This is by Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve, from her essay, “The Perversion of Maternal Gift Giving: Initiating the Matrilinear Motherhood NOW Movement,” published in The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, edited by Genevieve Vaughan, 2019.
At the beginning of my research on motherhood—then a young mother in my twenties myself—I realized that there is something deeply wrong with family and motherhood and the way motherhood is presented in the media and in politics. The public discourse is dominated by two subjects. One is about work and family, that is, the economic view; the other is about procreation—birthrates and their political implications. Within both debates, mothers as such do not appear …
‘Having it all’ is supposedly the objective (e.g., Sandberg) for women who want both children and work. In Europe this debate is dominated by the social democratic viewpoint and its concept of freeing women by including them in the workforce and encouraging a career. … This economic discourse is based on the concept of liberal feminism’s understanding of equality (with men) without questioning neoliberalism or its philosophy, rules, and practices.
The other subject on the daily agenda is the reproductive one—abortion legislation and practice, birthrate decline in Europe, and reproductive technologies. All these debates are dealt with in a moral and normative manner. Women’s bodies and procreative ability are objects of discussion, though not debated with women themselves. …
The low birthrates in Europe since the 1980s also brought a new incentive to accelerate population politics. The norm of the two-child family is constantly pursued and propagated in politics, media, and—not the least—by the economic demands of a higher amount of human resources. … We thus realize that motherhood is central to political and economic debates, but not so for the mother herself with her needs, accomplishments, or constant giving. Maternal gift giving is not labelled as such, and is thus nonexistent in political and economic terms. …
My thesis is that the idea of motherhood today—which I call ‘patriarchal motherhood’—is based on the historical matricide, which can be retraced in myth, psychology, science, medicine, law, politics, philosophy, and religion. The mother is still alive—as she is still required as breeder, caretaker, and worker—but the conditions and the constraints in which she is living are the result of a violent transformation. …
A key term here is patriarchy … [it] consists of the Latin term pater (meaning father) and the Greek term arche (which can mean dominance or beginning). It is the father who wants to replace the mother as the origin and creator. That is done in material form, but also by means of symbolism and myths, such as that of Zeus who ‘gives birth’ to his daughter Athena out of his head. What the historically younger version of that myth conceals is that before supposedly giving birth, he had swallowed the goddess Metis who was pregnant with her daughter. Thus, like today, patriarchy depended on absorbing maternal potency to imitate the creation of life. …
During the last decades, Michel Foucault’s postmodern approach and critical theory of modernity was applied to feminist theory and ousted feminist social science approaches. Judith Butler and others developed the theory of gender performativity, denying that there is anything natural in the female body, thus rendering it impossible to talk about women in a collective sense. Furthermore, this concept, widely accepted in academia, has caused a shift toward individualizing the ‘female problem,’ and leaving a systemic view behind. In a ‘gender neutral’ world, the collective understanding of women is vanishing and political activism against structural injustice and violence is rendered impossible.
By favouring an individualistic view and an ‘identity approach,’ ‘womanhood’ is reduced to a rhetorical problem and feminism is losing is transformative power. It may be speculation as to whether this was, in fact, the aim of the theory of gender performativity, but what we do know for sure is that this approach contributes to the patriarchal project of abolishing the mother. …
I am unable to even find a word that can describe the ‘constant weaving a net’ that women provide on a daily basis. It contains the world of emotions in which mother and child are immersed from the day of birth; the sharing of time; the process of cooking and sharing meals; and the female and maternal network that comprises mothers and friends. Maternal culture is embodied by the whole sphere of artisanal and handcraft activity by sharing circles and creating spaces by its acts of production. …
Motherhood was historically split into physical (the womb) and caring functions (which were oppressed, ridiculed, and exploited). … There is an ultimate goal, namely to get rid of the mother altogether. It is her body and her creative potency which has to be eradicated, at which time the male creation puts itself in her place, turning female creativity on its head. Her vividness is to be eradicated, and pregnancy is to be turned from a supposedly uncontrolled, wild, and unpredictable act to a calculable, controlled, and measurable one of modern technology. …
Patriarchal motherhood must be understood as an institution, as the mother’s body, her work, and her creative potency are transformed into a kind of administrative unit. By providing food, housing, and care, the mother and housewife embodies economy in its true sense. This is the shadow economy upon which the official economy is based …
The frame in which maternal life is permitted is the nuclear family, a concept created in the beginning of patriarchal times to impede woman’s free sexuality and pregnancies regardless of the father. Within marriage, procreation became transformed into a controlled and supervised duty. Since then, a non-married mother was considered to be a shame, and the married mother a blessing. The seizure of ‘illegitimate’ children was common throughout Europe until the 1970s. Over time and space, the family was normatively shaped in manifold ways, but its aim of preserving control over the reproductive process never altered.
Also the European/North American idea of motherhood and the nuclear family is an export good to non-western societies. It is communicated or violently imposed by means of religion (missionaries), economics (private property, creation of a new workforce), or political measures (introduction of paternal family name) on non-patriarchal societies—for example, the Khasis in Assam, India, or the Mosuo in South China. …
A characteristic of mothers’ lives in patriarchy is the constant state of being overworked and exhausted, not only when the mother is single, but also when she is in a relationship. Statistics prove time and time again that working mothers are usually subject to an imbalance of childcare and household work. Today paid employment is an economic necessity to maintain the household; the leftist slogan of gaining freedom through employment is and was never true. Female salaries are low and usually considered an add-on to the main income of the male, which is still considerably higher. Female employment was and is seldom self-realization, but simply a matter of survival. Thus mothers gain exhaustion instead of the promised freedom of economic independence. …
In making the burden of the constant care, responsibility, management, and raising of each child the responsibility of an individual, society rids itself of any understanding of common sharing. … Instead of sharing work with others, mothers perform their day-to-day tasks in ‘solitary confinement’ (Rich) according to detailed instructions on carrying out motherhood. … The mother is led to believe that she should not care about or prioritize her own needs, that neglecting herself is normal, and that her notion of constant failure and guilt is natural. The patriarchal mother is also unaware of the norms that make sure that she will never be able to keep up with expectations.
In this sense, the perverted mother shall follow an ideal of a heterosexual relationship that is supposedly the best place for her children and herself. It is presented as ‘natural,’ as children are conceived by a man and a woman. In this ‘natural’ pairing, men and women are kept together in a lifelong unit as a nuclear family. The patriarchal mother is made to believe that a lasting romantic relationship in marriage is the norm. The truth contradicts this all the while: the family is the most dangerous place for women and children because of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, and danger of a violent death. A lifelong loving relationship is the exception while unhappy unions, divorces, and separations are the statistical norm. …
The perverted mother has to be kept under control and under psychological, pedagogical, legal, and medical observance. She has to function within that framework and within the nuclear family. If she fails she is punished socially and legally. In other words, she represents the essential role of the family machine—a kind of family caricature, free of spontaneity and liveliness, an entity of constraints and of duty to society and nation. The world of the creative mother-child culture is belittled, devalued, supposedly old fashioned, unnecessary, and undesirable. These efforts are vilified and reduced to providing fast food, getting the children ready for school in a militaristic manner, organizing and managing them, and turning them and the mother herself into factory inmates. …
We have to become aware of our own colonized mind. We have to stop believing that mothers ought to be in an isolated state. We have to give up the idea that individual motherhood is the norm.
We also have to realize that the nuclear family is the worst place to live in peace and to raise a child. We also have to consider the next generation and not fall into the trap of raising our children with the wrong pictures of the holy and sane family that are portrayed in the media and popular culture. We have to sustain them in finding their autonomous ways to a satisfying life, raising children in community, and having a healthy personal sexual life and romantic relationships that may vary over the course of time.
What should be our model for this new understanding of a freed personal life? In fact, the solution is old and the models are still in place. The answer is matrilinearity, which has been in practice since the beginning of civilization all over the world, and in some (mostly remote) areas of the world still exists, although the attempts to patriarchalize these societies are increasing. …
Starting to live by way of matrilinearity means:
▴ Understanding motherhood as a collective caring principle carried out by many—thus the opposite of an idealized isolated mother image. Motherhood itself, from the time of pregnancy, is to be understood and respected as the embodiment of connectedness.
▴ Family and kinship is defined through the maternal line, not by marriage. Like Russian nesting dolls, the offspring of the maternal body form a linear tradition that can never be denied. Family is about belonging to and sharing with a specific group or clan. When the father tried to make himself symbolically and in reality the head of the family, he turned the logic of matrilineally completely on its head.
▴ The maternal brother is the social father of his sister’s children. He is the support of all the mothers in the family. So the maternal line also includes men, but not husbands or lovers. Sexual relationships are considered a private, very personal matter, and thus not an integral part of the familial community system. Love within the family has a completely different character and importance than the desire for a lover. For the Mosuo, who practice visiting marriages, the idea of building a life on mutual sexual attraction seems completely incomprehensible and irresponsible.
▴ Housing in a close vicinity is an important factor for the interdependence of the community and family. By forming a net of relationships, mutual support can help children grow up safely in an enduring community.
▴ Contrary to the Western concept of ego, which can only be developed by matricide, there is no need of a violent act in order to be an independent person. The idea of the ‘mature ego’ is usually equated with an attitude in which the objective reality is thought of as being radically separated from the subject. Instead of ‘cutting the cord’ as is demanded in European and North American cultures (or else risk the accusation of having failed in ‘adult life’ if you return to your parents’ house), adult children and grandchildren in matrilinear families are still connected to their maternal home by a movement of back and forth, continually leaving and returning.
“The category of sex belongs to a system of compulsory heterosexuality that clearly operates through a system of compulsory reproduction. . . . ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ exist only within the heterosexual matrix; indeed, they are the naturalized terms that keep that matrix concealed, and, hence, protected from a radical critique.” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, p.150).
This conclusion comes at the end of a chapter in which Butler explores the views of French feminist Julia Kristeva, and her favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault. She paraphrases his position (from Volume I of the History of Sexuality) as follows:
“For Foucault, the body is not ‘sexed’ in any significant sense prior to its determination within a discourse through which it becomes invested with an ‘idea’ of natural or essential sex. The body gains meaning within discourse only in the context of power relations. Sexuality is an historically specific organization of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity. As such, sexuality is understood by Foucault to produce ‘sex’ as an artificial concept which effectively extends and disguises the power relations responsible for its genesis.” (pp.124-125)
The chapter concludes with what Butler describes as an “unscientific postscript” in which she uses the science of biological sex to undercut or question the binary nature of sex, reproduction, and the dominance of the “principle of masculine activity” in the role of genes encoded on human chromosomes, specifically the Y chromosome.
The “system of sex” being described here is in fact the “idea of sex”(per Foucault) that should be more accurately labelled as gender. “Sex” is falsely portrayed by both Butler and Foucault as nothing more than discursive within structures of power. The scientific literature Butler refers to is outdated and incomplete – perhaps not surprising in a book first published in 1990. In the Preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble Butler could have corrected her claims, but she did not. Chromosomal irregularities in intersexuality, or Disorders of Sexual Development that she cites, have been well-studied and considerably updated. Her claims that up to 10% of the human population may be effected by unusual chromosomal or genetic variations is simply not true. Not even Anne Fausto-Sterling, whom she cites, makes such a claim. We now know that intersex conditions effect about 0.015% of humans and these variations are also binary.
Whatever Foucault might’ve been talking about, Butler is not discussing sex. Butler consistently confuses sex and sexuality with gender, which does indeed “extend and disguise the power relations responsible for its genesis” – ie. Patriarchy.
Biological sex as it appears and develops in humans and other species, is actually gender neutral. It has existed in binary form for billions of years. Humans, other mammals, birds, fish, most other vertebrates, octopuses and most other marine creatures, insects, plants and all other sexually reproducing species are either female or male. Nature does not provide a third option. Gender may or may not exist within non-human species. Where language and culture exist, especially in social species, it might be more common than we think. But, other than possible secondary sex characteristics such as nurturing in females and competitiveness in males, it is not innate or biologically determined.
The “trouble” within human reproduction and sexuality is indeed “gender”, consisting of those social, cultural and psychological structures that are attached to sex, and the power structures gender produces and enforces on the basis of sex. Heterosexuality is both sexed as a primary determinate of reproduction and human development, and gendered as significant, if not compulsory, in most human societies. Reproduction is only one aspect of sexuality however. Controls on reproduction through non-heterosexualities may be both biological and cultural, social or psychological.
Butler also quotes a study by Eva M. Eicher and Linda L. Washburn in which the primacy of the Y chromosome in the determination of sex is frequently over-emphasized in the literature. It’s clear that Butler never got past the introduction. In the very next paragraph of their article Eicher and Washburn state simply and clearly “A developing mammalian embryo has the somatic potential to become either female or male.” (“Genetic Control of Primary Sex Determination in Mice”, Annual Review of Genetics, 1986, p.329). This is so regardless of the gendered biases of male cellular biologists as to the activity or passivity of genetic or chromosomal material in the development of testes and ovaries.
Butler’s overall agenda was to challenge what she perceived as the “heteronormativity” of First Wave feminism. Instead she somewhat accidentally created a theoretical discourse about something called “gender identity” detached from sex and sexuality. Whatever may have been the situation in 1990 when Gender Trouble was written, this focus on heterosexuality has shifted dramatically since then, just as a supposed focus on whiteness or Euroamerican agendas in feminism has broadened.
Butler forces us, through what became queer theory (which is itself overwhelmingly white and Euroamerican), to abandon “women” as a meaningful category within discourses of power to an over-extended and exaggerated interpretation of gender identity disconnected from biological sex.
Gender itself is one enormous problem. It’s various forms have effectively crippled one half of humanity and severely damaged the other half through the punitive and toxic normalization of”femininity” and “masculinity” as structured by power. It has also been used to police “compulsory heteronormativity” through the stigmatization of other sexualities – a process that continues with “transgenderism” as a form of homophobic conversion “therapy”. Now, gender’s theoretical and pop-cultural disconnection from embodied sex and sexualities, and it’s abandonment of women and girls, is yet another huge problem. Instead of looking clearly at gender within Patriarchy with the intent of dismantling it, Butler’s theorizing simply reinforces male dominance by disguising the Patriarchal matrix behind a veil of confusion, performance, and obscurantist language. This is a clear representation of how the Master’s tools cannot dismantle the house that the Master has built (to paraphrase Audrey Lorde).
Butler is immensely frustrating. She gets some things right and other things so horribly wrong. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here is a sampler. I’ve included my own views in square brackets. Where I agree I put [✓].
“Gender is an assignment that does not just happen once: it is ongoing. We are assigned a sex at birth [no we are not – our sex is observed at birth or long before] and then a slew of expectations follow which continue to “assign” gender to us. The powers that do that are part of an apparatus of gender that assigns and reassigns norms to bodies, organises them socially, but also animates them in directions contrary to those norms. [✓]
Perhaps we should think of gender as something that is imposed at birth, through sex assignment [observation of sex from soon after conception] and all the cultural assumptions that usually go along with that [which can include death, such as in sex selective abortions]. Yet gender is also what is made along the way – we can take over the power of assignment, make it into self-assignment [✓], which can include sex reassignment at a legal and medical level. [Except no actual literal change in sex is physically possible – only the performance, appearance or expression of gender can change].”
“So what does that [identity politics] mean for the left? If we base our viewpoints only on particular identities, I am not sure we can grasp the complexity of our social and economic worlds or build the kind of analysis or alliance needed to realise ideals of radical justice, equality and freedom. [✓] At the same time, marking identity is a way of making clear how coalitions must change to be more responsive to interlinked oppressions [not sure I agree that gender identity performs any useful role in politics at all].”
“The Terfs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) and the so-called gender critical writers [repeating offensive language and demeaning the intelligence and integrity of your opponents is a fool’s game – and Butler should know better] have also rejected the important work in feminist philosophy of science showing how culture and nature interact (such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, EM Hammonds or Anne Fausto-Sterling) in favor of a regressive and spurious form of biological essentialism [this is false – none of the writers she cites would reject scientific inquiry out of hand, and no one is denying that culture and nature interact]. So they will not be part of the coalition that seeks to fight the anti-gender movement. The anti-gender ideology is one of the dominant strains of fascism in our times. So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism [notice the logical fallacy here – she equates the “anti-gender movement” with fascism, without any evidence of what this means, thus relegating anyone who won’t join “the struggle” as fascists – this is not only false logic, it also invites a twisted narrative of what revolutionary struggle actually means from a Marxist perspective. Again, Butler the philosopher should fucking well know better], one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people [again, notice the misuse of language marginalizing femicide – the murder of women – and replacing women with “trans and genderqueer” people, without once defining who those people are].
She begins this interview by saying that her original purpose in writing “Gender Trouble” was to decentre heterosexuality within feminism. What she has done is to decentre women from left-wing discourse altogether, and replace it with a “gender” theory with no clear parameters or substance. She equates all gender with performance or repetition of social rituals as an operation of power – while seeming to ignore or dismiss the real power of violence inflicted on human bodies, both female and male. This is a direct inheritance from Foucault. She conflates gender and sex repeatedly, while appearing to, at times, separate them. She also conflates biological reality with “biological essentialism” and situates all discussions of sex onto a right wing agenda – surrendering women’s rights to a conservative political agenda, and rendering feminism as an unwinnable struggle. Her confusion, and her lack of linguistic clarity (which is apparent even in a media interview designed for the “lay”, ie ignorant, reader) is quite deliberate.
I’m rereading some of the gender theory literature (including Butler) for my own research. In its heyday (the 1990s) it was exciting and groundbreaking stuff. It has now been utterly corrupted and degraded into mindless “identity politics” through the very discourses of power it was originally designed to critique. Most critics of critical theory also have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s all performative nattering for attention and money. None of this has aged well.
A new development in this story. Passages from the Butler interview were pulled after complaints that the references to TERFs were inappropriate. The UK editorial team demanded the redactions from the US edition of the Guardian and an entire series on gender has-been pulled. Well done team!! See https://eoinhiggins.substack.com/p/guardian-pulls-judith-butlers-comments.
A meme I discovered on Facebook, and reposted, resonated with a number of commentators. The author of the meme is indicated only as “Business Jump”, whoever that might be.
It encapsulates something I’ve been thinking about for a long time in relation to a lot of seemingly unrelated issues. What do we mean by “women’s rights”? What or who is feminism about? What have I and many other feminists over the last 50 years, or even 250 years, actually achieved? How does this relate to colonialism, Indigenous rights and our relationship to the Earth? To capitalism, economic development, technology, law, work, sex, sexuality, or planetary issues like climate change and the collapse of biodiversity making liveable conditions disappear for all living species, not just humans?
In response to one comment on the posted meme, I replied: “. . . the meme expresses a huge feminist failure, especially in the US, but replicated elsewhere. We (second wave feminists) won equality rights by accepting a male model as the standard we have to measure up to in order to work and get paid outside the home with some degree of fairness. But we sacrificed [ourselves as] mothers and children in the process. And did not actually achieve equality. The biggest revolution in human history – the struggle for women’s rights – is now being taken over by a patriarchal counter-revolution that will kill us all. This keeps me awake at night.”
The thoughts expressed in the meme and in my reply are not particularly original. The observation that we’re in the middle of a “patriarchal counter-revolution” has divided feminists, and the ongoing struggle for the rights of women and girls globally, to the point where there seems to be little or no common ground. The nexus at which the conflicts intersect involve transgender issues, sexual “liberation”, sexuality, sex work (prostitution), pornography, reproductive choices (including surrogacy) and children’s rights. The divide appears to be generational. Many, not all, younger feminists seem to have embraced a gendered approach to women’s rights deeply influenced by Critical Queer Theory, while older feminists (like myself who were part of the Second Wave) resist this theoretical approach as inconsistent with what we see as the core of women’s disempowerment – sex-based discrimination. This means discrimination on the basis of our biological sex (female) by or on behalf of men (adult males) in order to perpetuate men’s hold on power. This gendered system of patriarchy is particularly directed at women’s roles in sex, reproduction, childrearing, and caregiving more generally. Gender has been very closely tied to biological sex for millennia – perhaps for as long as humans have existed as a species – as either masculine (the proper way to be male) or feminine (the proper way to be female), or an indeterminate androgynous status (either homosexual or transgender, or both) in which biological sex is still recognized as binary, but diversity in gender roles is both permitted and restricted. I hope (with a lot of hesitation) that all feminists can agree that gender is the means by which sex-based discrimination and male oppression are normalized and enforced in societies globally. But the way in which “gender” is currently being defined and used leads me to think that there is more going on.
A second deep divide in feminist thinking which may again point to a failure within feminism, regardless of arguments over sex and gender, revolves around racial and cultural differences. These are indeed important in how gender and sex discrimination are reflected within a particular society, or in how gender is enforced within racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual, or other groups outside of a normative white, male, middle-class, heterosexual model. But where and how these cultural differences impact women, or are reflected in feminist theory, depends very much on where you stand in relation to women’s rights. Although many women of colour participated in Second Wave feminism, their specific needs and rights were not necessarily addressed in what became a form of “mainstream feminism” adopted in most countries in Northwestern Europe and their former white settler colonies around the world. This model was promoted and adopted internationally, and deeply affected feminist movements outside of Europe. This in turn led many women who were not part of the dominant culture in Western countries, or who lived in countries that were not predominantly white, to question and often reject so-called “Western feminism” that had become the standard model. However, this “mainstream” feminist model was also extremely important in creating options for oppressed women around the world.
The “mainstream feminism” that won battles for women’s rights in the West seems to many observers to have overwhelmingly favoured white middle-class heterosexual women. The diversity that existed within second wave feminism seemed to slip away as the decades since 1960 passed, and often involved ignoring or neglecting strands of feminist thinking that were particularly challenging to an increasingly neo-liberal economic order and the social conservativism that developed from 1980 onwards. These strands of diversity within feminism, including Marxist/socialist and radical feminism, as well as what might be called eco-feminism, and feminist “herstories” of matriarchal societies predating patriarchy, did not become part of the “mainstream”. But they retained a loyal following which has grown in the last few years as “mainstream” liberal feminism has failed to address stubbornly persistent problems negatively effecting women and children.
The mainstreaming and consequent erasure of feminist history still haunts our ability to discuss divisions among feminists, or to centre the rights of women and girls within oppressively male-dominated agendas. The development of “intersectional” feminism in the US in the late 1980’s shifted some attention towards Black women in particular. It was a partially successful attempt to open up legal definitions of both sex and racial discrimination to include women who were falling through the cracks. Unfortunately, this attempt at legal inclusion has been captured by identity politics and postmodernist agendas to “include” a kaleidoscopic range of approved groups. White, middle-class, heterosexual women – the “Karens” of more social media memes with real-life consequences – seem to have been written out of feminism altogether. White women are now described as the oppressor, while men seem to have disappeared from, or appropriated, feminist discourse altogether. The #MeToo movement seems to have disappeared as quickly as it arose. This “mainstreaming” or “malestreaming” of Western feminism did benefit some of those women who were already contingently protected within parasitic relationships with powerful men (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons) = that is within Patriarchy. Most of those relationships were between white women and white men given the white supremist history of most Western societies . These women were able to expand their parasitic relationships within Patriarchy to include other powerful men in addition to family relationships (employers, colleagues, executives, managers, politicians, union officials, administrators). White women, heterosexual or not, and within all social classes, are still oppressed. Our position within Patriarchy is still contingent on male approval and protection. We can act as oppressors too, but only within the confines of our own problematic relationship to men. For most women, the gains we might have made within “mainstream” or “malestream” feminism have come at a heavy cost, one of which is to divide women against each other, and to centre a male model of humanness on women.
The bias within “mainstream” feminism also marginalizes poor women, women from working class backgrounds, and conservative women. The benefits of feminism seem to favour not only white women, but also middle-class women who have access to higher education. The class bias also exists within other forms of Western feminism. Although many Radical and Marxist feminists resist this accusation of bias, women are still often described as a class similar to an oppressed proletariat, or as a monolithic group with little regard for the very real problems dividing women. Women are not a class, although many are poor, or work under oppressive conditions. Women are not an identity, or collection of identities, but we do express the full range of human differences. Issues of class are no longer much discussed within any leftwing movement in Western countries, unfortunately, which gives rise to a whole range of difficult problems within feminism and within other progressive movements more generally. Indigenous women have a difficult time making their voices heard within any of these debates, leading many to reject feminism altogether as colonial thinking. They see problems of inequality and discrimination against women as something introduced by colonialism. They look to their own traditions of gender – many of which are matriarchal or matrilineal – to find solutions to the terrible problems so many Indigenous women face. Conservative women have been utterly marginalized within any strand of feminism. This is mostly a result of Western feminism attaching itself, or coming out of, the Left. This seems to be yet another form of parasitism. What do we do if the Left abandons us? Many feminists no longer feel they have a home within leftwing progressive movements because of what they see as male domination and capture of feminist agendas, and of feminists. Unless feminism can find some point of connection with all women, it cannot make any legitimate claims to universality. Although many conservative women have in fact benefited from “mainstream” feminism, they do not connect with many fundamental issues that most streams of feminism embrace. The most prominent among these is abortion.
Most feminists up until recently, whether “mainstream” or not, have seen gender as a social construct, the primary tool of Patriarchy in the subjugation of women that needs to be resisted or eliminated. Radical and Marxist feminists have attempted to recognize issues of race, culture and class within their own analyses much more so than more “liberal” or “mainstream” forms of feminism. However, all these overlapping theoretical approaches towards women’s subjugation tend to universalize women’s experience and approaches to that experience, in a way that many non-white women reject. Classical Liberalism and neo-liberalism (the primary theoretical bases of “mainstream” or Western feminism), Marxism, and socialism all tend to universalize human experience, usually based on a European male model, that is seen by both women and men outside Europe, or Indigenous peoples within European settler societies, as racist, and as a major aspect of colonization. Many radical feminists also tend to universalize human experience, based on a European model of male oppression, and a European model of female subjugation. I know many radical feminists will object strenuously to this as very unfair. Although women generally have many issues in common (reproductive health, control over fertility, maternal health, child rearing, caregiving, male violence against women, economic and political discrimination, issues specific to girls and elderly women), it is necessary not to universalize women’s experiences. The commonalities exist within very significant differences. The tendency to universalize women’s experience has the associated tendency of obscuring those differences, many of which are directly related to colonization, capitalist exploitation, and global violence inflicted by rich countries on the poor everywhere (women, children and men). Solidarity within class, racial or anti-colonial struggles often dismiss feminist approaches as a distraction at best, or a means of division and conquest at worst. This is a major problem for any feminist analysis.
The commonalities among women, in my view, are not based on class or gender. Women are neither. What we have in common as women is based on two things: 1) the fundamental biological reproductive distinction that divides the human species (like all other mammals) into male and female, and; 2) the ancient ongoing history of how those sexual differences are managed and controlled by human societies. Women are the female half of the human species – the half that bears, gives birth to, feeds, and largely cares for other humans – children, men, the sick and the elderly. We are not a subset of any definition of humanity in which the male model determines who is or is not human. That is how Patriarchy works. We are the half from which everything else comes.
This is true whether any woman has children or not, or is capable of having children. We are, first of all, sexed by our reproductive potential through genetics, chromosomes, hormones, pre-natal development in the womb (and only women have wombs), and the post-natal development of our physical bodies throughout our lives from birth to death. This sexual and reproductive potential cannot be altered. But, secondly, we are also socially constructed or gendered as mothers or “birthers”, and “caregivers”, regardless of how much choice we may or may not have had in actually giving birth to or caring for anyone.
I myself chose not to have children. But that did not exempt me from membership in the half of humanity largely responsible for creating and maintaining life. For caring. This is why a meme that says “we expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work” is so deeply wrong on so many levels. It embeds social expectations of “women”, “work”, “having or not having children”, and “raising children” in a network of gendered expectations and biological sex-differences, neither of which are acknowledged. It makes it easy to conflate sex and gender, while also providing a neo-liberal “mainstream” model for disengaging them. “Women” to succeed at “work” have to gender ourselves as “men”. So gender can be, has to be, disengaged from sex in order for women to be “equal” outside their roles as mothers and caregivers. But it just doesn’t work – not even for those of us who choose not to have children, or are unable to do so. It doesn’t even really work for the privileged few who can hire mostly women of colour to do their birthing (surrogacy) and caregiving for them. Even the most privileged of women must still always put the needs of others, in particular the men in their lives, ahead of their own, because that is our role. So, although “mainstream”, “malestream” liberal feminism tried to make it possible to disengage gender from biological sex, it never really succeeds.
This confusion over sex and gender is not just a problem for women. It is also a very serious social problem in most industrial societies. The vast majority of people, women and men, understand that sex discrimination is based on biological sex and reproductive roles, and that gender is the form in which creating, maintaining and enforcing that discrimination is policed. Many women simply accept this as a fact of life in social contexts that make questioning or rebellion impossible. Or they embrace both sexual differences and patriarchal gender roles as “natural”, again confusing the sexual and reproductive roles, which are natural, from the gendered part, which is not. But many women do resist being seen as subordinate to men, identifying gender as the problem. Unfortunately, they may also conflate this with sex, thinking that if they can only change their gender identity or expression they can somehow also change their sex. So they identify as “non-binary”, which may be possible in a gendered sense, but is impossible as far as sex is concerned. Many girls are now turning to puberty blockers, cross-sex hormone treatments and surgeries to try and change their physical sex from female to male. Presenting with a male appearance is possible, but actually becoming male is not.
Most men seem to be uninterested in overturning a system that works for their benefit. And then of course, there are the children. Someone has to give birth to them, someone has to care for them, someone has to care for everyone. Some women work actively in support of gender distinctions based on their own cultural, religious or ideological understandings of the roles of women and men in their societies. This can range from very conservative women within rigidly patriarchal religions, to women actively involved in decriminalizing sex work, pornography, surrogacy, and who promote this as a combination of sexual liberation and the ultimate goal of equality in the workplace. Some men do more than simply accept the benefits of Patriarchy. Many are also actively involved in maintaining or strengthening traditional gender norms, whatever those might be. This includes those who are also part of extremely conservative religious communities. But, it also includes men who have adopted the idea that they can actually change their gender/sex from male to female by identifying themselves within stereotypical gender roles of the opposite gender/sex. This assumes that gender and sex are the same, or interchangeable, or that gender “trumps” sex within a multitude of identities that in fact consist of the only two these men can see – masculine and feminine genders in the most traditional and stereotypical of senses. It seems astonishingly radical, but it hides a very conservative neo-liberal agenda that fits well within our meme. Transwomen fit the meme’s definition of “woman” perfectly. They don’t have to pretend they don’t have children. They remain men, even where they adopt the full panoply of hormones and surgeries, stereotypical feminine appearance and behaviour. Men who identify as women, but don’t actually transition, are an even more perfect fit. They’re still men, but can be classified as members of the “caring” sex/gender so are therefore rendered “safe”. Of course they would never harm anyone – they’re the most marginalized, most discriminated against, least threatening type of woman there could possibly be! The stereotypical gender roles pose no threat to patriarchy, once men and women can be persuaded to believe that gender can replace sex, while at the same time hiding the reality that this is not possible.
Gender changes over time and is very different within different cultural, racial or social contexts. Sex can only change by way of physical causes working within biology – such as natural or sexual selection which might affect genetic inheritance. This might include random mutations, or environmental influences on sexual development within the womb which might cause more male fetuses to develop, for example. Gender as a social construct can also influence the proportion of females to males within different human populations, not by changing sex, but by eliminating girls. Sex selective abortions, female infanticide, neglect or abandonment of baby girls, less access to food, or poorer health care are some examples.
The divisions within “mainstream” feminism between heterosexual women and the LGB community has also led to divisions that still haunt us. Lesbians were forced out of “mainstream” feminism very early on by activists such as Betty Friedan who feared the “lavender peril”. Although lesbian feminists lobbied hard to remain part of the broader movement, many chose separatism and solidarity amongst themselves, and with gay men. By the turn of the 21st century some of these wounds had healed as feminists across the board joined in the fight to eliminate discrimination against the LGB community. Much of this was in reaction to the plague of HIV/AIDS that hit gay men in the Western world particularly hard. Feminists working on women’s rights in the international sphere could see that HIV/AIDS was also a disease that was killing women and children around the world. An effective cure, and the ultimate goal of creating a vaccine, was being impeded by the intense hostility towards gay men, especially within the Reagan administration and conservative circles in the US and elsewhere where much of this medical research was being conducted. This hostility has been partially driven underground in the West, but is still a major human rights issue internationally. The battle for gay rights culminated in the elimination of laws that discriminated against same-sex attraction in most Western democracies, particularly in marriage, family relations, and childcare. This was a major human rights victory that has not yet been replicated internationally. Unfortunately, the success of the LGB rights movement in some countries opened the door to transgender rights activists who have transformed both the LGBTQ communities, and women’s rights. Some countries which outlaw homosexuality (such as Iran) have actually embraced transgender as an acceptable alternative, especially for men. Transitioning medical and surgical treatment is now paid for by the Iranian state, while homosexuality still results in public hangings. It has become the new “conversion therapy” for many homophobic conservative groups around the world.
The opening up of sexuality as a legitimate expression of diversity and individual identity also unsettled the relationship between gender and biological sex. Feminists, in particular radical feminists, had been challenging this relationship for years, not as just as an expression of personal gender identity that could be altered at will (although personal choice in dress and lifestyle was definitely part of this), but as the practical enforcement mechanism of female domination – of Patriarchy. But “mainstream” feminism, particularly in the US, had already silenced much of this debate by putting personal individual success in a “malestream” world ahead of women’s rights as a human rights issue effecting one-half of the human species. Women had already been relegated to a class. From about 2015 onwards we have since been further relegated to an “identity” that can now include men. Many younger women and men see gender and sexuality as matters of personal choice, as fluid or capable of change – undermining the idea that sexuality at least is not a choice. An alternative theory maintains that gender is, like sexuality, not confined by sex. Some babies are born who look like girls, and are assigned the sex/gender of female at birth, but really they are boys. And vice versa. Thus children as young as two or three can express their “true” sex/gender.
Gender, sexual distinctions, and sexuality are intimately linked in a discourse, identified within Critical Queer Theory, that does not have to be binary or biologically determined. In fact the discourse of binary distinctions or “bioessentialism” needs to be challenged or transgressed in order to end the patriarchal system of white “cis-heteronormativity” that is oppressing all (non-white, non-“cis”, non-heterosexual) people everywhere. This phrase encapsulates the hegemonic language of white supremist patriarchy determining systemic racism, colonialism, sexism, masculine and feminine gender roles, heterosexuality and homosexuality. This “cis” (gender in alignment with birth sex), “hetero” (opposite sex attracted) “normativity” (ingrained and enforced societal perception of what is “normal” or acceptable) is where everyone’s oppression lies. Much of contemporary “mainstream”, liberal and neo-liberal feminism has adopted a postmodern critique of discourse as the foundation for challenging social problems surrounding sex, gender, race, and sexuality. This new feminist critique is heavily indebted to Queer Critical Theory, to the poststructuralist movements in mid-century French theory, to post-colonial studies, to American libertarianism and American Race Critical Theory. It has led to a rejection of “privileged” white feminism within a classical liberal, Marxist, socialist or radical tradition.
I would suggest that this is a serious problem.
I haven’t made it to the “this will kill us all” part – climate change, environmental destruction and a few other strange places to find an epiphany from a feminist meme. Part II will be coming shortly.
“The term ‘non-binary’ is used by people who don’t identify as either male ♂️ or female ♀️, and don’t want to be restricted by traditional binary notions of gender.” From #Openly on Twitter 🌈
Ok. I get it. I myself, and many many people, especially girls and women, do not “want to be restricted by traditional binary notions of gender”. Binary notions of gender are how patriarchy, and its various historical and contemporary manifestations, has entrenched itself. It’s how women and men are indoctrinated into their social roles as masculine and feminine. Gender roles can also be the basis of matriarchal societies centered on mothers and grandmothers. They don’t have to be androcentric. There are cultures and societies which are not patriarchal or androcentric. Most of them, however, have been colonized into isolation and submission to patriarchal outsiders over hundreds or even thousands of years, in different places and in different ways. So what is gender?
~Human males, “boys and men”, are socialized or “masculinized” to be dominant over women (meaning all human males, within other male-dominated boundaries of human difference such as age, class, status, race, etc.). Human females, “girls and women”, are socialized or “feminized” to be submissive to men (this includes all women, who are also subject to other male-dominated social boundaries of class, status, caste or race, etc.). Gender can then be equated to where you fit on the “dominance-submission spectrum”. Homosexuality or bisexuality can be challenging to gender roles, but don’t have to be.
Gender roles were originally always based on sexual differences between males and females – that’s the whole point about gender – to provide a socially recognized way of controlling heterosexuality and reproduction. Sex itself, as a biological reality, has no “gender”. It is an entirely neutral natural condition of our existence as a sexually reproducing species. Some gender roles can be androgynous or even transgender working against the binary nature of sex. But biological sex, the foundation of gender, is immutably binary upon which our survival and evolution as a species depends. Intersex is not an exception to this, but rather is a naturally occurring chromosomal anomaly within a binary sexual system of biological reproduction. Sex and gender are usually correlated, but they are not the same thing. Gender, as a human way of narrating sex differences, can be detached from sex. There can be a “gender spectrum”. But a sex spectrum does not exist.~
Rejecting, resisting, reforming or getting rid of patriarchal or “traditional gender roles” is what feminism is supposed to be about.
It is not about detaching us from physical reality, but rather liberating us from destructive social norms.
Challenging patriarchy is also central to other forms of human rights and anti-discrimination work including that based on sexuality, class, caste, status, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationalism, etc. That’s what being “gender critical” is. It used to be the core of all forms of feminism, going back centuries. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. Challenging traditional gender roles is what distinguishes radical or GC feminists from rightwing conservatives. Alliances between these two groups is complicated and, in my view, very problematic.
I would argue that resisting patriarchy, including traditional gender roles based on male dominance and female submission, is one of the fundamentals of all human rights work. This work is now being pried loose from human rights, and especially women’s rights and the original aims of LGB rights, as the “T” has come to dominate all other progressive political movements. Even Black Lives Matter is caving in.
Radical feminists are adamantly opposed to the whole concept of gender stereotypes, and would like to abolish “gender”altogether as inherently demeaning to the female sex. I myself don’t think this is possible as I think gender predates and precedes patriarchy, but certainly the worst aspects of binary gender roles that are deeply connected to sex discrimination in our contemporary societies could be eliminated.
But there’s the thing. Traditional and restrictive binary gender roles are not just individual choices. They aren’t just what your individual personality might be. They are nobody’s “true self”. Gender is not just a performance or expression or identity. Gender is what we, AS A SOCIETY, call the roles, personalities, expression, appearance, expectations and behaviours we ascribe to women and men because of their sex. Gender isn’t just something that was randomly invented by marketing departments and advertising agencies (although it has certainly been exploited and exaggerated by them). Gender is how sexual differences between males and females are imagined within any human society. And in most human societies as they currently exist, gender is the most important way in which sex differences are regulated and controlled. Patriarchy reduces women to their sexual, reproductive and caregiving body parts in the service of male agendas. You cannot “identify as a woman”. Femaleness, as a physical and an historical social reality, is not an identity or an individual choice. Neither is maleness.
To be “non-binary” recognizes that we all live in a binary system, and that you yourself would like to reject this. That you don’t want to choose between one set of gender roles or another. So you choose a kind of androgynous identity to separate yourself from the ridiculous Barbie vs. GI Joe gender industry. That’s commendable, except for two big problems.
First, it won’t work. You cannot make the binary gender system called patriarchy disappear by simply telling yourself you’re no longer a part of it. The system is much bigger than any individual trying to be recognized as a person – not just as a girl or a boy. Individualism is part of the neo-liberal philosophy that underlies modern capitalism, especially in the US, that tries to convince us that everything is about individual choices. It is used successfully by corporations convincing us that the problems they create are really about what individual consumers do or don’t do. Our choices. Our fault. Climate change becomes about individuals buying electric cars or turning down the thermostat or “offsetting” carbon emissions from flying, instead of corporate responsibility by the fossil fuel industry (Exxon spent years successfully selling this along with climate change denial). Plastic pollution can be solved by individuals recycling plastic containers, or not buying them in the first place. It’s never about billion dollar industries making and marketing products made out of or packaged in plastic (another fossil fuel product by the way). Smoking? Just quit, or better yet, chew our anti-smoking product, or wear our anti-smoking patch! Substance abuse? “Just say no”. PTSD or other forms of trauma or mental illness? Let’s not look at a society run by corporate capitalist psychopaths who are killing, traumatizing and driving us mad. Individual therapy or more drugs is the answer. Born in the wrong body? Hormones and cosmetic surgery. Your choice. Our marketing opportunity. But all of this is a lie. Our choices are important, but only if they are made collectively and those who are really responsible (corporate and individual) are held accountable.
Declaring yourself to be non-binary can be the first step on the road to joining with others to change the system on a society-wide level. In which case, welcome to the fight! It can also be a positive individual step that offers girls, boys and young adults time to sort out who they are as adult human beings of either sex, or sexuality. But individual choices about presentation or appearance will not eliminate patriarchy, just as opting out of capitalism will not get rid of the oil industry, or the tobacco industry, or drugs, or the exploitation of women, men, and children, or the destruction of our natural environment. This is about something much bigger than pronouns or a haircut or new clothes or what your latest selfie looks like on Instagram.
The second major problem is, “non-binary” is the gateway for many people into the transgender industry, and its accompanying ideology, mostly consisting of a hodgepodge of critical queer theories and neo-liberal feminism. Climate change, pollution, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, violence and poverty are all real problems in the real world. Feeling as if you were born as the wrong sex “in the wrong body” is a form of mental illness – its delusional – similar to anorexic girls who think they’re too fat, or men who think beating up the women in their lives makes them strong. Indeed, these pathologies are related. Gender dysphoria, autogynophilia, addictions to pornography, sexually demeaning “liberation” for attention or cash, body disassociation, androgynous “non-binariness”, male violence fueled by hyper-masculinity, or the glorification of feminine objectification are not forms of rebellion either for or against gender. Quite the opposite. They are the delusions of sick individuals in a sick society bound by restrictive gender roles, whether attached to sexual difference, or detached and transed into fantasies borrowed from pornography or modern entertainment platforms such as gaming. Avatars and robots are fantasies or corporate products – they are not replacements for real humans in the real world. And women are not reducible to a soothing voice in a box, or a surrogate, or a “sex worker”, or an image in a man’s head, or even to working hands, a caring heart, or a vagina, a cervix, a uterus, ovaries, breasts, that “collection of lucrative holes” many men see us as.
Gender dysphoria might be treatable by actual physical transformation through puberty blockers, or hormone therapies, or cosmetic surgeries (just as some of these products were originally used to castrate sexual offenders) but the bodily changes will never be more than superficial and will not change your sex. Those physical changes are also expensive, dangerous, debilitating forms of bodily mutilation that will turn you into a permanent prisoner of the medical side of the transgender industry. The ideology is pure corporate capitalism. It is a lie, conflating gender with sex. It is destroying people’s lives, especially those of children and young people, and the “widows” of men or women reinventing themselves to match an image of gender they have in their heads – the performance of talented actors on Oprah, and YouTube influencers, notwithstanding.
As for the trans individuals who do not make any physical changes to their bodies, nor plan to, but simply claim to be the opposite sex manifested by cross-dressing and superficial “gender bending”, you are liars or fools. Many of you are predatory men’s rights activists. And feminists who call themselves transgender allies, you are handmaids to patriarchy, not feminists.
In any attempt to understand Indigenous approaches to environmental issues, it is necessary to explore a very different world viewfrom that of most environmentalists, including myself. It means letting go, for awhile at least, of one’s preconceptions about land, air, water, energy, technology, and civilization, and instead put one’s self into a world in which all humans who have ever lived used to be born into, lived in, and understood, as a world of community and relationships among all living things. This is a world which has gradually become so deeply colonized by patriarchal urban civilizations from ancient Egypt, China and Europe to America, that this older world has become hard to find. But it is not impossible – the “Peoples of the Earth” never disappeared. But it’s a world our modern eyes can hardly see, and our current mental maps can barely comprehend. The closest I have found to this understanding within Eurocentric environmental philosophies are some of the eco-feminist perspectives outlined in Part II (which tend to get ignored in “mainstream”environmental thinking), and something called “Deep Green” vs. “Bright Green” environmentalism:
Although more and more people agree that we must undertake massive changes to address the environmental crises, there is disagreement as to what approach to take. At the risk of oversimplification, most solutions fall into one of two camps. We call them “Bright Green” and “Deep Green.” Bright Green solutions rely on government legislation, technological innovations and structural adjustments. Examples include massive investments in energy efficiency, developing cleaner energy sources, reducing car dependence, and converting to local and organic agriculture. Bright Green tends to emphasize the positive, and eschew anger and fear as counter-productive. Deep Green solutions are based on the belief that technological innovations, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably lead to accelerated resource depletion and more pollution. It views the reliance on technology to address the crises as akin to putting out a fire with gasoline. The Deep Green is more likely to look at pre-industrial and pre-civilization ways of living as solutions to the crises. In fact, many believe that the quicker we dismantle the apparatus of our civilization, the greater chance we have for survival.
Bright Green and Deep Green do overlap in their shared desire for structural adjustments. The main difference here would be in “how much” and “how quickly.” Whereas Bright Green wants us to ease into changes that won’t alienate people, Deep Green sees an urgency for profound change and that it is unavoidable that this will be a difficult transition. The Bright Green movement, because it “feels” better and does not threaten the dominant power structure, gets the vast majority of attention in the press and in public discourse. . . . [But] . . . The environmental crisis we face is so massive that, at a minimum, we need to consider every possible strategy. https://www.fertilegroundinstitute.org/what-is-deep-green.html
For most humans, throughout most of our time on this planet, space was not a visual abstraction as seen from above (as in the maps at the end of this section). It was much more specific. Living and traveling in a particular area over thousands of years, people came to know the land in precise detail. It is not simply space, but place. Much of it is marked by generations of interactions between people, animals, sea, ice, and the land, as told in stories passed on from elders to the young for thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of years. In these stories, places become sacred, while stories, songs and other forms of human creation become different kinds of maps or ways of knowing the land. Maps are not only visual, but oral. The land itself takes on character and personality associated with stories of the ancestors, gods, spirit-beings, heroes, monsters, first peoples, animals, plants, creators, and tricksters. This is not to suggest that Indigenous peoples did not make visual maps. Inuit made very precise maps:
In Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), the Inuit people are known for carving portable maps out of driftwood to be used while navigating coastal waters. These pieces, which are small enough to be carried in a mitten, represent coastlines in a continuous line, up one side of the wood and down the other. The maps are compact, buoyant, and can be read in the dark. https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/inuit-cartography/.
For Indigenous people to leave their land can be a difficult experience. This does not mean that Indigenous peoples always remain in one place. Many have moved around continents, or from one continent to another, sometimes covering vast distances over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years. For example, the ancestors of Athapaskan or Dene speaking peoples moved east from Siberia to Alaska (and then possibly back again to become the Yeniseian or Ket peoples), then south from Alaska down the Pacific coast to California where some remained, while others moved east over the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert to where they now live as the Dineh/Navaho and Apache Nations. Unlike many Indigenous peoples since colonization, the Navaho still occupy much of their original territory. The movements of some of these people is recounted in the Navaho creation story of Changing Woman and her children as they moved from one place to another. (Zolbrod, Paul G. Dine bahane: The Navaho Creation Story, University of New Mexico Press, 1984). Other Athapaskan peoples travelled northeast and then south, creating the Dene nations of the sub-Arctic boreal forest, and the Rocky Mountain region of what is now British Columbia. The history and geography of these movements looks quite different from an Indigenous as opposed to a Eurocentric perspective.
For those of us of European, Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, our ancestors also traveled enormous distances. Indo-European peoples originated in the southwestern grassland steppe region of Central Asia from about 6000 to 8000 years ago. Their culture and languages migrated with them from about 4500 BCE as they traveled both east into Iran and the Altai region of northwest China, south to Vedic India, and west into Europe. They are probably the first peoples to use wheeled transport and to domesticate horses for pulling wagons, ploughs and chariots, and later, riding. They were the original bronze age horse warriors, replacing what may have been ancient matriarchal cultures throughout Eurasia with deeply patriarchal and war-like civilizations from the Hittite Empire, Persians, the original Aryans of northern India, and the many branches of European language speakers from Russian to Irish, Icelandic to Spanish, Italian and Greek. Eventually, the descendants of these Indo-Europeans conquered the world. (Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2007; Gimbutas, Marija The Civilization of the Goddess, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991). It is perhaps interesting that the last great flowering of warrior horse cultures occurred in the 19th century as Lakota, Blackfoot, Cree, Comanche and Apache peoples on the Great Plains of North America adopted horses from Spanish-speaking settlers to create the iconic image of the Native American.
A Spider’s Web
According to the Lakota theologian and historian Vine Deloria Jr. in Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths:
The quarrel between evolutionists and creationists focuses on the explanation of a possible Earth history. Was it long and tedious, featuring gradual or even rapid episodes of organic growth from tiny molecules? Or was it a sudden creative blossoming of life forms with or without a creator? . . . The flaw in both Western scientific and religious thinking begins with the reception of the Old Testament by early gentile Christian converts in the Greco-Roman world. Accepting Genesis as the exclusive explanation of planetary history, they embraced the idea of a linear unfolding of cosmic time beginning in the Garden of Eden. St. Augustine firmly implanted the idea of the absolute progression of time in the Western mind so that it became a philosophical constant. Science simply appropriated linear history from Christianity when it sought to answer the question of origins. That appropriation now forces us to link everything in one grand temporal scenario in which life struggles from single-celled creatures to the complexity we find today. (p.131)
Our Eurocentric view of space as the mapping of one spot, on a two-dimensional projection of the world, to another is very similar to our ideas about time. We see history as moving through time from a beginning to an end. Sir Isaac Newton established the physics of the 18th and 19th centuries as a set of laws governing gravity, motion, space and time. He saw reality as a branching chain of cause and effect on a static background of space in which any future event could be determined if all past and existing variables could be known. By the early 20th century the deterministic universe of cause and effect was upended at both the largest and the smallest scales. Albert Einstein proposed in the special theory of relativity that matter and energy were essentially interchangeable (E = mc2) and that all motion is relative. He expanded this in the general theory of relativity to create a vision of the universe in which space and time exist as a space/time continuum. Matter and energy create disturbances or ripples within this continuum leading to effects that Isaac Newton had earlier identified as a force known as gravity. Meanwhile, at the smallest scale, cause and effect seem to disappear altogether as the tiniest sub-atomic units, or quanta, interact in ways that seem utterly strange to the world of visible light and substantial matter in which we live. Change can occur simultaneously between particles at massive distances with no seeming connection or communication (non-locality), while matter and energy behave as either particles or waves in unpredictable ways that can seem quite mysterious. The presence or activities of an observer (whether conscious or mechanical) seems to be a necessary part of this behaviour. Scientific discovery became essentially a matter of mathematical probabilities in which nothing is certain.
According to Professor Leroy Little Bear in Philosophy and Aboriginal Rights: Critical Dialogues the Blackfoot vision of the universe is one of constant flux, movement and change. It is not linear.
In the Native mind, there’s no notion of something being static. It’s constant flux in motion; flux that’s forever moving, forming, transforming, and deforming. If you could picture a geodesic spider web in motion, you’ll begin to see what we mean by a flux. (p.9)
The relationship between quantum physics to the spider’s web and flux of Indigenous thought is captured in David F. Peat’s ground-breaking work Blackfoot Physics. Professor Little Bear, working within an oral tradition rather than through a literary contribution, essentially co-authored the book through his conversations with Professor Peat. Blackfoot science and quantum (rather than Newtonian) physics bear some startling resemblances. The importance of the “arrow of time”, causation, and a lingering adherence to Newtonian physics differ radically from Indigenous histories of creation, journey, return, and sacred space.
Any discussion of relationships between people and the land – as in an examination of human interactions with the environment – needs to do more than simply acknowledge the existence of Indigenous perspectives, and then move onto a Western approach, whether scientific or historical. We cannot just begin our story “from the beginning” whenever that might be. Within Indigenous theories of the universe, there may well have been a beginning, but it is not necessarily about a specific point in time. It is more about relationships, renewal and the sacredness of place.
The difference is perhaps best exemplified by a story from the oral tradition of the Mi’kmaq of Atlantic Canada. In the story “Bring-back-animals” some men meet a stranger near their village who has a stone canoe and lives with his grandmother (named Nukumi) in a wigwam in the forest. This strange man is Kluskap, the hero of many Indigenous stories on the east coast of Canada and New England. He has the power to bring life back to the dead animals he has hunted or fished by chanting to their bones. He begins by saying to the men “I have lived here since the world began. I have my grandmother, she was here when the world was made.”
The man is a hero not only to humans, but also to the animals he revives. The phrase “I have lived here since the world began” is not a reference to a specific point in time. Rather, it begins the story of the relationship between humans and animals in the world as it has been known since creation – not through “time’s arrow”, but through the repeating circles of the Earth’s seasons, the sun, the moon and stars. It is about human responsibilities toward animals, and the gift of life that animals bring to humans. All of this is under the guidance of Kluskap, who has lived here “since the world began” and his grandmother who “was here when the world was made.”
A Newtonian perspective sees space as a blank background for events that occur over time, where time has a constant clock-work precision. Einstein’s theories of relativity reject this vision of space for a fluid “space/time”. Quantum physics seems to have made a chronological flow of time through cause and effect improbable. Indigenous perspectives are less about a linear progression from one point in time to another than they are about movement through space in which time and space are fundamentally connected. Causation is still there, but in an active rather than a passive sense. In a passive or deterministic universe, one event seems to lead inexorably towards another, as Newton envisioned and by which most of us of Eurasian descent are still deeply influenced. Both Indigenous perspectives and quantum physics seem to depend on active participation by observers and agents in order to create stability in the flux of time and space through observation and ceremony. All sentient beings from mountains, rivers, the Earth, the sea to plants and animals play a role in this. Humans have a special responsibility to maintain the rituals and the natural laws which keep all this in balance. We owe this responsibility to “all our relations” both human and non-human.
The land itself provides guidance. The stories of Indigenous history are almost always about places in a specific landscape, not a chronology of specific events. It is not just about sacred or secular history. In Indigenous thought there is no such separation. It is more a kind of sacred geography – the land, the water, the ice, the sky. And this sacred geography is not just for humans, but for all living beings. Active participants in the ongoing creation of the universe are not simply divine or human – they are everything and everywhere. Most non-Indigenous environmentalists, unless they are working within a religious or theological perspective, reject importing notions of the sacred into ecology or climate change. Instead, we insist on a secular scientific perspective. But, this perspective is often still within a Newtonian scientific world-view that remains stubbornly resistant to developments within Western science itself over the past century. This is partly because Newton himself was operating within an Enlightenment tradition which was actively rebelling against the dominance of the Church that had existed for the previous thousand years. Modern environmental sciences, including climatology, ecology and ocean sciences, still actively resist any engagement with the “sacred”, or misinterpret it as necessarily mystical or metaphysical, when in fact it is, from Indigenous perspectives, deeply physically rooted in the material world.
As Keith H. Bosso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache:
As conceived by Apaches from . . . the past is a well-worn ‘path’ or ‘trail’ (‘intin’) which was traveled first by the people’s founding ancestors and which subsequent generations of Apaches have traveled ever since. Beyond the memories of living persons, this path is no longer visible – the past has disappeared – and thus it is unavailable for direct consultation and study. For this reason, the past must be constructed – which is to say, imagined – with the aid of historical materials, sometimes called ‘footprints’ or ‘tracks’ (biké’ goz’ấấ), that have survived into the present. These materials come in various forms, including Apache place-names, Apache stories and songs, and different kinds of relics . . . Because no one knows when these phenomena came into being, locating past events in time can be accomplished only in a vague and general way. This is of little consequence, however, for what matters most to Apaches is where events occurred, not when, and what they serve to reveal about the development and character of Apache social life. In light of these priorities, temporal considerations, though certainly not irrelevant, are accorded secondary importance. (p.31)
Renewal ceremonies, stories, even jokes, get repeated every year in order to ensure that order is maintained over chaos. Humans, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, spirits all play a role in maintaining balance within this constant universal dance. Indigenous peoples – without exception as far as I can tell – traditionally identify with a specific place, their relations with everything in that place, and their responsibilities to keep that place and themselves in harmony. This is true even where people choose, or are forced to, move. Certain places have a sacred power where creation continues to occur. And not just for humans. Everything is alive, everything is part of the web of creation that needs to be maintained. Some Indigenous people give thanks by saying “all my relations” while lifting up their hands. This includes all life within their circle of place and relationship. It is an act of gratitude and respect. It’s never about the “been there, done that . . . move on” approach identified by Little Bear as so common to a linear mindset. It is about survival on the land in which the people and all of life (present, ancestral and future) must continue to exist together. Without that constant attention to renewal, ceremony and relationship, the continual flux and change within creation becomes unbalanced. (Little Bear, Philosophy and Aboriginal Rights, pp.9-18).
Of course, many Indigenous peoples have had to adapt to lives without their land and without connection with these old relationships. But this loss creates enormous social and cultural pain on top of all the other problems associated with colonization. Surprisingly settlers and migrants often suffer this same sense of loss, producing an insatiable desire to recreate the old connections that existed from “where they are from” in this strange new land. This does not seem to have created any social or cultural empathy with the people being displaced from these new lands. Settlers and migrants of the past few centuries have not yet had time to learn the land sufficiently well to keep their relations in balance. Even worse, many of us do not seem to think this is important, although environmental degradation and climate change seem to be waking people up to the damage we are doing. The imbalance within creation that Little Bear has identified is clearly upon us now.
Tewa (Pueblo) scientist and philosopher Gregory Cajete identifies five general principles within Native American thought. It is worth quoting his observations in full:
First, they [American Indian spiritual traditions] lack a particular espoused doctrine of religion. Indian languages do not even have a word for religion; rather, the words used refer to a way of living, a tradition of the people. This reflects an orientation to a process rather than to an intellectual structure. Spiritual traditions are tools for learning and experiencing rather than ends in themselves.
Second, Indian spiritual traditions hold that spoken words and language have a quality of spirit because they are expressions of human breath. Language in the form of prayer and song has therefore a life energy that can affect other energy and life forms toward certain ends. For American Indians, language used in a spiritual, evocative, or affective context is “sacred” and has to be used responsibly.
Third, the creative act of making something with spiritual intent – what today is often called art – has its own quality and spiritual power that needs to be understood and respected. In fact, for Native Americans, art traditionally was a result of a creative process that was an act and expression of the spirit and was therefore sacred.
The fourth principle is the notion that life and spirit, the dual faces of the Great Mystery, move in never-ending cycles of creation and dissolution; therefore, ceremonial forms, life activities, and the transformations of spirit are cyclical. These cycles in turn follow visible and invisible patterns of nature and the cosmos. In response to this creative principle, ritual cycles are used to structure and express the sacred in the communal context of traditional Native American life.
The fifth principle is the shared understanding that nature is the true “ground” of spiritual reality. The forms and faces of nature are expressions of spirit whose qualities interpenetrate the life and process of human spirituality; therefore, for American Indians and Indigenous peoples as a whole, nature is sacred and a spiritual ecology is reflected throughout. (p.264)
The worlds of spirit and matter are not separate – they are two different faces of the “Great Mystery” of the cosmos. Indigenous science is based on this dual reality which can be unified. The emphasis is on the process of change within circles of time, not primarily on cause and effect (although this too has a role in the interpretation of the land and the practical knowledge that goes with it).
The Trickster is frequently misunderstood by non-Indigenous peoples (including myself) and, like shamanism, can be appropriated in ways that do not reflect the complexity of this figure within Indigenous sacred philosophies. He (he is almost always a “he”) can take many forms – Raven, Coyote, Jack Rabbit, Spider-woman, Kluskap – the strange man “who has been here since the world began” – all can be seen as Tricksters. Within Anishinabe thought he is often called Nanabozho or Nanabush. He is a spirit of creation and transformation, although he is not the Creator of all things. His actions often seem unpredictable, annoying or even dangerous. But he also reminds people of the way to live a good life. Professor John Borrows tells the story of how Nanabush woke people up one day from sadness, lethargy and despair. “He finally spoke, and reproved the people for their foolishness. He chastised them for forgetting their power of re-creation and regeneration.” (Borrows, Drawing Out Law, pp.14-16). He gathered the people around the central fire and threw stones he had gathered from a stream up into the air. They changed into beautiful colours, and then into butterflies. The children laughed, the dogs began to bark, and the adults soon began smiling. Joy returned to the land as people remembered the beauty and power of everything around them, and their own roles in maintaining creation in balance.
Nanabush had taken something that was seemingly ordinary and transformed it to create new life. He [Mishomis] wondered how many other people remembered these deeper laws about hope and healing. The land and their old stories had much to teach them about how to live well in the world. . . . The powers of regeneration and re-creation were literally at hand. (p.16)
Another origin story is told on the Pacific West Coast in a poem by the Haida poet Skaay. This story describes how four Indigenous nations of the Northwest Coast were called up out of the earth by the Trickster Raven (in this incarnation he is known as Voicehandler’s Heir):
After Voicehandler’s Heir had walked back and forth, he stamped on the ground to the right of the doorway.The earth split open at his feet.Someone held a drum up from underneath the ground,and a line formed behind it.He went to the opposite side.He stamped there too.“Even dirt can turn to human beings.”Someone lifted up a drum in that place too.He did it again in the back of the house at one side.Someone lifted a drum in that place too.He did it again on the opposite side.Then there were four lines streaming.
Tsimshian, Haida, People from the Distant Coast, and Tlingitwere singing their songs from his uncle’s house.And while they were singing, his uncle was saying,“Well, we have plenty of food!”They arranged themselves in the house,and a crowd of people gathered near the doorto serve the meal. (A Story as Sharp as a Knife, p.260)
As Bringhurst, who collected and translated these poems and stories, says:
Human beings . . . did not make their own way to the surface of the earth for their own purposes. They were summoned to the surface from their place within the earth because the spirit-beings needed them to stage a celebration. (p.261)
Humans are always part of a web of life which includes spirit-beings like the Trickster in his many manifestations, animals, birds, fish, plants, mountains, rocks and rivers. Raven’s uncle in the story of Voicehandler’s Heir is Qinggi who incarnates the largest mountain in southeastern Haida Gwaii and is “its resident deity, spirit or killer whale.” (p.259) Humans are necessary because they can perform the ceremonies, celebrations and rituals required to keep creation in balance.
Complexity and Unity
E. Richard Atleo of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island describes, in Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis, that “reality” is a unified whole or “tsawalk (one)” in which “relationships are qua (that which is)”.
The ancient Nuu-chah-nulth assumed an interrelationship between all life forms – humans, plants and animals. Relationships are. Accordingly, social, political, economic, constitutional, environmental, and philosophical issues can be addressed under the single theme of interrelationships, across all dimensions of reality – the material and non-material, the visible and the invisible. (p.ix)
He goes on to discuss the problem of crisis and violence in our current world order:
. . . according to the theory of tsawalk (one), any planetary stage of crisis must, by definition, be a shared responsibility, a shared experience. The Nuu-chah-nulth notion that reality is fundamentally an interconnected and interrelated whole regardless of its seeming polarity, its seeming contradictions, has been interpreted historically in one of two ways. The first is indicated by what [Samuel] Huntingdon defines as the progress of civilization, which, it is argued, sets the current stage of crisis. This crisis is defined as one of interrelationships between humans and between humans and other life forms. In this interpretation of reality, the practice has been to eliminate opposition to, for example, the imagined ideal of progress. Until recently, this has meant the extirpation of non-European beliefs and lifeways through legislation and policy. This has involved a process of resource extraction that has proven degrading to nature. . .
The second interpretation of the Nuu-chah-nulth notion of a unified but polarized reality remains largely peripheral to centres of power and influence. In this interpretation the focus is on the development of sustainable relationships between life forms. In other words, it is on managing polarity by working to transform the inherent contradictions of reality into a sustainable balance and harmony so that all life forms can continue to live. This interpretation of the interrelated characteristic of reality seeks not to eliminate opposition but, rather, to employ the natural oppositions and apparent contradictions of reality to realize wholeness. (pp.57-58)
This idea that reality is a complex process which is inherently unified or one, despite its seeming contradictions, insists that humans have a shared responsibility to find balance and harmony – to create order out of potential chaos. This is not just a philosophical or religious ideal, nor is it simply a metaphor or myth. It has very concrete, practical implications. It really is about survival.
The land is central to this process of “survival through relationships and harmony”. Knowledge is not exchanged – it is a gift learned through ceremony, and the renewal of ceremonies over generations. Respect for ancestral knowledge, adaptation to new conditions, and the protection of the world for future generations, are all central to Indigenous thought. Everyone and everything relies on the Earth for life and wellbeing. This is an ancient truth which modern humans not only have forgotten, but resist as a basic principle of life on this planet. Even many environmentalists, particularly of the “Bright Green” majority, simply will not see the connections between resource extraction, depletion and destruction as the “primitive accumulation” upon which our modern political economies rest, and that this logic of consumption is not sustainable under any technological or structural adjustment regime we can imagine or invent within our current ways of thinking. Eco-feminist perspectives based on relational perspectives, or, more broadly, on an “ethic of care” as outlined in Part II, have a strong connection to Indigenous ways of thinking even where these are not explicitly examined in any depth, or are misinterpreted. (See Mies, Maria and Shiva, Vandana Eco-Feminism, Zed Books, 1993).
For Inuit of the Arctic this process of survival means observing rules that protect the land so that the people and animals can live. As the late elder Mariano Aupilaarjuk explains in Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut:
We used to get told not to live in one area too long; Inuit thought the land would carry sickness if lived in for too long or the animals would get scarce. They didn’t like to live in lands that didn’t have animals. They used to move camp all the time because they wanted to stay on healthy land. The land we lived on when we have been in certain areas and come back to them, it is like being welcomed by the land. Even where there are no people on the land, there is a feeling that the land is really yours. (p.121)
This feeling of ownership is not about property, about buying and selling and then moving on, it is about belonging and guardianship. Animals also have to be respected. The late Inuit elder Lucien Ukaliannuk used to teach that you should not talk about polar bears as they can hear you and may be offended. Living on the land or hunting on the ice with polar bears nearby means learning to respect their presence and power. In addition, humans and other animals used to be able to transform into one another. Shamans or angakkuit had this power. Because animals, especially polar bears, are so closely related to us it is necessary to respect them. They also give us life. There are laws or maligait about how to greet guests, share food, treat animals killed for food and all other aspects of life. Not all these rules are still followed. Since the introduction of Christianity, relocation off the land into settlements, residential schools and the imposition of government control over so much of Inuit life, many of these rules were forbidden or have dropped from use (Ukaliannuk, oral teachings). But, as Aupilaarjuk says in Interviewing Inuit Elders: Perspectives on Traditional Law:
Let us think of the Earth as a woman. The Earth is very big and strong and gives us food. A woman is also very strong. She feeds the children and helps them grow. We are not to misuse our wives, we are to take good care of them. We also have to take care of our Earth so that it is not misused or exploited. (p.17)
In Inuktitut, the Inuit language of the Eastern Arctic, the word for both the environment and intelligence is sila. Silajuaq is the universe or the powerful spirit of the air. Silatuniq means the knowledge of the old ones, or wisdom. As Jaypeetee Arnakak has said:
I truly believe in this Sila and the means with which Inuit shamanism accessed its depths and breadth through suffering and fasting. It is through suffering that the phenomenal self lets go and equanimity is achieved, clarity is achieved. Nature is indifferent; it cares nothing for our limited conceptions of “good” and “bad”, “evil” and “beneficence”. This insight can either kill us or liberate within us unbounded creativity.
The concept of Silatuniq can help bring about a true balanced relationship with the environment and the universe that is fundamentally ethical, not economic. But there is a problem, as Arnakak points out:
. . . this Silatuniq may contradict dominant cultural assumptions for everyday living. Beyond the narrowing dynamics of cultural assumptions, colonial pressures, and expanding climate impacts, this dialogue suggests a fourth dynamic is limiting the breadth of interdisciplinary and intercultural research on Sila’s northern warming: the West’s rational rejection of shamanic or spiritual wisdom for socially contextualizing knowledge. Book, pp.290-291.
Reconciling Sacred Places with Secular Histories
On the west coast of Alaska is a community known as Unalakleet, or Uŋalaqłiq, an Iñupiaq name meaning “from the southern side”. It is just south of Cape Denbigh where an ancient village site known as Iyatayet is located. It is one of the oldest human settlement sites in Alaska. The archeologist J. Louis Giddings uncovered evidence of settlements going back at least 5000 years including the remains of a Thule/Inuit village (Nukleet), an older settlement which is between 2500 and 3000 years old, and the even older remains of the Arctic small tool tradition or Denbigh Flint Complex going back at least 4500 to 5000 years. Each of these layers indicates a succession of cultures similar to other sites found all over the Arctic. It is possible this site is where the original Inuit (Iñupiaq and Yup’ik) settled after leaving Siberia. Iñupiaq and Yup’ik are closely related and speak languages that can be mutually understood. Uŋalaqłiq, the modern settlement a little to the south, has been a meeting and trading place for Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Athapaskan speaking peoples from the Alaskan interior for thousands of years.
There is another way to tell the story of this important place in the history of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska. This is a short version as told by the elder and story teller Tikasuk (Emily Ivanov Brown) who was born in Uŋalaqłiq in 1904:
Ayaatayat [Iyatayet], the original village at Cape Denbigh, is the grandfather of all the Eskimo villages in that area. It was the very first organized community and was established maybe 10,000 years ago. The present village of Cape Denbigh is built on this same site.
My Aunt Kiiriq’s ancestral tribesmen lived at this first village and handed down their history to her by word of mouth; she repeated it over and over, until it became part of her. As she repeated it to me, I wrote it down, and I now pass it on to the reader. One of the stories she told me is this epic legend which follows, in which the main character is an eagle-man.
The eagle-man lived with his parents on the south tip of a peninsula which had a high cliff. Like many characters found in Unaliq [Yup’ik] legends, this man was capable of turning from human to animal (an eagle, in this case) and vice-versa. When he was transformed into an eagle, he was a great flyer, had the instincts of an eagle, and was able to hunt sea mammals by clawing them. Whenever he returned to his home on the cliff, he transformed himself into a human.
The story begins with life among the surviving members of the eagle-men who lived at the end of Cape Denbigh peninsula as cliff dwellers. This peninsula, which, according to legend, was once an island, lies between Norton Bay on the western side and the Shaktoolik (Saqtuliq) mountain range on the eastern side. The distance between the island and the mountain range is about eighteen miles. The area of the sea eventually receded, and the lowland that formed there became a bridge between Cape Denbigh Island and the eastern mountain range. Many years were required for this process, and the land was not inhabited until the latter part of an era when supernatural giants and eagle-men lived in this particular area.
Just before the expiration of the first known era of supernatural beings, the first human family migrated to the virgin tundra and settled on the coast of this eighteen-mile stretch of lowland. The legend teller himself did not know who they were or where they came from, but he thought they came from the south. This family had only one child, and she was a young woman. The surviving family of eagle-men was an aged mother and her son. Since the father had died, this only son had become a great hunter. His aged mother, though quite feeble, was able to live a long life with her son.
One evening when he returned home from his flights over the countryside, the eagle-man surprised his mother by bringing back a female human [the daughter of the first humans]. This female was destined to become a prime factor in the change of supernatural humanity to natural man, and to bring about the move from the cliffs to a new homesite called Ayaatayat [Iyatayet].
When the eagle-man moved his family to Ayaatayat, or Nukleet, the first community at Cape Denbigh cove, his supernatural ability ceased to function and he lost his eagle skin and tail. According to the legend, this was a stage of transition, and he lived a life of duality while he built a home on the eastern slope of Cape Denbigh. . . . (Tales of Ticasuk, pp.3-4)
There is much more to this story, just as there is much more to learn from the Iyatayet archeological site where this story was first told. Which version is true? Both are recounting human relationships with the land. The “legend” is much richer, more detailed, and pays close attention to the formation of the land itself. The archeological story may be more accurate in terms of dates and objects, but it doesn’t explain why people were there.
Are these stories really connected? Do they reflect a natural commonality of human experience that used to exist everywhere? Can that human connection between ourselves and the Earth be reclaimed? What can we learn from these older stories that recount how our ancestors and many Indigenous peoples survived and still survive? Where can we find the truth of our collective connections within ourselves, with each other, and with the place where we live – Earth? Given the radically different approaches to be found, how can the history of Indigenous peoples and settlers be reconciled or, perhaps, transformed? How do we re-envision past, present and future within the primacy of place – secular history with sacred geography? And how does this relate to our current tangle of environmental and social crises in which science, history, space and time appear to be taking us over the edge of a cliff. If Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives cannot be reconciled or transformed, can we survive the massive changes we are all facing? Mariya Gimbutas (cited above) attempts to recreate a history of “Old Europe” that existed for thousands of years before those Bronze Age horse warriors came sweeping across Eurasia with their chariots, swords and patriarchal ways of living from which our modern imperial cultures seem to be directly descended. Our own dilemmas seem far removed from that ancient confrontation (if it ever actually occurred) between an ancestral matriarchal way of life and what we have now. From the invention of the wheel to the invention of the lithium battery seems like a big leap. Is it?
The space between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in North and Central America, or Australia, or in many other places, might not seem that important to those of us who are not Indigenous to a particular place. As settlers who are in relative positions of occupation and power, we have the luxury of ignorance or indifference. Someone like me might argue that I too have a strong attachment to a specific place – “I’m a Canadian living in my own house on five acres of forest on the northern Sunshine Coast of British Columbia in the Pacific Northwest of North America”. Or I might claim an attachment to an ancestral homeland somewhere else – “I was born in Middleton, on the northeast coast of Nova Scotia” or “My ancestors come from northeastern Scotland (with some also from England, Ireland and Germany). But I definitely feel Scottish, maybe even Pictish!” Or we might say “we’re all human”, or these things are “universal” and their attachment to specific peoples and places “don’t matter”. Indigenous answers to the question “Where are you from?” usually identify someone who has a long history connected to a particular place, to somewhere whose stories reveal deep histories and geographies of “country” – sea, sky, water, ice, people, living creatures, plants, formations of the land, ancestors, spirits – from where they come from. Since many Indigenous peoples around the world have been displaced because of settlers moving onto and taking their land (which is as true of Scotland as it is of anywhere else) many of these stories have become buried or are now told by people who spend little or no time in the places where these stories come from. Or they are written down and read in solitude by unrelated people in strange places, what Thomas King calls “private stories”. But these stories are central to who we are, where we come from, and what we have lost. As the Elders and their languages die, these stories can also become lost.
Stories are the narrative structures that connect people and all life, over time, to specific places.
As Thomas King retells in The Truth about Stories:
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. The Okanagan storyteller Jeannette Armstrong tells us that “Through my language I understand I am being spoken to, I’m not the one speaking. The words are coming from many tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the language’s stories, and when my words form, I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns.” (p.2) and
The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that “In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. On way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives. (p.153)
The stories we tell may either be stories from the place where we come from, and the people and living creatures who have lived there – “stories planted in us”; or they can be stories we tell ourselves that have no real place, no ancestors we really know, no relationships beyond the trivial, the casual, the imaginary, the temporary, or the neurotic. Meaningful stories take time and many tellings, from generations of tellers. They are by definition communal, not just individual. They can change with each teller, or with the passage of time, because everything changes. Stories connect us to the reality of time and space. Big stories, or very old stories, are almost always sacred because they are about the long-term relationships we all have with life, our lives, and the matter, energy, spirit, and consciousness from which life is created. I am not talking about religion, which is another kind of story.
The answer to the question “Where are you from?” is deeply revealing of who you are.
The answer may point to a very big place through which people traditionally moved throughout the year following animals to hunt, fish or plants to gather, or to reconnect with family and friends. Inuit used to travel hundreds of miles every year by dogsled or boat. They knew the land, the ice, the water, the weather of every place they traveled through or lived in. As Siila Watt-Cloutier introduces us to her life in The Right to Be Cold she begins:
For the first ten years of my life, I travelled only by dog team. As the youngest child of four on our family hunting and ice-fishing trips, I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled. I would view the vast expanses of Arctic sky and feel the crunching of the snow and the ice below me as our dogs, led by my brothers, Charlie and Elijah, carried us safely across the frozen land. I remember just as vividly the Arctic summer scenes that slipped by as I sat in the canoe on the way to our hunting and fishing grounds. The world was blue and white and rocky, and defined by the things that had an immediate bearing on us – the people who helped and cared for us, the dogs that gave us their strength, the water and land that nurtured us. The Arctic may seem cold and dark to those who don’t know it well, but for us a day of hunting and fishing brought the most succulent, nutritious food. Then there would be the intense joy as we gathered together as family and friends, sharing and partaking of the same animal in a communal meal. To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with ice and snow. (pp.vii-viii).
Or, it can be a comparatively small place, like the land of the Tla’amin Nation, the Klahoose and Homalco peoples in and around what is now Powell River, British Columbia, and the K’omoks Nation on Vancouver Island. The places may seem small, but the land itself is still big – a rich world of forest, ocean, mountains, lakes, fiords, and rockbound islands. The stories help to connect people to specific places, but they can also resonate throughout a bigger landscape.
In the first part of Tla’amin Elder Elsie Paul’s book Written as I Remember It, in the chapter “Where I Come From”, she relates one of many “legends” or stories about the land and sea. This story is about how “Twins Are Gifted” in which a healer and his twin brother could “really reach each other so well, they could feel, they could sense what the other one was doing”. In this story the healer’s brother went to fish on the “other side of Texada Island” where he and his companion got trapped by a storm. They were gone for two or three nights when the twins’ mother became very worried. The healer, Felix, “lit his fire and called upon the energy, the spirits around him, and reached out to his brother.” When the brother came home, he said “his brother found him over there” in the shape of lightning from Blubber Bay at the north end of Texada Island towards the two fishermen. “So he said to his travelling companion, ‘That was my brother. He’s looking for me. Now he’s gone. He’s found us.’” “[T]he special way in which twins were regarded” is sometimes generalized by anthropologists across the Coast Salish peoples, but the story looks like it can be traced to Elsie Paul’s great-uncle. (pp.81-83). As Elsie herself says:
And to me I don’t doubt that that happened. That was the story that was always told in our family. So workin’ with things, like, workin’ with nature, that they were able to use the resources – that nature was the resources of the people. Whatever it was, the water, the lightning, the animals, the birds. Everything’s connected. And in that particular case it was the lightning that found a way for them. (p.83, italics from original).
An Indigenous person’s ancestors may have arrived on their land within the last thousand years (such as the Inuit in the Eastern Arctic), or they may have roots going back millennia, such as the peoples of the North American Pacific Coast. Archeological and genetic evidence indicate that many, perhaps all, peoples of the Tla’amin area where I now live are direct descendants of people who arrived here more than 3000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence found on Ahgykson Island, formerly Harwood Island, just off the coast of the Tla’amin Nation’s main village site, Sliammon. Just to north of the Sunshine Coast, on an island in Heiltsuk territory near Bella Bella, archaeologists have uncovered a village site 14,000 years old, confirming oral history of very long-term continuous settlement in the area.
The first Egyptian pyramids were built about 5000 years ago. Han Chinese civilization did not begin to coalesce into the “Celestial Kingdom” until about 3000 years ago. Rome rose and fell in the space of less than 1000 years, and the Western civilizations of Europe and its colonial offshoots are about 500 years old. Given the age of the Heiltsuk and other sites along the Pacific Coast, it is likely that the original settlement of Tla’amin is much older than 3000 years. Indigenous communities in southern Africa, such as the San peoples, have lived near what may have been their original settlements for as long as 170,000 years. The oldest known continuous Indigenous communities in the world are in Australia, going back perhaps as long as 80,000 to 120,000 years.
My own background is typical of most settlers. On my mother’s side my ancestors are Scottish and German. The Scottish half arrived in Canada from the fever-infected slums of Glasgow a little over a hundred years ago. They probably originated in the Northeastern Highlands but, like so many Scots, were forced off their land into menial work on the big estates or into the cities. My Scottish Canadian ancestors settled in Southern Ontario and most of my relatives on that side still live in and around Toronto. My maternal grandmother’s family originally came from Bavaria in southern Germany (with a touch of French thrown in later) and have lived in Southern Ontario since the late 18th century. They moved to Williamsburg, Ontario from New York under the leadership of the Reverend Johann Wilhelm Samuel Schwerdtfeger, my great grandfather many times removed. He was the first Lutheran Minister in Ontario. He was born in Burgbernheim, Bavaria but emigrated to the American colonies as a young man around 1745. I do not know for sure, but it might be the case that he had to flee because of religious difficulties, being a Lutheran minister in Catholic Bavaria. During the Revolutionary War he and his family remained loyal to the British Crown and, as a result, were forced to move to Upper Canada in 1790. Both my Scottish and German ancestors were refugees – from loss of their land and poverty in the one case, and religious and political persecution in the other.
I know considerably less about my father’s ancestors except that they came from Northern Ireland, were mostly Protestant, and probably originated in Northern England and the Scottish Border country from where they moved to Ireland sometime during or after the late 17th century. After 1680 England consolidated its rule over Catholic Ireland and encouraged Protestant settlement. The Wrights and Gordons moved to Southern Ontario in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, then scattered across Canada.
On both sides of my family my grandparents moved for better opportunities out West. My mother’s family moved to what is now Thunder Bay (Fort William), Ontario where my grandfather worked as an electrician. My paternal grandparents moved to northcentral Saskatchewan where my grandfather Wright worked as a grain elevator inspector for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. Both my grandmothers gave up their jobs (secretarial work and teaching) after marriage. In the case of my father’s mother, married life included raising ten children. Both my grandmothers lost a child to sickness when they were still young. My father was born in Star City, Saskatchewan. Shortly afterwards the Wright family all moved to nearby Tisdale (I suspect I’m related to a very large number of Wright descendants in and from Saskatchewan). The family migrations did not stop in Northwestern Ontario or the Prairies. My father, like most of his brothers, joined the military and moved around North America all his working life. My parents eventually retired in Victoria, British Columbia and, after many years living and working outside of Canada, I have returned to the West Coast where most of my immediate family now also lives.
I was born in Middleton, Nova Scotia not far from the Royal Canadian Air Force Base in Greenwood where my father was stationed at the time. This is in Segepenegatig in the Annapolis Valley, one of the seven divisions of Mi’kmaq Territory. The question “where are you from?” in the language of where I was born is tami tleyawin kil? I have lived in many Indigenous territories while moving around North America with my family, and then on my own to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and then back to Canada by way of Nunavut in the Arctic, finally settling in the Pacific Northwest near Desolation Sound in Tla-amin country.
London, England is probably the only place I have lived where there is no apparent Indigenous presence, unless you count Roman Londinium and its ancient Celtic inhabitants. Celts and Romans are however relatively recent arrivals to Britain, with Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Normans (Norse peoples from Northern France) more recent still. Pre-Celtic hunter-gatherers seem to have occupied Britain as much as 40,000 years ago but were eventually driven out by the advance of ice sheets during the last glacial period. Others returned about 14,000 years ago but were mostly gone by about 3000 years ago, their cultures, languages and possibly their lives replaced by Indo-European Celts coming originally from the Eurasian steppes in what is now Russia. Although Mesolithic and Neolithic sites are common throughout the British Isles, it is not clear who these people were. There appears to be little trace of them now other than a small amount of genetic evidence in surviving British people, and the remains of their villages and magnificent stone rings or henges, as in Stonehenge. Indigenous cultures in Australia, Africa, the Americas, or elsewhere around the world are much older than almost any we can find still surviving in Europe.
European migrants usually have trouble tracking down their origins and have rarely taken the trouble to learn whose territory they were or are on. We may know generally where our ancestors come from, but often the details have gotten lost along the way. After arriving in North America records sometimes went missing, names got changed, relatives went their separate ways, and life usually required a close attention to survival. Attachment to the Old Country became romanticized by many miles and, eventually, years of separation. There may have been deep roots to a specific place somewhere, but those roots were severed by thousands of miles of ocean and no practical way of keeping in touch with relatives who remained at home other than through letters – which some may not have been able to write or read. Many, like my Scottish (or possibly Pictish) ancestors were separated from their land and original homes long before they boarded those ships to the New World. Colonialism existed in Europe well before it was exported to colonies overseas. Ireland and Scotland were both aggressively invaded and colonized by the English beginning in the 12th and 13th centuries, just as Anglo-Saxons were invaded and colonised by Norse and Norman invaders in the 8th to the 11th centuries. Both English and Normans were mostly Germanic peoples. Welsh, Cornish, Pictish and other Brythonic Celtic peoples, as the pre-Germanic inhabitants of Britain were, have been under siege since the Romans first invaded their lands about 2000 years ago. This is also true of Bretons and other minority ethnic groups across Europe. The Welsh managed to shelter themselves for a time in the west of Britain, as did the (Gaelic) Scots and Irish to the north and across the Irish Sea. This enabled them to survive and revive their cultures and languages in the 20th and 21st centuries. Cornish and Breton hang on with a few speakers and the possibility of revival. But Pictish culture and language are gone, long since absorbed into Scots Gaelic, Scottish or English-speaking communities. There is however, a fourth language, or dialect of Scottish, called “Doric” spoken in Northeastern Scotland, and some of its grammar and vocabulary are different from the Scottish or English spoken in other parts of Scotland. Doric is not Scots Gaelic. It is a dialect of Scottish, which is derived from Old (Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English from before the Norman Invasion of England (1066), and is recognized as a separate language. It has been made famous by the poetry of Robert Burns. Doric, as a rural dialect of Scottish, is spoken in areas which used to be Pictish strongholds in the North and East of Scotland, with its base in Aberdeen. Is there an echo of an older Brythonic Celtic language there, that might have been Pictish? No one seems to know. There is a substantial body of stories and poetry told in Doric. In the meantime; “Come awa ben the hoose for a fly an a piece – Come in and I’ll make you a cup of tea and something to eat”.
No matter how hard life was, European migrants in North America and Australia, especially from Great Britain, were welcomed and had opportunities that other migrants and Indigenous peoples did not enjoy. After a generation or two even despised migrant communities such as the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Italians and Jews created much better lives for themselves than they had previously had in Europe. My ancestors were lucky in being English-speaking Britons, for the most part. Even Reverend Schwerdtfeger and his little loyalist flock had the essential requirements of education, the Protestant religion, an ethic of hard work, and white skin.
In Canada, European migrants were rarely subject to racist legislation such as The Chinese Immigration Act 1885, levying a “Head Tax” of $50 on any Chinese coming to Canada. After the 1885 legislation failed to deter Chinese immigration the government of Canada further increased the landing fees by 1903 to $500 per head. In 1923 the Chinese Exclusion Act replaced prohibitive fees with an outright ban on Chinese immigration to Canada (with some exceptions). The Exclusion Act went into effect on July 1, 1923 – Dominion Day, Canada’s National Holiday. Chinese at the time referred to this day as “Humiliation Day” and refused to celebrate it until after the Act was repealed in 1947. Sikhs from the Punjab in India came to Canada to work on the railroads and in other industries from the late 19th century, but were banned in 1908. In 1914 a chartered ship called the Komagata Maru entered Vancouver Harbour with more than 350 mostly Punjabi passengers. They were refused entry and, after many weeks of confrontation and hardship, were forced to sail back across the Pacific. They eventually docked in Kolkata (Calcutta) in India where 20 of them were killed by police and more than two dozen others were arrested and detained. Japanese Canadians started to come to Canada in the 1870’s settling in British Columbia where most Asian migrants lived. In 1942, the federal government under the War Measures Act, branded all Japanese Canadians enemy aliens and security threats. More than 20,000 Japanese were placed in internment camps in British Columbia or prisoner of war camps in Ontario. Families were also sent as forced labourers to farms across the Prairies, especially southern Alberta where a significant Japanese diaspora still lives. Three-quarters of them were Canadian citizens. Citizens of Asian descent were denied the right to vote (with some exceptions) until Japanese Canadians were the last to be enfranchised in 1948.
In the United States and Australia, very similar policies were adopted for Chinese migrants. Japanese Americans and Australians were also interned during the Second World War. More recently, refugees from Southeast Asia struggled against discrimination after large numbers came to North America and Australia during and after the Vietnam War in the 1970’s. Pacific Islanders were also brought to Australia to work in the sugar plantations of Queensland, and they too have faced racial discrimination. Europeans could also face significant racism and discrimination (Irish, Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans) and some, such as Germans and Italians during the First and Second World Wars, did suffer significant restrictions on their freedoms. But there were no German or Italian internment camps where large numbers of civilians were held as security threats. Mexican and Central American refugees and migrants, and Asian refugees trying to get to Australia, are now facing high levels of government coercion, internment and violence similar to what previous waves of migrants have faced.
The worst treatment of migrants was directed towards the millions of Africans who were shipped across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves. Many died during the voyages on the slave ships, while others faced a future of hardship and violence in the sugar or cotton plantations of the New World. Indentured servants and exiled prisoners from the British Isles, in particular from Ireland, did suffer from difficult conditions when they arrived in North America and Australia. But their living conditions were never as horrific as those of African slaves, nor were they really slaves. Most were set free after seven years or less to make new lives for themselves. Indigenous peoples were also enslaved by the millions throughout the Americas. They were gradually replaced by African slaves who seemed to have greater resistance to the diseases brought by Europeans. The descendants of those African slaves continue to suffer acute levels of racial discrimination, police profiling, imprisonment, poverty, violence, murder, and abuse while Indigenous peoples around the world are still essentially prisoners and exiles on their own land.
European migrants were never subjected to the Indian Act in Canada, or the oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the United States, or the Aboriginal protection acts passed by states and territories in Australia. The Indian Act was first passed in 1876 and was part of the Canadian federal government’s efforts to push all “Indians” onto reservations, particularly in the West, in order to take their land for railroads and incoming settlers. The situation in the American West was similar but even more violent. “Indian” lives became completely regulated by federal officials. Their access to land, food, clean water, adequate housing, medical care, and other necessities of life was severely curtailed. It still is in both Canada and the United States. Indigenous peoples, including First Nations, Metis, Inuit, Hawaiians and Native Americans were and still are subject to heavy government oppression, ongoing poverty and intense racial discrimination. The situation has only begun to marginally improve in Canada since 1982 when the Canadian Constitution was amended to incorporate the recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights. In the United States some forms of Indigenous self-government and sovereignty are recognized. In Australia, where there are no treaties or constitutional protections as there are in North America, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still subjected to heavy-handed government administration or neglect, or both. Policing and incarceration are major issues in all three of the big white settler countries.
Indigenous people could not be expelled overseas as some migrants were and still are. Rather, they were put into the equivalent of internment camps, otherwise known as reservations or reserves, which have lasted for generations. “Indians” with status under the Indian Act could not vote until 1960 unless they were willing to assimilate, or be “enfranchised”, thus losing any rights they had as “Indians” under the Act. Inuit were enfranchised in 1950 but had few opportunities to vote in federal elections. Again, the situation for Native Americans and Australian Aboriginal peoples was, and is, as bad or worse as in Canada.
Although the Indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America were not moved onto reservations, they were subject to caste restrictions under Spanish colonial rule. The casta system was abolished in 1821 in Mexico when it achieved independence from Spain, but discrimination based on race remained. More recently, neo-liberal policies have severely undermined Indigenous land rights. In the constitutional reforms of 2001, some basic Indigenous rights were reinstated, but poverty and abuse remain huge problems for the pueblos indígenas de México. Many Mexican and Central American refugees are fleeing their homelands because of North American political interference and natural resource extraction, as well as climate-change induced drought, intensifying tropical storms and hurricanes, poverty, and endemic violence. Most of these people are Indigenous. The reasons for their departure are often causally related to American political and military agendas that have included decades of violence in places like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Others are leaving the severe human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by mining and other resource extraction industries, most of which are Canadian-owned. Even in Mexico political and economic priorities set in Washington, Ottawa, Mexico City, and corporate head offices in North America, Europe and Asia have had a deep impact on Indigenous peoples’ lives.
At the same time as my German ancestors were fleeing American independence, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations) of upstate New York were also leaving their land on which they had lived in towns and farmlands and forests, not just for decades, but for thousands of years. The British provided them with a reserve in the south of Upper Canada along the Grand River. Some Kanien’kehá: ka (Mohawks – members of the Six Nations) had moved about 40 years before this to Ahkwesáhsne not far from Kahnawake and Kahnehsatake just outside of Montreal. My German relatives were granted land very close to Ahkwesáhsne. This is now a reserve straddling the border between Cornwall, Ontario and New York State, a border that the Mohawk do not recognize. History has been much less kind to the Kanien’kehá: ka on both sides of the various boundaries where they now live than it has been to myself and my European forebears. But both began their journeys as refugees from American revolutionary violence.
I spent some years as a feminist scholar navigating different “epistemologies” and critical thinking. I can certainly see how valuable it is to challenge existing male-centered paradigms that completely marginalize women and others who do not fit the dominant narrative – white, male, heterosexual, secular. This marginalization was and still is true of most of the social sciences including sociology, psychology, anthropology, cultural studies and studies in language. Feminists borrowed some of our ideas from male critical scholars, often without questioning the intensely androcentric perspectives that existed in those writings (Foucault being among the worst).
I certainly believe language or “discourse” can create a kind of “reality” that can dominate to the extent of denying objective reality altogether. Trans ideology is a good example. “Truth” can be a fuzzy concept, depending on whose truth is being spoken and by whom. I found “standpoint theory” to be especially useful. This is “a feminist theoretical perspective that argues that knowledge stems from social position. … The theory emerged from the Marxist argument that people from an oppressed class have special access to knowledge that is not available to those from a privileged class.” It’s often now confused with intersectionality and identity politics, which misinterpret the theory by transitioning it from a collective or a class analysis to an individual level. As I get older I am more and more attracted to ” feminist empiricism”, which is a practise of exploring dominant discourses in science, law, politics, etc and “feminizing” them, with some forms of discourse more resistant to such interpretation than others.
There are different kinds of reality glimpsed in different ways by many different knowledge systems. Some are realities created in human minds. They can be very convincing. We have story-telling written into our DNA (I mean this literally). Without narrative frameworks in which to interpret the world reality is simply chaos – random objects and events. So we create “reality”, or “realities” both collective and individual (insofar as any individual can exist outside of a collective). These can be verifiably false (the earth is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, the universe was created in six days, biological sex doesn’t exist). Or they can express some element of meaning that might well be true in some sense (conspiracy theories sometimes can be like this). There can be many different ways of explaining a deeper truth (history, myth, art, science, religion and spirituality). But, the question remains – is there an objective reality “out there” that we can ever really know?
Critical theorists (not including gender critical theorists), such as feminist, race and queer critical theorists, seem to be saying no. Reality, they say, is a human construct created by language or discourse – and can be changed by creating a new discursive framework. Critical race theorists insist this has to be a collective endeavour. But critical queer theorists and so-called “libfems” or critical feminist theorists seem to be insisting that this discursive change is individual, not collective. The idea seems to be, not so much in creating a new and more just collective framework for people on the margins of the current racist, colonialist regime (as critical race theory seems to be trying to do), but rather in breaking down or deconstructing language and existing social structures in order to return us to chaos, out of which new realities of individual sexual liberation and empowerment can be born – “queering” the world so to speak.
So, in this theory of meaning there is no objective reality, merely subjective “realities”. Prostitution becomes “sex work” the same as any other kind of work, pornography becomes empowering, sexual objectification of the female body is a form of liberation from patriarchy instead of surrender to patriarchy, and something as deeply biologically fundamental as sex (male and female) can be relabeled as “gender”, and is declared to be completely alterable at will. It’s not that this creates a new objective reality – there is no such thing according to this epistemological framework – but that dominant discourses of sex and sexuality are reversed and overthrown. As individuals increasingly embrace this new language of gender, the old language of sex binaries is overturned. People (like gender critical feminists, “radfems” and TERFs) who insist on clinging to the old discourse can be labelled and dismissed as conservative reactionaries similar to, or complicit with, white supremists, colonizers, misogynists, Nazis. Anything said in opposition to the new discursive “reality” becomes hate speech, transphobic. Misgendering pronouns and “deadnaming” become actual literal violence, because discourse is “real”. There is no actual reality – only words, performance, expression, individual identities. This seems to be the nub of critical theory.
There are many problems with this approach. It’s not that transsexuals, intersexuals, or cross-dressers don’t deserve human rights. Of course they do. It’s not even about how easy it has been for this new discursive “reality” to be highjacked by men’s rights activists, or the pharmaceutical and cosmetic surgery industries (neither of which gives a flying fuck about epistemology). It’s not just the resulting erosion of the rights of women, girls and the LGB community (although this is not an accidental by-product). It’s not only the confusion of susceptible minds, or the mutilation of human bodies, especially children’s bodies. It’s not simply the silencing of dissenting speech. All of these things are huge problems, but there is something even more fundamental.
The big problem is that these critical theorists propose that material reality, apart from discursive “realities”, does not exist. So everything from the differences between male and female (on which all sexual orientations, gendered practices, and much of human experience ultimately depends), to biological sexual reproduction (which is of course where babies come from), to biological diversity (which largely exists because of biological sexual reproduction); to ecological stability, planetary systems like evolution or climate, geology or the oceans; and our place as a species on this Earth, become simply another form of fantasy, another conspiracy theory (maybe the world is round, maybe it’s flat – someone is trying to fool you), just another lie (if “lies” are possible without some truth to compare them with). Or, in the words of critical theorists, another “hegemonic discursive practise”, as the jargon would have it. Try believing that the geology of plate tectonics is just another “hegemonic discursive practise” in the middle of an earthquake. You can do it, but it won’t be very helpful.
Ultimately, critical theory is about power, who has it, who controls it, and who doesn’t. But if all of reality is just a set of “hegemonic discursive practises” revolving around power, then “reality” can never exist outside of those man-made systems of power that are generating so many of our current existential crises. Not only does this create an ongoing power-struggle consisting of endless conflicts over who controls the discourse of power, it also creates the bedrock of totalitarian political systems both communist and fascist (Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Nazi, Italian and Hispanic Fascist). It traps all of humanity, especially women and children, but also many men who are not in positions of power, in an inescapable endlessly recurring loop of violence from the bedroom to the UN Security Council.
But, thankfully, material reality does exist, and humans are part of it. There is no other rational way of explaining our universe or ourselves. Otherwise, we are simply lost in solipsism and narcissism, and any meaningful dialogue is nothing more than an endless argument about power where we become powerless to change the real conditions of injustice because we don’t believe those conditions actually exist in any way we can interact with. Everything is just performance, “virtue signalling”. We believe ourselves to exist only because we think we do or say we do – as some people persist in saying the magic words “transwomen are women”. The words are indeed magical thinking, and the magic will never work. Critical thinking as currently practised is part of a lonely futile universe completely disconnected from the reality that is all around us, and inside us. It is being grounded in reality that allows us to lead genuinely meaningful lives.
“Cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefore I am – is one of the great mistakes of modern philosophy. The words are from one of the original masters of our existing “hegemonic discursive practises” – Rene Descartes (who might be described as the father of gender ideology). But we don’t exist because we think we do. We think, feel, act and observe because we exist. All living creatures do. And within that existence we, and other conscious life forms, create meaning – sacred, scientific, linguistic, cultural, gendered, embodied. Our existence as part of reality is not ultimately a product of our minds. We don’t just make it up. It’s the reverse. We humans, male and female, including our crazy clever conscious minds, our living relations with the rest of this world, our universe, our bodies, our place on this Earth, are all products of Reality. We can understand some of it some of the time. We make many mistakes. But there are things that really are true, whatever we might think, including our ability to think at all. Why is the Great Mystery.
The formation and implementation of international law on climate change, biological diversity, environmental protection, atmospheric and oceanic systems, and the cryosphere (ice) has evaded much of the feminist analysis in international law that began in the late 20th century. Treaties, organizations, conferences and international regulation have been dominated by the science of climate change, biodiversity and earth systems, which in turn depend on scientific specializations within geology, biology, atmospheric and oceanic molecular chemistry and physics. Much of the predictive quality of climate change science depends on sophisticated computer modelling and the mathematical analysis that goes with it. This has had the major advantage of giving us real data and sophisticated analysis to work with, and the credibility that the hard sciences have in producing conviction. It also has the disadvantage of being almost completely incomprehensible to policymakers, and the general public. So powerful is the language of “hard” science that corporate and political leaders, who would like to deny that climate change exists, or that environmental issues are a problem, have had to go out of their way to an extraordinary extent in dismissing individuals, institutions, and the entire collective community of climate scientists and specialists in the environment, as liars. The politics and economics of climate change and environmental issues has been dominated by the discourse of the market, technology, and political evasion in favour of corporate interests. This last problem seems to be giving way to a more nuanced approach in which the undeniable destructiveness of repeated climate-induced crises (hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, rises in sea levels, melting ice, unpredictable weather, and harsher living conditions in much of the world for humans and other species alike) and environmental disasters has induced politicians in most countries to start taking this seriously. The public is at last demanding some action on these issues, as are insurance companies, and even military and security officials around the world, who rightly see environmental collapse as an enormous financial and security risk. The disappearance of biodiversity and ecological habitats in many locations is also now starting to get some attention, particularly as the Covid crisis has made it very clear that habitat destruction is dangerous to human health.
Both national and international law, as well as climate science, tend to be dominated by male-centred issues with male policymakers and male experts dominating most discussions and decisions. Reliance on legal norm creation and “hard” science have also meant that issues surrounding human rights, cultural and Indigenous rights, social issues and even psychological effects have tended to be ignored as peripheral, “soft”, less urgent, at least until recently. Women’s participation in the science of climate change and the environment, and in policy formation, as well as leadership within Indigenous, environmental and other communities, has helped to mitigate this marginalization of the human side of what environmental justice as a whole might mean. As Inuit like to remind us – “it’s not just about polar bears”. Siila Watt-Cloutier, a leading Inuit authority and activist on climate change, chemical pollutants, and environmental degradation makes it clear that climate change is a human rights issue. Her latest book is called The Right to be Cold. Municipal governments are also moving into the vacuum of political power created by inactive national and regional politics. Local governments are now often dominated by women who see climate change and the environment as not just technological or economic problems that need solving, but as human problems that need a commitment to both mitigation and adaptation within a more just social order.
The fields of science and law also tend to focus on how to “fix” climate change and the environment. So, we talk a lot about sustainable development; clean and renewable energy such as solar, wind or bio-fuel; carbon capture and sequestration; atmospheric technologies designed to shield the planet from the warming effect of the sun, or to induce rain in drought-afflicted areas; the manufacture of electric cars; and so on. Law focuses on regulation and enforcement at the local, national and international level – setting targets for emissions, cap and trade systems, carbon taxation, rewards for “green” initiatives, and punishment for offenders. These approaches tend to be top-down, relying on existing political systems and corporate capitalist structures. More radical proposals demand at least a partial restructuring of the existing economic and political order, although how either science or law could achieve this is not explained. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum there is both a call for the destruction of capitalism and neo-liberalism altogether; or, the apotheosis of capitalist salvation through technology, geo-engineering, the colonization of other planets, or through the creation of artificial life to replace humans (“transhumanism”) and other living species.
As discussed briefly in Part I, we really need to start looking at other ways of thinking. This Part focuses on feminist approaches. Part III will look more at Indigenous perspectives.
Ecofeminism and the concept of an “ethic of care” is one way of rethinking our relationship with nature. As Carin Lesley Cross has noted:
The current relationship we have with nature is hierarchal and fragmented because it is rooted in a culture of separation created by a ‘masculine’ modernity. The patriarchal values of rationality and power have ‘othered’ the natural environment and women. In order to prevent irreparable ecological destruction, we need to change the relationship between humanity and nature to one that is ecologically responsive. . . . ecofeminist literature enables us to challenge the hierarchical structure created by dualisms thereby uprooting the current patriarchal oppressive system. It reveals how an ethic of care approach can transcend the modern patriarchal structures that have promoted dominion over nature and contextually and narratively recreate the human and nature relationship. The value of this research lies in the fact that central to an ethic of care is the respect and care for all earthly beings, an ethic which listens to, and is responsive to the diversity of all ‘environmental voices.
Eco-feminism has also borrowed extensively from Marxist feminisms, but in a very much altered form. As Ariel Salleh has written, drawing on the work of Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva:
The ecofeminist lens . . . can be characterised as an ‘embodied materialism’. It is ‘materialist’ in endorsing the basic tools of a Marxist sociology, and ‘embodied’ in that it sets out to re-frame that discourse by giving equal weight to the organically interrelated entities – man, woman, nature. Historically, these have been unequally valorised. In particular, the interests of male-dominated societies have been served by managing women’s bodies as a ‘natural resource’. That meant positioning the female sex ‘somewhere between’ men and nature in the order of things. This masculinist practice points to a fundamental structural contradiction in capitalism. A node of crisis not yet included in the conversations of political economy . . .
. . . or in the modern discourses of environmental justice and international law.
There is a lot of value to this approach. It exposes the masculinist nature of concepts such as “rationality”, “nature”, “modernity” and looks at the mind/body dualism created by a Cartesian approach to what it means to be human. It gives some sociological context to the marginalization and “othering” of nature, women and the “Peoples of the Earth”.
Inuit lawyers and policymakers, many of them women, understand very well what an “ethic of care” might be, as it is central to Inuit relationships with the Arctic, but would emphasize the need for real permanent protection of the rights of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples to protect their own land and culture, not just as a matter of ethics, caring or respect, but of justice and of law. An Inuk woman once told me “we don’t want respect, we want social justice”. Eco-feminism sometimes seems to be dominated by European and Euro-American women who are not always very good at seeing beyond their own protected position within existing legal systems, or understanding how feminism, even eco-feminism, may look very differentto a non-European woman or anyone from an Indigenous community.
In 2010 Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor of the University of Manchester commented on the lack of research into the masculinist nature of climate change, and began work on filling in the gaps:
In the light of frightening predictions, it might reasonably be asked, what is the point of suggesting that greater attention should be paid to gender? Feminist scholarship on environmental problems must always be ready for such questions, to defend the relevance of gender analysis in the face of dominant tendencies to see humanity as homogeneous, science as apolitical, and social justice as a luxury that cannot be chosen over survival. In this essay, I make the case for feminist social research on climate change with the following argument: shedding light on the gender dimensions of climate change will enable a more accurate diagnosis and a more promising ‘cure’ than is possible with a gender neutral approach. My argument is that any attempt to tackle climate change that excludes a gender analysis will be insufficient, unjust and therefore unsustainable.
Supporting this argument with evidence is challenging because there is a worrying lack of research on which to draw. Social research on climate change has been slow to develop; feminist research into the gender dimensions has been even slower.
In 2016 a special issue of Kungl Vetenskaps Akademien – Gender Perspectives in Resilience, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Global Environmental Change included “a synthesis of convergent reﬂections, tensions and silences in linking gender and global environmental change research”.
The main theoretical contributions of this special issue are threefold: emphasizing the relevance of power relations in feminist political ecology, bringing the livelihood and intersectionality approaches into Global Environmental Change [GEC], and linking resilience theories and critical feminist research. Empirical insights on key debates in GEC studies are also highlighted from the nine cases analysed, from Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Paciﬁc.
Intersectional analysis is seen as fundamentally important to any examination of global environmental research, of which climate change forms a part. Unlike eco-feminist perspectives, intersectionality tries to avoid the assumption that gender is a homogeneous concept. Issues of race, sexuality, class, age, ethnicity, caste and other identities have a major influence on the experiences of both women and men in relation to environmental change. (The term “intersectionality” in this research does not refer to identity politics, but to overlapping issues of race, class and other differences affecting women from different backgrounds and social conditions, as the term was originally defined by Kimberle Crenshawe and other legal theorists in the later 1980’s and 1990’s). This approach does not look specifically at climate change, however. It is possible to argue that climate change itself is so large, so global in scope and intensity, and the issues raised are so urgent, that it is unlike other forms of environmental change which tend to focus on specific locations and activities, such as farming or fishing within defined communities. Climate change is of course also important at the local level, and many forms of environmental degradation and alteration are at least influenced by changes in climate. In addition, biodiversity and habitat loss are now becoming so widespread and devastating that the effects are now global. Focusing on local intersectionalities can obscure major commonalities between, for example, climate change and environmental destruction induced migration from the Sahel to southern Europe, from Central America to North America, and from the Pacific region to Australia and New Zealand. The majority of these migrants are women and children.
Sara L. Seck in “Relational Law and the Reimagining of Tools for Environmental and Climate Justice” addresses both climate change and legal approaches from a different perspective.
It is well documented that environmental and climate justice problems are associatedwith local and global extractive industry operations and that concrete legal and policy reforms will be necessary if we might hope both to prevent and remedy harms.
I explore how a relational approach to legal analysis might contributes to the process of reimagining legal tools for environmental and climate justice. Thinking of environmental justice focuses our attention on sites of local harm, which are intertwined with histories of colonialism and racism. Climate justice, on the other hand, draws our attention to the international and the ‘global’, which, while equally intertwined with colonial and racist histories, present different challenges of the imagination.
Both environmental justice and climate justice are also intertwined with gender justice, whether the focus is upon those who are most vulnerable to harms or those whose voices are crucial as agents of change. Attention to extractive industries (mining, oil, and gas) and gender justice leads us to the tools of international human rights law, including the recognition of the human rights of women and girls, the responsibilities of businesses to respect human rights, and the duty of states to protect human rights from irresponsible business conduct.
. . . “relational law” and “relational theory” . . . encompass diverse approaches to legal analysis that, in my view, share a desire to shine the spotlight away from the bounded autonomous individual of liberal thought and towards relationships among people and the material world, including relationships in the international sphere.
This approach allows Seck to look more closely at international Indigenous rights and Indigenous feminist perspectives in framing the issue of “climate justice” on a global scale. Moving the spotlight away from the individual allows for a better understanding of how relationships between or within communities and their position within and beyond nation-states effect human resilience and adaptability in relation to massive changes in climate systems. The inclusion of gender justice into this discussion moves us away from a liberal focus on the autonomous individual and towards an analysis of positions of vulnerability, empowerment and responses to regional relations, nation-states, the international community and, above all, global material systems – land, water, ice, oceans, weather (both “normal” and catastrophic) and the human-built environment.
Indigenous feminist perspectives are, in my view, central to any discussion of climate and environmental justice. Seck provides a short but valuable discussion of the differences between Indigenous perspectives on gender, and that of mainstream or intersectional feminisms. Joyce Green, the editor of Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, . . . notes that “Indigenous feminism has been routinely denigrated [by Indigenous women] as untraditional, inauthentic, non-liberatory for Indigenous women and illegitimate as an ideological position, political analysis, and organizational process.” For Indigenous feminists, gender cannot be divorced from communal, ancestral and spiritual perspectives.
For example, protection of water is seen within many Indigenous communities as closely tied to women’s roles as mothers. Water is seen as alive and closely connected with biological aspects of motherhood and women’s bodies. There are spiritual connections between water and family, water and blood, water and childbirth, and water as life. Maori activists in New Zealand, Lakota Water Protectors in North Dakota, and Indigenous women in the Amazon River basin argue that rivers are alive, that they are “relatives”, and that they have rights. Women and water systems have reciprocal responsibilities of life-giving and protection. Oil and gas extraction is seen as destructive of these living systems and dangerous to the integrity of all life on “Mother Earth”. Indigenous peoples, especially women, see their responsibilities as guardians of the Earth not only as local, but also as global. Inuit discussions of climate change emphasize that their concerns are not just about melting ice in the Arctic, but what effect this has on globalclimate systems.
Citing Karen Knop’s work (among others) Seck then goes on to tackle these theoretical perspectives within the framework of feminist approaches to international law. Here we find valuable insights on questioning the centrality of the State and notions of sovereignty, which are clearly crucial to climate justice; focusing on the work of non-state actors in the creation of international law (of which the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a prime example); emphasizing a relational approach to questions of international law; and lessening the sharp distinction between the public and private sphere, also crucial to questions of climate and environmental justice. This includes not only piercing the veil of State sovereignty to highlight the role states play in the affects of climate change on their own citizens and climate refugees (as in a human rights framework), but also on the role of non-state actors and international organizations on setting both environmental policy and law. It also means turning our gaze onto private non-state actors, especially extractive industries, multi-national corporations, and lending institutions such as banks and hedge funds, which are instrumental in creating environmental injustice. We are already seeing law suits at the national level in the US, Canada and Europe directed mainly by children against both national governments and private actors for their role in creating the climate crisis. This ideal of international accountability for environmental injustice by private entitles that cross international boundariesneeds to become reality.
There is a deeper issue that deserves a much more extensive feminist analysis than I can give here. Modern industrial societies are not just the result of capitalist accumulation, extraction of resources, and the division of capital and labour into conflicting classes. The success of these societies is also not just a question of Euro-American colonization of the rest of the world to feed metropolitan power-centres. It is also about the transformation of traditional, feudal and mercantilist economic systems into modern capitalist political democracies. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was built on hundreds of years of what Karl Marx named “primitive accumulation” of capital assets like land (a simpler word is theft), class warfare, colonial policies both within and outside of Europe and America, and the transformation of Europe into competing nation-states – the foundation of modern political regimes and international law. The 200 year old industrial experiment of changing the molecular chemical structure of the atmosphere and oceans, as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, threatens to bring down these same modern industrial societies, democratic institutions, and even international legal frameworks alike. The colonized, the marginalized, the already damaged communities of Indigenous peoples, the poor, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, and peoples with brown or black skins – the “Peoples of the Earth” – are now and will continue to be on the frontlines of this massive change.
Modern industrial societies are also the result of centuries of the accumulation of patriarchal power at every level, from the privacy of the home to the Law of Nations. Our organizational structures, our institutions, our militaries, our education systems, our health systems, our laws, our religious bodies, our private enterprises both national and international, are deeply infused with patriarchal values of how power works, how authority structures are organized, and how individuals and groups interact.
“Patriarchy” literally means the “rule of the father”. Capitalism, as the modern form of patriarchy, is permeated with competitive scrambles to accumulate enormous levels of wealth, status, and influence for men. Within this patriarchal capitalist framework the default of what it is to be human is gendered as masculine within a very specific model of what it is to be a man. This, coupled with white supremacy, is a deeply unbalanced model of humanity at every level. Patriarchy is not however simply male supremacy or male dominance. It is an entire way of thinking so deeply engrained that one-half of humanity can be literally ignored or erased as irrelevant to almost any discussion, particularly in the public sphere. Women may be under continual surveillance by the “male gaze”, but not as fully human sovereign beings with our own histories and our own agency but, as Ariel Salleh says, as a “natural resource” like minerals or forests or fish. Only women’s usefulness as a resource is not just in our productive work, but in our sexual and reproductive labour, as many feminist theorists such as Carol Pateman have pointed out.
These gendered values have divorced almost every institution with any significance in our modern societies from both women’s lives and the natural world, as “nature” is equated with the feminine as another resource. This has successfully relegated almost everyone outside a small, privileged circle of mostly white men into a limbo of “otherness”. We regularly assume – even those of us attempting a feminist analysis of what is generating our human and environmental predicament – that women and girls are one of a range of categories or groups or classes or orientations that are the basis of discrimination, such as race, sexuality, disability, religion, nationality, or poverty. This is very misleading. Women and girls – female human beings – are one half of humanity. As the Chinese saying goes “women hold up half the sky.” We are not just another category of discrimination or identity. Our position as women intersects with all other orientations and identities, but they can never fully define us. Just as these intersections can never fully define who men are.
The result of this patriarchal blindness, structured into every aspect of human society, is that our planet is facing an extinction event of massive proportions, possibly endangering not only human civilization, but also life itself. The foundation of how these systems retain their power is violence – specifically male violence against women and girls from all backgrounds; male violence against other men and boys who, by reason of colour, race, class, nationality, “tribe”, sexuality, or gender identity are not “male” enough; male violence against children; against animals; male violence against the Earth itself. Women who are black, brown, poor or “other” suffer much greater rates of violence than do those who are more privileged. It is important to remember however that whiteness, comparative wealth, youth and beauty, or strict adherence to the norms of heterosexual “femininity” are never more than a contingent protection against male violence. The relative “privilege” of white, middle-class, heterosexual women is largely parasitic on the white, comparatively well-off, heterosexual men who provide some protection for “their” women – or who choose not to. The recent murder of Sarah Everard in the UK, and the mass killing of Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia both tell us a great deal about male violence, misogyny and race, and about how such violence can be disguised or dismissed as something other than male hatred of women. Even mass killings that appear to be random are almost always committed by a man with a background of misogyny.
There is a reason why Indigenous women in particular, who have taken up leadership roles in the struggle for environmental justice, are targeted for violence. There is a reason why sexual assault is used as a weapon of control both in the domestic sphere, in resource extraction, on the streets of our cities, and in war. There is a reason why women’s reproductive sovereignty, access to abortion and control of our own bodies, and even the very definition of what a woman is, are matters of central importance to the maintenance of patriarchal systems. There is a reason why extractive industries can go on raping and pillaging the very Earth itself.
Fossil fuels are not, however, the last frontier of industrial capitalism, and the wealthy who feed off this system are very well aware of this. The “Green Economy” will continue to fuel capitalist enterprises and will still rely upon extractive industries, such as the mining of “rare earth” metals necessary for the building and maintenance of solar and wind energy systems, and deforestation for bio-fuel, and even coal, oil and natural gas. But technology, and even the creation of artificial life and intelligence, are also very much a part of the new capitalism being born right now in front of our eyes. These developments of “techno-capitalism” are the very antithesis of natural systems, and are fundamentally male-centred.
Feminist approaches to climate change and environmental justice are not just about victimization, or participation and leadership, but also about alliances across political, racial, class, religious and cultural divides. Feminist approaches based on relational theories or an ethic of care could be really helpful, as might some aspects of a new Marxist perspective. But the fundamental problem is patriarchy. The tools are there, the theoretical perspectives are there and, increasingly, the will towards change is also finally there.
Sources for all three parts of “The Last Well” will be included at the end of Part III.
The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.
“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3 to 5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2 to 3 degrees warmer, and sea level was 10 to 20 meters [30 to 60 feet] higher than now,” said Mr Taalas of the World Meteorological Organization, (20 November 2018).*
In 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported on the implications of failing to keep global warming below 1.5 degree Celsius. We are currently about 1 degree warmer than we were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago.
*All temperatures are in Celsius.
Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees is crucial to avoiding a “truly catastrophic unravelling” of our current climate system. Given the extreme weather events, droughts, sea rise, ocean warming, forest fires, and acidification, species extinction, and land degradation we are already seeing, achieving that will be extremely difficult. According to the UN World Meteorological Organization, we are on a path to warming the world by 3 to 5 degrees by the end of the century. According to the UN IPCC we have less than ten years to reduce our global emissions enough to have any chance of avoiding this result. Meanwhile national governments from the United States to Brazil, Australia, Canada, Russia, China, India and elsewhere are pursuing industrial and economic development policies that are headed straight towards climate catastrophe within our lifetimes. Our industrial economy currently still relies so heavily on the production, export and import of oil, gas and coal that governments have chosen to put national economic interests ahead of the climate crisis. Brazil has indicated an intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord and shows no interest in climate change policy.The US, now under a new administration, has indicated it wishes to rejoin the Paris Accord. The Glasgow Conference of the Parties to the UN Agreement on Climate Change, rescheduled for later this year (November 2021), may well be our last chance to turn this juggernautaround.
But, climate change is not our only challenge. Biodiversity is collapsing around the world, eco-systems are being degraded or disappearing, and what appears to be a sixth great species extinction is now occurring. And this collapse is human-caused. Resource extraction, corporate agriculture, urbanization through suburban sprawl and the creation of giant shanty-towns, infrastructure projects such as dams, and the exploitation of land and water has created a global privatization of the Earth’s commons greater than any in human history.Along with this is a massive degradation of Earth’s systems due to pollution, desertification, salinization, soil depletion, deforestation, melting ice, over-population and over-consumption. Human beings have been interacting with Earth’s natural systems of growth, death, and regeneration for tens of thousands of years. This has now accelerated to the point where the human role is no longer that of partner or guardian, but of destroyer.But Earth’s systems are hitting us back.
There is a conspiracy theory making the rounds that the Covid-19 pandemic was manufactured by humans in a laboratory somewhere in China. The truth is, the pandemic was indeed caused by humans. Many people around the world rely on “wet markets” to buy food. Often these markets include wild animal meat as a cheap source of protein, as in the wet market in Wuhan. Much of this meat is harvested in areas where the natural habitat is already disturbed by humans. And some of it can be infected with pathogens humans have not encountered before, including viruses. HIV, Ebola, the Zika virus and Covid-19 were all transferred from animals to humans in this way. Viruses and bacteria can also spread from domestic animals such as chickens, pigs and cattle to humans. Many human diseases that used to be more common than they are now, such as small pox, originally jumped species from domesticated animals, and creatures who have accommodated themselves to humans such as mice and rats, to people. Annual mutations of the flu and the common cold still do this. From mosquitos, ticks, fleas, bats, monkeys, birds, poultry, cows and pigs to humans is not a big step for many pathogens.
There is a growing popular movement of outrage at what industry and governments have been doing – or not doing. Much of this is led by young people. The Extinction Rebellion in Europe, the Sunrise Movement in the United States, and other mass mobilizations around the world are demanding revolutionary change. School Strikes for Climate Change are bringing people onto the streets all over the world (or were before Covid locked us all up) insisting that we have to change course now, or there will be no future. The face and voice of these movements has been Greta Thunberg, a teenaged girl from Sweden who set about to change the world all by herself, beginning her own school strike in 2018. She became the catalyst of a global youth movement that is unprecedented in modern history. As she told the economic and political leaders meeting at Davos, Switzerland in 2018:
If everyone is guilty, then no one is to blame, and someone is to blame . . . Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular know exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people. . . . I don’t want your hope . . . I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is. . . .
There has also developed out of socialist, anti-colonial and international perspectives of the last fifty years, or longer, a somewhat deeper analysis of the climate crisis as a symptom of corporate capitalist, nationalist, and colonial agendas. One solution that has been proposed is a “Green New Deal” gaining significant traction in several First World countries. But, the focus in First World countries is often still on economic redistribution of the proceeds from resource extraction, and regulation of pollution, while attempting to reduce the power of large corporations through taxation, government and international regulation, carbon offsets and technological innovation. It has been described by some commentators as little more than capitalist “greenwashing” of the global economy. Socialist or so-called progressive governments have proven to be especially disappointing in their response to climate change and the environment given their stated commitment to human welfare, as opposed to the bottom line.
For example, our “progressive” social democratic government in the province of British Columbia, Canada gained power in 2017 (and an outright majority in 2020) over a previous conservative government by forming an alliance between the left-wing New Democratic Party and the Green Party of British Columbia. They promised to deal with climate change, environmental and Indigenous issues vigorously and effectively. But, four years later, mining licenses are still being issued for projects on Indigenous land without Indigenous consent. Old-growth logging has increased to feed the global bio-fuel market (wood pellets are a supposedly renewable energy source). Fish farms of imported salmon are still operating along the Coast spreading disease to wild stocks of salmon whose numbers have plummeted to fifty-year lows. A large hydroelectric dam project was approved and the LNG fracking and transport industry is now on fast-track. A supposedly liberal progressive federal government in Canada has approved and even purchased an oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the Pacific West Coast. Whether governments can be described as right-wing, centrist or even left-wing, the rhetoric and practice effectively ignores environmental concerns and the climate crisis for “business as usual” – profits and jobs always come first. A gradualist approach to change is emphasized, when what is needed is a mobilization of resources on the scale of the New Deal response to the Great Depression, World War II, or the reconstruction of Europe after the last war ended.
But perhaps we need to pay more attention to another set of intersecting perspectives. Indigenous peoples around the world have been leading a very different kind of activism based less on social, economic or political theories than on a struggle to maintain or return to Indigenous values and lifeways that see land, water, the environment and energy, not as property or manifestations of inanimate systems, but rather as living systems with spiritual and cultural significance. They have led radical and often dangerous strategies to circumvent or stop development projects and develop political power systems that draw on traditional knowledge and cultural ways of decision-making. The water protectors and land guardians of Standing Rock in North Dakota; the barricade builders blocking roads into Unis’tot’en land on the west coast of British Columbia; Mauna Kea protests in Hawaii; legal battles in South America to protect the Amazon; civil actions brought by Guatemalans in Canadian courts protesting the actions of Canadian mining interests; Sami efforts to protect reindeer habitat in Scandinavia; Inuit in the Arctic working towards protection of ice, land, water and animals, and the effects of an enormous iron mine expansion on Baffin Island; Australian Aboriginal efforts to stop coal and uranium mining and agricultural take-overs of their land – the list goes on and on. Subsistence farmers, often but not always Indigenous, have also been working to save their homes and build infrastructure that protects their land from resource extraction and agri-business. This can also have a big impact on environmental and climate systems.
Indigenous communities are not recognized as parties to the international agreement [on Biological Diversity, or any other international agreement]. They can come as observers to the talks, but can’t vote on the outcome. Practically though, success is impossible without their support.
One amazing example of this is the “Great Green Wall” project in which trees are being planted by local communities right across the breadth of Africa:
The Great Green Wall is taking root in Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert – one of the poorest places on the planet. More than anywhere else on Earth, the Sahel is on the frontline of climate change and millions of locals are already facing its devastating impact. Persistent droughts, lack of food, conflicts over dwindling natural resources, and mass migration to Europe are just some of the many consequences.Yet, communities from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East are fighting back. Since the birth of the initiative in 2007, life has started coming back to the land, bringing improved food security, jobs and stability to people’s lives.The Great Green Wall isn’t just for the Sahel. It is a global symbol for humanity overcoming its biggest threat – our rapidly degrading environment.It shows that if we can work with nature, even in challenging places like the Sahel, we can overcome adversity, and build a better world for generations to come.More than just growing trees and plants, the Great Green Wall is transforming the lives of millions of people in the Sahel region.
There are similar projects in Asia including not only tree-planting, but also clean-up of land and water polluted by plastic, urban and industrial waste; rehabilitation of degraded habitats; and species conservation. Much of this work builds on cultural and religious systems of respect for nature and community, and is a rejection of modern industrial and agricultural development. It is also local, at least at first, until the problems are seen as shared across different communities and different environments. Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples often form significant alliances as part of these projects, allowing for interrelationships and community-building that can counteract colonial, nationalist, and racist agendas.
One common thread that links all of these approaches including children’s school strikes, progressive and environmental movements, Indigenous groups, and subsistence farmers – is who is providing much of the leadership. Participation in action or inaction on climate change and protecting the environment tend to be gendered as either male or female. Corporate and political leadership is overwhelmingly male. Organizational structures in business, government, trade unions and the military (a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction) are rigidly patriarchal and masculine in nature and behaviour. Movements of children, Indigenous groups, some progressive political movements, and environmental groups are often led by women and girls. Even where leadership is male, the decision-making processes tend to be less authoritarian and more cooperative, although this isnot always true of course.
But a difference in leadership or participation within organizations is not a complete explanation of the issue of sex differences, although it is important. A disproportionately high number of Indigenous environmental activists who are killed are women. Sexual assault, torture, murder, disappearances and intimidation are tools used by male-dominated governments, corporations, military and police, and para-military forces, against both women and men, but women seem to be disproportionately targeted. Central and South America are particularly dangerous for Indigenous rights advocates as well as for women’s rights.
Climate change and environmental degradation can also force families off the land and into the cities. There women struggle to make ends meet and raise their children in the face of increased family violence, gang violence, femicide, and sexual assault. The “golden triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most asylum-seekers to Mexico and the United States come from, has been decimated by climate change induced drought, dislocation, paralyzed governments, repression, American-backed military take-overs, and an enormous increase in armed gangs who are the male leftovers of guerilla movements throughout the region. The impact of male violence in impeding efforts to deal with the effects of climate change and environmental damage should not be underestimated. Nor should the courage of individuals and groups of women within communities, especially Indigenous communities, be shrugged off. These women are adept at bringing often conflicting groups and interests together; they are much less prone to corruption and violence; and their approach tends to be much more holistic in terms of human rights, the environment, social and family needs, children and traditional teachings.
There will be a time, in most of the world, when the last well goes dry. And this is because so much of the world lives already on the brink of a dreadful thirst, a life only made tolerable because women travel great distances to find the wells or the rivers or the ditches, scoop up the water, and bring it home. They carry it on their backs, or their heads, or on their hips, like a child. In Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring this water home. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are responsible for 72 percent of all the water collected. This means that women spend a significant proportion of their lives simply carrying water. And as the climate steadily gets warmer, droughts will become more frequent and water will become more salinized, harder to find, and farther away from habitation. As it now stands, clean water is already unavailable to over 633 million people—one in ten of the people of the earth. Diseases from contaminated water kill on the aggregate more people than any form of violence, including wars and acts of terror. Forty-three percent of these people are children under age five. Water is a large part of the embodied life of women who bear these infants. Without abundant water, it is hard to carry a pregnancy safely to term, to give birth, nurse, or bathe children, or to launder clothes and diapers—all details for which women, and women alone, are largely responsible.
For many women around the world, the last well has already gone dry. Drought has become a serious problem in environments as diverse as Guatemala, Yemen, Syria, the American Midwest, and Australia. Drought and water shortages fueled the war in Syria and the displacement of millions of people, the majority of whom are women and children. Women, children and men are dying in a modern genocide of famine and thirst in Yemen as a result of both climate change and savage warfare perpetrated by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the US and Canada. People are fleeing their farms in Guatemala and Honduras because of drought and their inability to grow both corn and coffee. In the cities they face very high levels of violence by male gangs armed with weapons supplied by American military and arms manufacturers. Women face rape, violence and murder while their children are in danger of being recruited into these gangs. Many women and children have fled to the American border where families are separated, and children are locked up in internment camps in Texas and elsewhere. These camps are run by private prison companies who are making a fortune off the suffering of mothers and fathers turned back at the border after losing their children. In Australia towns and cities in the Murray/Darling River system face water shortages so severe that they will no longer be able to rely on tap water, while cotton farmers have sequestered huge amounts of water for irrigation upstream. Recurring heat and drought have made this form of agriculture unsustainable. It is families in small towns and big cities downstream who will suffer. Australian mothers, like their African counterparts, will have to fetch water from elsewhere, although with much less individual labour.
The key to turning our current planetary crises around is to look to those people who bear the greatest burden in dealing with these crises now, and in the future.
Sources for all three parts of “The Last Well” will be included at the end of Part III.