Around forty thousand people turned out to march for climate action on Sunday 21st September 2014. More than four times that number saw one particular placard, and the anger it caused spells bad news both for women and the future of the planet.
My name is Georgie, I am an unpaid intern for Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) in London, and at the People’s Climate March on Sunday I made Cara Delevingne’s Instagram.
Dressed as a leopard to preserve her anonymity, the British model and socialite was nonetheless spotted (no pun intended) by my friend, who crumpled like a paper bag when Cara asked to take a picture of me. The photo was posted later on Sunday afternoon, and by Monday had one hundred and eighty thousand likes. That’s about 130 times the number of followers Women’s Environmental Network has on Twitter.
I had been getting a fair amount of attention throughout the march from Temple to Parliament. I even gave an awkward interview (to Spiked of all things - thank god Brendan O'Neill didn't run with it). What attracted people's attention was my placard:
WOMEN: FIRST AFFECTED, LAST CONSULTED. @WEN_UK
At the People’s Climate March itself, in that exhilarating atmosphere of empowerment and positivity, the sign was met with smiles, camera flashes, ‘woops’ and even a heartfelt thank you from one woman with flowers in her hair. So what happened when Cara Delevingne posted a picture of me and my sign to her seven million followers? People got angry. Angry and mean. I left the cosy womb of like-minded, socially conscious, environmental activists on the streets of London, and blindly #entered the @realworld.
“F*cking dumbass feminists” pretty much sums up the general thrust of Instagramland’s objection to the sign, but the attacks ranged from psuedo-intellectual to very personal to gloriously nonsensical (personal favourite: “Go to live in d middle of the forest hypos!”). Punctuating the sexist and anti-feminist deluge were occasional supporters (“Preach!”), commercial opportunists (“For fashion ideas please follow our page!”) and the ever coherent climate change deniers, because scientists would save themselves, and us, a whole lot of time if they just checked to Instagram - all the answers are right here guys! Climate change is obvi a socialist myth!
Some of the comments were, it seems, quite genuine enquiries about the link between women and climate change, which, I am the first to admit, might not be immediately obvious, particularly if by ‘women’ you immediately understand ‘white wealthy women of the global north’, which seems to have been the case for many of Cara’s followers. So to the "Why are women first affected by climate change?" enquirers, here is my answer:
Climate change is now widely recognised not just as an environmental issue, but one of social justice. It is a question of basic human rights. Pollution and drying up of rivers, lakes and groundwater robs millions of their right to clean drinking water. Sudden and dramatic deviations from normal weather patterns rob farmers and their families of the right to food. Rising sea levels rob the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands of their right to their land. In short, climate change is profoundly devastating to planet and people. But it is not indiscriminate in its devastation.
Now, to Cara Delevingne’s Instagram followers: no one is suggesting that ONLY women suffer the effects of climate change. However, such a far-reaching and multiplicitous force as climate change, one whose diverse manifestations are dependent on the diverse social structures which they affect, will necessarily strike different groups with different force in different ways. Those groups that are most disadvantaged in global society, such as women, children and indigenous peoples, are affected in ways that are linked to their inequality. The logical belief that arises from this observation is that if we can increase equality, we can lesser their suffering. And that is the task to which WEN, along with a number of other charities and organisations, have dedicated themselves. That is why environmentalism is a feminist issue. And equally, feminism is an environmental issue.
But where is your proof? demand Cara’s Instagram groupies, in their spicy NSFW dialect, and here lies the problem with making a political statement on a 25” x 33” wooden sign; there isn’t much room to provide evidence to support your claim. In fact, if you subscribe to a Chomskyite view of mass communication, no media platform allows for the introduction of new or challenging ideas, precisely due to the disparity between the restricted number of words or minutes one has to convey a point, and the volume of data required to convince an audience of the truth of a new and alien concept. Hence, perhaps, the outrage provoked by my sign, introducing as it did an unfamiliar idea to an audience. I face a similar problem here as I write my response to that outrage. I have to trust that my readers will see this article as more than just “f*cking dumbass feminism” and take it upon themselves to verify these claims for themselves via the links and resources given, and their own research.
Firstly, it is without doubt the poorest people in the world who are the first and worst affected by climate change. Around 70% of those living below the poverty line are women. So unless 2+2=5, women are indeed disproportionately affected by climate change.
There is irrefutable evidence that places women in greatest danger with regard to climate disasters, such as flooding, heat waves and hurricanes. In the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, almost five times more women were killed than men. The reasons for this imbalance in death rates are linked directly to the social inequality of the women affected. Women were not taught to swim; men were. Women’s clothing, culturally prescribed, restricted mobility and hindered escape; men’s did not. In accordance with cultural doctrine, many women left their homes too late because they were waiting for a male escort; men did not have to wait. In fact, the men were already out in public spaces, where they were able to communicate and warn each other. Consigned to the home, women were the last to hear of the danger, by which time, for so many of them, it was too late.
The aftermath of disaster also presents a range of specific problems for women. Poor sanitation and diet following the loss of homes and land results in widespread disease, and as primary care-givers in the home, women are in charge of nursing the wounded and sick. Women must build temporary homes or find new places to live, all the while continuing to find food and care for their children. Following Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in 1998, there was an increase in reports of domestic violence against women due to raised levels of aggression in men in response to the loss and devastation. Women also avoided using emergency shelters due to fear of violence or harassment by men, an extremely common problem in the aftermath of any disaster in which women are displaced from their homes.
By 2025 it is expected that two thirds of the world’s population will face water shortages, and climate change is expected to account for around 20% of the increase in water scarcity. In just one day, women around the world spend about 200 million hours collecting water. Throughout Africa, women do 90% of water and wood collecting; they are the first to know and the first to struggle when water supplies diminish. However, women are very rarely primary decision makers about water resource management and development both at the local and national level.
As food security is destabilised by climate change and food prices rise, women in their role as domestic farmers and cooks yet again suffer first and worst. In poor households around the world, women often go without food for the benefit of children or male family members, and as domestic food-growing is their responsibility, unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change will massively increase their workload and the likelihood of their going hungry. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women produce 80% of crops, yet own only 1% of the land. Again, this means that although women are the worst affected by the impacts of climate change on food production, and despite the fact that as workers they are best placed to report on and tackle the problems created, they are excluded from decision making.
There are multitudes of other ways in which women are affected by climate change due to unequal social roles and responsibilities. This topic can, has and should fill books. But even without extensive research into the gendered aspect of climate change, it seems to me common sense that solving something as massive, threatening and imminent as climate change should require the efforts of 100% of the population. When half the world is inhibited in its ability to speak out, to take action, even just to educate itself, then we have only half the ‘manpower’ we might. Achieving gender equality is a way to maximise our efficacy in fighting climate change. Even if women were not the first affected, we should still all be equally consulted. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case.
But now to the really puzzling part of the Cara saga. Why did my sign provoke such hostility? Why does the protection of women’s rights in the climate change debate deserve such vitriol?Ostensibly the rationale for each angry comment was that as climate change was a global problem, it was ‘selfish’ of me, or of all women (for whom I, of course, am spokesperson), to demand that our particular interests, over those of men or polar bears, be given attention. Indeed, the rather binary terms of my sign - “First Affected, Last Consulted” - may have pushed buttons more than would a softer message, something along the lines of “Hey, women might also suffer as a result of climate change, but probably not more than others really. Sorry. Yours gratefully, @WEN_UK.” But I opted for something punchier, mistakenly believing that people might be inspired to examine the effect of climate change on women, rather than crack their typing fingers, flex their comeback muscles and comment: “No, you’re ugly”. Charming.
As I wrote to one Twitter complainant bemoaning selfish women their selfish hijack of a perfectly legitimate cause for the advancement of their own position in the world: “Like many charities, we focus on one particular group devastated by climate change. Find out why women here:” and provided a link to an informative bitesize briefing entitled ‘Why women and climate change?’. From my perspective, we aren’t doing anything different to Greenpeace or Water Aid or the Pig Pledge (a cause I think is really fantastic and who, incidentally, also ended up on Cara’s Instagram on Sunday). We focus our efforts on one thing, in this case people belonging to a social group disadvantaged in unique ways by climate change. No one gave Greenpeace shtick for focusing on the Arctic. I find it hard to imagine cries of “Fucking stupid Grenpeace always making it about the Arctic and the poler bears. Climate change affects people and animals on EVERY continent, its just typical fucking arctic activits making it all about them. smh”
So the sobering conclusion I find myself reaching is that this is yet another symptom of widespread anti-feminism. The most dispiriting comments came from one Instagram user - a woman, incidentally - and her thoughts are a worrying indication of the extent to which gender inequality is perpetuated by women:
“Maybe women would get more respect if they didn’t make everything about themselves. In [sic] all for equality, but God damnit this is just senseless whining.”
So ingrained is the negative attitude towards women that this one doesn’t even need the patriarchy to police her anymore; she has developed an auto-oppress function.
What really got under my skin about comments like this one were the accusations of negativity and passivity, exasperated appeals to the heavens about feminism’s, and even women’s generally, “victim mentality” and our unceasing “senseless whining”. From where I’m standing, being out on one of the largest public demonstrations in recent history and representing a charity that focuses on the empowerment and connection of women for the good of the planet and its inhabitants seems anything but passive.
Women’s Environmental Network does not treat women as victims, but as vital agents of change. And this is how they must be treated if the scourge of climate change is to be mitigated. Women are uniquely placed to make significant positive change. 70% of the world’s food growers are women. Women tend to control the domestic sphere, which means sanitation, health, food and water are their responsibility. Women are more inclined to participate in pro-environmental activity and vote with greater environmental consciousness. Women are even statistically more likely to ‘believe’ in climate change.
Women are not “whining”. Women are calling for recognition of the fact that the future of the planet, and everyone on it, relies on policy makers and governments including women in decision-making, and empowering them, through achieving greater gender equality, to make the changes that need to be made for all our sakes. This means we need more women at top level in policy making, and, crucially, we need grassroots movements to educate and empower women at ground level.
The truth is, I was nervous to write this article. I’m not especially thick-skinned, and beneath the initial glee at having something interesting to write about lurked a very real anxiety about the hostility the image and its message invoked. I won’t pretend for a minute that the couple of nasty comments I received on Twitter and Instagram are anything like as horrifying as the death and rape threats that women such as Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Emma Watson and countless others have weathered for their feminist sins. But my experience was indeed personally unpleasant and completely new. WEN’s modest following on social media is comprised solely of like-minded people and organisations who communicate within a relatively tiny and mutually supportive network. My day-to-day social media experience is of a really lovely echo chamber. Until now I have been preaching to the choir. I love the choir. They respond positively to my preaching. The heathens outside do not, apparently. And yet, their’s are the very deaf ears upon which I must continue to rain down scripture, in my role as an unpaid media and communications intern for a small women’s charity. Any publicity is good publicity, and if the price of getting a few more people to consider gender as part of the environmental agenda is a little abuse, that’s fine. For the sake of women, men and the drowning world we share, I will continue striving to end up on celebrity Instagrams, and get to work on thickening my skin.
Unless otherwise indicated (by link to a different source), the statistics used in this article were taken from a report compiled by Women’s Environmental Network, ‘Gender and the Climate Change Agenda’.
All quotations in italics are genuine comments posted by Instagram users.