I remember being a teenager reading one of John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” books because my mom felt young adults should be more educated in relationship skills. A particular principle leaped out at the time: that men are like waffles, women are like spaghetti. The tongue-in-cheek metaphor described how most men excel at compartmentalizing various aspects of their lives (such as work versus their personal life) whereas the facets of a woman’s life were much more entangled, spaghetti-style. Granted, such statements were quintessential 90s material, and perhaps are not considered politically correct today. But if we can indulge in a little over-generalization for the sake of a thought experiment, there are reasons why spaghetti-thinking is crucial to sustainability in the 21st century.
Let’s break that down. The past century was marked by the splendors and calamities of waffle-thinking. Since the Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Age, the pursuit of knowledge in a highly driven and specialized manner has been the hallmark of progress. I needn’t wax-poetic about the advances in technology and medicine. These have resulted from the relentless pursuit of knowledge by countless innovators, many of which remain unknown. Their innovations became the currency of corporate structures and new modes of human organization. And as fledgling corporations capitalized on innovation, “compartmentalized” thinking became even more dominant—a focus on profit and economies of scale at the expense of all other considerations, notably human and planetary health. Compartmentalization created isolation between workers and management, and between management and owners. It created invisible walls between production and the consequences of toxic byproducts. It buffered a thriving GDP from languishing ecologies and unhappy populations. It isolated consumerism from dwindling resources and sexy packaging from sweatshop origins. While waffle thinking advanced incredible levels of discovery, the devastating consequences of ignoring a spectrum of considerations beyond profitability haunts the world as we know it.
So what is the spaghetti thinking women excel at? Well, it’s the ability to multitask, like answering the phone while feeding a baby and packing a briefcase. It’s that delicate dance of balancing emotional health with work and family, community, the environment and fiscal abundance. It’s about understanding tradeoffs, a very visceral skill females have had to hone throughout evolution—like tradeoffs between self-care, pregnancy and the needs of older siblings, perhaps with a little famine thrown in the mix. And it’s an orientation toward interconnectivity, the understanding that nothing truly exists in isolation. Everything is in relationship with everything else. And compartmentalism is ultimately an illusion.
This worldview goes beyond the blanket statement that women are more ‘relationally oriented.’ Relationships and being relational transcend the navigation of office politics or prioritizing a night on the town with the girls. Being oriented towards relationships is another way of describing ‘systems thinking,’ and having an instinctual comprehension of webs. This pertains to anything from an economy to an ecosystem. If there is one thing we do understand about how nature works, it’s the fact that it is a tangled web indeed. A tangled bowl of fusilli, if you will.
But perhaps the most important element of relational thinking is empathy. This is where relational thinking transcends pragmatism into the sphere of ethics, imagination and selflessness. Empathy is crucial moving forward. We may squeak by with an intact status quo for another generation. If self-survival is all that counts, we really don’t have to emerge from our comfort zone. It’s empathy for the next generation as well as for non-human lifeforms that will drive real change in the sustainability arena. Because they are the ones bearing the brunt of our inaction. This is where spaghetti intertwines with the future. Being a mom, I can attest to the life-changing experience of growing and birthing a daughter. For me, nothing compares to this heavy investment in the next generation, forged by 24/7 motherhood and the desire for my daughter to thrive in a biodiverse future.
And her future is riddled with uncertainty. As we head towards various tipping points, even the world’s billionaires can no longer find refuge in isolation, be it a private island, New Zealand or a luxury bunker in Alaska. The interconnectivity of climate and contamination issues impacts each and every one of us. And surviving, let alone thriving, in the coming century will not be a compartmentalized affair. It will require balancing profitability with a host of other priorities. We will need to assign values to non-monetary considerations for capitalism to continue.
I suspect, in the end, we will need to fuse these 2 modes of thinking together, the forest and the trees, the male and the female, the waffle and the pasta. Perhaps that is the most noble endgame for artificial intelligence we could hope for. In the meantime, our current paradigm can only benefit from more women infusing their unique perspectives within the geopolitics of sustainability. Waffle thinking will no longer suffice moving forward.