February 2, 2010

Questioning our fathers: More on the perception of women and environmentalism

Just to recap quickly: I think the judgment of environmentalism as a weak philosophical position is because of the same framework that placed women in the domesticated maternal role. Women were and are still in some societies/subcultures expected to stay home, have children, handle the domestic obligations in the home and most importantly, leave the big stuff – any professional pursuit - to the men. Their life was their home, nurturing, feeding and giving affection emotionally and biologically to children and husband.

With women missing from the workplace, any “meaningful”, professional work was truly “manly.” The nurturer doesn’t work in the sense that the professional does; the nurturer’s attributes lean on softness and delicacy, while the professional relies on his strength of arm or mind to organize and solve problems. This is all nonsense of course. The work of raising children and managing a home is just as tedious and difficult as any profession I can think of. Beyond that, there were innovators in the workplace that happened to be women; it wasn’t only men in every field, but it was mostly men in industry.

In a male dominated workplace, they are considered responsible for the innovations of every generation. The Industrial Revolution, World War II and the Green Revolution changed America, made the country comfortable through clever machinations dreamed up by a network of predominantly male minds. There is a shared pride in this perception, in the resilience and strength of this work.

The environmentalists really started to get their stuff together in the 1960’s, particularly after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962. Some of the negative results of our seemingly productive innovations were rolling in and the counter culture was paying close attention, already disillusioned with the government and the na├»ve ideals of their parents. This is all well documented; you can read about the specifics anywhere. This is the part where environmentalism – for better or worse – was conflated with the hippies, who were attacking the status quo with an unprecedented vigor, putting every American principle on trial, particularly the decisions that brought us prosperity. Once again, there is almost a traitorous aspect to this perception.

Let’s backtrack to the 19th century quickly. Biology came into its own from the time of Darwin. He reinvigorated the field and gave biologists a new direction. Over the next century and beyond, biology progressed, splintering into new disciplines and enveloping other fields to create new studies. The nitrogen cycle was discovered at the end of the 19th century, in the 1890’s Mendel’s work was rediscovered and applied and in the years 1944 – 1953, scientists finally found and described the source of inheritance, our DNA. Along the way our understanding of how ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole was growing. Of course, science had just as many problems as any field in how women were treated.

Ecology needed to be separate from conservation and the growing movement of environmentalism in the 20th century. It needed to be rigorous and pragmatic and certain ecologists wanted to avoid applied studies to “fix” ecosystems. After Silent Spring was published in 1962, ecology was brought to the forefront of politics; ecologists suddenly had work supplied by the government to address the issues raised by people like Carson and were integral in establishing legislation.

This was another log on the fire for the counter culture. Just about everything their fathers and grandfathers had built had produced unforeseen aftershocks that they now had to deal with: the centuries of oppressing women and minorities, particularly African-Americans, the obsession with ending communism led to the brutality of the Vietnam war, and now, poisons from industry and farming were debilitating ecosystems and endangering public health. Everything they had been told about prosperity and defense was called into question, and their opponents lashed out, calling them weak and foolish, traitorous for questioning the patriarchal benevolence of America. Do you question the strength of our fathers? Don’t they want the best for you? Lean on their strength, trust them. The truth was, however, that we had relied solely on an establishment of mostly white males for too long, and the house that they built had a few holes in the foundation.

It’s continued up until the end of the century. I think something positive has happened of late though. First of all, in the past 50 years or so, our country has diversified, particularly in the 1990’s. We witnessed a lot of change in our perceptions of the world. The internet effectively broke down many barriers to communication and gave people an opportunity to connect across thousands of miles, easily sharing information. Somewhere between the IPCC’s reports starting in 1990, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the finally, the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, environmentalism finally struck home with the public, defeating the impression that its proponents were just a disjointed band of hippies trying to relive glory days of activism or “womanish” “skulkers” that hid from society and threw rocks at it from the bushes. It can be – and should be – a practical application, built upon a foundation of good science from men and women of all races, strength together in solving the problems created by the missteps of our predecessors. It gives me hope that the big environmental NGOs are working so closely with scientists and politicians to produce and back practical solutions to our ecological problems.

I’ve done the painting here with a nice, wide brush, but for the most part, the idea that a woman’s fate is determined by her biology or that only a man can function as the strong provider - the paternal figure – has been defeated, and along with that comes a better societal understanding of the challenge we’ve brought to traditional American thought, holding our predecessors accountable for their negligence and working through the problem with a more modern, global approach to the problems we’ve inherited.

We still have problems, of course, but I think they’re shared by every ideology in the information age, the white noise, the static resulting from a steady stream of words and images from authorities and supposed authorities, media outlets and pundits, each with their own agenda, each distorting the truth to some degree or framing their presentations to make it as friendly or as agitating as possible for the intended audience. In the push to break out of traditional categories and stereotypes, we’ve carved out new specialized niches to inhabit, propping up their associated narratives and giving salesmen of materials and ideas the key(words) to our homes. But that is a post for another time.

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