No, ‘patriarchy’ isn’t killing the planet: the modern lifestyle is

A picture of a large number of black African women in various colourful clothes and headwraps, in Abidjan, Côote D'Ivoire, for International Women's DayPatriarchy is killing our planet - women alone can save her - The Ecologist

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, an investigative journalist best known for work on Muslim civil rights and terrorism, wrote the above article for the Ecologist website last month and posted it on the Radical Middle Way Facebook group although it really has nothing to do with Islam other than having a Muslim author. (The Ecologist still has its own website, but merged with Satish Kumar’s Resurgence magazine in 2012.) He starts off with a familiar exposition of the present environmental crisis, about how “our global system is, increasingly, in breach of the natural limits of our environment”, but drops ‘patriarchy’ in at the last sentence before giving a series of examples of how the crisis disproportionately affects women, but at no point spells out how precisely patriarchy is at the root of the global environmental crisis. The truth is that it predates it by millenia; the modern lifestyle is the cause of it.

I put ‘patriarchy’ in quotes because it is a term that is often misused and the same is true here. It does not mean mere male dominance, but a structure in which husbands and fathers have authority based on their responsibility to care for, guide and maintain their wives and children. If we look at men who are called patriarchs, they are usually grandfathers or church leaders (and when that is their title, they are usually celibate priests or monks); I have never heard of a gang leader, whose position is achieved with the use of violence and sometimes cunning, being called a patriarch. It is not the same as the ‘law of the jungle’ in which the ‘fittest’, usually strongest but sometimes the wiliest, survive or dominate. These tend to be young, strong men, in no sense patriarchs. It was noted that during the Estonia ferry disaster, the majority of survivors were young, healthy and male; only seven survived that were over 55, and no children under 12. Compare this to the Titanic, which sank in a much more patriarchal age than the present one, in which men allowed women and children to take their place in the lifeboats. Nafeez Ahmed’s article states that natural disasters consistently claim more women’s lives than men’s, but the breakdown of the kind of chivalry seen on the Titanic may have as much to do with this as patriarchy itself.

The environmental crisis is new, relatively speaking. Patriarchy is not. Patriarchy of one sort or another is clearly mandated in all the world’s major religions. The modern lifestyle coincides with the weakening of most of these; if not a lapse in belief, as with Christianity in Europe, then a weakening of the authority of tradition, as in much of the Muslim world. The environmental crisis has two major causes: climate change caused by the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, and the large accumulation of toxic or non-biodegradable waste which is the product of industry, of consumerism, of technology which continually improves, leaving much obsolete material which cannot easily be reused or absorbed. While human beings have always burned wood and other fuels for cooking, light and heating, the use of fuel on a huge scale for motorised transport and large-scale manufacturing dates back no further than the 19th century. Nations have always traded with each other, but some nations relying on the resources of others for their very way of life, such as oil as well as less obvious things such as the minerals used in mobile phones, is very new.

The modern lifestyle has its origins in the industrial revolution which took place in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Colonialism meant that this lifestyle took root in Europe, America and japan while other nations were exploited and kept poor, except for a client or ‘comprador’ class in many countries, but in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the breakdown of communism and the opening-up of closed and repressive régimes in the global South meant that billions more people demanded, and got, access to motorised transport and technology. While some of the increased carbon output of places like China is offset by the decline in heavy industry in western countries, the rise in emissions caused by the increase in private car use and air travel in newly industrialised Asian countries is not. The main contributors are those who have access to this lifestyle: historically mostly Europeans, north Americans and Japanese, with a growing class of South and East Asian contributors in the past 20 years. This includes men and women.

Women in industrialised countries have hugely benefited from advances in technology, from the freedom and improved safety afforded by motor and air travel to the ease of communication and organising that comes from telephones, the printing press, computers, the Internet, mobile phones. Yet the cheap mass production and use of these things all requires the extraction of minerals (often from conflict zones), their transportation to factories, the exploitation of workers by cheap labour, the use of electricity (produced by burning oil or coal), its transportation to the place where it will be used (by plane or ship, also requiring the burning of fuel), powering or charging, and finally disposal when a two-year-old device can no longer compete with a new model. The same is all true whether a computer or mobile device is used to plan a war or a feminist consciousness-raising seminar, or keep a group of bed-bound chronically ill people in touch with each other. Women in industrialised countries enjoy the convenience of disposable nappies and sanitary products, yet these all produce waste which has to be incinerated or buried somewhere; reusable equivalents have fallen out of favour in my lifetime, and even though they are nowadays mostly made and sold by women, remain a niche product (of course, when cloth nappies were the norm, they were supplied by mostly male-owned companies). And while the burgeoning human population is commonly cited as a cause of the crisis, a major contributor to that is improvements in medicine, in particular vaccines, which mean children do not die of common diseases like measles — and that means that a woman need not bear twelve children to see any survive into adulthood, as was previously the norm, and remains so in less industrialised countries.

So, the modern lifestyle benefits the women who have access to it while being the direct cause of wars and political oppression, and the indirect cause of droughts and floods, in many countries that often do not benefit from it. He gives a few examples of how climate change affects women — such as being “primary collectors of fuel and water for their families” when water is getting increasingly scarcer — but surely, whatever the men are doing (presumably, working in the fields or in some industry or other) is being affected as well, and whoever collects the water, if there is less of it, that affects everyone. He mentions the heightened risk for women in conflict situations, but much as with the heightened risk of abuse for disabled women, just because it is more dangerous to be a woman in these situations, it doesn’t make it is not dangerous to be a male civilian; in some African conflicts, such as in the Congo, the gangs that rape women also rape men.

So, Nafeez Ahmed’s title claim is wrong on both counts: it is the modern lifestyle, not patriarchy, which is causing the environmental crisis, and as for “only women can save her”: which women, and how? The evidence is that women are no less likely to avail themselves of the advantages and conveniences of the modern lifestyle if it is available to them than men, and not greatly more avid to make sacrifices to lessen their environmental impact. People are easily satisfied by very small and superficial concessions to social justice and the environment as long as it keeps the flow of luxury goods and cheap technology going. Every western political movement depends on technology and the energy which powers it, including feminism and environmentalism; nobody has an immediate interest in it being less readily available. It is yet another distraction to blame “patriarchy” for the state of the planet, but history shows that patriarchy did not cause a global environmental crisis for thousands of years, that modern industry, technology and transport did in under 200, and that the countries where women have the most opportunities are among the worst contributors to climate change and have the greatest demands for the luxury goods that require cheap labour and contribute to conflict. All of us who enjoy this lifestyle are responsible.

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