In this series of interviews our volunteer interviewer and writer Louise Turner has been speaking with leading voices in climate activism, discussing why climate justice is a feminist issue.
Dr Sherilyn MacGregor, Professor, The University of Manchester
In the first of a series of articles, Louise Turner, Wen volunteer speaks to Dr Sherilyn MacGregor an academic at The University of Manchester.
During International Women’s Week this year, the Wen Forum will be held at The University of Manchester on the issue of climate justice and feminism. This blog series examines the topic through a series of interviews. First, I spoke to Professor Sherilyn MacGregor who will be the chair at the forum. She is an academic at The University of Manchester whose research focuses on the relationship between feminist and environmental politics. Sherilyn advocates an intersectional ecofeminism for the 99% and digs into the heart of what a just future could look like in the face of climate emergency.
L: Sherilyn, how would you explain the connection between the environmental crisis and feminism to someone hearing about it for the first time?
S: Fundamental to feminism is pointing out the inequalities that are structurally created and reinforced, not just along the lines of gender but along many other intersecting lines of difference and inequality. The climate emergency is having the most severe effects on the most marginalised and exploited people – those whose lives are shaped by structural inequalities.
Women, particularly women of colour in the global south living in colonized parts of the world, are some of those who are worst affected by climate emergencies and disasters. There is a strong connection – if feminism is about advocating for women’s lives and improving women’s lives – clearly anything that’s going to hurt women’s lives is part of a feminist project to address and tackle climate change has been presented in the mainstream media as something that affects ‘us’, all humans, equally, as if we’re all in the same boat, the same peril, the same danger. Clearly that’s not true. If we’re going to talk about imaging what a just future looks like in the face of climate emergency, then we have to recognise that inequality is at the heart of it and all solutions to address it have to take into account and address those inequalities.
L: How can we strengthen a feminist critique and at the same time move away from understandings of climate change and gender that emphasise the vulnerabilities of women and marginalised groups?
S: I think that’s the reason why we’re moving to justice as the main focus of feminist intervention into climate politics. A lot of important work is being done at the global level, for example by the Women’s and Gender Constituency at UNFCCC, which is the top level of negotiation. They’ve tended to make arguments based on women’s vulnerability and that’s important. But as you say and as I’ve said, it can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing this idea that women are passive victims.
So, I think advocates and activists who are trying to engage from a feminist position have to be really strategic. You need to get to the table and make the case because of the fact that it is and will be women who are hurt most – but then there’s the other questions like what are the political, ethical and other principles that should be part of the discussion.
L: You use the phrase, ‘the masculinization of environmentalism’ to describe how men dominate across all spheres of climate politics (science, business and government).How can women be better included in the debate?
S: If you look at the research that’s been done on this question, it’s a bit mixed on whether it matters whether more women are at the table or not. I’m wary of it being a strict counting exercise. I think it has to be more about what sort of people are at the table – do they have a vision, a set of ethics and a way of operating that are consistent with an intersectional ecofeminist perspective?
We need people of all genders who identify with social and ecological justice, particularly thinking about fighting intersectional injustices, and who can basically recognize that it is the 99% who have been excluded and it’s the 1% who are defining the terms of debate. Hence the idea of feminism for the 99% – I don’t think that’s just 99% of women; that’s 99% of humans.
L: Can you tell us a bit more about your term, “feminist ecological citizenship”, what this means and why it’s important?
S: In many ways I have proposed it more as a challenge than a prescription. I know the concept of citizenship is controversial and we need to ask whether it still holds weight in post-humanist, post-liberal times. But I see it, in theory at least, from a radical democratic perspective, which is about equality, the common good and active engagement in collective public life. I like the expression, from Hannah Arendt (whose work I refer to when thinking about citizenship), that what makes us human is being together in the world as part of a collective. We are always part of a collective – how we negotiate with others, how we understand ourselves and come to know those we live with in political communities on this shared and finite planet, is through being a citizen.
So, in my book Beyond Mothering Earth: Ecological Citizenship and the Politics of CareI challenge ecofeminists to think of themselves more as citizens than as consumers or as mothers, which are the two most compelling identities that are available to women in the green political sphere. There’s a lot of ways that motherhood can be used to silence and marginalise women from politics, both from debate and actual physical protest. I argue that we should take citizenship more seriously as an identity, as a way of engaging in politics, because it’s a way of claiming equal voice, asserting an equal non-gendered position from which to make demands for justice, asserting who we are rather that what we are.
Anything to do with individual consumer responsibility is disproportionately targeted at women by marketing people and green campaigners alike.
L: How can we engage women politically beyond thinking in terms of lifestyle changes and consumer choices?
LS: There’s a longstanding feminist critique of the feminization of environmental responsibility and the feminization of green labour. There’s a moralization of what should and shouldn’t be done for the planet, for example recycling and all of its moral framing. Anything to do with individual consumer responsibility is disproportionately targeted at women by marketing people and green campaigners alike.
When someone says, what can I do to fight climate change? We have to stop the urge to say, ‘well I recycle… I do this, I don’t that’, and instead say ‘I demand political action and structural change’. We have to hold our leaders to account.
So how do you change that? Well, that’s where we have to resist the individualization discourse and see ourselves as citizens with larger concerns and demands than what’s in our shopping trolley or blue box. When someone says, what can I do to fight climate change? We have to stop the urge to say, ‘well I recycle… I do this, I don’t that’, and instead say ‘I demand political action and structural change’. We have to hold our leaders to account. We have to resist the inequalities of wealth. We have to resist double standards. Telling working class people they shouldn’t take a flight while CEOs are flying weekly for one meeting in New York and back is not on.
And so, all who are part of the 99% (and I realise there a myriad positions within this) have to refuse the individualization of saying that each person has equal duty to make sacrifices. We have to zoom in on the 1% (especially the 0.1%), the people in power. That’s what citizenship is about really.
We have to talk about what an ecofeminist set of values can bring, not just to an understanding of the problem, but finding better solutions
L: Would you say it’s important to consider local issues because I know you’ve mentioned that sometimes local issues have been side-lined because of the urgency of the climate crisis?
S: Yes. The research that I’ve done in Manchester’s Moss Side, for example, which looks at how a small community group is trying to bring people together, build networks of neighbours, to clean up their alleys and make them green, put plants and vegetables in their alleys to make them nice places to be, for children to play- this all convinces me that we need to start from improving people’s quality of life. It’s tricky to start with ‘climate change’ because that often turns people off. More needs to be done to sow the seeds of a kind of local, ‘interstitial’ politics that makes tackling the bigger issues more possible. In Moss Side the feeling is if you can’t keep your own alleyways free of litter and fly-tipping and broken bottles, then how on earth do you think you’re going to tackle climate emergency?
We have to do more in very affluent countries like the UK to redress the fact that marginalised people don’t tend to think environmentalism is about them, because mainstream environmentalism hasn’t always tackled these kinds of issues that blight everyday lives. So that’s why I look more to the environmental justice movement, to local grassroots types of political initiatives, than to the big-name environmental protest and performance movements. It’s all necessary, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re going to make a choice of where to put your efforts, personally, I’m interested – as a researcher and as a citizen – to think more locally right now.
L: You talk about the way that the discourse around climate change has been depoliticized. How can we reinvigorate politics generally in our thinking about the climate crisis?
S: I think it’s already starting to happen, I mean obviously we’re talking about extinction and crisis and emergency, and those words are important, and they’ve had some traction, but alongside that there’s a growing coalition of social movements who are trying to say – “this is a moment to rethink a) what kind of society we want to live in and b) how do we make the transition to it in a just and inclusive way”.
The way we reinvigorate politics is we show that there’s a process of making those decisions that are collective, about how we live together well on a shared and fragile planet, and that’s a fundamental question of politics. So let’s present it as the fundamental challenge that humans have to face, and if we can get it right, then on the other side of it is a better life for everyone. We can have a shorter work week, or we can have universal basic income, green spaces and clean air. We can have more time to spend with our loved ones. We can have more time for pursuits other than just our paid work. It’s those types of radical – well it’s not that radical when you think about it – but those are the types of changes that could benefit everyone. You don’t have to be a greenie to think, yes please I’d like an extra day off a week. That’s what’s going to reinvigorate politics. I think people like Naomi Klein is someone who’s really got that. She’s a spokesperson for that kind of strategy.
We can have a shorter work week, or we can have universal basic income, green spaces and clean air. We can have more time to spend with our loved ones. We can have more time for pursuits other than just our paid work.
L: What would a feminist future, a feminist response, to the climate crisis would look like?
First I’d say it involves valuing the work that everyone does to care for each other. So the whole idea of putting care at the centre, not just an ethic of care, but valuing the work of care which is feminized and extremely undervalued.
I think we don’t have to pursue a techno-scientific future by trying to find technological fixes to all of our ecological problems. Obviously, we need, solar panels and all the rest of it, but too much of the discussion of the future is about green technology and green jobs in new green technologies (most of which are in fields that are traditionally male dominated).
We have to not allow that to be the dominant trajectory. We need to be valuing the low tech, necessary work of maintaining and nurturing everyday life. So, paying childcare workers and teachers better, all the kind of low impact, high welfare care work that that make societies rich and potentially enlightened in terms of thinking about people as equal and due equal dignity. That has to be seen as part of the green agenda. So, I always say care jobs are green jobs. Paying people a living wage, giving them ample time and social recognition to look after each other. That’s about re-embedding the economy in society rather than treating society as being at the service of the economy. All these arguments around care are central to an ecofeminist vision of a climate just future. Mind you, we also need to make this vision eco-centric not anthropocentric, to treat humans as not sitting on the top of the ladder. We have to come down a few pegs and be partners with nature – and that’s another eco-feminist idea – the concept of partnership ethics, that we should see ourselves as in partnership with natural world.
L: How would you encourage women to become actively involved in feminism and environmentalism and citizenship practically?
S: I think anything that takes you away from thinking it’s your own responsibility as a consumer or a mother, anything that gets you into the public sphere with other people where you can join forces and articulate what it is that you think is valuable.
So, going to demonstrations yes but also having local discussions, in residents’ groups, school coffee mornings, anything that makes it possible and safe to discuss matters of common concern. Citizens Assemblies sound very grand but it only takes a kitchen table and a nice cake to get people to discuss how we’re going to get out of this mess.
I think it’s really important that environmentalism is seen as not an elite white middle-class endeavour. There’s a lot of work to do to rebrand environmentalism and there needs to be a way of making it more popular, which again may mean not putting the green or carbon agenda first, it could instead be about wellbeing, health and just a better and less exhausting life that’s already going to be green. I think we have to start to acknowledge as environmentalists that we have a bit of a brand problem and there needs to be some work done to put justice and inclusivity at the heart of it. It will take putting the most marginalised or vulnerable people first, putting migrants first, or disabled people first or LGBTQI people first, and saying we’re actually going to talk about how that climate emergency intersects with these concerns. Let’s try to put those issues first for a change and put the worries of the white elite middle class second or third or fourth.
L: Any final thoughts for people who are interested in attending the event?
S: Just to emphasize that we’ll be asking why climate justice (instead of climate change) is a feminist issue. So it’s more about the solutions than impacts and vulnerabilities. I hope people will recognize that this is a deliberate invitation to have a discussion about the future and to engage in a collective feminist project of imagining what an inclusive climate just future would look like and making the political demands necessary to realise it.
L: Thank you very much, Sherilyn for speaking with me.
The Wen forum will be held during International Women’s Week on Wednesday 11th March 2020 at The University of Manchester. Book tickets