Mother Nature is once again the subject of the male gaze but this time the impact may be even more oppressive. This article expands the feminist concept of ‘male gaze’ towards nature and critiques geoengineering as being an inherently male/masculine technology that is a product of and a means to further capitalistic agenda.
Nature in its abundant and diverse creation is called ‘Mother Nature’: she produces, she consumes, she provides, she cares, she takes, she breathes and she even gets angry. The seamless and organic ecosystems alive in nature are often juxtaposed by the mechanical masculinity of capitalism and technology. Furthermore, as patriarchy has controlled women’s autonomy, movement and rights while also subjecting women to the male gaze. Capitalism too has subjected nature to its manipulative gaze and extracted the Earth to near-exhaustion and even, revolt. As the climate crisis looms large and capitalism scrambles to reinvent and sustain itself, Mother Nature is once again the subject of the male gaze but this time the impact may be even more oppressive. This article expands the feminist concept of ‘male gaze’ towards nature and critiques geoengineering as being an inherently male/masculine technology that is a product of and a means to further capitalistic agenda. While also analysing and exploring how binary roles of male and female extend to technology and nature dichotomy which has further gendered the world and development in a toxic way.
Enter the anthropocene: Where are women in the era of man-made impact?
According to scientists we have entered a new epoch - the Anthropocene - a geological age ushered in by human impact on Earth. Writer of The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Planet, Christian Schwagerl describes the era as such because, “Man has become the biggest influence on the biosphere”. More so than humans, ‘men’ have truly pushed the planet into a new era due to the systems of production and consumption created by them.
Man-made laws, policies, economies and societies – culture, have used nature as their canvas and colours to create the world as we know it today. This is not to say, that women do not play a pivotal and immense role in society, economy, culture and even the climate crisis, but it is to clarify that women’s work and roles have been historically subjugated or overlooked, often making them passive in culture rather than active creators. According to Sherry Beth Ortner, distinguished cultural anthropologist, “[Culture] at some level of awareness asserts itself to be not only distinct from but superior to nature, and that sense of distinctiveness and superiority rests precisely on the ability to transform – to “socialize” and “culturalize” – nature”. Ortner draws a parallel to men and culture, and women and nature, to illuminate the domination of men over women, capitalism over nature. These binary categorizations and antagonism of course have detrimental implications for everyone on the planet and the planet itself. There are no innate qualities of ‘men’ that make them crudely dominating as there is no innate female quality of subservience but rather the patriarchal and capitalistic culture of millennia has cemented a system that ruthlessly subjugates women and nature.
A history of capitalism and patriarchy
In the 1920s, capitalism and technology were drastically changing the everyday, mundane private home life, arguably “women’s realm” at the time. Refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and washing machines flooded markets in developed countries and women as keepers of home life, were of course, the target demographic. Women have also been the key consumer base of conspicuous consumption, particularly post World War I (1914-1918) as capitalism’s uptake relied on promoting the culture of abundance after the strenuous austerity of the war. It was a rather ingenious marketing ploy targeting women more than men as they were seen as the decorators of the world, the homemakers who would buy the products being manufactured by men. From ‘home-making’ to fashion and style, women became the predominant target market for capitalism’s commodities and their status in the private sphere cemented further. Going as far back as Aristotle, inherent ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ were linked to activity and passivity, respectively, and millennia later, such thought still sneakily pervades much of our culture.
“What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it” - Dorinda Outram
1920s economist Paul Nystrom, deemed the lifestyle changes allowed by the industrial age and technology as governed by a “philosophy of futility” and almost prophetically claimed that this increase in production/consumption would lead the world in to narcissistic and hedonistic desire, insatiable and unrelenting. This culture of abundance or perceived abundance powered the emerging middle class in countries all over the world and solidified capitalism as a world order like never before. Men established themselves as the active producers and women as the passive consumers. Ironically though, the leisure afforded to women by technology that made home duties and tasks faster, also increased women’s desire to enter the public sphere and working force. The women’s suffrage movement of the 18th and 19th Century also coincided with the Industrial Revolution, showing that while men tried to control women through the coupled entrenchment of patriarchy and capitalism and actively keep women as cultural outsiders, women still rallied to fight for rights and inclusivity.
How patriarchy reduces and exploits women and nature
Women’s unrecorded and unfathomable unpaid labour throughout history and cultures, has surely a big hand in the world’s ‘progress’ and upholding the status quo. However, the barriers of entry to women in leadership roles that exist even today, have kept women’s views and perspectives out of much of the dominant culture and world decision-making. Men have predominantly constructed world systems and manipulated nature systems to fit their capitalistic quest of increasing growth and consumption.
Like women, nature has also long been raw material used for technological and production progress without accountability. Ecofeminism is a worthwhile lens to explore the antagonistic relationship between nature and production, men and women, public and private, characteristic of today’s globalised and capitalist world order. Ecofeminism is an ecological movement and political theory that deconstructs the various forms of male domination in society. It intently studies the relationship between women and nature, employing the concept of gender to analyse the relationships between humans and the natural world.
Many ecofeminists argue that nature much like women has been infantalised, sanitised and subjugated by patriarchal capitalism in order to establish a status quo that prioritises men and growth. Even the universally accepted term, ‘Mother Nature’ which on the surface espouses power, strength and life-giving force; actually reduces women and nature to a singular common denominator — mother, pushing women and nature back in to a solely reproductive and passive role. According to environmental policy researcher, Sarah Milner-Barry, states that, “The idea that women and nature are inherently linked is a tacit acceptance of their mutual exploitation”. She posits that though “Mother Nature,” does denote spirituality and respect that indigenous populations still uphold but today the term represents “the twinned exploitation of all that patriarchal society considers to be inferior to men”. She likens the dichotomy of nature as “savior or destroyer” to the “Madonna/whore complex” and states that this kind of reduction of complex phenomena to simplistic binaries is what needs to challenged.
As the climate crisis is manifesting itself more each day, this savior/destroyer binary is indeed more prevalent in media and everyday language. We acknowledge Mother Nature as a saviour when she provides but also as a destroyer when she is wrathful. However, such language is again problematic as now that we are living in an age undeniably marred by human impact, humans are indeed the destroyers of “Mother Nature” but the patriarchal belief is that technology can be the saviour of the planet.
Geoengineering: A patriarchal fallacy to save ‘business as usual’
Surprisingly, what is even more disconcerting than the realisation that man-made systems have made devastating changes to the Earth, is man’s ultimate hubris - that he can be the saviour of the very destruction he has created. None more evident than the discussions and plans surrounding geoengineering. Geoengineering is the belief that technology can “solve” the Earth’s climate crisis by manipulating Earth systems, as such it is the ultimate ‘techno-fix’ on a planetary level, unprecedented in its scale, ambition and possible consequences. It aims to manipulate earth’s climate systems by artificially changing oceans, soils and the atmosphere. The geoengineering technologies that are gaining most momentum and traction are centred around:
- Reflecting sunlight back into space by significantly changing the Earth’s surface (Solar Radiation Management - SRM)
- Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it and using it underground (Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage - BECCS as part of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR))
Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America Director at the ETC Group has deemed geoengineering as a climate crisis “Trojan horse," posturing as a necessary and logical solution to the climate crisis. Ribeiro speaks to a geoengineering project in particular, Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) in the US – which falls under the Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and seems to be swiftly moving forward. This entails a Stratospheric Aerosol Injection where even the word, “injection” brings to mind phallic images of penetration.
Other technological approaches also beckon back to male sexuality and power dynamics, such as that of “cloud seeding” which is a type of weather modification that aims to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation and used to increase precipitation (rain or snow), but hail and fog suppression are also widely practised in airports where harsh weather conditions are experienced. However, “despite decades of cloud seeding operations, proof that the technique works outside miniaturized clouds created in the lab has been elusive” (Chen, ScienceMag).
Projects like SCoPEx are being funded and lobbied by the Fossil Fuel industry so that they can continue with unfettered depletion and extraction of “Mother Nature” as they believe they can again manipulate nature to bring an equilibrium. That man can control the delicate balance inherent in nature through cold techno-fixes, is perhaps patriarchy’s most dangerous and laughable belief.
In Carolyn Merchant’s, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, she demonstrates that until the rise of capitalism, the Earth was held in high esteem and reverence as a living mother, ”The earth was alive and considered to be a beneficent, receptive, nurturing female" (p.28). She also views 16th Century’s progress towards mining for minerals as a pivotal point where nature went from being revered and treasured to being used and striped for parts. Mining, an act of penetration of the Earth is viewed by Merchant and by many ecofeminists as “raping of the Earth”. Similarly, geo-engineer’s techno-fix has moved from penetrating nature’s soils to its skies. SCoPEx intends to use sulfate aerosols that can “increase in sulfate deposition on terrestrial ecosystems by assuming the upper limit of hydration of all sulfate aerosols into sulfuric acid” (Kravitz, 2009) and negatively impact most ecosystems. If multiple SRM schemes like SCoPEx are deployed they could further deplete the ozone layer, unequivocally and irreversibly changing the sky and endangering the thin layer that keeps life on Earth functional and possible.
Despite the disastrous technical ramifications of this massive intervention on the nature system, the social, and geopolitical implications are far more threatening. “If deployed at scale, SRM could disrupt the monsoons in Asia and cause droughts in Africa, affecting the food and water supplies of two billion people," warns Ribeiro. Blatant lack or care for how geoengineering will impact the Global South disproportionately and the conspicuous absence of these countries in talks and policies around geoengineering is reminiscent of women’s absence in decision-making throughout human history. From an intersectional lens, women from developing countries will be the hardest hit by climate change and the implications of geoengineering.
It is disconcerting if not surprising that the “business as usual” ethos that drove capitalistic agenda is still at work. It stands that if men have predominantly created the culture responsible for the Anthropocene that they will also be the designers and engineers of the ‘solutions’ but there is a continuation of manipulation, rather than redressing growth systems.
The ‘male gaze’ extends beyond men's view and perception of women in society as objects rather than complex human beings to nature as well. Men conflate nature and women and thus the male gaze extends to nature.The planet is a thing that can be dismantled piecemeal and reassembled just as women have been disassembled to body parts and their autonomy striped away to be returned, broken and disjointed, lacking autonomy.
Capitalism’s unshakeable male-gaze on nature
Freud's conception of masculine scopophilia entailed the perception of seeing other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze and can be referred to man’s controlling gaze towards nature as well. Just as the male gaze curtailing women’s space and autonomy is not only voyeuristic but invasive, so is man’s view of the world. Mother Nature is either pristine, mysterious, beautiful and nurturing — an aesthetic, or whittled down to mere use value. Karl Marx described the value of a commodity as its use value, a product's utility in satisfying needs and wants as afforded by its material properties. In such, the same male gaze is being used in the techno-fixes aiming to redeem man-made damage. The unflinching belief in technology to fix the problems it has created keeps a steely eye on nature’s use value as well.
Ecologist Morgan Robertson, in his 2006 essay, noted that, “The nature that capital can see” is what will result in valuation of nature in a true sense via an economic context. The idea that capitalism’s male gaze fails to view nature above its use value is at the core of its myopia. While on one hand, the green economy is trying to re-think “business as usual” and monetise natural capital; on the other hand, geoengineering is attempting to re-haul nature’s systems. How are these two climate crisis ‘innovations’ to work in tandem? One solution, surely cancels out the other, which makes climate talks worldwide seem like nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Not only does geoengineering stem from an overwhelmingly patriarchal universalism and status quo but, even more than in traditional engineering, women are few and far in geoengineering as a field and a lack of feminist perspectives in geoengineering and other fields of technology development is still the norm. While cohesive research and reporting on women’s participation are absent, the two most recent influential reports on geoengineering by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center, state that women account for just 16 per cent in these reports’ panels. An even more telling measure is to read academic papers, watch climate changes talks or scour the internet for discussions on geoengineering, it becomes sharply obvious that women are in fact not much included.
Scientists warn that geoengineering may even lead to a world war as countries will be impacted unevenly and the large-scale resources needed for geoengineering cannot possibly be provided in a non-exploitive, democratic way. According to Fuel To Fire, research carried out by Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), “Confronting the challenge of climate change is not a matter of future technology, but present political will and economic investment". Unfortunately, so far powerful business groups are calling the shots.
Despite geoengineering’s incalculable risks, due to the powerful governmental, military and business lobbies behind it, it seems well on its way. Even more troubling is that geoengineering has created additional tools for climate deniers and provided an excuse to this, already powerful, triad to go on ‘business as usual’ and let patriarchal capitalism run amok.
However, all is not lost, we are after all in the Anthropocene where human impact is increasingly powerful and women are surely becoming more active within our culture. This is not to say that there aren’t women geo-engineers or capitalists - of course there are - but it is about changing our toxic masculine systems. We must start at the very basic level by giving men and women an equal chance to colour the world. The human race is at a crossroads and while the challenges are difficult to overcome, the possibilities are also unlimited. Christian Schwagerl argues that in the Anthropocene the, “World we can no longer speak of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ as two separate spheres. Rainforests will no longer exist just because they have always existed, but because people want them to exist…The task for the 21st century and beyond is to reclaim, regenerate and transform these landscapes”. In a world where women are gaining more equality and there is mass realisation that the old systems have failed garnering sustainability and equality, there is indeed hope that a new culture, a new relationship can emerge with and within nature. The anthropomorphized nature will no longer just be seen as feminine, passive or mother, but a collective, complex, gender fluid life-giving force once again respected and revered by all.
First published by HBS