Modern environmentalism has a woman problem, Prof. Jennifer Bernstein, spatial sciences, University of Southern California, said in her lecture Wednesday.
Bernstein led her discussion on why the link between gender and environmentalism may not be as benign as has been previously thought.
She said that the contemporary green movement — led by the work of food writer Michael Pollan — has become over-consumed with the promotion of a pastoral, de-industrialized ideal that emphasizes biking, freshly-prepared food and a return to nature.
“Today, a growing chorus of voices argues that to be proper environmentalists and nurturing parents, each night should involve a home-cooked meal of fresh, organic, unprocessed ingredients,” Bernstein said.
But this “back to the kitchen” approach to environmentalism, she argued, ignores financial realities, setting an unrealistic expectation for females who have just recently began to achieve economic independence from the domestic sphere.
“At a moment in our history when increasing numbers of women have liberated themselves from many of the demands of unpaid domestic labor, prominent environmental thinkers are advocating a return to the very domestic labor that stubbornly remains the domain of women,” she said.
Bernstein said she feels that with wages stagnating and the number of single-parent families expanding, growing female workforce participation is increasingly a necessity. Add the burden of household work to the mix and she expects that the burden to prepare each meal with fresh ingredients can become punitive.
“For women, especially of lower socioeconomic status, the demands of a time-intensive, low-technology approach to food preparation are onerous,” she said. “Rather than the idealized version offered by the likes of Pollan, most mothers described juggling tight schedules, picky children and the cost of fresh ingredients.”
What, then, would a more practical, feminist-oriented environmentalism look like?
On this question, Bernstein highlighted the much-publicized Green Belt Movement, established by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Wangari Maathai.
“Woman in rural Kenya were traditionally responsible for gathering fuel wood, which is time consuming, reduces native forest cover, adversely affects women’s health due to smoke inhalation and back pain,” she said. “However, the introduction of biogas digesters, which process livestock manure anaerobically to generate gas, has led to a marked reduction in fuelwood use and positive health impacts.”
What made the movement successful — which has since the 1970s led to the restoration of over 51 million trees and the training of 30,000 women — is that it concurrently addressed female empowerment, deforestation and economic ability, eschewing the heavily-idealized, conservation-only approach advocated by many contemporary greens, Bernstein said.
If today’s environmental problems are to be solved, Bernstein concluded, an approach stressing a return to a more agrarian, organic lifestyle, is at best, infeasible and at worst, an affront to feminist principles.
“Female empowerment, in the long term, requires modern agriculture, energy and infrastructure,” she said. “Environmental ethics that reject those prerequisites in the name of the natural and pastoral are, simply put, irreconcilable with feminism.”