Understanding Ecofeminist Activism In The Face Of Global Climate Change

By Dakota Divinity

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In 2018, it is likely that you have heard the term “Ecofeminism” tossed about in both political and environmental conservation. Given the election of Donald Trump, issues of climate change, mass environmental destruction, and concerns of women’s right to reproductive health care have been continually exploited in today’s political discourse. Specifically, Trump has vowed to eliminate the EPA's Clean Water Rule, plans to weaken smog standards and reject the Clean Power Plan, has called climate change a hoax, and has pledged to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. My recommendation is that an ecofeminist understanding of activism is critical as we continue to move forward and advocate for the environment and its inhabitants. As often as you may hear the term “ecofeminist,” it may be difficult at first to understand the very connection that feminism has to our environment. I can attest for myself that I was uneducated on the topic until taking an environmental history class in my senior year of college. While taking this course, my personal definition of feminism was expanded to the point of which I was able to see ecofeminism as not only a theory, but also as a tangible, yet relevant movement to help bring about change.

While this article is not an all encompassing explanation of the ecofeminist movement due to a lengthy history stretching back to the early 1970’s, it does touch on the importance of developing such a framework as an activist, offering examples as to why we need to increase our activism and enhance methodological understanding in the face of climate change.

In 1974, French feminist and prominent civil rights activist, Françoise d’Eaubonne published her book Le féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death), where the very term was first coined. In the book, she speaks of a special connection women share with nature, and encourages women's environmental activism, citing toxic masculinity as the cause of population growth, pollution, and other destructive influences on the environment. As shown by d’Eaubonne’s influential example, ecofeminist activism is both a commitment that is made to the protection of the environment and a raised awareness of the associations made between women and nature. Explained in further detail by Kathryn Miles, ecofeminists have the duty of “examining the effect of gender categories in order to demonstrate the ways in which social norms exert unjust dominance over women and nature.” Advocates of ecofeminism also support an alternative worldview that values the earth as sacred, recognizing humanity’s dependency on the natural world, and embraces all life as valuable.

But why should we truly care about such connections between women and the environment? A critical reason is because of the way climate change negatively affects women. According to the National Resources Defense Council, which mobilizes the support of partners, members, and activists to advocate for laws and policies that will protect the environment far into the future, women are disproportionately affected by climate change all over the world—including in the United States. Climate change is expected to make food shortages more severe and frequent. That's especially bad news for women and girls in developing regions, because in times of shortage, their health is more likely to suffer than their male counterparts, according to U.N. WomenWatch.  One explanation that the U.N WomenWatch report gives for this suffering is that social traditions have led to men and boys being favored and fed better than women and girls. As a result, women, especially those who are pregnant or lactating, may be disproportionately affected by undernutrition due to their increased physiological requirements. Undernutrition while breastfeeding can cause a deficiency of certain vitamins in the mother that would affect the nutritional quality of her breast milk. These are the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, B6 and B12) as well as vitamin A, C and D found in breast milk that are mainly influenced by the mother’s diet. However, single men and boys separated from their families can also be at risk of undernutrition if they do not know how to cook or don’t have access to food distribution.

Women and girls in developing regions are also often the first to reduce how much they eat, sacrificing their diets for other family members, and also are the most likely to be responsible for gathering water and fuel for fires for their families. If climate change makes certain water and wood sources more unreliable, these water- and wood-collectors will have to walk farther every day, limiting the time they have to perform other tasks, like earning money, learning new skills, spending time with their families, or simply resting  to restore their energy.

Stepping back into the frame of the United States, the US Census Bureau reports that 50.8 percent of Americans are female. As we all are increasingly at risk for heat-related illnesses, the expanding tropical diseases, and breathing in the toxic pollutants from burning fossil fuels no matter the gender that we may identify, women’s health in particular is becoming increasingly affected by these very changes. According to health professionals Bruce Bekkar and Susan Pacheco, climate change is associated with an increase in asthma in adolescent girls, a higher risk of acquiring lung cancer and heart disease in mid-life, and heart attacks, strokes, and dementia in older women. Where pregnancy is concerned, the risks become more deadly, as premature birth and low birth weight, both of which often have lifelong consequences, as well as stillbirth, have been associated with increasing heat and air pollution.

However, a specific quote from Bekkar and Pacheco fills me with a sense of hope and optimism, guiding myself to think as to how we can induce a wave of change in the near future and protect the health of both women and our environment.  As Bekkar and Pacheco say, “Given women’s vital role as mothers, in families and throughout society, we cannot afford to let climate change affect their health without risking great harm to us all. In the vital family roles that women traditionally perform in our society, they may bear additional impacts due to the climate’s effects on others that rely on them. If her children or spouse are suffering physically or mentally, additional duties may fall on her – taking time and energy away from a career and/or needed self-care.”

So, how do we induce that very change? Firstly, we need to stay informed as to what is going on within the political context of our government. I know from my own experience that I tend to turn off the news when it comes on, because it usually makes me feel incredibly anxious and/or sick to my stomach. However, I’ve learned how to take that very feeling of dread and use it for the betterment of our planet. How, you may ask? By speaking out and refusing to stay quiet on issues such as climate change and the effects that it has on women not only in the United States, but worldwide. We have to keep talking. Staying silent and passive is not the way to bring about change where environmental issues are concerned. We must continually push forward.

Secondly, we need to learn how to look past our own individual self. Yes, this is not supposed to be an easy task. I believe that we have become far too wrapped up within ourselves. So wrapped up, that we cannot see beyond our own bubble. In this bubble, one only cares for their own feelings and how they alone will be affected by events. Briefly going back to the United States and developing regions example from above, ones confinement in this self-absorbed bubble may include only being concerned with the immediate environmental issues and outcomes affecting the United States, thus disregarding similar issues in places like India or Ghana. This isn’t the way that it should be. If you identify as an intersectional feminist, you support ecofeminism. Not caring about how other women and their lives are affected by such prominent issues that truly touch us all, despite distance, seems to be backwards.

We can also induce change for reducing global warming in the future by demanding action from Congress, policymakers and world leaders. The Environmental Defense Fund suggests taking steps such as supporting the stop of deforestation in rain forests, stopping methane leaks, cutting down on soot pollution, and including female based leadership globally to make a changes in the way we harness energy and move toward a clean future. As for the NRDC, they recommend starting within your own backyard with local resistance methods such as finding local allies, making your home city a “climate sanctuary” city, and getting to know your public officials by taking part in public hearings or submitting opinions during comment periods.

Our voices and actions make all the difference. Don’t ever think that you are too irrelevant as an individual person to help induce much needed environmental change.