Rebranding eco-feminism for the digital era

Collage by Louise Camu

This article was written for my MA in Arts and Lifestyle Journalism from London College of Communication (UAL).

In 1981 a group of mainly women set out from Cardiff to the American air base of Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest against the nuclear bombs that were being stored there. The women’s-only protest site they established became notorious, a symbol of women’s struggle, not only against the ecological catastrophe of nuclear war, but for their own rights and independence as many women used the camp to escape from difficult lives and homes. Overthrowing the patriarchy and saving the planet were seen as fundamentally linked, “I know what has turned the Earth into a technological nightmare. I know why I cannot walk at night without feeling threatened by attack. I know why there is militarism and imperialism and racism and sexism. I know why the negative “isms” exists. It’s because of patriarchy — male rule”, one Greenham woman wrote.

Looking back just one or two generations and this is how many people perceived feminists, with an agenda inextricably linked to the environment. But fast forward to the 2010s and things have changed, feminism is popular now. Beyonce is dancing in front of signs saying ‘feminist’ and Dior is quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche on t-shirts. The mainstream and avant-garde alike have wholeheartedly embraced the label and are shouting it from the rooftops. The same can’t be said for environmentalism.

Women on Greenham Common

“Scratch the surface of many women in public life and you can often find a Greenham woman underneath” said Beeban Kidron in The Guardian, but take a closer look at feminism today and this just doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. Search ‘climate change’ on some of the biggest feminist publications and not a whole lot comes up, on The Pool (the female-focused digital platform launched in 2015) there is an article called ‘how the hell do you explain the state of the world to your children’, subtitled ‘you don’t’. Over on the F-word (whose tag line is ‘contemporary UK feminism’) there is a handful of thoughtful articles on feminism and climate change, but they’re all written by the same contributor — compared to the hundreds of feminist journalists writing about street harassment and media representation. It’s not that coverage on climate change doesn’t exist anywhere in the feminist media, it’s just it feels irrelevant — it’s not quite clear how it fits within the wider conversation.

“I’m a feminist, and I don’t really think about the environment as much as I should” says Thea, 27 a feminist journalist from London. “I think that the way it is constructed can seem really preachy, and it doesn’t make me think I want to engage with it”. Arese, 32, a finance professional from London also doesn’t see what feminism has to do with the environment, “I’ve never really thought of climate change as a feminist issue” she says, “I’m interested in how the patriarchal structure of our society in general discriminates against women, and I think it’s important for institutions and the government to have climate change goals, but I don’t necessarily see those things as being related”.

The masculinisation of the climate change debate

Across languages nature is often to referred to as feminine. 16th Century philosopher Francis Bacon, known for being the ‘father of the scientific method’ and one of the initiators of the witch trials, often used this association in his writing to justify man’s domination of nature. He wrote of the secrets “locked in nature’s bosom” and said “she would have to be forcibly penetrated in order to make her give them up.” It seems that the Greenham women were onto something.

So where does this seeming apathy towards climate change in the so-called ‘fourth-wave’ feminist movement come from? Sherilyn MacGregor is a environmental politics lecturer at the University of Manchester, in her work she explores the way that climate change is constructed in the public consciousness. Since 9/11, she says, climate change has been presented not just as a scientific problem, but as a threat to national and global security. In 2005 the UK’s chief scientist Sir David King said that climate change is a worse threat to global security than terrorism.

The problem with this, she argues, is that climate change is being constructed as the kind of problem that needs the kind of solutions that are traditionally the domain of men and hegemonic masculinity.

“Men dominate the issues on all levels” she says in her work, “after years of women carving out a niche as advocates and exemplars of more sustainable ways of living, the response to climate change means that women are now largely absent as framers and shapers of climate change as a political issue”.

“I’ve always been a feminist, it’s just the way I was brought up” says Rachael, an MSci Oceanography student at the University of Southampton, “but the issue that I have is that feminism is expressed way more amongst humanities students. I’ve been learning about how climate change is affecting the planet for four years, but the people that I know through science don’t talk about feminism, and my feminist friends don’t talk about climate change. They’re seen as kind of separate”.

The responses to climate change under the current model are heavily reliant on technological advancement. Dr MacGregor argues that rather than relentlessly pursuing progress and innovation, what’s needed is reflection on the ways in which current systems can be updated. “It is arguably masculine risk taking and the quest for progress that got us into this ecological mess in the first place” she says, arguing for the use of a feminist perspective to create a more holistic model for what a ‘green society’ would look like.

“A lot of the jobs that are currently being created around renewable energy, smart cars, smart road, that kind of thing — they’re very construction focused and male dominated” she says, “why are we always talking about green motorways and off-shore wind, why aren’t we talking about green childcare and the types of jobs that already don’t use a lot of energy and resources — like education and care. In times of crisis the provision of care is most likely to fall on women, so why isn’t that part of a green vision?”

In the UK more than two-thirds of the 100 biggest energy companies fail to count a single woman on their boards. In the fossil fuel sector, women occupied 17% of board seats for power and renewables firms in 2015 and the oil and gas sector had only 7%. Accordingly, the way that climate change is framed means that there is no accounting for the positions and roles that women are currently doing in the visions of the future. Encouraging women into science and technology is one solution for this problem, but it doesn’t have to be the only way to get more women involved with climate change. If feminism doesn’t start to look at the gendered ways the argument is constructed, Dr MacGregor argues that solutions to climate change will be insufficient and unequal.

Material girls

Four years after Greenham Common was established, Madonna — undoubtedly a feminist icon of her time — released ‘Material Girl’. “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl” she sang, and this statement is arguably even more true now as feminism has become so entangled with consumer culture that, if advertising is to be believed, anything from using Always tampons to wearing clothes from H&M can be considered a feminist choice.

So-called #femvertising such as the type carried out by Dove, Always and H&M may seem harmless and fun (after all, women need to buy tampons and soap so why not buy ones from a brand who seem to ‘get’ your worldview) but add in an environmental perspective then you have the ethical consideration that not only are tampon companies not being held accountable for the chemicals used in their products, but they are also likely to end up in landfill or the ocean when disposed of, and as we know, methane gasses emitted from piles of rotting trash are the single biggest greenhouse gas. Not so empowering to the millions of women in the global south that are the most vulnerable to climate change.

There is a noticeable lack of connection made in popular feminism to climate change, consumerism and the plight of women, specifically women of colour, in the developing world. Inequality and poverty strongly affect how climate change is experienced and when you look at the statistics it’s clear that women are on the front line when it comes to experiencing the affects of climate change. Climate change can, amongst other things, lead to increased incidences of natural disasters and extreme weather and women, because they make up the majority of the global poor and are more likely to be responsible for children and the elderly, are amongst the most vulnerable. Women accounted for 70–80% of the fatalities after the 2004 tsunami and a recent study found that pregnant women in Africa are particularly vulnerable when it comes to drought and food shortages experienced as a result of climate change.

Glacier girl and cyber-environmentalism

Climate change might be one of the pressing issues of our time, but it just doesn’t feel that contemporary, it doesn’t have an Instagram account, an iPhone or a list of celebrity endorsements. “I just imagine the stereotype of the hippie with dreadlocks that lives in a squat in Bristol” says Thea, and she’s not alone — to many, the term ‘eco-warrior’ will bring to mind Swampy, an environmental activist turned minor-celebrity who led a number of high profile protests in the 1990s.

If the corporatisation of feminism proves anything it’s that the voices and opinions of young women and girls on the internet can be a powerful force for change, but it’s clear that environmentalism is in need a rebrand if it is going to attract the attention of this audience. One girl who’s taken it upon herself to change the perception of what it means to be ‘environmentally friendly’ is 21 year old Elizabeth Farrell from London, otherwise known as Glacier Girl to her Instagram followers. A self-professed ‘visual activist’, Glacier Girl’s Instagram feed is awash with soft blues, “I was trying to change the aesthetic from day one, using blue instead of ‘eco green’ to steer away from the stigma around environmental activism” she said, in an interview with i-D magazine.

Searching through Glacier Girl’s Instagram and it’s clear she’s the poster girl the environmental movement needs. “How can I get involved with saving the glaciers? @glacier996girl you inspire me so much! I even went vegan to help the planet and I wanna do more!” says one commenter, Elisa, herself a 17 year old YouTuber and feminist who uses her channel to discuss climate change from the perspective of a teen girl. “The whole reason I wanted to create this video is because I felt like I had no voice when it came to talking about climate, and the world” she says on her YouTube channel.

Glacier Girl treads in the footsteps of the Greenham Common women by linking climate justice with social justice, therefore encouraging her followers to see climate change as an issue that involves them. “At school they taught us about climate change as a chemistry subject but not as a social issue” she said to i-D, and a caption from one of her Instagram posts reminds followers “by working towards climate justice we are simultaneously working towards social justice!”

Another thing Glacier Girl does successfully is narrow down the massive problem that is climate change and locate it in one specific issue — the glaciers. Rising sea levels rising as a result of melting polar ice caps is one of the biggest catastrophes of climate change, and focusing on this problem in particular gives her followers a manageable cause to rally around.

“Remember the glaciers” is her mantra — something that her followers have taken to heart, “I’d encourage anyone who says that climate change isn’t important to go and see the glaciers for themselves!” says Elisa, who also says that Glacier Girl has inspired her to think about making her own clothes. “I was an environmentalist before, but I didn’t know how to express it” she says.

Identity politics online are arguably one of the biggest defining features of our time, as social media encourages people to publicly set out who they are and what they are about. Instagram — a platform whose user base are majority women — has created a visual culture through which these politics are expressed. Like a lot of feminist Instagramers, Glacier Girl’s politics are grounded in aesthetic and therefore create a visual language through which followers can access her politics and beliefs.

Glacier Girl

Being a climate change denier, a sexist and a racist are frequently cited as reasons why Donald Trump is unfit to be the President of the US. In fact, despite the scientific consensus, in recent years not believing in climate change has become a central position of the right wing in the US.

In an article ‘Capitalism vs. The Climate’ Naomi Klein notes that “there is a significant cohort of Republicans who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change — though what they care about is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their light bulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements and surrender their SUVs”.

Believing that climate change is a hoax has become as central to a right wing position as gun ownership and opposition to abortion. One reason for this could be that acknowledging it’s existence means accepting a challenge to current systems of wealth and power, something which conservatives work hard to maintain. What more could demonstrate the connected fate of women and the environment under patriarchy than the fact that in his first few months in office, Donald Trump and his administration began systematically dismantling protections for both.

“Climate change is a message” states Naomi Klein, “one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable”. This was also the message that the women of Greenham Common peace camp were trying to send the world when they intertwined their feminism with the environmental politics of the time — that if we were to achieve gender equality and have a safe home for the future then a new civilisational paradigm was needed.

It’s not just insufficient to simply have one or the other, it’s impossible.

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Tarn Rodgers Johns

I am a Berlin-based writer, editor and creator exploring how to create a thriving, just future worth living for. www.tarnrodgersjohns.com