Sunday, 21 November 2010

Can women (and men and intersex peeps) save the world?

Caroline Lucas told me recently that she thought it was a "very important" thing to write about environmental feminism when I said I wanted to write a feature about it.

Climate Rush calls for "deeds not words" on climate change

However, getting published on the trend of female-led environmental campaigning is not as easy as I thought. Too niche, perhaps. Or maybe those two words 'environmentalism' and 'feminism' congeal to form an unattractive patina of earnest do-gooders' intentions. Ism-anathema to editors. The public at large is not deeply interested in either, either.

Hopefully, if you are still reading, you are keen on one or both of gender equality and preventing the worst of climate change. Excellent. Let's begin.

I met Lucas at a suffragette-inspired eco-activist Climate Rush vigil commemorating the centenary of Black Friday, a riot involving suffragettes and the police. Guess who came off worse a hundred years ago? The unarmed suffragettes were assaulted, abused and two even died.

Lucas appears constant in her support of Climate Rush; she joined the 'On the Run' road-show last year, and speaks regularly at Climate Rush events. On her own website, a blog post states that:

Dr Lucas is a keen supporter of Climate Rush, a campaign which uses creative direct action to protest against the government’s commitment to environmentally destructive projects such as airport expansion and new coal fired power stations. Together with Climate Rush, she is calling for a revolution in renewable energy and a transition to a fair and sustainable green economy.

At the vigil for Black Friday, Lucas spoke of her own personal inspiration drawn from the suffragettes:

"The suffragettes showed their real commitment, year after year, and there is much we can learn from that. One of the most inspiring bits of that building [Parliament] for me, it's not the wonderful members lobby, or the wonderful public lobby, or the wonderful chamber, it's actually a little broom cupboard. It's a broom cupboard in the basement, about 3ft squared - the most important place to me in the House of Commons because it is where Emily Davison, the suffragette, locked herself in overnight so that when she was found on the day of the census, she could say that her address was the House of Commons."

Climate Rush is calling for the government to fulfil its promise in May to be the greenest government ever. The picture so far is looking patchy: for instance, DEFRA fared badly in the cuts, but the Green Bank will be a 'proper bank' that is needed to stimulate the green economy. Lucas is far from convinced, however, saying:
We had a debate in the House of Commons today [17 Nov] [on environment] and I can report that all of 12 MPs were present. That is shameful. This is why the Climate Rush movement is so important. We can never let is happen again that only 12 MPs think climate change is a sufficient priority to get themselves along to a meeting to discuss it.

There were about 200 climate "rushettes", as Climate Rush call their followers who took part in the vigil. There were women, children, teens, and men - some decked out in Edwardian dress and veils and "Deeds not words sashes. I met a 15-year-old girl on the protest with her mother. She said that Tamsin Omond, one of the founders of Climate Rush, is her hero, and she's starting a school newspaper that will feature the vigil in the first issue.

At a time in our cultural story where the lack of decent female rolemodels is bemoaned, I happen to think that it's a very great thing to have inspirational leaders such as Omond who take action on the world's biggest challenge

This has been a good year for female environmentalists. In one of the happiest moments of the year for anyone who cares about the environment, Lucas became the first green MP. Bryony Worthington, climate change policy expert and campaigner and one of the founders of, was recently made a Labour peer.

And it's not just in the sphere of politics that powerful women are campaigning on climate change. Ellen MacArthur recently launched a sustainability foundation, and declared that this would be her occupation from now on. Lawyer and author Polly Higgins is campaigning to make Ecocide an international law. At the book launch of Higgins' Eradicating Ecocide, she called for people to "be unreasonable" [watch below] and kick up a storming fuss for the greater good. This resonates with the Climate Rush tagline: 'Well behaved women rarely make history.'.

Higgins wants people to become activists, because political pressure is needed to make a difference on environment issues, as well as behaviour change. And there is also a grassroots movement for women to act on the environment.

It is well-publicised that the Women's Institute is enjoying a trendy resurgence and becoming increasingly influential. But perhaps it is little known that this year they have published an action pack on climate change campaigning encouraging their members to become guerilla gardeners and activists. In it, they state:

"In the UK, women remain influential consumers of domestic products and utilities, providing them with the opportunity to choose greener and less polluting energy suppliers and appliances, or consider the impacts of their food choices, for example. Women are also still the primary educators of the next generation and therefore have huge power to change the way in which today's children think about their coexistence with the planet."

According to a study* published earlier this year in the journal Population and Environment, American women care more about the environment than American men (!). The study was based on a gender analysis of eight years' of Gallup poll data. Leo Hickman blogged this in more detail, and pointed out a the suggestion that feminism rather than gender is linked to concern for the environment (women are more likely to be feminists, one presumes):
Somma and Tolleson-Rinehart (1997)** find that individuals – both women and men – who support feminist goals express greater environmental concern.

The correlation is there, but how it comes about is not clear. Perhaps people who are concerned about social issues and inequalities are just people who are concerned about social issues and inequalities - whether it is gender inequality in this country or ecological inequality between the world's North and South.

However important feminism turns out to be in explaining the gender differential in the developed world, it is certain that women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according the UN. The Women's Environmental Network (WEN) have also produced a report on gender and climate change describing that women are more likely to live in poverty, globally, so are more likely to bear the brunt of environmental destruction. The report finds:
"[W]omen are more likely than men to
  • die in climate change-related disasters, and suffer from increased workload, loss of income, health problems, and violence and harassment in the aftermath of such events;
  • be displaced, or encounter problems when other (usually male) family members migrate for economic reasons;
  • experience increased burden of water and fuel collection, and resulting health problems, due to increased incidence of drought or other changes in climate;
  • feel the effects of rising food prices most acutely, and be the first to suffer during food shortages;
  • suffer exacerbated health inequalities;
  • suffer from violence, including sexual violence, in resource conflicts;
  • be expected to, and need to, adapt to the effects of climate change, increasing their workload;
  • suffer as a result of intended solutions to the problem of climate change, such as forestry projects and biofuel production."

The WEN report also highlights research that women are more focused on behavioural rather than technological solutions compared to men. I wonder if this is because of social constructs around gender, such as that women are no good at engineering or that men are less empathetic? The Women's Engineering Society, and I'm sure plenty of men, would have something to say about that.

Workshops on gender and climate change run jointly by WEN with UK Feminista are "oversubscribed", the WEN comms officer tells me - another indicator that feminists are heavily into the environment.

Whether you are a woman, man or an intersex or transgender person, anyone can be a feminist, and anyone can follow join the very lively women-led movement to act on the environment - whether it is joining protests, getting informed or lobbying your MP. Go forth and be unreasonable!

*The effects of gender on climate change knowledge and concern in the American public, Aaron M. McCright, POPULATION & ENVIRONMENT, Volume 32, Number 166-87DOI: 10.1007/s11111-010-0113-1
**Tracking the Elusive Green Women: Sex, Environmentalism, and Feminism in the United States and Europ, Mark Somm,  Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, Political Research Quarterly March 1997 vol. 50 no. 1 153-169, doi: 10.1177/106591299705000108

1 comment:

  1. Not sure if I am getting your point, but the thesis that it is feminists that will save the world sounds somewhat odd to me. I understand that this piece is empirical (people who think of themselves as feminists often turn out to be concerned about the environment too), but I wonder if there isn't a third variable involved here: 'generally concerned about societal problems'.

    Because (certainly second-wave) feminism is characterized by a move away from traditionally feminine values, and because I see the solution for the current environmental problems in a return to these values, I find it hard to directly see feminism as a solution for these problems.