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by Aaron Dorman
“God gave us the Earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.” --Ann Coulter, 2001
“I think that neoliberalism is what lovelessness looks like as a policy . . . it looks like water pipes leaking lead and poisoning young minds in Flint . . . it looks like trashing the beauty of the planet as if it had no value at all.” --Naomi Klein, 2017
THERE’S ONE very prominent victim of abuse whose continued pummeling has gone under the radar: Mother Earth. Not only has our planet been exploited for years by powerful men who lie and intimidate to avoid repercussions, but this pattern of behavior has been endorsed and abetted by the Trump Administration several times over. Earth’s defenders have been mocked mercilessly and slandered as liars. Alas, the victim has no voice and, barring something unexpected, will continue to suffer injuries until the somewhat inevitable collapse, to the detriment of all of us.
I do not say this in jest. The connections between the #MeToo movement and the environmental movement are more than a smug metaphor. After all, the two principal instances of mass protest against Trump were the Women’s March (again this year) and the March for Science last April. A recent 2017 poll of millennials, the vanguard of progressive politics, shows climate change and inequality chosen as the first and third most important problems that we face. (In between is “war,” which one could argue is inexorably linked to both issues.) Nevertheless, the fight to stop runaway sexual harassment and the fight to stop runaway carbon emissions and resource depletion have so far been conducted on decidedly separate tracks. Not only would I like to see these movements find ways to intersect, but I believe that, even as separate phenomena, they could learn from one another. The environmental movement could piggyback off the #MeToo movement to make a point about our abuse of nature, while the #MeToo movement could employ science and methodology in the push to move the conversation “offline.”
ECO-FEMINISM, a political theory that sees women and the environment linked through their patriarchal oppression, has existed as an academic theory since the birth of the modern environmental movement in the early 1970s -- but has not spread far beyond the ivory tower. The way eco-feminism was presented to me in graduate school seemed contrived, even contradictory, and its forerunners included Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, whose sanctimonious (in HDT’s case, insincere) prose I found to be insufferable.
Worse, in its critique of technology and its exploitation metaphors, eco-feminism seemed to me to frame the Enlightenment and scientific revolution as destructive rather than liberating historical developments. But wasn’t the shift away from religious dogma and magical thinking good for women? In her book, The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant contends that “as the economy became modernized and the Scientific Revolution proceeded, the dominion metaphor spread beyond the religious sphere and assumed ascendancy in the social and political spheres as well.” This feels like too narrow a viewpoint, too dismissive of the “inconvenient truths” that great figures like Copernicus or Galileo suffered to publicize — and of the human suffering that the “dominion metaphor” overcame (disease, infection, starvation, superstition). Can there instead be an organized, coherent frame that sees scientific discovery dialectically, as both enlightening and oppressive?
Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes (2011), one of the best books on climate denial and the organized attempt to stymie a green revolution, addresses the fascinating paradox that some of the original and most vociferous “doubt merchants” on cigarettes and climate change were well-recognized scientists. They were not ignorant buffoons. Yet the scientific consensus on both tobacco and climate change went from doubt to certainty. Why the change of heart?
Oreskes’ book highlights a shift that occurred in understanding the relationship between science and technology. Up until the 1960s, the explosive pace of innovation and scientific research was seen as a normative good in and of itself. Merchants of Doubt personifies this in the role of Dr. Frederick Seitz (1911-2008), a physicist who became notorious for his defense of cigarettes and his denial of climate change. Seitz was one of the “generation of bright young men whose lives were transformed by the Manhattan Project,” Oreskes writes, and who “believed passionately in science and technology,” so much so that he saw environmentalists as “Luddites who wanted to reverse progress.” Clearly, the environmental awakening that was stirred by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 dampened this uncritical, whiz-bang sense of human ingenuity (as did, Oreskes reminds us, the simultaneous debate over nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race).
The book describes how such scientists, with funding from the tobacco and later the fossil fuel industries, became bad-faith skeptics of scientific evidence and the progressive policy solutions the evidence implied. Many of those original players have receded into the background; today’s most prominent climate deniers are not scientists at all, but dubious politicians and transparent industry shills like James Inhofe and Scott Pruitt. A less polarized version of the technology-environment schism is now embodied in celebrated technology entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire wunderkinds whose pseudo-utopian visions --including life on Mars -- don’t seem to be at odds with environmental concerns, but actually do displace eco-feminist approaches with technology-driven promises.
I’VE COME to believe that “eco-feminism” and its philosophical cousin, “deep ecology,” are not entirely the product of academic, tree-killing verbiage. They are, rather, necessary responses to feminized, sexist, and domineering views of nature that consistently appear in texts written by scientists and philosophers of yesteryear. The idea of nature as less valuable than our human society -- either as “virgin” landscape waiting to be domesticated or as something dead that must be enlivened by machines -- is embedded in our language.
Personifying nature as a woman did not begin with the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), but he is considered to have helped codify this philosophy as part of the Scientific Revolution. Merchant writes that “(Francis) Bacon developed the power of language as political instrument in reducing female nature to a resource for economic production.” Quoting Bacon, she writes: “the new man of science must not think that the ‘inquisition of nature is in any part interdicted or forbidden.’ Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ put ‘in constraint’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts. The ‘searchers and spies of nature’ are to discover her plots and secrets.”
These sentiments are consistently peppered throughout Bacon’s writings, including darker rape imagery (“nature must be taken by the forelock, being bald behind”).
Not every figure of the Enlightenment is so fixated on female imagery; the laundry list of prominent scientists Merchant lays out in The Death of Nature are equally, if not more, concerned with reimagining natural processes as a series of machines. But I found the evidence compelling that they helped lay the foundation for our modern, sexist environmental lexicon.
Eco-feminist Karen J. Warren writes (in Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters, 1996): “Euro-American language is riddled with examples of sexist-naturist language. Women are routinely described in pejorative animal terms: women are dogs, cats, pussycats, pets . . . bitches . . . women cackle, go to hen parties, become old biddies, and social butterflies . . . Mother Nature is raped, mastered, controlled, conquered, mined. Her secrets are penetrated, and her womb is put into service of the man of science.”
OTHER ECO-FEMINIST writers have noted that it is not the nature-female dynamic that is inherently the problem, but the superimposed “patriarchy” that uses that frame for subjugative ends. The pre-industrial world also feminized nature, but even in Western culture it was with a more positive connotation of Earth-as-nurturer -- and this is still a popular sentiment. After all, the number-one grossing film of all time, Avatar, is about a proxy for Earth pushing back against the military-industrial complex.
Talking about nature as if the biosphere were a woman also can encourage the celebration of feminine/feminist perspectives on life and death and community. But to describe nature as female when “she” is in need of protection from patriarchal domination can also be undermining to our sense of women’s power.
In 1160, a poet named Alain of Lille wrote a story about “Natura,” a servant of God whose modesty is undone by man’s sensual exploits. Merchant explains the moral as concluding that “nature has no power to enforce her own laws. After the disobedience that resulted in the fall of Adam and Eve, unity in the created world can only be maintained by moral choices; human reason must control human lust.” This strikes me as bearing similarities to the famous “Tragedy of the Commons” argument put forth by Garrett Hardin in 1968, in which he declared that humans have a natural inclination towards overreaching and poisoning the well, so the only way to prevent this is to agree as a society on rules and regulations designed to prevent this from happening — i.e., the “nanny state.”
Efforts to prevent sexual abuse and environmental abuse thus bump into the same issue: How do we “protect” women without infantilizing them?
That may be a real concern, but even so, I embrace eco-feminism’s use of feminist language as a compelling frame for our modern ecological crisis, and I believe the eco-feminist view that such language functions as an ethical constraint. As Merchant puts it: When the Earth is viewed as a nurturing mother, does such imagery “actually function as a norm against improper use of the Earth? Evidence that this was indeed the case can be drawn.”
Even today, however, the environmental crisis is criminally underrepresented in the mass media and dealt with primarily as a series of local catastrophe stories, without a global overview. (Note the quick dissolution of Flint’s lead-poisoned water as a national issue, and the continued negligence towards post-hurricane Puerto Rico.) To the extent that the media talks globally about the environment, it’s nearly always about the “debate” between science and climate-change deniers, rather than about politics and policy.
Would it be more effective to advocate for better environmental practices by framing them as part of the continuing narrative of #MeToo? If time’s up on treating women like disposable trash and getting away with it, why can’t it be time’s up on our reckless disposal of actual trash? What would happen if people in the new Bizarro “mirror universe” Environmental Protection Agency were encouraged to share their horror stories? One can imagine all kinds of potential campaigns that could arise from such a realignment.
Even prominent science advocates -- Al Gore and Bill Nye and everybody in between -- need to shine a spotlight on environmental crises that are tangential to climate change: the Pacific Garbage Patch, phosphorus depletion, desertification, overpopulation. All environmental problems are interrelated, but these remain out of sight, out of mind, to the point where half the country celebrates converting national parks into new mining operations.
SOONER OR LATER, the Trump nightmare will end. Climate denialism will finally fall out of favor, hopefully before we see many more catastrophic consequences, such as losing cities or entire island nations to rising seas or storm surges. Soon enough, we will have to settle on which paths to take to mitigate the damages and the ongoing threat.
A lot of the conversation about the environment discusses climate change as an impetus for economic development and technological innovation. Some of this is inspiring: I recently came across research into a glow-in-the-dark “spray” that could be used on trees in place of street lights. (It’s not viable yet, but if it ever is, it would save vast amounts of electricity.) There are also plans to convert roads into solar-paneled “smart” highways.
Then there is geo-engineering: massive projects like carbon capture and atmospheric seeding that would counteract warming effects without forcing us to dramatically reconsider economic growth. That’s the sales pitch, anyway. None of the current geo-engineering schemes do anything to address secondary effects of carbon emissions, such as ocean acidification, and there is no satisfactory technological solution to runaway consumption. Geo-engineering also carries with it extremely dicey questions of authority and the risk of unintended consequences. It’s nice to imagine that a technological silver bullet is right around the corner — that some enterprising lab will soon announce it has discovered how our trash can enrich, rather than degrade, the environment (as proposed in The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability -- Designing for Abundance, by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, 2013). But until that happens. . .
Until that happens, environmentalists should be feminists. But why should feminists be environmentalists? What about the environmental movement can #MeToo use?
#METOO is at a crucial stage. Already people are concerned that the conversation has spread from one about power and workplace harassment to more general, less obvious sexual inequalities. The territory #MeToo is trying to cover now is broader than social media can handle. That’s not a bad thing, but it does put the movement at risk of failing to motivate real reform.
As such, I believe the #MeToo movement could stand to incorporate a heavy dose of science. Right now, the stories of abuse, some long-suppressed, are harrowing and powerful. But they are anecdotal. The hyper-saturation of #MeToo declarations online and in the media indicates a pervasive culture of harassment and abuse, but doesn’t provide a model for solutions. The social ostracism of high-profile men has found worthy targets -- so far. But the process of trial-by-Twitter, and the questionable fact-finding standards of those involved in the search for the next villain, are problematic and insufficient. We don’t want merely to scare men away from abusive behavior. We want to stop producing men who are interested in abusing women.
Now is the time for some studies. How prevalent are different forms of sexual harassment, from ass-grabbing on up to rape, and where are they taking place? These questions can’t be answered satisfactorily by crowd-sourcing. But isn’t there already a healthy body of research on sexual harassment and gender/sexuality -- and why isn’t it being incorporated into the conversation?
A recent Andrew Sullivan article called out #MeToo journalists for completely ignoring physiology in their analysis. “You can spend a lifetime in gender studies,” Sullivan writes, “and the subject will never come up.” Whatever you think of Sullivan’s politics, he asks good questions here: “How much of this difference (in behavior) is natural and how much is social? . . . Is male sexual aggression and horniness a function of patriarchy or testosterone?” Exactly what is socially constructed and what is genetically encoded is a messy chicken-or-the-egg problem, and I am sympathetic to concerns that focusing on physiology threatens to undermine notions of equality. But the path to educational and even legal reform runs through that kind of research.
Consider how environmentalists tackled global warming. Climate science does not shy away from potential contradictions. It tries to rectify them or incorporate them logically into our understanding of physical dynamics. For instance: What is the impact of the sun? Of volcanoes? Why is there more ice forming in certain bodies of water? While the denialists who’ve tried to exaggerate the “doubt” involved in climate science try to take advantage of such explorations, that hasn’t stopped honest advocates and scientists from taking a serious look at the concerns that appear at the margins of the environmental debate. At the moment, I see the most vocal #MeToo leaders doing the opposite, levying ad hominem attacks and ignoring or dismissing anything that might slow momentum.
REGARDLESS of intent, #MeToo, climate change, and nearly all progressive action items are running into the same deadly problem: The message is hitting a brick wall before it reaches “the other side.” Polarized dialogue sometimes makes it seem like the internet is composed solely of voices on either end of two extremes shouting back and forth at one another. I am continually dismayed by the harsh language of authors with whom I might otherwise agree.
Social media is not helping. It exaggerates the presence of extreme views, creating the false impression that the MRAs (“Men’s Rights Activists”) and anti-feminist man-children (or climate-denying scientists) are greater in number and influence than they actually are. This turns otherwise good writers into polemicists, as if they were lawyers in a high-profile case, more intent on winning an argument than untangling the issue towards honest conversation.
Confining social issues within this media-circus hell also tends to abstract them. I’ve long believed that the term “climate change” itself, in America, has become little more than a signal for political affiliation. I think the same thing can happen to a hashtag like #MeToo or #blacklivesmatter — the conversation conducted online becomes detached from real-world action and allows conservatives to attack these movements as “virtue signaling.”
How to move beyond rhetoric? How does an issue push past partisan divides and transform society, or at least persuade people closer to “the middle” (although its somewhat grotesque to think of men’s attitudes towards women in this way)?
The idea that there is a tangible, efficacious benefit to uniting different socio-political theories is not new. A framework of “intersectionality” was coined by legal scholar Kimberle Williams Crenshaw in the 1980s, originally to discuss how gender and race discrimination are conjoined. At a TED talk in 2016, Crenshaw explained: “Without frames that allow us to see how social problems impact all the members of a targeted group, many will fall through the cracks of our movements, left to suffer in virtual isolation.” In the instance of #MeToo, the “targeted group” is more than half the human race; in the instance of our environmental crisis, the “targeted group” is nearly the entire human race, plus thousands of non-human species of life.
Protecting the environment means protecting the rights of indigenous peoples; climate change means adjusting our approach to national security; sexual harassment is about how we relate to our environment. Our society, just like our ecosystem, can be seen as a complex web of interconnected social justice issues. And now, out of the ashes of the Trump wildfire, there is unique momentum that organizations and voices representing different constituencies can use to come together for lasting impact.
Aaron Dorman is a freelance writer/reporter focusing on environmental and science communication.