Arguably, the environmental crises that the earth and its beings face are the most urgent, and most important, issues that we must address. They represent a severe material threat, with oceans rising, droughts worsening, and massive biodiversity loss. However, this article’s perspective is that the origins of global warming, climate change and over-consumption stem from the cultural: patriarchal anthropocentrism. Furthermore, gender roles (not biology) may affect the relationship someone has with their environment. In other words, the environment is a gendered issue.
Gender is an arbitrary concept that is relational (Butler, 1988). This means that gender gains meaning through its interactions, i.e., the slave does not exist without the master. Typical ‘masculine’ traits (positive or negative regardless) include reason, logic, and violence. Typical ‘feminine’ traits (positive or negative regardless) include irrationality, reproduction, and emotion. Enlightenment philosophy has encouraged the whole of humanity to aspire to detach itself from the material, from nature. ‘Masculine’ qualities are associated with progression. Therefore, groups that are seen as closer to nature are considered inferior. How we treat the environment is undercut by hierarchical thinking. The domination of minority groups and the domination of the Earth are interconnected.
To what extent do sex and gender affect our relationship with the environment? Based on what has been discussed so far, it might appear that there is a black-and-white divide between man and woman when it comes to the environment. Do women take care of the earth more than men because there is a ‘special’ (read: biological) relationship between women and nature?
It is more nuanced and complex than that. We need to break the man vs. woman binary and step away from viewing traits and behaviours as biologically determined because ‘there is no evidence that women have an inherent ecological sensibility while men have an inherent impulse toward the destruction of nature’ (Li, 1993, p. 287).
Take the group ‘women’. This one label cannot represent the multitude of experiences of people who identify as women with the environment. Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) is a fundamental concept that sees experiences as affected by multiple intersecting identities, including race, class and religion. Not all women are the victims of environmental issues. For example, ecofeminist Plumwood declared that many western women have been enthusiastic participants in today’s consumerist, capitalist culture (Plumwood, 1993, p. 9). However, it is peasant women in the Global South who are the scapegoats – the Margaret Pyke Trust, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Congress, connects family planning to improved environmental health (IUCN Congress, 2021). Family planning is pushed as a way to ‘control’ the population (Shiva & Mies, 2014, p. 87); there have been many reports of forced sterilisation in India. Discourse focuses on economically ‘undeveloped’ countries instead of examining disproportionate consumption in industrialised, Western countries. The goal of a humanity that is freed through a free market can only be achieved through subjugating others. Hence, sex is not a factor that determines someone’s relationship with the earth. Liberal feminism, and liberal approaches to justice, encourage marginalised groups to adopt the socialised characteristics and behaviours of the most dominant group rather than completely overhauling the poisoned status quo itself (Raymond & Wilson, 1983, p. 59).
Similarly, the label ‘men’ does not universally denote destructive, harmful behaviour towards the environment. In fact, environmental discourse sometimes goes as far as to invisibilise men’s involvement in caring for the Earth. For example, Vandana Shiva, a famous Indian environmental activist and ecofeminist, has been criticised for misrepresenting the involvement of men in the Chipko Movement (Bandyopadhyay, 1999; Leach, 2007) throughout her literature. Shiva paints it as an event that was entirely realised by women, who stood up against male loggers and capitalists. In fact, men actively resisted deforestation alongside women, which enabled it to be such an effective movement (Bandyopadhyay, 1999, p. 881). Therefore, we must also apply the theory of intersectionality when we examine men’s relationship with nature. Moreover, we must recognise that women in the Global South also behave in ways that are destructive. In essence, our relationship with Earth is greatly influenced by the capitalist patriarchy that we continue to uphold through the idealisation of economic ‘development’ and reformism (not rejection) of the current system. We aspire to become less reliant on nature, to industrialise, and to enter traditionally ‘masculine’ spaces that were once (still are) the default arenas for dominant groups.
Women do not have a ‘special’ relationship with the Earth. There is no biologically determined, sex-based binary that separates the perpetrators of environmental destruction from the victims of environmental issues. Hence, men are not inherently destroyers of the environment. Of course, gender does shape humanity’s attitude towards the environment because ‘masculine’ qualities (which are socially constructed) are favoured. Developing economically is seen as the one true path. Masculinity and femininity are performed by everybody. This is proven by the involvement of men in environmental causes, and the culpability of women in over-consumption.
Bandyopadhyay, J., 1999. Chipko Movement: Of Floated Myths and Flouted Realities. Economic and Political Weekly, 34(15), pp. 880-882.
Butler, J., 1988. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), pp. 519-531.
Crenshaw, K., 1991. Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, July, 43(6), pp. 1241-1299.
IUCN Congress, 2021. Family planning and the environment. [Online] Available here. [Accessed 5 Janurary 2022].
Leach, M., 2007. Earth Mother Myths and Other Ecofeminist Fables: How a Strategic Notion Rose and Fell. Development and Change, 38(1), pp. 67-85.
Li, H.-l., 1993. A Cross-Cultural Critique of Ecofeminism. In: G. Gaard, ed. Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 272-294.
Plumwood, V., 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London; New York: Routledge.
Raymond, J. & Wilson, J., 1983. Feminism - Healing the Patriarchal Dis-ease. In: L. Caldecotte & S. Leland, eds. Reclaim the Earth: Women speak out for Life on Earth. London: The Women's Press, pp. 59-66.
Shiva, V. & Mies, M., 2014. Ecofeminism. 2nd ed. London; New York: Zed Books.