Girl Power Through the Ages

Now also at urbanwildland.org

At the beginning of 2016, I taught an on-line graduate course in Ecological Ethics for the Viridis Institute, an educational start-up focused on Ecopsychology and Environmental Humanities, founded by Lori Pye who also teaches at both the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Pacifica Institute in Santa Barbara. Although I fancy myself a meta-historian, fascinated by the structural mechanisms that impact humanity’s story over time and place, I entirely neglected, in my course, to consider how the ways in which humanity grubs a living from the natural environment impacts our values, so concerned was I with the way our values impact our use and abuse of the environment. I have now been schooled by Ian Morris, a classics professor at Stanford, having read his book, Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, Princeton University Press, 2015.

He proposes, quite simply, that our values mutate in sympathy with the ways in which we derive energy (sustenance) from the planet. Our core spiritual values, for instance, have evolved from the pantheism of foraging to the worship of the god-kings of farming to the widespread contemporary denial of spirituality demanded of late-stage capitalism, where the rational, neo-liberal pursuit of maximum profit, the relentless expansion of consumerism and the extractive technologies that support it, represent a quantum leap in the size of civilization’s energy footprint which, at the present, can only be maintained by the burning of fossil fuels. It is a breathtakingly broad-brush approach to the story of human development.

Morris concedes that humanity has consistently exhibited a number of basic values over time such as fairness, justice, love, hate, respect, loyalty and a sense of the sacred; but he suggests that the manifestation of these values varies according to the dominant form of energy capture which he reduces to the three modalities of his title. Community governance, which tends to reflect shared values, begins, in Morris’s telling, with the egalitarianism of the forager (encapsulated in the notion of moral autonomy by which we are all headmen – each of us headman over him or herself), moves on to the authoritarianism under which farmers thrive (the genesis of which is traditionally traced to royal control over the flood waters of the Nile) and comes, in the modern age, to democracy, broadly defined as a refutation of political hierarchy with power notionally residing with the people.

For the more than ninety thousand years that anatomically modern humans pursued a strategy of foraging to secure sufficient energy in the form of food and water, and material for shelter, ceremony, tools, transport and warfare, there was an essential equality between men and women. Neither sex achieved a lasting primacy over the other perhaps because their means of livelihood was consistently assured by gathering, in which women more than fully participated, and which was only occasionally enriched by the male preserve of hunting. In contrast, the ten thousand years devoted to non-mechanized agriculture that followed was characterized by a marked sexual hierarchy at least partly because farming privileged upper body strength.

The increase in the food supply afforded by the practice of farming, particularly as it intensified with the adoption of plowing and irrigation, also meant that women spent more time pregnant and caring for young children, further distancing them from the processes of energy capture and creating a sexual divide that was expressed spatially as men in the fields and women in the house. This inside outside dichotomy was confirmed as women became increasingly confined to the sheltered realm of the home and garden while men, literally and figuratively, were out in the world.

A divergent relationship to nature, expressed in woman’s conciliatory practice of small scale horticulture and the gathering of handfuls of wild plants around the home (an extension of their erstwhile foraging) for culinary, medicinal and spiritual purposes, as opposed to the subjugation of nature practiced by farmers, ultimately led to the conflation of women with nature - and patriarchy sought to dominate both. The increasing use of fossil fuels over the last two hundred and fifty years to power machines and, more recently, electronic equipment, has led to a progressive weakening of this entrenched gender hierarchy. The parallel development of democratic institutions in the high energy using parts of the world (producing countries tend to experience, by contrast, huge disparities in wealth and fall victim to tyranny) has further eroded, but not eliminated, sexist hegemony.

Morris makes the argument that Industria (his term for society powered by fossil fuels) does best within a democratic political environment where its technocratic foundations are supported by a liberal ideology which encompasses notions such as competition, efficiency and individual empowerment - and worst in illiberal climes such as Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Kimist North Korea.

He writes,

“…although the state shows no sign of withering away, fossil-fuel attitudes toward steep political hierarchies and upstarts have more in common with foragers’ views than with farmers’. Political scientists have long suggested that even democracies necessarily spawn powerful elites that constitute themselves as permanent political castes, but democrats have consistently preferred visions of government by everyman to the idea of a natural ruling class.”

There is, it seems, a connection between abundant energy and liberal governance: our contemporary appetite for energy is supported by a parallel addiction to democracy - a form of government perhaps temperamentally ill-suited to the curbing of society’s cravings for oil. Additionally, in a world where science has assumed the role of the sacred, we continue to be in awe of scientifically developed technologies, many of which facilitate the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels, as well as those devices which are its most profligate users, such as jets, high powered cars and giant farming, earth-moving and ore extraction equipment. In this country, we paper over the ironies (and climate threats) of our preferred mode of energy capture by espousing values such as freedom, independence, and loyalty to a state whose military consumes oil at the rate of more than a hundred million barrels a year.

But always, there are outliers. In an essay by Margaret Attwood, When the Lights Go Out: Human Values after the Collapse of Civilization, written as a formal response to Morris’ thesis (she was a contributor to his Tanner Lectures at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values) she upbraids him for entirely ignoring the nomadic, pastoralist mode of energy capture in his analysis. In particular, she notes the value-laden cultural consequences of the development of large-scale warfare by the pastoralist warriors of the Steppe, in their twelfth and thirteenth century campaigns of imperial conquest, led by Ghengis Khan.

Until recently, Mongolia, was ground zero for pastoralism - a survival strategy fueled by grass - but beginning in the twentieth century, Mongolia’s economy began to be transformed by the development of extractive industries. The country has extensive deposits of copper, gold, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin, tungsten and coal, most of which it now exports to China; but its surviving pastoralists remain largely self-sufficient and only occasionally dependent on local markets.

For many centuries, Muslim Kazakhs have been grazing their livestock in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, in Western Mongolia. Today, they continue to herd sheep, horses, camels, goats, cattle and yak, from which they extract much of their energy requirements (including cooking fuel from their animals’ dung). The use of eagles to hunt foxes and marmots survives as a ceremonial tradition amongst these people, and now Sony Pictures has released The Eagle Huntress, 2016, directed by Otto Bell, that documents the training of a thirteen year-old girl as the first woman to participate in this ancient sporting tradition.

I was utterly beguiled by the drone, hand held, and eagle-mounted digital cinematography of Otto’s glossy fairy tale which features the charming Aishoplan, daughter of a champion in the sport both ready to pass on his skills and brook the almost comic chorus of sexist disapproval expressed by community elders. Sia’s breathy paean to Girrrl Powah, ‘Angel by the Wings’, with its seemingly endless refrain of ‘you can do anything’ plays over the end credits and is a reminder that the documentary, set amidst the snowy crags of Mongolia and featuring the stunning aerial acrobatics of Aishoplan’s pet eagle is, at heart, a showy live-action cartoon of female empowerment.

Yet it is women like Aisholpan, infused with a warrior spirit born of a profound empathy with the workings of the natural world, who will, I believe, lead us towards the next frontier of energy capture.

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