Conversations in “Deep Times” Podcast Series – Season 1, Episode 1 – Part II

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Ecological Masculinities with Paul Pulé – PART 2

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Welcome to the “Conversations in ‘Deep Times’” podcast series, where our aim, as a companion to the Deep Times journal, is to highlight the Work that Reconnects and its facilitators, as well as other practitioners, scholars and creatives from the wider community who make a significant contribution to the Work and the deep changes taking place on our planet. These podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece, including relevant links in the show notes for you to further explore.

In this inaugural episode of our podcast series, Deep Times Editorial Team member Erin Holtz Braeckman interviews Paul Pulé, an Australian scholar and activist specializing in men, masculinities, and their impacts on Earth, others and self. His research and education efforts are dedicated to creating a movement of systemic transformation for gender justice, environmental care, and a sustainable world.

Erin Holtz Braeckman:  0:00  

We will be interviewing your colleague Abigail Sykes at a later date around your work’s part in The Starfish Collective, which offers education for change on gender and environment issues to government, corporate and civic groups in order to shift away from destructive masculinity norms as one suite of needed responses to industrial growth and “business-as-usual” mindsets and praxes. But I would like to touch on here how the Work that Reconnects is intrinsic to this approach. When did you first come across WTR, and how has it contributed to the dissemination of ecological masculinities?

Paul Pulé:  0:46  

Yeah, it’s such a beautiful question. I was so warmed by all thoughts that came to mind when I was reading that question, because I had just come back from doing my Masters with Stephen Harding at Schumacher college in the UK, from 2008 to 2003, and one of the shining lights of that time was that I spent a week with Jane Goodall. I did my dissertation on doing a comparative study of male chimpanzees versus male bonobos, which led me on to doing the work that I do now with men. It’s an interesting path. But I came back from that year in the UK and one of the things that happened was that I found myself really wanting to figure out how it is that I could take what I’d learned in UK, and bring those insights to my understanding of masculinities. And so, one of the first things that I did was that I went to one of these men’s retreats. I showed up at the table, and I was received by one of the guys who did that whole stern thing that they often do in men’s work, and I remember feeling so affected by his welcoming that, after I did my registration, I slipped past the table, went into the public restroom behind him, and threw up. And I realized that I was onto something; my body was saying to me there’s something here that’s really deep in me that I want to get up and out. 

By doing that work, in the formative years of this work – theoretically developing ecological masculinities on my own at the time in Western Australia – I was led to Sweden. I met Martin at a conference, then went to work with him in Sweden, and from the work that we have developed and published, we’ve also built a consulting collective that does education practically in the world, so that we’re not just in the ivory tower of academia, we’re actually out in the world doing stuff too. And that’s sort of become more and more my area of focus, at least for now. I mean, I’m also writing and publishing as well. But I’m an activist and educator for change before I’m a scholar and writer, and The Starfish Collective has gathered together a number of really brilliant folk, from different walks of life, that are interested in doing this work in practice; to actually be the change that we want to see in the world; to facilitate that showing up in organizations on multiple levels. 

We have a bit of a “Robin Hood” approach as a group: we bill out at regular corporate rates that we negotiate with our government and corporate clients, so that we can be available for grassroots groups for pro bono or very small honoraria. So, we work on a sliding scale, basically, and we negotiate that with each client. And the purpose of that is to really actually bring the concepts that we’ve been talking about so far into the offices, into the documents that people will produce, into the policies that are put into place, into the way that economic systems are created and maintained, so that we can actually get beyond the stuck places that we’ve been in. The reason we call it “Starfish” is because, if you think of the starfish with five legs, it can move in a lot of different directions, and it’s made up of a lot of different parts that are pointing in different directions in the world. And so, the idea behind the Starfish logo and our conceptualization of ourselves is that we are a number of different experiences coming together but then also pointing out into the world in a lot of different directions at the same time, together as a collective. So, the purpose of Starfish is really to be able to do the translation of theory into practice.

Erin:  5:20  

Yes. Wonderful. Bringing it to the people. We’ve touched on this a little bit – but I do want to dig a little deeper. I pulled a quote from your book, Ecological Masculinities, which you co-authored, as you said, with Martin Hultman. And in your book, you paraphrase the wonderful American writer Rebecca Solnit, in a passage that states, and I quote, men are socialised to literally kill off their emotional selves and intentionally target others that they dominate, routing out vulnerability in others as much as in the self; the messages conveyed to boys and men are incisive – open-ness is weakness, being a real man is being the one who penetrates, not the one who is penetrated; to love is to risk rejection and abandonment; respect is earned or extorted; being heartfelt is to lose control; to collaborate and consult is to deny one’s leadership” (9). 

We are seeing this toxic masculinity played out on the world stage right now in a Cold War narrative that has likened any attempts to engage in ways that do not fit a patriarchal approach – such as ecological masculinities – as, and I quote, “politically impotent”. How do you stay hopeful in that kind of dismissiveness by the “powers-that-be” – especially those whom sit on the capacity to create mass devastation at their whim? It is easy to fall into a place of panic, paralysis, or apathy – in which nothing we could ever do feels big enough to make an impactful difference. But what we do does make a difference – so where, in ecological masculinities, does systemic change start?

Paul:  7:33  

I started reading in feminism early on in my PhD work, and one of the key things that I learned is that fundamental wisdom of feminism: that the personal is political and political is personal. In other words, you can’t transform structures if you don’t do your personal work, and you can’t do your personal work in broken structures. So, the more that we can transform structures, the more that we can heal ourselves; the more that we heal ourselves, the more that we can transform structures – the two interlink. That became a really guiding principle for me in the ways that I was developing ecological masculine. And so, writers like Solnit are who have been writing in ways that reach civil society that’s in a language and in ways that actually are easier to understand than the academics that I’ve been trained in. One of the things that I’m working on right now is how do I do the translation not just in terms of theory into practice, through Starfish, but also how do I change my own writing, and my own speaking, and my own sharing of this work so that it’s actually more accessible out in the world? 

It’s really important, now, when you talk about what it is that we’re dealing with on the world stage. It’s very difficult for my mind not to go to the Ukraine situation, because it’s just so present, I think, for all of us right now, and may be for quite some time. But I wonder what would happen if the human being beneath the bravado of the strongman politics of Putin walked through the towns and the cities that his forces have destroyed and actually let himself feel the grief and the loss and the suffering; I wonder what would happen if that human being actually touched that, and how that would make it possible for them to change their position? Now, the problem that we run into is that, as we’ve seen for the last five or six years or so, in particular, strongman politics has gotten a lot of air-time; it’s become even more entrenched and even more institutionalized and gone through a revival, I would say – a backlash politics. And I’m not hopeful of a peaceful or humanist solution in the Ukraine, because what I see with strongman politics is that, once you are that entrenched, or that guarded, it requires an existential crisis to drop that. So, the task then becomes how do we allow ourselves to be human in the face of so much suffering in the world right now – in the Ukraine situation, but also to touch the suffering of the people of Syria, the people of Afghanistan, the people who are feeling threatened in Taiwan? Like, making sure that we don’t get so parochial about our upset that we forget that, actually, this is a human experience. 

The reason [Ukraine] is getting so much airtime is because it’s closer to home for those of us that have a lot of power, and a lot of wealth, and a lot of control. And it’s pushed that World War Two button that many of us in Europe and of European heritage have stories connected with. So, I think that there’s a really important task for us to allow ourselves to feel – and that’s where the Work that Reconnects, I think, is particularly powerful, because what it does is that it gives us a way to be able to actually be in the presence of those intense feelings, and not turn away from them because they’re too much; to not deny and not dismiss them, but to actually let them be part of us that we use as food. And to hold out the hopefulness that I do have: look at the billions of dollars, look at the stories of opening one’s heart, people who are purchasing Airbnb rooms in Ukraine that don’t even exist anymore – right? These are the examples of the best of the human spirit in the times of the greatest adversity. 

I’ve thought about that every time there has been a natural disaster – you don’t ask the person who they’re voting for politically; you say “Come in, sit down. Let me make you a cup of tea. How can I help?” And that’s what I have the most hope for. The Work that Reconnects has been able to give me a frame for touching that in the work with masculinities. It’s not always easy with guys, I have to admit – and some women, also, and gender queer people that have really bought into a particular way of being. It’s not always easy. But there is something about being able to speak from the place of being human as opposed to “doing human”. It’s really important here, especially right now.

Erin:  14:10  

Thank you for that, Paul – we all needed that. I am feeling so hopeful and clear and inspired by your work right now. And it’s, I think, a nice moment to finish off our interview by actually going through the Spiral of the Work that Reconnects. And so, we’ll start with Gratitude: what are you most grateful for right now?

Paul:  14:35  

Yeah, well, I’m extremely grateful for my uncle’s beautiful apartment and my relationship with him. I’m also feeling a lot of gratitude towards my dad; I do the work that I do and I am the person that I am in the world because of him. He and I have had our struggles, and it does feel to me like those are in the past. I’ve been able to find the things about my father that I really love, adore, appreciate, and can celebrate, and I’m able to accept the places where both of us have been not the best versions of ourselves, in our relationships. And I own that for myself as well: I have not been the best version of myself, at times, with him. And so, I’m feeling a lot of gratitude towards my dad for being the kind of guy that, when the chips are really down, will give you the shirt off his back. He is that kind of guy. And I am that kind of guy, too, because I come from that line. 

I want to take a moment to also honor my mom. She has been incredibly patient, understanding, forgiving, and has put up with a lot. And from a very early age, I can remember thinking about how I could find different tasks or different things that I could get good at to make her life easier as a young fella. And it’s part of the reason that I got to learn to cook well, because I, in addition to also feeling very well loved in the kitchen, and well fed, also wanted to lighten her load and help her notice that it wasn’t just a big burden on her; that there were people that were noticing how much she was doing. I come from a cultural tradition which is very gender binary, and the male and the female roles were very tightly defined. And I could see that there was a way that that really limited some things, some aspects of my mom’s life, and I’m glad that she has landed in a place in her life now where she’s able to breathe easier. I thank her for coming back to loving me, really, through all the difficulties that our family and families across the planet have had to face; our story is not that different from anyone else’s. So that’s what I’m really thankful for the most right now – my uncle and my parents.

Erin:  18:03  

Thank you for that. We move next into Honoring our Pain. So, at this time, what pain for our world are you feeling?

Paul:  18:21  

I have obviously been feeling enormous amounts of grief, watching the images come out of the Ukraine. And there’s been this part of me that has also been wondering (and we don’t know, right) about the lives of the Russian soldiers that are being ordered – for some, at least, I would say, against their will – to do terrible things. I feel that in the same way that I feel the pain for the little guy beneath the bravado of President Trump – that little rich kid who was isolated, cut off, militarized. I remember when Trump became President and seeing these images of his son, Barron – the degree to which he seemed sucked back from in himself. And I wondered to what degree that that was a reflection of what the young Donald experienced that helped armor him, to be such a bluster, like Putin. I feel pain for that little guy inside, because he’s in there still, he is. And part of my work is finding ways to reach at least some of those little guys. Many of them are not reachable. And I admit that. But some are.

Erin:  20:47  

Thank you for touching into that, Paul – that’s lovely. Seeing with New Eyes – what is the most critical awakening that has arisen from within your work that has allowed you to see with new eyes?

Paul:  21:10  

My uncle shared something with me when I first moved to New York to live with him many years ago, 20 years ago. I was sitting on the fire escape of the apartment – you know, one of those classic New York iron fire escapes, a bit rusty, and 20 layers of paint and dusty – and I was reading a book. And the book that I was reading was If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. A classic. And the message in the book really, as I remember, is “Don’t be running after any particular teacher; go looking for the teacher in yourself”. So, be careful of putting somebody on a pedestal; don’t lose your sense of self. Don’t give it over. Of course, I did at different points in my life as a young fellow who learned these things the hard way. But I’m pleased to say that I think I got that lesson now. But you know, my uncle said something to me in those days that has stayed with me, and will continue to stay with me for all the days of my life. He said, “You know, Paul, whenever you’re presented with an either-or situation, either this or that, it’s really helpful to go looking for the ‘Yes’. Yes this, and yes that.” And I go looking for that. I come back to that a lot. It’s an anchor for me, that principle. And it is the thing that helps me see things with new eyes – How do we look at these really difficult, challenging situations in the world? 

Often, it means actually shifting my own position from where I am completely; to look at the situation from another angle. And that means I have to go through some thoughts and feelings and a whole process myself to make that move first, in order to look at the situation with fresh eyes. It’s a constant process – an almost daily practice, I would say. One of the ways that I help myself is by making sure that I find ways to nurture myself and take care of myself through that process, which I think Joanna and her colleagues’ work is really important to come back to for. That and Aikido have been really important to come back to for me again and again.

Erin: 24:34  

Beautiful. And that leads us to Going Forth. So, how can we individually or collectively advance the Work that Reconnects in light of your work, and yours in light of ours going forth?

Paul: 24:54  

One of the things that is really interesting for me about environmentalism is how white middle-class privilege it often is. It’s becoming more and more diverse and more intersectional in its approach, and I’m really supportive of that; but I think that it’s very important for me to continuously check and hold myself accountable to people from diverse backgrounds in my work. And so, for example, in Starfish, we have an advisory committee that we’re in the process of formalizing, making sure that the representatives on the advisory committee come from many different intersectional perspectives, and then holding ourselves accountable to those people in the work that we do. So, it’s not getting blinded by our own good intent, right? That can be an ontological trap. So, I think it’s very important to make sure that I’m constantly learning and also holding myself accountable to and being responsible for the ways that I’m showing up in the world. So that’s our work. 

With the Work that Reconnects, many from the Global North are drawn to that work in particular. I think people from the Global Majority world are doing as much, if not even more powerful work, that is localized in ways that are decolonized, and necessarily so. And so, I think it is important to keep ourselves accountable that global community, so that we don’t get siloed. That would be my main going forth recommendation for myself and for you.

Erin:  27:11  

Yes. And wonderful advice – something to hold us accountable to. I would like to invite you to make any last comments about anything you want to bring forth at the end here before we close out together.

Paul:  27:28  

Another world is possible. That Joe Biden is talking about renewables today means that it’s possible that we can rid ourselves of this insane addiction to fossil fuel energy; that we can recognize that the planet is not here to serve us, but is all of us and we are of it. Those two are not separate things; there is not an “us” and “them”; there is not a “Russia” beats “Ukraine”. We are one people; we are one planet. We are one cosmos. And the more that we can live from that place, the better. And my wish for the world is that more and more of us come from that place.

Erin:  28:44  

Well, that is the perfect place to finish off with you and your work, which we are so grateful to have been introduced to. And I bow with gratitude to you, Paul, for your time, your energy, and you’re bringing this to us and into the world. We wish you all of the best in New York and in your journey ahead, and in your continued work as it is evolving. Thank you so very much.

Paul:  29:17  

And I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to share with you and look forward to having connections come from this interview. You know, if people want to reach out and learn more about the work, they’re very welcome. Thank you.

Show Notes & Links:

Paul Pulé’s website:

Ecological Masculinities:

Men, Masculinities, and Earth:

Centre for Global Learning – Coventry University:

Starfish Collective:

Dragon Dreaming Institute:

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