A present day ship breaker in Bangladesh

A present day ship breaker in Bangladesh

The conversation with Root Simple’s Kelly Coyne and Erik Knuteson continues. Some Peak Oil-aware thinkers envision a reversion to earlier cultural norms and traditional gender roles after the end of the fossil fuel bonanza. Neither Erik nor Kelly believe that will be the case, and KMO makes reference to the world depicted in the cli fi YA novel, Ship Breaker as an illustration of a 22nd Century world in which the fossil fuel era is over, climate change and rising seas place a constant stress on human civilization, people are living under dreadfully harsh conditions, and yet men and women have not returned to “traditional” gender roles.

  • PermieChris

    Hello KMO,

    I was just listening to C-Realm Vault episode 93 on my way to work this morning, and your discussion with Erik Knutsen and Kelly Coyne regarding the role of gender roles/relations in “Communities that Abide” took my thinking in several directions. I hope that all of what I’m about to write comes across in a coherent manner, as I’m trying to tie together several different threads of thought here and it has the potential to go off the rails. So, here goes….

    First, I’ve followed Dmitry Orlov’s blog postings regarding “Communities that Abide” over the past year-plus. I have studied history at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and any time I come across a survey that actually ties into how things actually have happened historically as opposed to how we would like them to happen, it tends to
    resonate pretty deeply with me. Dmitry’s thoughts on this subject certainly fit that bill. While Kelly was clear to point out that most of her objections to the discussion did not have anything to do with Dmitry’s presentation per se, I still think that there are some pretty deeply held preconceived notions on this issue on “both” sides of the fence that tend to cloud any attempt to discuss it.

    As I was not present at the gathering, I cannot comment directly on any of the statements made there to which Kelly, Erik and others took offense as being “chauvinistic”. However, there was one word that Kelly mentioned that jumped out to me as a flashing red light in your discussion. That word is: PROGRESS.

    On New Year’s Day 2014, Illargi posted a piece on The Automatic Earth titled, “Everything Better is Purchased at the Price of Something Worse”. When I heard Kelly use the term “progress” in defining the change in gender roles and relations during the modern era, my mind almost immediately snapped back to the title of this piece, along with my study over the past 10+ years of the transition from traditional to modern society. This view was brought into greater focus by Kelly’s self-identification as a “lefty” during your conversation, as I had my own travels in left-wing political circles throughout my late 20s through mid-30s – although I’ve largely shed that identity-on-my-sleeve in the years since, even if some of those ideas still hold sway over my overall perspective on things.

    One thing that was missing from Kelly and Erik’s view, in my opinion, was the exploration of the “worse” side of achieving some form of gender equality in modern society. This is easy to do when you categorize the other side of more traditional gender roles as a form of outright tyranny, where if you are a woman you are told what
    you can and cannot do by your male counterparts. In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that these kinds of things did not happen, because in my own study of history I know that they did, but overall I think that focusing only on that tends to oversimplify the issue. One glaring aspect of the “worse” side of gender equality, I believe, is the shattering of the “glass ceiling” within the political and corporate realms for women. Women are now able to become top-level corporate executives, CEOs, and hold political positions that wield a tremendous amount of power and influence.

    But when they achieve these positions, is the outcome any different from when men hold those positions of power? Female CEOs such as Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman have proven that they can cut jobs in order to boost stock prices with the same single-minded ruthlessness as their male counterparts. Female political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright demonstrated their ability to be just as hawkish and willing to wield military brute force in order to project power as any man out there.

    Now, contrast these “achievements” of these modern women with those of a towering figure in the 19th century feminist movement, Julia Ward Howe when she issued her Mothers’ Day Proclamation in 1870. Howe lived in a time where women (and men, for that matter) were expected to fulfil defined gender roles, and those roles were often used as justification by men for the subjugation of women. However, Howe did not want for women to gain a greater voice in the affairs of society-at-large by showing their ability to out-man the men. Rather, she fought to raise up the classically feminine virtue of compassion by calling on all mothers to refuse to send their sons to war.

    Can we really see any of the more prominent women in society, such as those I mentioned above, today doing such a thing? Could it be that the “progress” seen by many in this area – especially by those who self-identify on the left-leaning side of things – is really just a mirage where women are now able to compete with men in public arenas, but only according to the rules that were made by men? Could it be that in permitting some women the opportunity to achieve these positions of power and influence, we have all paid the price in the diminishment of those very attributes that once helped to define women under more set gender roles?

    Perhaps groups such as the Amish have something to teach us here, as well. I spent the first 24 years of my life in Pennsylvania, so I have some experience with them. And from what I have seen, although they live in a society that maintains strict gender roles, by and large the people of their society seem to be pretty well-adjusted and happy. Certainly more so than the aggregate of modern society, with our prevalent use of pharmaceuticals to treat “mood disorders” and high levels of clinical depression. While I’m certain that there are households and even communities where these roles are used as a tool to subjugate women, I think that on the whole they provide a level of social cohesion and assignment of responsibilities within the society as opposed to individual rights that
    genuinely help those people to “abide”.

    None of this is an easy enigma to unpack. I’ve written enough about it here for right now, and I’m sure that if I come back and read it after some time has passed, I’ll have much more to add and reconsider of what I just wrote. However, I do thank you for daring to tread into these potentially divisive topics, and hope that people do actively try to consider all sides of an issue such as this and allow their opinions to develop and change over time through respectful dialog and meaningful exchange, resisting the urge to slide into the comfort of a familiar ideology that only serves to reinforce our own pre-conceived beliefs while diminishing those who see things different from us (myself included).

    • Cloudwalking Owl

      I understand where you are coming from, but I think I would respectfully disagree. I think that if you want to measure the progress of women, we should be looking at the bottom of the pyramid instead of the top. Are the lives of working class and poor women better? Well, for one thing, women have a lot more options to live their lives other than being married or being a prostitute—-which is pretty much all that many of them had in years gone bye.

      As for the Amish, I grew up with them. They babysat me when I was really young and I can remember working our fields with a tractor while a horse and team worked over the fence row, they cut wood in our sugar bush and we hired them to do carpentry work too. Two things to remember, first of all, they enforce their rules with brutal efficiency. If you leave their community, they have a funeral for you and you are dead. Secondly, about half of their children leave. This is masked by their high birth rate. I dare say that just about any community would look pretty good if all the unhappy, rebellious children left it and never came back!

      As for women’s role, one of our friends once told us about their Amish neighbour coming over to borrow the phone to call the doctor because his wife was having her 13th baby. He asked if she could finish milking the cows first.

      I grew up in a very old-fashioned rural community. It’s true that women had a lot of power, as it was darn near impossible for a man to survive as a bachelor farmer. But it was the women who were most intelligent, creative, independent, and energetic who suffered the most from these systems. Those are the women that Iove, so I don’t think I could enjoy living in a society that had no place for them.

  • Sam

    Regarding gender roles in the world of Ship Breakers, I thought Olga’s critique was well put. There’s more to gendered exploitation than rigidly-enforced gender specialization. That issue stays in the background of the story for a few reasons: The main characters are children, the author is trying to avoid being too explicit or gruesome, and the overwhelming capitalist exploitation faced by pretty much everyone kind of drowns out more subtle forms of exploitation.

    On that last point, rigidly-enforced gender specialization is a pretty expensive form of sexism. It means at least in some cases people will have to pass up doing what they’re most effective at in favor of doing something socially acceptable. In the book’s community, the adults often have no option other than to do the most intensive work they can manage, the same goes for children as soon as they’re old enough to contribute economically, there’s not much of a domestic life, there are a lot of single parents, and there’s very little in the way of communal child-rearing.

    In World Made By Hand, by contrast, Union Grove is still managing to be a vaguely middle-class community (though probably only by mid-1800s standards, but they still have something approximating what present-day Americans might think of as “middle-class values”). Now that I think about it, that book also has a community of scavengers and gangsters who exploit the scavengers. I’d have to refresh my memory, but at the very least I don’t think the residents of Karptown had seen the same re-adoption of (the “genteel” version of) “traditional gender roles” that the residents of Union Grove experienced. But “egalitarian” isn’t nearly the right description for that, either.

    (It’s not clear whether the upper-class “swanks” in Ship Breakers have more rigid gender roles. Certainly it seems like Nita had a lot of freedom, but she’s from the rich among the rich, and also still a child so maybe when she grows up she’ll be expected to be the dutiful subordinate in some business-family-empire arranged marriage or something.)

    • KMO

      The captain of the Pole Star, that fearsome warship, was a woman.

      Jim Kunstler’s World Made By Hand books take place in the very near future (if not the present). All of the adults remember the pre-collapse world. Some of them remember the world of single income, middle-class, nuclear families. Ship Breaker takes place in the 22nd Century. I did not say it was an egalitarian world, much less a feminist paradise. Kelly said that the future would not look like the past, and I offered Ship Breaker as an example of a future in which the hardships of energy depletion and climate chaos put great pressure on human societies but where the “traditional’ gender roles of most every pre-patroleum society in history have not reasserted themselves.

      Olga had not heard my conversation with Kelly and Erik, nor even more than a few seconds of what I was saying in my afterword. If she had, I expect that she would have agreed with Kelly’s point which I was supporting with the example from Ship Breaker.

      • Sam

        There was a rather long gap between my listening to the podcast and actually getting around to writing this comment, so sorry if my memory is making a hash of things.

        I agree with your larger point about the future not being like the past. But when I was listening to that afterward, I thought you were eliding over some interesting details about the book’s setting in making your point, so I was glad that Olga had something to say about those details.