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Winter Books

Author seeks to restore balance lost for millennia

by Carol Lee Flinders
Harper San Francisco, 218 pages, $24.95


Carol Flinders has a noteworthy enough thesis in Values of Belonging. She looks around (as many of us do) and sees a world out of kilter. For a long time she assigned the cause of that imbalance to the inequality between the genders before she concluded that gender imbalance is only a symptom, not the cause of the real problem.

The real problem, she asserts, stems from a paradigm shift that took the culture from a pre- to a post-agricultural society. The pre-agricultural society was populated by a race of hunters and gatherers living a lifestyle based on what Flinders chooses to call the “values of belonging.” Survival in this early era depended on an intimate connection with nature and the environment, that is, the land, the animals and the other humans. Flowing from this relationship of connectedness developed mutuality, inclusiveness, (generally) nonviolent conflict resolution and an openness to Spirit.

In their world, God was fluid, everywhere, and was identified with the earth as a mother who fed and sustained them. Concurrently, women enjoyed a status quite equal to men. “Foraging women,” Flinders explains, “are now thought to have been considerably less dependent on hunting males than early researchers believed.” She goes on to say that “as much as 70 to 80 percent of the caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers came from food accumulated by women and children.” The fact that women could support themselves as foragers gave them considerable autonomy, and because of women’s intimacy with the land they garnered valuable intelligence about animal movements and seasonal shifts. Even women’s reproductivity is thought to have been enhanced by a supportive network of older women, thus offering a “genetic advantage to their whole linage.” Subsequently, women enjoyed a more or less egalitarian relationship with men in this pre-agricultural era.

The world of the hunter-gatherers was not easy, nor was it perfect, but for the two-and-a-half million years it prevailed, it evolved and adapted into what Carl Jung would call “the collective unconscious of the human race.” In other words, despite the gathering storm of an agriculturally based economy, the values of belonging never went away, they were merely submerged into and under the “values of enterprise,” which characterize the latter period.

One simple way of describing the difference between these two systems is to note that hunter-gatherers belonged to the land in the former whereas the land belonged to the farmers in the latter. With ownership of the land came dominance, competition and exploitation all showing up as a form of materialism. Hunters had a vested interest in sharing. Meat, after all, would not keep, therefore, sharing was not only a form of generosity but a practical necessity. In the age of agriculture, food grown could be hoarded and became more than sustenance. It became capital.

Not only do we see in this paradigm shift the nexus of greed and capitalism, but also the incipience of aggression in problem solving. “Agriculture,” Flinders would have us bear in mind, “is by its very nature aggressive. Farming is always somewhat like war; it pits one man against another in competition for limited resources -- land, water, labor and ‘market share’ for one’s crops. The commercial institutions that have come along in the wake of agriculture -- institutions wherein if we’re lucky we ‘make a killing’ -- are also involved in activities that are somewhat like war.”

The question we are all asking about now is how or why this revolution into agriculture came to pass in the first place. Unexpectedly, it did not occur in one region and then spread to the rest of the world. It transpired pretty much simultaneously among all the populations within a relatively short period of time. Flinders’ short answer is that the triggers are unknown. I would suggest that if any of this has grabbed you so far, you might want to read Riane Eisler’s excellent book, The Chalice and the Blade, for a more in-depth treatment of this phenomenon.

But back to the gender issue. “If ever there was a tipping point in human history, a time when women’s fortunes turned definitively for the worse, the onset of agriculture was surely it,” Flinders theorizes. As the land was valued for its fertility, so now were women, as they and their offspring became a commodity in the agricultural system. And as for the values of belonging, recall, if you will, that they never did disappear, they were just subsumed under and within the values of enterprise. What happened was that the values of belonging became feminized whereas the values of enterprise belonged to men.

In the writing of this book, Flinders casts her analytical net more broadly than deeply and makes the same point several ways from several angles. For example, in this casting about we learn something about the basket-weaving of the Pomo Indians, the invention of timekeeping, the co-opting of institutional religion by Constantine, women’s suffrage, the nature of children’s play, crime in the United States, classical literature and more. She also spends too much time trying to convince readers of points already made and accepted, sort of like preaching to the choir.

The book comes into its own again in the last chapter when she finally gets to some of the practical applications of her thesis, that is, the need to reincorporate the values of belonging as an equal player with the values of enterprise. She identifies some highly influential men and women who have successfully integrated the two. She also traces the evolving awareness of a personal friend who started out practicing conventional law as a litigator, moved into mediation law, and is now practicing collaborative law.

The growing practice of organic farming is another hopeful sign as is an ongoing integrated studies program at one high school that, over a period of 13 years, restored the entire length of an endangered creek, planted trees and built a hatchery. “Students who graduated 10 and 15 years ago come back every year to visit the hatchery and they speak of their experience there as life-changing.”

On a personal note, I would add that the high school I teach at is incorporating Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Small Wonder (NCR, May 17), into four courses taught on the sophomore level in an attempt to integrate the curriculum around some of the environmental issues Kingsolver feels strongly about.

Like Kingsolver in both her fiction and non-fiction, Flinders has touched on a host of topics, and, in retrospect, if her approach raises awareness in a fraction of her readers, maybe she wasn’t only preaching to the choir, maybe she will make some new converts. To that end, I would say, “Amen.”

Judith Bromberg lives, writes and teaches high school English in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002