There is a word activists often use to describe environmental devastation. Like the gaping hole that has gutted a glacial mountain peak to construct Freeport mine in Grasberg, West Papua; like the dying off of Northland kauri forests, the beaching of hundreds of whales while seismic testing and deep sea oil exploration continue; the plastic on Halfway Island, industrial trawling, the destruction of Bikini atoll for the sake of nuclear flexing. The word we so often use for the violation of a planet that we simultaneously expect to feed from is rape.
Something telling happens when we need to use this word to talk about what it means literally: the sexual violation of, overwhelmingly, girls and women. We treat it differently. It is not the or even ‘a‘ definitive issue any more. However many voices come to the party, #metoo is more of a sob story – and perhaps also a kind of Shakespearean perfomance of revenge – than a call to fundamentally rethink how the world needs to change. While both seek to be comprehensive, Max Rashbrooke’s popular 2013 book Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis did not mention sexual violence; Max Harris’ more recent The New Zealand Project treads very lightly and sidelines it.
“Climate change is the moral and political issue of our time”, Harris’ book proclaims, and this statement implicitly attaches far more weight to the rape of the planet than to the rape of the women who are fighting for it. The term “climate change” has already been critiqued as too sanitised to describe the environmental crisis: it does not speak to the violence of deforestation, monoculture, fossil fuel extraction, species extinction, or the dying of oceans. Writer Pala Molisa has suggested “ecocide” and “ecological holocaust” as more appropriate terms – because the problem is not so much that the climate happens to be changing, but that we, people, are killing off life on earth.
Is ecocide, though, the “moral and political issue of our time”? Does that term really address what happened to Bikini atoll? Does that really address what is happening in Grasberg, which is not only mined but militarised? We are not only killing the planet for energy and cash crops, we are doing it with military technology designed to target human populations. And actually – it’s not “we”, so much as it is men who are the perpetrators of this violence. Ecocide says little about militarism or its masculinity. So while it describes our environmental crisis, it still falls short of describing the “moral and political issue of our time”.
We are naïve if we think we can tackle the issue of climate change separate from looking at militarism and masculinity. Although, as John Michael Greer argues in The falling years: An Inhumanist vision, it is likely we love the concept of “climate change” not in spite of its limitations, but because it is vague, skyward looking and unthreatening, shielding us from the need to confront uncomfortable topics. To make his point, Greer compares the narratives of Climate Change activism with its predecessor, Peak Oil, decidedly less sexy and “mediagenic”. “Climate change,” writes Greer,
as a cultural narrative, is a story about human power. We have become so almighty through technological progress, the climate change narrative argues, that we threaten the Earth itself…
Peak oil as a cultural narrative, on the other hand, is not a celebration of human power but a warning about human limits. At the core of the peak oil story is the recognition that the power we claimed was never really ours.
One of the points that Greer is making is how easy it is for the narratives we really want to hear, the ones that fuel our most destructive addictions and collective pathologies, to creep their way into the core of the “solutions” we dream up. The same dynamic can be seen in campaigning carried out by White Ribbon, who love to plaster posters of rugged looking men all over our cities, men too “manly” to be wife beaters. The irony of celebrating masculinity in the name of challenging it is painful, but the pattern is routine. White Ribbon’s campaigns are to violence against women what the “climate change” narrative is to ecocide. These Trojan horse campaigns reveal how deeply addicted we really are to the status quo. Unconsciously (and often very consciously) we look for solutions that still allow us our keenest attachments.
Derrick Jensen addresses this deep-seated avoidance his book Earth At Risk. “When most people in this culture ask, “How can we stop global warming?” they aren’t really asking what they pretend they’re asking,” he says.
They’re asking instead, “How can we stop global warming without stopping the burning of oil and gas, without stopping the industrial infrastructure, without stopping the whole omnicidal system?” You can’t. Or when people ask, “How can we save the salmon?” The answer is pretty straightforward: remove dams, stop industrial logging, stop industrial fishing, stop the murder of the oceans, stop global warming. But of course, what they’re really asking is, “How can we save salmon without removing dams, without stopping industrial logging, without stopping industrial fishing, without stopping the murder of the oceans, without stopping stopping global warming?” The answer: you can’t.
It is the same with White Ribbon: “How can we end male violence without giving up our masculinity?” The answer: you can’t. Harris, too, in his discussions of sexual violence, tries hard to redeem “masculinity” as an identity, rather than challenging it. He discusses “masculinities” in which men are “emotional”, “passionate” and “talk a lot” – but what these phrases describe are simply human qualities. They can be female, too, and there is no point in calling them “masculine”, unless what you really want to do is to cling to your masculinity – which is nothing but another word for the performance of male privilege and dominance.
Kathleen Barry made very clear in her book Unmaking War Remaking Men that masculinity and militarism are inextricable from one another. In one passage, she draws on the example of video games, used both to help desensitise military combatants and to promote military enlistment among young boys. But ever since the creation of patriarchy and its institutions of marriage, prostitution, and monotheistic religion, masculinity has always implied dominance; while femininity and its immobilising wardrobe, burqas, genital mutilation, curfews, domestic servitude and pay gap has always implied submission, subordination and enslavement. Masculinity does not only perpetuate but fetishises violence.
So have no doubt about it: those resisting male violence on the front lines, including its ecocidal manifestation, are women. While David Lange is often celebrated for pioneering New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance, it is women who lead him to the tryline. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese women started the Mushroom Club – a national organisation of women who had survived atomic holocaust, along with their affected children. Pacific women coined the term “jellyfish babies” to speak about the impact of nuclear radiation on their bodies and babies. Women like Gloria Gibbons fought hard to ban nuclear substances and American bases in the constitution of Belau, in Micronesia. The National Island Women’s Association in Tahiti demonstrated against the dumping of radioactive waste by blocking roads in the 1970s. Women in Fiji and Vanuatu spearheaded the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific, and in Britain, the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, a nuclear storage facility, ran from 1981 until 2000. In New Zealand, when Marilyn Waring crossed the floor in parliament on the issue of nuclear warships in 1984, she did so as a feminist.
All of the women who have lead the charge against ecocide have done so not only while being subjected to additional patriarchal, technological atrocities, like carcenogenic and sterilising birth control, but also while being pushed back by men alongside them. When we don’t discuss ecocide as inextricable from violence against women – by naming it male violence – we signal that we are prepared to fight this battle whilst allowing the women doing the gruntwork to continue fighting invisibly against sexual subjugation. We signal that we accept sidelining the rape epidemic facing fifty per cent of the world’s population.
Even from a strategic perspective, this is ludicrous. The issue of ecocide calls for all hands on deck, and it is obnoxious to call for “all hands on deck” while ignoring what half the world is up against. One in three women are victim to sexual violence, 200 million girls and women to female genital mutilation, over twenty million girls and women are sold into sexual servitude and forced labour worldwide, and entire countries – like Saudi Arabia – have become, in effect, women’s prisons. Kandapara brothel in Bangladesh is no less grim a sight than Freeport mine in West Papua: it is in a walled brothel district in which 1,500 girls and women “service” 3,500 clients per day. These are but a few issues women face. Female infanticide, acid attacks, a surrogacy trade, and the rapid incarceration of indigenous women are a few more. Anyone who does not want to incorporate the sexual subordination of girls and women into their understanding of what defines the “moral and political issue of our time” is in denial.
In Our Blood, Andrea Dworkin calls for women to reject our status as “helpmates” in political movements that do not address our interests, and to take women’s issues more seriously. “Any man who is your comrade,” she writes,
will know in his gut the indignity, the demeaning indignity, of systematic exclusion from the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Any man who is your true comrade will be committed to laying his body, his life, on the line so that you will be subjected to that indignity no longer. I ask you to look to your male comrades on the left, and to determine whether they have made that commitment to you. If they have not, then they do not take your lives seriously, and as long as you work for and with them, you do not take your lives seriously either.
For all the hot air expelled in the interest of women’s “empowerment”, it is true that many women – but especially the phallocentric left – do not take women’s issues seriously. Women, too, prefer palatable campaigns like the “pay gap”, to the idea of any concentrated and strategic resistance to male violence.
Further evidence that women’s liberation is not really taken seriously comes in the form of our complete insensitivity to the ways feminism is appropriated under capitalism. The left has an understanding of how capitalism interprets resistance struggle as a kind of market demand, absorbing it to spit back out Che Guevara t-shirts, organic fair trade branding and electric cars – the latter we call the “greening of capitalism”. Collectively, the left has no eye at all for the commodification of feminism, and that is because we still do not believe that the cause of women’s liberation is serious enough to warrant backlash. Waring herself was aware of this, so in economic terms, she explained: “men won’t easily give up a system in which half the world’s population works for next to nothing”.
Get it? That’s why we are now being sold pole dancing as empowerment, and even womanhood itself as a consumeable identity, purchasable from the same medical establishment that delivers carcenogenic birth control to Pacific sisters.
Many climate change activists support this backlash to feminism, this “feminism” appropriated – thereby condoning precisely the kind of male violence we need to end if we are to have a chance of tackling ecocide.
If you are a climate change activist, and not sure if you are guilty of this kind of hypocrisy, have a look at your narratives on science: because if there is one character a climate change campaigner cannot stand, it is a science denier. Supporters of mainstream, bastardised “feminism” are science deniers, now claiming that it is “white supremacist” to suggest that biological sex is real and unchangeable, because science is a product of white society. These same activists then promote lifelong dependence on the medical establishment for people supposedly “assigned” a wrong sex at birth by the ignorant doctors who populate that establishment. Think about these contradictions. At the same time, no supporter of transgenderism can offer any solid definition for what a woman or a “trans person” is. This paradigm is so muddled as to be quintessentially anti-science, and that should concern anybody who thinks that scientific analysis is critical to ending ecocide. Indeed, surgical gender reassignment and cross-sex hormone prescription constitute further technological, patriarchal assaults on life itself and the human animal.
The medical establishment has long been a vehicle for patriarchal violence, since the witch burnings of the Middle Ages. The father of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, infamously used black women in slavery to experiment on – without anaesthetic. It was the Nazi doctors who pioneered experimentation with surgical sex reassignment and the non-surgical sterilisation methods we see used on young New Zealanders today who are encouraged to identify as “transgender”. Carcenogenic birth control is still disseminated to women experimentally, including in the Pacific among populations already trying to recover from the impacts of nuclear testing. A worldview that puts more trust in the discipline of patriarchal gynecology, than in biology, is not to be trusted.
It should be evident by now that there is racism in our inability to recognise any problem in the way that white society is increasingly demonising the female body. When we in white society see the harm in an Arab man silencing a woman in the name of the Muslim notion of “honour”, but not in a white man silencing a woman in the name of the neoliberal notion of “identity”, that is a racist double standard. Yet the left continues to demonise female anatomy by banning “pussy hats” at Women’s Marches, and even the mention of women from discussions of midwifery, pregnancy, abortion and child birth (“men can get pregnant”, apparently). This demonisation of female anatomy is not new, and always has the same function: to suppress understandings among women of sex based oppression, and prevent solidarity and resistance. We need to get over ourselves: our demonisation of female anatomy is not better than the demonologists’, who fuelled the witch hunts; not better than that under sharia law; not better than that which saw Tatyana Mamonova exiled by the KGB for publishing Women and Russia. White, neoliberal patriarchy is not superior to any other kind, it worsens every other kind.
In sum: to claim that climate change is the definitive issue of our time is to avoid naming the perpetrators, and the issue that we can and do need to challenge and impact directly: male violence. Perhaps we do this out of investment in an egoistic narrative that allows us to be the “hero” of the story, as Greer might suggest, rather than implicated within it. Or perhaps we do this out of fear of what it means to truly confront the pervasive threat male dominance poses. In any case, we do not really have a choice. Climate change activists are always telling conservatives how there can be no economy without the environment – well, guess what, greenies. There will be no mass movement for the environment without the women leading it, without the world of women you have forgotten.