I Have Got a Dun Cow and You Can Make Good Cheese: Are Women Holding Us Back?

Sharon October 8th, 2009

“Sukey will you be my bride? Say yes if you please

For I have got a dun cow, and you can make good cheese.

I have got a little pig, and you have got a sty.

Sukey, will you marry me? 

Oh aye, by and by!” - Traditional Nursery Rhyme

When I started participating in peak oil and climate change discussions in 2003, let’s just say that the whole thing was much more of a boy’s club than it is now (and in some measure it still is).  And one of the laments I most often heard was “we men would be glad to change our lives, but our wives won’t let us - they still want all the trappings of affluence.”  Or “No woman will date a man who just wants to farm and grow food.”  Whenever I heard these claims, I would laugh and think about how much some women I knew were struggling to get their husbands to give up their creature comforts. 

But they keep recurring.  Recently Dmitry Orlov wrote about how hard it is to please a woman - in this case, his wife, who wants more creature comforts than a simpler life can provide - and he terms it not so much as how to please his particular wife, but women in general:

“I have thought about this long and hard, and came to the conclusion that it all comes down to a very basic question: “How to please a girl?” After all, any modern, progressive, educated and attractive person begins to scoff if you take away her flush toilet and substitute a bucket, or if she has to go shopping leading a donkey, or if, instead of a shower, she is invited to go and stoke a sauna. From time immemorial status in society has been determined by access to luxury goods. As society becomes richer, luxuries turn into necessities. And when society starts to grow poorer again, it turns out that there is no going back. That is, there is a way back, but it is blocked by the innate tendencies of our clever species. My wife and I spent two years living aboard a very attractive and practical yacht slightly less than 10 meters in length at the waterline, and although the wife understands everything very well, even she cannot stop herself from casting a sideways glance when a yacht like Abramovich’s walks past us, and from making some comment, like “Oh, now this I understand, this is the real thing!” And there is no point in explaining to her that what we have here on board is a very high level of civilization, while Abramovich is just an ordinary consumer. It is very hard, gentlemen, to change the lifestyle, but not change the woman! If someone succeeds in this, then he is a hero and a genius, and we should all learn from him. In the meantime, we are going to live in an apartment, and put the boat on the hard, and install all sorts of solar panels, water heaters, and other technological junk.”

 Orlov phrases this in much the same way that many men have phrased it - male attractiveness is tied up in their ability to provide, and women want to be provided with a lot more than men.  And that’s probably a fair analysis in some ways - male status is both more and less fungible than female status - female status tends to be heavily tied to physical beauty, and if you don’t have that, there aren’t a lot of ways of compensating.  Male status tends to offer a range - you can be extremely attractive, extremely bright, extremely competetive, physically extremely strong and aggressive, or drive a really nice car - but for men who are not affluent and not unusually competetive or attractive, the whole thing rather sucks (I once had a lengthy debate about whether you are most hosed if you are a tall, heavy, extremely bright woman or if you are a beta-male, short, bald male - I concluded in the end that both rather suck if you are looking for love - and that I won the lottery with Eric.) 

Now my readership is  more than half female, so this sort of thing only occasionally shows up in the comments here - although it still does now and again.  But recently I’ve seen this sort of lament elsewhere, and it seems, more frequently - and I’ve seen a new variant of this - people lamenting that more women aren’t like me!  I’ve seen it mentioned in several blog posts and essays, and have gotten a few emails from husbands complaining about their wives and comparing them to their (idealized) version of life with me and my canning kettle.

My husband’s comment on the question of whether all women should be like me was “It would serve the men who say that right if they were.” (This is why I am married to my husband, because always says the right - and funny -  thing.) 

 I admit, given that I spent most of my younger years wishing that I was like some other woman (someone beautiful and graceful, ideally), the idea that I’ve set up as anyone’s model partner is just plain funny to me.  But it is also a little troubling - it is one thing for someone - male or female - to wish that *they* had my farm life (preferrably without the loud herd of children and probably without a whole of other realities that come with it) or my skill set.  It is another thing for someone to wish that their *wife* was like me.

A compelling example comes from Greg Jeffer’s farm blog, in which he rants about the culture of femininity and divorce that keeps farm-wantin’ men in Boca in line.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the compliment, even if I don’t agree with a good portion of his commentary:

So why’d I say “good luck”? I live half the year in Boca Raton, FL, where the poor people have a million dollar net worth, and the rich quite a bit more than that, and I should know - I manage their money! I hear their concerns like a priest in the confessional. Any of those guys even TRYS to move his family to a small holding homestead or ditch the landscaping for a productive garden, or try’s to downsize the familY’y consumption… and it is off to divorce court for his troubles (I truly wish the “Real” American Housewife were more like Sharon Astyk but that that just ain’t the case - America is fascinated by the Reality Show “The Real Housewives of Wherever” precisely because it is, in fact, REALITY). Sorry, but “family law” has left the successful “king of his castle” nothing more than a neutered figurehead, a laboring eunich that, if he so much as steps out of line, will lose his home and life’s savings in addition to the family jewels he lost to the marriage/divorce industrial complex by marrying without a prenup agreement.  What is the point of marriage in a society that promotes divorce?  
Now my comment would be that maybe Boca isn’t the best place to hunt for the sort of women who dream of farmwifing.  But then again, maybe that’s not fair - if the world of even the rich is filled with men panting to get a small homestead and give up their affluent ways, with only wives holding them back with the threat of divorce, maybe there’s hope yet? 


So I thought I’d ask the question - are women really more reluctant than men to take on a new way of life?  Are women more attracted to creature comforts and more afraid of  the future?  Is this a gender thing at all?  I should note that among me email collection on this subject, I have at least two emails from lesbians, complaining that other lesbians talk about sustainability but don’t really want to live it, and one from a gay man complaining that gay men are all mostly concerned with status and affluence, and don’t want to live sustainably. 

My own take on this is that while collapse as a whole, with its radical dislocation of male roles and providers, is probably scarier and more destructive to men than to women; volunteering to live a low energy life probably is more frightening to many women than to men - and for pretty good reasons.  Because there’s an excellent chance that the reality is likely to be that the practical burdens of hauling groceries home on a donkey, emptying the composting toilet bucket and stoking the sauna are likely to become the wife’s chores.  I don’t think it is an accident that in many cases (and from what I know of him I am explicitly exempting Orlov from this), that the men making these complaints tend to be traditional sorts who don’t share in the household labor equitably.  Nor do I think it is coincidental that many women married to more traditional men are unthrilled with the vision of a low energy future, and a return to the bad old days, in which “men may work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done.”

There’s a very funny description of this idea in a 2008 essay in Brain, Child about Shannon Hayes and her forthcoming book on Radical Homemaking (full disclosure, Shannon contacted me about being interviewed for the book, but somehow it never happened - she lives and farms half an hour from me and I can’t believe we’ve never met ;-) ) that probably describes the nightmare vision (and a fair bit of the reality) that haunts most women who think about a sustainable life:

You’re up before dawn.  The cow is giving birth in the barn, the turnips are rotting in their beds from all the rain this harvest season, your organic cotton tampon has given way in the night.  Your fourth child is teething, and the sourdough starter needs to be turned.  You haven’t worn makeup, earned a paycheck, contributed to a 401K or signaled the waiter for another round in five years or more - and you couldn’t be happier.  You’re a radical homemaker and loving every minute of it.” (Brain, Child p. 32 Fall 2008 - and thank you Cindy, for sending this to me!)

My laughter was the laughter of recognition, but how on earth would I blame any woman for the bark of laughter that ends with “as if!”  Even for a woman with a full partnership with their spouse (and the reality is that women still do a majority of childcare, domestic labor and household management, so radically upping the scale of those chores will, in most cases, fall on the backs of women), in many cases, there is the underlying fear of divorce or widowhood.   A society that encourages divorce esssentially requires them to have their own money.

This is where I find Jeffer’s analysis most troubling - and where I least want to be held up as a model for women.   Those women in Boca may just be concerned about their nails, but for most women who aren’t millionaires, the fear of adding domestic chores is this - there are only two ways to do it. First, you give up sleep, freedom, time off and do the work at night, after the kids are in bed, after you come home from your job.  Or two, if you can and have that luxury, you give up the job - and know that if your spouse is disabled, if they die or, most likely, if you get divorced, you will be radically impoverished, and often left with the kids, if any.  Women with children suffer more after divorce in terms of loss of fiscal security, and they recover more slowly, and to lower levels (do not get me wrong, I know that men often lose full access  to their children, and that the stakes are high on both sides).

The culture of divorce is dangerous for both sides of the coin - and a tough nut to crack.  No one wants people in abusive or destructive marriages trapped there - which is what you get when you stigmatize divorce, or make it more difficult.  But no one wants what we’ve got now, either - it isn’t good for men, for women, for children, for families, or for the hope of the kind of deep and stable communities that we need going forward.  I don’t disagree wholly with Jeffers on this point, but I don’t quite know what to say about it either. 

And this is why I don’t particularly take it as a compliment to hear people say “oh, I wish women were more like you.”  Because the only way it works to be more like me is to be more like me *AND* Eric.  Right now, I’m working, and today is Eric’s day off.  Tonight we’ll be having dinner guests, and this weekend we have more guests coming.  While I work, Eric got up, fed the kids, milked the goats, dressed the kids, did dishes.  Now he’s taking the three kids to Agway to buy goat vaccine and chicken feed, stopping by a farmstand to pick up brussels sprouts (mine are still small), coming home, reheating last night’s dinner (which he made early in the morning before going to work) for lunch, homeschooling, rebuilding the sukkah that blew down in the wind, grinding cornmeal and making cornbread for tonight’s dinner and sweeping and tidying the house, before taking all four kids to Hebrew school, and trying to sneak some paper grading in around all this.  Like me, the man has a full time job, and a farm, and four kids.

Now this is awfully impressive. I’m impressed with him, and very few people meet us without realizing that I’m no wonder woman - I have a wondrous husband and a very fortunate marriage. 

The work that he is doing,  I did yesterday, when it was my day for the farm and the kids with the kids - but the fact is that you cannot offer a call to arms to women to come back to the kitchen unless everyone else goes with them.  If all of this domestic labor were entirely my responsibility, there is no freakin’ way that I’d be able to do it alone - my husband is a full partner in our domestic arrangement - and not a traditional partner, who does the heavy “guy stuff” but isn’t there for the endless daily cycle of chores.  I’m not afraid of laundering the cloth diapers, because I know my husband will change the diapers and rinse them out first.  I’m not afraid of taking on canning, because I know he’ll be homeschooling the kids.

Moreover, I’m able to take on not-very lucrative jobs like farming and writing because I can trust my husband deeply - I know he’s not going to leave me for another woman, I know that I can trust and rely on him.  So if I don’t contribute to a retirement account or pay that much into Social Security, I know barring death or disability, he’ll be there with and for me.  He’s not going to pick a pretty face with an air conditioner or a nicer farm - this is a permanent marriage.  I can’t say how I know this, merely that I do.  But if I wasn’t sure, if I wasn’t really sure that I’d seen his worst parts and he mine and we could do this, I’d be afraid to give up more reliable sources of income and take risks.  And no matter how deeply I trust him, trust isn’t really the operative issue when it comes to death, illness or injury, which can happen to anyone.  I am taking a risk - and a lesser one than a woman who doesn’t write and doesn’t have a foot in the formal economy. 

I think any man or woman, but especially a man, who dreams of a homestead needs to ask himself who he thinks will be doing the canning, the washing of the chicken manure off the porch and laundering those cloth diapers.  I do not claim that all men dream of a homestead where the domestic work is magically taken care of by a perfect wife, just like someone’s insane fantasy about who I am (which bears little resemblance to the actual me), but it is worth making sure you don’t have that dream - and making sure that your spouse, male or female, feels absolutely sure that you have done everything you can to ensure that this life will be secure.

But while that gives a sense of why women might be less inclined to choose a low energy life, I’m not sure it really answers the larger question posed - are there more men out there who dream of living a low energy, sustainable life?  Are women more attached to their creature comforts, even adjusting for their perfectly reasonable fear of being stuck with all the work, or getting covered in dirt and then being dumped for some nice clean woman? 

I can’t run a statistical analysis here - my own readership tends slightly towards the female, and the stories I hear are much more about the trouble of getting husbands to change than wives, but I know it works the other way too.  It is certainly women who do the majority of the shopping and consumer culture - one study found that women either made or influenced 90% of all purchases - and not just the things stereotypes would assume, like food or clothing, but also cars, tools and homes and home repairs.   The culture of shopping is, in a large measure, a female culture.   In that sense, there’s certainly some truth in this. 

But so is the culture of making a stable home, of feeding people, of tending to basic needs.  For women, much of that has been integrated deeply into a consumer culture - you feed and clothe the people you love by shopping, perhaps by careful bargain shopping.  You make a home by buying products and researching good schools.  You tend needs by having the right things on hand.  But I think the reason this is so deeply tied to consumer culture is that the other, more traditional ways of doing these things have been taken from us - and disdained.  Retail therapy exists, of course, but I think it is worth asking to what extent it is a response to a gaping absence in our way of life, rather than an ingrained gender distinction.

The same might be worth asking about women’s preoccupation with male status and affluence - it is probably true that we see in affluence a measure of a man’s ability to supply stability and to provide for our family.  But do we see that in status symbols like cars and fancy houses because we are anthropologically cued to respond to any kind of flashy affluence, or because the traditional symbols of the ability to provide - a piece of land, a healthy body, gentleness with children, a goodly number of goats ;-) , facility with a spear, good mammoth barbecuing skills - are mostly gone, and we are using false cognates to substitute for something we could instinctively find superior?  That is, money is only status in a society that has discarded self-provisioning - will more women like men with dirt under their nails if self-provisioning makes a comeback?

What I do think is that male status markers change much more rapidly and fundamentally than female ones do - to use one example, think about the degree to which modern society largely eschews male violence.  Male physical prowess hasn’t been entirely overcome - but male aggressiveness has in some measures.  Instead of physical aggressiveness, status markers for men now emphasize economic aggressiveness, and domestic violence, while still a painful reality, is no longer as normative as it once was - in fact, most of the women I know believe that men who are gentle to women and children are more attractive than those who aren’t - something not up for discussion when violence between spouses and by parents was concealed as normative.  The rise of geek culture contains in it a truly radical overthrowing of masculine models - now some people may argue that this is emasculating, and certainly there are still plenty of women attracted to the physically aggressive alpha type.  But I still would argue that there is a fundamental shift under way - we are selecting for gentler men as a society.  This is non-trivial, if only partly underway.

Female status markers are much more fixed - standards of beauty have changed over time, but the fact of female beauty has tended to eclipse other factors  -  much as I’d love to see intellectual brillanc and the ability to make good cheese as major drawing factors for dating women, I’m not expecting it anytime soon. If there are to be changes, I think that it is more possible to change markers of male status - that is not to say that this is easy, merely that it is more viable. 

The really good thing is that we all exceed our genetic programming sometimes - witness the fact that I have an adorable, wonderful husband who thinks I’m beautiful, even though I’m not, and also really likes that I’m smart and mouthy.  I know a number of poor, short, bald men married to women who like them just that way, and find affluent guys with nice cars to be assholes.  A big part of the problem is finding the match - if you married on grounds other than your mutual taste for digging carrots, the discovery that digging carrots is part of the deal is going to be problematic.  Nor do we want this to be another unattainable standard - as in “Now I’ve got to be sexy, blond *and* milk a cow?”  Or “Now I’ve got to have ripped abs, provide her with a lovely home and get up at 5 am to pick rutabagas?”

Such a process will take a long time.  And since most of us didn’t pick our spouses on the grounds of their agrarian gifts (I have got a dun cow, and you can make good cheese), I suspect there will, for a long time, be men and women, each of them lamenting that men in general, or women in general, or the ones they meet or marry don’t seem to value the same things they do.


84 Responses to “I Have Got a Dun Cow and You Can Make Good Cheese: Are Women Holding Us Back?”

  1. Laureen says:

    I took a great deal of flak from my corporate pals when I married a man “beneath me”. He happened to not only be the light of my eyes, but he also is one of those guys who can build a house from scratch, fix engines, and raise spectacular children. But since those skills aren’t valued terribly highly, he wasn’t pulling down six figures and dressing in Armani suits.

    I don’t think it’s that men are flawed or women are flawed, I think it’s that people stopped thinking critically about what makes for a good mate the same way they stopped being able to think about a sustainable future.

    We live on a sailboat now. We’re completely self-sufficient in all but food, and are working on that now. Sometimes I earn money, sometimes he does, sometimes I do the laundry, sometimes he does, sometimes I teach the children, sometimes he does. It’s completely flexible, and I feel entirely blessed about it. And I feel really sad for the marriages I see crumbling around me, done in by the dual stress of the crashing economy and changing expectations. It’s nice to have chosen someone solid, who remains solid no matter what’s going on around us.

  2. Sharon says:

    Let me be clear - I don’t think Orlov is a pig. I know the guy, I like him a lot, and as I say in the essay, I explicitly exempt him from the accusation that he wants his wife to do what he won’t do - I don’t know him super well, but enough to know that’s not what’s going on here. Nor do I think that boats are unsustainable - I think they are awesome, and a really good way to live sustainably - you can fish, you are mobile, you’re mostly powered by the wind. I’m not hitting at him.

    But Brian, I don’t agree with your analysis - and I think the reason I don’t agree is precisely because of the comparison - he’s talking about how his wife looks at a multi-million dollar luxury yacht and thinks that’s fab. The thing is, if you live in a 10×12 log cabin, you might dream of more space - but you don’t usually dream of living in the White House. It is precisely the trappings of radical excess that he’s saying his wife is attracted to. And interview or no, Orlov published it on his site, and included it in the discussion. Nothing wrong with that, but I think rather than convolutedly rewriting what he said to prove that he wasn’t really talking about women, it makes sense to take him at his word - we all have problems with craving affluence, but it is in part about gender.

    None of that means that I agree with the posters here who are ripping hardest at either Orlov or Jeffers, either. I think I can point out that the “well, if it weren’t for the women” strain of thought exists without demonizing anyone.


  3. BZ says:


    I am looking for a husband who really wants to homestead here in Israel.

    Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match!

    Much love,


  4. Brian M. says:

    Maybe I’m just more of a dreamer, or more bitter, or suffer from more class envy, but if I lived in a 10×12 log cabin (especially if I had chosen that over other options), I would occasionally dream of living in the White House. I wouldn’t probably act on that dream, and I might instantly recall WHY I had chosen the log cabin over other options, but I would still be occasionally wistful.

    It’s not that I’m worried that Sharon is overly harsh with Dmitri Orlov, but I’m worried that your overly harsh with Orlov’s wife, whose name I don’t know. She lives in a 10m boat voluntarily for 2 years, a feat which amazes me, and then she sees a boat of “radical excess” and she makes a comment in Russian (remember we’re reading Orlov’s translations here, and tone especially gets lost in translation) that translates as something like “Oh, now this I understand, this is the real thing!” Now what does she mean? Is she expressing her deep longings for radical excess? Is she being flip? Is she expressing bitterness? Class envy? Frustration with the limitations of her chosen lifestyle? Is she even attracted to the big yacht, or is she just envious of it? Heck, it could just be a light-hearted joke. it all depends on fine nuances of tone and personality.

    I for one am not attracted to radical excess, but I AM attracted to many of the things that come along with radical excess (while being repulsed by others) and so I might easily say things that could be MISINTERPRETED as being attracted to radical excess, by someone who didn’t know me well. Or maybe the right way to saying it is that my attraction and repulsion are always warring with each other.

    My take is that many of these things we do because we don’t really know what the people around us that we care about really want. Orlov really wasn’t talking about women directly, he was talking about men trying to please women. A man trying to please a woman has to go through 2 basic steps. Step 1: figure out what she really wants. Step 2: actually provide it. Men run the constant risk of trying to do the wrong things to please women. Its the stuff of comedy, but also of industrial class. Humans of both genders in industrialized economies have desires which are out of synch with reality, because of the way in which luxuries turn into necessities over time. But those folk, of both genders, who are yearning for more sustainable lives are typically trying to fight this, so the second problem, miscommunication comes in. Even if both people really want to live more sustainable lives, it can be difficult to communicate this to each other, and many normal daily comments can be misinterpreted as communicating desires we don’t really have, or that we have but are actively struggling against. Orlov’s wife probably DOESN’T want to be Abromovich’s wife, and would trade places if offered the opportunity, but that shouldn’t prevent her from being a bit snarky about it occasionally.

    If we are going to use the gendered lens, realize that female desires are not the whole issue, male interpretations of female desires are at least as important. And men routinely do things to impress other men, while kidding themselves that their goal is to impress women. And on the flip side female interpretations of male desires are not quite like male desires, and women also routinely do things to impress other women while kidding themselves that their goal is to impress men.

  5. Deb says:

    It’s funny how this topic came up the other day when I was working at the CSA.

    I got this part time job to learn how to garden on a large scale-books are great, hands on experience is better.

    We were out picking the turnips and rutabagas in a driving rain-38 degrees-and the 26 year old guy working there was bemoaning that he cant find a woman. He’s up at dawn, works hard, lives in an log cabin with no running water and no electricity, poops and pees in an outhouse, drives an ancient pickup and is, frankly, absolutely adorable in an earthy, husky kind of way. His idea of a good time is sitting by a warm fire, reading Wendell Berry. The women he meets take one look at the outhouse and the woodpile and run away.

    I suggested that perhaps he needs to look outside the normal parameters-dresses well, fun to be around, big boobs- and try to find a woman who makes him laugh,works hard, has a general idea of how to cook, likes the smell of woodsmoke and doesnt mind buying her clothes at Goodwill. And one he can trust implicitly. Skill sets can be learned if the you get along, enjoy each other and have the same core values. In our world, anybody that young isnt going to have skills like canning and mending and sharpening up the tools. Those can be learned just like gardening when you are a 52 year old woman having hot flashes and creaking every time you bend over.

    Deb in Wisconsin

    Deb in Wisconsin

  6. MEA says:

    Brad K. Is your friend single? If so, please have him send a picture of Mr. Wigglies.

    Acutally, we aren’t zoned for donkey — llamas, yes, but I don’t think Mr. W. would go for a llama disguise.


  7. Robyn M. says:

    I’ll admit, my own reading of Orlov was somewhere in between yours and Brian’s, but I certainly never thought in my original reading that he was saying that women are somehow disproportionately attracted to Big Wealth. To show you why, let’s do this experiment. I’ve cut & pasted Orlov’s quotation, but I’m going to switch it to my voice to see what happens:

    “I have thought about this long and hard, and came to the conclusion that it all comes down to a very basic question: “How to please a man?” After all, any modern, progressive, educated and attractive person begins to scoff if you take away his flush toilet and substitute a bucket, or if he has to go shopping leading a donkey, or if, instead of a shower, he is invited to go and stoke a sauna. From time immemorial status in society has been determined by access to luxury goods. As society becomes richer, luxuries turn into necessities. And when society starts to grow poorer again, it turns out that there is no going back. That is, there is a way back, but it is blocked by the innate tendencies of our clever species. My husband and I spent two years living aboard a very attractive and practical yacht slightly less than 10 meters in length at the waterline, and although the husband understands everything very well, even he cannot stop himself from casting a sideways glance when a yacht like Abramovich’s walks past us, and from making some comment, like “Oh, now this I understand, this is the real thing!” And there is no point in explaining to him that what we have here on board is a very high level of civilization, while Abramovich is just an ordinary consumer. It is very hard, ladies, to change the lifestyle, but not change the man! If someone succeeds in this, then she is a hero and a genius, and we should all learn from her. In the meantime, we are going to live in an apartment, and put the boat on the hard, and install all sorts of solar panels, water heaters, and other technological junk.”

    Is there anything about that paragraph that reads weird? Frankly, it reads even MORE normal to me, as I hear the issue of “changing men” and such discussed all the time, in many venues. Exactly what Orlov says makes just as much sense out of a woman/wife’s mouth as it does a man/husband’s. So even if Orlov was trying to make a particularly gendered point (and I’m not convinced he was, especially given the various use of neutral pronouns in pointed places), running with the analysis as a “therefore women have a particular issue” just doesn’t work. It’s just as sensible to turn the tables. It’s an issue for both.

  8. Brad K. says:

    When I look at the Amish, at Amish businesses with the horse-hitched buggies sitting in rows in the parking lots, I have to assume that learning a lifestyle from your parents is easier than rebelling and setting out without that cultural heritage to draw on. It was for me, growing up on my Dad’s hog farm in Iowa.

    Ensnaring others into your dream is a gift and a skill, one that few have the need or opportunity to master. Yet there are mercenaries, and people forsake their homes for a chance at (a largely undefined) married life quite regularly.

    The Amish practice informed baptism. They don’t consider children actual church members, until they reach adulthood and accept the strictures and teachings of their faith on their own understanding and commitment. The Amish deliberately turn their 16 to 20 year olds loose, to “sample” the outer world, if they will, and only accept into membership those that return and pledge themselves. Each Amish member has made a deliberate, lifelong choice to live “off the grid”.

    Which implies others can, too.

    But for those raised on the grid, in the flickering light of a TV-sitter, bombarded with attention-span destroying commercials and short story skits and cartoons, there is the additional burden of culture shock. For the guy that grew to adulthood lavishing attention and energy on cars, computers, games, etc. there is no foundation to build skills and appreciation for caring for livestock and planning to raise your food. For a gal raised to cherish her good looks or the “hotty” rating of those she associates with, there is little foundation to build on skills of caring for children, let alone neighbors, livestock, or other growing things. Raising a daughter to excel at beauty pageants, even if they do win her a scholarship, is poor preparation for life outside high society. Raising a son to define his self worth in terms of driving ambition and high salary completely misses the satisfaction of feeding your family - with your own efforts.

    Like the guy that wants a ready-made, successful and skilled “sustainable” mate (like he would be ready to measure up to *her* standards! Wanting something to come easily instead of valuing what he accomplished! The idea!), it is easy to skip over just how much background understanding and experience one needs to make, and succeed, in a true culture-clash transition.

    It is easy enough to criticize gender or background. But most people find change to be daunting. John Lyons in _Lyons on Horses_ advocates breaking things down to very small, easily attained steps.

    I might come home and declare “Honey, I am taking out that gas/electric stove, and getting a wood stove. Get ready to make great pancakes in the morning, after you get the stove lit!” (Well, except I live alone, and if I didn’t, like to sleep indoors.) But talking about it? Maybe practice cutting and splitting wood - maybe selling cut wood for a few months or a year, to understand that aspect of nature’s cycle, investigate tools, gloves, etc. For someone unused to the background, jumping in too deep, too soon, without support - doesn’t sound like a winning strategy. Extending a small garden is less impact on schedule and thinking than just getting those first few couple of rows in the dirt. Adding to schedule and resource management issues are much simpler when adding livestock than to the disruptions of those first head of livestock that need daily care, every day.

    @ MEA, sorry - Dad and son that own Mr. Wiggles are both happily married.

  9. Penny Walker says:

    Hi Sharon

    Bizarrely find myself feeling defensive in response to this posting, and wanting to blurt / wail “but I’m the one who insists on taking the bus in this household”.

    Anyway, the real point of me commenting is to draw attention to this http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2009/10/what_do_women_really_want.html just come out in the UK, which claims that it’s the gals who are leading the downshifting.

    So there you go.

    Happy householding!


  10. MEA says:

    Secondly, I mostly blame the men, and being one, feel entitled. I think Jeffers is a perfect example of one side of the problem. I couldn’t count how many times I have heard men moaning about how they can’t seem to get (whatever) from women, all the while sitting in the same room with a woman who would, but who is also somehow beneath their consideration.

    Eric, you just caused me to flash back to an experiene that many of my friends share — you are in highschool or college, sitting with the boy/man of your dreams who knows you exist, but only as a sort of little sister, listening while he complains about his current girlfriend, saying “if only she were more like you.”

    So, here’s a question for the men out there — was that our cue to tear of our glasses, let down our hair and get him in a head lock, kissing in passionately, and (as we came up for air) saying, take me, I’m yours….

    I mean, was the subtext, I really want to go out with you, but I’m so afraid of rejection that I just sort of fan dance around the idea?


  11. MEA says:

    Oh, well, Brad. thanks for looking.

    In the fishing villages on the coast of Fife it was considered foolishing in the extreme for a man to marry a woman from elsewhere because to learn all the skills needed for a fisherwife (net making, line bating, fish gutting, sail mending, veg gardening, food presevation, housekeeping under premative conditions, cooking, ditto, spinning, weaving, knitting, cloth mending — just to name a few obvious ones) had to be learned from girlhood — couldn’t just be pick up as an adult. (Obviously the could be over time, but not quickly enough as a bride.) On top of that, in order to keep the men dry (wet clothing, open sea, disaster in the making) the women often carried the men out to the boats on their backs.


  12. Sharon says:

    Brian, well, for that matter, we’re talking not about Dmitry’s wife, but about his comments about his wife - I don’t think that I could be being hard on his wife, since I only have Orlov’s comment about that - my criticism was of him for reporting it this way, of framing the issue this way. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear in the original post. As you say, there’s lots of meta-levels here, but to me, at least, this is the most important. I agree that his wife has done something fairly heroic - which is why I think that even in jest, publically whinging about your wife’s desire for hot showers by implying that what she really wants is a big ole yacht is a little problematic.

    Robyn, actually, I think it really reads weirdly the other way around, particularly the part about pleasing a man. Or maybe I’m just thrown by the discussion of purchasing a Mr. Wigglie ;-) .

    More on this when I have time…


  13. Dale Hooper says:


    This explains so much. I wondered about the woman’s perspective on this.

    My view of female beauty is very simple and self-centered. If I can get along with her, she is beautiful. If I can’t, she’s ugly.

  14. Emily says:

    Random thoughts:
    * The more fundamental problem than “no women want to do this” is the problem of feeling the need to make a huge life alteration and finding your spouse is no longer a good fit with the new you.

    * Lots of people who think they want to “get away from it all” and start a farm are deluding themselves about what farm life is really like

    * Maybe someone should start FarmSpouseSwap.com, so the folks who complain “there aren’t enough men/women/lesbians/whatevers who want to do what I do” can trade partners with those who think “my spouse is crazy and wants to go live on a farm”! There could even be an escape clause, so after 6 months, if you’re sick of peeing in a bucket and breaking your back, you can go back to your original spouse and pretend the crash isn’t going to happen.

  15. Cat says:

    Changing our own values based on our knowledge of peak oil/climate change is not easy. Trying to change our loved one’s values without ruining the relationship is even harder. So, possibly some of us are secretly a little bit relieved to be able to hang on to some of the old values for the sake of our loved ones who just won’t change.

  16. Raven says:

    I tend to agree with the commenters that point out you get what you marry. If you went for the girl who probably demonstrated plenty while you were dating that she 1) gets manicures weekly 2) doesn’t cook 3) has already had surgery at 26 then it’s a bit unreasonable after marrying her to announce that you want a farm-wife. It’s bait-and-switch, and if you thought differently now than you did then, you experienced a conversion. She’ll need to experience a conversion to think your way. Nobody converts overnight (well, very rarely) to anything. It would behoove these gentlemen to do a little wooing (a la some of your posts on the reluctant partner, Sharon) and less whining.

    Of course, lack of whining could improve me, too. :)


  17. Ed Straker says:

    I really think part of the stages of grief of being a doomer, perhaps the biggest one of all, is being willing to be the misfit. In my case, I’m a single father and being a doomer is like two strikes against me as far as finding compatible partners. So I’ve pretty much written my love life off for good. I mean, overshoot and die-off don’t make good conversation on a blind date, you know?

  18. Einherjar says:

    Let’s see… Perspectives from a 30 year old white male hetero geek, the funny angle:

    High % of US Women 29yrs and less: Life is adventure, the seeking of experience, alpha male high physical symmetry bad boys are beefcake choice numero uno. Accumulating status symbol “stuff” as well as aforementioned beefcake is a Win in the competition against other women as instructed by the immense weight of social programming that is brought to bear against them. Brags about enduring camping, backpacking through Europe or other non city life vacation/adventure is “so exciting”. Borderline aware that “kids are starving in Africa” and “Summers are hotter”. Does some volunteer work in school to pad the resume. Lacks discipline.

    High % of US Men 29yrs and less: Sex. Preferred dates possess high physical symmetry and follow standard societal beauty customs. Bold physical actions(Sports, backpacking through Europe)to attract women. Competes with other men for top dog status, irregardless of (sub)culture. Borderline aware that “kids are starving in Africa” and “Summers are hotter”. Does some volunteer work in school to pad the resume. Lacks discipline.

    High % of Women 30yrs plus: Responsibility sucks, but it is time. Lack of continued exercise, smoking, bad eating habits ect. make the physical exertions and privations of outdoor living and similar activities(farming) unappealing. Lacks discipline.

    Married to bad boy of 20′s era? Bitch about all the things that irritate you about said man, many of which attracted you in the first place, likely endure some financial struggles. Lack of emotional security leads to greater consumerism to make up for gap. Less tolerance of risk in general, idea of powering down very unappealing. Cheating and eventual breakdown of marriage likely. Makes occasional charity donations.

    Married to a beta male? Fantasize about having married a 6’5″ fireman trust funder instead, but feel comfortable most days with the security of money which allows competition with other women. “Green” lifestyle changes that do not cause undo havoc are embraced on a spectrum from joy to tolerance. Grind of daily life may lead to cheating or other marriage breaking stresses. May donate money or volunteer for chosen causes.

    High % of US Men 30yrs plus: Responsibility sucks, but it is time…Sex. Lack of continued exercise, smoking, bad eating habits ect. make the physical exertions and privations of outdoor living and similar activities(farming) unappealing. Lacks discipline.

    Married to high maintenance woman? High stress levels from the need to maintain high income leads to dysfunctional relationship with spouse, desire to get away from the stress leads to fantasies that may include homesteading, but realities of divorce and other ramifications make this a low possibility. Cheating, eventual break down of marriage likely.

    Married to a moderate maintenance woman? Fantasize about having married a supermodel, but feel relatively comfortable with life and the security of money that allows for possibility of change & competition with other men. May make changes that do not impose an undue hardship on the relationship/family. Grind of daily life may lead to cheating or other marriage breaking stresses.

    The above, in my mind, pretty much sums up most straight Americans.

    Low % of humans(both genders) 29yrs and lower: Smart. Greater complexity. Attracted to both high physical symmetry and other, diverse attributes, possible alternative sexuality. Dreams of independence from the corporate machine, may be taking steps to achieve said dreams. Accumulation of “handy” skills, non factory-made human as Orlov says. Greater chance of knowledge of environmental/global troubles, true compassion for the less fortunate. Participates in one or more subcultures(Raver, Goth, Leather), competes with other men/women in pursuits both physical and intellectual. Possesses discipline.

    Low % of humans 30yrs plus: Life experience has shown that trust is paramount. Relationships that do not provide it are pruned. Higher chance of being aware that the Emperor is not wearing clothes and therefor they need to start planning for rain. Higher tolerance of risk. Possibly adrenaline junkie. Discipline. May have lucked out and partnered up with the rarer individuals that possess high physical and mental qualities. Tries to do their best to support causes they see as important, possibly including true sacrifices of time and energy.

    I feel that it is more a matter of general societal trends and the buildup of a consumer culture that has led to any possible greater percentage of “stuff wanting” in women. They are, at least here in America, quite simply bombarded with a much greater percentage of consumerist sentiment than American men.

    Men in general, are both raised/told by society to be “tough” and suffer less societal criticism for bad dressing, going off to live in a van for a year while following Phish around or living in a cabin in the woods. Yes, men, on average, have higher bone density and are bigger…but especially in these days of couch potatoes, I do not underestimate the potential of a woman to be more “capable” of physical action. So I do not think it is purely a matter of a fear of work.

    Vis a Vis #Deb, I think most women run from a woodpile and outhouse living arrangement or a life aboard a sailboat mostly because of social pressure. If society decides to lessen the harsh judgments that fall upon a woman who is not towing the normal societal line, then I think you would see a greater amount of women “digging” (sorry) a more sustainably based lifestyle.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    A very quick note here one your point about the shift toward the “geek” type. A new study indicates this might be a biological phenomenon brought on by pill usage.


  20. Claire says:

    Lots of great stuff in Sharon’s post and the discussion. I’ll throw my bit in too.

    First, a complaint about Orlov’s writing that isn’t part of Sharon’s original complaint: “my criticism was of him for reporting it this way, of framing the issue this way [i.e., gendered],” as Sharon’s last comment put it.

    I find Orlov’s writing style highly irritating, because of precisely the same sarcasm that others seem to enjoy. I read Reinventing Collapse. I found the thesis, ideas, and examples valuable. But I *hated* his writing style. I dislike his writing style so much I avoid his blog, even though there is likely to be valuable material there too. And I dislike the post Sharon quoted for the same reason. Sarcasm requires a victim. In this case, Orlov chose a gendered idea of “what women want” as his victim. Victimizing people, in my view, hurts any cause. Victimizing women, or at least the gendered idea of “woman” as he puts forth here, perpetuates the gendered stereotypes (of both “man” and “woman”) and thus hurts all of us who don’t wish to be bound by those stereotypes. And probably hurts those who fit the stereotypes as well.

    I am truly blessed in my marriage. I’m a 52 year old woman and have a PhD in physical chemistry. I never dated much. In fact, I didn’t go on my first date till I was in college. High school is absolutely the worst time for anyone who doesn’t fit social norms; that’s exactly when people are being pushed to conform most closely, and it is very hard to resist that pressure. That pressure seemed, to me, to let up bit by bit as I went through grad school and then got into my 30s. I got more comfortable in my own skin, and it seemed to me that others my age did too. I still didn’t have many dates, but it was less of a concern to me because anyone who wasn’t interested in me, I wasn’t interested in, either. No problem! ;-) My DH has a high school diploma and made less than half of what I made when we met, but since neither of us were looking for a stereotype (and neither of us was likely to get a mate because we didn’t fit the stereotype), that didn’t, and doesn’t matter. Anyone for whom it does matter, too bad for them.

    I wonder if part of the problem with partnerships in which one partner wants to change but the other doesn’t may occur when the people partnered while they were quite young and feeling the pressure of the gender stereotypes, thus they chose their partner under that influence. The stereotypes are still very much alive as socializing influences, best as I can tell based on conversation with young friends and relatives. Later, one or the other partner may begin to feel freer to come out from under the stereotype. Perhaps the other partner is still very comfortable in the stereotypical role. That could be a real strain on the partnership. Maybe, then, the partner who wishes to change generalizes from the particular case to the stereotype: “all [women, men, ...] are [this way] and don’t want to change.”

    Of course, as some of the other people pointed out, sometimes complaints like this come from someone who is conflicted about changing, hence projecting their reluctance to change onto not just the partner but the entire gender the partner belongs to. The gender stereotypes and their role in socialization make this easy to do.

    Having been in two marriages, one when I was still in grad school which ended in divorce and one which is going strong after 20 years, my observation is that, at least in my case, everything is much easier when there are two people in a true partnership. It doesn’t have to be that each person does the same thing, as long as things are arranged so that both find the divisions of labor to be equitable and sensible. My DH does no gardening; he hates it. He does almost all the cooking; he’s better at it than I am. I do almost all the cleaning; I’m better at it than he is. He does all the carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, because I don’t know how and hope not to have to learn. I do the project planning, call for contractors when necessary, and I’m general manager of the home front, including the finances. This works so well for both of us that we both feel we got the best of the deal! Plus we got ourselves retired early by learning to live simply and, so far at least, we can both concentrate on our work at home with only a bit of dabbling in the formal economy. (I should mention we have no children, since I know from observation that having children makes things more interesting and more complex.)

    Sharon mentioned complete trust in each other as being crucial to her marriage. I totally agree; it’s crucial to mine as well. We’re in it together, forever. It’s an intuitive understanding; it’s been there since we first met. We aren’t doing the same things as when we first met, far from it. Back then, I was working as a research chemist, he was working as a maintenance person in a light bulb factory. No way to know that 20 years later, we’d be living very simply on one acre in suburban St. Louis, retired, practicing Zen, working toward a subsistence way of life. It happened step by step, sometimes one of us leading, sometimes the other. It wasn’t an all-at-once change by any means. Both of us hold living truthfully in high regard, so we don’t have to guess if the other is grumbling or really unhappy. We ask and learn. It’s way easier and less stressful that way.

  21. Glenn says:

    Hmmm. I suspect that men or women, most Americans would rather talk about “living on the land” than are actually willing to do the work to do so. My ex, despite her professed interest in gardening, is still living in our former house in town, with her new spouse, and an urban yard with grass and a couple of trees. My second wife and I are homesteading not far from that NW Washington town.
    We seem to have backed into it. My wife had always wanted a big garden. After the court system stripped me of my children, house and a fair amount of money, the only way we could afford a house was to buy raw land and build from scratch. I have had a life long desire to remove as many of the “middle men” between me and the earth as possible. That being said, I believe some modern industrial processes are very useful. I’m really glad we don’t have to spin and weave our own cloth or smelt our own metal, yet…
    I married “the girl next door” the first time around. We both grew up in The People’s Republic of Berzerkely in the 60′s. We did actually live for a brief time on the side of a mountain in Southern Oregon. She got over it. I didn’t. She chose to leave me under arduous circumstances about 2/3 through my enlisted Coast Guard career.
    Very shortly after I met my second wife, we spent the night together. My famous quote “what’s that red light in the East…” sunrise, as it turned out. We had not, as the low minded of you might have thought, rolled in each others arms all night. We had discussed it, and decided to try it some future night. We did spend the entire night discussing our values, beliefs, and plans for the future. She had been divorced for several years; I was in the middle of mine.
    A year later we married, and started looking for land together. Today we are living on that land (8 acres, mostly conifer forest and wild berries), with a garden, new orchard, some ducks, geese, chickens, a cat, a dog and our 10 year old daughter. No mortgage. We have my military retirees half pay (about a quarter of my active duty take home pay due to various “allowances” which are not used to calcuate retired pay.) health coverage (no dental or optical), and whatever I can earn with part time self-employment doing carpentry and odd jobs. What’s the catch? Damn all little infrasture. We’re on the pay as you go, earn as you learn plan. We sleep in an 18′ home-built yurt, and use an unfinished 14 X 20 cabin as combined kitchen and living room. We have a well, grid power, phone and high-speed internet. I just gutted two dead fridges and banked them with dirt for root cellars…
    Anyway, I think Sharon hit it dead on. It’s not gender specific, it’s modern industrial society specific. Anyone who blames their inability to make changes they [say they] desire on their spouse or partner is casting their unwillingness on a convenient scapegoat. If I were still married to my urban first wife, I would be living in town instead of “on the land”. But I wouldn’t be whining about it. We’d have a big garden, even if I had to do it all myself; a few chickens, and I’d be insulating and solarizing the place. Do what you can, where you are.
    The moral of my story? To quote my brother, “90% of a good relationship is correct selection of partner”. It helped that the second time around, both my wife and I were middle aged and knew who we were and who we wanted to be when we grew up. As Sharon says “you have to be me _and_ Eric”. The last is very important.
    When I met my wife (the one I am with now) she was 32 , I looked into her eyes and saw her in the guise of maiden, mother and crone. And all three were beautiful. She’s almost a head shorter than me (we are both slightly shorter than average for our generation) and probably weighs a little more. I find her inestimably beautiful, and a queen among wives. Love is not blind. Love sees through, to that which is the most important.

    of the
    and the
    Scow Bay

  22. MEA says:

    Well, we still seem to be left with a lot of people seeking partners.’

    Sharon, get on the the renta-yenta stich will you.

  23. Brad K. says:


    One difference, I believe, between a renta-yenta and a dating service, is that the yenta would be as interested in making sure a match would benefit the community more than another match, and that the character and background of each are reasonably appropriate. I could be wrong.

    I imagine there are fewer non-narcissists today that are confident of being objectively evaluated on terms of character, discipline, ability to support a family, and adequate support of family and companion networks. I think it helps, if growing up one is aware that such scrutiny is awaiting one. Without a lifetime preparation, it might be tough to make the cut.

    But hope springs eternal. Just don’t expect to find Mr. Wonderful hanging with the drunks at the local watering hole. Instead, you might see if the local grain elevator, equipment sales and service center, food bank, or CSA need part time or volunteer help. At least, the guys you meet will understand the concepts of growing things.

  24. Phyllis says:

    HI Sharon,

    Thanks for this and the many insightful comments. I appreciate the one about sarcasm requiring a victim. It’s hard to “unpack” sarcasm, and it seems to often cover-up the expression of other feelings - and so they remain hidden.

    Re: “know that if your spouse is disabled, if they die or, most likely, if you get divorced, you will be radically impoverished, and often left with the kids, if any.’”

    In a different era, my mother’s father died when my Mom was just a girl. Her only comment about it was this: “People weren’t very nice to widows in those days.”

    Re: When you talk about domestic violence no longer being normative…while this may be true for certain areas of the globe, it’s most definitely not the case for others. In fact, perhaps - (What is a good way to measure?) - for the majority of women on the planet. So much so, that one can see aggressive control of women as the norm, and the lack of it as an aberration.

    As an anthropologist studying rural Mexico commented recently - “The women I meet all tell me about their husbands beating them, and so I talk about it in public.”

    After several such examples, it occurred to me that if one’s spouse has the ability to hit one at any time, then how much of anything is under one’s control? No matter in what terms it’s discussed?

  25. Steve says:


    Well. The family member I’m thinking of is a Baby Boomer and her view of life is simple. “I’ve worked at XYZ for everyone at home all my life, and I’ve earnt everything I have”. There is no interest in any form of change, of understanding energy, of being co-operative to changing needs. Why?????

    She’s popular, fit, busy, has everything at hand and is used to things being “someone else responsibility” if it is outside her own world.

    She has settled and arrived at a position in life. Game over, she’s won - and about anything she does not want to know.

    She is actively dis-interested in anything to do with peak oil, climate change, recycling or the future. Indeed her view is limited to “now” and “her kids”.

    She’d be happy and unworried to be the ruler living on Easter Island who ordered the last tree to be chopped down. After all, she gets the tree (happy happy happy), someone / something else has done the work - and the now is good.

    The world of men, appliances and fashion is there to serve her, and she is surrounded by people and things and situations which provide, serve and please.

    And that’s normal for several billion people; it’s called “having arrived” and “the good life”.

    We had an argument today; she thought I was insane (like if I’d suggested we go eat rubble) to want to take a frozen item out of the freezer ahead of time - and put at the top of the fridge. There it would both thaw and cool the fridge, saving money / heat energy recycling…

    a) that’s thinking outside her timeframe, which is “now”, and
    b) we have a microwave which does the defrost.

    I think we’ve lost it; there is way too much cultural inertia.

  26. MEA says:

    Brad K.

    I think that Sharon has in invested interest in making matches that will ease the transition from now to whatever the heck is coming. That (and her past ) is what makes the renta-yenta come to mind.

    By the way, Sharon, my kilt fixation outweights the wish for a donkey. (Just so you UPS me the right guy. A background in special ed or as on OT would be a big plus. Don’t forgot that I have a varmit proof garden when mentioning my merits.)


  27. Brad K. says:

    @ Steve,

    I work with a couple of guys that don’t take direction, or input, well. Surprisingly, I can make an observation, they will shoot it down. Yet a day or two later, ask why I didn’t follow my suggestion.

    I have found this to be moderately successful. Rather than contradict them, or try to convince them I am right - I wait. If the comment or information isn’t sufficiently compelling, and they ignore my input, oh well. But surprisingly, from other people’s experience with these two guys, what I contribute does eventually get incorporated or acknowledged. It does happen.

    At such times I find a pithy phrase from Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe series of science fiction novels comes in handy. “Ah.”

    But - how do you manage to soak dried beans before cooking? Or prepare veggies and whatnot for the crock pot in time for a nicely cooked meal?

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