Why sex?

January 17, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedA lot of readers have emailed to ask why I’m writing a book about sex. Have I given up writing about energy and environmental issues? Have I dumped big issues for small ones – instead of writing about how we should live in this new world, offering suggestions for the best sustainable dildo? Am I selling out?

To those questions I would answer “1. No. 2. Mostly not and 3. I think you have to get paid a LOT more than I get for a book contract to be accused of selling out.” Meanwhile I’m taking my larger framework from the simple idea that sex is the starting point of a lot of our larger ecological issues – that sex, as Vandana Shiva has put it, is fundamentally “an ecological act.”

Most people’s minds leap first to population, which is, of course, a consequence of the sexual act. There is more to it, though, than that. In the broader definition of sex, we find many of the root causes of our predicament – and a space in which unexamined relationships between sex and energy and sex and environment are likely to produce unintended consequences. The very fact that we think that sex and environment have little or nothing to do with one another is a sign of what we are missing – and what we put in danger by missing it.

To take one single example (there are hundreds), we have rendered almost wholly opaque the degree to which the accomplishments and shifting roles of women over the last century and more have tracked and been transformed by not only our own intention and activism, but by cheap energy.

This is the unexplored history of women – and perhaps the most significant unexplored segment of women’s history of all. To precisely the degree that our accomplishments are accomplishments that rely on seemingly infinite flows of cheap energy, they are vulnerable to being lost as energy supplies tighten and hard choices have to be made. To precisely the degree that energy flows, rather than actual political enlightenment underlie women’s current status, that status can be lost. To precisely the degree that we attribute all to our own achievement and none to the resource base and ecology that underlie, is the degree to which our lack of examination endangers women’s future.

The documentation of this is very clear. We know, as the UN has demonstrated that women and children are likely to be the primary victims of climate change. It does not take a rocket scientist to be able to track the degree to which modern assumptions about women’s lives and work are dependent on personal transportation and modern industrial infrastructure. It does not take much clarity to observe that things are already changing – that gains in food security and wealth made among the poor of the Global South have been lost as world energy and food markets fluctuate, or that in the Global North, male unemployment and the reshaping of families is transforming us in ways most of us never thought of – even if we recognize the environmental changes and shifts in energy access themselves.

We have only just barely begun to speak of this – perhaps because we are afraid that suggesting that women’s political, economic and personal freedom is in part a consequence of huge inflows of energy demeans women’s accomplishments – and we are very nervous about those. Why else do we emphasize the women who became doctors and lawyers, scientists and politicians – but not the women who excelled in traditional “women’s work?” Why else have women so eagerly and enthusiastically accepted categorizations that make traditional domestic labor, often accomplished without major energy inputs or the economic resources they generate, into “meaningless drudgery?”

In some measure, we have gone forward only by betraying what we had before. This is reflection of a kind of fear – and admitting that some of what we have made was made for us by an industrial economy that profited enormously by the flow of women into the formal workplace, by flows of oil and burned coal that made possible lives for women that have never existed before, we fear we must admit that we didn’t really change the world.

That is nonsense. There is nothing in this that erases the tremendous courage and accomplishment of women. There is nothing in this that implies we must go back on the promise of women’s education or political power in a smaller, less affluent, less energy intensive world. Those things could happen – they could happen, particularly if we do not speak and write about them explicitly, if we do not risk acknowledgement of what was us and what served the corporate economy and what was the flow of cheap energy. Without that acknowledgement, we cannot work to remake a world with less, in which men and women stand equitably.

The shift in women’s work and women’s rights is only one small example – the incredible burst of cheap energy and affluence of the last 75 years changed EVERYTHING in relationship to love, marriage, family structure, reproductive rights, gender issues, etc… We have tended to assume that the connections between energy, environment and sex in its broadest meaning are accidental, or coincidental, or perhaps peripheral…yes, more transportation did contribute to families being spread out and yes, contraception access was fueled by fossil fuels which made possible…but is that really important?

Yes, in fact it is – because the closer we look at the relationships between cheap energy and sex, gender, reproduction and family life, the more deeply clear the fact becomes that the relationship between energy and social change is not coincidental, peripheral or accidental, but foundational – that is, many of these things happened BECAUSE we had these energy flows – they could or often would not have happened without them. They are sometimes unintended consequences and sometimes intended ones – but the one truth you can draw from this is that massive shifts in the underlying environmental and energy picture make for massive social changes. And unless we choose to see that, understand how they work and think about how we WANT our world to change in the coming contraction of energy, in the coming era of climate change, they will change without us, in ways we may not like.

Unless we choose to see the ways that energy flows and the astonishing cultural shift brought about by huge quantities of cheap resources transformed us, we cannot begin to imagine what we will be when the energy flows change. Nor can we act to make our society either what it needs to be or what we want it to be. If we do not talk about reproductive policy, if we do not speak about gender roles and how men and women may navigate the new world of limits, if we do not search to find the impact of this tremendous change in resources on love, sex, family, marriage, friendship – we will not be able to preserve what we value or go forward honorably.

So yes, my book does mention dildoes at least once, mostly for comic relief. But there’s more too.


Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts of an ethical, local, healthy food system and tells readers how to begin putting food by, and the newly published Making Home: Adapting our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, which "shows readers how to turn the challenge of living with less into settling for more".

Tags: ecological constraints, gender roles