International Women’s Day — Environmental Feminism: Why Women Are Paving the Way To A Greener Future

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Through the Sense and Sustainability column, Jess McDonald sheds some light on the complexities of climate change and what it means for the world around us. From lessons on sustainable living to informative insights on emissions and renewable energy, she’ll keep us all up to date on this increasingly hot topic.
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On the surface, it may appear that feminism and environmentalism, while both progressive in aims, follow completely different paths to their final goals. Yet as is so often the case in activist causes, the intersection between women’s rights and sustainability issues is immense. Women are disproportionately concerned about the environment, with a study finding that 79% of women in Britain regarded climate change as a substantial issue, compared to only 69% of men (YouGov). Moreover, of the almost 600,000 vegans in the UK, two-thirds are women, a massive disparity. Many of the most prominent environmentally minded politicians of our time are women, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Sian Berry, as well as activists like Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg. 

Why are women so prominent in environmentalism? Theorists of Eco-feminism suggest that the common themes of oppression and domination through hierarchical structures (men over women, humanity over the environment) facilitate a reciprocal understanding of the action needed to overcome these disadvantages across the movements. The same can be said of the intersection between environmentalism and racism, and environmentalism and poverty: social issues are environmental issues. There is strong evidence to suggest that where women are included more in international leadership and policy-making, substantial change is enacted towards a more sustainable future.

There is also the aspect of necessity: globally, women will be disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, with 80% of people already displaced by climate disasters being female. Female empowerment is environmental empowerment, and there is a long history of women working to keep our planet alive.

Pioneers of the Past: Women who Shaped Environmentalism

Though there are centuries of examples of women working for the betterment of the planet, contemporary environmental feminism has its origins in the global revolutionary development of the 1960s. Growing from the nascent second-wave feminist and environmentalist movements, the theoretical framework of Eco-feminism provided a new way of understanding how these issues intersected. The rise of Green Parties from the 1970s onwards sought to combine social justice issues like women’s rights with a sustainable environmental outlook, with many either fronted by women or constituting of a larger proportion of women than the traditional political parties.The growing availability of roles for women in conservation, government and science saw the emergence of ground-breaking ideas from powerful groups and individuals.

Dr Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned physicist, has been at the heart of grassroots green movements since the early 1980s. She not only has worked tirelessly for the representation of female farmers in her native India, but also towards global action through the founding of the Women’s Environment & Development Organisation (WEDO). Her work towards native seed conservation and against GMOs has shaped the conversation on sustainable agricultural development, and she was named an “environmental hero” by Time Magazine in 2003.

Jane Goodall has dedicated her life to the conservation of primate species across the globe, conducting over 60 years of research to forward her cause. Through the Jane Goodall Institute, she has campaigned for the protection of chimpanzees and their habitats, and individually advocates for animal-rights legislation for both domestic and wild animals. 

One of the most impactful environmental campaigns fronted by women is the Green Belt Movement. Established in 1977 by Wangari Muta Maathai, the movement was a response to the drying of streams in rural Kenya, which was damaging the livelihoods of women in these areas. From a simple initial solution to plant trees to revive the local climate, the movement grew into a campaign for the empowerment of communities. Through greater democratic space, issues of environmental degradation could be avoided, granting women who relied on it autonomy over their own lives and economic situation. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her incredible efforts for the environment and women.

Towards a Greener Tomorrow: The Women Changing the Future

Women continue to innovate in the field of sustainability, and as the issue of the climate crisis becomes more urgent there is no doubt women will continue to come to the fore with possible solutions. At just 18, Greta Thunberg has become the face of a new era in climate action. Her Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate) began outside the Swedish Parliament in 2018, where she would sit outside to advocate for governmental action on climate issues. Since then, it has grown into an international movement, with Thurnberg appearing at numerous global conferences such as the United Nations to raise awareness and advocate for action.

Vanessa Nakate is the founder of the Rise Up Movement, an Africa-based campaign against the causes of global temperature rise. Nakate was already an active participant in climate activism when she became aware of the exceeding rise in temperatures in Uganda. Through extensive work to raise awareness online as well as in government circles, Nakate has played a pivotal role in the development of Africa’s youth climate movement. Additionally, she was one of twenty youth activists to write to the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos in order to call for the end of subsidised fossil fuels.

The bottom line here isn’t that only women should be concerned with the environment—excluding large swathes of the population in these changes would be incredibly counterproductive. The point is that where women are able to play an equal role in these global crises, their inclusion can be a key determining factor as to what gets done. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Choose to Challenge’, and we need women to challenge the status quo on the environment if we are ever to achieve a greener future. 

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Jess McDonald is a third year student at QMUL, studying history. Aside from her reflections on the climate crisis, she also has a hidden love for Hollywood’s Golden Age of cinema.

*Featured image courtesy of Pexels.com

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