/  Culture   /  The State of Higher Learning Part 1: Of Glaciers & Feminists

The State of Higher Learning Part 1: Of Glaciers & Feminists


“Sonja: Judgment of any system, or a priori relationship or phenomenon exists in an irrational, or metaphysical, or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.

Boris: Yes, I’ve said that many times.”

-Love and Death


The above is a snippet of dialogue from my favorite Woody Allen movie. If you haven’t seen it, imagine the Marx Brothers being cast in an adaptation of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Love and Death is set against the backdrop of Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. In between set pieces of Woody’s Boris character going through boot camp (which include scenes of him being berated by a black drill sergeant with a Southern accent & watching a cautionary tale play meant to warn Russian troops of bedding loose ladies, lest they catch the French Pox) and battles with the invading Grande Armée, Boris discusses philosophy and politics with his love, Sonja. Boris and Sonja often distract themselves debating the metaphysical despite the much more very real threat of Napoleon’s repeated incursions into Russia.

I was reminded of Love and Death when I subjected myself to the scholarly paper, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research” by Mark Carey, M Jackson, Alessandro Antonello and Jaclyn Rushing. The University of Oregon Eugene website “AroundtheO” reports that it all started “When UO historian Mark Carey hired Jaclyn Rushing, undergraduate student in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, to explore how nongovernmental organizations were addressing melting Himalayan glaciers…Her dive into the literature found that women’s voices are rarely heard in glacier-related research.” The paper is the product of research funded by a grant from the US National Science Foundation (more on that much later). The paper is available via free download.

Statists are consistently equating social movements to war so as to motivate the masses to fight for a worthwhile cause. The War on Poverty, Drugs, etc. The government is forever marshaling forces and materiel for its next campaign. One war that has not yet been foisted on the people in full force is the War on Climate Change. The War on Climate Change is to World War II as The War on Global Warming is to World War I.

For now, thankfully, the War on Climate Change is still in its planning stages. We are proselytized to by our betters that the urgency of a threat to national security or the welfare of the people requires immediate responses and a deference to experts who will take up the mantle of commanding our forces to protect us on our behalf. But, just like any other war with another nation, whether they be hot or cold, or a social movement war, the motivations, tactics, desired outcomes, morality and veracity of said war is examined and debated in the hallowed halls of both our nation’s government buildings and college campuses. And so it goes, this discourse can easily get bogged down in minutiae and tangents that bear no real importance regarding the subject at hand.

Also from the AroundtheO press release:

“To better address the emerging challenges associated with melting glaciers, Carey said, the information gathered from the social sciences and humanities needs to taken more seriously…‘We do a lot of modeling and study satellite images, but what if we look at literature, at art, at drawings and recordings of glaciers?’ Carey said. ‘We need to be looking at the cultural lenses on how people describe and talk about their landscape.’”

The study of glaciers is a worthwhile subject. They reflect sunlight so as to keep the Earth cooler than if sunlight is absorbed into the soil, and significant melting drives erosion, create lakes, and rise global water levels, as well as provide drinking water and help drive hydroelectric energy. Glaciers have profound effects on the temperature of the atmosphere, as well as on the landscape. The problem is Carey, et al. seem more interested in the impact glaciers have on the cultural landscape. Any author, rightly, wants his writing to influence readers. But when the culmination of the work of scholars and researchers, ostensibly in the natural sciences, is an examination, analysis and advocacy in the social sciences, and which may be utilized by governments to influence global policy, we need to pay attention.

To help fight climate change, the authors reviewed previously published articles about glaciology, and realized the discipline seriously lacks a parity of female to male researchers and scientists, and so they have invented “Feminist Glaciology,” which “asks how knowledge related to glaciers is produced, circulated, and gains credibility and authority across time and space…(through what ontological and epistemological process)…”

The authors of the paper assert:

“Feminist glaciology has four aspects: (1) knowledge producers, to decipher how gender affects the individuals producing glacier-related knowledges; (2) gendered science and knowledge, to address how glacier science, perceptions, and claims to credibility are gendered; (3) systems of scientific domination, to analyze how power, domination, colonialism, and control – undergirded by and coincident with masculinist ideologies – have shaped glacier-related sciences and knowledges over time; and (4) alternative representations, to illustrate diverse methods and ways – beyond the natural sciences, and including what we refer to as ‘folk glaciologies’ – to portray glaciers and integrate counter-narratives into broader conceptions of the cryosphere.”

One of the problems I have with this paper is it is replete and laden with jargon. There’s nothing wrong with using 50 cent words in a scholarly article, particularly one designed for an academic journal, yet jargon often occupies a space between the author and the reader, and can prevent comprehension. Whenever I alight upon a text jumbled with jargon, I become suspicious the author is trying to obfuscate his agenda, or is writing something without really having anything to say.

It seems, much to the authors’ chagrin, that the collection of glacial data is a result of such “masculinist” activities as sallying forth and, you know, collecting data from the field: “Most existing glaciological research – and hence discourse and discussions about cryospheric change – stems from information produced by men, about men, with manly characteristics, and within masculinist discourses.” Which leads us to a significant contradiction contained within the paper: Carey et al. informs us of the contributions of such mountaineering & glacier-studying figures as Fanny Bullock Workman, Mary Morris Walcott, Annie Smith Peck, Fanny Copeland, and Elisabeth Isaksson, yet despite the contributions these women made to the field of glaciology, they pale in comparison to those of male explorer scientists, since, “Many natural science fields have historically been defined by, and their credibility built upon, manly attributes such as heroic (often nationalistic) exploration and triumphs over hostile, wild, and remote landscapes.” Carey, et al. believe this is a problem because it portrays “that favored ‘authentic, rigorous, manly experience’, and scientists – let along women – who did not explicitly demonstrate that their glaciological conclusions stemmed from heroic, manly adventure struggled to make their scientific claims credible. Glaciology was for muscular gentlemen scientists. Women could read about glaciers in the Alps, but they were not fit for glaciological research, field science, or even alpine tourism.” The authors took pains to show women were marginalized and prevented from being taken seriously when it came to taking part in, or being credited with their findings (publishing privilege). But, what of Workman, Walcott, Peck, Copeland and Isaksson? Are they worthy of acclaim, or not?

Here’s an example of the frustrations felt by glaciologists who want to include alternative and/or marginalized voices in their analyses:

“…study of Tibetan herders’ understandings and observations of climate change, for example, that bias and inequality exist in those communities in Nagchu Prefecture. It was not possible to achieve gender balance in their interviews, for instance, because women repeatedly refused to be interviewed, citing their own lack of knowledge and illustrating how dominant perceptions of ‘glaciology’ can emerge, which may in some cases suppress alternative knowledges.”

What is an enlightened social scientist to do when her own test subjects admit they lack the knowledge required to push forth the scientists’ agenda?

One seemingly benign statement by Carey et al. deserves further scrutiny: “Knowledge about changing climactic conditions and glaciers varied among the women involved, with one participant appreciating the warmer weather at higher elevation, another lamenting the loss of a glacial lake for its hydrologic impacts, and another who inhabited an urban area being largely unfamiliar with nearby environmental changes.” The question this statement begs is, Are male scientists incapable of observing or intuiting these phenomena?

The authors believe “The feminist lens is crucial for effective analysis of what might look on the surface like postcolonial or hegemonic structures of development. But global power imbalances and gender inequality co-constitute each other – and the natural sciences and glaciology in particular.” Of course, these complaints pale in comparison to the complaint a farmer, whether that farmer is a he or a she, will have if/when a glacier’s runoff becomes too much for his/her crops to absorb, and sweeps them away. Worrying about the real world affects of glacial melting take precedence over the parallel academic aspects.

There is a nifty passage in the paper that relays a researcher’s struggle to understand the effect cooking oil may have on a glacier. Is the glacier, as some indigenous people believe, alive and able to turn itself to avoid the oil? Carey, et al. posits mythology, even if it runs counter to established scientific facts regarding glaciers, should be incorporated into feminist glaciology and then remind us the real danger is “a specific type of knowledge production that is restricted to a group of scientists who often cannot be divorced from larger processes of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalist resource extraction.” There’s nothing wrong with glaciologists wanting to include observations of people indigenous to a region around a glacier for data. However, peoples in under- or non-developed regions may very likely still be using a glacier for hydrating and irrigating purposes, rather than for scientific enquiry. This is a disconnect the authors do not bother trying to reconcile.

Carey, et al. write these alternative glacier “narratives” “show how humans and nature are intimately linked, and subsequently demonstrate the capacity of folk glaciologies to diversify the field of glaciology and subvert the hegemony of natural sciences.” Asking for, expecting, and even insisting on alternative voices in a field of study is all well and good, but we should draw a line to prevent the subversion the standard tools of the scientific method in favor of pseudo-science and anecdotal evidence, simply because most of that data had been compiled and analyzed by men. This is like asking firefighters to use extinguishing tools other than hoses because hoses are phallic, just to enforce a subversion against prevailing masculine narratives of firefighting.

This paper seemingly dismisses study of glaciers within a natural science context in favor anecdotal evidence, and disparages traditional data collection. I can appreciate the lament of being marginalized so as to be prevented from field study, but that doesn’t mean field study is invalid, or less important than anecdotal evidence collection; in fact, it doesn’t mean a manner of data collection or scientific study should be invalidated just because its so-called hegemonic qualities are offensive to outside observers. This paper draws on dozens of sources for its arguments; in ten years there could be dozens of articles similar to the one Carey, et al. have published, from which global technocrats could be influenced and derive bad policy from.

This article is absurd, and we can only hope it will remain inside the academic rhetorical bubble, a.k.a., The Academic Industrial Complex ™. It is not as though the article itself represents a threat to our way of life or that it should be purged from computer servers and academic journals Fahrenheit 451 style.

What is egregious and offensive about this article is that it is a result of taxpayer dollars. This paper about feminist glaciology is an entrance point into a larger issue worth examining, one that I will relay in:

Part 2: How Did This Get Funded?

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Dillon Eliassen is the Managing Editor of Being Libertarian. Dillon works in the sales department of a privately owned small company. He holds a BA in Journalism & Creative Writing from Lyndon State College, and needs only to complete his thesis for his Master’s of English from Montclair State University (something which his accomplished and beautiful wife, Alice, is continually pestering him about). He is the author of The Apathetic, available at Amazon.com. He is a self-described Thoreauvian Minarchist.

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