Christopher Hitchens, in his critique of Mother Teresa, articulated a phrase that’s been running through my mind a lot recently. The full quote runs like this:
“MT [Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
But it’s that last clause that concerns me today, in our climatically-transforming world.
We are finally beginning to take planetary climate change seriously — not seriously enough, but we’re at least looking in that direction, anyway.
Notice, however, that when it comes to preparing for the shitstorm on the horizon, our collective responses have all been along the lines of, “we’ve got to strengthen our grid so the power won’t go out,” or “there needs to be more diversity in our food grid so we’ll have less danger of crop failure,” or “medical systems need to be more robust to cope with disasters and the migration of disease-carrying pests.” You know the drill; among reasonably forward-thinking science-aware people there is plenty of thought about the physical impacts of climate change on the physical aspects of our civilization.
I must say, I sometimes wonder whether those physical aspects really represent the parts of our civilization worth saving. We’ve created a technological society which has made possible the survival of far more humans than the Earth can reasonably support; why this a good thing?
As a bleeding-heart liberal who weeps at the slightest hint of any sentient being’s misery, I feel weird saying this, but it’s not a bad thing that humanity’s numbers are going to be drastically reduced by the consequences of climate change. We’re confronting an evolutionary bottleneck, and there’s no way all seven billion of us are going to fit through that narrow opening.
I’m less concerned about the physical manifestations of our civilization than I am about the “cultural infrastructure” which we have developed over many thousands of years.
This gradually evolving and self-transforming cultural infrastructure is why we (not always, but more and more often) resort to diplomacy instead of wars.
It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) no longer regard slavery as a viable economic strategy.
It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) are more and more prepared to recognize the notion of the common good in our thinking about society.
It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) don’t just think of our children as a source of free labor.
It’s why (not always, but more and more often) xenophobia is diminishing.
It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) are learning to reject simple classifications of gender and sexuality.
And it’s why we (not always, but more and more often) have accepted the notion that women are fully human beings.
International understanding, human rights, environmentalism, children’s rights, gender equity, and feminism are part of the cultural infrastructure which humanity has developed over many thousands of years of pretty easy living — made possible by a stable climate, a robust agricultural system, and a rapidly developing technological society.
What happens to all this when we face the all-but-certain evolutionary bottleneck?
We’re getting a picture of what’s going to happen to our physical infrastructure as climate change gets more severe, and it’s not pretty. Just look at the Philippines right now, in the wake of the biggest storm anyone’s ever seen. Coastal cultures are going to get hammered; lots of property damage, lots of refugees, lots of death and misery. Look at farmlands under the strain of massive drought; more hunger, more deprivation.
But relatively little thought is given to the impact climate change is going to have on our cultural infrastructure.
Diplomatic mechanisms can be strengthened, as I suggested in this paragraph in a letter I got published in the Pakistani paper Dawn:
Analysts predict that as water shortages intensify and agriculture becomes less predictable and productive, climate change’s strategic impact will include bitter resource wars, a catastrophic development. While morality demands that industrialized nations take immediate steps to reduce atmospheric carbon output, it’s equally imperative that the countries currently suffering the most from this human-caused destabilization strengthen their infrastructure to prepare for times of shortage and privation, while reinforcing diplomatic and cultural systems to ensure that the likely humanitarian crises can be peacefully resolved.
What does an ongoing extinction event and the concomitant drastic winnowing of humanity’s numbers have to do with feminism?
Here’s the last clause of that Hitchens quote again: “…a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
Which is why climate change is a feminist issue.
Feminism grew in our civilization as our population increased and our infant mortality decreased, allowing women’s lives to separate from the livestock model which may well have been a species-wide imperative at times when extinction threatened.
Yes, I want our species to survive.
Yes, I want humanity to reach the stars; to sing more beautiful songs; to solve the problems of interspecies communication; to create artificial intelligences; to accomplish all that we can.
We’re not going to do that if we’re struggling to pass on our genes in the face of howling climatic disorder and an ecological system gone mad. We’re just going to keep hunting for food while making babies and watching most of them die.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go back there.
We progressives have a variety of important social issues to organize around — but underpinning the notion of social progress is the critical role of an environment which does not actively threaten our survival as a species. Change the planetary ecosystem to one in which our struggle to perpetuate our DNA dominates our collective thinking, and many positive social developments could well be sacrificed in response to the short-term exigencies of existence. A stable climate has formed the stage upon which we’ve acted out our self-improvement.
What will we do when the old theater no longer stands? How can we keep the good we have created in ourselves?
I welcome your thoughts.
This article was cross-posted at Running Gamak, home of the Climate Letter Project.
UPDATED to include the following colloquy from the comments at my own blog. My friend Arthur had this to say:
Love your explanation about toxic mimics of dealing with problems (strengthening the grid, etc.). I agree entirely. This culture is one which stares itself blind on trying to adapt the world to maintaining civilisation, where we might at best try to work with the planet as well as we can within economical, political and social constraints (in that order), rather than adapting the culture to what is sustainable for the planet. The former is a dead end, the latter offers the chance of life.
But I’m more negative about some things than you are.
“This gradually evolving and self-transforming cultural infrastructure is why we (not always, but more and more often) resort to diplomacy instead of wars.”
Unfortunately the statistics counter this. There is more money spent on wars than ever; there are more deaths caused by war than ever; more and more nations find themselves at war (mostly with the US and allies).
“It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) no longer regard slavery as a viable economic strategy.”
Slavery is still around in the way we usually talk about, with chains, whips, and where they are property of other people, but in another way most people in civilised culture have become slaves. They aren’t property per sé, and are not housed and fed by their owners, but they receive a wage too high to starve on and too low to live on. Having to stay in a job pacifies the people, and being in debt enforces that even more. And entertainment of the lowest possible standard turns the people’s mind to mush when they do not have to work.
“It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) are more and more prepared to recognize the notion of the common good in our thinking about society.”
The common good is squandered more and more with each new day. Corporatism, although it is in collapse, is turning into a super nova, taking out as much as it can before its demise. The ultimate example: Fukushima possibly threatening to kill 3 billion within a month if the removal of spent fuel rods goes wrong (although some think most of those rods have already gone up in flames during the initial explosion), and the rest of the world when the lack of workers for the remaining 400+ nuclear plants means that their cores will all melt down uncontrolled.
“It’s why we (not always, but more and more often) don’t just think of our children as a source of free labor.”
In the ‘wealthy’ nations (ignoring their gigantic debts) children indeed have turned from sources of support/income for the family into financial burdens. That burden is only taken off the shoulders of the parents once they have been formed successfully into complient cogs in the machine, further adding to the demise of the planet.
“It’s why (not always, but more and more often) xenophobia is diminishing.”
The fear of everything that is different -most notably the natural world and our wild brothers and sisters of all species, but also other cultures (the gaping chasm between muslim and christians for example is growing wider and wider), is growing in many ways. The result is an ever intensifying war against nature and between different sub-cultures (all part of the conglomerate of industrial civilised cultures).
“And it’s why we (not always, but more and more often) have accepted the notion that women are fully human beings.”
I feel the feminist movement has been hijacked so that women should now strive to become financial and social predators just like men have always been pushed to be in civilised culture. This is not freedom; it’s making abusers out of the abused.
Movements are forming which do see things the right way, but they are generally more than countered by opposing developments. One day that balance may shift, but I have very little hope that it will happen in time. We need total revolution now. And if you ask me, to be sustainable it will have to be one where artificial intelligence has absolutely no place, because it depends on whole hordes of inherently unsustainable (socially and, more importantly, ecologically) practices.
Thanks Warren. I’m curious what you think.
Well, Arthur, I won’t argue with you that we have turned much of the world to shit.
I think your analysis is correct in the shorter term. But I have been working for many years in training myself to think in longer spans of time, and by comparison with the degree of violence in ordinary life a thousand years ago, we have made huge progress. Same with the degree of economic exploitation of others.
You and I are citizens of an economic superpower and have access to the perquisites of immense privilege. And yet we are part of a sizable group within our society that actively and loudly deplores our culture’s malfeasances and strives to rectify them. Such a group would never have existed among the privileged classes even a few centuries ago; our default conception of the world would have dehumanized those whom we exploited long before they even came to our attention in the first place.
Of course slavery still exists in multiple forms around the world. Of course the virus of consumerism and the tumors of corporatism are destroying us.
But…seen from the perspective of millennia, we have made great progress towards understanding one another, towards behaving better, towards resolving our conflicts peacefully (read Pinker’s book on violence; it’s a real eye-opener). This is the meaning of “cultural infrastructure.” Just as our physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, aquaducts, reservoirs, parklands, public spaces) makes our lives easier, our cultural infrastructure has made it less likely that we will die from violence or starvation, and more likely that we will have the mental balance and perspective necessary for compassionate action.
This cultural infrastructure is threatened by climate change…and it is imperative that we reinforce it to prepare for the coming storms. Our most effective tools are kindness, compassion, intelligence, and imagination; we must make all of these qualities stronger in ourselves and others.
PS: The gaping chasm between Muslims and Christians is another example of internecine quarrels between people who are in every other sense ideologically aligned. That’s not xenophobia; it’s sectarian squabbling between fellow Abrahamists about whether to wear beanies or berets.