Peak Oil Is Still a Women's Issue and Other Reflections on Sex, Gender and the Long Emergency
In 2005, my first widely republished article was entitled "Peak Oil is a Women's Issue" and detailed the ways that material realities for women were likely to change in an energy depleted world. I got more than a 100 emails after I wrote that piece, mostly falling into two camps - either "Wow, I never thought of that, but of course it is" and "Oh, I've been worrying about these issues for a long time and no one ever writes about them." I was not the first significant woman writer in the peak oil movement, nor was I even the first to ever write about these issues, but somehow this article hit a nerve - and the mainstream of the then-much-smaller Peak Oil Community. A year later, this was the article that led my editor at New Society to ask me to write _Depletion and Abundance_.
And in the last five years (actually longer - I actually drafted the above article in 2004 and published on a discussion group about peak oil issues) I've written a substantial number of articles about the ways our present roles were shaped by cheap, abundant energy, and about what happens if that energy become less cheap and less abundant.
I've written probably 50 articles on various related subjects over the years about sex and gender (Just so everyone knows the distinction, sex is biological, gender isn't. Besides the fact that some people change genders, they are different subjects - the biology of childbearing is about sex, who does the primary caregiving once the breastfeeding (if relevant) is over is about gender.)
I've argued that men who have less traditional gender roles may adapt better to increasing poverty, job loss and changes in status, I've written about the false perception that everyone who is "prepping" is male, about why it annoys the crap out of me when men say they think all women should be like me, about what Michelle Obama's reception by Russian women and our portrayal of her means for women's identity and the shortage of viable roles, why women's experience may have made them less trustful of institutional solutions than many men are - and also less likely to go straight to the end of the world scenarios and a whole lot of material issue, like how to store food for pregnant and nursing women, and what kind of menstrual supplies you might need post-zombie, why I think people who demean housewifely virtues are assholes , and why I like being called a shameless hussy (and why I think that there's an important role for shameless hubbies)- and that's just a sampling. It is safe to say that sex and gender have been major themes in my work.
Now every time I write one of these articles, I end up making the case for gender as a defining factor in how we view the world through these lenses. There are always people who view these issues as trivial and secondary to the big important questions of how we're going to build a rail network or when exactly, the zombies are expected to arrive.
What's funny, though, is that over the years, I've come to think that I'm only beginning to grasp the ways that gender and sex have been integral in creating our collective predicament. I have and do argue that at least as significant as the famed failed suburban experiment that James Kunstler and others see as central to causing our problem was the shift to a corporatized feminism that replaced women with cheap energy, "housewifized" or professionalized all labor in the subsistence economy, and, along with the push to move farmers off their land and into the workforce, was a major factor in enabling our industrial expansion. I write in _Depletion and Abundance_ that feminism succeeded in large part in the way it did because it was so good for a corporate, industrialized society that ultimately devalues women - and human beings, while pretending to value them.
In an article I wrote a while back "What's a Human Being Worth? Less Per Barrel than You'd Think", is one I keep meaning to seriously revisit. I argued that in fact fossil fuels radically devalue human labor, and human beings. We tend to think that the use of energy enables us to value human beings - really smart people don't have to work in the dirt anymore, they can pursue rocket science and engineering and write poetry. And that's true, in some measure. There are cases in which energy really does enable us to see and value some human lives better - for example, for the severely disabled, energy resources are often central both their ability to live and their ability to be present and valued in society and to advocate for themselves. But in general, the role of fossil fuels has been in part to radically devalue both the work that can't be done by fossil fuels, but also the people who do it. I wrote:
There is a reason I'm pointing this out - because underlying a lot of people's thinking about peak oil is a "OMG...we use X number of terajoules of energy to do Y, and now we've got to replace it with backbreaking human labor - and doing even the most essential things - digging ditches or growing food, pays for shit - we're all gonna be slaves!"
Now there are several problems with this analysis, but I want to focus on one important one - the fact that cheap energy has had the function devaluing human labor. This is fairly obvious - if a gallon of gas can do the equivalent of four men's work digging outhouses in one day, and the gallon of gas (plus the machine to use it, the man to operate it and the (almost certainly subsidized) infrastructure to support it) is cheaper, the value of the men's labor as outhouse diggers drops to...zero. Because no one in their right mind will hire them, instead of the machine and its dude.
Or maybe not quite zero - perhaps some people with money to spare will see the value of hand-dug outhouses, and tell their friends, and a small niche market will arise - but most people won't. And most of the outhouse diggers will have to go do something else to make money. The best money, obviously, will be in doing things machines don't do well (yet), like helping Grandma to the potty, writing blogs about the injustices of society and breastfeeding (oh, wait, the money for all of those things sucks... damn, the fact that I'm not an economist kicks me in the ass again.)
You'd think that doing stuff machines and oil can't do would pay pretty well, but in fact, the fossil fuels essentially devalue all human labor - the highest paid jobs become not the ones that machines can't do that benefit society, but the ones that enable more fossil fuel usage, because functionally, cheap energy is (this seems obvious, but I make it explicit because its amazing what people miss) a way of printing money - getting a lot of work done for virtually nothing is a great way to make a profit - that's why people used to like slavery, and then they liked fossil fuels.
In fact, they devalue human work so much you can't do the work even if you want to - you can't breastfeed your baby because you have to go back to work at Walmart 3 weeks after the birth (because you are needed to help the growth economy), and you can't manufacture things things, because the things are too expensive if they pay you a living wage - the only way they can use human labor is to find labor that is literally cheaper than oil - by creating economic structures that ensure that the wealth doesn't get spread around and that there always are people who are cheaper than oil. So it isn't so much work that machines don't do well that is valued but work that enables the expansion of energy use, and thus, more exchange of cash - for example, being a real estate developer paid (until the energy prices started to rise) really, really well - because they make new markets, and make new uses for fossil fuels - all those houses need faucets and insulation, all those suburbanites need grocery stores and gas stations, all those new toilets need toilet paper.
Gender issues are at the cusp of this question of how we value human beings, because the the "housewifization" of labor, in which labor is rendered invisible by the overvaluation of the formal economy (the economy of tax statements and GDP) over the informal economy (which is actually 3/4 of the world economy, the larger portion of it). Not all the people whose work is erased are women, obviously - farmers, subsistence workers and anyone whose labor can be replaced by fossil fuels fairly easily gets "housewifized." In the same article I wrote:
Now the economy and culture that rise up don't just value things that enable things that involve burning stuff more than things that don't, they explicitly *DEVALUE* things that don't - that is, it isn't just that now the guys who used to build outhouses can't do that work any more, it is that the very fact that they used to do that is now treated as appalling, strange and bad. People marvel that anyone could ever have done it at all, and describe the work as "drudgery" and "backbreaking" - which may be true - the guys digging the outhouses may well have hated it, and may well have preferred their new jobs, unloading pallets at Walmart to digging outhouses. Probably on rainy days, the certainly did - although maybe when their boss was timing their bathroom breaks they missed their old job and the convenient woods, and when they were working a 12 hour shift under the flourescent lights on a beautiful, breezy fall day, who knows? Certainly, their backs probably hurt either way.
The women who used to nurse their babies aren't just doing something different, or contributing to a different segment of the economy (ummm...healthy intelligent workers - those aren't useful, are they?) what they are doing is arcane and immodest, maybe a little dirty, showing off their boobs like that. Certainly, it is anti-intellectual and a waste of what education they had - staying at home rotting their brains, rather than going to do some useful work where someone else can care for the baby while your boss times you as you attempt to pump breastmilk on the toilet of the Walmart bathroom. Of course, you give up, but that's good, because that creates jobs for formula manufacturers and Baby Stalin Video developers.
And not only do they devalue that work, but they devalue the men and women themselves who weren't "smart" enough to get in on the ground floor of the fossil fuel pyramid scheme - we make a lot of redneck jokes, and talk about how important our work is and how we're too important or smart to clean toilets or wipe bums ( And yes, these are actual things I've heard expressed quite explicitly) Doing work that can be done by machines and oil (unless you manage a niche market like the perfect outhouses, coming soon to a Martha Stewart show near you), like weeding, breastfeeding or digging means you must be dumb - because didn't you know we can do that with fossil fuels now? Or better yet, or with a combination of fossil fuels and people whose main characteristic is that they are cheaper than oil.
And it isn't just these folks - anything that can be profitably done with cheap fossil fuels is obviously devalued - but also, oil produces a lot of energy. I know, I know...duh. But bear with me. This is its virtue, but also its cost. At first you can take the obviously demanding jobs and replace them with machines and oil, and make slow things go faster. Now maybe that's ok and maybe it isn't - we don't do a lot of intellectual case by case thinking about this stuff - but after a while, all the outhouse diggers are out of business. But we still have all this energy coming in - and now we have to grow into to work that isn't so well done with fossil fuels - work that doesn't get done with powered machines, but that can only be replaced either with diminishing quality (ie, Grandma gets probed by a potty-machine instead of having her need for help and kindness met simultaneously), or by convincing people that what isn't as good really is. So, for example, despite the manifest case that industrial food production produces food that tastes like shit, has fewer nutrients and is more toxic, we have to be told that this is progress, that Campbell's Soup is better than homemade and that Grandma is pissed not because she doesn't like where the probe goes, but also because the frozen lasagna is better than hers ever was.
And that's the other way that fossil fuels devalue human labor - they convince us that the world we get with fossil fuels is equivalent in every respect to the human powered one, that we can actually do economic analyses that establish what a human being is worth (particularly future humans, who have a nasty depreciation rate in a energy depleted and warming world), and that there's no danger, nothing inherently demeaning there in sitting around and discussing what a human being is worth. Not only do fossil fuels devalue human labor directly, but because they produce so much energy, they must create uses for that energy - they are the primary agency of growth - a 30-1 EROEI for oil means that even if we only need to use 10 barrels of oil for everyone we extract, we have to create a need for the other 20.
Thus, you start out replacing the outhouse diggers, and replacing hand loomed cloth with machine loomed cloth, making huge differences in productivity - but gradually you start making bread machines and salad shooters and clothes dryers that don't really do the job any better than human beings with ambient energies. But we can't tell anyone that's not true - so you start selling the idea that you need a bread machine to make bread, and a backhoe to dig a hole and formula to feed a baby and that these things are better, or at a minimum just the same.
And what happens to people who are devalued, who pay the price for this. Sometimes they get pretty pissed at the people who aren't devalued. I would argue that some of the deep political conservativism of parts of the US stem from this devaluation - areas like Kansas and Oklahoma were early hotbeds of socialism in the US in the 30s - their political ties to the Republicans are not organic or natural. Instead, the sense of underlying betrayal has set up a deep opposition between people who (broadly) got the benefits of fossil energies and those who didn't.
And one of the things that happens is that when it turns out you can't use all those fossil fuels anymore, some people are so traumatized by the drop into devalued categories that it kills them. I recently wrote an article about this that has been picked up by The Oil Drum about precisely this issue. I teach classes for people attempting to adapt their lives to lower energy usage, and one of the things I've found startling is the degree to which conversations about "men's issues" and "women's issues" look completely different. When women'sissues come up, women are worried mostly about material realities - How will I keep safe? How will I handle pregnancy, birth control, breastfeed, menstruation and menopause? These are the central issues that women perceive as specific to them.
When we talk about men's issues, almost always one of the central discussion points, however, is depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use, and even thoughts of suicide. The difference is startling - and it doesn't seem just to be my audience. In states that have collapsed or had a major crisis, there's considerable evidence that men often have more trouble with the shift in their roles than women, and with heavy consequences. In Russia, for example a combination of poor health care, increased alcoholism, rapidly rising suicide rates and other linked factors created a disparity of almost a decade between the lifespans of men and of women. Both sexes saw declines in lifespan - but for Russian men, the difference was extremely dramatic - 4 years from 1980 to 1999.
The transition to market economies in many post-communist societies of the former Soviet Union and other former eastern bloc countries in Europe has a produced a "demographic collapse," a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme has found. Among the most serious findings is a four year drop in life expectancy among Russian men since 1980, from 62 years to 58.The development programme's report also noted significant drops in life expectancy in Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. The immediate cause of the rising mortality, said the report, is the "rise in self-destructive behaviour, especially among men." Old problems such as alcoholism have increased; drug misusea relatively new problem in the former communist blochas risen dramatically in recent years. The report Transition 1999 stated that suicide rates have climbed steeply too, by 60%in Russia, 80%in Lithuania, and 95%in Latvia since 1989.
Over at The Oil Drum, a short piece I wrote about this difference has been picked up and is generating some comment.. As usual, some folks think that we're all just basically alike, and we shouldn't talk about this in terms of men and women - but we already know that men commit suicide substantially more often and have higher rates of alcoholism. The reality is that in a society that has radically devalued subsistence and human labor, and transformed the work of those who do things that could be done by fossil fuels into worthless, invisible labor, being shoved, by unemployment, illness or collapse into the category of the uncounted, the unproductive is a recipe for disaster.
In the end, I think that the question of how to navigate a transition to a lower-energy use world is going to be deeply tied up in how we respond and adapt our culture - and how we address issues of sex, gender (and race and class, which are wholly intertwined, but I'm leaving out since this post is already long). In the worst case, women could lose many of the gains they've made - the women's movement has never fully acknowledged the degree to which women's social roles have changed not just due to activism, but due to energy resources. This comparative blind spot means that we have also failed to grasp how vulnerable those gains are. In "Peak Oil is a Women's Issue" I note:
Whatever happens in the post peak future will hit women differently, and in many ways harder, than it will hit men. For example, women are more likely to be poor than men are. In an economic crisis, women are more likely than men to be impoverished, and more seriously. Elderly women are the poorest and most vulnerable people in the US, and their lives are not likely to be improved by peak oil. Women are more likely to be single parents, a job that will come with a whole host of new difficulties post peak. They are more likely than men to work minimum wage jobs, to be exploited at work, to not be unionized, to have their rights violated. Poor women are more likely to be victims of violence, to have unplanned children, to be trapped in poverty from which they can't arise. In a period of economic crisis, where everyone is desperate for work, women will be even more vulnerable than usual, and we are already more vulnerable than men.
Creating a sustainable future requires that women who don't want to have children, or not yet, or not many, be able to cease doing so. And yet poverty dramatically decreases access to medical care and birth control even in our first world society. The poorer and less well educated you are (and those two things are reciprocally related) the more likely you are to become pregnant without intending it, both because of reduced access to reliable birth control and insufficient education in how to use it. The younger, poorer and less well educated a woman is , the younger she is likely to have children, the more children she is likely to have, the more health consequences she and her children are likely to have (prematurity, high blood pressure, etc...), and the less likely she is to ever escape poverty - or for her children to escape it. In a major economic depression, the ranks of poor women are likely to grow enormously, and we are likely to see not fewer children, but more and more unwanted children unless we plan very carefully to ensure that we prioritize medical access for everyone as one of the things we do with our limited resources.
If public policy is to address the population issue, it must be in a way that does not reduce women's power and freedom. Whatever measures we take to limit growth, they must be taken with the full consent of the female half of the population. The very best things we can do to limit population are increase women's access to education, health care, and ensure that the children she does have will have a chance to grow up. The US has poor literacy levels, poor access to health care for those without insurance, and poor infant mortality rates for an industrialized nation, and has just entered into an endless war which is already killing young soldiers at a ridiculously high rate. We must improve all of the above - keep our children alive, well educated and healthy. But we are entering a period of economic and social crisis, and we're going to have to make difficult policy choices. Education, social welfare and medical care are historically the first things to get the axe - we must change that aspect of the culture immediately, if we're to have any hope of population stabilization. We must stand firm in saying that health care and education come before large new alternative energy projects that may never pay off, or we will never, ever be able to catch up in a world of eternal, exponential growth.
The present economy, in which women are nearly as likely as men to go out and work full time, depends enormously on cheap energy. Mothers of young children can only go to work if they have easy access to and can afford formula, or fancy breast pumps and refrigeration for the milk. Unless wet nursing makes a come back (and it may, but most of us almost certainly won't be able to afford it), women in their childbearing years will not be working far away from home. And given the dramatic increase in domestic labor created by using less energy, it will make sense for them to be at home. They will be the ones who almost certainly shoulder much of the burden of food production, housekeeping, sanitation, and childrearing. It will be damned hard work, and there will be a lot of it. If we are to shoulder that burden, we must be involved in the creation of the systems that we will live under, and prioritization of resources - that is, we cannot allow the old saw, that those who are employed in the world of the GDP are doing "real" work, which should thus receive a larger share of the remaining resources in accomodation. The elimination of domestic labor from calculations of value and worth is an intentional lie of growth capitalism, to devalue the work subsistence labor, which meets most of our basic needs. We need to demand that any calculations of priority take into account the fact that the food, clothing, shelter and nurturance provided by people engaged in homemaking is, in many cases, more valuable than the non-essential paid work that many people engage in.
I am concerned that women may lose ground in education, in control of our bodies, in vulnerability to rape and domestic violence and to grinding poverty. We already know that climate change will affect most the world's poorest and that women and children will be disproportionately affected. The same is potentially true of energy depletion.
But men are going to pay a price too - we know this because they already are. We know, for example, that the economic crisis has disproportionately caused men to lose their jobs. Men lost 74% of the jobs between 2007 and 2009 both because many traditionally male industries, like construction were heavily hit, and also because companies retained lower-paid women. Lucky us - inequitable compensation apparently has its up side ;-P.
In the end, much of our collective crisis is about how we have chosen to navigate difficult questions, and so tied up in gender roles and what we value that there is no way to even begin to untangle the mess without taking very seriously the roles of sex and gender here. At the root is this particular twining - that there is no harm that comes to men without leaving women bereft, or causing them pain as they watch their brothers and fathers and husbands and friends suffer. There is no harm that comes to women that does not reflect back on the men who love and value them. There is no way that harm can come to men or women without it reflecting back on the children they nurture. That does not mean, as some would claim, we're all basically the same. What it means is that we touch one end of the string, and follow it through to the complex knot that we've created. If we cannot fully untangle it, perhaps we can make it a little less knotted.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.