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Can feminism teach us how to die?
On petromasculinity, energy blindness and heaven
Last week I interviewed Cara Daggett about “petromasculinity” and how this patriarchal understanding of energy impacts our relationship to it, ourselves and the fabric with which we bind society. Cara lays out the genealogy of energy back to the nineteenth-century science of thermodynamics to challenge the underlying logic that informs today’s uses of energy. She also explains how sexism manifests in our energy systems, how the concept of energy is weaponised by the oil industry, and the anxiety of entropy, exploring the emotional underpinnings of a linear society which is fearful of confronting its own impermanence.
I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss masculinity and femininity as polarised concepts of political organising and understanding (not as categories relating to males/females and men/women). In the episode, Cara highlights that there is no essential nature of the masculine and the feminine, that these concepts have no natural grounding. Yet, because we live in a politicised world, understanding the feminisation and the masculinisation of certain structures, constructs and ideologies can be very helpful.
The patriarchy gets a bad reputation—rightly so—and feminist scholars are the first to say that the patriarchy harms men as much as anyone else. I was thinking about this as I walked along a canal path the other day, a topic I return to often since my ayahuasca experience (which you can read in full here), because, during, I had a very powerful experience of femininity as Life and the unreserved power of the feminine. After my second dose in that ceremony, I became curious about the power of the masculine, what it brings alongside the life-giver, what eternal role it plays. The conclusion I came to in that ceremony was: love.
If the feminine was presented to me as this incredible life-force energy, then the masculine, borne from the feminine’s rib where the heart lies, is the power of love.
That realisation is hard to square in this violent world. A world in which masculinity is perceived as frightening, violent, domineering, controlling, extractive and exploitative. And on that canal path, it suddenly hit me that the masculinity expressed today must be inherently antithetical to whatever the true expression (and I use the word “true” lightly) must be. For if masculinity is an expression of something essential and expressed itself today in this essential, eternal, “natural” way, then we wouldn’t live in a world in the brink of disaster, full of hunger, inequality and suffering. The world, surely, would be well.
Instead, what we see today is a perverted masculinity or, to use Cara’s term, petromasculinity: amped up, revved up, artificially fuelled; artificially inseminated by an incredibly energy-dense fuel source.
Cara says that feminism has to move beyond binaries, has to move beyond either-or to reach both-and. This harmony of opposites, of duality, exists in Eastern philosophies, a well-known example being Yin and Yang. Yet still, differentiation persists: the feminine is the cycle, the cyclical; the masculine the hard, the linear. Certainly, we seem to be trapped in some linear race to the end of the world, and a linear race to the eternal, perhaps. I speak about this in my lecture, Making Sense of the Crisis, that from Plato’s philosophy of “absolute ideas” came this perception that the natural world is not where humanity belongs, that there is something eternal somewhere else, and that, thus, we should reach for that eternal place. From this, comes the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven.
Petromasculinity and capitalism extract the core from the earth furiously and thoughtlessly with no understanding that we only have one home and we cannot extract from it forever lest we destroy ourselves. Does this utter disregard for our biophysical limitations have roots in Plato’s assertion that we are not of nor for this world? And that this world must, therefore, come to an end?
How frightened we are of our own temporality. Sheldon Solomon’s research into death anxiety shows how it turns us into mindless consumers, afraid of one another. He says we have not yet learned how to die.
Perhaps feminism can teach us how to die.
During the episode, we talk about entropy—one of my favourite topics about which I understand very little. Entropy is the diffusion of energy, and a system with higher entropy means a system with more randomness, more chaos. This diffused energy cannot be accessed for what physicists and engineers call “useful work”; it is energy, decayed, into something else. A petromasculine view of energy wants to limit entropy, for what use is energy if it is not useful?
But utility and productivity are part of the limited vision petromasculinity has for the world and its citizens: forests become carbon credit resources, people become labourers. In a petromasculine world, only that which is productive and useful is valued; only that which is productive and useful is given space to exist.
How is it that we are so able to turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings done around the world? Is it that because of a low value ascribed to certain cultures or certain peoples, because they are only allowed into the global financial markets. through mechanisms of low-value added manufacturing? Because there are only allowed to take up spaces less valuable than the perceived value of those in other countries that have access to these fossil fuel economies and capital?
Are they perceived as less worth helping because they can do less useful work as we ascribe value? Even though that completely negates and undermines the fact that every biological organism simply is energy and cannot be valued as work?
Our obsession with productivity also feeds into this linear narrative of reaching for the eternal, that if we can just maximise productivity and efficiency, then we will reach....where? Where will we end up? Where are we going?
There is no end in sight because the world is not made of endings. The world is made of is-ness and within that is-ness, within that being, are many endings and beginnings.
The nature of the world is cyclical and the value of everything is not dependent on how much work it has to give.
Why is it that care and health and education are undervalued and feminised sectors of our economy?
Because they are less productive or useful than an app startup in Silicon valley?
Because the body of our elders slowly decaying, beautifully decaying, cannot be extracted from? And therefore the work that goes towards caring for them is de-legitimised within a capitalist framework?
In a linear narrative, everything that cannot be trapped must be pruned, and yet within a cyclical, heterogeneous, diverse, plural narrative the very many manifestations of all things are celebrated.
As we career into homogenisation—homogenisation that is putting the planet at risk, homogenisation puts people and culture at risk, puts the species with whom we share this world at risk, puts our relationship to ourselves at risk—in a lower entropy system with less randomness, less chaos, less possibility, blindly sweeping past all opportunity to get off this ride and diversify our approach; as we careen towards the eternal, it looks increasingly akin to an abyss. An abyss we would perhaps be happy to fall into if we understood there are no endings nor beginnings, only now.
But the desperation of the petromasculine to reach that eternal space—leave behind the natural world, leave behind the dependence on others—is fuelled by a massive gluttony for energy.
We are decimating the very bones that hold us together in the name of forever, when forever is not the expression of life stretched out thin, but the multitude of all lives interrelating at every moment.
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