Humanity and the war on nature
Patriarchy, climate change, and species extinction
“Climate change, for all its seriousness, is only a symptom. It is a symptom - one of many - of an entire system heading in the wrong direction”
(Kate Rawles, The Carbon Cycle, 2012)
Denial of reality rarely ends well. But it seems that we are not always consistent when choosing what aspects of reality to recognise. Many on the political left, for example, acknowledge the reality of climate breakdown, but reject biological reality. And many on the right may accept biological reality, but deny the reality of climate breakdown. Yet both human biology and climate stability are under threat, from a patriarchal system that doesn’t respect natural limits, but treats them as boundaries to be violated.
Climate stability, agriculture and the invasion of patriarchy
The 11,000 or so years since the end of the last Ice Age have been an era of remarkable climate stability. This climate stability provided the material base that enabled neolithic communities to develop agriculture and stable settlements.
Some of the most pertinent archaeological evidence comes from Çatalhöyük, a neolithic settlement in Southern Anatolia (Turkey). First settled around 7,400 BCE, the settlement lasted for more than a thousand years, with a population averaging around 8,000 at its peak. Whether or not the female figurines discovered there indicated that the inhabitants worshipped a Mother Goddess, as James Mellaart (the site’s original excavator) suggested, is not entirely clear. But what has become very clear from continued excavation is that the society was egalitarian, with no evidence of hierarchy. Men and women had equal social status. Wild oxen were hunted for ritual feasts, and shared between households, but most everyday food consumption seems to have come from agriculture, especially domesticated sheep, goats, wheat, barley, chick peas, lentils, almonds, and fruit. Typical diets were balanced, and general health was good.
Female control of fertility probably ensured that the population was stable, minimising adverse impacts on the natural surroundings of the settlement. Such control would have been exercised within a framework that emphasised the need to respect nature’s regenerative capacity. Heide Göttner-Abendroth has described, here, how matriarchal spirituality emphasised rebirth rather than fertility - in matriarchal communities “Everyone who ever died, woman or man, was physically reborn as a child, birthed by the women of her or his own clan, in her or his own tribal dwelling.”
It is sometimes argued, particularly in North America, that humanity’s war on nature began with the development of agriculture - that “agriculture is biotic cleansing…. The extirpation of living communities for a mono crop of humans.” (Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, & Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies, 2021). The authors go on to suggest that many societal ills and threats to nature sprang from agriculture’s ability to create a surplus above immediate subsistence needs. These by-products of agriculture included militarism (to protect food stores from theft), colonisation (to compensate for reduced crop yields as soil fertility was degraded), and slavery (to perform the backbreaking labour that was needed). They claim, too, that exploitation of natural resources and threats to other species were intensified, because the surpluses created by agriculture encouraged both population and inequality to grow.
There is more than a hint of technological determinism here, that can be traced back to the writings of Richard Manning, a journalist and hunting enthusiast. Manning is often quoted as a reliable source, but his understanding of history is, to put it politely, idiosyncratic. To take just one of many examples, he suggests, here (at 41 minutes in), that agriculture created inequality - “You go to an early agricultural community 5,000 years ago and there’s one very big house with granaries next to it and a bunch of huts around. It’s from the very beginning. From the very beginning” (his repetition). Inequality was certainly characteristic of agricultural communities 5,000 years ago, but this was not the “very beginning” of agriculture. Çatalhöyük was established over 9,000 years ago, and it was a remarkably egalitarian, yet predominantly agricultural, community, The key change in the intervening 4,000 years was not the technology, but who controlled the technology, and particularly who controlled fertility.
“As the agricultural ‘revolution’ (dated at about 7000BC) brought more experience of the animal and plant worlds, the accompanying expansion of consciousness was reflected in the expanded vocabulary as well as in an expanded concept of the Goddess. While continuing to be recognised in her more ancient forms, the bird and the snake, she was then believed to dwell in olives and barley, the cow and the pig…. Festivals of vegetation - edible roots, nuts, wild fruit-bearing trees - existed throughout the Middle East well before and into the agricultural revolution.”
(Andrée Collard with Joyce Contrucci, Rape of the Wild, 1988)
The change as it took place in Europe was highlighted by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. She interpreted evidence from burial mounds to suggest that Invading male Yamnaya (aka Kurgan) pastoralists destroyed neolithic and copper age civilisation in Europe some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, taking over copper age technology and applying it to completely different ends. They burned forests to create grazing land, and adapted metallurgy to produce not just agricultural tools but weapons. Instead of living sustainably on local resources, they used their weapons to seize resources from neighbouring communities. The communal stores of seasonal food crops and seeds that neolithic and copper age communities needed to sustain their agriculture were privatised, reinforcing hierarchy, inequality, and male domination.
“The Old European and Kurgan cultures were the antithesis of one another. The Old European were sedentary horticulturalists prone to live in large and planned townships. The absence of fortifications and weapons attests the peaceful coexistence of this egalitarian civilisation that was probably matrilinear and matrifocal. The Kurgan system was composed of patrilineal, socially stratified, herding units which lived in small villages or seasonal settlements while grazing animals over vast areas. ….Weapons are non existent in Old European imagery, whereas the dagger and battle-axe are dominant symbols of the Kurgans.”
(Marija Gimbutas, The first wave of European steppe pastoralists into Copper Age Europe, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Winter 1977, quoted in Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade,1987)
Gimbutas’ theory is supported by recent advances in DNA sequencing technology. DNA evidence from Iberia, analysed by geneticists Iñigo Olalde and David Reich, shows that subsequent populations contained genes from Yamnaya males and indigenous females, but not indigenous males - “the ancient DNA analysis reveals that essentially all the men have Y chromosomes characteristic of the Yamnaya, suggesting only Yamnaya men had children.” (Story of most murderous people of all time revealed in ancient DNA, New Scientist 27 Mar 2019)
How to explain this? It seems likely that the invading men exterminated the indigenous men and raped the indigenous women, to first establish their rule and then ensure its continuance. Male control of fertility probably then ensured that more children were born than local resources could sustain, stimulating armed conflict between different communities.
Patriarchy, male domination based on the right of fathers to control women’s reproductive capacity, gradually became institutionalised throughout Europe, and, via colonisation, eventually across almost the entire world. This fundamentally changed the relationship between humans and their natural environment, from one of respect to one of exploitation. Patriarchy is slowly destroying the life support system on which it depends. Climate stability is one of the many casualties of men using women and nature as a resource. Decline of non-human species and their habitats is another.
Man-made climate change
Before the end of the last ice age climate changes were entirely natural in origin, resulting from changes in the Earth's orbit, volcanic eruptions, etc. Since then, human impacts have come into play, by disrupting the natural carbon cycle (where the CO2 that is exhaled by plants, animals and microbes is balanced by what is buried as sediments on land and in the sea). We now understand that deforestation by humans significantly reduces carbon take-up. And that the burning of fossil fuels releases fossil carbon which has taken millennia to form into the atmosphere. Some of this is reabsorbed, but the rest remains in the atmosphere for centuries, forming a sort of blanket which causes global temperatures to rise (the 'greenhouse effect'), with multiple impacts on the climate.
The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies under patriarchal control marked the start of significant human influences on climate, due to forest clearing (which reduced carbon take-up) and the domestication of farm animals (which increased emissions of methane - an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2). But the effects were limited by a world population which, 6,000 years ago, probably numbered less than 70 million. Human impacts have increased since neolithic times as a result of population growth - world population reached 1 billion at the start of the nineteenth century, 4 billion in 1975, and 8 billion in 2022. Although population growth is slowing, total population could reach 10 billion by 2060.
The impact of population growths been magnified by massive growth since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the burning of fossil fuels to power both industrial growth and the transport systems needed to exploit resources on a global scale. Fossil fuel emissions, coupled with accelerated deforestation, have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 ppm (parts per million) in pre-industrial times to around 420 ppm currently. This is rising by about 2 ppm per year at present. Added to this, global temperatures have been intensified by the move away from a plant-based diet as incomes have risen (methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock farming, together with related carbon dioxide emissions from land use changes, now account for about 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions).
Tipping points and time lags
If the global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere were to stabilise at around 450 ppm (the level that would be reached within 15 years if current trends continue), the polar ice caps would eventually melt, raising sea levels by about 70 metres and inundating the land area where most urban civilisations are located. The time lags are considerable - almost half of the eventual temperature increase registers at the Earth's surface within 5 years, but the rest of the heat descends into the oceans, taking decades and centuries to return to the surface. The ice caps take even longer to melt. But these changes would be irreversible, at least within a time frame of millennia.
Disappearance of the polar ice caps is just one of many tipping points, some of which are much more immediate in their impacts. Melting Arctic sea ice, for example, is already reducing the albedo effect (the way snow and ice reflects the sun's energy back into space). And, as the permafrost melts in Siberia and Alaska, methane deposits buried in the ground are being released. These changes in the Arctic are already accelerating the global warming that results from a given level of carbon emissions. Before long, it is possible that increased release of meltwater from the Greenland icecap could slow the operation of an ocean current, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), to an extent that would cause temperatures in North West Europe to cool while the global average rises.
The atmosphere is only one part of the natural world that we are destroying. Forests, the soil, wetlands, oceans and wildlife are all under threat from human activity, a threat that has increased significantly with industrialisation and its corresponding population increases.
Extractive industry is largely to blame. Mining, for the fuels and raw materials that manufacturing industry and the consumption of manufactured products both require, has taken its toll. But agriculture, requiring more land to feed a growing population, has had an even bigger impact.
Agriculture, practised on a small scale, feeding a static population with a diversity of crops, can co-exist with wild nature. But when its surpluses are used to feed a growing population, its growing need for land encroaches on more and more of the habitats that wildlife needs for basic survival. The crops that are grown have become less diverse, and have required chemical inputs to boost fertility and to protect from pests and disease, further reducing biodiversity.
“The more land that farming occupies, the less is available for forests and wetlands, savannahs and wild grasslands, and the greater is the loss of wildlife and the rate of extinction. All farming, however kind and careful and complex, involves a radical simplification of natural ecosystems.”
(George Monbiot, Regenesis, 2022)
The Living Planet Index, a measure of studied animal populations, declined by 69% between 1970 and 2018. The index presents only a partial picture. It only counts vertebrate animals, its geographical coverage is limited, and the average masks very different rates of decline between different species. But the scale of the decline, in such a comparatively short period of time, is massive. It has been suggested that this could be the start of the sixth mass extinction, something that could probably be avoided only by a reduction in global population and/or a radical change in the food we consume and how it is produced.
The decline in the Living Planet Index is greatest in Latin America, where deforestation and the expansion of agriculture have been particularly marked in recent decades. Soy farming in South America, much of it exported to a global market to feed farm animals, now covers a greater area than Spain.
“Some indigenous people have been entirely dispossessed. Stunning ecosystems, especially the cerrado (savannah) of central Brazil, and the Gran Chaco forests in Paraguay and Argentina, the homes of maned wolves, giant anteaters, jaguars, tapirs and armadillos, have been swept from the Earth on an unimaginable scale. The farms look more like sea than land: gigantic fields, unmarked by any feature, stretch to the horizon.”
(George Monbiot, Regenesis,2022)
Coming next - could the ways we are choosing to slow climate change be hastening species extinction, and are there alternatives?