Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

July 14, 2009

Subsistence and Resistance

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

Reform or Revolution?

Yellow squash plant

Lush yellow squash plant

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

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

Post-Patriarchal Living

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

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

Building Subsistence Cultures

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

Sweet corn, oats, comfrey, astragalus

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

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

Lina Sisco Bird Egg heirloom beans, Tomatoes

Lina Sisco Bird Egg heirloom beans, Tomatoes

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

Stop Globalized Patriarchy Now!

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

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

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


  1. Be careful with the straw mulch. I just read somewhere that overuse of straw mulch eventually causes a buildup of certian minerals in the soil. It’s probably the lesser of two evils though.

    Comment by Greta Fields — November 18, 2009 @ 5:37 am

  2. Touche.

    Solid arguments. Keep up the

    great spirit.

    Comment by Sammuel — November 11, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

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