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Gender, Peak Oil, and Culture: Part One

Have you noticed that so far all the major books on Peak Oil are by men? These good thinkers also seem to be mainly Caucasians, like this reporter. I saw the film “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream” again last year. I viewed it in a place where the majority of people are not of European descent. Hawai’i County is the most ethnically diverse county in the nation. It also has a long tradition of female leadership, going back to Pele, the Volcano goddess, and to its current woman governor. But those interviewing and being interviewed in the film appear to be exclusively men of European ancestry. This contrast stimulated this article.

Male Peak Oil authors have done a great service by bringing oil depletion to the world’s attention and documenting it with solid analysis and science. But some important things are missing. We could benefit from a greater variety of voices at the front of the growing Peak Oil awareness movement, as well as doing important work behind the scenes. More women and people of color could bring various perspectives on Peak Oil-related issues. We need more than persuasive facts, figures, logic, equations, projections and economic, mathematical and geological studies. They provide a solid foundation of information and data. We now need to get beyond what can be seen, measured, and described as the Peak Oil problem into the hands-on, practical work of creating local solutions within diverse communities.

What might women and people of different races, colors, nationalities, cultures, and ethnicities have to contribute to the growing awareness of Peak Oil and its potential consequences? How will they be impacted by oil descent? Would they tend to raise issues of family (called ohana in Hawaii) and relationships more? Would they be more concerned not just with clear thinking but with how people feel when they hear about oil descent? Would they tend to be less competitive and more cooperative?

I began this article over half a year ago. When I submitted a draft for publication back then, the timing was not yet right. Fortunately, things have evolved since then. My research in 2005 did not uncover any written material on the subject, so I interviewed people. Now at least gender is finally being discussed at the grassroots and on a few energy websites. I have not yet found articles on how culture, race, and ethnicity are related to Peak Oil. I welcome people emailing me at sb3@pon.net with any leads on or links to articles or their own thoughts on cross-cultural approaches to Peak Oil. Energy Bulletin is also planning to post additional articles on these issues, so please contact them.

Peak Oil work beyond scientific and academic communities is relatively new. Our dominant culture tends to assign public matters to men and personal matters to women. So far, Peak Oil has been perceived more as theory to be debated and as something public. However, it will soon become more personal as its multiple consequences unfold. The various issues that gender and culture raise should be addressed not only by women and people of color but by all of us, since they are at the core of crafting sustainable post-carbon societies that would not repeat the shortcomings of the past.

My thinking on these matters comes from decades of cross-cultural work, especially in Latin America, where I spent part of my childhood and later did graduate studies with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire on dialogue and what he describes as “cultural action.” Whereas some are mainly interested in the geological, political or economic aspects of Peak Oil, my main professional and personal interests are how it will impact cultures and sub-cultures. Men and women can be understood as composing distinct cultures or over-lapping sub-cultures.

WOMEN AND PEAK OIL

In various recent gatherings dealing with Peak Oil, localization, sustainability, community, and related issues, women have been talking among themselves and with male friends about gender issues. More women have recently gotten active in Peak Oil work and are speaking up, in addition to doing important work behind the scenes.

Gender was brought to this reporter’s attention in private conversations with Ann Weller of Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) in Northern California when she came to the Big Island to lead a workshop in the Fall of 2005. That workshop was organized partly by Yen Chin, who is of Chinese-Japanese ancestry, whom I have been working with in a group called Puna Beyond Petro. The conversations with Weller and Chin in Puna stimulated me and provided a context within which to consider gender and culture as they might relate to oil descent. Weller initiated a discussion about gender a few minutes after we met on the multi-cultural Hawai’i Island, known for its volcanic eruptions and its famous Pele. In a later discussion Weller posed the question, “What are the possible reasons for this lack of gender/race balance in the post-oil leadership? What can we do to restore balance?”

“Perhaps women and ethnic minorities are already very busy with urgent concerns, such as health care, unequal educational opportunities, urban violence, single parenting, etc.,” she noted. “Educational opportunities still favor Caucasian males, and especially in the sciences,” Weller added. She felt that “the dryness of the topic is not appealing to many women.” Weller lamented that “we seem to have made oil and money our God.” She advocated a different style of discussion within Peak Oil circles that would honor “the values of nurturing, creating relationship, and visions for our grandchildren.”

“I hope that the balance of gender and race in this discussion of Peak Oil can be restored soon,” Weller concluded in an email, “and that the values of brain and heart will find harmony, usefulness, and equality of emphasis. The ancients used to sit in circles for decisions and governance. Thus all points of view were seen as equal and needed to make a ‘whole’ vision.”

Johanna Macy is an engaged Buddhist and a powerful speaker, storyteller, and writer who adds considerable to the increasing awareness of Peak Oil, including a primary concern with compassion. She has joined with Peak Oil author Richard Heinberg to speak at various events. She brings unique spiritual and psychological perspectives, as well as a willingness to work cooperatively in teams.

“The End of Oil, Climate Change, and the Great Turning” entitles presentations Macy gave in Oxford, England, in May of 2005 and then elsewhere. “There are two kinds of responses to massive collective trauma,” observes Macy. “One is to contract—to close down in denial and fear, to tighten the heart and the fist. The other is to open up—open eyes, heart, hands, freeing the capacity to adapt and create.” Macy practices what some have described as “heart politics.”

“A revolution is underway,” Macy contends. “This adventure is what many call the ‘Great Turning.’ It is the epochal shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society. This is the context in which to view the end of oil and climate change.” Macy speaks about “the immense and painful challenges” that oil descent and climate change will bring. She suggests that if we “Fear Not and Touch the Earth” we will be grounded “in our mutual belonging.” This will “enable us to engage them wholeheartedly, with wisdom and courage…In that mutual belonging is our solidarity.”

Such thinking has what might be described as a feminine quality of being grounded in feelings. Most major Peak Oil authors to date are scientists, analysts, economists, and journalists. Macy applies a concern for “past and future generations” that considers the larger perspective of life itself. Such a perspective on generativity also has a feminine quality.

“The emphasis on science in the Peak Oil literature has been missing an important point that Joanna Macy weaves through her work,” Weller
notes, “that the underlying issue is actually a spiritual one, or more precisely—a lack of spiritual connection to the living Earth, other Beings, and to our fellow humans.”

Post-Petroleum Woman” entitles an essay by Prof. Carolyn Baker, an author and psychotherapist from New Mexico. It appears on the Adaptation website, as does related writing by the website moderator Paula Hay. Liz Logan has also written an essay “Women and Peak Oil” on her blog.

Baker’s essay takes a psychological approach to the “feminine principle,” which “resides in everyone, not just females.” She poses the question “How will Peak Oil affect women and how can we prepare for its effects on us?” Baker addresses issues of caretaking, food, healthcare, parenting, and living in community.

Other women active in Peak Oil leadership include Faith Morgan and Megan Quinn of The Community Solution in Yellow Springs, Ohio. They worked as part of a team of women and men in North and Latin America to produce the excellent new documentary “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.” The making of the film exemplifies creative cross-cultural collaboration and reveals how men and women working together as peers to document post-carbon solutions in Latin America can provide models for communities to develop diverse, local solutions in North America and elsewhere.

Peak Oil problems will be compounded by the excessive reliance upon petroleum in highly industrialized nations, especially in the United States. Yet it is the smaller countries and communities, such as Cuba and Sweden, that are already less dependent upon oil that are providing solutions and models for post-carbon societies. Mona Sahlin is the Minister for Sustainable Development in Sweden. In an official government publication of Oct. 1, 2005, she wrote that Sweden “by international standards has such a small dependence on oil.” Sahlin reports that the Swedish Government has set “a new policy target: the creation of the conditions necessary to break Sweden’s dependence on fossil fuels by 2020. A Sweden free of fossil fuels would give us enormous advantages.” She outlines how this can be done and concludes, “Sweden has the chance to be an international model and a successful actor in export markets for alternatives solutions.” It also models female leadership as it powersdown, to use the term employed by Richard Heinberg to entitle one of his Peak Oil books.

A neighborhood organizer in a local group--Jennifer York of Beyond Oil Sonoma County--suggests that we “re-examine our definitions of leadership and our beliefs about what roles are important. There are more involved women out there than you might guess. Their contributions will become very apparent when the glue of our current culture disintegrates. For instance, I see the work I do to build positive relationships within my neighborhood as building the warp and weave of our future culture, where we will undoubtedly need to depend on each other in unimaginable ways.”

York encourages us to “bring into focus the less-seen and undervalued ways that women are at the center.” She is also concerned about “group process in meetings. I think more awareness about who speaks, who doesn't, how much, etc. are really important to speak to from the start. There are numerous ways to equalize participation.”

One local group that addresses gender issues is Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy (APPLE) in California’s Sierra Mountains. Janaia Donaldson and Robyn Mallgren produce a weekly half-hour TV show called “Peak Moment: Community Responses to a Changing Energy Future.” Donaldson contends that “women globally meet primary needs for food, water, child-rearing, care-giving, clothing, and basic shelter.” She reports that in her rural community “Women have taken the lead in creating community gardens and organizing a ‘Come Home to
Eat’ event as a kickoff to forming a local food coalition. And women have influenced the group process to be inclusive, non-hierarchical, and responsive to feelings.” Donaldson has “been meeting folks in other localization groups and looking at gender dynamics,” and is “considering convening women in the movement to discuss our particular contributions and approaches. If ever there was a time for the feminine values and approaches, this is it.”

“What is missing for me in peak oil discussions is the emotional side,” commented Ellen Bicheler, an activist in various Sonoma County groups. “Peak Oil evokes a very emotional response from most people and we need to develop the tools to help people cope with the initial realizations and whatever evolves. We are going to have to adapt to whatever happens and that is going to take tremendous emotional strength. Part of that strength will come out of the acknowledgment of the fear.”

“Our food group is focusing on our gardens and in doing so I have reconnected with nature on a deep level,” Bicheler added. “I'm seeing the interconnectedness of us all again--plants, animals and earth. It is this connection that is necessary to sustain myself for the rest of the vital work ahead. Nurturing ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our community needs to be integral in peak oil discussions. The nurturing aspect can't be lost to the survival theme. They are intertwined. We need to be able to wrap blankets of emotional support around each other.”

When the masculine and the feminine work well together, they can get more accomplished then when they are apart, separate, and isolated from each other, or competitive and hostile to each other. Plus that, it can be more fun, especially if we are facing what James Howard Kunstler describes in his book as “The Long Emergency.” Working on potentially disastrous realities, such as Peak Oil and Climate Change, can be serious and lead to burn out. We could benefit from more Peak Oil/Climate Change humor. This could include embracing male-female and cultural differences as reasons for lightness and laughter, rather than for condemnation, blame, and judgment. Hawaiian humor and comedians, for example, are often quite off-color, and could be considered racist outside this multi-cultural context, but here they end up uniting diverse cultures through humor.

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, sb3@pon.net, studied “cultural action” in Latin America and has contributed essays to eight books on gender, including “Boyhood, Growing Up Male—A Multicultural Anthology.” He is currently moving back to his Kokopelli Farm in Northern California, after over two years teaching college in Hawai’i.)

Editorial Notes: Kudos to Shepherd for being one of the few to address the issue of gender roles in the Peak Oil movement. See also Carolyn Baker's Post-Petrolem Woman. The second part of Shepherd's series will focus on cultural perspectives on energy descent. I've been lucky to work with several wonderful women on the Joanna Macy inspired Heart of Peak Oil workshops, which explicitly set out to explore the emotional aspects of peak oil, to allow participants to walk away feeling more emotionally prepared to work towards solutions. It's an approach which really seems to be effective for most people. If you'd like host a workshop in your area as a way of exploring the issue of Peak Oil in a non-geeky way, or just like to know more, check out the GaiaVic website. -AF

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