Peak Oil, Gender and Power

Sharon August 3rd, 2008

I made the National Post - pretty cool, huh?  And the author (the really cool Vanessa, of Green as a Thistle)  mentioned LimeSarah, and Crunchy’s blog - how cool is that!  And what, oh what was the author talking about?  But the whole peak oil gender thing.  How neat is it that that discussion made the paper?

Of course, arguing that men and women have different, gender-specific responses to global warming or the looming oil crash is a broad generalization, and one that could very well prove unfounded.

However, there’s no question that the majority of women writing about peak oil are considerably more focused on what we can do now to make life better, not just what we may have to do at some point down the road.

Even if nothing happens — if the polar ice caps cease to melt, the smog in Beijing just disappears one day and endangered species begin multiplying in vast numbers — it hardly means all that tomato-canning and cycling to work was a waste of time.

Better, then, to keep track of all the peak oil news, but remind people like Savinar and Kunstler that we need to be acting, not just reacting.”

 To be fair though (and the author, of course, admits it), I’m not totally sure that the “men talk about doom, women act” stuff really quite covers the ground.  Kunstler has been yelling at everyone to design better landscapes, reinvigorate rail, get people the fuck out of their cars and integrate retail and housing for oh, 15 years, at least since _The Geography of Nowhere_.   Matt Savinar may be the Crown Prince of Doom, but he runs his forums full of lonely, cranky men ;-) with a heavy emphasis on gardening, tools and practicalities.  And, umm, the man sells food storage. 

You could also choose a completely different set of men to hold Deanna and me up against.  Set against Pat Murphy and Rob Hopkins, for example, what could you say about the difference in gender approaches, except that La Crunch and I are looking kinda butch and doomy these days – after all, she recently posted on adopting bunnies and killing and eating them, while I wrote that we were in the middle of a fast crash, heading down.   

There are differences between the men and the women here, but I think they are slightly subtler than one group announcing disaster and the other getting to work on it.  My observation is that in general (and there are plenty of exceptions) , men either place much more or much less faith in policy solutions than women do.  That is, they tend to focus a lot on big picture issues.  And because the big picture is so central to most men’s focus, if it seems impossible that institutions and structure can persist, the most common alternative is complete and utter collapse.  I don’t think women react this way to the idea that our society might not go on as it has been – and if I had to put a finger on why this is so, I’d say it is because women (and minorities and gay men) are often made aware of the fact that institutions weren’t necessarily their friends to begin with, and that powerful institutions are dangerous.  They learn this because sometimes the institutions are corrupt in obvious ways – for example, they institutionalize racism and sexism – think of the Driving While Black issue, for example.  And they learn this in more subtle ways – because the people within them often feel little qualm about translating institutional power into personal, even sexual power.  I suspect most women will know what I mean, and many men will not, at least viscerally.

My own feeling is that (and again, I am wildly overgeneralizing) women have had to be more skeptical of the power of institutions than men for a host of reasons – partly just because the reins tend to be held by the boys -  and partly because if you were raised female (and probably even more so if you were raised female and part of a religious, ethnic or racial minority) you get, in a visceral way, that power is a two edged thing.  It can be great – but it can be used against you. 

How many girls make it through their adolescence without feeling at least a few times, the ways that “power” “authority” and “strength” can be a fundamental threat, as well as a benefit?   How many women get to adulthood without a few moments of being told in a host of ways, explicit or not, that the power to do things means the power to do some very terrible things – I’ve been luckier than many women on this front, but I simply can’t think of a single woman I know who has never had a moment they walked away from that began as an ordinary exchange and changed into a moment that was very much one of terrible vulnerability.  I think the recognition that sexual violence, even the broad, general threat of sexual violence or intimidation often come from people who have power, and are comfortable with it, means that women have a harder time seeing institutionalized power (from which we have often been disenfranchised as well) as an unmitigated good, or at least, something to rely upon.

 So while we work with and in power institutions, I think women often have a more subtle relationship to what “collapse” might look like – it is fearful, and troubling – but it also represents possibilities and release from certain other kinds of threats. I think often men see the collapse of institutions, both institutions they’ve worked for or even those they’ve worked to change - as more disastrous, leaving a vast emptiness likely to be filled by chaos.  I think one of the truths about being female is that you know, on some level, that approaches to power, reliance on existing institutions is always a little risky – chaos never seems quite as far away.

Most rapes, most sexual abuse, most moments of sexual pressure, harassment and intimidation aren’t moments when strangers, unconstrained by powerful institutions attack us – oh, that happens to women too, but most of the times that sex and power get tied up in bad, scary ways happen among the men you know (and yes, I know that these things happen to boys and men too, and women do them to women too sometimes – I am again, overgeneralizing).  Most of the rapists are men women know and trust.  Most cases of sexual abuse aren’t stranger attacks, but fathers and brothers and uncles.  Most sexual harrassment happens in places where you’ve learned to trust people.  Most of those weird, queasy moments that don’t quite fall into any category, but where some man makes a woman know that they are only safe because the man chooses it to be that way – they happen with people you know, in quite ordinary places, in quite ordinary circumstances. 

I think for many women, and many people who are not white or fall into some minority group, and for many gay people – the idea that you can trust and rely on public structures is not something that comes naturally.  That’s not to say that many men also don’t understand that institutions are corrupt, but the truth is that those of us who are particularly vulnerable to power plays know that even when they aren’t corrupt, they are – that is, even when power in the hands of the powerful is mostly working as it should, at least on the surface, the powerful are very comfortable asserting their power.  The fact that on some level all women have to know that even the most secure of institutions and structures contain threats within them – that there are no places where they are not vulnerable, gives them a sense that one can function in a space that is ambiguous, uncertain, vulnerable and frightening.

Again, this is probably overstating all sorts of things.  But my own sense of the difference is this – everything falling apart is damned terrifying for many men – it makes them feel vulnerable, in ways that they don’t have to feel vulnerable most of the time.  That’s why the guns and spam so dominate the conversations – the language is about protecting “one’s own” but the truth is, I think that a lot of men are afraid also for themselves in a way that they have never experienced before, and that must be quite terrifying. 

 Their vulnerability, however, is a lot like a kind of vulnerability that most women, a lot of non-white folks, and gay men have had to get used to for a very long time.  It is a yucky feeling – one that none of us like.  For those who haven’t had to experience it before, the feeling is damned overwhelming.  For the rest of us, who have lived in that territory some time, we set to work minimizing our risks as best we can – but we don’t either fervently believe we can fix everything enough that we’ll never have to live in the ugly grey of domination and vulnerability, or believe that having to face that horrible, queasy feeling straight on is the same thing as the sign to go back to the bunker – because if we did, we’d have never come out.  We’re already living in grey areas, and they have become inhabitable – we know that deep vulnerability is something that can often be navigated, or at least survived.

It seems odd to think that this might be an advantage, as things collapse, but I suspect it actually might be.


15 Responses to “Peak Oil, Gender and Power”

  1. Young Snowbird says:

    I agree with you, even the generalities. That sense of alertness to vulnerability is always there, under the surface, as a sort of sonar. Living in the grey zone -having to trust those who may not one day be trust worthy gives a inner sense of living in the temporary, change is but a decision or reaction away.

    I said something similar to this in a comment for a man’s posting on Women in Combat. His whole arguement was that if women were not in combat, they wouldn’t experience rape in combat – by their fellow soldiers or commanding officers. When I explained that women are alert everyday of their lives of the potential to be violated, the guy’s response to me was vicious! He accused me of living a miserable, paranoid life, blah blah. I wonder then if some men’s identity investment in their own sense of power is so extreme or pervasive that anything which allows them awareness that it might not actually be so becomes a major breach of identity for them, requiring violent reaction of protection. Crack the wall of denial and head for cover!

  2. Fearsclave says:

    Hi Sharon: been reading and enjoying your blog from some time, but I believe this is my first comment. I really have to take issue with your portrayal of men and their perceptions of and relations to institutions. It doesn’t take much exposure to male members of the so-called “right-wing survivalist” fringes of the Doomer movement to realize that if anything, fear, distrust, and antipathy towards institutions, from elected legislatures to the IRS to law enforcement, BATF, etc., is rampant, and that many would see their disappearance as a positive side effect of a collapse. The perception among many is that they are an oppressed minority, and, to paraphrase you, they’re skeptical of power and authority because it can and occasionally is used against them, and threatens them as much as it benefits them. And arguably, some Doomers actively look forward to a world with less authority and fewer institutions, where they can live free of some of the restrictions imposed on us by our current civilization. To a culture that places a high value on autonomy, independence, self-reliance and individual moral authority, loss of institutions that restrict the ability to live up to those values can easily be seen as a good thing.

    I can sympathize with that viewpoint to a certain extent; part of my own preparation has been to take up hunting, and after becoming familiar with Canada’s harsh and oppressive gun control laws, living in a world free of pointless, punitive legal restrictions on my food preparation utensils sometimes seems almost attractive. And since the nearest police detachement is a long drive away, realistically speaking the police are already incapable of saving me and mine from violence. They’re a deterrent, it’s true, but they can’t stop those that aren’t deterred.

    And also, there are pretty good arguments to the effect that awareness of personal vulnerability is part of the right-wing survivalist mindset already. Avoidance of violent victimization is a major concern to members of the “gun culture”; even now, pre-Collapse, they’re well aware (possibly too aware, some might say) that the world is not a warm safe fuzzy place and that many of their fellow citizens will quite happily prey upon them, given the opportunity. And they don’t put much faith in the ability of institutions such as law enforcement to protect them to begin with. Which, again, I also think is hardly unreasonable.

    So I’m sorry to say that I don’t think your generalization about gender attitudes towards loss of instutitions holds up; to people who don’t put much faith in them to begin with, feel oppressed by them, or who actually downright fear and hate them, the collapse of some of our institutions is not going inspire much fear.

    And although personal anecdote isn’t worth much, I’d place my (male) self squarely in the prefer to act rather than discuss camp; over the past three years I’ve moved into the countryside, bought a couple of woodstoves, put in a vegetable garden, learned how to identify a number of local wild edible plant species, started stockpiling food, learned how to bake and shoot, and armed myself, just for starters. I don’t particularly care about whether it’s Peak Oil or climate change that gets us, and to be honest, still wouldn’t bet much money on a serious collapse being imminent. In fact, I wouldn’t be doing much differently if the most credible threat to us was a Romero-style zombie outbreak; this lifestyle is rewarding on multiple levels, and even if global warming turns out to be a false alarm and we discover that we’d underestimated our oil reserves tenfold, I’d still be doing this. It’s a lot of fun.

  3. Rio says:

    Brilliant Sharon. As a lesbian, I don’t think you are overstating.

  4. lissa says:

    wow. sharon, i’m always impressed by how you seem to distill everything down to its purest essence. all of this (generalities and all) rings very true for me.

    and while there are only a few responses so far, it would seem that women (in general) and men (in general) are reacting accordingly. women seeing the reality of their own existences and men feeling the need to react defensively……

  5. Tubaplayer says:

    Hi Sharon,

    In broad brushstroke terms (as a man) I totally agree with what you say. It may be my “feminine side” showing, whatever, but I have chosen to throw everything in the air and hope for a lucky fall of the dice.

    At the moment I am bottling (or turning into alcohol :) ) a shed-load of fruit from the trees I bought where I now live. I bake, and take cakes and goodies to the neighbours.

    The “how many strawberries shall I sun dry” is not necessarily a feminine thing, you know.

  6. I love that this topic is getting attention. I am also freaked out because I was thinking a lot of these things earlier today, then read your blog, and now I feel like you’re reading my mind. Or is the collective unconscious (or rather, conscious) asserting itself?

  7. JoeP says:

    I’ve not been doing the readings in the book club, but this post makes me want to offer a suggestion for it. I would include some nonfiction. I’m working my way back in time with some books on famines and found the first to be very good at making me more wary of institutional power. I’ve just finished Hungry Ghosts, about the Great Leap Forward, am now reading Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow (about the Soviet terror-famine in the Ukraine) and have Late Victorian Holocausts still to go. Harvest of Sorrow is proving to be a bit of a slog, as there are all these names of people and details of Lenin’s NEP and other stuff. Hungry Ghosts is a much quicker read and I recommend it strongly.

    The other reason I bring this up is because in reading these books, I am struck by how strongly the complaints about our factory farming system resemble the promises made about collectivization.

  8. JoeP says:

    That’s a really good observation, JoeP.

    I think in the US the problems of collective farming were attributed to ownership structure & politics, when the real problem was scale. Corporate farms of the same size have similar production problems to collective farms, though they were expected to feed fewer people.

    But because the US managed to erase from public discourse the people land was taken from (both native people & poor whites) and because so many of the farm & ranch failures of consolidation have been reported as *business* failures instead of *farm* failures, we haven’t learned from our past the way the Ukrainians and Chinese have.

  9. Rosa says:

    (sorry, that’s not JoeP talking to himself, that’s me up there.)

  10. MEA says:


    It seems to me that because the right-wing etc.-er fear the goverement and other instutions, their reponse it to become more represive to others.

  11. Matt Savinar says:

    If the author of the piece had checked out the LATOC Forum, she would see that we have seven moderators. Five are women. All have huge gardens, animals, etc. We also have a very active gardening forum although it’s been a bit slow lately mostly because its summer and people are out gardening or other activities that are better to get done in the summer:

    There’s also a public women’s sub-forum and a private one run by one of the female mods. (that being Michelle in Georgia)

    But being a modern MSM journalist – that means highly she is highly specialized – asking her to see shades of gray or complexities is a bit too much to ask. Most westerners – particularly those with high levels of specialization – can only see things as simplified caricatures. So maybe she takes a quick look at LATOC and her brain, being atomized, can only think “doomer survivalist with loads of military-grade weaponary” even though it’s alot more complex and holistic than that.

  12. Richard says:

    If women are in a perpetual state of collective fear of sexual violation, how do you explain modern women’s fashion? After women lose the butt, toe, and traditional cleavage, along with makeup, plastic surgery, bright pink colors, hi lights, etc., this kind of argument might be taken seriously. Men are pigs, but damn, so are women.

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