Peak Oil is a Women's Issue by Sharon Astyk

Sunday, November 05, 2006
Peak Oil is a Women's Issue

The Heck with Mars… The Peak Oil Movement Needs Women!!!

Let me be quite explicit here to begin with - when I speak or write about peak oil as a women’s issue, I do not mean what many people have taken the term “women’s issue” to mean - that is, something that is solely and primarily the interest of women, and therefore irrelevant to men, or a situation where women’s interests are in some way in opposition with the interests of men. I mean, instead, that peak oil has not been envisioned or considered seriously as an issue with particular impacts upon and considerations for women, and that women and the men who care about women - any man with a mother, sister, wife, female partner, lover or friend, daughter or any other relationship with women - that is to say, all men and all women - need to think carefully about how women are going to be affected by peak oil. When I call for women to join the peak oil movement, it is not because our interests are different than the interests of the men presently working on that subject, but because without us, those men may not perceive the impact of their actions upon women, or the importance of the female perspective. I have no doubt that men are just as concerned about the fate of their children as women are, that they care as deeply as women do that their mothers not spend their old age in terrible poverty and that their female friends are well educated, free, healthy and safe. What I think women bring to the table is greater consciousness of the impact of peak oil on women’s bodies, women’s lives and women’s goals. But whatever future we envision, it will only be accomplished as a joint and human project

I do however, believe quite strongly that if the calls for radical cultural change that peak oil activists are making are going to lead anywhere at all, those calls are going to have to be directed to women in a way that connects them to the issue. And if the peak oil movement is going to speak to women, it needs some women to stand up and be public figures. I believe strongly that we cannot repair the world without the engagement, aid and willingness of women. Thus far inclusion (And I must add that everything I say about the need to engage with and meet the needs of women goes double, triple and quadruple for other minority groups, but for the moment, I am going to stick with women as my subject) has not been a priority, and it must be.

My trip to the ASPO-USA conference (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil - the people who did the hard and necessary work of raising the alarm) was perhaps not representative of the situation (the 10 to 1 male-female ratio was unusually disproportionate), but it is the case that the majority of people who are aware of and involved with peak oil are men. Most of the major public figures are men as well, although there are some important exceptions, including ASPO board member Debbie Cook, Community Solutions Outreach Director Megan Quinn, film director Faith Morgan, and writer Carolyn Baker. But even at the Community Solutions conference, where the ratio of men to women was closer to 60-40, and where there were three women speakers out of 10 total (At ASPO there was only one out of 33 listed speakers, and one panel chair), we had the odd scene of three men sitting up on stage discussing what should be done about population. To be fair, this was not planned - it arose from a question in the audience, and the gentlemen in question did a good job of addressing the issue - which does not change the fact that many women, me included, have a strongly visceral reaction to a bunch of men sitting up on a stage discussing the future of women’s reproductive habits. While women are better represented at the local level of peak oil, we need more public speakers, and more locally active women to put women’s issues at the front of the agenda.

Now to some degree, as Julian Darley pointed out to me at ASPO, the problem is that women have not stepped up yet and written the books or engaged with the subject. We are not doing our share of the leading here (I‘m working on it, I promise!), and for those of us who are peak oil aware, we can‘t place the blame for that anywhere but on ourselves. I would hope that one of the results of this essay might be that more women would take leadership roles in this movement. Because if we do not, we can expect to be disenfranchised from the policy decisions that will invariably affect us. Darley makes an entirely legitimate critique, but that said, it also the case that the peak oil movement also has a decidedly male tone, and places like ASPO are not especially welcoming to women. Take, for example, Art Smith’s joke during his presentation (otherwise liberally sprinkled with fishing pictures) about the difference between spending and investing, for example, in which spending is what his wife does at the grocery store and investing is what he does when he buys her gold jewelry…because he expects a good return on his investment. Now leaving aside, for the moment, that I come from another generation (translation - he’s a dinosaur), and that among my own peers, a husband making a public joke implying that his wife is a whore who sells her favors for jewelry would, umm, shortly be permanently incapable of entering any more pissing contests, think about what that kind of joke says to your audience. It says, “we all mostly are going to think this is funny” - and realistically, since no woman under 50 will even laugh politely at that kind of joke, it means “we’re all men of the world here in our little club.” Now I thought rather highly of Mr. Smith’s presentation, and they were very nice fish, but what what he did (and what quite a few other presenters did, with slightly more subtlety) is remind the women in the room that at least a lot of the people on the stage think of them as suited to the role of consumer and lovely wife. The implication is that its no accident that he’s up there and the girls are home shopping. And so if we’re wondering why women aren’t leaping to change their habits and join the peak oil movement, it is worth noting that there isn’t always that much in the whole thing for us.

None of this derives from malice, but from the habit of people in power of being powerful, and thus, not thinking very much about less powerful people. Petroleum geology, for example, is a boy’s club, and an old boy’s club at that - there was much discussion of the fact that there are few petroleum geologists in training and that the average age was approaching 50. The men who did the hard work of drawing our attention to the problem deserve enormous credit for that - they put their careers on the line to say something important and unpopular, and as stupid I think the good old boy jokes are, I truly and genuinely admire what they have done. But there is no reason for peak oil to remain a boy’s club - the major and central issues of peak oil are no longer “2007 or 2009?” Or “how much seawater is being pumped in the Ghawar?” Those are relevant issues. But the big questions are “how will we live sustainably.” “How will we radically cut our consumption?” “What is the most ethical way to act?” “How will we change our assumptions and our culture as a whole?” And not only are those not questions optimally answered by a little club of investment bankers and scientists - many of whom are uncomfortable with nuance, ethics and grey areas, but by the public as a whole. And the answers we come up with must take the needs and concerns of women into account.

This is because peak oil is a women’s issue in the most basic sense. Whatever happens in the post peak future will hit women differently, and in many ways harder, than it will hit men. For example, women are more likely to be poor than men are. In an economic crisis, women are more likely than men to be impoverished, and more seriously. Elderly women are the poorest and most vulnerable people in the US, and their lives are not likely to be improved by peak oil. Women are more likely to be single parents, a job that will come with a whole host of new difficulties post peak. They are more likely than men to work minimum wage jobs, to be exploited at work, to not be unionized, to have their rights violated. Poor women are more likely to be victims of violence, to have unplanned children, to be trapped in poverty from which they can’t arise. In a period of economic crisis, where everyone is desperate for work, women will be even more vulnerable than usual, and we are already more vulnerable than men.

Creating a sustainable future requires that women who don’t want to have children, or not yet, or not many, be able to cease doing so. And yet poverty dramatically decreases access to medical care and birth control even in our first world society. The poorer and less well educated you are (and those two things are reciprocally related) the more likely you are to become pregnant without intending it, both because of reduced access to reliable birth control and insufficient education in how to use it. The younger, poorer and less well educated a woman is , the younger she is likely to have children, the more children she is likely to have, the more health consequences she and her children are likely to have (prematurity, high blood pressure, etc…), and the less likely she is to ever escape poverty - or for her children to escape it. In a major economic depression, the ranks of poor women are likely to grow enormously, and we are likely to see not fewer children, but more and more unwanted children unless we plan very carefully to ensure that we prioritize medical access for everyone as one of the things we do with our limited resources.

If public policy is to address the population issue, it must be in a way that does not reduce women’s power and freedom. Whatever measures we take to limit growth, they must be taken with the full consent of the female half of the population. The very best things we can do to limit population are increase women’s access to education, health care, and ensure that the children she does have will have a chance to grow up. The US has poor literacy levels, poor access to health care for those without insurance, and poor infant mortality rates for an industrialized nation, and has just entered into an endless war which is already killing young soldiers at a ridiculously high rate. We must improve all of the above - keep our children alive, well educated and healthy. But we are entering a period of economic and social crisis, and we’re going to have to make difficult policy choices. Education, social welfare and medical care are historically the first things to get the axe - we must change that aspect of the culture immediately, if we’re to have any hope of population stabilization. We must stand firm in saying that health care and education come before large new alternative energy projects that may never pay off, or we will never, ever be able to catch up in a world of eternal, exponential growth.

The present economy, in which women are nearly as likely as men to go out and work full time, depends enormously on cheap energy. Mothers of young children can only go to work if they have easy access to and can afford formula, or fancy breast pumps and refrigeration for the milk. Unless wet nursing makes a come back (and it may, but most of us almost certainly won’t be able to afford it), women in their childbearing years will not be working far away from home. And given the dramatic increase in domestic labor created by using less energy, it will make sense for them to be at home. They will be the ones who almost certainly shoulder much of the burden of food production, housekeeping, sanitation, and childrearing. It will be damned hard work, and there will be a lot of it. If we are to shoulder that burden, we must be involved in the creation of the systems that we will live under, and prioritization of resources - that is, we cannot allow the old saw, that those who are employed in the world of the GDP are doing “real” work, which should thus receive a larger share of the remaining resources in accomodation. The elimination of domestic labor from calculations of value and worth is an intentional lie of growth capitalism, to devalue the work subsistence labor, which meets most of our basic needs. We need to demand that any calculations of priority take into account the fact that the food, clothing, shelter and nurturance provided by people engaged in homemaking is, in many cases, more valuable than the non-essential paid work that many people engage in.

It is very easy to effectively disenfranchise women who have been moved out of the workforce by biological necessities. If you only have the money to send one child to college or trade school, and your daughter is likely to spend a decade or two bearing children, nursing them and living at home, it is easy to prioritize the education of your sons. If women can’t get out much because they have little access to transportation, and no way to safely bring the children, they will not vote, or participate in public affairs. If we plan a post-peak future without taking the needs of women entirely into account, we will end up with something that may keep women out of power for generations - and will vastly impoverish us all. It isn’t just that women need to be included - we need a place at the table more than we ever have. For all of us who value our freedom, independence and education, the thought that our daughters and daughters-in-law may have none of that should be terrifying.

Women routinely outlive their husbands by some years in the US, and we have created a culture where elderly and disabled family members are not part of the home, but are to a large degree removed from the family and placed in institutional structures like assisted living or nursing homes. Women are disproportionately represented, because we live longer, and because women often care for their husbands at home at the end of their lives, and then no one is left to care for the caregivers. As we change the culture, we must change this, lest a generation of grandmothers suffer in poverty and desperation. We must care for our mothers and grandmothers (and, of course, fathers and grandfathers) in our homes, integrated fully into our families, with as much autonomy and respect as possible.

And we must have women involved in the work of recreating family and community structures. People will not have fewer children, if, for example, the grown children of one child families must struggle to care for four elderly parents alone. The parents of disabled children will not stop their families at one or even two, if there are no existing structures to help with the care and welfare of the disabled. People will not willingly take on new burdens before it is required of them, unless they are rewarded by their communities and valued by their families for doing it, unless the receive cultural capital and practical support. All those things are surmountable obstacles. But they will not be surmounted unless people, including and especially women, are shaping the new culture.

All of this sounds rather bleak, and if we don’t choose wisely, it may be. There are clearly
excellent reasons for women to step up and insert themselves into the peak oil policy dialogue, and for men who are there now to seek out women, to ask their wives and partners, friends, sisters, daughters and mothers what they think, what they want and what they need. But there are other reasons, more about women’s power than women’s vulnerability, that also need consideration.

Last week’s Sunday New York Times Business section reported that women now influence or make 90% of all purchases, including purchases in areas not traditionally thought of as the province of women - that is, cars, housing, home repairs, and hardware, as well as clothes, food and toys. Well guess where virtually all of our personal energy consumption is embodied? In the things women buy, and the choices they make. Women make the decision to buy compact fluorescents or incandescent light bulbs, they make the decision to renovate the kitchen and what kind of appliances to buy. They decide whether to buy local food or supermarket food. They buy their own cars, and pick the houses. Their consumer power drives much of our ridiculous rate of consumption. But they are also more likely than men to be concerned about the environment, to make economic choices based on concerns about the long term future and health issues.

Women are the ones who need to understand the urgency of choosing the low impact life, and they need support in doing so. But their potential impact, if they are reached, is enormous. Women are largely driving the organic movement in the US, which, for all the limitation of industrial organic food, is a tremendous change in the shape of agriculture and food production. It is not everything it could be, but the fact is that because women are concerned about the health of their families, we are changing our relationship to pesticides. The same could be true of any number of other issues.

Women also still do a disproportionate amount of child-rearing in just about every society, especially among very young children. They are the ones who instill values and ethics in their children to a large degree. They take the kids to church. They take them shopping. They show and tell them what they think. Women talk to their children more than men do, and they spend more hours doing ordinary household things with and around them. Every moment that women do these things, they are teaching their children something. We must connect with women, and help them see what they are teaching, and think about what they want to teach in the future. The habits of another generation are being shaped right at this moment, and unless we enlist the shapers, a great opportunity will be missed.

Add to that that women, especially women over 40, make the world go around. Next time you go to the polls, look and count the number of women running the show. Next time your church puts on a fund raisers, or you visit a food pantry, or you attend a rally, watch and see how many women, especially but not exclusively older ones, are running the show, doing the organizing, arranging the details. When I’ve spoken on peak oil, every time I’ve met wonderful women, old and young, who do a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes or in front of them, but who are not, by personality, inclined to put themselves forward and say (as I sometimes do) “look at me!” But we simply could not manage without them - women are more likely than men to volunteer in the US, and they put in more hours than their male counterparts. And we in the peak oil movement are not using them to their full capacities - using their knowledge and energies, their experience in organizing, their brains and wisdom and their enormous skills. We are wasting the most powerful thing in the world - the anger and fear of women who feel that what they love is in danger. And if we continue to waste it, we will deserve the fate we get without their gifts.