This post was going to be G for Greta Thunberg. But as usual, I fell down multiple rabbit holes until deciding to instead focus on G for gender, and how it can be a bias in environmental issues. Hope you enjoy!
Most research literature on the topic of gender and environmental issues focuses on women. Women seem to be categorised as the poorest in society, the most vulnerable to climate change but also the most environmentally conscientious (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). They are believed to need “special attention” in policy, because they are seen to be more sensitive to risk. This is not entirely false: for example, cultural constraints on women leaving the home in Bangladesh have been linked to the fact that during the Asian Tsunami of 2004, the largest number of fatalities were women and children (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). As well as this, female farmers in Indonesia are especially vulnerable to extreme climate events due to their lack of land rights and financial capital – such socio-political factors impact female farmers more than male farmers after an environmental disaster (Chandra et al., 2017). In their report on the issue, Arora-Jonsson (2011) went as far to say that the social conditioning of women in general has made them risk-averse, which can be a threat in itself when it hampers decision making during a crisis.
Women are also perceived to be more environmentally conscientious – this might link to the industrial advertising to link meat consumption with masculinity, or the perception of the “American Dream” being one of high consumption for men, whilst the women look after the children and the home (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). And from the 17th Century, men have been associated with technology, economic growth and culture, whilst women were linked to the environment (Hultman, 2013). And nature itself has been highly feminised: terms such as “Mother Nature” embed this, portraying it as something which provides but over which men can easily dominate (Pinheiro, 2020). The trend of giving natural disasters female names (which happened in the US between 1953-1979) further embeds the link between women and nature. This in itself might seem harmless, but Pinheiro (2020) points out that the response of weathermen, in referring to these storms as “temperamental” and “flirting with the coastline”, instead solidifies the idea that women are not calm or level-headed, but instead chaotic and untameable.
“Unequal gender relations do not cause or aggravate climate change. But gender relations do determine how the environment is managed.” – Arora-Jonsson (2011), Professor of Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
An analysis of the response to Greta Thunberg, the young female Nobel Peace Prize winner who conducted the first School Strike for Climate in 2018 (Kühne, 2019), further exemplifies discrimination against women. In a literature review and analysis of social messaging applications, high profile critics including Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin criticised her for her age, appearance, ethnicity, autism and for being female (Jung et al., 2020). Examples of vocabulary used to describe her include “chronically anxious and disturbed” and “you cannot go out in a skirt that short” (Pinheiro, 2020). These phrases continue to place judgements on a female activist which a male counterpart would simply not be subject to.
“Thunberg is perceived by capitalist patriarchs as a threat to the stability of a world order that continues to privilege power, status and money over people and nature” – Pinheiro (2020), writer at Gender Justice
But women aren’t necessarily the only victim to stereotypes which can be damaging in relation to environmental issues. For example, though more women died during the Asian Monsoon of 2004, more men died than women during Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). This has been linked to existing gender norms and “toxic masculinity”, which encourage traditional masculine ideals such as physical strength and emotional stoicism over sensitivity and care. Masculine gender ideals such as the “machismo” persona often favour heroics and reckless behaviour, and have been suggested to have influenced the death toll from Hurricane Mitch by encouraging risk-taking (Arora-Jonsson, 2011). These stereotypes are further amplified through the media, particularly through action films where the lead male is often violent, carefree and aggressive.
This is where Arnold Schwarzenegger comes in (bear with me, it will make sense). Schwarzenegger started off as a bodybuilder, then an actor, playing violent (and often near-silent) roles in action films like Terminator and The Expendables. In their research, Hultman (2013) found that Schwarzenegger’s ability to adapt his persona, from a base of “cowboy-masculinity” (characterised by violence and physical strength) to more compassionate and caring, helped him become the environmental hero awarded the European Campaigner of the Year in 2007 and lead shifts in environmental thinking (Hultman, 2013). This happened primarily as a result of his enthusiasm to develop hydrogen energy for vehicles to control emissions, instead of encouraging use of public transport (Hultman, 2013). Perhaps this demonstrates a way in which a hypermasculine individual can lead others through the force of his words rather than the logic of the ideas themselves.
The purpose of this article is not to rant about how people are treated because of their gender, but instead highlight the issues which face both men and women with regards to environmental issues, particularly natural disasters and climate change. Nature has been feminised to the point where caring about our environment is seen as “feminine” or as a sign of weakness. And because of the availability and global reach of social media, machismo men like Jeremy Clarkson and Donald Trump perpetuate these ideas in their criticisms of people whose beliefs don’t match theirs, such as Greta Thunberg. The idea of gender being such a bias seems like something that previous generations dealt with more than us, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist. To conclude this post, here’s a little quote which summarises what we as a global society should do about it:
“A feminist response to global climate change must not only challenge masculine technical and expert knowledge about climate change but also the tendency to reinforce gendered polarities as well as North–South divides that tend to slot women, as vulnerable or virtuous.” – Arora-Jonsson (2011), Professor of Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Thanks for reading!
Arora-Jonsson, S. (2011) Virtue and vulnerability: Discourses on women, gender and climate change. Global environmental change, 21(2), pp.744-751
Chandra, A., McNamara, K.E., Dargusch, P., Caspe, A.M. & Dalabajan, D. (2017) Gendered vulnerabilities of smallholder farmers to climate change in conflict-prone areas: A case study from Mindanao, Philippines. Journal of Rural Studies, 50, pp.45-59
Hultman, M. (2013) The making of an environmental hero: A history of ecomodern masculinity, fuel cells and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Environmental Humanities, 2(1), pp.79-99
Jung, J., Petkanic, P., Nan, D. & Kim, J.H. (2020) When a girl awakened the world: A user and social message analysis of greta thunberg. Sustainability, 12(7), p.2707
Pinheiro, G. (2020) Greta Thurberg as a Threat to the Stability of Capitalist and Patriarchal Systems. [online] Available at: https://www.justgender.org/change-is-coming-whether-you-like-it-or-not-greta-thunberg-as-a-threat-to-the-stability-of-capitalist-and-patriarchal-systems/ (Accessed: 05/07/2020)