrous way of life brought to us by the “male System”. Scientists tell us that we are beginning the Sixth Extinction of life on earth, due to human impacts as severe as the meteor that ended the regime of the dinosaurs.

Climate chaos is only one environmental problem created by the disastrous way of life brought to us by the “male System”. Scientists tell us that we are beginning the Sixth Extinction of life on earth, due to human impacts as severe as the meteor that ended the regime of the dinosaurs. (Time, “The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway and We’re to Blame”, Jeffrey Kluger, July 25 2014.) This time death comes from climate chaos, but also from pollution and the guns, bulldozers, chainsaws, and plows destroying wildlife and wildlife habitats. According to the Planetary Boundaries Framework, updated in a 2015 article in Science, two core boundaries have been crossed that can “drive earth into a new much less hospitable state”: climate change and the loss of “biosphere integrity” (which includes biodiversity loss, species extinction and the impact of humans on ecosystem functioning). Two more (non-core) boundaries have also been crossed: land system change, including habitat loss, and altered biogeochemical (nitrogen and phosphorous) cycles. Five more deadly boundaries are in the wings, including ozone depletion, ocean acidification, freshwater shortages, and aerosol loading in the atmosphere. The fifth boundary, the “introduction of novel entities”, we used to just call pollution, but now, besides worrying about organic chemicals, we are faced with radioactive materials, nano-materials and micro plastics. (Stockholm Resilience Center, “Planetary Boundaries 2.0 – New and Improved”.) The changes humans are making to the earth are so extreme that we are entering a new geological epoch, the anthropocene.(Time, “The Sixth Great Extinction Is Underway and We’re to Blame”, Jeffrey Kluger, July 25 2014.) What a legacy!

The governments of the industrialized world want us to believe that climate chaos and all the other assaults on the earth can be contained while business almost as usual continues. Preserving capitalism, economic growth and rich people’s wealth is their priority, not the earth! What shocked me about the carbon budget is that 500 GtC is just about the same amount of carbon that humans dumped into the atmosphere from 1861 until now. (IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, p. 27.) They want to double the damage done already! The “male System” is killing life on earth and must be stopped!

February 3, 2016

Mixed Economy = Subsistence Economy + Capitalism

Filed under: Ecofeminism,Economics,Jeanne Neath,Patriarchy,Subsistence Living — Jeanne Neath @ 2:54 pm

Faye, a 78 year old Inuit woman, was one of three elders left in the village of Wales, Alaska when Gretel Ehrlich visited there in midwinter of 2007. One evening Ehrlich braved the blasting snow and a windchill of 40 degrees below zero for a dinner at Faye’s house. Faye’s son provided the transportation: a snow-go (snowmobile) trip through town. Faye served a dinner of boiled reindeer meat and fermented bearded seal on pieces of cardboard. The beverage was meltwater from a nearby pond served in plastic cups. Dinner might as easily have been walrus or polar bear, year round staples provided by subsistence hunters. Reindeer meat is also a local staple, as domesticated reindeer were introduced to the Inuit by Christian missionaries in the late 1800s. Flounder was another menu possibility for midwinter dining, but Faye would have fished for the flounder herself. She described her fishing technique to Ehrlich. She’d go out onto the ice and build a small igloo to keep the wind off her back, then lay out flat on the ice with her head over a “lead”, an open lane of water, and spear the fish as they passed by. (See Empire of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich.)

Inuit woman ice fishing early 20th century

Inuit woman ice fishing near Nome Alaska in early 20th century

Dinner at Faye’s house, like the rest of Ehrlich’s stay in the Inuit village of Wales, was an odd mixture of Inuit tradition with the U.S. dominant culture, of a subsistence economy with the capitalist mainstream. An expensive gas-guzzling snowmobile delivered Ehrlich to a traditional dinner dish of fermented bearded seal served on throwaway cardboard that must have come from corporate activities in the village. This pattern was repeated throughout the village. The women still pick wild greens and berries and preserve the greens in glass jars filled with seal oil – a classic mix of subsistence and industrial goods. Subsistence hunting is still a major focus for part of the community, but it has become expensive. Hunters need to pay for snowmobiles, four wheelers, outboard motors and gasoline. Only a few dog teams are still used. There were still four full whaling teams that would set out into the Bering Strait for the spring and fall whale migrations, but instead of traditional skin boats, the whalers now used outboard motors. The whaling is more dangerous nowadays, though, because the ice is changing due to climate change. And some whalers speak only English, a language without the words needed to talk about subtleties in the changing ice.

The dominant culture has won out more completely in some sectors. As in other parts of Alaska, airplanes are the principle form of long distance transportation. You can, for example, order a pizza from nearby Nome and have it delivered to Wales by air on a regularly scheduled flight. Since the closest modern health care facilities are in Nome, the women of Wales fly there a month before they are due to give birth and stay until delivery. Midwives used to deliver the babies of Wales at home. The high school in Wales is a modern facility with central heat, flush toilets, computers, moviemaking equipment, a biology lab and art-making facilities. Most of the young people are far more enamored with electronic devices than they are with learning subsistence skills. But, the wealth of the dominant culture does not extend very far into this town of the Far North. There is little food available in the stores. Most homes and buildings are not insulated. Flush toilets are uncommon.

The Inuit peoples had a fully self-sufficient subsistence economy prior to the invasion of westerners. The villages like Wales in the (relatively) low latitudes had particularly rich cultures as life was somewhat warmer and easier there than in the extreme north. Now, the people of Wales live with a very mixed economy: part subsistence economy and part the economy of the dominant culture.

Mixed Economies

The indigenous economies of the Far North are not alone in being a mixture of subsistence and the capitalist market economy. As Rauna Kuokkanen says:

“Today’s indigenous economies often are mixed economies in which subsistence production continues to play a considerable role. Mixed economies are characterized by a mix of activities such as subsistence, commodity production, wage labor, transfers (social assistance, unemployment insurance, welfare, pensions, and other statutory or fiduciary payments), and enterprise.” (Kuokkanen, “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 221) )

In indigenous societies, the subsistence economy always predates the capitalist one which was inevitably imposed through nefarious means: conquest, colonialism, and “free trade” agreements between nations. The two economies often become well integrated. For example, cash from wage labor may be used to purchase materials and equipment needed for subsistence activities. Or, a hunter might trap and hunt animals for food (a subsistence activity) while simultaneously serving as a paid guide for outsiders (a wage-based activity). On the Upper Missouri River Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara women collect commodity foods and welfare benefits and then redistribute them throughout their communities. Sharing is a key feature of subsistence economies and these Native women continue that practice even though the goods come from the dominating economy.

“Subsistence is often considered the most reliable form of economy in the long run, whereas other forms are usually more short-term and unpredictable.” (Rauna Kuokkanen)

According to Kuokkanen, “subsistence is often considered the most reliable form of economy in the long run, whereas other forms are usually more short-term and unpredictable.” (Kuokkanen, “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 222) Not surprising! Capitalism’s goal is making a profit, not making sure everyone has their needs taken care of. But, subsistence economies generally provided all the basic needs of communities and a good life for all until capitalism interfered.

Most of the highly industrialized nations that currently dominate the rest of the earth are considered to have capitalist economies, but this is not an accurate belief. A great deal of subsistence activity takes place in every human community, not just amongst indigenous peoples. Even the wealthiest world economies are actually mixed economies and very dependent on subsistence.

What Is the Subsistence Economy, Anyway?

Gardening at Cedar Hill: Our wheelbarrow from the 1970s

Gardening at Cedar Hill, an important subsistence activity. Jeanne got this wheelbarrow in the mid 1970s when she was stabling several of her horses behind her house. We're still using this capitalist-made wheelbarrow in our garden and for hauling wood, water and everything else, in part, because nothing for sale at any of the stores we've looked at can compare. We've done major and minor repairs on it over the years.

As Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen explain, “Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation, and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose.” (The Subsistence Perspective by Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, p. 20) Subsistence activities include the production of necessities like food, but also the work involved in bearing and raising children and maintaining households. In industrialized societies profit-based enterprises typically take over many or most forms of production and, increasingly, many services (e.g. auto maintenance, hair care, dog boarding). But, even in the wealthiest capitalist economies, household tasks and the work of raising children are usually done in the subsistence economy. You can easily tell whether an activity is subsistence or not. If there is no formal exchange (of money or barter), then an activity is almost certainly subsistence.

Just think about all the work you do to keep yourself and your family functioning and that no one pays you to do! All of these tasks are part of the subsistence economy. You may buy groceries, but if you ever cook a meal at home,then the cooking is a subsistence activity. Other unpaid work you do yourself to keep your household running is likewise subsistence work: housecleaning, yard work, washing clothes, house repairs or improvements, and so on. Like the Inuit, you may at times use technology arising from the capitalist economy while performing subsistence labors (e.g., using a dishwasher or vaccuum).

If you are a woman and become pregnant, all the work associated with your childbearing and nursing is unpaid reproductive work and part of the subsistence economy (though the midwife or doctor you hire to assist in childbirth is part of the dominant economy). You would not be alive at this moment if your mother had not done the subsistence work of birthing you. You may do the many, many tasks associated with raising children: nurturing, feeding, playing, toilet training, teaching skills like catching a ball or knitting, providing transportation, and on and on and on. You may provide care for a family member or friend who is sick, aged or has a disability.

You may plant and tend a vegetable garden and provide fresh food for your household and perhaps even for your friends and larger community. Maybe you sew your own or your children’s clothes. Perhaps you have a “hobby” in which you create useful tools, furniture, quilts or other goods for friends and family. Or you hunt and fish and supply much of the food your family eats. Maybe you forage for wild foods: berries, cattails, acorns, hickory nuts, pawpaws.

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, is reported to have asked a group of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, “How productive do you think your work force would be if it was not toilet trained?”

If you work a paying job, you still do plenty of productive and unpaid activities on your time off. Think, what do I do that is outside the capitalist marketplace and that keeps my life and the lives of the people I love working well? Unless you are very wealthy and able to somehow obtain all your needs and desires from servants, employees, prostitutes, and corporate-provided services (a very lonely and dependent existence), your well-being, even your survival, depends on your own and/or someone else’s subsistence work. Some subsistence activities may by repetitious and boring (as are many of the jobs in the capitalist economy), but the work you do for yourself and the people you love can be deeply satisfying.

Relationships within the capitalist economy are always motivated, at least in part, by concerns such as making a profit, making a sale, keeping a job or advancing in the workplace. Only in the subsistence economy, where the only purpose is the creation, re-creation or maintenance of life, can relationships be authentic. This doesn’t mean that relationships are always wonderful in the subsistence economy – many are marred by patriarchy, white supremacy and other forms of domination – but they can be. Sharing and cooperation are central to subsistence and these practices build strong bonds between people and within communities.

Capitalism: The Parasite on the Subsistence Economy

The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy

The Subsistence Perspective by Maria Mies and Veronika Benholdt-Thomsen critiques capitalism and argues for an alternative: the subsistence economy and way of life. This is a classic feminist text.

Individuals in any capitalist economy are dependent on the underlying subsistence economy. But, the capitalist economy and the continual economic growth it requires are likewise dependent on the subsistence work of women and peasants and other supposedly “free” resources. In The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy, Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen explain this dependence, as I’ll describe over the next several paragraphs.

Marx theorized that capitalism originated following a period of violent acquisition, that this “primitive accumulation of capital” was the pre-condition for capitalism. For Marx, once capitalism was established, capital grew thru the exploitation of wage laboriers. In the 1920s, Rosa Luxemburg argued that Marx’s analysis was inaccurate and that capital accumulation depended not just on wage labor, but on the continual exploitation of non-capitalist resources, specifically peasants and artisans. Once the colonies were established, capitalism became dependent on colonialism.

Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen extended Luxemburg’s ideas further. While Marx accounted for ongoing capital accumulation and economic growth as due to workers being paid only enough to “reproduce their labor power”, and not the full value of their work, he did not take into account all of the life-producing and life-preserving work women did to create and maintain “labor power”. Women’s work appeared to be a free resource to Marx, other economic theorists, capitalists, and the state. Thus, capitalism depends on the “free” labor of women.

Based on their newfound understanding of what they called “housewifization” together with Luxemburg’s insights, Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen went on to develop their “iceberg model” of patriarchal capitalist economies. In the iceberg model, the visible economy of capital and wage labor (GNP) cannot exist without an invisible base of unacknowledged work and resources including: workers without a labor contract (e.g. homeworkers, informal sector, child labor), subsistence peasants’ work, women’s reproduction work and housework, colonies of the global South and North, and nature. Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen called these invisible elements at the base of the iceberg economy the “Colonies of the White Man”, with “white man” signifying the western industrial system. These Colonies of the White Man provided labor and resources free or nearly free of cost. The exploitation of these Colonies of the White Man was the only reason economic growth was possible. Thus, capitalism is only able to accumulate capital and create economic growth by the forceful conquering, acquisition and destruction of traditional subsistence economies and the ongoing exploitation of people’s subsistence work, including everything from housework, childbearing and child rearing to subsistence farming and production of handicrafts. Where would capitalism obtain its workers if women did not bear and raise children? Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen’s analysis makes it clear that capitalism is a patriarchal system. Without the ability to exploit women’s reproductive capacities and other labor, capitalism could not grow or even exist.

Every so-called capitalist economy is a mixed economy, but this does not mean that capitalism and subsistence are two equal economies, peacefully co-existing. Instead the capitalist economy dominates the subsistence economy and exploits subsistence work, but does its best to keep people unaware of the domination and unaware even of the continued existence of the subsistence economy. Capitalism pretends to be the only economy while simultaneously smearing subsistence as dirty, old-fashioned, and able to provide only a bleak, sad, deprived way of living. The strategy is to make people dependent on the capitalist economy and simultaneously unaware of the of how dependent capitalism and everyone in it are on subsistence.

Capitalism pretends to be the only economy while simultaneously smearing subsistence as dirty, old-fashioned, and able to provide only a bleak, sad, deprived way of living. The strategy is to make people dependent on the capitalist economy and simultaneously unaware of the of how dependent capitalism and everyone in it are on subsistence.

Meanwhile capitalism is continually expanding, taking more and more from the subsistence economy, people all over the world, and nature. Capitalism has been effective in its global quest to take land from rural people, forcing them out of their self-sufficient subsistence ways of life and into a life of poverty within the capitalist economy. Even where rural people in former colonies are able to remain on their land, they are often forced or enticed to grow cash crops for the world markets, instead of growing crops to feed their own families and local economies. The growing service economy is an example of capitalism’s tactic of increasing its scope within industrialized societies, this time by luring us into paying for work our parents and grandparents did for themselves. The capitalists want you to eat at McDonald’s instead of cooking your own meals. They want you to pay for a manicure, pay to have a party catered, and pay for your dog to go to Dog Party USA. As the service economy grows, the power of capitalism expands and the economy that produces life, the subsistence economy, diminishes. As capitalism sucks more and more people more and more deeply into its profit-making machinery, it is at the same time chewing up more and more of nature and churning out increasingly short-lasting, barely useful products.

Women’s Economy, Core Economy, Subsistence Economy?

Bushmen of Kalahari denied water by Botswana and getting fluids from watermelons

This photo from Survival International is of Bushmen being forced to rely on watermelons for vital fluid because of lack of access to boreholes on their ancestral land. Diamonds have been found on their lands and the Botswana government has done everything it can to keep the Bushmen off the land, including denying access to water. The contrast between a so-called 'primitive' society, the Bushmen, who live by giving gifts and a modern state that is so stingy it won't let the people indigenous to the land have access to water holes is eye-opening. The Survival International web site provides updated information on the status of the Bushmen's struggles and also tells you how you can help.

The subsistence economy has been called by many different names: the women’s economy, gift economy, love economy, and core economy. Each of these names emphasizes a particular aspect of what I call the subsistence economy. The names, gift economy and love economy, let us know that the economic relationships that take place in subsistence economies are based in caring and community, not hierarchy and profit. Gift giving builds goodwill within a close-knit local community, but also between communities. For example, the Ju/wasi (Bushmen) of the Kalahari in southern Africa traditionally gave each other gifts (xaro) to create ties within their own bands but also between different bands who, in times of need, depended on each other’s material support and goodwill. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explains just how extensive the practice of gift giving was among the Ju/wasi: “With the possible exception of certain articles of clothing (the Ju/wasi did not have spare clothes), almost every object in Nyae Nyae was subject to xaro, received as a gift from someone else, to be given as a gift to another person later.” (The Old Way: A Story of the First People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, p. 220)

The name, women’s economy, points to the way that capitalist economies typically employ men as workers, or producers of cash crops, while leaving women to carry out their traditional roles inside the subsistence economy – doing the work of the household including child raising, housework and subsistence gardening or farming. This dynamic, used in the capitalist takeover of many different cultures, has put money and power in the hands of men and increased women’s dependence on men, though also, in some instances, freed women to resist capitalism. I like the name, women’s economy, but it is time to end the men’s capitalist economy. Men are going to have to pull their weight in carrying out the work of maintaining Life, of subsistence. Hopefully, as men who are now deeply immersed in the dominant culture become grounded in subsistence economies, they will learn to relate using power-with, not power over, and regain connection to the natural world.

But, the women’s economy is also so-named by feminists because it is an economy of gift giving and nurturance, and nurturance is often the province of women. As Genevieve Vaughan explained in Ms. magazine in 1991,

The present (capitalist) economic system is based in “exchange, which can be described as giving in order to receive. The motivation is self-oriented since what is given returns under a different form to the giver to satisfy her or his need…This seemingly simple human interaction of exchange, since it is done so often, becomes a sort of archetype or magnet for other human interactions, making itself – and whatever looks like it – seem normal, while anything else is crazy… Exchange puts the ego first and allows it to grow and develop in ways that emphasize me-first competitive and hierarchical behavior patterns. The ego is not an intrinsic part of the human being, but is a social product coming from the kinds of human interactions it is involved in… The alternative paradigm … is nurturing and generally other-oriented. It continues to exist because it has a basis in the nature of infants: they are dependent and incapable of giving back to the giver…Since a large percentage of women nurture babies, we are directed toward having an experience outside exchange. This requires orientation toward interest in the other… Our satisfaction comes from her or his growth or happiness, not just from our own.”

Thus, the exchange relationships basic to capitalistm are ego-based and most comfortable to people with a “me-first competitive and hierarchical behavior” pattern – mostly men. An economic system based in gift giving and sharing suits people comfortable with nurturance – mostly women. Capitalism, based in exchange, domination, exploitation, and profit-making is an economic system that could only develop within a male dominated system – patriarchy.

Recently, the name “core economy” has come into common use, popularized by Edgar Cahn, the founder of the Time Bank movement. With his use of the word “core”, Cahn makes it clear that the subsistence economy is not a vestige of an outdated world, but is at the very center of the capitalist economy. According to Cahn, economists estimate that 40-50% of productive economic activities take place outside the market, within the core economy.

The name, “core economy”, obscures the power relationship between the capitalist economy and the subsistence economy. As Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen make so clear, the capitalist economy exploits the workers of the subsistence economy, making the capitalists wealthy at the expense of everyone belonging to capitalism’s invisible base. We need to shrink and then end capitalism, but some reformers in the Left want to find ways to use the “core economy” to help underfunded social services help people within a failing capitalist patriarchy. In Britain, for example, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) promotes “co-production,” a way for social service professionals and “clients” to work together to provide assistance in a community. The “clients” become peer providers. As explained by NEF:

“The need is clear – how to recognize the hidden assets that public service clients represent, and make public services into engines that can release these assets into the neighborhoods around them – and to do so even when public sector budgets are severely constrained whilst avoiding people becoming cynical about the role and motivation of the state.” (Co-Production: A Manifesto for Growing the Core Economy, New Economics Foundation)

The intentions of NEF seem good. They want to help people and strengthen the core economy:

“The idea of co-production points to ways we can rebuild and reinvigorate this core economy and realise its potential, and how public services can play a part in making it happen.” (Co-Production: A Manifesto for Growing the Core Economy, New Economics Foundation)

But, social services and social service professionals, like it or not, are part of the dominant economic system. Within that system, professionals inevitably have power over “clients” and power-with relationships are impossible. Social service workers cannot rebuild the core economy because, at least in their professional roles, they are outside the core economy. The core or subsistence economy can only be rebuilt by grassroots efforts and any efforts to utilize it by professionals may help some individuals, but co-opts subsistence and extends the power of the dominant economy. The dominant economy would like to fool people into thinking it is benevolent. But, we can’t afford to fall for that ploy. We must stop capitalism, not make it a little bit nicer. With the word, subsistence, we aren’t confused, thinking we just have two nice wonderful economies – core and capitalist – and isn’t it nice they can co-exist so well, ignoring the power relationships between the two and the devastation wrought by capitalism.

Subsistence is a word of power! Those of us ensnared in capitalist economies fear subsistence because we have been subjected to a lifetime of propaganda against subsistence. I use the word subsistence because it makes people in the industrialized world uncomfortable. As Starhawk points out in Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics: “the words we are comfortable with, the words that sound acceptable, rational, scientific, and intellectually sound, are comfortable precisely because they are the language of estrangement.” Estrangement is the consciousness of separation, separation from nature, other people, parts of ourselves. Estrangement is the consciousness that creates and allows domination, power over relationships. The subsistence economy is a gift economy and a women’s economy. These are all excellent names and should be used often. But, at a time when the runaway consumption of a crazed capitalist economy is creating rising seas, deadly droughts and razed mountaintops, a focus on subsistence, on an economics of Life is critical.

Conclusion: Ecofeminist Transformations in Troubled Times

Compost pile

Compost is one of the critical needs of an ecofeminist society. If we want life to continue we need for each of us to do the subsistence work of building the soil. We can caretake the earth, each of us helping to restore small areas of land and eliminating toxic industrial agriculture. The pitchfork is the same vintage as the wheelbarrow pictured earlier.

As Bennholdt-Thomsen explains, “Subsistence is the sum total of everything that humans need to survive: food and drink, protection from cold and heat, caring and company. If subsistence needs are met, life can continue.” The globalized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy continues to take more and more from our planet, more than she can possibly give, and convinces many people in the middle and even working classes that we each need more and more. We have taken so much that we are now in great danger from climate chaos, deteriorating ecosystems, and a failing economy that can’t be trusted by ordinary people. If you pay any attention to all to the mainstream discussion of climate change, you’ll notice that much of the talk is now about adaptation to climate change, making communities more resilient in the face of an unknowable future of climate disasters and repercussions cascading across the globe. Because most governments in the industrialized world have failed for close to 30 years (and are still failing) to stop use of fossil fuels, the looming question is how do we survive the forces that have been set in motion. We need to focus on survival, not on getting more and more stuff. Meeting survival needs – and meeting them well – is what subsistence economies are made to do.

We are fortunate that we do have mixed economies and aren’t just stuck with capitalism! We don’t have to start from scratch and re-invent a whole new economy. We already have a great base – the subsistence economy – to work from. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism. But as Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen tell us, “Subsistence is the alternative.” The task at hand, economically speaking, is to grow our existing subsistence economies and shrink capitalism down to nothing.

We can each of us start right now. We make dozens of choices every day about what we buy and do – and don’t buy and don’t do. We can choose: capitalism or subsistence economy? Capitalism or subsistence economy? What do you want? As individual women we have great power to make changes.

But, that power can be magnified by working together to rebuild our subsistence economies and local communities. A grassroots Transition movement is currently afoot globally to make the shift off of fossil fuels in local communities and pare down consumption. But, we can use ecofeminist values and understanding to create Ecofeminist Transitions that rebuild local communities and restore nature, eliminating domination in all its many forms. Obviously women must take power if we are to eliminate patriarchy. But, the power we take must be that of power-with, not power over, so that the communities we build are liberated from white supremacy, male domination, scarcity and wealth inequality, and all the oppressions we presently suffer. Building the subsistence economy and our ability to survive and survive well is key to the Ecofeminist transformation of society.

January 10, 2016

Subsistence Economy & Culture: Path to Nature Knowledge & Connection

Filed under: Economics,Jeanne Neath,Patriarchy,Subsistence Living — Jeanne Neath @ 9:58 am

As a child of ten Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan, learned – perhaps not for the first time – what her elders thought of the “newcomers”, the people of the dominant culture. Armstrong was sitting on a hillside on the reservation with her father and grandmother and they were all looking down at the town in the valley below. A breeze cooled the hill, but the valley was hot and dry with a smoky haze hovering over the town. The trio could hear the grind of the sawmill at the edge of town and cars honking as they crept along the highway below.

Jeannette Armstrong

Jeannette Armstrong honored as the recipient of the 2003 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award for her work as a community leader, educator and indigenous rights activist.

Armstrong’s grandmother said (in Okanagan):

“The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane.”

Her father seconded his mother, saying (also in Okanagan):

“It’s because they are wild and scatter anywhere.”

Armstrong tells this story in her essay, “Keepers of the Earth” published in the anthology Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. She goes on to explain what her grandmother and father meant about the dominant society by their comments, describing the Okanagan view of the self and its integral relationship to community, land and spirit. You’ll want to read Armstrong’s essay to get her full translation and explanation of her grandmother’s and father’s comments.

As one of the “newcomers”, a probably all too “insane” descendent of the European invaders, my comprehension of the Okanagan perspective is certainly limited. But, I’d still like to talk about my understanding of Armstrong’s father’s explanation that the people of the dominant culture are “dangerous” and “insane” because they are “wild and scatter anywhere.” I do so because the Okanagan worldview can be so helpful in giving direction to those of us working to resist, transform, or replace the dominant culture.

Okanagan Worldview

As Armstrong explains, Okanagans are a deeply connected people – to family, community, land and spirit. The individual self is not considered primary and people make choices based on the wellbeing of community and family over self. Belonging to community and family is a given for every Okanagan and to not have community is to be “scattered or falling apart”, incapacitated, not fully human.

Community extends to the land which is not considered to be separate from humans. The human body is the Earth itself:

“…the flesh which is our body is pieces of the land come to us through the things which the land is. The soil, the water, the air, and all other life-forms contributed parts to be our flesh. We are our land/place..” (p. 323)

Even the Okanagan language is intimately related to the land, believed to be the “language of the land”, taught to the people by the land. The great knowledge of the people about the land – the plants, animals, seasons, geography – called forth the construction of the Okanagan language.

Armstrong translates her father’s explanation that people from the dominant culture are “dangerous” and “insane” because they are “wild and scatter anywhere” to mean:

“Their actions have a source, they have displacement panic, they have been pulled apart from themselves as family [generational sense] and place [as land/us/survival].” (p. 319)

Connection to the land is considered essential for survival by the Okanagans and anyone without this embeddedness in place is considered “wild”, “a thing that cannot survive without special protective measures”, compelling “all other life forms to displacement and then ruin.” Without the bonding of individual selves and communal selves to the land, Armstong says:

“…we are not human: we yearn; we are incomplete; we are wild, needing to learn our place as land pieces. We cannot find joy because we need place in this sense to nurture and protect our family/community/self. The thing Okanagans fear worst of all is to be removed from the land that is their life and their spirit.” (p. 323-324)

What does the Okanagan perspective mean for those of us resisting and working to transform or replace the dominant culture? It’s clear that the many band aids we attempt to apply are inadequate. A switchover to renewable energy, for example, will not address the extreme disconnection of most people from long-term community and from the land they live on. Alienation runs deep for those of us whose primary or only culture is the dominant culture. Despite my own deep desires to connect to the earth, I’m not sure I can, even now, fully conceive of my body as the Earth, “pieces of the land.”

No Question, But It’s Displacement and Ruin

Missouri Primrose

What native plant is this? Hint: It is native to the Ozarks and related to Evening Primrose. The flowers measure four inches across.

I’d have to agree with Jeanette Armstrong that the people of the dominant culture are badly displaced from both land and community. Urbanization, including the movements of vast numbers of people in the global South into urban slums, makes it very difficult for many people to bond with a specific area of land or even connect to nature at all. Alienation from the land is common even in rural communities. For example, in one community in the Sonoran desert (near the U.S. Mexico border) the majority of children had never spent more than a half hour alone in a wild place (58% of O’odham children, 100% Yaqui, 53% Anglo, 61% Hispanic; Survey by Gary Paul Nabhan). When the O’odham and Yaqui children were asked to name 17 local plants and animals in their native language they could name fewer than five, on average. These are children from Native American tribes who many would assume to be closer to nature than many other Americans. These children were far less knowledgeable than their grandparents who named over 15 of the 17 plants and animals correctly, on average. Even the most elementary knowledge about nature is deteriorating from generation to generation.

Community has been lost among people in the industrialized world where the extended family is long gone for many families, and large numbers of children grow up in a home with a single adult. Frequent moves over large distances are considered normal for middle class people, while upper class people commonly have more than one “home.” When you don’t even live in one place your whole life, how can you see yourself as made up of the land and a part of a land-based community? Technological and social changes are occurring so rapidly that new generations of adults often have little in common with their predecessors other than (weakened) family bonds.

People in industrialized societies certainly need “special protective measures” to survive. Where would we be without the corporations, retail stores and utilities that provide us with food, water, electricity, heat, clothing, tools, medicine and all the many luxury items of modern lives. As the “service economy” expands people buy more and more from the capitalist economy and lose ever more survival skills. It’s not uncommon for people in the dominant culture to be completely unable to cook, garden, sew, or even navigate from place to place (without GPS).

I’d also have to agree with the Okanagans that the dominant culture is compelling all forms of life to “ruin”. Climate breakdown, war, industrial agriculture, continued globalization and so-called development are forcing more and more peasants and indigenous peoples off their lands and into fractured lives in refugee camps, factories and urban slums. These same forces destroy the habitats of many plants and animals and are now driving the earth into the sixth major extinction of her long history. Climate change has the potential – eventually – to bring the dominant culture to its knees, a likelihood increasing each year that passes without a significant planetary drop in fossil fuel use.

Tar sands devastation

Tar sands excavation. In Alberta, Canada an area the size of Florida holds deeply buried tar sands, a tarry substance made up of sand, clay and heavy crude oil. To extract this stuff oil companies basically strip everything from the earth over huge areas of land. In the process, waters are poisoned leading to sickness among the local people including a number of First Nations peoples. Wildlife suffers as well: the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation reports that the Cold Like herd of woodland caribou have already declined 74% since 1998, while the Athabasca herd has declined 71% since 1996. Today, just 175 – 275 caribou remain and extinction is on the horizon for these magnificent animals, unless we stop the oil companies and the Canadian government. The tar sands oil requires massive amounts of energy to extract, far more than conventional crude oil. Burning all this unconventional oil would result in so much carbon in the atmosphere that climate change would reach disastrous levels.

Jeannette Armstrong’s perspective, as an indigenous woman, on what ails the dominant culture and the people embedded in that culture takes the discussion on sustainability to important ground. In the industrialized world most of the discussion on climate change assumes that it is desirable for the dominant culture – an industrialized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal civilization – to continue more or less in its current form, but with fossil fuels replaced with renewables. But, when you gaze at this dominant culture through an Okanagan worldview you have to wonder. Why in the world would anyone want to continue this civilization that takes from people everything of importance: connection to (extended) family, community, the land, spirit? Most of the people of the dominant culture are – understandably – stuck in their own perspective, a perspective created by a civilization that is doing its best to kill much of life on earth, including perhaps human life. We desperately need to hear the voices of people, like Jeannette Armstrong, who are far enough outside the dominant culture to see that the problems created by that culture are not going to be solved by a quick fix of massive amounts of renewable energy.

Subsistence Economy: The Cure for Displacement

How do we end the “wildness” and ongoing displacements that Armstrong talks about and regain connections to land and community for both people in the dominant culture and indigenous peoples more recently forced from their lands? The answer obviously includes restoration of productive land to people who have been driven or enticed from their lands (or whose ancestors were, as is the case for most of the people of the dominant culture). But, being on the land is not enough. Farming to grow cash crops does not create connection. Only a subsistence-based relationship to the land can regenerate community and an intimate relationship to nature and the land, as we will see.

What is a subsistence economy anyway? Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen explain that:

“Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation, and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose.” (p. 20, The Subsistence Perspective)

Subsistence economies are based in human communities directly interacting with nature and each other to provide for human needs. No profit is involved. In The Subsistence Perspective, Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen agree with Ivan Ilich that:

“[T]he war against subsistence is the real war of capital, not the struggle against unions and their wage demands. Only after people’s capacity to subsist is destroyed, are they totally and unconditionally in the power of capital.” (P. 19, The Subsistence Perspective)

In the industrialized world capital has pretty well won the war against subsistence and almost everyone is dependent on the capitalist economy for survival. In addition, most fully believe the propaganda that tells them that a subsistence economy provides a wretched way of life, filled with deprivation and misery. As Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen tell us:

“For the men and women who profit from the war against subsistence, ‘subsistence’ spells backwardness, poverty, and drudgery. For the victims of this war it means security, ‘the good life’, freedom, autonomy, self-determination, preservation of the economic and ecological base and cultural and biological diversity,” (The Subsistence Perspective, p. 30)

Although people in the developed world resist capitalist patriarchies, most do not want a subsistence economy instead, but rather a nicer, more egalitarian capitalist democracy powered by renewables or maybe even a fully industrialized socialism. The primary exception is in the indigenous peoples of the industrialized world who often have a mixed economic base – part subsistence economy, part capitalism – and have been able to preserve parts of their traditional cultures, developed when their economies were fully based in subsistence.

Protests against Coca Cola bottling factory in India

The photo shows a protest in 2006 of over a thousand villagers protesting at Coca-Cola's north India headquarters in Gurgaon. Indian villagers continue the struggle. In late 2015 eighteen village councils (panchayats) in the immediate vicinity of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mehdiganj in Varanasi district in India came together to demand that groundwater use by Coca-Cola be stopped immediately due to the growing water crisis in the area. There are sharp drops in groundwater in the areas surrounding the plant.

The war against subsistence has not (yet) been won in the global South where in some places subsistence economies provide many of the necessities of life. Often the men of a community are purposefully lured by the forces of capitalist patriarchy into growing cash crops or in some other way participating in the capitalist economy, while the women continue growing food to feed their families and carrying out other subsistence work. In many places, women lead the resistance against the invading economy because their work is still primarily done in the subsistence economy and the incursion of capitalism makes that work more difficult. For example, a factory may pollute or use up the water, making the women’s work to collect water much more difficult. The factory is an unmistakable threat and makes resistance imperative. The women are able to resist because their subsistence way of life gives them considerable autonomy and economic self-sufficiency. Their independence from the capitalist, patriarchal economy leaves them free to see what it brings to them – loss of their land, environmental disasters, and “patriarchal, colonial control over women, means of production and the land.” (The quote is from Rauna Kuokkanen, see below.).

In order to regain our connections to the natural world and to human communities and to regain sanity, we must rebuild subsistence economies and cultures in both the global South and the industrialized North. As we build subsistence economies that produce life instead of death, we will gain independence from the dominant economy. This independence will put us in a much better position to accurately see and resist the globalized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy without feeling that we cannot live without it. As Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen have pointed out, there is an alternative to capitalism: “Subsistence Is the Alternative.”

Subsistence: Far More Than an Economy

Subsistence economies connect people to the land and to each other because the survival of the community and well-being of the people depends on these connections. But, as Rauna Kuokkanen, Associate Professor of Political Science and Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto, explains, subsistence is far more than just an economy. In traditional societies subsistence involves a highly integrated economic and social system. For example, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference explains that subsistence is:

“… a highly complex notion that includes vital economic, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions… Subsistence means much more than mere survival or minimum living standards. It enriches and sustains Inuit communities in a manner that promotes cohesiveness, pride and sharing. It also provides an essential link to, and communication with, the natural world of which Inuit are an integral part.”
(Quoted by Kuokkanen “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 219)

Kuokkanen further explains the centrality of the subsistence economy to indigenous identities and indigenous cultures:

“If indigenous economies are not taken into account, there is a serious danger of losing the very identities that constitute indigenous peoples. Indigenous economies such as household production and subsistence activities extend far beyond the economic sphere: they are at the heart of who people are culturally and socially. These economies, including the practices of sharing, manifest indigenous worldviews characterized by interdependence and reciprocity that extend to all living beings and to the land. In short besides an economic occupation, subsistence activities are an expression of one’s identity, culture, and values.”
(Quoted by Kuokkanen “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 217-218)

In other words, when a community provides for its physical needs via subsistence activities and a subsistence economy, that economy has far reaching effects on the peoples’ relationships with one another, their cultural practices, identities, and relationship to the land that provides sustenance. These relationships are in no way surprising. Think of the many ways that capitalism impacts the societies that embrace it – mobility, fragmentation of communities, urbanization, exacerbated inequality, destruction of nature and so on. The idea that material conditions and mode of production shape culture is a well established perspective in anthropology and sociology.

Subsistence: The Key to Nature Knowledge and Connection

Indigenous knowledge, including particularly nature knowledge, is acquired and preserved through subsistence activities. As Kuokkanen explains:

“Indigenous economies are thus contingent upon a stable and continuous relationship between the human and natural worlds. Knowledge of taking care of that relationship has traditionally been an integral part of social, economic, as well as spiritual structures and practices. In other words, there is a crucial link between subsistence and indigenous knowledge. Eugene Hunn notes that indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge ‘is a consequence of subsistence-based production’ and that ‘we cannot preserve the one without preserving the other’. Individuals and communities acquired special knowledge, skills, and a complex understanding of the local environment through their various subsistence activities. It is this knowledge that ‘enables the people to live directly from the land.’”
(Quoted by Kuokkanen “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 219-220)

Kalahari wildlife

The Botswana government does everything it can to prevent the Zhun/twasi from living their subsistence lifestyle. While tourists are allowed to hunt, the Zhun/twasi are greatly restricted from following their traditional lifeways. While a lodge for tourists in the middle of the desert has a swimming pool, the Zhun/twasi are continually fighting in court to have access to a simple water hole. Visit Survival International to find out ways you can help the Zhun/twasi in their ongoing fights with Botswana.

Let’s look at a concrete example of how knowledge of the land is essential to the subsistence and survival of one indigenous group. The Zhun/twasi (Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa lived a gatherer/hunter subsistence lifestyle exclusively well into the 20th century. Deep knowledge of their desert lands was essential for daily survival. In the Dobe area to the north, people knew 85 plant species suitable for food and 54 animal species. In the central Kalahari, pools of rainwater were available for at most two months of the year. Plants were not just needed for food, but as a main source of fluids for much of the year. It was a matter of life or death to know that a particular type of plant could provide water, and even to know and remember the location of individual water-storing plants. There was no guarantee that there would be enough water, enough of the necessary plants; the Zhun/twasi did sometimes die of dehydration. Imagine what skills and knowledge you would need to learn to find and prepare for eating 85 species of native edible plants where you live. The Zhun/twasi knowledge of animal tracking is similarly legendary. Trackers from the U.S. now travel to the Kalahari on ecotours to learn tracking skills from people who track to eat, not as a hobby.

The desert homeland of the Zhun/twasi is a more challenging environment than many places, but when people live by subsistence all of their needs are met by their ability to work with nature and with each other. Just as people in the dominant culture are attuned to their bosses moods, trash pickup times, or due dates for the utility bills in order to obtain their necessities, with subsistence people must connect to natural and human communities. These connections provide the means of survival, but also provide an authenticity and quality of life that eludes people in industrialized societies.

Imagine a life where the people around you are not continually putting themselves first, where community is valued more than the self, and you know that you will always belong to this community, that you will be taken care of if you need help, and that your contributions will be recognized and valued. Imagine slowing down to the speed of nature at “baseline”, noticing every change in the wind, knowing the meaning of the bird calls surrounding you, being so peaceful and quiet in your own mind and body that the animals around you barely notice your presence. (See Part 2 and Part 3 of my blog Power With Nature:Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life.) Imagine knowing the land you live on so well that your community can provide for all of its needs from that land and live well for generations to come.

The Path to Subsistence

Subsistence living is feared by most people in the dominant culture who are dependent on and attached to the way of life they are used to. Meanwhile these same people are missing out on the best life can offer due to their severed connections to Earth and each other. And the dominant culture is threatening the survival of that culture and of life on this earth. “Subsistence is the alternative”, but most people won’t even consider it. What a mess! Is there a way for people to regain knowledge of the earth and connection to her without a return to subsistence and the everyday interdependence with the earth that subsistence living requires? Is there a way to treat the earth carefully and respectfully without that everyday interdependence?

Most of us are not going to be able to grow close to nature and to each other while living in a society that pulls us apart from one another while grinding up the earth and spitting out dead wildlife, dying ecosystems and embattled indigenous cultures. This is too painful and too difficult. Perhaps certain determined individuals can find a way to truly know and connect to the earth while living in the midst of an earth destroying culture. I do know of people in industrialized societies who have been able to increase their awareness of and love for nature through learning the awareness skills of gatherer/hunters (as taught by schools such as The Tracker and Wilderness Awareness School). And certainly there are an ever-increasing number of dedicated environmental activists emerging as the planet overheats and the theft of lands from indigenous peoples and wildlife escalates. But, the level of change we need cannot be made by individuals alone. Most people are not mavericks and never go very far in testing the bounds of their society. And, anyway, what we need is mass movement and thriving communities.

To move to the kind of deep embeddedness in land and human community that Jeannette Armstrong talks about we need a far different economic and social structure, a very different society than this globalized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy – and actually many societies to fit into the many bioregions of this Earth. Subsistence is the social/economic arrangement that creates deeply connected human communities that are embedded in nature, and it has done so throughout our time on Earth. Subsistence is not the sole answer we need – subsistence societies can be patriarchal and hierarchical – but we had best figure out how to see past the propaganda against subsistence and instead value its millenia long track record. Short of a complete collapse (certainly a possibility), the dominant culture is not going to suddenly give way to subsistence. But, a turn toward a subsistence economy and culture does not have to be an all or nothing solution, as we will see in the discussion of “mixed economies” in an upcoming blog. There is a path, perhaps even a gentle path, from the devastation of this society to a subsistence way of life where no one will have to say of us, “The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane.”

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)

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