Gender and Environmentalism

Whether or not environmentalism is best conceptualized as altruism, a large body of empirical work now exists demonstrating that women have more environmental concern and undertake more environmentally responsible actions than men (Zelezny, Chua, & Aldrich, 2000). This difference holds up across cultures and age groups. Females show more environmental concern on the NEP scale (described earlier), more concern about the consequences of environmental problems on personal well-being, the well-being of others, and the well-being of the biosphere (Stern, Dietz, & Kalof, 1993). To put it in terms of our previous discussion, women show a larger scope of justice with respect to the well-being of other species. Why would this be so?

Before answering this question, let us make a few disclaimers. We are not saying that all women are more environmentally responsible than men. In fact the size of the sex difference in environmental concern and responsibility is small. As shown in Fig. 3.3, even though there are group differences between men and women, there is a lot of overlap between the groups, so many men feel more environmental responsibility than women. Secondly, in discussing sex differences, we are not implying that environmental problems are the fault of men. Clearly women play a large role in contributing to environmental devastation, as they contribute to overconsumption, overpopulation (reproduction), and pollution. To solve our environmental problems, we will need the best efforts of both men and women alike to find ways to change the behavior of both sexes.

Now back to the question of why, as a group, women might show more environmental responsibility and behavior than men. One answer is suggested by Stern et al. (1993), who found that women are more likely to see the link between environmental conditions and harm to others. Their analysis draws on the work of Carol Gilligan, who argued that women evaluate social dilemmas using an ethic of

environmental concern FIG. 3.3. Gender differences are small but consistent.

care. Because women are more likely to see a world of inherent interconnections they are more accepting than men of messages that connect environmental conditions to potential harm to themselves, others, and other species or the biosphere.

The view that women have a special relationship with the environment is called ecofeminism, a movement that emerged in the 1970s as the women's movement and ecology movements developed simultaneously in industrialized countries (Diamond & Orenstein, 1990; Spretnak, 1990). Ecofeminists argue that patriarchy oppresses both women and nature, as it promotes a worldview valuing dominance, hierarchy, dualistic thinking, and power-based relationships. Some ecofeminists go further and posit that women's reproductive systems, their menstrual cycles, and their capacity to give birth organically place them closer to the physical world, the lunar cycles, and the rhythms of nature. Others would simply claim that women's roles as family caretakers means they have to be more concerned about, and in touch with, the natural environment because the health of their families depend on it. Ecofeminists recognize differences of race, class, and culture, but focus on the common experience of women in the world. For example, at a meeting of the Global Assembly of Women for a Healthy Planet, Antrobus, an environmental activist, emphasized:

the commonalities that we all share as women—a consciousness that many of us have, if we allow ourselves to have it, of the exploitation of our time and labor in unremunerated housework, subsistence agriculture and voluntary work. Our commonality lies in the often conflicting demands of our multiple roles as caretakers, as workers, as community organizers. Our commonalities lie in our primary responsibility for taking care of others. Our commonality lies in our concern about relationships; the commonality that we share is the exploitation of our sexuality by men, by the media, and by the economy. The commonality that we share is in our vulnerability to violence. Our commonality finally lies in our otherness, in our alienation and exclusion from decision-making at all levels. (Antrobus, 1993, pp. 269-270, italics added)

It seems reasonable to us that women are drawn into environmental concerns because, as family caretakers, they are first to notice the damaging effects of polluted water, food, and air on their family's health. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) serves as an example of the way in which women have catalyzed concern about environmental problems. Grassroots resistance to male-run environmentally destructive projects are legendary throughout the world: In India, women have hugged trees to prevent logging; in Kenya, women have planted trees throughout the "Green Belt"; in Japan, women have demanded accurate labeling of dangerous chemicals; in New York, Lois Gibbs (who was often dismissed as "a hysterical housewife") organized a Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste following her efforts to uncover the infamous Love Canal dump. Male scientific experts have been quick to characterize the environmental movement as hysteria (a female problem, related to the word hystero, or uterus).

Gender differences in environmental concerns have wide-ranging implications. Throughout the world, in both developed and developing nations, women are primarily responsible for child care, housework, food preparation, and family clothing. In rural subsistence economies, women are the main providers of fuel, food, and water, and they depend heavily on community-owned waterways, forests, grasslands, and croplands for accomplishing these chores. When international development efforts convert community resources to privately owned farms, women must go farther and work harder to provide fuel, food, and water. As a result, resources are more quickly depleted because more people are forced to forage on smaller community spaces. In southern Zimbabwe, for example, forests were cut in order to install mines and mining towns to support a cash economy. This forced women to gather their fuel from leftover forests, and severe deforestation resulted (Jacobson, 1992). Women (like men) who are desperate to provide for their families will deplete available resources, but when development efforts pay attention to the crucial roles that women fulfill, they are less likely to cause environmental devastation (Kabeer, 2001).

Although rarely articulated, development projects that leave women out stem from a stereotypic belief about men and women: the assumption that men are wage earners and women are dependents (Winter, 2002). This erroneous view of women as dependents translates into projects that focus on men and their access to jobs, despite data showing that the nutrition of children is more closely tied to the income of women than men (Jacobson, 1992). In the developing world, poverty, overpopulation, and environmental destruction coincide. Poverty drives overpopulation because there is no other form of social security than children who will take care of their parents in old age; gender bias requires that women continue to have babies until enough sons are born to take care of them and perform sacred funeral rites. For these reasons, development that ignores women increases both environmental destruction and overpopulation by increasing poverty. The gender bias of international development demonstrates the important role of psychology in what seem like nonpsychological issues: economics, foreign policy, and agriculture.

Finally, our gendered notions of nature can contribute to environmental destruction. What does it mean to call unexplored land "virgin territory" or our planet "Mother Earth"? Consider the words of an Exxon senior vice-president describing the aftermath of the Valdez accident: "Water in the [Prince William] Sound replaces itself every 20 days. The Sound flushes itself out every 20 days. Mother Nature cleans up and does quite a cleaning job" (Sitter, 1993, p. 221). The view that "Mom will pick up after us" seems plausible because it is women, rather than men, who do the vast majority of housework, cleaning, laundry, and tidying. Although understandable in terms of object relations theory (chap. 2) the idea of Mother Earth is problematic, and likely to hinder our responsibility for solving our environmental problems. In Seager's (1993) words:

The earth is not our mother. There is no warm, nurturing, anthropomorphized earth that will take care of us if only we treat her nicely. The complex, emotion-laden, conflict-laden, quasi-sexualized, quasi-dependent mother relationship ... is not an effective metaphor for environmental action. ... It is not an effective political organizing tool: if the earth is really our mother, then we are children, and cannot be held truly accountable for our actions, (p. 219)

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