All violence is rooted in power, and women and the environment are both suffering at its hand.
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What do we do when our only home is dying? When that death is not peaceful or natural, but deliberate, protracted and violent? When those committing the murder will not look in a mirror, but instead, look for excuses and scapegoats?
We can put our fingers in dikes. We can look sideways instead of up, fighting each other over crumbs, allowing dwindling resources to go to the highest bidder or the most brutal thug. We can put inconvenient truths on an ice floe and shove them out to sea. Or, we can recognize the climate emergency as a level of threat requiring us all to heed the better angels of our nature, if they can be located.
Hope is important, but absent finding a wormhole in space or some other method of time travel, we are going to be tested as no prior generations have ever been tested.
The year 2020 marks both the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, two historic and progressive movements led largely by women. The theme of this year’s Earth Day is, fittingly, climate change. Feminism and environmental justice are closely linked because many of the issues tackled by women’s rights activists are similar to—and often intertwined with—those being taken up by environmental activists.
Exploitation of ecosystems and exploitation of female bodies go hand in hand. The terms “Mother Nature” and “Mother Earth” assign female gender to the planet that supports all life, but male powerbrokers debase the planet in the same way they debase women who create human life. In fact, violence against women has always been the canary in the coal mine of societal health. The increasing frequency of femicide and domestic violence mass murder—or, as the media prefers to call it, murder-suicide—is a stark metaphor for the destruction of the natural world, which is also murder-suicide.
Racial justice and socio-economic justice also intersect with gender justice and environmental justice. They are all inseparable, because those with privilege, wealth and power can—to some degree, and for a while—buy their way out of the mess they are foisting onto the rest of us. The worst living conditions are borne by the most vulnerable among us, as has always been the case when it comes to who lives nearest to sources of pollution, sickness, and filth. Clean air and clean water are as unequally distributed as everything else. Unsurprisingly, the communities hit hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic are the same that suffer the harshest consequences of climate change.
Eighty percent of the people most negatively affected by climate change around the world are women, for several reasons. Natural disasters resulting from the climate crisis disproportionately affect poor communities, and women are overrepresented among the poor, making up 70 percent of people living in poverty. In many parts of the world, women consigned to traditional gender roles bear the burden of providing food for household consumption. Devastating agricultural conditions like wildfires, droughts and floods directly undermine their ability to manage these duties, making them even more vulnerable to male punishment and predation.
In Uganda, tensions over prolonged dry seasons and crop failure have resulted in men beating their wives to exercise control over the land, selling the crops mothers have grown for their families and pocketing the money. This has been reported in Australia as well. The financial pressures brought about by agricultural and other stressors are also leading to increased substance abuse among men, and that is always correlated with more violence against women. Male tempers are heating up along with the rest of the planet. The veneer of civilization is not just thin, it is fickle. Will we return to a Wild-West paradigm, where the fastest draw gets food and water, and everyone else just dives behind horse troughs? How will women fare in such a world? It is more than a rhetorical question.
The increase in violence against women coincides with the unraveling of democratic institutions, another cause and consequence of climate change. Here in America, at the very cultural moment when people have finally begun to take sexual assault and domestic violence more seriously, and to impose meaningful consequences on men who abuse their power, right-wing politicians have shot off in the opposite direction like a dog with a Thanksgiving turkey in its mouth. Social unrest always leads to backlash against women, individually and as a group, especially when masculinity is disavowed as the tentpole of the universe. As most households are now under order to shelter in place—abusers under more stress, victims with nowhere to run—the rates of violence against women are soaring. Perhaps it’s time we start using the term activists prefer: intimate terrorism.
When men are angry at the world, or believe they are losing their privilege, who do they target? Intimate partners. Children. Anyone viewed as weaker, easy to blame, easy to victimize. What is the one thing that always gets taken or traded during civil unrest? Women’s bodies. Rape is not only a weapon of war, it is an allocation of spoils to men who exert dominance over every iota of the Earth’s bounty.
In several African countries, the practice of “sex for fish” has arisen as men control the distribution of shrinking seafood supplies from overfished and polluted oceans, selling fish to men for money, but demanding sex in return from women. In many countries, women must walk ever further from home to get water and gather food and firewood, making them even more vulnerable to rape, already a pervasive problem in developing countries. Gender-based violence and sex trafficking are increasing in connection with criminal activities like poaching, as well as illegal logging and mining operations. Even the Keystone XL pipeline, with its “man camps,” has enabled another vector for male violence, with Indigenous women paying the highest price as men exploit them and the Earth at the same time.
Violence against women is also used to exert control over female environmental and human rights activists, diminishing their power and frightening other women into silence and inaction.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has long been concerned about the dystopian specter of storms and fires, food shortages, and emboldened patriarchy and white nationalism. “Of course, those kinds of events give rise to civil unrest, wars, resource wars, battles for water…Women under those situations will suffer disproportionately, and their children,” Atwood has stated. Her observations of backward momentum on women’s rights in an environmentally-imperiled Gilead America inspired her to write her new book, The Testaments, which further illuminates our post-truth society in a nation that substitutes religion for science and equality.
Mother Nature always has the last word, and she will not abide this sustained assault on her body. If only the women-led climate movement had the power to distribute the worst consequences to the worst offenders, and to protect the bodies of those women attempting to protect the Earth, or merely to survive upon it.
As we remind ourselves that women—actually, only white women—have been voting in America for a mere 100 years, let us also remember that when women are elected to political office, they focus on making life better for everyone. By voting for women, we can create governments that more aggressively address climate change, violence against women, and so many other issues that bear directly upon our health and wellbeing as a diverse society. So on this special anniversary of Earth Day, nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Our future need not be dystopian if we choose to write a different book.
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