As part of our #IWD2021 blog series, Marie Hill discusses the role of feminism in environmental politics and how women can play the leading role in steering the environmental movement on the right course.
“Mother nature’s dying, nobody’s keeping score,
I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore.”
In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote conducted an experiment with an air pump, two glass cylinders and four thermometers. She tested the impact of carbon dioxide against air and found that when she placed the cylinder in the sun, the cylinder with carbon dioxide trapped more heat and stayed hot longer. Her conclusion was that “An atmosphere of that gas would give to our Earth a high temperature; and if some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature must have necessarily resulted.” Foote theorised that changes in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect the Earth’s temperature. This was three years before John Tyndall published his work on heat-trapping gases which is typically credited as the founding work of climate science.
The climate crisis is a crisis of leadership. The patriarchal power structure that oppresses girls, women, non-binary people and constricts boys and men is the same power structure that is destroying the planet. The dominance, violence, greed and ruthless competition of the people in power in the current system are causing the climate crisis. What is the alternative to this patriarchal power system that is ruling the world? I believe that it will be strong, passionate women who will lead us out of this environmental crisis.
We have become distanced from nature, but yet we need to save it. There is a branch of feminism called “difference” feminism, which might seem controversial but it may explain why women are the most likely to lead us out of this crisis. Difference feminism arose in the 1980s and 1990s and most strains of it do not argue that there is a biological link between womanhood and traditionally feminine values. These feminists simply recognised that women and men are significantly different and they wanted society to revalue the devalued "feminine" characteristics. Some different feminists state that one of the differences between men and women is that women are closer to nature, as women reproduce life by giving birth and raising the child. This inherent closeness to nature would therefore put women in the vanguard of rebuilding our relationship with the natural world. It is this argument from difference feminism which I find quite interesting. The natural world is wild, unpredictable and a realm of passion. Women’s association with nature and its wild qualities have historically been a reason for women’s subordination as these qualities are considered incompatible with civilisation. But are these qualities really negative? The IPCC states that we need to limit the global mean temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need to mobilise large amounts of capital and we need enormous strength of political will above all else. I believe that we need powerful, feminine forces in order to achieve these aims.
Difference feminists made an effort to revalue qualities traditionally devalued as “feminine”, such as caring, feeling, or empathy. Steering the environment movement requires a great amount of empathy, for all animals in the food chain from the smallest of insects to the elephants and whales, as well as for plants and trees. It requires empathy for the humans in distant countries that will be affected by climate change’s impacts, for generations of humans in the future and their great-grand-children.
We have seen that empathy is a great strength in female leaders around the world such as Jacinda Ardern in seeing how effectively she handled the COVID-19 pandemic in New Zealand. This is now an opportunity to embrace femininity, to embrace compassion and understanding to heal this world that has wounds cut so deep. All around the world, women are picking up the reigns of climate action, such as Greta Thunberg who is inspiring millions of young people to protest for climate justice, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who began calling for the crucial Green New Deal in U.S. Congress. I believe that after so many years of masculine leadership, we now need climate leadership that is more feminine, more rooted in compassion and empathy. The world is in desperate need of heart-centred, not just head-centred leadership.
Of course, men and non-binary people also feel a deep connection to nature and we need everyone to be on board to tackle the climate crisis. The positive of difference feminism is the value it places in feminine characteristics and emotions. It is an encouragement for all of us to feel unashamed of femininity and to show unabashed compassion for the natural world.
“Spring appears when the time is right.
Women are violets coming to light.”
Marie Hill is the Secretary of the West Midlands Young Fabians, the Secretary of the Environment Network, and co-hosts the Young Fabians Podcast. She tweets at @Marie__Hill.