on Environment, Women and Culture

Penelope Polyzou was born in Athens, Greece, and studied Chemical Engineering in Vienna, Austria; and obtained her PhD Organic Chemistry from Berlin, Germany. She came to Canada with her family in 1976


Environmental Contributions from Women of Multicultural Backgrounds
June / July 1992

In different ways, we all sense that we live in rapidly changing social structures, and we are looking in all possible directions for some guide to help us cope with the changing society. It is now becoming more and more evident that the magnitude of modern human actions towards nature threatens our own existence and the economies based on them.

To most women of non-North American background, the more readily available knowledge to draw from is their original cultural experience.

The majority of these women came from technologically underdeveloped countries, where the survival and the flourishing of the human society is still more directly connected to a healthy natural environment, where all its components are allowed to interact with much less massive human intervention than in the North American countries.

These women are experienced with handling raw materials to prepare food, clothing, and cleaning products, and are overwhelmed and confused by the supply of processed and prefabricated products available here. Their previous lifestyle produced very little waste, or none at all.

It is thus only understandable that all the modern concepts of the environmentalists are not shocking them, instead, they seem obvious. Yet these women are still hesitant to fully apply the conservation practices possible today in our society. They try hard to assimilate themselves and their families into the ‘Canadian’ society and this leads to a fast adaptation of the average lifestyle in big cities, where the majority of them live.

There is also a limitation to the access of consumer information confronting them, partly due to language problems, among others. For instance, I am faced with disbelief every time I explain to women friends that the common table salt they are using contained aluminum silicate (a kind of sand), in order to have its ‘free running’ properties; or that all ‘smoked’ meats contained a proven carcinogenic (sodium nitrite) as preservative. There are countless other examples of ignorance about the products offered in the stores and also about new habits they are acquiring, like the everyday shampooing of the hair. They feel obliged to buy and use all these fancy, over packaged cleaning products advertised, as a sign of a more ‘civilized’ lifestyle. This way they abandon very valuable methods in hygiene, such as using the sun’s ultraviolet light as bleach and disinfectant (instead of chlorine) or using soda and vinegar as cleaning agents.

As a possible way to revive and incorporate the very valuable and essential methods of resources utilization known to most immigrant women into our lifestyle, is to organize information meetings where knowledge and experience about these issues can be conveyed and exchanged. The essence of these meetings can be made public so that more broad discussions can be initiated, which might help us all change our ways of living and interacting with our environment.

Creating a New Society and Culture
September 1992

What a magnificent prospective Canada offers in respect to a successful change of social human behaviour to face a rapidly evolving environment! We are so many people carrying with us the experiences and traditions of older cultures in a country rich in resources. At the same time, we all feel the pressures of the changing physical and social environment.

These conditions create ideal ground for the development of a great new culture.

The changes will not be smooth or without controversy, especially at the individual level. On the macro-scale though, they should remain peaceful to ensure the prevalence of reasonable development. On the personal level, we all must open up our minds to viable ideas and values coming from different cultures.

As a Canadian of Greek origin, I am aware of the conditions which helped the ancient Greek culture to flourish: the first of the Greek settlers used and integrated the knowledge and cultural achievements of the neighbouring, older civilizations into their way of life .. such as mathematics, astronomy and technology from Egypt and Asia Minor, the alphabet, the art of sea travel and navigation from Phoenicia. They also profited tremendously from the knowledge of nature and agriculture held by native peoples in their new land. Most importantly, their willingness to adapt and change allowed them to progress and later to make their own impact in the area.

The decline of any civilization is usually the result of a rigid society and culture that neglects the essential progressive changes or of overpowering exterior influences.

It is now time to re-evaluate some older traditions, habits, taboos, hierarchical rules etc., of our own as well as of other cultural background and determine which values to expand on and preserve.

This can only be done if people feel they will lose nothing by dropping some characteristics of their cultural background and adapting others more relevant to our time. In other words, the complete disappearance of discrimination; and I think that Canadian society is well on its way to eradicating discrimination, although constant efforts towards this goal are still required.

A while ago we thought that we had nothing to learn from technologically underdeveloped cultures. It turned out to be a huge mistake; evident if we consider the damages which modern technological societies have inflicted to the physical environment upon which we all depend.

I really don’t understand how our society intends to protect the environment if it still maintains economic rules which generously reward its destruction !

Reflections to this logical question are so far absent in the discussions and decision-making procedures. It is amazing, considering our intellectual capacities as a species, that the untouched natural wealth is not calculated as a valued component in the GNP (Gross National Product).

According to these economic rules, the price of a property in the downtown of a hopelessly polluted city is a thousand times higher than one in the relatively clean countryside.

The modern “classical” economic rules recognize as values only the outcome of human efforts. Therefore the clear-cutting of forests in order to make houses, furniture, etc., adds value to the economy. The forest itself is worthless ?!

In contrast to these unwise rules, aboriginal cultures have a better understanding of the dependence of our species upon the physical environment.  A forest for these cultures is never worthless, even if it stays untouched by human activity.

This kind of thinking is now, more than ever, relevant to our survival.

The majority of immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds, are willing to drop some habits and ways of thinking and adapt to the contemporary way of life in Canada. On the other hand, they expect to be respected if they chose to keep other valuable traditions.

Personally, I willingly changed my way of life since coming to Canada, but I am critical of some entrenched habits and behaviour here. Such as the worship of the “weed-free” lawn, the consumption of processed food, the use of too many chemicals in everyday life, and the disproportionate emphasis of individuality versus the collective responsibility. A new balance needs to be found between the personal independence and the compromises of family life, based on the free will and consensus of all its members.

We can all benefit from exchanges of cultural experiences from different parts of the world


Some thoughts about the puzzling, destructive
October / November 1992

Human Social Behaviour
The wars currently raging between people of the same or related cultures shock every human being who is aware of their horrible consequences, and they puzzle us: How is it possible that people of the same race*, language, cultural and historical background, butcher each other with such an untold cruelty as they do in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, and other parts of the world?

If we come to the conclusion that these events are inherent to our species’ savagery, which we cannot control .. then I think we should all commit collective suicide !

But thankfully, the majority of us think that we, as individuals, have the capability to control rage, hate, greed and cruel, irrational behaviour.

Then the only remaining explanation is that our social structures and organizations are hindering individuals from exercising their personal control over destructive behaviour, while rewarding, encouraging and enabling a small minority of people with perversive psychoses to commit senseless atrocities.

If we study the evolution of the human society, we will stumble upon the so-called prehistoric period, where there were highly organized and prosperous societies with big cities in Crete, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and so on, without any defence structures or evidence of military organization, where the prime God was a Mother figure. There the natural setting of a female-centred family unit prevailed.

Wars and violence were unknown until these societies were overpowered by outside male warrior bands. We continue to experience the consequences of the destruction of these peaceful and civilized societies to the present time. We are experiencing the final historical agony of the decadent social structures which deny the central and essential role of women in the well-being and survival of our species.

These phenomena are widespread on earth, with one common feature between these self-destructing societies, that being: patriarchy. The quest for power for egocentric reasons only, has been sanctioned and glorified since then.

So the successful and powerful individual, under this new order has the right to violate not only fellow human beings, but also to conquer and destroy nature !

We can detect the underlying philosophy of these fairly recent social structures in the human history by looking at their reward system, which manipulates and controls motherhood and future generations, but gives power and control to military and elite groups that are not responsible for social well-being.

If we look for the official reasons of violent actions in our century alone, we cannot help but express sarcasm .. as in the case of social unrest movement against “God derived power structures” in the name of similarly (if not worse) oppressive hierarchy, or the massacres because of race*, religion, way of living and/or thinking, language, etc.

We all know, though, that the real reasons are : greed, quest for power and control over other human beings, and natural “resources”. Nowadays it is becoming clearer that we cannot control a complex and dynamic entirety in which we, ourselves, belong and are a small part of. That is why the ways and the thinking of older societies like the Native, and the “pre-historic”, .. are so relevant today; because they specifically recognize this fact.

The complexity and the indefinite extent of the inter-relations between the components of our biosphere make our medium and long term planning and predictions dangerously inaccurate. That is why we should restrict our large scale interventions with it, to only what is absolutely necessary.

In fact we should pursue our quest for knowledge and understanding of our environment and of our own social organizations, because this is a part of our evolution.

* modern biology/biochemistry teach us that all human beings on earth share a common DNA genetic pool. So what is a race ? Is it the distinction of the colour of eyes, skin ..? Then what about blond haired/blue eyed Jewish people and dark haired/brown eyed Germans and Anglo-Saxon people ? I think the word race becomes meaningless in light of our modern scientific knowledge


Animals & Humans
December 1992 / January 1993

Contemporary cultures and religions are anthropocentric and regard animals as fundamentally different and inferior to humans.  This thinking is used to justify the ruthless exploitation and inhumane behaviour that conflicts with any code of the accorded moral for humans.  This attitude is not justified by the need to survive, on the contrary, it is now evident that the massive ill-treatment of animals is backfiring on humans and endangering our health, psychological state, moral and finally our physical environment.

The excessive consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products, made possible by the modern farms’ mass production methods, is detrimental to our health, as medical experts now warn us.

The overuse of laboratory animals tests do not produce safe products for human use, as so many tragic examples show, like the sedative “thalidomide“, and the huge increase of human allergic reactions.

We learn to become cruel and violent to other human beings after we are hardened up by witnessing, since childhood, brutal and cruel treatment of animals.

Children have a natural attraction to animals and love to play and associate with them.  This early urge is broken by the adult environment mostly because of exaggerated health risks, city life, and adult prejudice against ‘lower beings‘.

For a child to witness an adult mistreat and demean an animal is a confusing and demoralizing experience.  The child sees violence against an innocent, defenseless being, not that much different from ourselves.

Biochemistry now teaches us that 95% of the genetic material of chimpanzees is identical to humans !

We differ only in 5% of our evolutionary path from them, but we behave as though we are gods towards them and decide about their use in horrendous laboratory tests on very questionable scientific grounds, stress testing, effects of mistreatment of youth, we decide the destruction of their natural habitat because of the important use we have for it !

It is only a matter of time and of accumulation of suffering until this horrible massacre of sentient life forms on our planet will backfire on the species which perpetuate it.

We have the knowledge and the ability to change our behaviour towards the animals, starting with  discarding anthropocentric doctrines which imply that we are fundamentally different from other animals, and adopt the scientific point of view in our behaviour, that we are  a product of a continuous evolutionary process which will go on to develop other species, unless we manage to destroy this beautifully diverse biosphere we call earth.