Maria Mediavilla: Feminism has gained a very strong following in Spain in recent years, as the massive feminist demonstrations of March 8th of 2018 and 2019 showed, and I would dare to say that much of its success is due to the popularity of the ecofeminist message and the slogan “put life at the center” . It is increasingly evident that we need a society in which economic growth and capital gains cease to be the main –and almost the sole– objective of economic policy (and of society itself). We need economic policies to be oriented towards the most important goal: the well-being of human life in equilibrium with the Planet.
In that sense, it is good news that feminist economics is developing and posing a radical critique of capitalism, since the economy is our metabolism; that is, our relationship with energy and matter. We cannot aspire to change society without changing this material base. However, as Amaia Pérez Orozco recognizes, feminist economics still lacks a clear political commitment and finds it difficult to translate its criticism into concrete economic measures that go beyond common policies to other sectors of the left.
From my point of view –which comes from systems dynamics and environmentalism rather than from feminism– one of the tools that can best help feminist economics articulate a coherent discourse is the pattern of collapse. The collapse is one of the basic patterns of growth and can be compared fairly closely with the behavior of the capitalist economy, since it reflects its tendency to expand and overexploit. Understanding this pattern is essential when it comes to defusing the collapsing drift that our society is taking and I believe that a large part of the measures that can be taken to deactivate this collapse pattern are, basically, ecofeminist measures. But, before talking about the relationship between ecofeminism and collapse, I would like to describe the collapse pattern itself.
The collapse pattern is based on the combination of three feedback loops that can be seen in the graph of Figure 1, where each arrow speaks of a cause-effect relationship between the variables it links. We speak of feedback loop when a closed chain of cause-effect relationships appears. This is popularly described as a whiting that bites its tail: a behavior that feeds itself.
In the collapse pattern, on the one hand, we have the exponential growth loop, which, in Figure 1, is represented by the blue arrows and is applied to the economy. The blue arrows go from the variable economic growth to the variable economic activity, which means that when there is more economic growth, the economic activity is higher (as is logical); but there is also a blue arrow in the opposite direction, indicating that the greater the economic activity, the greater its growth.
This is the usual behavior of systems whose growth is a percentage of itself, as capitalist economies, since it is assumed that GDP (economic activity) must grow a per cent per year for the economy to function properly. But growing at 2% or 3% means that growth is greater every year because it is a percentage of an amount that is also greater every year.
This type of exponential growth is very unstable, because it continually accelerates and becomes explosive when time advances. The capitalist economy is especially prone to grow in this way due to some of its characteristics (credit with interest, dynamics of competition, etc.) but it is not the only system that grows in this way. The exponential growth is very common in nature, since it is the habitual behavior of the populations of living beings when they find abundant food.
However, nothing can grow infinitely in the real world because all activity needs energy and materials, and both are limited. In ecosystems, we speak of the concept of carrying capacity (called in Figure 1, Capacity of the nourishing base), which we can define as the amount of food an ecosystem can provide in a sustainable manner. If, for example, we have a herd of herbivores in a pasture, the carrying capacity would be the kilograms of grass that grow each week. If the herbivores need a smaller amount, the population will get fed and tend to grow; but, if they require a larger amount, a deficit appears that slows down the growth of the population.
This limitation creates a feedback loop that, in Figure 1, is represented in green and is called stabilization loop, because it causes economic growth to slow down when the deficit begins to be important. The combination of these two feedback loops gives rise to a pattern of S-shaped stabilization. When the population (or economic activity) is small, resources are plentiful and the population can grow very rapidly, but, as it approaches the limits, the stabilizing link slows the growth down and the population tends to a sustainable value.
However, there are systems in which the green stabilization loop does not act fast enough to achieve this smooth evolution to balance. This is due to the fact that there are delays in the relation between shortage and economic growth limitation: the system is reluctant to decrease due to inertia, blockages or delays in information. In this case, a third loop may appear: the Degradation of the nourishing base loop that we have marked in red.
Growth might continue beyond the carrying capacity, but this can only be done by deteriorating the resources that are the nourishing base. Following the example of the herd of herbivores, they could eat more grass than it grows every week, but only at the expense of eating the whole plant. For a few weeks, the population could continue to grow above the carrying capacity, but on the basis of degrading the pasture and making it no longer productive. This is the behavior we describe colloquially with the expression kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Overexploitation might also create a third feedback loop (the red loop in Figure 1) because it decreases the capacity of the nourishing base and, when this happens, the shortage gets even greater and this leads to an even greater overexploitation. This third feedback loop pushes the population (or economic activity) to collapse.
The result of the combination of these three dynamics is the collapse pattern that can be seen in black in Figure 1: a rapid initial growth that reaches a maximum and falls very quickly.
Conquest vs. care
The dynamics of growth, overexploitation and collapse have accompanied human beings since the beginning of their history, since, in general, they are the ones that govern the behavior of living beings. Some human societies have been able to reach equilibrium with their environment by limiting their growth; but western culture – especially since the fifteenth century– chose another option to escape from limits: conquest.
The colonial expansion allowed European societies to grow beyond the carrying capacity of their territory, and the use of fossil fuels made possible an even greater growth. This has allowed us to live five centuries of continuous exponential growth and has made us think that this is the normal behavior. But all growth has a limit and, although many people still believe that our expansion can continue with the help of new technologies, more and more scientific studies tell us the opposite . But the more obvious evidence that shows we have reached the limits is in the signs of overexploitation that, for years, have been detected in the main natural resources: collapsed fisheries, forests, water and degraded lands, pollution and climate change, decline of fossil fuels that is not compensated by investment in renewable technologies, etc.
Given the evidence of limits, society and politicians should enforce degrowth policies that would activate the green loop of stabilization. This idea of voluntary degrowth, in one way or another, has been the main message of political ecologists in recent decades, but these measures are never implemented. The, so called, “sustainable development” became a slogan empty of meaning and our consumption and impact on the planets is growing out of control. Capitalism is reluctant to degrow, guided by its inertia and its enormously powerful interests that pursue continuous economic growth.
The absence of action of the stabilization loop might cause the activation of the pernicious red loop of the Degradation of the nourishing base. Nowadays, this is not the main loop observed in global society, but if the degradation of the environment continues, it will appear soon. It is, therefore, vital that, at this moment, environmentalism adds a very important message with a strong emphasis: we have to deactivate the degradation loop. This message adds a different nuance to the degrowth message, and I think the word that best describes it is the ecofeminist notion of care, applied, in a broad sense, to the care of everything that reproduces life on the Planet.
We can perfectly call policies of care all those that deactivate the relationship between deficit and overexploitation (what in figure 1 has been indicated with the violet arrow). The attitude of care is what inspires the traditional policies of environmental protection and leads us to manage well the territory, the soils, the forests; it is the attitude that protects the reproduction of everything that feeds us. But, at this moment, we should not limit ourselves to environmental protection policies and we should start to devise more ambitious goals that change the sign of the arrow between deficit and overexploitation. We must start talking about regeneration policies, which not only prevent the nourishing base from degrading, but make it grow. In this sense, there are already very interesting experiments in the fields of regenerative agriculture and permaculture that show that these policies are possible and achieve remarkable successes.
On the other hand, the notion of care applied to people is especially important at this time. There are two things that activate the red loop of degradation: ignorance and desperation. Ignorance is very dangerous, although, at the moment, it is more virtual than real –because the problem is well known, but there are many people who choose not to see it. Desperation is more worrying, because it develops in people who, despite knowing the environmental damage their actions are doing, are not able to change because they are on the edge of their physical or mental capacities, unable to choose anything other than survival.
The attitude of care is vital at this time. Only a society that cares for people and diminishes poverty will be able to prevent desperation from leading us to degrade the resources that sustain our own lives. It is also vital, on the other hand, that we know how to take care of ourselves and satisfy our needs with technologies that have very low environmental impact and, also, take care of the Earth. Only by protecting nature will we be able to sustain human life; only by taking care of human life will we be able to stop the degradation of nature.
Ecological economics and feminist economics: the issue of reproduction
The concept of nourishing base has been applied in the previous paragraphs to the ecosystems that provide us with resources or services (forests, fisheries, soils) but it can also be extended to many other things that sustain human life, including technology. In this sense, the issue of the reproduction is the key that unites feminist economics and ecological economics and can create the necessary dialogue between these two disciplines (as Yayo Herrero points out).
Just as feminist economics speaks of the importance of the reproduction of human life, ecological economics speaks of the reproduction of stocks and fund-service resources. Stocks and fund-service resources are those that regenerate themselves (because they come from biological systems) and their reproduction allows human beings to obtain renewable resources and energy. Much of what I have called nourishing base are basically stocks and fund-service resources. The good health of these resources implies that their reproduction will be successful and they will be a sustainable source of inputs for the human economy.
Both feminist and ecological economics are based on the idea that we need to take care of life and its reproduction. On the contrary, the capitalist economy does not pay attention to the reproduction of life, assumes that natural and human resources are infinite and will always be available. While capitalist economy does not even see that the base that sustains itself is physical, biological and limited, the ecological and feminist economy recognize the value of all the activities of care that allow this fragile base to remain alive and healthy.
A similar concept can be extended to technology and its use, for example, of materials. The recycling of many of the minerals that are essential to current technologies is negligible nowadays. The minerals are extracted from mines and, once used, they are thrown into landfills, where they are dispersed and it is practically impossible to recover them. Our technology is based on a throw-away culture: extracting from mines and dispersing in landfills and, when a mine runs out, the companies looks for another new mine or try to replace one resource with another. But this replacement has a limit, since the new mines found are worse than previous ones and replacing some minerals by others implies losing performance and efficiency.
The minerals valuable to technology should be considered part of the nourishing base that must be taken care of. They should be recycled at rates close to 100%, so that they are available for human technology for centuries. Our nourishing base, therefore, can be considered made up of many things that make our life possible and whose reproduction must be protected: ecosystems, people, technologies, minerals, families, societies, etc.
Turning the economy yin
The concepts of nourishing base and exponential growth loop have an important similarity with the Chinese concepts of yin/yang, also the loops present in the collapse pattern can be interpreted in terms of the yin/yang equilibrium of the Chinese philosophy.
What I have called the nourishing base is very similar to what Taoist philosophy would call the yin part of the society: all that nourishes, all that sustains, the apparently passive part of society but the one that possesses the force on which any action is based . The activities of care have an eminently yin character: silent, humble, often ignored, often feminized, enormously important. On the other hand, the yang concept is associated in Taoism with the expansion and is similar to the exponential growth feedback loop of Figure 1 and to the conquering tendency of the capitalist economy.
In both Taoism and System Dynamics, the notion of dynamic equilibrium is fundamental. This is a very interesting contribution to Western culture, which tends to be tempted to think in the old terms of good/bad Manichaeism, too simplistic to understand systems. Neither the yin nor the yang aspect of a society are desirable or undesirable by themselves, it is equilibrium that is desirable. When the excess of yang leads a society to expand above what its yin can sustain, the political action should try to turn society more yin, that is, prioritize nutritive actions over expansive ones.
The capitalist economy tends to enhance the yang expansive aspect at any cost. In the Spanish economic crisis of 2008, for example, from both liberal and social democratic positions, the emphasis was on reviving growth, adding more yang to an already expansive economy. Few people stopped to think if the problem was in the yin base of the economy, that was exhausted and could no longer sustain more growth.
A very interesting yin policy would have been, for example, to save energy through plans such as those proposed for energy-saving housing reform or public transportation. This would have helped to mitigate unemployment and balance the trade deficit without the need to increase the export effort. Instead, the government decided to promote large public works: a policy without the slightest yin ingredient, since it consumed even more energy and not even saved the base of the construction sector but its elite.
The policies implemented by the government to overcome the crisis have focused on protecting the banks and large companies instead protecting the families and the employees: this is a very yang policy that deteriorates the basis to save the elite. Ten years away, we can affirm that the Spanish social and ecological base is still more exhausted than before the crisis, which indicates that, what they call recovery, was only a continuation of economic growth based on social overexploitation.
Another interesting aspect of the yin / yang notions is their relative or adjective nature, since there is no clear boundary between them: something is yin or yang in relation to what it is compared with. This is interesting when applied to ecofeminism and what we consider the nutritive base to protect, since the most yin aspects of society are not necessarily occupied by women (especially of developed countries).
A European urban middle-class woman who takes care of her children, for example, is doing a yin work of care, but a peasant woman who performs the same tasks would be even more yin than the urban woman, because she lives in a more forgotten and more basic sector. And it would still be more yin the work of a man from an impoverished country who extracts the minerals necessary for the electronics used by both women; and it is even more yin the invisible contribution of the crops, the cattle and the fertile land on which the feeding of all of them is based.
This adjective character can help us when deciding what are the priorities when it comes to protecting the nourishing base of our society. If what we need is to feed the yin aspect of society, the priority should be to protect the most yin, the most basic, the things that have a more nutritious character, which, normally, will be the most silent and the most forgotten. The first priority should be the stocks and fund-resources of energy, ecosystems, minerals and soils on which people and their activities are based and from there all human activities beginning with the most humble.
The economy of care
Western society has lived for many centuries within an expansive culture that did not need to take care of the regeneration of its nourishing base, since it always found the possibility of conquering new territories and exploiting new resources. This attitude has been possible and very profitable (at least for some individuals) while resources were abundant. For that reason, the conquering and expansive attitude, associated with the political right parties, has been associated to images of prosperity, well-being, wealth and progress. It is the attitude that we have associated with the economically sensible, with what makes the companies to have a positive balance.
On the other hand, the discourse of the left parties has been based on rights: the rights to decent work, equality or a healthy environment. These rights were something to protect even though, economically, they were seen as a hindrance, a worsening of the accounting balance, a loss of economic efficiency that had to be assumed to protect our well-being, often more spiritual than material. With this mentality, it is not strange that, in the face of the crisis, the first thing to do is to end labor rights and further exploit ecosystems, to protect the economy, which is the most urgent.
But this discourse is based on a big mistake: to associate the expansive and exploitative attitude with good economic management, without taking into account that, when the limits of growth appear, exploitation becomes over-exploitation and this is a disastrous economic strategy, even from the purely economic, selfish and material point of view.
When limits are reached, expansion is the attitude that most quickly leads to collapse. And the collapse is the worst scenario of poverty, involution and degradation, that is to say: the opposite of those ideals of progress, well-being and wealth that the right brandishes as a standard. While it is true that, in the short term, an over-exploitative policy can increase the wealth of an increasingly smaller minority at the expense of the impoverishment of majorities, this process soon finds its limits. Inequality accelerates the degradation of the social base and intensifies the collapse pattern that ends in a resounding fall for all.
In a world with four more degrees of temperature, the only human society that can be imagined are groups of Tuaregs trying to survive hell, where little benefit could be found by investment funds. In a Spain swallowed by the Sahara, neither hunting nor macro farms would achieve a positive economic balance, no matter how much they try to maximize automation or destroy natural parks. A world of degraded ecosystems and shattered societies is a world of very low energy return, where the harvest is meager and unstable and work is painful. And a low energy return means, inevitably, a low economic return, that is: very bad business. Given the limits of growth the exploitative attitude is not only morally reprehensible, it is also a very stupid attitude.
Economy of care or collapse
Only economic policies based on care and regeneration can be sensible in a limited world, since they are the only ones capable of keeping society away from collapsing and achieving a positive energy and economic balance. The left parties must be able to understand this new position in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century and make use of all the arguments that the collapse pattern gives us to launch a message much more powerful than the current one. The policies of the right are absolutely collapsing, they are based on ideas from the past and lead us to a world located at the antipodes of the ideal of progress that they sell us.
It is time to stop associating prosperity, good economic management and well-being to attitudes that destroy the ecological and human base that feeds us. Only the attitude of care and regeneration of life is able to lead us to the horizons, always desirable, of abundance, prosperity and progress.
We need to feminize the economy because, as Alicia Puleo says “The characteristics of the warrior and the hunter (hardness, emotional withdrawal …) are today a dangerous heritage.” In the 21st century, with a planet exploited on all four sides, we no longer have wide plateaus or vast empires to conquer and it is time to tell the new conquerors that are emerging from the far right to do the favor of staying at home and do not destroy with the hooves of their horses the few resources that we have left.
Feminism has come to stay because its message is reaching both the head and the heart of a society tired of patriarchy, wars, exploitation and destruction. That is why it is important that the feminist message evolves, as it is already doing, and does not restrict itself to the equality of rights between men and women; because that equality, in many areas, is already being achieved. It does not make a big difference for both parents share the tasks of caring for their children if the topsoil that feed them is degrading, if chemical contamination fills the body of newborns and the life of the whole family moves in a precarious pattern that makes reproduction difficult.
Let’s hope that feminist economics continues to extend its analysis far beyond the domestic sphere and is able to develop theoretical tools that allow building an economy that really puts life at the center. If something characterizes this century that begins is the deterioration of life on the planet, both human and non-human. Restoring the base that sustains and nourishes our life is essential and this can only be achieved if the idea of care becomes the central theme of that discipline that is at the base of political power and so importantly determines our lives: the economy.
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Margarita Mediavilla is a PhD in Physical Sciences from the University of Valladolid (Spain) and associate professor of Systems Engineering and Automation in the School of Industrial Engineering. Her lines of research focus on energy and sustainability using system dynamics as the methodological tool. She belongs to the Research Group in Energy, Economy and Systems Dynamics of the University of Valladolid, which is a multidisciplinary team of engineers, physicists, economists and social scientists that works on the study of global energy perspectives resulting from peak oil and other natural limits and combines academic research with social divulgation. She is a member of Ecologistas en Acción, the main confederation of environmental associations of Spain, and is a very active discloser of the problems of the limits to growth, participating in all kinds of publications and conferences in the Spanish area. Her personal blog (in Spanish) is Habas Contadas.
Header image: Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Republished from Resilience.org