(44) Ecofeminism as a solution to the climate crisis

INTRO: Hey, it’s Agrita Dandriyal here. You’re listening to Mind Full of Everything, the podcast that cultivates a space for socially and environmentally conscious minds, actively striving to achieve greater ecological and community healing, for a safer and healthier planet. In today’s episode, I discuss the theory of ecofeminism, the flaws of the concept in its infancy and how the theory has been redefined to preserve the intersectionality of women’s environmental rights, but also address the impacts of patriarchy on the health of our natural world to reimagine a world where indigenous practices are adopted once again and hierarchies of injustice are dismantled.

Ecofeminism, or ecological feminism as defined by Britannica, is a feminist theory examining the connections between women and environmentalism. First officially termed by French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974, the foundation of ecofeminism lies on the equality of all genders and reimagines patriarchal and linear social structures to help realise a world that preserves and respects organic and natural processes, but also harnesses the power of intuition and collaboration with the lens of environmental justice to focus on protection of environmental rights of all. More specifically, the concept emphasises the flaws of patriarchal environmentalism and the ways in which both Nature and women are treated by patriarchal societies, ultimately justifying the link between feminism and environmentalism and how both disciplines must be embodied in environmental practices to help solve our ecological and climate crises. 

Ecofeminists argue that dualism exists in humanity’s relationship with nature, where natural and man-made environments are seen as separate. Nature is either viewed as a resource bank or an obstacle to overcome, and so development of civilisation has been seen as the opposite to conservation and preservation of Nature, the two are mutually exclusive.

When binaries exist, almost always, one side of the binary is more valued than the other. With gender binaries, we can see through the prevalence of patriarchy that men have been favoured over women. In relation to the binary of humans and nature, humanity has always been valued much more than Nature and non-humans; our hierarchal societies have ensured that women, Nature and non-human animals are always last and subject to oppression by masculine cultural norms.

Ecofeminism has now branched out into many different types of ecofeminism, however by the late 1980s the main two distinct forms were radical and cultural ecofeminism. Radical ecofeminists claimed that patriarchal society views both Nature and women in the same exploitative manner, therefore dissociating women from Nature was the ultimate target. Radical feminists not only wanted to remove the negative attributes assigned to women and Nature, but also end all associations of women to Nature. Cultural feminists on the other hand wanted to build upon the association between women and Nature, as they believed that women had a more intimate relationship with Nature, relative to men, because of their gender roles (such as motherhood and providing food to their families) and their biological differences to men (such as menstruating and giving birth). Cultural feminists advocated for harnessing this intimacy to be used to better preserve the environment and build a more spiritual connection with Nature by shifting away from imperialistic views of the natural world.

Despite the potency of the ecofeminist framework, it soon became subject to criticism and was disfavoured by academics and scholars by the 1990s. They claimed that ecofeminism oversimplified an issue too complex to be reduced to just the relationship of all women with Nature; other factors such as race and class often shape a woman’s experiences of the human-environment dualism, especially since modern-day ecofeminism was defined by white middle and upper class academics, who also tended to be heterosexual, leaving queer and women of colour out of the theory and it’s practice. Criticisms were also made around the romanticisation of the relationship between womanhood and Nature, which further weakened the validity of the ecofeminist argument. By claiming women are better stewards of the environment than men due to their biological and emotional differences, many feared the concept would further perpetuate sexist stereotypes rather than achieve gender equality.

Instead, the more comprehensive framework of environmental justice became more popular within the academic community, since it involved the equitable treatment of all people during the implementation of environmental laws, distribution of natural resources and impacts from environmental hazards, regardless of gender or any other identities. However, very rarely does environmental justice specifically focus on the intersection of the environment with gender, and how gender can help us understand the climate crisis we are in.

Ecofeminism becomes essential for this gendered lens of the environment because women are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and impacts from natural hazards, all of which are exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change that has been driven by patriarchal institutions and systems.

UN data estimates that 80% of people displaced by the impacts of the changing climate are indeed women. Many women in rural areas have to provide food and water for their families while the men travel out of villages for work. With increased drought and water scarcity issues in drier regions, women, particularly mothers, are finding it increasingly difficult to travel far to access essential resources such as water whilst also taking care of their children. If natural hazards such as flash floods and extreme droughts occur, women and their children will be the first to be affected and will need to find shelter elsewhere. Since 70% of the world’s most poor are women, relocation can be an extremely arduous task, physically, mentally but also financially.

The impacts are not just limited to women in rural areas; all women experiencing poverty, and having less socioeconomic power, also find it difficult to recover from disasters caused by frequent natural hazards. For instance, Black American women were most affected by flooding in Louisiana during hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than ½ of the poor families in New Orleans had single mothers heading them; these families depended on community networks for their daily resources and essentially survival so the floods displaced many poor families away from these support mechanisms and into emergency shelters which weren’t equipped with supporting women. Many shelters didn’t have adequate period product supplies and with New Orleans being a low-lying city, the risk of flooding by such extreme weather events is increasingly high.

An analysis of 130 peer-reviewed studies by the Global Gender and Climate Alliance, which focused on the social construct of gender and not biological sex, found that 68% of the studies showed women and girls to be disproportionately affected by health impacts associated to climate change compared to men. Women and girls were shown to be more likely to die in tropical cyclones in Bangladesh and the Philippines, and die of heatstroke by heatwaves in France, China and India. Women are also more likely to suffer from poor mental health, infectious disease, partner violence and food insecurities resulting from natural hazards relative to men, although the study also showed that men can face other high risks after extreme weather events such as suicide and health issues due to working outdoors.

Therefore, impacts of climate change are very specific to a region and the gender roles put in place in that region which shapes how all genders experience the impacts of climate change. However, most regions have taken up gender roles such that women and girls end up being at the frontline of anthropogenic climate change. These evidence bases show that comprehensive frameworks such as environmental justice cannot address as specific of an issue as the gendered impacts of climate change. If we generalise [climatic] impacts just on the basis of development of a region, or even just race, we end up overlooking the impacts of patriarchy on the environment and women, which puts the lives of women and girls on the line as impacts are exacerbated over time.

Gender studies have existed for some time now, but gender and climate change is still a new area for research and data is very limited. Research is even more limited for the impacts of climate change on transgender and non-binary individuals, therefore, ecofeminism not only acts as a tool to reimagine environmentalism which involves protection of women’s rights and their roles as environmental stewards, but also opens the door for discourse and opportunities to better protect the environmental rights of queer and transgender people.

Most importantly, the theory of ecofeminism is evidence that environmentalism needs to be urgently demasculinised for us to be able to restore ecological balance and control the rate to which our climate is changing.

There is scientific debate on the onset data for the Anthropocene epoch that most scientists believe we are currently living in. The general consensus is in the 1950s, few years after the end of the second world war, where release of radionuclides into the stratosphere due to large thermonuclear detonations by the US and Soviet Union for nuclear bomb testing marked the beginning of the age of the humans and the rapidly changing world as a result of dominant human activity. Wars, industrialisation and colonisation are all products of patriarchy and imperialism, which have carried forward the notion that toxic masculinity, hierarchal systems favouring toxic masculinity and militant force can shape the world into a machine built for the gain of humans. It’s the reign of toxic masculinity that has had disastrous impacts on the environment but also on those put at the end of the social hierarchy, such as women.

Take a moment to recall the names of people or social media accounts dedicated to environmental justice, slow fashion and environmentalism in general. how many of these people or accounts are run by people who identify as women? You will most likely be able to pull out a good amount of names but how about people or accounts run by those identifying as men? Maybe you can name very famous names such as David Attenborough but can you name men handling environmental social media accounts with a smaller following? What about men in your own life having green practices compared to the women you know?

We all would most likely struggle to do it. Why? Because both men and women still perceive environmentalism, especially environmental justice, to be a feminine discipline. A small fraction of those in energy, environmental engineering and the petroleum industry will be female, yet when it comes to environmental rights, women tend to dominate. The concept requires emotional intelligence, altruism and support of living being rights, compared to pure sciences which don’t require any of that. Toxic masculinity has embedded misogynistic gender roles into society and it’s toxic masculinity which has attributed power and control to masculinity, and emotions and care to femininity. Men who don’t fit the definition of the “successful” emotionally restrained male image never reach the top of the hierarchy as their counterparts who embrace toxic masculine roles. yhe same goes for women who support in upholding toxic masculine values by conforming to misogynistic and toxic feminine roles.

Toxic masculinity rejects any form of femininity, be it expression of emotions and support, or veganism and recycling. A study by Brough et al in 2016 found that sustainable consumption patterns aren’t just a product of personality differences between genders, as suggested by previous research, but also due to the “green feminine stereotype”, where both men and women associate green behaviours to femininity. Therefore, [many] men will choose to avoid adopting green behaviours to maintain their masculine identities. The seven studies conducted, which involved more than 2000 American and Chinese participants, provided evidence for a psychological link between eco-friendly actions and social perceptions of femininity as both men and women consistently assigned environmentally friendly products and actions as more feminine than their non-green counterparts. For instance, a reusable bag was labelled as feminine compared to a plastic bag (regardless of the gender of the person using the reusable bag). The difference in reactions for using environmental products portraying more feminine features was even greater for threatened men; women portrayed a much lower effort in maintaining their gender identity through their behaviours and choices.

A lot of green products/pro-environmental advertising has caught up on this gender disparity in environmental actions by targeting products, services and messaging to women rather than men, which can also make men feel left out of the modern environmental movement. Men may not feel comfortable in carrying reusable tote bags, purchasing plastic free goods decorated with “pretty” fonts and flowers or shopping at an ethical and sustainable fashion brand which is mostly catered to women’s fashion. Such gendered marketing is again supporting patriarchal structures based on the foundations of toxic masculinity and harmful gender roles. Such marketing targets not the eco-conscious woman but the insecure man who puts his masculinity before anything, including our degrading world.

The 2016 study proposed that pro-environmental marketers must address this issue by designing adverts and commodities to affirm masculinity in order to remove the element of fear of being judged for engaging in traditionally feminine environmental behaviours. This was seen in one of the studies where men engaged in purchasing eco-friendly cleaning products if their masculinity was affirmed in the marketing of the product. This would include using more masculine fonts, colours, wording and images for the branding of goods and services. In one experiment, men were more willing to donate to an environmental non-profit with a logo that had dark colours, featured a howling wolf and had the name ‘wilderness rangers”, compared to a traditional logo with light colours, featuring a tree and had the name “friends of nature” in an elegant font. Similarly, a study carried out in a BMW showroom saw that male customers were more inclined in purchasing a hybrid vehicle which used a masculine term in the model description.

As a critique to this conclusion, I believe that reinforcing gender sterotypes creates a further divide between men and women’s responsibilities towards the environment, and the inhabitants of Earth, therefore marketing environmentalism to be processed by men clinging onto a toxic masculine image is neither healthy for those men nor healthy for the rest of the world. Whilst gender-focused marketing is a great strategy for products that are specifically made for different genders or sexes, such as biodegradable period products for menstruating people and men’s shaving creams, other commodities such as cleaning products, food and even cars should not be catered to a specific gender, and rather use gender-neutral marketing, because it will continue to support the gender binary and therefore patriarchal gender roles.

The study also pointed out that marketers are not just responsible for involving men in environmental marketing but also professionals from other industries. The danger of dissociation of men from environmentalism can be as severe as undermining the effects of feminine-named hurricanes compared to masculine-named ones.

A scientific study Jung et al. (2014) used archival death rate data from 94 Atlantic hurricanes that affected the US (between 1950-2012) to show that hurricanes with feminine names caused significantly more deaths than those with masculine names, because the names mislead people into believing that feminine names depict lower risk and therefore this has impacted preparedness for protective action when the hurricanes have hit. Historically, US hurricanes would only be given female names due to the misogynistic notion that the unpredictability of hurricanes was a female attribute. The practice soon came to an end in the 1970s after growing social awareness of sexism and a new male-female hurricane naming system was established, where naming is pre-assigned and arbitrary, but this hasn’t replicated into the public’s preparedness of hurricanes with gendered names.

The model created for the study showed that a severe hurricane with a relatively masculine name estimated to cause 15.15 deaths, compared to a hurricane with a relatively feminine name causing 41.84 deaths. No effect of gendered naming was seen for less severe storms. This was then tested with participants in groups of hundreds for several experiments and the same result was found, therefore, the masculinity and femininity of severe hurricanes generally acted as a predictor of death toll, even for those who rejected gender-trait beliefs. The study calls for policymakers to reassess the current naming system and consider establishing a system that helps to reduce the influence of [gender] biases on hurricane risk assessments. Media platforms such as news outlets should also reconsider the use of “she” and “he” pronouns when informing the public about hurricane updates and information. But most importantly, these study results must be shared with the general public to emphasise the level of risk that gender biases can bring for everyone.

The more extreme form of toxic masculinity up against environmentalism is petro-masculinity, a concept that embraces climate denial, racism and misogyny by using the historic role of fossil fuels for not just profit but also consolidation of white patriarchy. We saw a rise of fossil fascism in the Trump administration with the increased support towards fossil fuel systems through rejection of environmental policies such as withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, weakening the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and approving nearly all US coastal waters for offshore oil drilling.

Conservative white men form the largest demographic of the climate denial movement in the US and are leading what Cara Daggett in her article on petro-masculinity calls as a new American authoritarian movement to prolong the rule of fossil fuels and white patriarchy. The climate crisis was already identified by the 1970s, yet petro-masculinity rejected the urgency of the issue and ensured that global populations become dependent on fossil fuels, whilst also ensuring that those placed at the bottom of the white patriarchal hierarchy were people of colour, indigenous communities, women, children, poor people, the LGBTQIA+ community, disabled individuals and anyone else who doesn’t fit into, or support, white patriarchy.

Take the American Dream for example, which comprised of the nuclear family, with the man being the breadwinner. Cars and big houses in the suburbs were specifically oriented towards white male workers. We saw this message repeated in the Trump slogan “make American great again”, the America which supports the white man, and his family, in living happy and healthy lives at the expense of the happiness and health of other communities.

The petro-masculine movement is not just limited to the US; some of the most polluting companies and organisations such as Saudi Aramco, BP, Shell, National Iranian Oil and Coal India, as well as American firms, have contributed to billion tonnes of carbon dioxide since 1965 and continue to sabotage the environmental movement through tactics such as green-washing and spreading false information about the need for global economies to depend on fossil fuels.

Green economies are damaging not just for our capitalism systems but also toxic masculinity which thrives on the power dynamic between men and the rest of the world. The environmentalism that we have reimagined threatens the extent to which patriarchy is able to have a hold on the world, which is why movements such as petro-masculinity will continue to re-emerge to hold down the foundations of this crumbling ancient social structure.

There are many studies that prove that improving access to healthcare, education and other resources for women helps in better environmental protection and management, and ensures these efforts are also for the benefit of future generations which are often dependent on maternal care, especially in developing countries. A paper by Bonnie Kettel in 1996 argued that disinvolvement of women and protection of women’s rights during the implementation of planning, health and economic policies creates “disease environments” for both women and children, in both developing and developed countries. Women are usually the primary health managers of their homes; they manage health through domestic work such as cleaning the house and washing the clothes, but also tending to sick family members by providing health care services which often depend on natural remedies and the sustainable usage of their biophysical environments (including both natural and built living spaces). The paper mentions that by using environmental policy frameworks which are “gender-blind”, health promotion of women, their families and ultimately the environment is impossible. The leading causes of deaths in developing countries, such as diarrhoea, acute respiratory conditions and malaria, are of environmental origin and due to deteriorating biophysical environments. If women are the primary managers of health, which is dependent on their biophysical environments, they will be disproportionately affected by these “disease environments”, therefore women must be central in policy making, especially policies working on improving environmental health.

Studies have also shown that women employed in environmental policy-making reach better outcomes, including international policies. For example, a 2014 study by researchers from the Uni of Melbourne found a significant link between gender and environmental identity, where women were more likely to engage in environmental protection practices than their male counterparts. A 2010 study by Raty and Kanyama, looking at household energy consumption between the two dominant genders in Germany, Norway, Sweden and Greece, found a significant difference in the energy usage between men and women, with men using much more energy than women, such as eating more meat or driving longer distances. In 2018, a study conducted by Professor May and her colleagues from Uni of Nebraska-Lincoln found differences between opinions for policy issues between cismen/women, when interviewing economists from 18 EU countries. The biggest gap was for the question of whether the EU should continue its ban on using genetically modified crops, with women supporting the ban.

By involving women in policymaking, different perspectives are brought to the table and issues can be viewed from a different angle, which can be very beneficial in the long term. Yet only 20% of Congress in the US is made up of women; for European national and regional parliaments, women make up 29-37% of staff.

The success of ecofeminism lies when the relationship between women and Nature is leveraged in order to provide momentum to the ever increasing environmental movement, even if that relationship has previously been based off the sexist notion that women are the more caring of the two dominant genders and environmentalism is feminine. The reality is patriarchy still exists, gender roles still exist, the gender binary between the two dominant genders still exists, gender stereotypes still exist, and whilst work to dismantle these and involve transgender and non-binary people into gender and environment studies has grown over the years, elevating women into positions of power, who are already in the front lines, to achieve better environmental policy outcomes is not harmful.

Whilst white patriarchy, especially in the form of petro-masculinity, impacts the environmental justice movement, the issue also extends to women of colour and Indigenous women being left out of decision making. A study by Green Park found that out of the 1099 influential roles being assessed in the study in the UK, only 52 are taken up by people of colour. Women of colour only account for 11 of the roles out of the 1099 roles and the statistic is even worse for Black women, with only 3 Black women out of the 11 having influential roles.

In the 2019 UK general election, only 12 out of 220 women elected were Black women, despite the fact multiple studies have shown that Black women are disproportionately affected by inequalities. For instance, Black women are 5x more likely to die during pregnancy than white women and a disproportionate number of Black people are living in deprived areas. This means that the potential for issues that affect Black people, specifically Black women in relation to this episode, to be further discussed and resolved is being lost by the lack of political representation of the Black community.

Despite the fact modern ecofeminism began in north America and Europe in the 1970s and 80s, the fundamental concept is one which is embedded into Indigenous cultures and activism, many indigenous women around the world practice the theory. Indigenous communities have always promoted relationships with humans and the environment and Indigenous teachings always warn communities of the direct effect on community health and wellbeing if the health of their environment isn’t maintained. Native American women and two-spirited people are bearers of indigenous spiritual, political and economic relationships with their land, which has been an integral part of Native American communities. It’s women and two-spirited people who possess ancient knowledge about the environment that ecofeminism has traditionally failed to incorporate into the framework. Such knowledge extends well beyond environmental politics and science and dips into the depths of culture and spirituality to bring out ecological consciousness and strengthen the community’s emotional bond to their land.

Yet Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by environmental assaults, be it the impacts of natural hazards or the prolonged human rights abuses by non-indigenous communities. Women who have been resisting the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, also known as water protectors, are doing so to protect water supply for their tribes but also because they believe that water is female and as women, they must stand with the water. As of 2016, 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls have been reported, yet only 116 cases have been reported by the US department of justice. Most of these murders are committed by non-Native people within Native-owned land; Indigenous women and girls are murdered 10x more than any other ethnicities and murder is the 3rd leading cause of death for native American women. When environmental injustices are committed against Indigenous communities, women are always the first to be affected. (For more on indigenous environmental knowledge, listen to The True Stewards episode as part of the Beautiful Planet series).

To overcome this issue of race and culture, which ecofeminism hasn’t previously addressed, the Indian ecofeminist and author Vandana Shiva has developed a framework for postcolonial ecofeminism. Shiva also argues that oppression of women and destruction of the natural world go hand in hand, especially because women have always shared an intimate bond with nature and therefore are the best custodians of the health of the environment. Women are mostly directly involved in subsistence work and are the safe guarders of natural resources for their families and communities, and also environmental knowledge in how best to go about protecting their land. She believes that women have always harnessed the power of heterogeneity in life, through preserving biodiversity to working within multiple sectors and performing multiple tasks often within the same timeframe. Therefore, when biodiversity losses occur due to rise in monocultural farming, using of artificial fertilisers that also run into waterways, pollution of land due to non-biodegradable waste and chemicals from nearby factories, women are almost always impacted first.

Monocultural farming has taken a drastic toll on the Indian farming industry, which I explained in the episode “Indian farmers and the Sikh community”, especially due to the genetically modified seeds which has destroyed local biodiversity and opened up the cycle of production and consumption previously closed for subsistence farming, Indian farmers, who mostly were self-sustaining, have become engulfed by this colonial monoculture economy, ever since the Green Revolution hit India in the 1970s. The GMO crops are unable to sustain fertility and health of the soil and therefore cannot support the health of Indigenous Indian communities. These seeds also marginalises women from the role of subsistence and custodianship of seeds and leaves them as unskilled workers, which not only destroys a history of environmental knowledge but also makes women socially immobile, unable to fend for themselves and becoming fully dependent on this unsustainable farming economy.

However, Shiva also highlights how women have been successful in standing up for the land that they protect, such as the Chipko movement in the 1970s (Chipko andolan) where Indigenous women in the Himalayan region of Garhwal resisted government-backed logging projects so that they could protect their ancient forests. Chipko in Hindi means to “cling onto”, and so women would hug trees in groups to prevent them from being cut down as a way to demonstrate the necessity of the trees on their land. This movement led to a 15 year ban on commercial felling in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas and similar bans were extended Himachal Pradesh, but once the bans were lifted, the momentum of the first movement couldn’t be brought back again.

The ecofeminist and Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt Movement GBM) in 1977 under the National Council of Women in Kenya. The GBM is the root of African ecofeminism, which critiques industrialism and capitalist patriarchy to reimagine sustainability and environmentalism in which women are central to decision making for the protection of their land.

The movement began in response to the environmental issues Kenyan women were facing such as water scarcity and food insecurities. Maathai soon saw that these environmental issues faced by rural communities were not just hardships of the poor but instead much deeper issues of disenfranchisement and loss of Indigenous knowledge and values which used to help communities protect their environment and work for mutual benefit. Seminars were held on environmental education to encourage individuals to change their environmental, political and economic circumstances and understand why these inequities exist in the first place. Participants of the movement soon realised that the leaders who they had put their trust in were the root cause of their problems and this began the series of efforts to hold national leaders accountable for their failures in protecting the citizens they have a duty towards. Such examples includes resisting land grabbing and encroachment of agriculture into Indigenous forests and advocating for the importance of Congo’s rainforests as a climate solution. Once Maathai received her Nobel Peace
Prize in 2004, the movement became a global movement, further showcasing the change that women, working in the environment field, can bring for our degraded environments.

Climate change is exacerbating all existing inequalities, gender inequality is one of them. Women have disproportionately been impacted by the effects of patriarchy, one of which is the degradation of the natural environment and the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Ecofeminism poses as not just a lens but also a tool to dismantle patriarchal systems and colonial practices of environmentalism by ensuring that women, especially Indigenous women and women of colour, are at the centre of decision making. Ecofeminism began with the urge to disconnect women and Nature to help overcome the inequalities of patriarchy, but now the concept strives to preserve the ancient connection women have with nature to re-construct societies where the patriarchal hierarchy falls weak against a new equitable social structure, in which all rights for all communities and individuals are put first, along with the health of our Earth.

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