I have been interested in sustainability for many years. During that time, I have interacted with hundreds of people on topics of climate change, sustainability and environmentalism. They’ve come from all different backgrounds and upbringings, all with unique stories to tell. But there’s been an overarching theme with many of them. They have nearly all been women.
As a person who was socialised to be a man, I’ve noticed that the character traits of sustainability have always been seen as dirty. I mean those traits that all environmentalists aspire to have. We talk of caring for our environment, respecting the ground we walk on, showing compassion for suffering wildlife, and being thoughtful with our resources. These aren’t radical ideas. In fact, they’re vital if we want to overcome the climate crisis. But for many men, they are seen as unappealing. Not because they aren’t important, but because they’re feminine.
We’ve known for a while that men resist environmentally friendly behaviour because of the feminisation thereof. Part of this is because men are far more concerned than women in maintaining their gender identity. Ideas of strength, courage, self-reliance, and independence are valued first and foremost. When something threatens that identity, they reject it. To adopt feminine habits is bad. To be sustainable is bad. But having half the population avoid sustainable behaviour is not something we can afford. Not when the consequences are so dire, and there is so much risk. But in a world where being sustainable means being ethical, gendering environmental solutions is harmful to us all. So, it’s worth asking why sustainability is seen as feminine in the first place.
No Father Nature
There is a reason there is no Father Nature. It’s true that the earth can sometimes wield the ruthless hand of a father, ready to put us in our place if we act too boldly. Storms batter our cities, earthquakes shatter our homes, and droughts drain our crops. Climate change is simply the next step on our road to humility. And yet, we in the global north have constantly defied this message. The story we have told is one of struggle between humans and Nature. Where man has to overcome the elements in order to create a ‘civilized’ society. This idea has been a major contributor to the colonization of lands all over the world. It’s also why we are so disconnected from Nature in our current societies. It’s a patriarchal narrative in which Nature’s inherent feminism has to be overcome and subjugated.
How we talk of Nature directly affects how we think of our relationship with them. For a long time that focus has been on the life-giving qualities of this planet. Both men and women associate Nature more with women and femininity. Much like women, Nature has been stereotyped as a bearer of life. Nature gives us the fruit on our trees, and the water in our steams. They grant life to us and all living things on this planet. It's a comforting idea to see Nature as a paternal figure. One that provides and cares for us. This is why sustainability has long been stereotyped as feminine. Caring for our world and renewing it with life is reserved for those who share those qualities with Nature. But gendering environmental efforts in this way isn’t without its consequences.
This gendering of sustainability also reinforces patriarchal ideas that see women as something to be subjugated. Eco-feminist thinkers have often questioned the negative consequences of associating Nature with femininity. In her paper “Is Female to Male what Nature is to Culture” Sherry Ortner explains that seeing woman as closer to Nature, mutually devalues both to be subordinated. The views that led us to subjugate women, have also led to the subjugation of nature. We see the notion that we must dominate Nature, emerge directly from the patriarchal idea that men must dominate women. This is an idea that flies in the face of justice, equality, and now sustainability. I personally do not see Nature as inherently feminine. But if Nature is seen as a she, then she must be liberated.
Beyond the Binary
Liberating our planet cannot happen while inequality exists in our world. Oppression of all kinds – whether it’s through gender, race, or class – will only worsen with the ecological crisis. Yet our views on sustainability are steeped in ideas that perpetuate this inequality and disregard our natural world. Questioning our ideas of gender, and how that relates to other aspects of our society may help to right this wrong. That means rethinking what it means to be, not just a man, but a human within the climate crisis. Because qualities of compassion, care and togetherness are not reserved for one section of our population. They are the necessary qualities we must all develop as humans if we want to create a just and sustainable world.
Yet, as someone who was raised as a man learning these characteristics is not easy. As I try to foster an ecological sensitivity towards Nature, I have to unlearn the lessons that were taught to me. Behaviour taught me that eating meat was manly, and caring for animals was not. Ideas that recycling called my sexuality into question. Lessons that taught me that being a man meant being repressed. But defying those expectations is not emasculating. Subverting those expectations in a patriarchal society is a radical act we desperately need.
That means I want to stop dismissing the interests of others and expand my compassion for all living beings. I want to turn to the community in times of need, rather than isolating inwards. It means I want to learn to be humble, understanding I am only a small part of the complex web that life has weaved on earth. And it means that I want to do all that I can for Nature. We have to be better than the society that we grew up in. For me, that means looking beyond the binary.