How the Oil Spill Affects our Perception of Women and Water

Over a month ago BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, killing 11 people and beginning a month long flow of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Responses to the disaster were slow at best, with BP’s solutions never succeeding in capping the flow of oil into the ocean.  The result is that people all along the coast of the Gulf who are dependent on the Gulf for food or livelihood are losing out, and the wildlife population that exists in the Gulf is hurt by the crude oil.

For myself, and for many other I’m sure, the outrage at this spill comes primarily from the inability to act and the inability to connect this oil spill with the dangers of both depending on oil reserves and dumping things into the ocean.  The apathetic attitude of people toward the dumping of gallons of crude oil into the ocean is the most alarming part of the disaster.  In my last post, I talked about some of the connections between women and water.  This oil spill displays more of those characteristics.

Before discussing the implication of the oil spill on gender, I should first discuss a little bit about the feminizing of the ocean itself.  The ocean or the sea is referred to as a ‘she,’ like when the sea is referred to as a mistress to sailors, or when religions include a goddess of the sea.

This connection is not so far out of the blue.  The characteristics attached to the sea are often ones similar to those attached to women.  The sea in many religions is considered to be a birthplace of life – similar to viewing women as life-givers.  The ocean is often perceived as having a calming effect – similar to the idea of a mother’s comfort.  And finally, the ocean is said to have a fury and a power that is hidden and to be feared – ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,’ or a fear of women’s power.

Secondly, there is a belief that the ocean has a religious power of sorts to wash away all sins  — the sea can contain or take all that we do to it.  A group of people in Denmark decided to thank the ocean by sinking a huge metal statue filled with bread in the ocean as a sacrifice.  In order to thank the ocean, they had to literally dump more problems into it.  This is similar to how we talk about women, especially women in developing countries or those who have just been through a trauma of sorts – we comment on how strong they are, and how wonderful that they can take so much.

Water is a resource that is essential for all forms of life, yet we privatize it and sell it for immense profits.  The documentary FLOW discusses not only the effects of privatization on water but the similarities between the so-called ‘water industry’ and the oil industry – mainly that both are driving prices up at the expense of people who can’t afford it and the profit of those who don’t need the money.

So what does this mean for the oil spill in the Gulf? The spill happened in the ocean – a ‘feminine’ body of nature.  As such, it can take all that we do to it – like the ideal strong woman who can ‘take’ all that life throws at her.  The ocean can take the gallons of crude oil that are rushing into the waters destroying marine life and coming closer and closer to shore (in fact, it has already hit some islands off the coast of Alabama).  I believe that the driving force behind the fact that BP executives are so slow to act is that they believe that the ocean can take this abuse.  BP CEO Tony Hayward was quoted as saying “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

The sea is tied to feminine ideas, or the feminine principle as Vandana Shiva puts it.  When something is so closely tied to femininity, it is not immune from the reach of patriarchy, in particular the idea of control over the ocean’s resources (which include the crude oil beneath the ocean’s surface).  Not only can the ocean take all that we do to it, but it also is there to be controlled and manipulated by us as humans.  Moreover, the people running BP are predominantly men, making it a situation where men are controlling/manipulating the feminine for their own profit and use.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf is a disaster in so many ways, but it does give us a clear picture of the value that we place on our oceans, and by extension on women.  Perhaps the reason why there is less outrage from the general population about the oil spill is that we don’t place enough value on it – it is expendable in the name of profit, much like the patriarchal view of women.

 

(Image Credit: Flow)

Women’s survival economies and the questions of value

In Cape Town, South Africa, women are growing community urban gardens to sustain themselves, their families, and their communities in the face of food vulnerability. As one woman says, “I had no choice. I had to start farming because I had no money to buy vegetables from the shops. I also realized that if we farmed as a group, we would have more than enough food to eat and that we could generate an income from selling the rest.” Some of this produce grown in the gardens is sold but much of it is used to feed families and add nutrition to family’s diets. These gardens are, in part, a response to the current global food crisis but they’re also part of particular ongoing legacies of racism and apartheid where rural populations were moved to cities.

Maria Suarez, a Costa Rican journalist, who gave a talk in Washington, DC with Just Associates on January 26th, calls rain harvesting and urban community gardens “survival economies” or “care economies” where women improvise, share, generate, develop relationships, draw upon old and new knowledge, to sustain themselves and their families. Women create survival economies in the face of increasing economic inequality and impoverishment and food insecurity. Survival economies are built on women’s relationships with each other, within communities, and are tied, but not directly, to formal economy or formal market systems. Home gardens and rainwater collection does not receive a wage but rather goes directly to women and their families and members of the community. A better term might be women’s survival economies: alternative economic systems where women create ways to survive that are not directly part of market economies in response to pressures from neoliberalism.

The urban gardens are a response to local and global food crisis but they’re created from women’s shared knowledge, and shared labor to make and create their own lives, their family’s and community’s lives, outside of the market economy. In response to Suarez’s talk, someone in the audience asked her how we might find alternative models to the market economy which, in the neoliberal era, has impoverished women and their families. Suarez responded that we need change the ways we see “value”. “Value”, she says, is when our work, or creativity, and our lives are turned into money. In a market economy, only things that can be turned into money are “valuable,” anything else (like household work or raising children, garden growing, or any work is that is unwaged) is not “valuable.” When our dominant economic and discursive models see “value” as just money or markets or waged labor, we don’t value (in the other meaning of value which is to find something worthwhile or meaningful) economic structures and relationships that women live by. In this context, we might also note with William Aal, Lucy Jarosz, and Carol Thompson that in the context of the global food crisis and the inefficiency of commercial production, “small-scale urban agriculture in the form of community gardening is becoming increasingly important in seasonal food supplies and local forms of food security.”

Aal, Jarosz, and Thompson also point out that in predominant analysis of the global food crisis, women’s voices are not sought out or valued. As they argue, “The barefoot woman bending over her cultivated genetic treasure is not ‘scientific’, even though such farmers have cultivated genetic biodiversity over thousands of years. These free gifts do not fit into the corporate logic behind commercial agriculture, where only profit can be an incentive, not curiosity nor sharing. Yet indigenous knowledge provides us with all our current food diversity and is the basis for 70 per cent of our current medicines. Americans, for example, need to know that every major food crop we use today was given to us by Native Americans. In contrast, commercial agriculture makes a profit by depleting the gene pool, the result of valuing only very specific traits” What would it mean to talk about how urban space is used in the context of the global food crisis and women in the same paragraph? What would it mean to value women’s knowledge, women’s ingenuity, women’s labor, and, women’s lives?

Activist and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva writes about women in India who over generations have developed knowledge of seed diversity. Shiva advocates an approach to the food crisis that values the experience and knowledge of women.  The values – the ethics that women live by and, also, the different relationships to survival, for themselves and for their families – that women have developed that are outside dominant language and mechanisms of market economy. The independence, creativity, and shared knowledge that women have are, Shiva says, something worth preserving. In response to corporate efforts to patent seed knowledge that women have developed in India, Shiva says: “We will never compromise on this great civilization, which has been based on the culture of sharing the abundance of the world and will continue to maintain this trend of sharing our biodiversity and knowledge. We will never allow your culture of impoverishment and greed to undermine our culture of abundance and sharing.”

 

(Photo Credit: CNN)