Public concern for the environment has reached a record high. The European Union has seen a 40% increase in Green members of parliament. Clothing brands that were once the prototype of fast fashion are now greenwashing their clothes, branding them as an eco-conscious option. Every time I go to a café to get a snack, I can trust they will have a vegan sandwich. When I get a coffee, I am asked if I would like oat milk instead of regular. As I look around the library, I see an array of Chilly’s water bottles, not an Evian plastic water bottle in sight. It is no longer acceptable not to care about or to ignore the environment and the issue of climate change. Through the work of young, often female, activists, the environment is now closer to the top of the international agenda.
The environmental movement has, historically, contained a disproportionate number of women compared to other activist and political circles. Think of leading activists, both historical and modern — Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring , the book that is often cited as the source of the American environmental movement of the 1960s, Greta Thunberg, leader of the Fridays for Future protests, or Isra Hirsi, only 17 and the co-founder of the US Youth Climate Strike.
I have noticed a similar pattern in St Andrews. When looking around my Sustainable Development lecture at 9am on a Thursday, most students I see in the audience are female. In meetings with the Towards a Sustainable St Andrews initiative, we often point out the fact that all nine of us involved are women. At the West Sands Line in the Sand protest led by third year Léa Weimann, the line was, for the most part, composed of women.
It has been found that male scholars of International Relations (IR) are more likely to focus on issues of security, like armed conflict, cybersecurity, and nuclear weapons while female IR scholars tend to lean towards issues of human rights and the environment. One could link this back to traditional gender roles. From birth, girls are indoctrinated to believe their primary role is caregiving. While boys are given plastic swords and toy tanks, girls are given baby dolls. It makes sense these gender roles would translate onto the academic field with female scholars concerned about the wellbeing of both humans and our planet and male scholars focusing on the role of war in society. This is not at all to say that this is an inherently bad thing or that care-giving and nurturing are weak, unimportant qualities. On the contrary, it is important that we, as a society, recognize the value in traits of warmth and sympathy. It is important that we encourage women who care about the wellbeing of others.
It is important we take environmental and human rights politics as seriously as we do security issues. But when women are continuously pushed into these roles, a dangerous narrative arises where women are viewed as the only ones who should and who can show these qualities. Historically, men involved in environmental issues have been ridiculed as feminine. Looking back to the 1900s, we find examples of this. Theodore Roosevelt, known for his commitment to the conservation movement, was ridiculed by political cartoonists who depicted him as feminine, wearing aprons and dresses, because of his environmental concern.
Issues of the environment have historically been an afterthought in international politics. These issues are not taken as seriously as male-dominated sectors of politics. This narrative is changing. Climate change is no longer seen as a distant possibility but a very real and very imminent crisis. In an attempt to further brand climate change as a “crisis”, states have begun to define the issue as a matter of international security. In other words, states have begun to securitise the issue.
While, of course, this is a frightening new status quo, it also means that women are now discussing matters of international security. The environmental movement is no longer about nurturing and caring for planet earth, but about our survival. And for the first time, women are the loudest voices on an issue of securitisation. As climate change rises on the inter – national agenda, women’s voices are amplified. So too does the role of indigenous minorities of the Oceanic region. As they are feeling the brunt of climate change before the West will, their voices are being heard for the first time.
While, of course, I would not deem climate change a good thing because of its role in encouraging female and indigenous activists, it may mark an important development in the role of women in politics. Looking beyond the realm of politics, we can see women taking a lead in the environmental movement. Seventy-nine per cent of American vegans are women. Women have been found to be more likely to make the eco-conscious choice while shopping, a highly significant fact considering women make up around 70% of the world’s purchasing power. Women, both in politics, in activist circles, and in daily life, are taking a lead in the sustainability movement. And as environmental politics are no longer a soft discipline or something to be ridiculed, but a very significant necessity to ensure our survival, we can see a change in the traditional backseat role of women in politics.