In the mid-1940s, environmentalist Rachel Carson became concerned about the broad use of synthetic pesticides in the United States. Many synthetic pesticides had been developed through the military funding of science following World War II, and Carson’s friends living on Long Island noticed that while the local application of DDT was killing insects, it was also killing birds.
Because of the impact on bird populations, the Audubon Naturalist Society actively opposed chemical spraying programs and recruited Carson to help publicize the U.S. government’s spraying practices and related research. Carson then began a four-year project gathering examples of environmental damage attributed to DDT. By the end of her research, she had investigated hundreds of individual incidents of pesticide exposure and the resulting human sickness and ecological damage. Her conclusions were published in 1962 as the book entitled “Silent Spring,” a metaphorical title suggesting a bleak future for the entirety of the natural world, not only the literal predicted absence of birdsong.
The development of chemical and herbicidal warfare gave rise to the domestic application of the same chemicals by the corporations that developed them. On September 20, 2016, top executives from Bayer, Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, and Syngenta testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C. asking federal regulators to approve mega-mergers between the corporations, which have today fundamentally reorganized global agriculture. (Executives from the sixth company involved in the consolidation, China National Chemical Corp., declined an invitation to appear at the hearing.)
The worldview that allows for and supports the exploitation of natural resources is linked with patriarchal socio-cultural systems that are characterized by competition for land, the control of women and children, and subjugating peoples of other cultures considered to be threatening to nationalistic concepts of racial and biological purity. Social power within patriarchal systems is all about control – of men and women, of resources, of economies, of leaderships, and of nature itself. The patriarchal system is preoccupied with structures of dominance and submission, a dynamic that has put both human societies and Earth’s ecosystems in peril.
Carolyn Merchant is an American ecofeminist philosopher and historian of science. She is most famous for her theory presented in her book, “The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution” (1980), in which she identifies the Enlightenment as the period when science began to objectify nature as an inert resource for exploitation that needed to be forcibly dissected in order to be made to give up its riches and power. Her book and theory continue to be relevant in today’s Anthropocene era of globalization and global climate change. I highly recommend Merchant’s book, and she is currently Professor of Environmental History, Philosophy, and Ethics at UC Berkeley.
Just a few days ago, I read an article by Catwhipple in “The Circle” (an online magazine for Native American news and arts). The article, Sex, Fossil Fuels, and Matriarchal Economics, connects the dots between exploitation of the environment by the oil industry with the phenomenon of missing and murdered indigenous women plaguing the United States and Canada.
The man camps and the consistent violence against Native women which occurs at the hands of the fossil fuels industry is a huge issue, and it’s also the metaphor. “Let me shove this pipeline down your throat”. That’s basically what the MN PUC [Minnesota Public Utilities Commission] just said to Native people, with the approval of the permits for Enbridge’s Line 3. That’s what $11 million worth of lobbying will buy you in Minnesota. The rape of the north and the rape of Native women. How much more graphic than “let me shove this down your throat…” do I have to be? Consent is consent. Consent is about sex and consent is about pipelines and megaprojects. In the old days, the company men and their governments used to just rape and pillage. That was how it went. It’s not supposed to be those days now.
Sadly, most people realize that the days of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy remain a powerful influence. However, the current national and global struggles may indicate the last stand of a system that perceives its immanent demise. The truth behind climate change is that either our current socio-cultural system is radically transformed or this planet will die by our collective hand.
Affecting many nations, men and women who identify with the toxic system of patriarchal authority and privilege have girded their collective loins today for what seems to be a 12th hour stand against those who don’t see nature or women as ultimately expendable. Women and nature are inextricably linked within the patriarchal worldview, which long has been the dominant system informing resource exploitation and the oppression of peoples. What once may have contributed to the aggressive survival of our species is now condemning all other species to death, along with our own.
The origin of the term ecofeminism is attributed the French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book “Le Féminisme ou la Mort” (1974). Ecofeminist theory posits that a feminist perspective of ecology does not place women in the dominant position of power, but rather calls for an egalitarian society in which there is no one dominant group.
As d’Eaubonne defines the approach, ecofeminism relates to the oppression and domination of all marginalized groups (women, people of color, children, the poor) to the oppression and domination of nature (animals, land, water, air, etc.). The author argues that oppression, domination, exploitation, and colonization from the Western patriarchal society has directly caused irreversible environmental damage. With the rate of species extinction growing exponentially with each successive generation of humans, the impact of human habitation has had a catastrophic impact on every habitat. As ecofeminism makes clear, any positive change of course requires an accompanying change of the basic socio-cultural structures and economic practices informed by the patriarchal influences in many developed nations.
Socially conservative and militant expressions of the Abrahamic faiths in particular need to be challenged. The development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each substantively arose within patriarchal societies as ideologies under-girding and legitimating the subjugation of women that accompanied the conquering of lands, including the habitats with all the species and resources therein.
Progressive Christian theologians and writers have long championed a rediscovery or socio-cultural archaeology of early Christian belief and context. We frame an understanding of the ministry and teaching of Jesus that emphasizes the transformational nature of love for one’s neighbor, care of community, and liberation from systems of oppression. The resistance to forces of empire calls for the social movement away from patriarchal structures and norms to those that emphasizes human equality, care of creation as a vital imperative, equitable economy, and governing principles that assure the same.
Recently, the current United States administration’s opposition to abortion has led to the watering-down of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning rape as a weapon of war and reaffirming the UN’s opposition to sexual violence. However, the US – along with China and Russia – insisted on removing all references to women’s sexual and reproductive health or else the three countries would veto the resolution.
The US administration opposed all mentions of reproductive health on the grounds that health services for women victimized by rape during times of war implied support for abortion. The administration has taken measures to avoid supporting efforts and organizations that provide abortion services to women, including victims of rape.
CNN reported that the US move against the UN resolution is “just another expression of the contempt that this administration has for women’s rights and reproductive health and rights,” said Stacie Murphy, Director of Congressional Relations at Population Connection Action Fund. “It’s certainly typical of this administration when it comes to anything having to do with reproductive rights, sexual assault,” Murphy said.
The current administration of the United States is a casebook example of how the patriarchal worldview – supported in this instance by a conservative Christian belief system – is operating at this moment and in our generation to obliterate those voices, lives, and landscapes most affected by its consequences. Violence against women is not only aided and abetted, it is sanctioned and frequently legislated.
Women are not the only one’s negatively impacted and subjugated within patriarchal systems. Patriarchal norms place men at risk in terms of their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Emerging literature on toxic masculinity illuminates our country’s current struggles with gun violence, the prison industry, violence towards women, and racism – just to name a few examples.
A recent article in the New York Times by Wil S. Hylton describes how as a young man he was influenced by the behavioral modelling of a male cousin. The author was drawn to cousin’s strength, his bravado, his violence until his cousin physically assaulted him, placing his life in jeopardy. As Hylton shares his story, we learn how the episode forced him to come to terms with how that idea of masculinity poisoned his cousin’s life and his own. Reading Hylton’s story is like watching someone, with their last breath after a harrowing climb, plant a flag in the top of an unfathomable cultural iceberg. It’s chilling, and no man should have to endure it, but Hylton makes us have to look.
Jared Yates Sexton has written about the challenges that men have to “detoxify their masculinity” in his newly released book, “The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and the Crisis of Our Own Making.” Sexton addresses toxic masculinity as, “An especially potent and toxic system of power and control that has subjugated women and minorities for generations via methodical and organized actions powered by misogyny and racism, a unique brand of maleness that has held sway over the United States of America since before its founding.”
Perhaps, the results of our 2016 national election and the resulting societal destruction over the subsequent years have helped to illuminate the psychology behind patriarchy. Additional social factors such as the unrelenting phenomenon of mass shootings in schools and in places of worship are social symptoms of a common cause affecting our entire national life and role on the world stage.
Our current administration has made legislative incursion into our national parks, lands previously set aside as wilderness areas, and treaty lands held by Native American communities. The language of climate change has been deleted from government websites and reports, while traditional energy corporations continue dangerous resource extraction methods and alternative energy resources are resisted. Incursions have been made into legislating control over women’s bodies, depriving LGBTQ persons of basic benefits and employment, consolidating control over natural resources, jeopardizing long-standing peace negotiations and historical alliances, criminalizing refugees, and protecting gun rights ownership over the rights of children.
The voices of scientists, physicians, ecologists, progressive theologians, journalists, park rangers, Native leaders, human rights advocates, international representatives working for peace and social justice – all of these voices are being vilified by those invested in preserving the worldview that is now killing all of us and all of life on earth. We must keep speaking, writing, resisting, and insisting on justice and equity for all and for Nature herself.
The hateful movement of conquer and divide must be replaced with the loving movement of resist and unite. We are in the midst of a critical historical moment of social transformation, and we must be willing to take the reins of our social direction and not accept the bit being forced upon us by those who claim that life is sacred when all their actions speak otherwise. We must strive beside one another for the change that brings greater justice to all people as well as to our waterways, lands, and air.
The desperate ultimate landscape presented in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” has haunted my fears since I was a child and first encountered her prophetic work. I need the birds to sing, which is why I pledge to them every morning – as they greet the rising sun – that I will do all that I can so that their song will not be lost, that every spring will hold their voices of hope, endurance, and perseverance. If they can speak with such resolve, so must I – and so must we all.