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We are destroying the joint

The world is definitely a mess, but women aren’t the ones to blame. AAP Image

Without really knowing what he was saying, Alan Jones was right – we are “destroying the joint”.

Any dispassionate assessment of the state of “the joint”, both the corner we occupy and the planet as a whole, shows that we are making one hell of a mess of it. Increasing consumption and a growing population are accelerating the depletion of our finite resources, including our precious soils. We are polluting our air, land and water, destroying our heritage places and our communities, producing drastic changes to our climate and pushing out other species at an alarming rate. Human distress and inequality are on the rise, despite our increased material wealth. And all the while, most of us seem to be cheerfully – even wilfully – oblivious to the state we’re in.

But the “we” is not women, it’s all of us. And as a matter of record, since most women have not, until recently, occupied significant positions of influence and power, we should be judged less culpable than men.

Given that women are still in a minority in board rooms and executive positions, as well as in politics, I think it’s pretty rich to blame women for the current state of affairs. It’s fair to say that the responsibility for the mess we’re in resides mainly with those who’ve historically made decisions about the way we manage our societies and economies – privileged, powerful, Western white males.

It’s true, however, that many women now in positions of power appear to share the view that the planet’s resources are inexhaustible and that the only serious policy objectives are those which promote economic growth and material acquisition, with little eye to the social and environmental costs.

This was not what women of my generation campaigned for. While we were caught up in a global push to redesign the roles of women and to challenge the many barriers to our full participation in Australian life, many of us we were also impatient with the broader values of our society. It was intrinsic to much of the early feminist debate, that in seeking equality, women were not looking to simply replicate the experience of men. Nor were we enthusiastic about embracing a capitalist ethic which regarded materialism, competition and selfishness as cardinal virtues. We did not think we could – or should – “have it all”.

It is no accident that at the same time as we were questioning the nature of our society and our place in it, we were also beginning to probe our relationship with the natural world and disputing some of the benefits of technology.

In the early 1960s, Rachel Carson released her ground-breaking book Silent Spring. Underpinning Carson’s approach was a strong rejection of consumerism; she placed spiritual values ahead of material ones. Her book was, as much as anything, an attack on the paradigm of material enrichment driven by scientific progress that was so central to post-war American – and Australian – culture. She also had a strong belief that the idea we can control nature is an arrogant one. Silent Spring is often credited with spawning the modern environment movement and has, as a result, been an object of scorn for those, then and now, who see the environment as a limitless sink.

At around the same time, Australian poet Judith Wright, deeply concerned about the increasing destruction of the natural environment and alarmed at the prospect of oil drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, helped found the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. Wright was very influential in the fledgling movement, encouraging a focus on educating Australians to embrace “a deeper kind of belonging”.

Later, Wright argued that the future of the planet depended on individuals developing a new relationship with nature which would require a “reassertion of the values of feeling against the economic and technological Gradgrinds of our time”.

While there has been a virtual revolution in women’s education and working lives since these women wrote; while our choices have multiplied and we are wealthier than we have ever been, deeper, nagging doubts remain about just how much women’s (and men’s) lives have really improved. I suspect more than a few women question whether some of the objectives we’ve been encouraged to embrace do really contribute to our wellbeing.

Does it actually improve the quality of our lives to spend endless hours at work, depriving ourselves of precious time with friends and family; time for leisure and creativity? Can we justify our ever-increasing consumption while others live in rank poverty and the world’s resources are being depleted at an alarming rate? Have we forgotten the warnings of prescient women like Carson and Wright? Are we paying too steep a price for our materialism?

Despite renewed questioning of our economic circumstances during the current global financial crisis, most of those in positions of influence still buy the orthodox line that there are no serious limits to our capacity to exploit the planet’s resources for our benefit; they ignore the reality that the economy is a sub-system of the environment. As eminent UK economist Partha Dasgupta acknowledged, “we economists see nature, when we see it at all, as a backdrop from which resources and services can be drawn in isolation … Accounting for nature, if it comes into the calculus at all, is usually an afterthought to the real business of ‘doing economics’.”

Increasingly, I find myself agreeing with the late historian Tony Judt that “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today”. In his book, Ill Fares the Land, Judt argued that we have come to make a virtue out of the pursuit of material goals to such an extent that “this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose”. He suggested that this pursuit is now firmly entrenched in an orthodoxy which judges achievement and public policy in exclusively economic, rather than moral, terms.

The result is that when we consider whether to support a particular development or initiative, we don’t ask whether it’s good or bad, whether it will help bring about a better society or a better world, but rather, how will it affect the economy, whether it is efficient, whether it will lead to increases in GDP and, if so, how much it will contribute to growth.

Most people do not appear to regard this as a problem; the equation of wellbeing with economic growth is taken as given and the identity of society with the economy as uncontentious. Indeed, they do not see any alternative to this construction; it is simply the way the world works. And the adverse consequences on us and our environment and our communities simply have to be borne.

And the price we pay for despoiling our environment and trashing our heritage is high. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are connected to and influenced by our social and physical environments, our cultural landscape. People typically have strong emotional bonds to places and the communities in them. There is a now a great deal of evidence that our wellbeing depends in large measure on our relationship with our environment – broadly conceived, the relationships we have with the people around us and the natural and built environment we inhabit; if this cultural environment is destroyed or degraded or if people are prevented from enjoying it, their health and wellbeing deteriorate.

At some level, people seem to understand this. Many people are uneasy about the fact that children today are growing up in a winner-takes-all economy where they are encouraged to see the main purpose in life as getting whatever they can for themselves. In popular culture, selfishness and materialism are no longer seen as moral problems, but as cardinal goals in life.

We are all so caught up in this consumption spiral that it may sometimes seem that there is no escaping it and no way of reshaping our economies, but the passionate advocacy of those indomitable women, Rachel Carson and Judith Wright and others like them, serves to remind us that change is possible.

And it is the dispositions that are more common among women that may be crucial in effecting this change. I’m not arguing that women are all virtue and no vice, or that no men share these characteristics, but we do know that women generally are more likely to see the need to protect the environment and to display more environmentally responsible behaviour. They are also more likely to exhibit strong attachments to place and to be less materialistic in a variety of settings. Women also generally show greater levels of cooperation and express greater empathy toward others. Psychological research also suggests that they are more altruistic.

Why attributes like these appear to be more common among women is debatable. Some have suggested that it is the gendered socialisation which is still typical in most societies that is responsible for the difference: females are socialised to have a stronger “ethic of care”, to be more compassionate, nurturing, cooperative and helpful; it is also argued that their roles as carers reinforce these values. Whatever the accuracy of these interpretations, it seems clear that if these virtues were more highly valued and cultivated in men and women alike, we might have some chance of pulling back from the brink; if not for ourselves then, surely, for our grandchildren.

We cannot ignore the fact that high and accelerating levels of economic growth are generating serious problems of resource insecurity, environmental degradation and social dislocation which produce distress and disease: there is a serious downside to growth. One of the reasons policy makers continue to be fixated on increasing growth as a pre-eminent objective in the face of these effects is that they believe there is no alternative. This represents a failure of the imagination by the political class, a refusal to take seriously and develop other possible models which have – somewhat tentatively – been proposed under the heading of steady state or no-growth economics.

Even Robert Solow, who won the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on growth theory, apparently now describes himself as “agnostic” on whether growth can continue and told Harper’s Magazine in March 2008 that, “There is no reason at all why capitalism could not survive without slow or even no growth. I think it’s perfectly possible that economic growth cannot go on at its current rate forever … There is nothing intrinsic in the system that says it cannot exist happily in a stationary state.”

It is surely time for these ideas to be taken seriously so that we – collectively – can stop “destroying the joint”.

This is an edited extract from “We Are Destroying the Joint” by Carmen Lawrence in Destroying the Joint: Why Women Have to Change the World, edited by Jane Caro, published by UQP.

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