The first WEN forum of 2017 took place in LSE on the 26th January. The event having sold-out, the room was packed with much anticipation for the evening ahead. After an introduction by the panel chair Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, keynote speaker Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party, took the floor. Natalie spoke of the failures of the current world system based on trashing the environment and treating women as second-class citizens, and the need for a transformation towards a society that works with the resources we have and enables everyone to flourish. She stressed the need for a perception of politics as something to do rather than something that is done to you: feminism and the environment are all part of politics and should be incorporated into the mainstream political agenda.
Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth was the next to speak. Recognising the moral imperative of the fight for women’s equality, Craig positioned women as the agents of the change, at the forefront of campaigns such as the anti-fracking movement. The need for women in meaningful rather than tokenistic decision-making positions is therefore imperative for positive environmental and social change. Craig asserted that the taking for granted of services provided by nature is mirrored in society with an economy that does not formally value the contribution of traditionally ‘women’s work’ such as housework and childrearing. In order for humanity to progress, the contributions of women and nature both have to be explicitly recognised and valued.
The Chair of the Fawcett Society Belinda Phipps spoke of the myth of the ‘global race’ towards a higher GDP, questioning what happens when you win and if a higher GDP is even a desirable goal. We therefore need to rethink the paradigms in which we live as fighting for a fairer and more equal world within the current paradigm would require further environmental destruction to provide the same conditions, by the same methods to which we are accustomed to today, across the world. Belinda emphasised the need to rethink the ownership of assets in terms of both women and nature.
Lucy Bushill-Matthews, CEO of Muslim Action for Development and the Environment, approached the question of environmental responsibility from a religious angle. In faith-based environmental teaching of Muslim youth, trust and responsibility are stressed: the need to be stewards for the earth. The traditional role of women as responsible for domestic consumption decision-making positions them important agents for change. Through an emphasis on ethical fashion, clothes upcycling and bicycles adapted to the clothing of Muslim women, MADE aims to empower women as decision-makers in their own lives.
The role of the Women’s Institute in empowering women to make environmentally responsible choices was illuminated by Marylyn Haines Evans, Chair of the NFWI Public Affairs Committee. The NFWI has over one hundred climate ambassadors and characterises their members as ‘action women’. Marylyn talked of the ‘power of I’ and the responsibilities that must be taken on as citizens in ensuring a positive future for the next generation.
Judy Ling Wong, Honorary President of the Black Environment Network, spoke of the need to include ‘ethnic minorities’ in environmental movements, pointing out that the ‘ethnic minorities’ of the UK constitute the ethnic majorities of the world and all bring their own ways of seeing people, politics, and nature. Seeing such minorities as representatives of their different environments and worldviews opens up new opportunities for shaping alternative futures for us all. Judy sees the concept of beauty as central to the conservation of nature and the environment. In order to teach future generations about care for the environment, we must provide access to nature and recognise the therapeutic advantages of interaction with nature in terms of both mental and physical health.
The last speaker on the panel was WEN’s own Kate Metcalf. She discussed WEN’s principle that neither environmental sustainability nor gender equality alone is possible or desirable without the other. Building on Naomi Klein’s conception of capitalism as the problem, Kate spoke of patriarchal capitalism as the principle issue, devaluing both women and nature as commodities to exploit. In a world dominated by men in positions of power, especially in the political and economic sectors, male priorities will be acted upon. There is therefore a need for participatory grassroots organisations to empower women and ethnic minorities. Kate called for environmentalism to be placed at the heart of the feminist movement as there is little value to equal rights if none of us can breathe the air due to pollution.
Questions and break-out groups raised further issues such as the role of population concerns in the environmental movement, HS2 and what is meant when we speak of ‘the environment'. It was felt that there is a need to bring people and health back into the environmental movement as it has become somewhat externalised. There was a slight tension between figuring individual or collective action as the main focus with Natalie Bennett stressing the need to do so much more than change our individual ways of life. Important though personal change is this a time to be part of something bigger, with suggestions by Belinda Phipps of following Iceland’s example and undertaking a women’s strike. Judy Ling Wong called for education reform and the need to create a system that values teaching about life and nature above exams in order to inculcate a spirit of care and responsibility in future generations.
Moving forward, greater links between the environmental and women’s rights movements must be forged, with all efforts being inclusive and diverse. The links between the movements were tonight shown to be multitudinous; feminism clearly has a lot to do with the environment. Women are often the first affected by climate change and the last to be consulted on it. This is therefore a call to action to self-identifying women and all those standing in solidarity with them. Join the fight. We can and must change the world.