Natural and climatic disasters are becoming more frequent on all continents. Whether drought or flood, earthquake or hurricane – women are hit hardest: 70 per cent of those killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were women. Out of 15 people who died in cyclones in Bangladesh, 14 were female. In photos showing victims, women and their children meld into an ensemble of vulnerability in desolate landscapes, just as they often do in depictions of poverty and war.
Dr. Christa Wichterich is a sociologist, journalist, author, and is currently a lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Basel.
This is tragic, but also a stereotype that obscures women’s agency, making all women appear equally vulnerable and equally affected by gender. However, the consequences of climate change fuelled by resource and energy-intensive industrialization and the growth constraints of the capitalist system differ greatly, not only from region to region but also socially. Besides gender, a whole complex of intersectional inequality factors such as class, skin colour and age, as well as city/country or North/South context, is responsible for determining who and where the victims of environmental destruction and climate change are. Questions of property ownership and wealth distribution as well as socio-cultural norms and ideologies play a major role here.
A key mechanism for externalizing and outsourcing the after-effects of climate change is the shifting of risks, burdens and labour onto the global South, precarious social classes, the indigenous and poor, and into future, onto coming generations. Ecological calamities hit populations already made precarious by violence, exploitation and poverty, with force. Existing inequalities, schisms and struggles over distribution are exacerbated by this.
The necessary social support and preventative care work, as well as repair work in the wake of environmental crises, are outsourced by the market and the ever-thinner welfare state into the unpaid care economy traditionally left to women. In fact, as a result of climate change, work relating to nutrition, health and environmental clean-up is increasing. In view of these multiple injustices, climate activists have for years been crying ‘No climate justice without gender justice!’
As a counterpoint to the ongoing contempt for women’s agency, the central focus in the following discussion is the struggles waged by feminist organizations that address power and inequality and critically engage with a development model that, in its hunger for resources and growth, produces crisis after crisis.
Since 2006, the group Women and Gender Constituency (WGC) has been involved in the annual international climate negotiations. The proportion of women in the negotiations is just under 40 percent, but only 2 percent of the funds for climate protection go to organizations in the South and women at the grassroots. The lobbying effort in Bonn in 2017 made use of the gender mainstreaming approach. One of its successes was the adoption of a Gender Action Plan.
It was not gender mainstreaming, but radical criticism of the development model and the trade regime that inspired 160 women’s rights organizations, mainly from the global South, to reject a statement on ‘Gender and Trade’ at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires. The statement promises women economic empowerment through inclusion in value chains, entrepreneurship and trade. Such ‘pink-washing’ is decried by critics who demand development and food sovereignty instead of the free trade rules that destroy their local livelihoods, with the slogan ‘Basta ya! WTO: We want sovereignty’.
At the same time, social movements are reacting locally and internationally to interwoven, systemically triggered crises. The particular quality of feminist approaches is to establish links with women’s bodies and women’s work, i.e. social reproduction and care, and to associate violence against women’s bodies with resource extractivism and the destruction of nature.
The farmers of La Vía Campesina, with their ‘feminismo campesino popular’, have for some years linked the demand for food sovereignty with, on the one hand, struggles against the violence of land grabbing, industrialization and genetic engineering in agriculture and, on the other, the fight against sexual violence and for sovereignty over their own bodies. The Latin American movement against femicide, Ni una menos, takes for granted that violence in society, including against nature, is carried out on women’s bodies. The feminist network Miradas críticas del Territorio desde el Feminismo combines defence of one’s own body with defence of the land. The body is seen as part of a larger whole in terms of the social and natural environment and territorial regions. Their fight against the depletion of nature and their bodies is part of their radical development critique, itself a decolonization strategy.
Similarly, WoMin (Women in Mining) in Southern Africa combines resistance to mining and destructive extraction of resources through investment, with major development projects that demand the recognition of women’s day-to-day care work. They resist the expropriation of their land, which – as with the Indigenous peoples of Latin America – is not only their livelihood, but also their identity, their culture: ‘We cannot eat raw materials. He who takes our land takes away our identity and our lives.’ This is why sovereign disposal over the land, the (re-)appropriation of common goods and the (re-)construction of identity are at the centre of their struggles.
In the recent past, more and more large investment projects are threatening locally vital resources such as land, water and forests. China’s new Silk Roads and agricultural development corridors are driving transnational infrastructure development, and large-scale technologies and market instruments such as carbon emissions trading are being offered as solutions to problems of species extinction, resource scarcity and global warming. Agriculture 4.0 is being promoted as a contribution to the green economy, because intelligent technology is supposed to save energy and raw materials, preserve biodiversity and prevent soil erosion. Drones could control plant growth, while sensors could measure soils, light irradiation and the vital data of fattening animals. At the same time, CRISPR gene editing has reached a new level of technical intervention in living organisms and their adaptation to environmental or profit needs.
The highest form of domination over nature is geo-engineering, the industrial development of large-scale technological encroachments on the atmosphere, either to extract its CO₂ and then store it underground or to suppress increases in temperature. Such manipulations with their technological optimism divert attention away from emission reduction. Already, technologies labelled as green are all profitable business areas. And the political rhetoric in Europe proclaims that such investments can prevent migration and combat its causes.
Because all of this happens largely above the heads of local populations, riding roughshod over the foundations of their existence, women at the grassroots insist on their right to say ‘no’ to these development projects that undermine the regional economies and local biospheres in which they produce, trade and consume.
While the social relations of nature in general, and environmental management in particular, are still organized according to the biblical motto of ‘subdue the earth’, feminist eco-concepts strive for a different approach to nature. As an antidote to eco-feminism, which has been criticized in academic circles for its assumption that women are particularly close to nature and its orientation towards a return to nature, feminist political ecology focuses instead on intersectional power and inequalities in environmental conditions. In recent battles at the grassroots level, however, anti-authoritarian and holistic ecofeminist approaches combine in saying ‘no’ to socio-ecological devastation and green economy technologies.
This strategy of refusal and self-organized resistance corresponds to the transnational wave of women’s strikes from Argentina to Switzerland, and the ‘Fridays for Future’ school strikes against climate change. What these struggles have in common is that they are based primarily on the agency of women who empower themselves through civil disobedience or political strikes, and construct themselves as political subjects of socio-ecological transformation.