Howling at the moon

blog pic answeringHere’s one for you to ponder. This morning I answered a call on the house phone. Like many families, we all have our own cell phones, but we’ve kept the landline for emergencies, so mostly what we get there are calls from my family members (who are used to reaching us there from decades of experience), and solicitations.

A male voice on the phone asked for my older (21-year-old) daughter by name. It sounded like a young man, and (while this isn’t a sure thing), his accent was Midwestern white guy. She is currently away at college, and all her friends know this. It’s almost unheard-of for her to ever get calls on the landline, even when she is home. It seemed unlikely he was someone who knew her.

Here is (approximately) how the conversation went.

“She’s not here right now,” I said. “This is her mother. May I take a message?”

“Thanks, I’ll call her back.”

It seemed a bit odd that he didn’t want to leave a message, and I was curious, so I asked, “May I ask who’s calling?”

“I’m **** with the Environmental Defense Fund.” (The asterisks are because I don’t recall the name he gave. It wasn’t one I recognized from her circle of friends.)

“Ah, well, she is away at school. Are you looking for a donation?” I asked.

“Yes. So just let her know I called. Thanks.”

His tone made it clear he was about to hang up, but supporting good environmental science, policy, and collective action is one of my big passions, and EDF is a very credible US non-profit devoted to environmental protection. (I was even on their mailing list when the girls were little.) This made me think there must be an important push going on… perhaps something linked to the recent IPCC report on climate change, or something else equally urgent. “But wait—I’m an environmentalist and I love the work your organization does. Can you tell me what you’re collecting donations for? Perhaps you could send us some literature for me to look at?” At that moment I was considering re-upping my membership.

“Thank you,” he said with finality, and hung up.

Head Scratching

So, why would someone looking for donations hang up on a person clearly interested in knowing more, simply because she wasn’t the person he originally called? As anyone with a phone knows, that is not SOP.

There are plenty of possibilities, here.

  1. Maybe he wanted to offer her an environmental internship (not likely; she isn’t studying environmental science or policy, so she wouldn’t be a target for something like that. She has already lined up a research project for the summer and is way too busy with her studies to involve herself in anything else right now. So I know she’s not looking) (Also, if so, why wouldn’t he just say so?).
  2. He may just be some guy who was hoping to chat her up, and used EDF as an excuse. (As far as I know, she is not a member of EDF, she is in a long-term committed relationship, and it strains credulity that some random guy would use EDF as a pickup line. But hey, I guess it’s possible…)
  3. Or, he may actually be an EDF volunteer, intern, or employee who got her name and phone number when she donated to something online, and didn’t know how to handle it when her mother answered the phone and insisted on being more than a piece of furniture in the background.

In my mind, the third possibility is the most likely. Why else would some guy call for my daughter and say he was with a specific environmental NGO, looking for donations, if he was not? And if so, why else would he refuse to let me donate?

Obviously, I can’t be sure. (I remain open to being corrected by the guy who called.) Regardless, it was very strange, and left me with a distinctly bad taste in my mouth.

Now, my mind is cluttered with provisos. It’s sort of like how climate scientists talk about climate change. I can’t guarantee you that in this particular instance, this particular guy was blind to me as a person and potential environmental ally, simply due to my age and gender. But this incident certainly waddled and quaked an awful lot like a big, stinky mallard. The minute I mentioned that I was my daughter’s mother (i.e., old + woman), he lost interest in any sort of interaction. I became a non-person to him. I saw the lights go out.

As I mentioned when I first tweeted about this, this morning, I don’t feel comfortable complaining to EDF about this. I can’t be 100% certain he was actually working for them (though as I’ve said, no other explanation seems very plausible to me), nor can I be certain that the reason he wouldn’t engage with me on whatever he was calling about was because I freaked him out by being a mom who jumped out of the bushes at him, disrupting his vision of how older people (especially older women) are supposed to behave. Maybe he’s young and shy enough that talking to young women’s mothers still freaks him out. I have no idea, and frankly, don’t want to waste much more space than I already have, speculating about his motives. What I want to do is examine more closely some of the underlying issues it has exposed.

The Deeper Concern

The interaction stung me more than it might otherwise have, because environmental protection is a core passion of mine. Most of my adult life has been devoted to environmental protection, one way or another. I have been an environmental engineer and corporate exec involved for 30 years in (among other things) contaminant investigation and cleanup; installing and monitoring tools that detect and prevent air, waste, and water releases; and designing and putting in place management and IT processes for companies to reduce their carbon, air, water, and waste emissions. A love of the environment is a theme that runs through most of my books, and it’s something that, now that I am freed up to focus on my personal efforts, I want to write more about. (My current series, WAVE, at its heart is very much about the horrors we will face as a global civilization, if we don’t get a grip on our mad overconsumption and polluting habits… as will become ever clearer in coming novels.)

So here I was, ready to get involved, and the man I spoke to shut the door in my face. He was patently uninterested in me, even as a source of income. How much more invisible could his words make me?

But you may ask, why did this get to me? It’s just some guy, right? Who knows what was really going on with him? And why should I care what some random stranger thinks?

I don’t care about this particular man. He just lost some funding for EDF, which is a shame. But when your life is filled with a lot of these incidents, you detect a pattern.

What pattern, I hear you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. A pattern of selective deafness.

As a young woman, the pressure of the male gaze is so intense, it’s nearly suffocating… but getting anyone to treat you as someone who should be listened to? Hah!

As you get older, the pressure lessens, and in many ways, that’s a relief. But getting anyone to treat you as someone who should be listened to? Double-hah!


Artwork used under a Creative Commons license from pareeerica’s Flickr stream.

In the US, even if you are a woman, at least if you are young (and white, and able-bodied, with not too high a BMI, and able to successfully perform femininity enough to be viewed as attractive…but not TOO attractive, mind you…), you might occasionally have a chance of being heard on a matter of importance. Once you are post-menopausal? (Or have too much brown melanin in your epidermis, or inhabit a wheelchair, or have neurodiverse wiring, or are differently gendered, or, or…) It’s permanent invisibility for you, lady/ sir/ ???; you make us feel icky. So sit down, be quiet, and fade away. (This is one of the reasons I have dyed my hair blue. I don’t care what you think about me being old, but by ghu, you’re going to at least look at me twice.)

But society operates as a big dialog. Every organization, every movement is its people, and its principles and beliefs are shaped by the voices of the people participating in that movement. To make a contribution, you have to act. You have to speak up, and other people have to see and hear you, and engage with what you are saying.

How can you make a contribution when no one sees or hears you? You might as well be howling at the moon.

Why It Matters

Several critically important things are happening right now.

The brakes have been removed from capitalism (see the recent SCOTUS McCutcheon decision), at a time when economic inequality is already obscenely high. Overconsumption has damaged our precious natural habitats–many already beyond repair. Resource depletion, water scarcity, and other signs that we are putting too much strain on our planet are becoming impossible to ignore. We are responsible for mass extinctions of other species. Climate change is here, now, and threatens catastrophic impacts to global civilization in coming decades, if we don’t act now.

We have a narrow window in which to act—perhaps 5-10 years—to get our civilization onto a sustainable footing at a reasonable cost. If we stick with business as usual, the cost–in dollars, in lives lost, in suffering—will be simply astronomical. Is that really what we want for ourselves, and for our children?

In short, the US needs to stop pussyfooting around and commit itself to a leadership role in reducing its carbon emissions, immediately, and that will only happen if many, many people unite to vote in and then force our leaders to put the brakes on fossil fuel consumption and factory farming, and shift our economy over to one based on renewable energy, social equity, and a much deeper respect for the natural systems that sustain us. And that will only happen if US progressives can unite around a common purpose.

So I ask you: how likely do you think it is that that will happen, when the environmental movement, like most other progressive causes, is run primarily by dudebros* who don’t want to be tainted by girl cooties/ white dudebros and divasisses** who are scared of all the Scary Brown People/ cis-het-ableist sorts who don’t want to be distracted by fringe race, gender, trans, or disability issues at a Time Like This (TM)?

Progressivism at its heart is egalitarian. We share a commitment to fair play and collective, consensual action. Unlike the right, who unite around hierarchy, stability, and tradition, we are not all going to line up behind the big white daddy at the top of the food chain, simply because he’s large and in charge. That’s the reason why so many furious voices are showing up on Twitter and elsewhere, right now. That’s why, for instance, many women of color are fed up with the white corporate version of feminism, which has built its platform on their backs. As much as the feminist movement has benefited me personally, the critiques by women of color—who have been silenced and criticized and held up as victim-objects by white feminists with a media platform—have educated me in my own privilege.

You ask, why can’t people put aside their own group’s concerns, and pay attention to this big urgent problem right here? In return I’ll ask, why should they (we) trust you? There are all kinds of progressive causes that this general dynamic pertains to, but let’s talk about the environmental movement, since it’s one I know very well.

I personally know, in intimate detail, how bad the environmental crisis is. I know that the science is robust around climate change and resource depletion and that time is running out. I am well aware that the people most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are people in poor communities, who are primarily people of color. (hmm, I wonder why that is?) But the STEM fields as an institution have systematically excluded women and marginalized peoples for a long time, to the point where many Others see it as something to be avoided and feared and distrusted. When your government doesn’t invest in educating people who look like you, corporations won’t hire people like you, no matter how qualified you are, and then prominent politicians and media figures turn around and punish and shame you and yours for being ignorant (i.e., for not having that education and consequently not making educated decisions), is it any wonder that they doubt your intentions?

Education is critically important. Especially in the realms of science and math. It scares me, deeply, how well-documented science gets pitted against personal (and ideological) opinions in the news, as if they are the same. They are not.

But the educational systems we need in order to help people understand what is at stake, with our environment, with our economic policies, health care, and so forth are deeply embedded with cultural biases that have oppressed women, POC, and other Others for a very long time. That rift must be healed. And we on the outside of that system can’t heal it. We’ve been trying. But the door opens out. Not in.

Oppression is a system, a series of interlocking, exclusionary, contradictory social structures of privilege and marginalization. The elites are very, very good at figuring out ways to play us off against each other, to keep us powerless while they plunder our planet’s resources and our own labor for their own benefit. We will always be splintered, as a movement, until we unite. That will only happen when those higher up on the privilege slopes make a pointed and sustained effort to get their feet off of the faces of the people below them on the hill. To sit down with each other at the campfire when darkness falls, to tell our stories, and especially to listen with respect. It’s the only way we’ll come up with a united front.

White progressive leaders: no more using us as tokens. No more expecting us to line up behind you while you marginalize and ignore our very real concerns. Please, lead by example, by cleaning your own house first, instead of trying to bully and shame us into doing what you want, and tuning us out otherwise. Those are the tactics of the people standing in the way of progress, and they don’t sit well on your shoulders.

Progressives, all: we’re a long way from unity, but given what’s at stake, I believe we must find a way.

OK, I’m done ranting, for now. My friends, I’ll leave you with this, my favorite scene from A Bug’s Life.



*, ** I am using ‘dudebros’ and ‘divasisses’ as a shorthand, to denote people who are blind to their own privilege and defensive when other people try to explain to them why they are being clueless.


PS- I want to credit some writers and others who have said and are important things that have influenced my own thinking on this subject. Thank you to black feminists such as Melissa Harris-Perry, The Gradient Lair, Syndette Harry, Mikki Kendall, N. K. Jemisin, and many other WOC and feminist writers on Twitter and elsewhere on the web, whose visions and words build on the work of groundbreaking work of bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Kimberle’ Crenshaw; I learned from you all that a feminist movement that neglects the racialized sexism and sexualized racism women of color face is not a feminist movement I want to be part of. Other important recent influences are Ta-Nehisi Coates—one of America’s great essayists, whose writing on race and the experience of being black in America are must-reads; Rachel Carson, whose diligent scientific efforts and her book A Silent Spring gave rise to the modern environmental movement; and the political and environmental legacy of America’s Native American governments and other indigenous cultures, whose environmental philosophies have served as a foundation and inspiration for our own modern concepts of social equity and environmental sustainability.

Tue 8 Apr 2014: minor edits


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About MJL

I write science fiction and sling other memes on the side. Drop a line in comments!
This entry was posted in Ecology, Feminism, Race, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Howling at the moon

  1. phiala says:

    That’s… weird.

    In a more encouraging note, I look around my immediate environs and see: two white women, both PhDs, one an engineer; one male Asian postdoc, one black female grad student. My postdocs: one white male, one Asian woman. Our technical and administrative support staff largely match the demographics of central Pennsylvania (white), but the scientific side is becoming more diverse all the time.

  2. MJL says:

    I’m very happy to hear that. I don’t see this as an insoluble problem, but I do think it takes awareness and conversation, to keep pushing at the boundaries and limitations that constrain human potential.

  3. Greg says:

    a long time ago, I volunteered to do solicitation calls for an organization. I had a list of names/numbers and a basic script. If the person on the list wasn’t the person who picked up the phone, I said thank you and just moved along to the next name. Probably not the best approach, but it was not out of line given my training (essentially zero) and pay (none).

  4. MJL says:

    That would explain it…

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