Is Climate Change a Feminist Issue?

November 13th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

I’m a big fan of simplicity. If an important insight or a complex set of circumstances can be explained in a simple and elegant way then I am all for it. Far too many people try to make things complicated, when a certain scenario could be explained in a more simple manner. On the other hand, idiot simplicity is not a good thing. Simplicity that paints a picture in black and white, while leaving out important details, can even be dangerous and lead to movements such as fascism or communism.

For some reason, a disproportionate amount of the major oversimplifications in the world today seem to occur where feminism and the not-so-gifted meet. Having a preset notion of men being bad and responsible, with women being good and victimized, can lead to all kinds of weird theories on how certain issues are a feminist issues, even though they quite obviously are not.

One such issue is climate change. For now, let’s leave aside the whole discussion about the severity of climate change or whether it even exists. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the issue. However, I do recognize idiot simplicity when I see it. The first argument of people who argue that climate change is a feminist issue goes something like this:

Men own more cars and men use airplanes more, therefore men are more responsible for climate change.

The complexity of this observation is that of a four-year-old. Now, I don’t want to insult four-year-olds, because at that age it is quite an astute observation. But when it comes from an adult it leaves a lot to be desired.

Why do men drive cars and travel in airplanes more than women? Well, the traditional division of labor between the sexes is that the man is responsible for producing resources and the woman is responsible for taking care of the children and the home. That division of labor is far less rigid these days, but it is still very much present. So is it any surprise that men need to travel more? In order to support their families, and to keep society running, men (and women) need to travel as part of their work. Proceeding to blame men for this is not very well thought through, since we all benefit from the work these men do, not only the men themselves.

Pointing fingers at one sex for performing its gender role could be done in the other direction as well. I could claim that men should be allowed to use more electricity than women since men have invented and built wind turbines, hydropower and solar power. But then I’m punishing women for performing the gender role that they have traditionally been expected to fulfill, which is just as silly as the less-than-gifted feminists who claim that men are to blame for climate change.

A whole different argument that tries to connect feminism and climate change is that women need to be empowered so that birth rates fall in underdeveloped countries. Now I am all for empowering women in poor countries, just like I am all for empowering men in poor countries. However, do birth rates decrease from only empowering women?

To understand the situation better we need to ask ourselves why people in underdeveloped countries have more children in developed countries. The most obvious explanation-and one that has consistently been demonstrated to be true-is that people continue to have lots of children as long as they will need those children to be supported in old age. Therefore, the best way to decrease birth rates is to encourage the process of industrialization and modernization in poor countries, so that less children are needed per family, and so that contraceptives are freely available for all couples. You can empower women all you want, but if you deny a country its continued development (which requires empowered men), then you are likely having a weak impact at best.

You know that a political theory, such as feminism, has gone past its expiration date when it is desperately trying to find a problem that actually needs its solution.

10 Responses to “Is Climate Change a Feminist Issue?”

  1. Jim Says:

    “Men own more cars and men use airplanes more, therefore men are more responsible for climate change.”

    If this is intended as an observation on comaprative carbon footprints, then it is simply not a serious comment. Carbon footprint is a measure of the carbon used to produce what this or that person consumes, then the issue is what is being transported in the vehicle the man is driving. As the Chinese have asked, is it really honest is it to blame them for carbon used to produce goods consumed in the West?

    This statement also ignores some facts about miles driven, which matter a lot more than who actually owns the vehicle. This is going to vary from society to society, isn’t? In many parts of the US, women probably log more road miles ferrying kids around than their husbands do commuting. And so what? the real isue is why is anyone driving so damned much in the first place. But it’s not really discretionary for them in the immediate term, and in the long term both sides of the couple are equally responsible for life choices that necessitate all that driving.

    The planet doesn’t care if one or a hundred people put a ton of CO2 into the air, it doesn’t care if they are men or women, it doesn’t care about constructs like “justice” or “gender equity” or any other human preoccupations. It has bigger worries.

    This or a similar article appeared in the Guardian, and the commenters played football with its head. Someone asked tongue in cheek if women were at the root of the whole problem for giving birth to all the polluting humans.

  2. Hausfrau Says:

    “The most obvious explanation-and one that has consistently been demonstrated to be true-is that people continue to have lots of children as long as they will need those children to be supported in old age.”

    Wrong, because in those countries most people don’t get old and having more than 2-3 kids ages the women’s body drastically, if it does not kill them outright. Life expectancies are low also for men in those places, other than for the very rich and life is already a struggle even without having parents to take care of.

    Industrialisation is built on a ponzi scheme which is about to unravel as the boomers find there is nothing in the pension pot after all, that despite women deserting their families (children and old folks get warehoused) and hiring out their labour instead, often only making marginally more on paper, and substantially less if you remove the myriads of subsidies.

    So bringing those 3rd worlders a system which we know to be broken at the core is of no help at all.

    Finally, women in poor countries have many children because often those children (male and female) are used as a trading commodity (love isn’t a priority in many places, that is a western notion, there is no childhood as such either after the age of 7) and in the patriarchate structure we’re talking about, a women is not a full human being legally either, and certainly not an ‘empowered individual’. And when polygamy gets into the fray, things really get bitter and often descend into quasi-slavery, for both sexes. (do the sums, how would you like to have one main wife and 3 slaves you can hire out to work and commandeer their wage? True, not all people are as callous, but it does not take many bad people for this to be a serious income proposition and those that eschew it will end up the financial losers and eventually also lose their position in society. This kind of thing is always a race to the bottom, and before you think that men are the winners, nops, for every winner who owns such a ‘people farm’, there are 3 losers!)

    Before we attempt cultural engineering elsewhere we’d better get our own house in order, which is about to collapse spectacularly under it’s own reality-denying arrogance.

    Ps.: Men may own more cars, but women own more clothes(and there is all the planet-destroying dry cleaning too!) ;-)

  3. Danny Says:

    Men own more cars and men use airplanes more, therefore men are more responsible for climate change.

    I’ve seen that somewhere before but I can’t recall where.

  4. Jim Says:

    “Wrong, because in those countries most people don’t get old and having more than 2-3 kids ages the women’s body drastically, if it does not kill them outright. ”

    They do get old, just a lot faster. They get old enough at a young age to become unable to work. But that still isn’t the real reason for having. There prestige in having lots of kids. Something else that comes into it is the need in lots of places to have lots of brothers and cousins just for the sake of physical safety.

    “Finally, women in poor countries have many children because often those children (male and female) are used as a trading commodity….”

    As in units of labor. That is very true.

    “Industrialisation is built on a ponzi scheme which is about to unravel as the boomers find there is nothing in the pension pot after all, ….’

    The problems go a lot deeper than that, which is why you are right to point out:

    “Before we attempt cultural engineering elsewhere we’d better get our own house in order, which is about to collapse spectacularly under it’s own reality-denying arrogance.”

  5. Hausfrau Says:

    “But that still isn’t the real reason for having. There prestige in having lots of kids.”

    There is no ‘choice’ as such for any participant in that kind of system, other than that the patriarch might chose to keep swapping out infertile wives for fertile ones, if he can afford to buy them — and he may well be expected too keep this up for as long as he can, since alliances etc. will compel him and refusal to accept new wives has it’s own risks for everyone involved.

    Likewise, no-one (man or women, of any social status) chooses how many kids to have personally(even if it’s a quite deadly affair for many), and it’s unlikely that the patriarch does not get cuckolded either, if only by rape and bribery(all those surplus males aren’t going to tie a knot in it, and even severe FGM isn’t totally destroying the female mating instinct either, nor will a women risk complaining about rape either, given the drastic penalties even for innocent women), which is almost impossible to bring to justice in that system without serious problems for everyone involved.

    So, prestige is a side-effect, but not a motivation at all in itself that decides the number of offspring, this is quite a stable system that has survived a number of cultures and religions over thousands of years– I think it’s the land (which sets the overall parameters) that defines the people, not the other way round.

    But the climate change idiocy is interesting in general, and whilst we’re talking about Africa, have a look here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Cape_Colony_from_1806_to_1870#Xhosa_cattle-killing_movement_and_famine

    Looks somewhat familiar to the current collective insanity…

  6. Jay R Says:

    To a feminist, what negative thing in the world in not the fault of men, and what positive thing is not to the credit of women, and feminism in particular?

    Feminists like to flip coins with only one side … .

  7. Jim Says:

    “There is no ‘choice’ as such for any participant in that kind of system, other than that the patriarch might chose to keep swapping out infertile wives for fertile ones, ”

    “So, prestige is a side-effect, but not a motivation at all in itself that decides the number of offspring,”

    True, choice did not come into it, but that doesn’t mean prestige was not a motivating factor. It may not have been a motivaotr, but since childbirth and child survivla and the genderr of the kiid was not a matter of choice very much, we can just facotr that out entirely. As for prestige, that didn’t have to arise from some choice of an individual or soem achievement. We are not talking about meritocratic cultures. If heaven favored you with whatever – land, big rich family, or lots of kids -then you were just blessed, and more blessed than others. God just loved you better, and all these blessings just proved it.

    And this is not only about the patriarchs. Everybody benefited from having more kids, especially sons, because that was both where your income came from and your physical security. And really, not from any other soource.

    You see an echo of this in elite traditional Chinese society where wives were given the prerogative of selecting their husbands’ mistresses. The resulting sons benefited the whole family.

    “this is quite a stable system that has survived a number of cultures and religions over thousands of years– I think it’s the land (which sets the overall parameters) that defines the people, not the other way round.”

    That last bit is something I have noticed WRT to other things. Even after toatla replacement of a population you often find strangely coincidentla similairites betwen the old and the new societies that arise. Californisa is one example.

  8. Mark Davenport Says:

    @ Jim,

    Please explain how California is an example of coincidental similarities despite replacement of populations. I’m not disagreeing; I just don’t understand.

  9. Jim Says:

    In some ways, not others. Pre-contact the place was a welter of ethnicities and languages living side by side. the same is true today (100+ languages in the Sacramento School District requiring bilingual ed – they ignored the requirement BTW as impossible to fulfill, and now the law requiring it has been repealed too). The culinary obsession of present-day California, and the whole West Coast, seems to have had parallels in pre-contact societies too.

  10. Jim Says:

    Oh, and one more thing – drugs. There is a saying that every native plant in California is either edible or psychodelic. (You can season meat with poison oak, for instance.) People spent a lot of time high on various things, as part of their various religions, even when they never quite figured out how to do it safely. The Chumash used to have people die on Jimsonweed even after several thousand years of experience with the plant.


Google