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Gender, peak oil and culture: part 2

(This is the second in a series. Part One focused more on gender, especially the growing contributions of women to Peak Oil work. This part focuses more on culture and includes some responses from readers to Part One. Part Three will focus on men and women of different cultures “Working Together” on our common problems and opportunities as energy descent gradually unfolds and will include more reader comments. Please send your candid responses to either Part One or Two to [email protected].)

The multi-cultural Hawaiian Islands provide a context for doing Peak Oil work that differs markedly from that of the continental United States. Hawai’i is where East and West meet. The bloodlines of its population are numerous, with more Asian ancestry than all the others cultures combined. In recent years Native Hawaiians have been challenging their colonial legacy with greater vigor. Each country, continent or island, region, city, town, or rural area provides a unique local cultural context for dealing with energy descent, a global reality that must ultimately be deal with locally.

Women in Hawai’i tend to be strong, inspired by Pele, the volcano goddess. The Puerto Rican/Cuban sociologist Prof. Noelie Rodrqiuez teaches at the Hawai’i Community College. Last semester Rodriquez team taught a large “Community Development” class where she used the new film “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil,” described in Part One of this article.

Rodriquez reports teaching about “the individualism and isolation that make people vulnerable to the corporate/government media that sells fear, militarism and consumerism.” She contends that “the antidote to this is grassroots community development. The human struggle is actually about creating meaning and connection to one another. We could do with much less stuff if we belonged to more egalitarian communities that provide affection as well as basic material needs. There would be greater peace and happiness. It's all about creating real community." The genuine solutions to the consequences of oil descent will not be based on fear, Rodriquez contends, but upon the building and strengthening of caring communities.

One of my primary teachers here has been the Native Hawaiian Prof. Manu Aluli Meyer. She brings an indigenous perspective to her work and observes, “Indigeneity and activism is the same word. Native Hawaiians are pushing all boundaries in every sector because we are the guardians of land and sea. It is our blood source. Now, the question is not whether to participate in these issues, we are doing what we can...the question is how to be creatively effective as we enter a new era of ignorance and fear. Mau kealoha no Hawaii. Love, always, for Hawaii.”

Prof. Aluli Meyer authored the book “Ho’oulu: Our Time of Becoming— Hawaiian Epistemology and Early Writings.” It is about Hawaiian ways of knowing, which are water- and island-based, differing significantly from those of the dominant culture. She has another book scheduled for next year, to be published by Koa Books. Most of Dr. Meyer’s teaching is from the oral tradition.

Both Rodriquez and Meyer embody what women of color have to add to any issue, including Peak Oil. They both tend to speak in stories, rather than in more linear ways, and to evoke shared stories. They teach from a community-building model, rather than an hierarchical classroom teacher-student model. Instead of being top down, they are circular.

To educate and activate people about energy descent, such approaches have merit. They differ from the more conventional expert with status speaking to people assumed to have less knowledge. Rodriquez and Meyer go far beyond merely providing information. They offer learning environments that are charged with feelings and connection and seek to evoke wisdom from participants. In their teaching and community work both employ indigenous and female forms of teaching and organizing that are nurturing, inclusive, and interactive.

Collectivist and Individualist Cultures

A basic concept that I teach to college studies is the differences in individualist cultures, such as America and Australia, and collectivist cultures, such as Hawai’i, Asia and indigenous cultures. Individualist cultures tend to emphasize the primacy of the individual, whereas collectivist cultures give greater value to family and group goals. According to the textbook “Communication Works” by Teri and Michael Gamble, “Individualist cultures cultivate individual initiative and achievement, while collectivist cultures tend to nurture group influences. This means that while the ‘I’ may be most important in individualist cultures, the ‘we’ is the dominant force in collectivist ones.” Feminine perspectives also tend to be more collectivist and cooperative than masculine individuality, both of which have their values, especially when combined in their strengths and mitigated in their shortcoming.

Collectivist approaches to identity and decision-making can embrace (or stifle) differences within the group, including male and female perspectives. When an issue is well understood from various perspectives, then a decision can be made that the group agrees is the best compromise or creative solution. Certain inclusive solutions would not have been considered or agreed upon without the process of hearing from these various, sometimes differing points of view. As Merrilyn Joyce, who works with Latin American laborers in Graton, Northern California, notes, “In consensus processes we learn to find common interests and guard against getting stuck in stakeholder positions.”

I am not suggesting that one way of being is better than the other—or that women are better than men—just that they differ. And the differences are important, in Peak Oil work, as well as elsewhere. We ignore dealing with gender and cultural issues at the risk of excluding diverse voices. Instead, we should welcome and seek to enhance their power, thus strengthening Peak Oil work. Simply put, the team of people working on Peak Oil, to be more effective, needs to expand both its leadership and its ranks. It’s not just an issue of fairness, but of getting the necessary work done, including communicating to diverse communities.

“Patronizing” women and people of color, as one reader of Part One of this article noted, is not the solution. Women and people of color are desperately needed to make Peak Oil work whole. Yet cultural and gender generalizations can be problematic, since there are so many individual exceptions.

The author of “Post-Petroleum Woman” and other helpful Peak Oil writings, Carolyn Baker, adds that given the unprecedented nature of Peak Oil, “We need as much flexibility and versatility as possible. Just as important as organizing diversely is the issue of learning tangible, practical, nuts-and-bolts life skills. Or as Richard Heinberg asks, ‘Do you know how to make shoes?’ Skill development is an excellent means of incorporating a wide range of individuals into the movement. For example, I want the Hispanic boot maker or the African American mechanic or the Asian tailor or the Arab plumber in my circle of allies.”

Rather than have the wisdom to energize societies on rock-solid diversified bases, Westerners built them during the twentieth century almost exclusively on the nonrenewable, cheap energy source of petroleum, creating dependency and fostering addiction to it. Petroleum underlies not only our transportation systems, but our agriculture, medicine, plastics industry and much of contemporary industrial life. As oil declines, all these industries are likely to plummet with it. With the supply of oil now peaking, as the demand for it heightens in industrializing societies, Western civilization faces catastrophes.

Some hope that adequate alternative renewable energy sources can quickly be found to replace petroleum, but numerous Peak Oil authors have systematically refuted this claim. To use a phrase from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic book ‘On Death and Dying” to describe the stages of moving toward the acceptance of death, these people seem to be in the “bargaining stage.” They want these alternatives to keep our high energy societies humming, in spite of the scientific evidence that cheap oil is simply irreplaceable, even by many other sources combined.

The solutions to the multiple problems that the unfolding of oil descent will cause are not likely to be found exclusively by the members of the gender and cultures that were primarily responsible for causing the problems in the first place. Yet both genders—especially with their over-consumption in industrial societies—are part of the problem. Women certainly do their part to consume.

We need a much-expanded team of men and women of diverse cultures and backgrounds working together as peers to build on the already good work done by a few Western men to address energy descent issues. We are facing the natural limits to growth of our oil-based civilization. It would be wise to do what Richard Heinberg addresses in his book “Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.” The development of these options and actions need the full, equal, and empowered participation of women and people of color.

Eurocentric Ways of Thinking

Upon seeing the film “The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream” in multi-cultural Hawai’i last year, organizer and energy professional Yen Chin, of Chinese-Japanese ancestry, commented on its race exclusivity. Chin noted, "As accurate as the analysis of the problem of Peak Oil may be--and I don't dispute that accuracy--the dominance of White Men in its exposition insures that those now concerned with the issue will fail to find a way out of the dilemma. Thus the issue of inclusion of disenfranchised groups ultimately has nothing to do with equity or fairness. Rather it will determine whether or not the species survives."

Chin points out that the domination of male Eurocentric ways of thinking and leading in current Peak Oil work makes it more difficult to include women and people of color on their own terms. He also reports frustration at trying to communicate his concerns to members of the dominant culture in words that convey the passion that he feels from his experiences, which is sometimes met by people wanting him to weaken his language, rather than speak his truth. “We need to deal honestly with Eurocentric male-dominated privilege. This is an internal rather than external matter.”

One of the central teachings in Hawai’i is that of humility, which Chin advocates. It has been, after all, primarily the industriousness of American men and their European and Middle Eastern partners that built oil empires that now threaten the Earth with climate change and the potential collapse of industrial societies.

“I am particularly concerned that people of color are not in the peak oil conversation,” writes African American Dave Room, founder of the new Energypreparedness.net “They are not culturally present at the lectures, the summits, the symposiums, the green festivals, the earth days, the lectures. I agree with Yen Chin that all viewpoints will be needed to help guide and experiment us through the transition to the post–petroleum future. I also believe that people of color are poorly positioned from several standpoints to weather the hardship that this transition will entail.” Room adds, “Peak oil is not a problem we can drill, fight, or develop our way out of in the long run. We need new approaches that are largely absent from the dominant culture,”

Wendy Talaro of Los Angeles also echoes Chin’s concerns, “As a woman of color from a working class background, I see a need for a broader discussion and dissemination of information about Peak Oil beyond the largely white and male middle and middle-upper class segment of society. Belonging to a different social and economic class with greater privileges tends to foster an insulated ignorance of others' struggles to survive that borders on willful blindness; the greater the real and perceived social differences, the less likely mere outreach would bridge the divide.”

Some peak oilers claim that their groups are open to all comers, but it is more complicated than this. If one were to be the first of their group (African American, female, youth, elders, or whatever) to enter an ongoing group, it can be culturally difficult, even with the good intentions of the group. I notice this being in a racial minority here in Hawai’i, the most multi-cultural and least Caucasian state in the country.

The first ongoing Peak Oil small group that I attended was all male when I joined. That seemed strange, but it apparently grew out of a men’s group. Eventually one woman also joined. The next town over had another Peak Oil group, which was all women. The two groups finally got together, though most of the originators later fell away as the combined group grew. Perhaps they were more comfortable with the same-gender group, which has certain benefits, or with a smaller group. If all members of a certain group are of the same gender or culture, it can be hard for newcomers to join one-at-a-time, if you differ by gender or culture.

Hawai’i is one of the many indigenous and Asian cultures that offers respect to its elders. This Memorial Day weekend Doris “Granny D” Haddock gave an address at the “Healing Mountains” gathering in the dwindling forests of coal-rich West Virginia. Entitled “Preparing for the Post-Carbon Age,” she begins by graphically describes our problem, “It seems dark. Great electrical shovels, like invading space monsters, take apart our mountains… The air is filled with warming poisons…This carbon addiction is a nasty sort, worse than heroin.”

Then Granny D turns to the solutions, “We need to make the better world visible, so the carbon addict may be drawn to it…We must encourage and advance the positive, human-scaled and community-based systems already in place, such as community supported agriculture, edible schoolyard programs, local economy support projects and the like. We must go far beyond these ideas.”

This is the kind of mature female leadership that we need. Granny D’s approach is to draw people of various cultures together into helping to forge diverse post-carbon communities. Grandparents (honored as abuelos in Spanish and kapunas in Hawaiian) will be critical to guiding us into post-carbon societies, especially those who can remember stories from before our current time.

Aunties and Uncles can also be helpful. I want to express my personal gratitude to my own departed Uncle Dale and Aunt Elva. They tended our family farm in Iowa and shared their love of the Earth with me. They taught me so much during the middle of the 20th century about things such as living without electricity, drawing our water by hand-pumping wells, enjoying farm animals, and telling stories at night, rather than watching television. Having these skills in my body will help me survive and potentially even enjoy post-carbon life.

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, [email protected], studied “cultural action” in Latin America with Paulo Freire 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.)

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