What possible relationship could there be between gender and climate change? From the most personal aspects of our bodies and minds, to the most general qualities of the planet we live on, the categories of gender and climate change seem as distant from each other as possible. This appearance is deceiving.
Environmental thinkers from Aldo Leopold, to Theodore Roszak, (Person/Planet) have argued for the vital connection between the global environment and the personal. Since Roszak wrote, "The needs of the planet are the needs of the person. The rights of the person are the rights of the planet." greens have believed ourselves to be tied up with our world in subtle, significant ways. On this blog, writers have explored these connections in so many ways. We've written to highlight links between our global economic system and the food we put in our bodies (see here), or between our education systems and energy use (see here).
Only once has an author commented on the links between gender and climate. Jeremy Williams moved through the basics of a report (pdf) to Sweden's Environmental Advisory Council on gender equity as a pre-requisite for global sustainability. Currently, according to the report Jeremy analyzed, men consume more energy than women, and thus are greater contributors to global climate change. Jeremy wisely pointed out that dominant global gender roles place men more often in positions of greater resource consumption. Men often have higher paying jobs, more leisure time, and more disposable income.
Further analysis can broaden Jeremy's point- not only are men disproportionately responsible for climate change, but women suffer disproportionate consequences. These complex gender dynamics are well elucidated by Gender CC, the website of Women for Climate Justice, a group that emerged from the 2004 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The website includes analysis of conferences from Bali in 2007 back to Berlin in 2005. Lamenting that "Gender equity is neither mentioned in the Framework Convention on Climate Change nor in the Kyoto Protocol," the website makes a compelling argument for the relevance of the 'gender dimension' to global warming policy. Frustrated by failures to address gender issues, Gender CC gives a comprehensive analysis of the many ways climate and gender are intertwined.
The issue of disproportionate consequences is addressed in the section focused on adaptation to climate change, where Gender CC points out that "The effects of climate change affect women and men differently." Women, according to Gender CC, are disproportionately poor, and have social roles and responsibilities that "lead to a higher degree of dependence on the natural environment." Specifically, "due to climate change, their work burden for family care, such as collecting water and fire wood, is increasing."
Disasters disproportionately affect women as well. Women "have less access to information such as early warnings, due to inequitable distribution of aid they may receive less resources, and moreover, they are may be subject to sexual violence." Gender CC describes how gradual climate changes will affect poor women, who are often in charge of gathering water and wood, while climate disasters, like tsunamis, hurricanes, or wars, may also hit women hardest.
Gender CC, like the Swedish report (pdf), realizes that in addition to being disproportionately impacted by climate change, women have much to offer to the situation. Gender CC reminds us that "Women's knowledge of natural resources, and their common responsibilities in households and communities can be crucial for adaptation and disaster management." How can this knowledge be put to use?
Gender CC's website includes not only analysis but also recommendations, suggesting, for example that future policies "Enhance women's access to land and control over natural resources to make better use of their knowledge and enhance their possibilities to mitigate disasters and cope with climate change." Current gender conditions place women out of control, and increasing women's control over natural resources, according to Gender CC, will harness women's abilities to adapt to climate change.
Gender CC is certainly not the only organization working on this issue. GenaNet, a German organization "created to raise awareness of gender equity in environment and sustainability policy" publishes "position statements on recent environment and sustainability issues," attempting to move gender issues into the environmental mainstream. The Women's Environment and Development Organization is an international organization dedicated to advocating for gender equality in global organizations like the United Nations.
These organizations serve the valuable role of identifying a crucial aspect of sustainability - equity - and working to achieve it. Equity is a necessary component of sustainability, because in an unjust world, or an unfair system, those who are disenfranchised or lack basic resources will eventually demand their fair share (see this NY Times article on inequality). This demand will unbalance a system based on exploitation of other people.
However on another level of analysis, focus on issues of gender is fundamentally unsustainable. Gender is a social role, something we are continually making - by our actions, expectations, and beliefs. For evidence of this, we can look no further than female's success in roles traditionally reserved for males - from CEOs of major companies, to Olympic athletes, to editors. These are all activities that once were defined as exclusively male, but have had their definitions re-constructed to open them to females. So what does this have to do with environmental problems?
Sustainability is a problem about a whole society - not about individual parts or roles. When gender is constructed to divide people, to sort them into roles, it obscures the interconnectedness of environmental problems. When we separate a 'male' task, like construction, from a 'female' task, like cooking, we lose possible synergistic solutions. For example, the heat of a cook stove could be used to heat a small dwelling - if the dwelling is constructed using energy efficient ideas and techniques. A smoky stove must be placed beneath a chimney, even if the male architect designing the home has never cooked a meal in his life.
Seeing synergistic solutions is the job of Dorah Lebelo, Executive Director of the GreenHouse Project, an environmental NGO in Johannesburg South Africa. The GreenHouse project seeks to demonstrate sustainable living and development, taking a "holistic approach to the city's challenges, integrating green building and design, efficient and renewable energy, recycling, organic farming and nutrition." Ms. Lebelo tries to provide the people of Joubert Park, an immigrant neighborhood in Johannesburg, with a the tools of independence - tools that enable them to wisely manage their own waste, food, water, and dwellings, regardless of gender. While Ms. Lebelo is a female, her sustainability project is not based on divisive ideas of gender, but rather the inclusive, holistic ideas that must be at the root of any sustainable endeavor. Ms. Lebelo, in the video below, describes these as being based on a principle of abundance. This principle teaches that we have what we need, and in order to live in harmony with the earth, we can find ways to do more with less.