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Gender, peak oil and culture (part 3): Working together

I thank the Energy Bulletin readers who responded to Parts One and Two of this essay on gender, Peak Oil, culture, and related issues. We received responses from Singapore, London, Sydney, and Canada, as well as from both American coasts, the Southwest, and the Midwest. Parts of these responses will be quoted below and in Part Four.

There are many different ways of understanding male-female and cultural differences, which I do not want to reduce to any simple differentiations. Gender generalizations and cultural comments are limited in their utility and can always be seen from other angles. Rather than be a source of friction, our different gender and cultural points of view can help us move creatively toward solutions.

The first response to Part One of this essay came from Tessa Lowe in London, England, and started as follows:

I’m an oil market analyst by trade, and also engaged with the peak oil and permaculture ‘movements.’

Lowe thinks that

we lack women leaders on Peak Oil because our reaction is simply to get on with gardening and planning to make do with whatever we have left after the oil goes away. I’m motivated to network, to learn permaculture skills, to seek out intentional communities where the best of civilization can be preserved.

[She plans to] carry on with the beauty of the world and the spirit of friendship in my heart, and to wait for the world to join us.

If I did not know who made these comments I would guess that they were by a woman, or a man with developed feminine capacities. Lowe adds in a later email:

Perhaps men have more of a desire to change the system, whereas women will tend to optimise the one we have--or construct their own sensible subsystem within the perceived boundaries of the greater society.

My own experiences verify that women do create “subsystems,” some of which are “sensible,” and others of which I do not even understand.

Lowe’s response stimulated me to remember that Gender Studies indicates that male consciousness tends to be more focused and female consciousness tends to be more diffuse. Women seem to be better at multi-tasking. Decades ago Tillie Olsen wrote a story entitled “I Stand Here Ironing.” While doing so she was also engaging in a variety of other tasks—holding a baby, cooking, talking on the phone, etc.

My personal experience confirms that there is often a difference in male focus and female diffusion, both of which can be valuable. My male friends and I seem to need more structure and order. I have more trouble with confusion and chaos than most of my women colleagues and friends. Energy descent is likely to bring lots of changes and confusion, for which women may be well equipped to be leaders. When focused and diffused awarenesses work together, they can get more done with their differing perspectives than when they clash.

Male Leaders

Lowe is not sure that Peak Oil leadership being mainly male is significant. She does not “sense an attempt at control” by those men. However, not all male Peak Oil leaders seem free of the desire to control and even dominate.

The only major male Peak Oil authors to write about gender that I am aware of are Matt Savinar and James Howard Kunstler.

On June 3 Savinar posted a detailed article “Why Are Most Prominent Peak Oil Authors Men?” on his informative website, Life After the Oil Crash. Savinar takes a stimulating and at times humorous evolutionary biology approach, illustrated by creative graphics. He contends that males seek status and sometimes act like peacocks and Alpha males, partly to woo women, which has also been my observation. Savinar contends that this can even include male Peak Oil authors, who can display winning characteristics, such as intelligence, good public speaking skills, and a sense of humor. Savinar’s approach is based on Darwin’s sexual selection theory, which has been refuted by Stanford University evolutionary biologist Prof. Joan Roughgarden in her recent book “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality.”

Kunstler wrote the important book “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century,” which helped wake up many people to the urgency of energy descent. On his website on May 29 he writes about “the blather about the sufferings of women in the past quarter-century” and the lack “of attention to the dearth of meaningful roles for men.” He asserts that:

The politics of the Democratic party, if it is going to survive, has to be re-masculinized. It has to allow men to come back into the centers of power, including the power to speak the truth.

While his comments on men may have merit, his slam against women reveals a bias. In his typical blustery, cocky way Kunstler stuck his head out and stimulated considerable responses, both negative and positive. As one visible woman in Peak Oil work wrote, “Grrr, he really pissed me off with that post, while at the same time I felt a kernel of truth about the male experience.” A gender discussion is growing in the Peak Oil movement, which some welcome, whereas others may feel it can be divisive.

Writes Liz Logan, a member of the Atlanta Oil Awareness Meetup group (blog: sustenance):

Kunstler's dismissal of women's concerns reveals his lack of awareness of the power and economic structures in our world,” “This is an example of dominant-person privilege—the freedom to be oblivious to the realities of the non-dominant. But peak oil means that we can't take anything for granted any more, including this. Women and people of color are a resource that we should take advantage of in framing our response to peak oil. We have perspectives that have not been included in the dominant culture. We all will benefit from hearing from all points of view.

In an email to Puna Beyond Petro in Hawai’i, the Chinese-Japanese-American energy professional Yen Chin responds as follows,

Kunstler's statement reveals why few women have found places of leadership among prominent Peak Oil prophets. His book places him near the summit of the Peak Oil movement. From that position he has the ability to pontificate and have his words broadcast. He makes pronouncements that others must consider, unlike you or me who probably won't get much amplification regardless of how good the quality of our ideas may be. He can say nonsense like this and others uncritically believe it. This situation infuriates me because the structure it embodies inhibits us from doing the creative work we must do in order to better handle the consequences of Peak Oil or Global Climate Change or the collapse of the International Financial System or whatever will cause the looming catastrophe.

Yen continues,

Let's face it folks, there's really not much to Peak Oil beyond accepting that petroleum production has or will soon peak while demand remains high and wants to grow. This spells a major disruption in business as usual and requires us to adapt or die. The important work lies in inventing the alternatives that will improve our chances of survival in the future and will allow us to flourish in the present. This is also work that we should do for our wellbeing even if a crisis were not approaching. And this requires that we find ways to uncover our true selves (not the models of ourselves others have forced upon us), express those unique selves, and listen to the expressions of other ordinary people.

Direct and Indirect Leaders

In his influential book “Leading Minds” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner takes a story-telling approach to leadership. Gardner contends, “Leaders achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate.” Gardner takes a narrative approach to what others call the leader’s message or theme.

Gardner also makes a crucial distinction between direct and indirect leaders, noting, “Most acknowledged leaders are ‘direct’; they address their public face-to-face. But I have called attention to an unrecognized phenomenon--indirect leadership: In this variety of leading, individuals exert impact through the works that they create.”

Peak Oil can be understood as many different things—from being a scientific term to a metaphor. It can also be understood as a story, which was initiated by the oil geologist M. King Hubbert during the 1950s. That story is now being continued by many others. Gardner asserts, “Whether direct or indirect, leaders fashion stories—principally stories of identity…leaders attempt to communicate, and to convince others, of a particular view, a clear vision of life.”

Gardner’s book details eleven case studies of leaders. Among them are direct leaders such as Gandhi, Gen. George C. Marshall, Margaret Thatcher, and Martin Luther King, Jr. His examples of indirect leaders include Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Mead. Both men and women are capable of being either direct or indirect leaders. Contemporary examples of direct women leaders would be those in the growing peace movement, such as Cindy Sheehan and retired military leaders Col. Ann Wright and Gen. Janice Karpinski. Part Four of this essay will return to these women leaders.

Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy’s (APPLE) Donna Askins of Elgin, Illionis (oilawareness.meetup.com/259/) seems to embody an indirect style of leadership. She notes,

“Here at APPLE-Elgin all but one of the community gardeners are women. At work parties the moms bring their children. It's really amazing how fun it is. Our group naturally evolved as Janaia Donaldson (of APPLE in the California Sierras) describes it: ‘inclusive, non-hierarchical, and responsive to feelings.’ Everybody's input matters. Although I am the ‘leader,’ my consistent approach has been to inspire the group's energy, not tell people what to do. It's amazing how people respond when they are invited, not commanded.” Askins seems to describe what Gardner means by indirect leaders exerting “impact through the work they create,” as do many women, rather than by seeking to directly control people.

Among other women active in Peak Oil work is an elected member of the Huntington Beach City Council in Southern California, Debbie Cook. She writes,

The men may be out blowing the horn, but many women are heeding the call and trying to solve the problem.” In a later email Cook adds, “I believe that men have been the leaders in the ‘peak oil’ issue because oil and gas extraction is a male dominated industry. These men are also the teachers and inspiration for many women. While I am uncomfortable generalizing about our differences, I do believe that women bring a different perspective to the issues. Women are the woof and warp of society; we are more often the volunteers in the community, schools, churches, and non-profit organizations. Our networks are broad and cut across ethnic, economic, and geographic barriers.

Deborah Lindsay (www.deborahlindsay.com), Director of Sustainable Monterey County, is another woman doing Peak Oil work publicly. She might represent a more direct leadership style and writes,

When I considered going into public speaking on this topic I wondered if I were even ‘allowed’ to play in this ball field, since I wasn't a scientist, or an author or someone with a long list of accomplishments. I'm just a mom, who worries about the children. I know why more women don’t speak out; they don’t feel legitimate. But I say to heck with it, stand up and speak!

Men and women of different cultures have common interests when it comes to dealing with energy descent, which will radically change our societies in multiple ways as it gradually unfolds. However, important differences exist between men and women and across cultures that influence many things, including how we understand and perceive things, work and communicate.

The Peak Oil awareness movement has a chance to be genuinely global and cooperative, rather than parochial and competitive. Though the move toward localization in response to energy descent is sensible, in certain places it runs the risk of becoming exclusive and not incorporating the energies of those who differ by culture or gender.

I want to question a phrase that some use when they talk about men and women—“the opposite sex.” This term sets up an antagonistic relationship, so I prefer to think of “the other sex.” Men and women do differ, though as humans we have more in common. Considering men and women to be opposite polarizes us, whereas understanding the relationship in terms of otherness can help connect us and evoke curiosity rather than fear or conflict. Understanding the genders as other rather than as opposite can enhance cooperation and reduce competition.

When men and women of different cultures work together as peers we can get beyond polarities to our substantial commonalities. Sebastopol City Council member Larry Robinson, one of the organizers of the recent Energy Vulnerability Summit in Sonoma County, Northern California, notes, “The deeper issues impacting our culture - and indeed the Earth - require both a deeper masculine involvement and an honoring of (and learning from) the feminine.” We need both the deep masculine and feminine, whose harnessed powers can help transform Peak Oil from being a problem to becoming an opportunity. When male husbanding of the Earth and female care-taking combine they can get more done, with greater ease and joy, than when they clash or are separate.

In addition to its multiple economic, political, and social consequences, Peak Oil is likely to provoke a cultural breakdown. Rather than attempt to restore our current culture with its imbalances, this could produce an opening to create a more just and sustainable culture.

In addition to its multiple economic, political, and social consequences, Peak Oil is likely to provoke a cultural breakdown. Rather than attempt to restore our current culture with its imbalances, this could produce an opening to create a more just and sustainable culture.

Writing from Atlanta, Logan contends,

The value of considering a feminine perspective goes beyond the fairness of inclusion. It can also help us envision new cultural forms that will help us survive in a post carbon world. The problems we are having stem from our current society’s values so it makes sense to question them in the light of a feminine sensibility.


This is part three of an ongoing series. The next part is sub-titled “Readers Respond with Resources” and includes specific references and links to the work of readers who have responded to these earlier parts, as well as some of their humor. If you have any comments to add, critical or otherwise, please send them to sb3@pon.net .

Dr. Shepherd Bliss, sb3@pon.net, 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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