Anne Karpf is a sociologist, award-winning journalist and author of five books of nonfiction, the latest of which, How Women Can Save the Planet, has just been published by Hurst. She is Professor of Life Writing and Culture at London Metropolitan University. She (re)tweets @AnneKarpf
HOW WOMEN CAN SAVE THE PLANETI never set out to write a book on women and the climate crisis. A publisher invited me to write a proposal for a book on women and the city but I kept gravitating back to climate breakdown. My younger daughter was already active in this area and, looking back, I see how the subject had been bubbling around in my writing, one way or another, for many decades.
GENDER INEQUALITY AND THE CLIMATE EMERGENCYWhen, finally, I could resist it no longer, I began exploring the ways in which the climate emergency had a distinct and disproportionate effect on women. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t biology that was crucial here but gender — those social roles and identities with which we’re raised. Although environmental breakdown is inscribed into and onto the bodies of women, especially black and brown women, this isn’t just because they were born into a female body but because they were born in gender-unequal societies. Again and again I found that gender inequality made women more liable to experience some of the worst effects of the climate emergency and deprived them of the resources to escape or tackle them. I discovered a wealth of research backing this up, from NGOs, charities and feminist climate scholars, toiling in this area for many decades. Pioneering work by Ulrike Röhr, Seema Arora-Jonsson, Gerd Johnsson-Latham, Joni Seager, Susan Buckingham, Irene Dankelman, Greta Gaard, Bernadette Resurrección and Sherilyn MacGregor, among others, excited me, and I set out to try and popularise their compelling arguments and irrefutable evidence.
“Although environmental breakdown is inscribed into and onto the bodies of women, especially black and brown women, this isn’t just because they were born into a female body but because they were born in gender-unequal societies”
WOMEN AROUND THE WORLDTo this I added my own interviews with climate campaigners. I wanted to show the many different ways in which women around the world were engaging with the climate crisis — as activists and scientists, lawyers and environmentalists, and in climate litigation. These Zoomed interviews — quite hard to set up across wobbly internet access in lockdown —were so rich and inspiring that I decided to run eight of them at length between each chapter, to give a sense of how my interviewees’ activism had emerged out of their lives and then shaped them. The interviews, I hope, echo the scholarly research and show how it plays out in lived experience.
WOMEN AT THE NEGOTIATING TABLE?When I saw what an extraordinary resource these women represented, it made it all the more baffling and dispiriting to read the statistics about women’s presence at the climate negotiating table: marginalised, if not actually excluded (not a single woman in the UK’s initial negotiating team for COP 26, for instance). I’ve tried to challenge the idea that, at a time of climate emergency, gender is a distraction from the catastrophe unfolding before our eyes — we can deal with that later. No we can’t: ‘gender-neutral’ equals gender-blind and leads us away from gender-just solutions — or even effective ones. As the late, great American writer Audre Lorde put it, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Of course we know that women don’t constitute a single, monolithic group. And while I’ve tried to avoid using any terms that aren’t immediately accessible to a wide readership (farewell hegemonic masculinity, intersectionality and even patriarchy), my book rests on the argument, developed over many years by feminist scholars and activists, of the ways in which gender intersects with race and class, as well as sexual preference, sexual identity and disability.
LEAN-IN FEMINISMGender works in interesting ways. When I looked into the fossil fuel companies, I found —perhaps unsurprisingly — that they were dominated by white men in the global North. Same for the banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions funding them. Of course simply replacing those men with white (and a smattering of black and brown) women — the kind of corporate ‘lean-in’ feminism advanced by Sheryl Sandberg and others — would do little in itself to alter the devastating impact that these extractive industries are having on the planet and on the communities that they’ve made vulnerable. But hold on a minute. If you look at the highest individual emitters of greenhouse gases, they’re almost all rich white men in the global North. Then let’s look at the pandemic: Oxfam has tracked how the world’s ten richest billionaires got unfathomably richer during Covid lockdowns. Although Oxfam’s report mentioned that they were mainly white and male, almost all the media coverage referred to their gender only in passing, and nothing I could find mentioned their ethnicity. It’s as if we’ve so severed wealth from its roots in gender and racial inequality — so degendered and deracialised it — that we treat these billionaires as if they’re incidentally white and male, rather than recognising the key role of those characteristics in enabling them to amass their money.
INDIVIDUAL CARBON FOOTPRINT – THE PR CAMPAIGNFeminist climate scholars have charted the ways in which consumption in general, and female consumers in particular, have been targeted as the solution to the climate crisis, as a distraction from the fossil fuel producers themselves. One of the worst examples of this is the idea of calculating your own individual carbon footprint as a way of reducing it. Go down this path and it can drive you mad: I’ll never get back the 90 minutes of my life I spent trying to avoid polyester when looking for a new dress. I defy you not to get angry when you understand (thanks to Mark Kaufman of Mashable who exposed it last year) that the advertising agency Ogilvy Mather dreamed up this as part of a 2004 PR campaign on behalf of — drum-roll please — British Petroleum. Yes: it’s YOU buying that polyester dress that has wrecked the planet and not them extracting the fossil fuels in the first place.
THE POPULATION DEBATEProbably the most enraging example of this displacement of responsibility lies in the population debate — a clear example of what I call ‘blame the dame’. Here I’m afraid I have the temerity to criticise National Treasure No 1, Sir David Attenborough. His claim that “We have overrun [the planet]” has a long history and is widely parroted. It’s a seductive argument — that the climate crisis has been caused by population growth — but a reductive one. The populationalists have brown women with large families in their sights, but these days they’re clever enough to clothe the policy in a seemingly feminist ‘empowerment narrative’ (let’s give these women the education and contraception they deserve!) to justify it. Who, except for Taliban ideologues, could possibly object? Of course girls and women should have access to free, good quality education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, and adult education too, but for its own sake and not as an indirect way of making sure that they limit their families to the size that Western countries and NGOs think suitable. As Jade Sasser, who’s documented the ways in which population control has been repackaged under the banner of women’s rights, points out, none of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa (like Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia) with high fertility rates figure in the world’s top 75 greenhouse gas-emitting nations. No, Sir David, ‘we’ haven’t overrun the planet: white wealthy people, mostly but not exclusively male, in the global North have plundered its resources and now want women in the global South to contracept their way out of our mess.
‘we’ haven’t overrun the planet: white wealthy people, mostly but not exclusively male, in the global North have plundered its resources and now want women in the global South to contracept their way out of our mess”