The Patriarchal Illusion of Control

Ruinous drive for power and control primarily masculine
February 1, 2014

The poster publicizing David Suzuki's 1985 television series A Planet for the Taking stated:

"We have long thought of ourselves as masters of the natural world, but now that drive to dominate and control is having dangerous consequences. Can we change the way we see our relationship with the other life forms on Earth?"

Now wait a minute. Does that description really apply to all of us? I suspect that most women, at least, find it hard to imagine ourselves as "masters" of very much, let alone masters of the natural world that we are all part of.

I am not quibbling. This is about a whole concept, not a coincidental choice of words. The "drive to dominate and control" is not a universal human characteristic. For millennia and across many cultures, domination and "power over" have been seen as inherently masculine, and celebrated as evidence of manhood. The drive for "power over" plays a central role in patriarchal societies – which ours still is – and it is unabashedly sex-linked. Man's "drive to dominate and control" has always been dangerous to women, children, other men, and other living things. But women have been ignored, ridiculed, and silenced, often brutally, for daring to point that out.

I'll come back to this gender aspect. But first I want to highlight a couple of other facts about this weird obsession with mastery and control.

First, although it is a major force in mainstream Canadian society and in the world at large, massive control of anything is an illusion. These days, its illusory nature is becoming more and more obvious as we watch the unravelling of a whole raft of schemes cooked up to control reality. Here at home, control-freak prime ministers and delusional mayors thrash about, entangled in the webs of their own manipulative lies. Internationally, Edward Snowdon and Wikileaks blast open the Internet and expose a whole world of state attempts at control. Globally, an unrelenting series of natural disasters bludgeon us into awareness that global climate change is in uncontrolled runaway mode. Add in oil spills on land and sea, the pesticide massacre of the world's bees, the mightiest military machines helpless to eliminate grassroots resistance... How can anyone still believe in ultimate control?

Secondly, though, the fact that control is an illusion doesn't make it any less dangerous. On the contrary. When this false concept is accepted as reality, crucial decisions about our lives and our planet are based on the drive for mastery, and we are all put in constant and ever-increasing danger.

The illusion of ultimate control lies invisibly behind the relentless grasping push of the "global economy" for more "growth," more power, more profits – regardless of the harm done to people and the environment. This all plays out across the globe in a multitude of ways and, not surprisingly, resistance to it is very often woman-led.

The special point I want to make here, however, is that this illusion of mastery and control is significantly and specifically a view of reality as men tend to experience it. No use of a false generic to attribute this sick compulsion to an all-embracing "us" can change the fact that, on balance, controlling the universe is a guy thing.

Of course, it's not all men who fall for this, nor is it only men. But any half-aware woman has to know that the notion that "we" can control nature is pretty ridiculous. On the most intimate personal level, our bodies remind us every month that we are not in charge. As Elizabeth Dodson Grey pointed out in her wise and beautiful book, Green Paradise Lost, women are inescapably subject to the rhythms of nature, and to nature's laws of cause and effect. Our bodily experience as females instills in us an awareness of natural limits, and a connection, conscious or unconscious, with the natural world and with future generations.

Even women who live free from oppressive male control are unlikely to imagine ourselves as totally separate or in charge. This gives women a kind of "head start" over men when it comes to crucial long-term questions of survival on Earth – a built-in awareness, a certain essential humility, that we can and must share, for the sake of our own species and others.

Progressive men and women generally understand the dimensions of domination that relate to class or culture, and nowadays the environmental movement seldom ignores the many ways in which racism and class oppression are intertwined with abuse of the Earth. But the gender dimension of environmental destruction is seldom acknowledged, even now. And it is every bit as important as the class and cultural aspects if we want to be effective in our work of resistance and change.

Historians tell us that mechanistic science, which gave rise to modern industrial society, was always very much a masculine enterprise. Right from the start, as physicist Brian Easlea has noted, modern science was filled with explicit and often sexual images of an all-powerful male mind conquering a female nature. Today, images like "Mother Nature" and "the rape of the Earth" continue to reflect the common gendered view of the natural world as female.

This linkage is fraught with danger to both women and nature. Just as patriarchy sees women as being there to serve men's needs, so does it see this planet, its resources, outer space, indeed the entire universe as existing for "man" to exploit at will.

Within this patriarchal mentality, powerful men are at liberty to use and abuse women and children, peasants and indigenous people, and nature itself, for their own short-term gain. This gendered entitlement is the common thread in the oppression of women, nature, and all those who somehow get identified as "other" – a definition which shifts according to the particular agendas of the powers-that-be. This socially-approved and supposedly universal "drive to dominate and control" leads inevitably to the devastation of the natural environment and the further exploitation of those who live most closely with it.

How many more typhoons and tornados and earthquakes is it going to take to drive that lesson home? But the control freaks carry on, poisoning Earth with pesticides, creating and selling genetically engineered seeds, exploiting the tar sands, building pipelines, drilling in deep offshore waters, fracking the ground beneath us.

The most obvious motivating element behind all this, of course, is greed. No disagreement there. But greed alone does not explain the overall pathology or the compulsive denial that keeps the deadly cycle going. Think about it: greed and control are so intimately entwined that in a sense they are two faces of the same thing. Greed is a grasping, not only for material riches themselves, but for the control – the power over others – that wealth confers. Control, in turn, offers multiple means for acquiring greater material enrichment, along with the psychological "highs" such power provides.

In recent years, we have seen the twin phenomena of greed and control increase exponentially under the illegitimate rule of the corporations and their allies in government. And our outrage follows the same growth curve.

As people challenge these manifestations of "man's" illusion of mastery, the all-too-predictable response, of course, is denial. "Don't worry; be happy," they tell us. "Trust us; we've got it all under control." Belief in the illusion persists. Those in its thrall continue to propound the will-o'-the-wisp idea that "science" or "man" will find or create a technical fix for any and all problems. In the face of mounting public doubt and distress, they dismiss the masses of alarming evidence as "junk science," denounce people like us as scare-mongers and enemies, and scramble to reinforce, however brutally, the control they do exert over laws and processes and policies.

Why, then, is it so important to acknowledge specifically the gender dimension of this disastrous "drive to dominate and control"? Because accurate analysis of root causes is a prerequisite for effective resistance and the creation of workable alternatives to the status quo. Women's voices, women's experience, feminist insights -- all are sorely needed if there is to be any hope of halting the current march to disaster.

The UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was supposed to launch a new era of environmental awareness and commitment by governments to halt environmental devastation. It failed; in fact, UNCED and its two follow-up conferences have led the world in the opposite direction.

Ana Isla of Brock University has analyzed UNCED's role in monetarizing and privatizing the commons, legitimizing the "property rights" agenda of the right wing and making "sustainable development" synonymous with "economic growth" as defined by the corporations. The concept of sustainability has been hijacked and turned into a Trojan horse to insert the tools of corporate domination into the heart of the UN's environmental structures.

At least in part, this has happened because UNCED was organized and followed up within a patriarchal framework that refused to question the basic assumption of ultimate "control." Like the "forest management plans" that try to govern entire wilderness ecosystems, and the "fisheries management" schemes that have led to the demise of cod and salmon fisheries on our coasts, UNCED's "sustainable development" premise was based on that same patriarchal illusion – the utterly crazy notion that "man" should be able to "manage" Earth and all its "resources" in such a way as to ensure the availability of those "resources" to future generations of "mankind."

Now there's a concept desperately in need of some "sober second thought" – and it has to happen now. The current global dialogue on our planetary emergency still has the potential to free us from the deadly patterns of the patriarchal past and shape a radically different and hopeful future. But a feminist analysis will have to be central to that re-thinking.

Everything is connected, as any ecologist, or any feminist, will confirm. To ignore or dismiss the connections between patriarchy and planetary destruction is a grave mistake, with consequences for us all. It cuts us off from a full understanding of the challenges and the potential for living on this blue-green planet of ours.

If we refuse to look at the connections between the forces of globalization and the attitudes and systems of patriarchy, we are left with only very partial truths, a very inadequate diagnosis of our ills and their causes. Without an accurate diagnosis, we can deal only with symptoms, and only superficially at that. When the patient is dying, we can no longer afford treatment for the wrong diagnosis.

(Helen Forsey's writing and activism address rural, constitutional, and feminist issues and the connections among them. This article is based on her panel presentation at the LeftWords Festival in Toronto on November 24, 2013.)