Environmental struggle, a gendered issue?

We cannot assume that our gender or the sexual organs we are born with determine our closeness to the environment.

The other day I was talking with my colleague La Sustentófila and we were commenting on a very curious phenomenon that we have noticed from our experience as environmental communicators. You see, in this area, there are more women than men. Not only in communication but also in our activist groups or in careers associated with “the environment,” such as Earth sciences or biology, while in engineering, mathematics, and physics, men dominate.

We are not the only ones who have noticed this phenomenon. Recently, several government reports, university theses, and research articles have documented and even quantified the differences in ecological attitudes between men and women. Thus, occasionally, our social networks are filled with headlines proclaiming that “women pollute less than men” or that “men think ecology is unmasculine.”

There are also fields of study, like feminist political ecology or ecofeminism, that have focused on analyzing the different contexts in which women have less access to natural resources or less power to decide on their distribution. They also study how women have mobilized to resist these unjust processes, as was the case with the green belt in Kenya and the Chipko movement in India.

But what causes these contrasting attitudes between genders?

Is it natural?

Unfortunately, the explanation that it is an innate issue is the first and last one that many people resort to in order to assert that women are inherently closer to nature. These people see a parallel between the ability of cisgender or cis (a term that refers to people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) women to give birth and the life-giving capacity of our planet: think of seeds germinating, or lionesses taking care of their cubs, or… those were the only two examples I could think of because just as there is creation in nature, there are also many examples of death and destruction.

But following the logic of these essentialist positions, which consider that there is a set of essential characteristics that determine what or who someone is, they also see a connection between the processes and behaviors associated with cis women and other natural phenomena, such as menstruation and the lunar cycle. This connection, according to this view, makes cis women more sensitive to what happens in nature, and vice versa, explains why men present such anti-ecological attitudes.

However, this is a very hopeless view of reality. If we assume that the sexual organs we are born with determine our closeness to the environment, not only would the cis men of the world always remain behind the scenes of the environmental struggle, but so would cis women who are born without a uterus, those who cannot menstruate or bear children, or those whose hormones do not follow the rhythms of the moon. And more importantly, this view leaves out intersex people, people whose sexual characteristics do not match the binary model of female and male, and binary and non-binary trans people, who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (among whom there may also be intersex people).

So what’s going on? 

The explanation can be found in history and geography: what we consider today as gender and environment, as well as the relationship between these concepts, changes depending on the time and society from which we are viewing them. The meaning of “man,” “woman,” or “nature” in Mexico City in the year 2020 will not be the same as in Sarayaku, Ecuador, where nature is part of the human community, or what it meant to be a man in the court of Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century, a process that implied owning a good pair of heels. Even in the same time and place, there have been mechanisms of differentiation that determine who can belong to a gender and who cannot. During the slave trade, white women who were plantation owners were considered women, while the term “female” was used for enslaved Black women. In other words, for the slavers, slaves did not fall into the gender categories associated with being human but with animals. And that was how they justified their domination over them.

What we see as gender, sex, and environment is the result of the social relations of a given society. We learn them when we are very young and that makes them seem natural when in reality, they are constructed. The development of the modern/colonial system relied on the creation of differences of gender and race to justify the exploitation of people and nature, determining the roles that everyone must follow for it to function.

This is why there are women who deny climate change and reach positions of power that impact other women and the environment. Like Sylvi Listhaug, who, in addition to promoting pro-oil policies during her short term as Norway’s Minister of Petroleum and Energy, also proposed one of the strictest anti-immigrant policies in Europe when she served as Minister of Migration and Integration from 2015 to 2018. On the other side, it has unfortunately also become very common to hear about the murders of male environmentalists in Latin America, such as Samir Flores or Homero Gómez, who raised their voices for their communities and the environment, but who proved uncomfortable for those interested in economically exploiting their regions.

Identifying ourselves as women, men, or non-binary people is not an imposed and undeniable destiny that will determine our ability to care for the world, but rather a starting point to understand why we see it as we do and how we can change our actions and social organization to modify it. For the same reason, the environmental project needs to include an anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, and decolonial practice that breaks with constructed orders and begins, little by little, with the reconstruction of a more just system.

This was originally published in Spanish on sopitas.com

Cover image by Vlad Tchompalov from Unsplash