Climate Justice and Gender Justice
The fight for climate justice must be feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist
What does a feminist perspective mean?
Feminism is constituted by a wide range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements across the globe that share the common goal to define, establish, and achieve the political, economic, social and personal equality of the sexes. At the same time, feminist movements fight against gender stereotypes, deconstructing roles and images that are attributed to the biological sex of men and women that most often go along with giving less power to women and more access, privileges and possibilities to men. In sum, a feminist perspective tries to recognize, analyze, criticize and change the power relations that are established on the base of sex and gender.
Feminist movement nowadays include a widely intersectional perspective into their work, bringing perspectives on race, class, age, ableism, and more form of discrimination into their work. This makes feminist social analysis more fruitful and creates growing links with other social movements. Especially the ecological movements were and are open to feminist perspectives and by this enrich the struggle against the climate crisis and ecological destruction in a capitalist world.
What are parallels between female and nature exploitation?
One might assume that feminist and ecologist struggles are two different struggles and that the right to abortion or the struggle against domestic violence do not have much to do with ecological destruction, planetary heating and the burning of fossil fuels. Ecofeminist theory and scholars of feminist political economy argue though that both are two sides of the same coin. The bridge to understand the links between the manifold forms of oppression, destruction and exploitation for women as well as for our natural environment lies in the analysis of neoliberal and capitalist economy.
Neoliberal capitalist productivity is based on two key aspects: First, the assumption that endless economic growth is necessary and possible and secondly, the requirement of free and/or cheap labor force. In its core, both feminist and ecological movements fight against these notions, because neither are natural resources infinite on a limited planet nor is the reproductive work that is mostly carried out by women for free.
A central key to thus understand the links between environmental destruction and female exploitation is to look at the way in which both serve in our economic system as supposedly infinite and free resources for production and the way in which both are exploited and serve as the basis for capitalist production and destruction. On the one hand, patriarchy functions as the ideological framework for the constant exploitation of women; on the other hand, growing production and consumption rates as well as an anthropocentric world-view justify the exploitation of natural resources. Both are possible and backed up by the ideology of the capitalist system that seeks profits.
What does a feminist perspective on the climate crisis mean?
The first and a bit polemic answer would be: The climate crisis is made by men. Not only is the heating of our planet and the ecological destruction an outcome of capitalist hunger for growth, profits and resources, it is also a result of male-driven economies. It is mostly men who sit in power positions in the economy. For example, the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world who contribute the largest part to the emission of greenhouse gases are by 100% led by men.
The same is true for political decision-making: Men still constitute the majority of decision makers and still 100 years after introduction voting rights for women in most countries, they own until today few power positions. This is not only true for nation states, but is also visible in international negotiations like the UNFCC and the COP delegations. So women have far less access to climate-relevant policy-making and therefor, their perspective is also not included well enough in climate policies. This is not to say that women in a capitalist and patriarchal system are per se better people and we don’t know how our economy would look like if more women were involved in political and economic decision-making. But priorities and mitigation strategies might look differently otherwise.
This goes along with very gendered behavioural patterns when it comes to ecological destructive behaviour. In a comparative study on energy use in Germany, Sweden, Norway and Greece, researcher found a strikingly higher use of energy by men than by women. This of course can be well explained by the fewer economic possibilities that women have and therefor is always a matter of class as well. However, a part of the explanation lies in the fact that women all over the world show higher concern for environmental issues and by consequence adapt their daily choices more often to environmentally friendly products and ways of living. Again, this is not to say that we should romanticize or construct an ideal of women who are “by their nature” more inclined to take care of the environment. But it might be interesting to look at how women are differently raised in order to develop a higher sense for nature and the environment.
However, the most important link between the climate crisis and female oppression lies in the effects of global heating. The disastrous effects of climate crisis are manifold: The rise of the sea-level, droughts and floods, natural disasters, scarcity of water and extinction of many species. You might think that these effects will be equally disastrous for everyone. But we know already that this is not the case. It is everywhere the most vulnerable who will suffer most from climate change: The sea-level will rise equally for Bangladesh and for the Netherlands or Denmark. However, while the Netherlands and Denmark have the financial and political stability to build dams and alternative housing for their nationals, people in Bangladesh will simply drown with not many people to care about. That is the true reality we have to face in a hierarchical and unfair global world.
Now, the same is true when it comes to social categories like gender. Women are 14 times more likely to die during a climate disaster and already today 80% of climate refugees are women. Plus, and maybe most important, women represent the majority of small-holder farmers in the world and by this are economically highly dependent on the access to fertile land - very often in regions, where people in general have less access and possibilities to adapt to changes caused by environmental destruction. Farming in the upcoming climate chaos will be more and more less reliable and pushes these women even further to the margins of society. Coupled with their small access to power, rights and money, climate change puts women, especially in the Global South, at the frontline.
And there is yet another link between sexist discrimination and natural exploitation: With both, we are facing an imminent and constant threat to our bodies, to our integrity as healthy and dignified human beings. Feminist movements have long been outpointing how dangerous patriarchal and sexist behaviour for non-male bodies is. Until today, women do not move as freely and safely in the public spheres as men can. The effects of the climate crisis, no matter how abstract they seem now, will as well threaten our bodies and our lives. Therefor it is time to learn from the feminist movements and make the problems of the climate crisis a more personal issue: It is not happening somewhere else or some other time – the climate crisis is happening here and now, to us and our bodies. So we should stop making it a rather technical, rational or intellectual approach – it is physical, tangible and very much threatening us in the here and now.
In short: The climate crisis is not an ecological problem, it’s in its core the biggest social question of mankind, aggravating injustices of class, race and gender.
False Solutions: Green New Deal & Nationalist Ecologists of the Far-Right
There are two paths of solution which will be misleading and destructive if we consider that the climate crisis is in its essence a social crisis and if we apply the feminist perspective on the causes and consequences of the global heating.
First of all, much debate is going on about “greening the economy”. These pathways focus on massive green investment in order to lessen the carbon footprint of our economy and society. Fossil fuels shall be replaced by renewable energies, industries shall green their production chains and people shall change towards environmentally friendly behavior. “Green Capitalism” even promises to boost economies offering new investment and job opportunities. Much concern is expressed on environmental destruction while at the same no attention is paid to the social stratification of societies nationally and globally. “Green Capitalism” looks out for quick solutions without developing a view on wider causes and consequences.
However, given that the cause of the climate crisis is the capitalist and neoliberal economy with its endless thirst for profits, resources and poorly paid labour, these strategies will not tackle the root causes for environmental destruction and are bound to fail. No economic growth is independent from the (over-)use of resources and will always aggravate the unequal distribution of profits and wealth. Let us not fall into the trap to believe that we only need to green our economy, disregarding the social links and interrelations of these problems and by this ignoring the deeply inherent social injustices coming along with climate crisis. Our efforts on “Green New Deals” might even worsen the current crises that we face.
This leads to the second false path that needs a closer look. Today, the rise of the far-right is one of our biggest challenges that we face as a left and we already have fascist parties in power and soon many more might follow, so their positions towards the climate crisis becomes more and more important. For now, most of the parties and movements of the far-right are characterized by climate change deniers who strongly argue against the scientific fact of manmade global heating. It seems worthwhile to put a lot of effort to criticize the far-right for their positions on ecology and climate (as well as of course for their racist, patriarchal and inhumane notions). We do have to fear that a far-right in power positions will do nothing to prevent and stop global heating and that this will aggravate the problem. US President Trump leaving the Paris agreement is a good example for this.
However, another problem could be that the far-right would accept climate change as a real threat. This could be even more dangerous because the far-right would tackle climate change by combining it with their nationalist, fascist, racist and misogynous world views. We would have to fear climate policies, that even more disadvantage the most vulnerable. We would have to fear ultra-nationalist and egoistic green “solutions” that only favour and protect the ones already in power and with privilege. It makes it even more clear why we need feminist and anti-racist and anti-capitalist solutions to the climate crisis, not only green ones or fascist ones.
Conclusion: We need an intersectional perspective on the climate crisis
Once integrated and understood, an intersectional perspective on political problems serves as an eye-opener for different, but interrelated social factors and power structures. We realize that if we only tackle a part of a problem, the rest will remain the same or even worsen and by this not serve as a solution at all. When it comes to the climate crisis, we need to see as well the democratic and social deficits that come along with it for many people who are suffering most from the consequences of the climate crisis. That is why the climate justice movements claims: “System change, not climate change!”
In its essence, the fight against climate destruction must be an anti-capitalist one, or more precisely put, a feminist and eco-socialist struggle. So major and radical economic transformation is needed, because the capitalist system with all its economic imbalances and social injustices will never offer the solutions we need to step out of the vicious circles of ecological destruction, social exploitation and economic madness.
If we neglect a multi-faceted and seemingly complicated perspectives, we will always only see parts of the problem (and of the solution). We will have to make strong efforts to integrate the voices of the many and the unheard. We will have to reject any lukewarm policies that only focus on greening a small sector of our economy or which only privilege the few. We will always have to question the norms, paradigms and values that underpin our neoliberal and patriarchal system.
It will not be an easy way, it is the hardest road to go. But it will be the only road that will free us from capitalist exploitation, ecological destruction and all forms of social discrimination.
This is a short version of a speech that was given on the transform! Denmark conference “Confronting Climate Change – Red-Green Transformation in Europe and globally on March 16th 2019 in Copenhagen.