Environmentalism has gender and social justice issues

November 6, 2017

Jennifer Bernstein, environmentalist and lecturer at the University of Southern California s Spatial Sciences Institute, was on the Cornell University campus recently to discuss her provocative article On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers: Why Environmentalism has a Gender Problem. Sarah Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science, sat down with her to talk about anti-tech views, gender problems in the environmental movement, access to innovation and other issues.

Why do you think the environmental movement traditionally has been so anti-technology?

Well, technology is what created the [environmental] problem. And as a social movement an increasingly diverse social movement we ve never really gotten away from the issue of the machine in the garden. It’s so deeply rooted within green ideology. That’s one of the foundations on which we’ve built this movement, and it’s hard to get away from. There’s a real attachment to natural is better and artificial is inferior. There are some very interesting contradictory statements by prominent greens like Naomi Klein regarding how alternative energy is what we need, but only if it’s on a small scale, ‘ whereas to be effective in lowering carbon emissions it has to be on a larger scale! There’s some change but it’s still an uphill battle.

One of our big messages at the Alliance is that access to innovation is a form of social justice. Can you comment on this?

Definitely. Access to innovation is a form of social justice. In the developed world we can talk all we want and romanticize other people, but ultimately with electricity you can have so many other options. You can be reading at night. And being able to have crops that reduce the amount of time you have to spend every day weeding, these are things that change peoples’ livelihoods for the better. There’s just no way around it. The folks who are talking the most about de-growth are the folks who have already grown. This idea that we should all reduce our environmental impact by not eating meat, not only will it not happen, but it’s not aware of the real social justice issues that exist globally, and it’s not fair to deny other groups the ability to develop economically in the way that we have. I think our big challenge is, how do we provide access to innovation so that we decouple development from carbon emissions?

Can you talk about the urgency?

As a lifelong environmentalist, it has been hard for me to grapple with these different ways of thinking about environmental problems. I came of age during a time when we were anti-technology. We were saving these pristine redwood forests, and the answer seemed really simple. It really did seem like it was sawmills versus old growth [forests]. It’s been challenging for me to face things, like how the economic depression and natural gas development are driving the reduction of carbon emissions in the United States in the 2000s. I sort of long for the days when it could just be old growth versus logging. But we can’t do that anymore; it’s not the world we live in. We need to take seriously what is going to get us to where we need to go, which is a rapid drop in carbon emissions. It’s not about using renewables; it’s about reducing carbon emissions and what needs to happen to get us there when we have a world that wants energy, and electricity, and development, and livelihoods.

So why is there this linkage between capitalism and agricultural technology that drives this opposition from green groups, when in fact technology could help solve some of these problems?

Case studies have shown that throughout history, it’s through intensification and substitution that we have reduced pressure on ecosystems. It was a little bit of politics, but it mostly kerosene, that reduced our dependence on whale oil. So this has been happening for a long time. There’s also the way that the government has been involved in some of these innovations in our daily lives, like the iPhone, the Internet, and the degree in which the government can be an environmental actor. There’s no reason that can’t happen.

See Bernstein’s October 4th address at Cornell University, interview continues below:

Can you tell us in a few sentences why you think environmentalism has a gender problem?

In writing this piece, basically what I realized was that lifestyle environmentalism which advocates for more time-intensive ways of doing things, which romanticizes farms and gardens as these spaces that exist outside the capitalist system disproportionately burdens certain populations, especially women, but even more so, women of lower class and disenfranchised socio-economic groups, especially in the developing world. When we romanticize small farms as being this dreamy antidote to capitalism and technology and all that we environmentalists feel is wrong in the world, we basically allow the systems that perpetuate these inequities to continue.

Are there any elements in the environmental community that are trying to address this gender problem?

Well, there’s a history of eco-feminism, which has been around for a long time. And a lot of eco-feminism has really strong roots insofar as it basically says that women, who tend to be on the receiving end of the consequences of environmental degradation, are the ones who are most aware of them, and the ones most likely to act. But the space in which this becomes problematic is where we conflate women and the biological environment. I m talking about this whole idea of Mother Earth, with the characteristics typically associated with women being applied to the Earth always nurturing and caring; love your mother, but she will lash out in the form of a natural disaster when we err. Basically, the implication there is that women are at the mercy of these biological systems, which is something that mainstream feminism rejected a long time ago. So there are some good strains within eco-feminism but there are still these out dated notions that women serve as a sort of proxy for the biophysical environment, outside the realm of technological progress and all these things that mainstream environmentalism often demonizes.

What would an environmentalism that takes feminism seriously look like?

Part of the impetus for writing my paper was realizing that environmentalism isn’t going to be equitable unless it comes to terms with technological innovation. Environmentalism in the developed world emerged after material needs were met, and with women, that s meant when things like washing machines and dishwashers and all those lovely home innovations have enabled them to devote more time to other pursuits. So I really thought that there had to be a reconciling with the way in which the anti-technology mind-set disproportionately affects certain groups, particularly with respect to gender.

Is access to innovations gendered, particularly in the developing world?

Things aren’t perfect in developed countries, but there does tend to be less of a discrepancy between the amount of time that men and women are participating in unpaid labor. In the developing world this [discrepancy] tends to be much, much more. Women tend to form the bulk of the rural poor; they tend to perform much more unpaid labor; and they tend to have a lot less access to the time-saving devices that might enable them to engage in other pursuits. We romanticize small farms as being outside the realm of capitalism and fixing everything that capitalism isn’t, but that’s exactly the problem in the developing world: the fact that there is so much unpaid labor and so little access to economic opportunities. Many of the lifestyle greens in the developed world, who are so far removed from the realities of everyday life and how difficult life can be, some will naturalize this by saying: Well, women and nature have this inherent connectedness with these biological systems, so they’re going to be the ones to save these working landscapes. It’s not just, and I think that without some sort of recognition of the need for intensification, genetically modified crops, and other ways in which life can be made easier, there just isn’t going to be equity.

Are we adequately innovating to address the needs of women?

It seems to me as though the science in many places is there, but I think that public opposition by green groups in a lot of cases provides unnecessary barriers. A lot of this is due to the contradictory relationship that we have with technology and the way in which it is embedded in these power structures. A lot of people worry that if we are going to go down this road of advocating for more technological innovation it’s going to be used how it has been in the past, to benefit the groups that have already been in power. You can’t look at the technology outside the context in which it’s being deployed. And you can’t make assumptions about that broader context. So it has to be coupled with a recognition of these power differentials. But I came to the conclusion that environmentalism is not going to be more equitable without that innovation.