What exactly is a patriarchal society and how has it affected us and the planet?

Patriarchy is a social system in which family hierarchies (or in our case, entire societies) are structured so that males are the primary authority figures. Living for so long with this system embedded into our society, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t the case.

But, believe it or not, humans haven't always lived under a patriarchal system. Before our consumerist-led society, we had equality—and it kept people more at harmony with one another and with the natural world. So if we lived like that before, maybe there's a way we can do it again?

What came before the patriarchy?hieroglyphicsPhoto by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Before patriarchy, we lived in small hunter-gatherer communities. We often think of these communities as male-dominated with the men hunting and the women being at home, but that’s been proven to be a false patriarchal narrative.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much unbiased information about that time period. Anything that exists since the written word has been interpreted by people living in a patriarchal time. However, we do have hieroglyphics, sculptures and figures that show that in the Stone Age, society was led by the mind of the matriarch.

Rather than it being a dominating matriarchal “rule”, this way of life focused on “maternal” values like compassion, nurturing and community. In studies led on hunter-gatherer groups, where there is a division of labour, they have found that both sexes brought in a similar amount of calories for the community; that there was a more profound relationship between parents and children; and that there was an overall communal approach to sharing resources and innovations.

At that time, communities consisted of 20 people moving around every 10 days, where we subsisted on hunted game, gathered fruit, vegetables and honey. Today’s scientists have done a simulation study on patriarchal versus matriarchal societies, and when one sex had influence over the decisions of where and how the communities lived (as seen in patriarchal society), men tend to stay with closely related men. Whereas when both sexes made decisions, there was a more social and cooperative community which allowed the group to be more diverse genetically, providing a wider choice of mates.

So if this society created a better quality of life, why did we stray from it and how do we go back?

The rise of the patriarchygreece ancient cityPhoto by Constantinos Kollias on Unsplash

Over 12,000 years ago, the extinction of larger animals left humans without their primary predators. With fewer threats to our species, our population grew, but resources stayed the same. With this sense of scarcity, there came a need to control the unpredictable: our food source. Rather than continue our way of life through slow-grazing on areas of land, then moving onto another area and allowing nature to recover and grow back, we became sedentary with the emerging invention of agriculture.

As humans stayed put, the urge to accumulate more land overtook us. Since men were traditionally known to be physically stronger, it was easier for them to claim and maintain land for the family. Slowly, the narrative began that it was the men who would provide further security for communities, and they would do it at any cost. This meant that the sons would later take over the land, and the daughters would be left to tend to their families and homes. As seen in those simulations, as men became the “dominant sex”, they started to form alliances with other male kin, but only the ones who would benefit them (and only for as long as it benefited them).

Scientists say that at one point, egalitarianism (equality amongst the sexes) was one of our important distinguishers from our primate cousins, who live in aggressive and male-dominated societies. As we’ve seen in modern day, the transition into a similarly selfish and aggressive patriarchal society has led to the accumulation of resources which has spiralled into deforestation, global pollution, wars and consumerism to the point of eventual self-destruction.

If the goal was to “win” evolution and overtake the natural world, we’ve definitely succeeded. But if the goal is to sustain the growing population beyond the next 60 years, we need to rethink our “dominating nature” approach.

Patriarchy, domination and pollutionIndustrial RevolutionPhoto by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Many say that climate change was born at the time of agriculture and patriarchy, and it has been a slow degeneration from there. Atmospheric chemicals and pollutants were once rare, but as we continued to crave more control, to accumulate more land, we began to invade and conquer nations, and we did it with more intense (and environmentally destructive) militarized weapons.

This patriarchal ache to own/invent/rule everything came to a peak in the 1780s during the Industrial Revolution, remained through the nuclear era of the 1940s, and reached all-time highs with the invention of television and other virtual/technological advances that have distanced us further from the outdoors.

Our leisure time has been increasingly consumed by digital devices (the new way to conquer), as the less time we spend surrounded by nature, the less we care about what happens to it. As urban sprawl grows our alienation from nature, it makes it easier to destroy because we don’t see the immediate impacts of it.

We go to the store to purchase food, but don’t feel the energy it takes to grow it. We build homes with wood, stone and other valuable materials, but we don’t cut down the trees or mine the stone ourselves. Maybe if we had to live with the immediate consequences, we would appreciate our fleeting resources more?

The patriarchal mindset tells us that anything that isn’t instantly gratifying or instantly horrifying isn’t worth our trouble, but as we continue to watch mental and planetary health plummet, we have to ask: when will we let this patriarchal thought pattern expire?

How do we move forward?evolutionPhoto by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

Human population continues to grow and if we want to sustain our species, we need to use our gathered knowledge (both positive and negative) to move forward with the planet and every person in mind, not just the elite few.

In the end, only a small minority of the population lives well in a patriarchal, consumerist and capitalistic society. We work too hard. We work too much. We spend money on things we think we need. We become trapped in a cycle where only those on top prevail. So we shift. It may feel impossible to make this shift, but as we’ve seen through the pandemic, we are capable of making great changes and adaptations quickly if we’re pushed to do so.

It doesn’t start with a whole upheaval of a system—it’s found in the little steps. It’s found in living in symbiosis with Mother Earth rather than against her, which means living in symbiosis with our true needs, rather than against them.

It starts with rejecting the deep gender roles ingrained in our society and embracing that women can be strong and fierce, and that men can be soft and emotional. We know better now; we have the solutions, so let’s use them. Let’s stop slapping a band-aid over our problems and acting out of fear. We need to do the emotional work so that we stop taking it out on the planet and each other; we can’t heal the planet through the same philosophies that ailed it in the first place.

It starts with being OK with less: less stuff, less fame, less followers—because it’s not that different from conquerers wanting to leave their mark by overtaking a country. It doesn’t start with the conquering; it starts with a fear of death and a fear of being insignificant.

But what if we could live in the moment and not tell anybody about it (i.e. post on social media)? What if we could live gently with our friends and family, spend valuable time reading or foraging together? What if we were finally satisfied with how much we’ve accumulated or attained?

Well, then maybe we would finally rest and heal, and allow Mother Nature to do the same.