Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators
The Feminist Justice League meets once a month for a feminist frolic. These events involve an educational presentation and an outdoor activity. This month, the Feminist Justice League will meet to do some seed bombing and learn about pollinators. The goal of the event is to learn more about the challenges faced by pollinators and do something small to benefit them. In preparation for the event, I researched the history and troubles facing pollinators. However, since it is a feminist group, I wanted to add a theoretical component. It is not enough to learn about pollinators. To grow as feminists, it is important to analyze them from a lense that is critical of patriarchy and capitalism. I am not a scientist nor am I an expert on this topic. Nevertheless, I hope it offers some insight to the history of pollinators and how this history is deeply connected to economic and social trends in human history. Understanding this history can help us understand the present plight of pollinators as well as solutions of how to move forward in protecting nature.
A Feminist History of Pollinators:
Both flowers and humans depend upon bees and other pollinators for survival. One third of our diet consists of food that requires pollination by bees, though it should be noted that beetles, ants, birds, bats, flies, and butterflies can also act as pollinators. Bees themselves are believed to have evolved 140-110 million years ago during the Cretaceous Era, which is around the same time that flowering plants appeared (Cappellari,Schaefer, Davis 2013) . It is astonishing to think that flowers and bees are relatively new in evolutionary history. Turtles, sharks, frogs, and fish have hundreds of millions of years of evolution before the appearance of flowers and bees. Even mammals and birds predate bees and flowers by tens of millions of years. Butterflies also evolved about 130 million years ago, also appearing after the advent of flowering plants. Since plants cannot move around in search of a mate, they evolved to attract pollinators to spread their pollen, or the male gametophyte of plants. Pollen could roughly be described as something akin to the plant equivalent of sperm. Plants produced pollen before the evolution of flowering plants or angiosperms, but prior to this, all plants were pollinated by the wind. Angiosperms or flowering plants evolved nectar, attractive colors, or fragrances to attract pollinators. Millions of years of natural selection has produced very specialized relationships between some flowers and particular pollinators. For instance, some flowers are red and tubular to appeal to the beaks of hummingbirds. Some flowers are so specialized that only certain species of hummingbirds can pollinate them, such as the sword-billed hummingbird of South America which has a ten centimeter bill (and a 4 cm body) that can reach the nectar deep within the tubular petals of the Passiflora mixta. Hummingbirds are relative newcomers, which evolved from swifts and tree swifts over 22 million years ago, flourishing in South America (Sanders, 2014).
All pollinators are important, but bees have been particularly important in human history. Humans have a long history with bees. Even our closest relative, chimpanzees, are known to use sticks to obtain honey from hives (Kritsky, 2017). Interestingly, both male and female chimps collect honey, with female chimps able to collect honey with babies on their back. However, humans are less proficient at climbing, so it might be assumed that collecting honey was historically men’s work. For about five million years of hominid evolution, humans and their ancestors hunted and gathered their food. Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but it is only in the last 10,000 years that some human societies moved away from hunter-gathering. From a Marxist feminist perspective, hunter-gatherer societies were likely more egalitarian and placed more value on women than societies that existed after the advent of private property. These societies were small and there there little social stratification, since there was less ability for individuals to accumulate significant wealth. Although there is little stratification in hunter-gather societies, there are gender based divisions of labor. As such, women likely had a different relationship to pollinators, and bees in particular, than men. In a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food to these societies. Typically, the food gathered by men is further away and harder to obtain. Thus, men may have been involved in collecting honey as this would involve travelling larger distances and climbing trees. This seems to be true in some modern examples of hunter-gatherer societies. In Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngandu women and children would look out for hives, which men then collected honey from. Some honey hunting societies ban women from gathering honey, such as the Ngindo tribe in Tanzania and the Bassari in Senegal. Hunter-gatherer men have been observed eating honey when it is found, but bringing some back to home to be divided and then stored by women (Crane,2000). Rock paintings in Spain depict humans stealing honey from bees 7000-8000 years ago (Kritsky, 2017). The paintings do not clearly depict a man or woman, so it is hard to know the exact gender roles of men and women concerning bees.
Some societies moved away from hunter-gathering and adopted settled agriculture. The development of agriculture allowed for private property to arise as well as larger populations and cities based upon stored and surplus food. The first agrarian societies emerged 10,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East. Thus it is no wonder that the first evidence of beekeeping arose in civilizations of the Middle East. In contrast to previous hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies developed classes and specialized occupations. The oldest evidence of actual beekeeping is from Ancient Egypt, where pyramid artwork depicts beekeeping in 2450 BCE. In Egyptian society, it appears that beekeeping was an established profession. Likewise, in 1500 BCE, various Hittite laws were passed regarding stealing hives and swarms of bees. The oldest bee hives themselves have been found in Israel. Early hives were made from straw and then later pottery (Kritsky, 2017). The oldest record of beekeeping in China dates from around 158 CE. A relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicts beekeeping and dates from 1000 CE. Mayans also raised bees, which arose independently from Western Culture. They depicted bees in art, hieroglyphs, and developed cylindrical, ceramic hives. It is interesting to note that honey bees had gone extinct in North America, but the Mayans encountered stingless tropical bees (Kritsky, 2017). Stingless bees do not produce as much honey as honey bees, but modern Mayans continue to cultivate them. Deforestation has caused these bees to become endangered.
From a Marxist feminist perspective, the status of women fell with the invention of agriculture. Thus, in all of these examples, the status of women would have been less than the the status that women enjoyed during the long history of hunting-gathering. The development of private property marks the origin of patriarchy, as the exchange of property from one generation to the next required monogamy and close control of female sexuality. These societies were often based upon slaves, which were used to build monuments, but also required warfare to obtain. Because agriculture created surplus, it resulted in more specialization and stratification. There emerged groups such as scholars, priests, kings, etc. who could live off of the labor of others. Laws and written language were also developed for the purpose of managing property. However, many of these civilizations continued to worship female goddesses, some of which were connected to bees. For instance, the Minoans worshiped a nature, birth, and death, which was symbolized by a bee. In Greek mythology, a nymph named Melissa discovered honey and shared it with humans. She also is credited with feeding baby Zeus honey and was later turned into a bee by Zeus after his father tried to kill her. The Greek myths probably were drawn from the stories of nearby societies and societies that predated the Greeks. Lithuanian, Hindu, Mayan, Greek, and Minoan societies had bee goddesses, though there are also examples of bee gods in other cultures.
Moving along in history, bees were kept during medieval times, and it was even ordered by Charlemagne that all manors raise bees and give two thirds of the honey produced to the state. In the middle ages, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states were engaged in less formal beekeeping in the form of forest beekeeping. This involved hollowing out trees to encourage bees to form colonies in them, then seal up the tree once the colony was established as a sign of ownership and to protect it from bears. Early hives could not be dismantled. Therefore, obtaining honey meant destroying the hive and the bees (Kritsky, 2017). In Poland in 1337, a statute said that women and men had equal rights to in buying and selling honey. Husbands and wives were both able to own land related to forest beekeeping and both a son or daughter could inherit this land. Some evidence suggests that tree beekeeping was done by women. Nuns and monks were known to raise bees. In one story, Saint Gobnait, a nun from county cork in Ireland, is said to have sent away cattle thieves by unleashing bees upon them. Hildegard of Bingen, also wrote about bees. Examples of artwork from the 1400s and 1500s depict both men and women involved in beekeeping. In the 1600s in England, there are literary references to housewives as beekeepers and that beekeeping was commonly done by country women. The first use of the word “skep” in the English language appeared in 1494 and referred to female beekeepers (Crane, 2000). Perhaps during European feudalism, women were more involved in beekeeping than in other periods of history. It is hard to know why this might be, as the status of women in feudalism was no better than earlier agrarian societies. Women were controlled by the church, had limited opportunities, were controlled by their husband or father, and were burned as witches. Perhaps women’s involvement in beekeeping could be attributed to various wars or plagues that would have decimated or occupied the male population or the role of women in general food production. Interestingly, when European thinkers saw a single ruler bee, they assumed it was male. Aristotle called this ruler bee the king bee, and through the middle ages, bees were seen as entirely male. Through the 1500s and early 1600s, queen bees were referred to as King Bees or Master Bees (Crane,2000). So, even though women may have had an expanded role in beekeeping during European feudalism, the imagined social organization of bees themselves reflected a very masculine and feudal worldview.
Capitalism arose in the 16th century in England with the privatization of public lands. The enclosure movement turned former peasants into workers, driving them off the land into cities for paid work. Landlords maintained the best lands, which were rented, again, requiring paid labor. New laws were passed against vagrancy, again encouraging paid work. The invention of the working class and increased agricultural production of paid farm workers, laid the groundwork for capitalism. Of course, capitalism really took off with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. It was not until the 1800s that hives with removable frames were developed. Until the invention of modern hives in the 1800s, both the bees and the hives were destroyed to obtain honey. Large scale production of honey also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of a centrifugal honey extractor in 1865. The 1860s also saw the commercial sale of honey. Prior to this, it was produced and sold locally. Honey was shipped in wooden drums at the end of the 1800s, but switched to 60 lb metal cans. Specialized honey packing plants emerged in the 1920s (Oertel, n.d.) In the U.S., women mostly worked to assist their husbands in beekeeping, but in 1880 Mrs. L Harrison of Illinois was a commercial beekeeper in her own right who later published a book about beekeeping. In the early 1900s, work related to beekeeping was gendered, with women participating in extracting, selling, handling, and bottling honey and men tending to the hive and bees. Today, 42% of the membership of local beekeeping clubs is comprised of women. Women make up 30% of state beekeeping organizations and around 30% of national beekeeping associations as well. However, women are not often in leadership roles and often serve as secretaries or supporters in the clubs. Some clubs do not allow women as leaders or women as leaders do not last long. A few clubs even have auxiliaries just for women. As such, women make up less than ⅓ of the leadership of beekeeping organizations. As a whole, in the United States, about 31% of farmers are women (Calopy, 2015).
Capitalism and Pollinators:
Capitalism will be given special attention from hereon. Despite the beauty and importance of pollinators, as well as their long history with humans, they are in peril. According to a UN report, 2 out of 5 invertebrate pollinators are on the path to extinction. 1 out of 6 vertebrate pollinators like birds and bats are also facing extinction (Borenstein, 2016). There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 17% of them face extinction. Pollination is important as without it, plants cannot reproduce. 75% of the world’s food crops require pollination. Without pollinators, there will be no food. 87% of the money made globally comes from food crops that require pollination (Okeyo, 2017). More than half of the 1400 species of bees in North America are facing extinction (Worland, 2017). Monarch butterflies have also garnered attention as over the past several decades their population has declined by 96.5%. There are several reasons for this, including deforestation of their habitat in Mexico, climate change, loss of milkweed plants, and pesticides. Habitat has been turned into farmland. Nevertheless, there have been efforts to restore monarch butterfly populations such as planting $2 million of milkweed at 200,000 acres of land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a project to expand their winter habitat (The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction). There are many factors related to the decline in pollinators, such as loss of habitat and biodiversity, pesticides, farming practices, diseases, and climate change. 97% of Europe’s grasslands have disappeared since WWII, often turned to farmland. Pesticides containing neonicotinoids have been found in some studies to reduce the chances of bee survival and reproduction (Borenstein, 2016). Aside from pesticides, bees are vulnerable to climate change. Whereas butterflies can migrate to new areas with climate change, bees have difficulty establishing themselves in new areas. In the north end of their range, they have failed to move towards the north pole. At the south end, they have died off. Together, bees have lost a range of about 200 miles on their north and south ends (Worland, 2015). Disease and parasites can also be blamed for the decline of bees. The Varroa Mite first appeared in the United States in 1987 and within ten years spread across bee colonies across the US. Bees infected with the mite may be deformed, have shorter longevity, less ability to reproduce, and lower weight. Pesticides used in mosquito control have also been linked to colony collapses. Additionally, some scientists believe that pollen from transgenic crops can be harmful to bees as the pollen itself may have insecticidal proteins (Status of Pollinators in North America, 2007).
The rusty patched bumblebee was the first wild bee listed as endangered in the continental United States, when it was added to the endangered species list in January 2017. The bee was once common in 28 states and now can only be found in small populations in 13 states. In September 2016, several species of yellow faced bees were listed as endangered in Hawaii. Once again, neonicotinoids are blamed since they are commonly used in agriculture, forestry, and lawn care, and are absorbed into a plant’s leaves, nectar, and pollen (Gorman, 2017). The problem with neonictoninoids first noticed in 1994 in France, when the country first began using neonicotinoids. The pesticide was produced by Bayer and first used on sunflower crops. Bees that collected pollen from treated sunflowers showed symptoms of shaking and would abandon their hives. One quarter of a trillion bees perished before French farmers protested the use of the pesticide, which resulted in its ban. In the United States, the symptoms were first observed in 2006 and coined Colony Collapse Disorder. There was confusion over the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, but a prominent theory suggests that beekeeping has shifted from being centered on producing honey to using bees to pollinate cash crops. 2.5 million hives are trucked around the country each year. The bees are transported to farms and fed corn syrup rather than wildflowers. The corn syrup may be laden with neonicotinoids, which results in Colony Collapse Disorder. Almonds, apples, blueberries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, oranges, and pumpkins are just a sample of some of the crops that could not be grown without pollinators (10 crops that would disappear without bees, 2012). Of course, there are some crops, such as soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, beans, tomatoes, pecans, and peanuts which do not require honeybee pollination. Nevertheless, our diets would be much different without pollinators. Entire ecosystems would be quite different.
The plight of pollinators can largely be connected to industrial agricultural practices. The key challenges to pollinators: loss of habitat, loss of wildflowers, use of pesticide, and agricultural monoculture are all broadly connected to agriculture in the context of capitalism. Pollinators have been around for millions of years, so it is startling that it is only the past few decades that have pushed them towards extinction. This begs the question of why agriculture happens as it does and what can be done? Karl Marx was a critic of agriculture in capitalism. Marx observed in Capital, that capitalism divides the city from the countryside. Capitalism itself emerged as the result of the privatization of common land. When people were pushed off their land, they were separated from their ability to feed themselves. That is, they had to work for another person to earn the money needed to buy the things that are needed for survival rather than grow or make them themselves. Capitalism depends on workers, who Marx called wage slaves because of their dependency upon wages to survive. The birth of capitalism meant the death of a certain relationship to the land. This connection is part of the Marxist concept of metabolic rift. Just as workers are alienated from production and one another, they are alienated from nature and human nature. Humans are deeply connected to the environment, but according to Marx’s belief, it is capitalism which severs this connection (Williams, n.d) Marx also observed that capitalism reduces the rural population while expanding the urban population (Westerland, 2015). Human societies always depend upon the natural world to exist. In this sense, humans metabolize nature. For most of history, nature has been experienced in terms of its use-value, or the ways in which it is useful to our existence. However, capitalism have commodified nature and separated humans from it. Our economy is dominated by exchange value rather than use value. This has resulted in metabolic rift, or a separation from our place in ecosystems (Foster, 2015).
Aside from the original sin of moving people off of public land and the privatization of land, Marx was a critic of how land was used in capitalism. He noted that capitalism resulted in the exhaustion of the soil in the interest of profits. Marx believed that it was possible to increase the productivity of soil through good management or use of manure, but that it was not profitable to do so in capitalism. He observed that when land became exhausted it was often abandoned in search of new lands to exploit (Saito, 2014) Capitalist agriculture not only robs the laborers but the soil (Westerland, 2015). Oddly enough, despite the surplus of human and horse manure in cities, countries like Great Britain and the United States scoured the globe in the 1800s for fertilizers for their over exploited agricultural land. Wars were even fought to obtain guano as fertilizer. Capitalism is so wasteful and illogical, that it made more sense to colonize empty islands for their bat manure than sustainably manage agricultural land or obtain manure locally. But, capitalism is not driven by what is sustainable, rational, or healthy. It is driven by profits. It is the pursuit of profits that results in the vast environmental destruction the world experiences today and the agricultural practices that imperil our food supply by destroying pollinators. As such, around 75 billion tons of soil wash away or is blown away each year after ploughing. 320 million acres of agricultural land is salinated due to agricultural practices. 40% of the world’s agricultural land is in someway degraded. Over half to three fourths of all industrial inputs return to the environment as waste within one year. At the same time, pollinators are worth over 14 billion dollars to the US economy. Despite their use value, the profit motive trumps sustainable agricultural practices which might protect pollinators. As a result, farmers in China have actually had to pollinate their own apples with brushes and pots of pollen due to the decline of bees (Goulson, 2012).
Industrial agriculture in capitalism could be described as not very diverse, pesticide intensive, and wasteful. Agriculture is not very diverse since crops are grown to make a profit. Therefore, a few reliable varieties of crops are planted because they will grow predictably, ship easily, have uniform qualities, or other desirable traits. This means a loss of biodiversity, as heirloom varieties of crops go extinct because they are not grown widely. At the same time, since its beginning, capitalism has needed to divide people from their ability to sustain themselves. This forces individuals into the economy as workers. Farmers around the world are drawn into the economy when their seeds or agricultural inputs are privatized and sold on the market. Farmers who may have once saved seeds have found that the seeds are not patented and they must buy them. Again, this leads to a loss of biodiversity as old farming practices are replaced by paid farm labor and commercialized seeds. In pursuit of profits, capitalism over uses fertilizers, as the land is overexploited. Pesticides are also used because it is cheaper to dump chemicals on plants than practice sustainable, organic agriculture with natural pest control. Fertilizers and pesticides themselves are often the product of chemicals developed for war. After World War II, factories which produced nitrogen for bombs were converted to fertilizer factories. DDT, which was used as a pesticide with devastating effects on bird populations, was actually used in WWII to protect soldiers from fleas and mosquitoes. Capitalism requires war to open up new markets, destroy competitors, and access new raw materials and cheap labor. But, it also develops new technology and weapons. Agriculture’s chemical age in the 1950s was the peacetime application of war technology. Finally, capitalism is wasteful. It is wasteful because the drive for profit requires more production. Production occurs to create more value, from which profit is derived. Pollinators are in trouble because of the destructive, wasteful, and polluting nature of industrial agriculture within the context of capitalism.
There are many things that can be done to help pollinators. However, most solutions are individual solutions. This is a flaw with the environmental movement, as it often focuses on consumer choices or individual behaviors rather than the larger issue of dismantling capitalism. These small scale activities are not useless, but must be coupled with movements that challenge industrial agriculture within capitalism. Individuals can plant gardens that attract pollinators. Community groups can plant milkweed plants or seed bomb for pollinators. Individuals and communities can partake in beekeeping. Partaking in community gardens, visiting farmer’s markets, buying locally, saving seeds, etc. are all small scale actions that can be done. However, these activities will not tip the scale towards saving the planet as they do not challenge capitalist production. Capitalism must be overthrown so that giant agribusinesses can be dismantled, food production can be more locally centered and worker controlled, and rational choices can be made of how, what, and where to grow food. The environmental and labor movement must work together towards empowering workers to take control of the economy in the interest of a sustainable future. Agribusinesses and the fossil fuel industry donate millions of dollars to both of the major capitalist parties. Neither can save pollinators or the planet as they pursue free trade and market solutions to environmental problems. The anarchy of capitalist production could result in the destruction of pollinators we depend upon for survival and which have inhabited the planet for millions of years. But, each society contains the seeds of its own destruction. For capitalism, it is its instability and the immiseration of workers. It is my hope that social movements that can seriously challenge capitalism will emerge and that the labor movement can be reinvigorated and mobilized towards ecosocialism. Anything less will condemn the planet to a hotter, less biodiverse, more socially strained future.
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