Archive for July, 2007

Jack of All Trades, Mistress of None

Sharon July 22nd, 2007

Well, if the typing here gets really poor, my advance apologies. At our local
“Preservation of the Union 1865″ celebration, friends of ours gave us a kitten they had need of a home for. The kitten finds my typing endlessly entertaining and is trying to eat my hands, which is a real speed reducer. We’re still trying to find him a name - something Unionist and Civil War related seems appropriate. If only General Lafayette McLaws had been a northerner - “McLaws” really is a good cat name. Suggestions for relevant unionist (not necessarily military) figures are more than welcome.

The other night I was mulling over my need to acquire new skills. I want goats, and have to learn to milk them and trim hooves. The house needs some minor repairs that I could probably do myself with a little study. And I am trying, painfully, to become a good enough seamstress to actually make myself something I would be seen in public in. And I was struck by the sheer number of things I have to learn, and have learned to do, often in a quite half-assed way over the last few years.

This isn’t wholly new territory to me. English Literature is one of those fields that steals a great deal from other sources. I once made a list - to study Early Modern Poetry I also studied Greek, Latin and French, took graduate courses in History, Philosophy, Economics, Art History, and Demographics, and picked up a fair amount of Sociology, Anthropology and Politics. And I came out of the process with a limited but functional ability to talk in each of those fields. Someone who really knew what they were doing would laugh at me, of course, but that was fine - what I had managed to achieve was the ability to synthesize.

And, of course, when I started writing about peak oil and environmental issues that meant more physics, geology, history, mathematics, biology, meterology and statistics. Again, no one would ever mistake me for an expert in any of the above fields, but I’ve gotten so that I mostly understand what real experts are talking about, and I can, again, synthesize it - I can bring together politics and physics, for example. And I don’t mind being laughed at by the people who really know what they are talking about.

The funny thing is that almost everyone in the peak oil and climate change movements are operating outside their fields. Richard Heinberg, for example, studied politics and music, not depletion rates at school. Julian Darley used to write screenplays. Vandana Shiva studied physics before she became an environmental activist. James Kunstler is a journalist. Even people like Ken Deffeyes, who are experts in a particular area (petroleum geology) find themselves getting out of their fields and offering investment and political advice. It is the disease of new fields and new realities - everyone is stretching themselves out of their natural range. And in many cases, I think that’s good. For all that deep expertise is valuable, there’s also value in looking at things from an outside perspective.

Agriculture is the ultimately “jack of all trades” job - not only do you have to hold all the basic farm knowledge in your head, but there’s mechanics (gotta fix the equipment when it breaks down), metal working (don’t have that one yet), tree felling (I only do little ones, and I don’t touch chainsaws), biology and chemistry (soil science, animal husbandry), botany (plants), dealing with what I’m producing (herbalism, fiber production, cooking, dyeing), and…you get the picture. Add to that the skill sets that go with frugality and dinner, and it is quite a range of things that I haven’t even attempted to the ones I have. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming.

The good thing, however, lest one get overwhelmed, is this. In order to develop functional skills at something, you don’t actually have to devote that much time or energy to it. You simply have to develop a very basic, functional knowledge. And once you’ve done that, you can improve upon your skills, or teach someone else so that they can do so. You don’t have to be very good at these things.

For example, let’s take knitting as a model. What’s “good enough?” A good enough knitter knows a few basic stitches and techniques, and the rough outlines of garment constructure. He knows what tools he needs, and which one he doesn’t, and he does it well enough to teach someone else how to knit. But the great thing for the person who doesn’t like knitting that much, or hasn’t very much time to do it, is that all he really has to do is be able to make a basic sweater, gloves or socks. It doesn’t have to be a really pretty sweater, just keep someone warm without falling apart. Getting from 0 knitting knowledge to a basic sweater is a matter of months of spare-time work, weeks if you can take a class or get lessons from someone really knowledgeable. It doesn’t take years. A couple of good books, and he’s set for pretty much any purpose.

And let us say that our knitter likes knitting fine, but would rather cook. The good thing, is that he now has enough skill to teach the basics to his children or his spouse or his friends in his community. And with a good book, once the basics become muscle memory, his son can become an expert knitter, based on Daddy’s teaching and self-teaching.

The same is true for almost any skill. I think people are often intimidated when they approach creating an even partly self-sufficient life by the sheer number of things they have to learn to do. Now it is true that if you live in comparative isolation, you have to do all those things to your own satisfaction - not necessarily well, but at least well enough to content you and not make your life more difficult. But if you are imagining a future of pulling together with other people, and those other people don’t know it yet ;-), it is good to remember that the knowledge you need is actually pretty basic. You don’t have to be a great talent at anything - just jack of all trades (or all the ones of use to you), and master of none.


Talking Population With the Old Men

Sharon July 19th, 2007

Today is World Population Day, and again, the laments from my fellows on the ecological left are singing out in semi-unison “But no one is talking about population.” I always smile when I hear this, because if you are a woman in the environmental movement with four kids, it does tend to seem as though we *are* talking about population, and not just on World Population Day. About 1/4 of my mail is about population - mostly about my personal contribution to it. And every time this subject comes up on the blog I get my ass toasted by all the flames ;-)
Fortunately, I’m a pale sort and the only way I can get decent color for a bathing suit is to get my heinie roasted now again, so it serves a purpose. Heck, let’s do it again.

And frankly, I think it is really important that I talk about population - which is why I bring it up so much, heat or no (although I really wouldn’t hate it if I had a little company among the similarly imperfect - I keep hoping for Rob Hopkins to jump in ;-). Because if those of us who have kids, even too many kids, don’t participate in this discussion, the population debate will go on without us. Up to now, most of the loudest voices in this discussion have been men, mostly old men - Albert Bartlett, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and, of course, the grand old man of the subject, Thomas Malthus. And I admire and respect these voices and think much of what they say is true - not all of it, but a good deal. But if all of us, who do speak from a different experience, especially (but not exclusively) those women whose bodies any policies will play out in don’t talk, don’t speak from our perspective, we’re in big trouble.

So I write about this, knowing that my position is suspect, my limitations visible, and with the pitter patter of little ecological footprints running about, but also knowing that because of this, when I say “let’s talk about population” at least a few people might just pause and think that we can have this conversation. That some of the people who think that a conversation about population is just going to be a long screed about how they or their religion or their gender or their politics is wrong might know that at least one voice isn’t going there. Or at least they might feel like there’s someone else there to take the heat.

At least, I hope that’s what will happen. And I have the hope that people might think that if I came to the table, the table might seem less a place for two hostile sides to bang their heads against each other, but for voices from the ambiguous middle to start to find a ground to speak on. Perhaps I flatter myself. I want to see population on the agenda everywhere, and after I point out to the ZPG folks that I’m something of fraught advocate, I’m very firm on the fact that I will work with them to get the discussion to the table.

But if I bring this to the table, I’m also going to bring a perspective that begins from the premise that we have to respect and trust the people most affected -women. I think that not only because I am one, but because I’m truly aware of the limitations of statistics and science, and why this isn’t just a conversation about demography. I write from the perspective of someone whose physical body has experienced almost everything that can happen to someone in their childbearing years. I’ve written the next paragraph about 50 times and deleted it, because frankly, this is more than I want people to know about me. But I’m going to include them anyway because I think there’s some real urgency to knowing where we speak from. And I think my personal desire for privacy may be less important than that we talk honestly about this.

I’ve gotten pregnant by intent and by accident, wept with frustration when I wasn’t pregnant and with panic when I was unexpectedly. I’ve gotten pregnant in a secure marriage and been pregnant by a man who told me he’d leave me if I had the baby. I’ve gotten pregnant using every form of birth control known to man, often in combination, including those that aren’t supposed to have a meaningful margin of error. I’ve endured side effects from birth control and miserable pregnancies as well. I’ve miscarried multiple times, and wished desperately for the continuance of a pregnancy. I’ve had an abortion, been grateful for my freedom to do so, and also regretted beyond measure having had it. I’ve given birth to four beautiful, wonderful children. I’ve had health scares and nearly lost an infant, had a premature baby and one that wouldn’t come out even more than 2 weeks late. I’ve been angry and ambivalent and sad, and wracked with joy and delight and love.
I’ve breastfed and struggled to breastfeed. I’ve had a disabled child and non-disabled ones. I am now, in my mid-30s, done (barring any other weird miracles of fertility) with childbearing, although we hope someday to adopt. And there are plenty of experiences out there, thank G-d, that I’ve never had. But within those limits, I have lived in my body a significant part of the material reality of our childbearing, our medical system, and motherhood. Now that’s not all there is to say about population, but I flatter myself that that means that I’ve got something to say that the old men might not.

I’m a pretty blunt person, and writing the above was difficult for me. I can understand, then, why even people who admit we have to talk about population struggle to speak about it. And for women, this can be particularly difficult, because in the abstract conversations about bodies, we bang hard into our real bodies, and our real fears about what can be applied to them. When people speak of abortion, as a solution, I think about my own, about the physical pain and deep grief it caused me - about the idea that someone would have a right to order me to act surgically. When we talk about one child policies, I look at my autistic, disabled son and ask “If I had had only one child, what would be his hope of survival and success in a depleted world? Who would care for him when I am gone? Who would love him and ensure his survival?” When we talk about birth control, I think about getting pregnant while breastfeeding, using condoms and the pill - and yes, I know that’s statistically unlikely. But I’m here as the voice of the statistically unlikely - the real woman into whose body devices must be inserted. When we talk about abstinence, I wonder what the price of the failure of abstinence will be - will others pay a price I didn’t? I wonder whether other women will always have the power to say no freely.

And of course, there’s the blurring of personal history. When I talk about my implication in the population issue, I am necessarily talking about my real, here, present children who I love. It is one thing to acknowledge moral failure, and another to imply in any sense that I regret my children (nothing could be further from the truth, obviously). I met a woman at the Community Solutions Conference who told me that she worked for years for various environmental organizations, and never talked about her six children - children born before most of those organizations were founded. I’ve said this before, but ultimately, a movement that wants people to feel ashamed of the children they do have is bound to fail. So too is one that forgets that population is not a subject that comes up in isolation - that people have children for complicated reasons, and that things like money and power and military policy and medical care are mixed into this mess - if we try to talk about population without talking about the world around it, we will fail to change anything.

Demographers historically talk about population in terms of the I=PAT formulation, invented by Paul Erlich, famous for the book _The Population Bomb_. I is total impact here, and it is the product of Population, times Affluence (consumption) and Technology (Technology here implies pollution, but it is interesting to me that this acknowledges that pollution and technology are so deeply intertwined). But feminist critics of the I=PAT formulation such as T. Patricia Hynes, in her book _Taking Population Out of the Equation_ have pointed out that the I=PAT formula leaves all actors out of the equation - it is simply passive. That means it conceals power relationships - for example, the way that western consumption influences patterns of reproduction in the third world. That is, the way our need for endless stuff creates an incentive to have more kids to move into the factories. It conceals the realities that the ability to avoid pregnancy is often about power, access to medicine and war - a woman who knows her children are going to be impressed into service in the military, for example, has only one path of resistance if she wishes to have her children live - to have many children.

Donnella Meadows, one of the authors of _The Limits of Growth_ writes about her own experiences of seeing Hynes and others complicate the I=PAT formula here: Meadows was initially resistant, but then says, she began to reconsider her equation when she began to think about how the disproportionate impact of things like the military and corporate power affect the equation,

“An equation was beginning to form in my head:

Impact equals Military plus Large Business plus Small Business plus Government plus Luxury Consumption plus Subsistence Consumption

Each of those term has its own P and A and T. Very messy. Probably some double counting and some terms left out. But no more right or wrong, really, than IPAT.

Use a different lens and you see different things, you ask different questions, you find different answers. What you see through any lens is in fact there, though it is never all that is there. It’s important to remember, whatever lens you use, that it lets you see some things, but it prevents you from seeing others.”

This is my experience as well - the way we phrase the discussion now is going to shape whether we are able to talk about population, and how, and whether we actually get anywhere. What we include and what exclude, how we think about religion, politics, war, justice, sex and everything else has to come with us to the table. That doesn’t mean we can’t narrow things down for the purpose of discussion - we’ll have to. But how we narrow it, and who we bring to the table matters here. “Talking about Population” from environmentalists cannot be a code term for “Let’s all agree that we shouldn’t be having babies.” I don’t think it is for most people, but sometimes when I hear people lamenting that we can’t talk about population, I think the problem may be the terms we’re talking in.

Here are some things I think we have to talk about. If we’re talking about voluntary limitations, do we mean really voluntary, or the kind of voluntary where you’ll intimidate me if I don’t comply? Can we offer financial and political incentives for people to choose fewer children without discriminating against minority groups who choose to pay the price? How do we deal with power disparities, like women who are victims of violence and the poor who may have limited control of their own fertility? Will we be improving the medical system so that someone’s one child gets to live to a reasonable old age?

What will we do for the disabled? If I’d only had Eli, what assurance would there be that after my husband and I are gone, there will be someone to care for him? How about elderly parents? My husband and I have 7 parents between us and he’s an only child. Will we form low-energy, low cost, human powered and humane ways to help us with this? What about women in India, who have to have 6 children in order to be certain one will live long enough to care for their parents in their old age. How will we make sure that a woman in India who has only one or two children does not starve to death when she gets old? Is it better to put our resources into discouraging her from having kids, or ensuring the ones who are born get to live?

What about war? Will the state be allowed to take my single child away and sacrifice him or her on the alter of resource wars? If someone voluntarily sacrifices their right to more children, must they also sacrifice those children’s lives?

What about accidents? If we had a population policy, how would you treat someone who becomes pregnant by accident, or an abusive marriage, or by rape? Will we be requiring abortions? Pressuring girls into accepting birth control devices? Mandating sterilization? Offering it? Subsidizing it?

How will we empower women to control their own fertility? Will we grant universal health care? What do we tell women in poor nations who need children to grow food - go hungry for the good of the world? What will we do to prevent rape, to prevent domestic violence, to make sure women don’t have to become prostitutes or sell themselves into marriage to eat?

How will we treat the religious, those who honestly believe that G-d requires something different from them? How will we bring religious communities respectfully into this discussion and listen to their voices? How will we bring pooor women to the table to speak as equals with the old men?

What will we teach our sons and daughters about sex, love and family in a world with less energy, less access to birth control and medical care for many? What kind of family structures will substitute for the work and emotional needs now made up by aunts and uncles and cousins, nephew and nieces? How will the voluntarily childless get access to family life, ensure security in their old age?

I don’t claim we have to have perfect solutions in place before we have this conversation, but we cannot simply speak in isolation of “how do we get the population down” - this is a messy, cluttered question. As Meadows put it, the equation is imperfect, complicated, troubling - and that may be the only way we can talk about this. Nor do I expect to like the answers I get in many cases - and that too is real. The real test of how committed we are to preventing disaster will be how we act when confronted with unpleasant truths that hurt us - whether, in the blur of our hurt, we can look past our personal feelings to the consequences of others, whether we can recognize that we don’t want to know or acknowledge all truths, but that we have to begin in honesty, even if in pain.

So I join my voice with those who say today, on World Population Day, we *must* talk about population. We have to begin now, and bring everyone to the table. We have to begin going gently to a policy that will stabilize the world’s population. But to get there, we have to decide how to shape the lens and the conversation so that it opens up as much view as possible, and doesn’t close it off.

This is going to be a hard conversation - as hard as the hardest we’re going to have. It will hurt - it already does. But I think the only possible answer is for all of us to try and take the broadest possible view, with the greatest possible courage and integrity. I don’t know if I can do that - this issue has tested my integrity before, but I’d like to try, and I’d like the rest of us to try to begin.



Just in case you are wondering…

Sharon July 18th, 2007

Why I haven’t posted in a few days, I did, actually. There’s a new post on the side bar “Barefoot, Bearded and In the Kitchen.” For reasons that confuse me entirely, blogger posted it as though I had written it days ago, back when I started it. I don’t see to be able to fix it, so you’ll just have to look down a bit if you want new content ;-).

BTW, I hope I’m going to be meeting some of you folks in the fall - I’m off to the Community Solutions Conference in Yellow Springs Ohio again. I have no idea what I’m speaking on, but I get to hang out with the real famous people and pretend I’m one of them - and much more fun, chat with the regular folks ;-). Let me know if you are going to be there.


Barefoot, Bearded and In the Kitchen: Feminism Post-Peak

Sharon July 17th, 2007

I got an email from a reader named Chris who asked me whether all of my emphasis on producing food and meeting our needs at home wasn’t antifeminist and pushing women back into the kitchen and out of the workforce, and thus, out of the public sphere. I’ve gotten this critique before, and I thought it was worth addressing. Chris kindly gave me permission to answer her question here.

There are three related questions here. First of all, is this work mostly going to devolve on women? Are we pushing *women* in particular out of the workforce?

The second is, is this anti-feminist, or bad? That is, are we disempowering women by moving them back into the kitchen, if more women than men end up back in the domestic sphere?

And the third is whether or not the domestic sphere and the public sphere are in conflict here - that is, they were in Victorian times - those who worked in the domestic world were also the disenfranchised. But is that inevitable?

Back in February I wrote a post about Sustainability and the “Mommy Wars” (here: in which I argued that honestly, isn’t just women who should stay home, that by both preference and necessity, both men and women should consider moving as much of their work to home as possible - seeking to need less, work from home, start home businesses and cottage industries, and to generally integrate domestic and economic life. I argued that doing so is good for children, good for one’s personal security and good for marriages, and that many of the things that get blamed on women working actually may be due to the absence of fathers for long hours. As you can imagine, the subject was fairly controversial. I feel very strongly that bringing as much as possible of our work into our local environments is essential - that both men and women need to spend more time at home - which may also be the workplace in many cases.

So I think we can safely say that my own vision of the future is not one in which the only people making yogurt and growing squash are female. In fact, I don’t carry those assumptions with me. I managed to grow up without much in the way of gender role expectations at all. My own parents divorced early, and my father had joint custody of his three daughters when we were 7,6, and a baby. He washed clothes, cooked dinner (well), ironed, cleaned (badly) and did exactly the same stuff around his job my mother did around hers. Even before the divorce, my father did all the cooking, and claimed my mother had known how to cook only salad and tuna casserole. In my mother’s household, because she’s gay, two women did everything - cooked, built bookcases, hung wallpaper, gardened, went to work, did laundry, tended kids. My generation was probably less encumbered by gender expectations than any previous one, and I probably less than average.

My husband also grew up in a divorced household, mostly living with a single parent (his mother), and grew up doing a great deal of the domestic work himself, once he was old enough to be home when his mother wasn’t. His father and step-mother also have a quite egalitarian marriage, so our own marriage came with few, if any, gender expectations.

So we both cook, we both clean, I do laundry (because I like it), he does floors (because it bugs him when they are dirty and I could care less), we both knit, we both sew (badly), we both work with wood (badly), we both change the oil. There are a few traditional divisions, mostly because of preferences (He drives, because I hate to, he fixes the lawnmower because I have, ummm…a generous figure and don’t fit well underneath in some spots ;-), we also have some atypical things - he changes all the diapers when both of us are present (we made a deal when I was pregnant with #1 that if I was in charge of “input” (nursing) he’d take full responsibility for output (diapers) - I’ve *never* changed a diaper when he was around), I climb up on the roof and deal with gutters since he’s afraid of heights and I’m not. Generally speaking, we have a pretty good balance. And not only do both of us believe in egalitarianism, but we are, unusually for people our age, the products of families that lived remarkably egalitarian lives for their era. This makes a huge difference in our assumptions.

All of which means that I’m always surprised when people assume that women are going to get stuck with all the scut work. But of course, I shouldn’t be - the reality of most women’s lives is that they work full time outside the home and come home to do a full day of domestic labor, childcare, senior care, etc… I tend to assume that most men are like my father and my husband, and do their full share willingly, on the assumption that it is their job. Unfortunately, that’s not true. But I think the example of my family shows that to a large degree, if we want it to be true in the next generation, a large part of that is what we model.

That is, if women tolerate husbands who don’t do diapers, if men tolerate wives who won’t learn how to manage the finances - we’re likely to see those same roles perpetuated. That doesn’t mean that every single person needs to do everything equally well - but there are basic competences that everyone should demonstrate, barring a deep inequality in how the work is done. That is, if Dad works 14 hour days driving a long-haul truck so that Mom can stay home with the kids, it is perfectly reasonable to expect Mom to do 14 hours of work herself taking care of the kids and the yard and the domestic work. Work should be evenly divided - period. I’ve met men who work 50 hour weeks who come home and do all the farm work, while their spouse rest, and women who work 8 hours a day and come home to another 8 hours while their husband watches tv. And ultimately, the responsibility for fixing this problem - for themselves and in the next generation - lies in the participants.

Because household work generally devolves on women, it is no wonder many of them are notably unthrilled at the notion that they could be lucky enough to have to make all their kids’ clothes too. And I don’t blame them one bit for that. I admit, it is honestly hard for me to fathom a marriage in which labor falls so disproportionately on women, but that is often the reality. The majority of American women do more than 20 hours of household labor and childcare each week above and beyond their paid jobs. The majority of American men do 9 hours. That’s a big difference.

So the odds are good that a call for a return to domestic life will fall heavily on women’s shoulders, unless both women and men negotiate cultural changes to ensure otherwise. This is, of course, much of the project of feminism. But I think modern feminism has yet to acknowledge how much of its goals and structure were created by cheap energy, and a product of that peculiar, unique and historically unlikely to be repeated abundance. By this I mean that much of what was possible for the women’s movement was made possible by cheap energy. For example, the movement of women into the workforce while they had young children was to a large degree as much about refrigeration, electric breast pumps and industrial formula as it was about equal representation in careers. This is hardly the only example of this.

Feminism has, I think, fallen into the economic trap of “externalizing” other costs -for example, while in principle we may care about the rights of poor women, many women who have taken the “go out and work” message are unconcerned about the realities of the poor women and men they employ to mow lawns, clean houses, tend children and care for seniors. The moral responsibility of these acts shouldn’t fall only on women - the message that the Nanny’s poverty is the sole responsibility of a woman who gets a job, and none of her husband’s is nonsense. But there is a reality that when women moved out of the home they left no replacement, leaving the marketplace to provide poorly paid people with few benefits and few comforts to meet the needs both men and women left behind. To feminism’s right and credit, feminism has taken up the cause of these women - but it has not always fully credited its impact in creating their situation.

Just as we have to stop externalizing the costs of oil, we have to stop externalizing the costs of the domestic sphere - because these costs are ours to bear. The failures of child nutrition, for example - Americans are documentably getting shorter and less healthy because there is no one there to cook dinner, and industrial agriculture has gained much of its power because we rely upon them to feed us these inadequate foods. Our fossil fuel usage has gone up steadily, in part because we’re going places all the time - to work, to daycare, to preschool, to school and etc…

Overwhelmingly, the feminist message was that we should move the dull, rote jobs of domestic life out of the home and into the public economy - to daycare centers and cafeterias and other public utilities. Part of the failure of this project was the failure of government participation - when ordinary people were stuck putting their domestic world into the public economy on their own wages, they got what they could afford - not much. But part of the problem may have come from the notion that political power for women mostly derived from participation in the public sphere in an economic sense - that is, that everyone was best served by getting as many women and men out doing “important” jobs as possible.

There have always been multiple feminisms, so what I am speaking here is of the dominant discourse, which is necessarily watered down by, as Tom Lehrer said of folk songs, “being written by the people.” But the dominant discourse of feminism has valued the professional over the private, the money-earning over the work of not needing money, and found political pwoer there. And by pushing both women and men further out into the capitalist economic sphere, and saying that power is to be found there, we’ve been sold an anti-democratic bill of goods - the notion that the marketplace will fix all of our problems if we all just go out and make enough money to buy solutions has, of course, eroded our democracy.

Someone has to go home, if we are to cease externalizing our costs and deal with the hard realities. In some cases, that may not be possible - the very poor who have to take what work they can, single parents who have no one with whom to share domestic work, etc… these people have few choices. But many of the people reading this blog are not among them - most are middle class or better working families, and many do have better choices. And someone has to go home and stay there, simply because it is manifestly the case that turning domestic work over to the industrial economy is destroying us.

It is worth noting here that one of the reason capitalist feminism succeeded so well while other feminist discourses were lost is that I doubt growth capitalists could have found a way to be happier if they’d commissioned a study. Over a few short decades, nearly every able bodied adult stopped doing work autonomously for themselves, stopped running the home economy (the word economy itself implies home management, not public life) and thus practicing things like frugality and getting along without industry, and started to create new businesses subcontracting out domestic work into industry. While feminism manifestly succeeded in creating more justice in some areas, in others, it simply managed to expand the creation of a new underclass, doing the unpleasant domestic labor we were all being “freed” from - the jobs we did at home, where no one told us what to do or how to do it.

Now I would strongly prefer that there be no distinction here between men and women -in my own marriage, for example, I do the majority of childcare and domestic work during the academic year, when Eric is teaching, and he does it during the summer when I am writing and farming. But this is not feasible for many families, and there are a number of factors, economic (men generally make more money than women), cultural (we have a prejudice against having men care for young children) and biological that are likely to lead to more women being at home than men, particularly younger women and women who choose to have children.

Historically speaking, women with young children who could not afford wet nurses did “women’s work”. A famous paper in anthropology by Judith Brown, “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” observes that generally speaking, whether a lot of women do something in a society depends on its compatibility with childcare, whether the work met the criteria, which Brown defines as “…such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration…they are eaily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted…they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.” Making cloth and clothing, cooking, gardening, tending small animals, gathering wild foods… this was women’s work to a large degree.

That is not to say that women didn’t do other work. But generally speaking, traditional women’s work was designed to accomodate the realities of having young children for a decade or so of a woman’s productive adult life. No society could afford to lose women’s productive labor during the period of childbearing and rearing young children, so the society emphasized that sort of work. Nor could any society afford to lose children to the illnesses and death that faced those who were weaned early. There are other sorts of labor that are also child friendly - many cottage businesses, or even keeping shop, if the shop contains child space are suitable. Indeed, many more jobs could be made child friendly if we wanted them to be, and feminists have for years fought and lost this battle.

In many ways, our present society is even more insistent that we cannot “afford” to lose the productive labor of women during pregnancy, breastfeeding and early childhood. Because of that, industrial substitutes like formula and heavy-duty electric breast pumps are created so that children can be left with other women, and women can return to work that cannot be interrupted easily. With science doing its best to ensure that the consequences to children are less evident and longer-term, we have come to believe that breast is best, but only a tiny bit better, and that best of all is a little breast feeding, lots of attaching yourself (on your break time) to a pump machine and the eventual transition to formula, rather than, g-d forbid, not feeding the growth economy.

Thus, women who stay home with their children are often castigated for being unproductive, or wasting their educations and training, or it is often implied that they are unusually wealthy, and doing so is a luxury that ordinary people cannot afford. And, in fact it is often a luxury. Staying home with your children usually implies a two parent, fairly stable family, a single provider who can produce both income and benefits, and other bits of good fortune. That said, however, it is working class families, more than wealthy ones that are most likely to have a stay at home parent, for both cultural and economic reasons. For example, a disproportionate number of homeschooling familes have stay-at home parents (for obvious reasons) - and yet the average homeschooling household income is under 30K. There are far more stay at home parents in my working class, rural area than there were in the affluent urban area I lived in for almost a decade.

Imagining a future in which more of us are poor and fewer of us can afford the $1500 dollars annually that feeding a baby with infant formula requires, or the electricity for breast pump and freezer, it seems not unlikely that many women will spend more of their lives doing labor that can be done with small children about. Even in a society with a strong one-child emphasis, this is likely to take up some years of a woman’s life - most poorer societies practice extended breastfeeding, because the nutritional value of women’s breastmilk cannot be foregone, and the added benefits to women’s health, longevity and sibling prevention (which does not work for me in any sense ;-) are also important. The average age, worldwide, of weaning is 4. If school buses in our regionalized school systems cease running (and they already are in some places) because of rising transport costs, more of us will have to homeschool. While this job doesn’t have to be done by women, it is contiguous with extended breastfeeding, and often is.

So for at least a little while in the lives of those women who have children, there will be a strong biological pressure towards “women’s work.” But that’s hardly the end of the conversation. In one child society, where women are encouraged to put off childbearing until their late 20s or early 30s (there are significant demographic benefits to encouraging later childbearing, but any later than this is probably unlikely in a society that can’t afford expensive and energy intensive infertility treatments), that means quite a few years of productive adulthood, 3-8 years (assuming one or two children) “out” and then she’d be free to go back in.

But, of course, it isn’t so simple. Women are heavily penalized in the labor market for time taken out to care for children, and in a society without fast food restaurants to provide dinner, gardeners to mow the lawn, dry cleaners to clean the clothes, daycare providers to tend the children and nursing home aides to tend grandma (or in which all these things exist but most of us can no longer afford them). And since the burden of elder care has generally fallen on them (for reasons that have nothing to do with biological necessity), a woman who trains for a career until she is 30, leaves the workplace for 9 years to bear and nurse 2 children and then returns, who has parents who had the same approximate schedule, will, in her mid-to-late 40s in many cases find herself with elderly and increasingly frail parents who may also require her time. Men can do these jobs - but they won’t unless we change our culture, and rapidly.

And the biggest barrier is cultural. Many men have resisted doing their full share, and women have held on to their responsibilities (”You don’t do it right…it is easier to just do it myself”) while feeling resentful. And if domestic work has to be done, and women are to be out of the workforce for some time, the logical thing would be to have them, when they return, trade positions with their spouse. But this tends not to work in a society that rewards consecutive experience, is particularly unsupportive of men who do childcare and domestic work, and generally pays men better than women anyway.

Barring some major cultural changes, I’d have to say that the answer to question #1 is that, yes, the reality is that any push to a lower energy society that doesn’t envision a much more communal life, probably will mean women going disproportionately back to domestic life. While I strongly encourage egalitarianism, the forces that affect ordinary families mean that generally speaking, it is easier for women to leave the conventional economy than for men. We can and should work to change this, but it is unlikely to succeed before economic difficulty strikes.

So now we come to question two - is this a bad thing for women and their rights? On the surface of it, the answer would seem to be “yes.” Certainly, fewer women would enter the highly trained professions, and most of those who entered them would either be older when they entered (ie, past their childbearing years), have an unusually egalitarian marriage, or have no plan to have children. Few households in a poorer society will be able to take out tens of thousands in student loans for law school, only to have women work for five years and then leave the workforce for a time.

Many of these things are true now. For example, highly placed women in the business world have children less than 50% of the time. When they do have them, they have fewer and later. Many of these women who wait until their late 30s or later are only able to have children after extended medical intervention, and would probably have none at all if infertility treatments were not available or were unaffordable.

The academic field I trained it was remarkable for the number of women involved - and yet in my department, of the women faculty, the vast majority had no children at all. Of the two female faculty members in my department who did have children, one had had hers before entering academia, another had her two children in her late 30s and early 40s. Despite the fact that English Literature was considerably more woman friendly than most other areas of academia, my observation was that comparatively few women had children, and that it was extremely difficult to accomodate the two jobs. This is also true of many other fields.

So what we would likely see is an exaggeration of current situations - professional women would be less common, and the old “career or kids but not both” scenario might rule. Or we might adapt, making it normal for women to train for a second career after their children are older. But the most likely scenario, because of economic and cultural pressures means that there would be fewer highly educated women, fewer women in professional jobs that require extended training, and, since most political figures are taken from professional jobs, potentially fewer women in politics. The women who were in these jobs are likely not to have children, and thus likely to lack the particular understanding of family issues that many mothers have.

So in that sense, this might be bad. But on the other hand, a poorer, less energy intensive society is likely to have some changes in male occupations as well. For example, unless we make colleges more universally available and free to most people, most men who would now have these jobs won’t be becoming doctors, lawyers or academics either. The reality is that college and graduate school are feasible now only because we are rich, and people are willing to beggar themselves for decades taking out loans to get higher salaries in the long term. This system is already starting to break down, as books like _Generation Debt_ document - they are creating institutionalized economic inequities that can’t be overcome by people who have taken out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and will spend most of their most productive years paying them off. A recent study shows that almost 35% of all young adults 35 and under are receiving financial aid from their parents. I’m sure some are lazy schlubs, but most of them are receiving it because there are tremendously institutionalized economic disparities being created by the cost of education.

This system can’t continue, and it is unlikely to. And there are good reasons to want to see it gone. For example, as studies demonstrate, economic mobility is disappearing the US - those people who are likely to become our important women politicians after their years in law school? Generally speaking, they are rich folks, who were priveleged from birth, and thus “tracked” from early on for success, and for power. Yes, it is nice that some of the powerful have breasts but what we’re not getting from this system is a great deal of real diversity of viewpoint. Most of our leaders are taken from a particular class and culture. And while education is generally a good signal of progressive policies in the US, the sheer crappiness of the education many people are mortgaging themselves for suggests that we could do better, cheaper - period.

A society in which fewer people go to college (or better yet, in which college is subsidized as it is in much of the world) is one in which more leaders are going to have to come from everyday people - including those who work from home, on a small scale - farmers, chatelaines, homeschoolers, owners of home businesses.

This was precisely what Thomas Jefferson argued for - that is, he felt that independent householders who could supply most of their subsistence needs at home were the best possible participants in a democratic society. So perhaps the problem is us - the perception that law school and business are the direct lead-ins to running the country is simply screwed up. We should be looking for leaders in people who have fed themselves, clothed themselves, cared for their own, done their own share of ordinary work. Changing that will require a major alteration of cultural priorities, but it does mean that women who are doing their work from home or whose primary work is domestic labor need not be disenfranchised - and that there are powerful cultural incentives to value both men and women who do not have expensive educations and don’t drive to fancy offices. There is no reason to believe that taking more women out of the professions will return us in any short time to the notion that women should simply stay home and tend to their knitting. In fact, there’s some reason to think that we might take our knitting (or our small engine repair, for that matter) with us into the halls of power better if we began looking for qualifications not to be found in a law degree.

I think there is some danger that #2 is true - that moving women out of the public sphere and back to the domestic could be a problem for our power in the world, but that’s not insurmountable. And the reality is this - that our *hope* of taking back political power from corporations and from those who have claimed it lies mostly in our not needing those folks - that is, being able to meet our own needs. It is not merely rhetoric or condescension to say that “the hand that stirs the pot or rocks the cradle rules the world.” This is likely literally true right now - we may have more women in the public sphere right now than before, but ordinary men and women are less powerful because of our externalizing of our needs than we could be if men and women were to take them back.

And this is a good portion of the answer to number three. Feminism should be proud of many things, but one of its great failures has been the prioritization of the public, capitalist, economic sphere over the domestic, private one. The reason we did this was an understandable thing - we let antifeminists define the terms of the discussion from early on. The question of women’s basic rights was always phrased as a conflict between private and public, and many feminists (not all) took on this distinction as a cause - let us get women out into the world. The problem, however, is that “private” and “public” are not such clear dichotomies - the private sphere of the home and its labor can never be fully seperated from the public implications of that role. By encouraging women to enter the workforce, and to regard work under a boss in an industrial job as preferrable to working autonomously (not under a repressive spouse) at home meeting one’s needs outside the domestic sphere, we also encouraged the demise of all private, domestic life - with real consequences in health, resource use and dehumanization.

Much of the environmental movement has been the realization that not only is “the personal the political” but vice versa - that is, much of our most important political work must operate on the personal level, that the private is the public. It may ultimately it matter less whether women get to be brain surgeons (which is important) than what we eat for dinner. It does matter who cooks it - there are compelling arguments for fairness and justice in this realm - but it does mean that someone has to be there to do the cooking. The things that most influence the state of our lives are domestic and “private” - but, of course, the private is the public here.

One of the most heartening things I see in the peak oil and climate change movement is a remarkable number of people stepping out of their traditional roles. I see women who have mostly worked on the sidelines feeling that they need to stand up for the future of their children. I see men who have never touched a pot talking about how they baked bread. The reality is that this conflict, unlike all prior wars, is being “fought” on a unified front - the “home front” - that is, instead of dividing up for war, or for capitalism, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers have every incentive to come together to make changes in world they most need security in - the private, the domestic, the literal home front.


52 Weeks Down - Week 12 - Get Your Kids Involved

Sharon July 16th, 2007

In _Last Child in the Woods_, Richard Louv argues that American children are suffering from a lack of connection with the natural world. While it is an excellent book, on some level support for this contention can be justified by simply walking through most suburban neighborhoods. The children are mostly in enclosed spaces - playgrounds or ballfields being organized by parents and coaches in the best scenario, or in the house playing video games or watching tv. Very few are out in their ecosystem, even when the ecosystem is as processed as the suburban lawn.

So is it any wonder that most American children may have generalized fears about things like global warming, drought, dangerous storms…but they don’t have either the educational background to understand what is going on, or the practical experience with nature, agriculture and the environment to understand their own connection with the earth. A few years ago, for example, a study came out that suggested the average American child can recognize only 13 species in their own little ecosystem. That is, walk out onto your lawn, and the average child would be hard pressed to tell you whether the tree by her window is an oak, locust or cedar, to recognize which of the driveway weeds she can safely pick (and even eat or make a whistle or daisy chain with) and which are poisonous, or even name the birds that come to her feeder, or identify whether a carrot comes from a tree or under the ground.

There was a time when children had relationships with the trees on their property - when they climbed them, swung on them, named them, talked to them, took up a hammer and nails and made precarious houses in their branches. And they knew something about them - perhaps the little girl might even have tapped the sugar maple in her yard, or collected acorns from the white oak. It is hard for all of us to grasp the stakes of global warming, for example, but a child who knows what a sugar maple is, has a relationship to one and a taste for syrup, can begin to understand the tragedy of “and there will be no more of these trees in our place again…” The more the child understands about ecology in general and about the biology of his or her specific, beautiful, particular place, the more stake he or she has in the future.

Contemporary education has failed in two ways. First, most of us were taught when the Battle of Hastings was, but not the slightest thing about the history of our agricultural system, other, perhaps, than the invention of the plow. We were taught to read poetry, but never to wonder what “Eglantine” Shakespeare mentioned actually looked or smelled like. We were taught the periodic table, but nothing about soil microbiology. That is, our education has prioritized, historically, the distant and abstract, rather than the local and concrete. We were not trained to think of ourselves as part of history, and biology and literature. And this means that we often have no way of connecting our abstract knowledge of distant places and histories with the concrete reality of our future. In many cases, we have no ability to use history to predict consequences, or to understand the connections say, between one fact (the fact that 50% of all reptiles are expected to go extinct) and another fact (that our food web depends on reptile species) and a third fact (that our local reptile species do this and this in our particular ecosystem).

We need to add an ecological and agricultural education to our children’s lives. It would be nice in some ways if public schools would do this, but the reality is that we need this now, so we parents must do this. And for many parents, this means taking up ecological education ourselves in our adulthood - we have to ask “What is that tree?” “Why do the dandilions grow here but not the plantain?” “Where does my water come from?” “What does soil humus do to the atmospheric carbon.” We need desperately to become literate in a host of areas we’ve never been familiar with, and teach our children as we learn.

And the other thing we need to do is get our children out onto the soil and teach them by doing, by touching, by growing, by *being* in the world. And that doesn’t mean taking long trips to “visit” nature - the occasional visit to a national park is inspiring, but if you feel like you don’t have any nature around you, make sure you get some where you are - plant some trees in a vacant lot, start a garden on your roof, call for setting aside land from development, build a community garden. Because your child will grow up with the relationship to nature that intersects their everyday life - no connection can be built on a yearly trip, and doing it much more often is the hypocrisy of destroying the environment to give your children a taste of it. Trust me, there will come a time when your kid will connect those dots - hypocrisy is the one things all teenagers have a magical detector for.

Which means that we have to find nature and a reason to preserve it in our man-made landscapes. We must, in some literal and metaphorical way open up the boundaries of the enclosures and let our children out into their own world. We cannot expect our children to be attached to a nature that is majestic, transcendent, and “over there somewhere.” If they are to be invested in the preservation of their future, they must grasp that nature is them, it is their world, their lawn, their garden, their tree, their park, their food, their souls. And they must get to know it in concrete, direct and real ways - both knowing about it, and knowing it with hands and mouth and nose and body.

And, of course, our children need to be inculcated into our environmental practices. They need to see us valuing the environment over our convenience, not occasionally, but every day. Those brilliant hypocrisy-sniffers are again at issue -they need to see us doing things, but also understand that we are doing them from real commitment, and grasp the moral terms of that commitment. They need to learn how to do these things hand in hand with their parents - baking bread with us, and understanding why we aren’t driving to the store, shopping in thrift shops with us, instead of at new, and understanding why buying used is better. They need to be wholly integrated not only into the natural world, but our relationship to it. The things we do to preserve the world are the things we do to preserve them, and the most important may be what we teach them. And they need to feel that what they do matters, not just in child ways, but has a real and material effect on the world.

This does not apply solely to parents. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbors, friends - children need adults in their lives who care about them, and who will teach what they have. The children who live around you may not get this from their parents - but they will remember all of their lives, the neighbor across the street who invites them to look in the worm bin and shows them the garden soil the worms create. They will take with them a little taste of the aunt who bakes pies with them, and lets them decide if blueberry-banana is a good flavor. They will someday, as a grandparent themselves, remember that grandpa named the trees, and do it for their own grandsons. If we do it soon, the trees will still be there to be named.


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