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What does gender have to do with sustainability?

Climate Change, Gender, and War

When people ask what gender has to do with sustainability, I am always at a loss.  What about sustainability does NOT have to do with gender—and race, class, age, sexuality—is the question.  If the environmental dispossession we are all now facing is a consequence of the colonialisms and neocolonialisms that reach back to 1492, and if the binary sex/gender system is a prominent feature and reproducer of those colonialisms, then of course all the work done by GSST scholars on social justice, knowledge production, development, economics etc. must be central to our efforts to make the intersectional connections we need to make in order to respond to climate change in ways that don’t simply deepen the divides of domination and subordination that have brought it about.

Danger of the Single Story: Pat Mooney, Rosalie Bertell, and a feminist scholar of reproductive rights and development studies, Betsy Hartmann, draw very different connections between climate change and war.  No doubt this is because the connections are so numerous and so disparate.  The differences in the ways we connect this provocative pair will and should proliferate as we pool our knowledges to create a larger collective wisdom about the dense interimplications of climate change and war.  The danger lies in the single story, according to a German group that calls itself “subtramas” (subplots), not in the proliferation of them.  As Bertell puts it near the beginning of her book Planet Earth: the Latest Weapon of War, what is called for departs from linear thought. She sees “the single focus of the military and the environmental or social scientist as one of the greatest menaces to the survival of the planet” (2000, 5, italics mine).

Loss of Knowledge: One of Mooney’s leading points in “The Big Squeeze: Geopirating the Remaining Commons,” is the provocative assertion that the generation born since World War II is the first generation in history to lose more knowledge than it has gained. His immediate point is that experimental reductive science is displacing what little relational thinking there was in the study of ecosystems and species dynamics. There are huge epistemological losses going on in tandem with the losses of species, livelihoods, cultures, languages, drinkable water, and breathable air (Kumar 2005). There is thus a great deal happening right in front of us that many of us don’t have the wherewithal to see.  Women, he says, are often the guardians of these disappearing knowledges.  Neoliberal globalization delegitimizes the precise sophisticated knowledge of indigenous and peasant women while importing a reductive, hierarchical, patriarchal thought system that further accelerates the eradication of  precise understandings of ecosystems. Mooney links the loss of knowledges with the rise of “intellectual property,” and the notion that one can own life processes. The privatization of the commons is the result. And the protection of this ill-gotten property becomes the mission of the military.

Militarized Climate Destabilization: Bertell links many facets of the abuse of the earth to the military: toxic bases, nuclear testing, huge consumption of fossil fuel, the diversion of research funding that should be directed toward sustainability, the development of toxic chemicals like Agent Orange, which then get repackaged as commercial agricultural pesticides, to name just a few. Military systems and militarization, with their addiction to death, destruction, and market sovereignty, are perhaps the greatest contributor to climate destabilization.

Blaming the victim: How do we not see this? Betsy Hartman argues that those least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation get blamed for it. Hartman talks about constructions of people, particularly women, of color, as security threats in apocalyptic, climate change doomsday stories.  Although many of the planet’s most poorly resourced communities neither pollute nor resort to violence to manage their affairs (perhaps because they still have access to the knowledges referred to by Mooney), population control and new military commands in Africa and Asia are being justified by the hypothetical scenario of millions of poor, dark-skinned people, engaging in violent conflict over scarce resources, storming the borders of the US and Fortress Europe, and threatening industrialized nations’ access to energy and other resources. Although the US is the foremost emitter of carbon into the atmosphere (20 tons per person in 2002, vs. 0.2 tons in Bangladesh), it is population growth among the world’s poorest people who are the least responsible for climate change that is targeted as the problem in need of a solution. Hartman further notes that apocalyptic thinking creates the fantasy of magic bullet solutions.  Some scientific communities, corporations, energy companies, and the military see themselves as capable of providing such magic bullets, casting themselves saviors, a fantasy we can recognize as the racist, sexist avatar of the old imperial “white man’s burden.”

This is just a brief foray into the use of interdisciplinary, transnatonal research and thinking we do in GSST to the question of sustainability. 

—Margie Waller


Bertell, Rosalie. 2013. “Slowly Wrecking Our Planet.” In Asking We Walk: The South as New Political Imaginary, ed. Corinne Kumar. Bangalore: Streelekha publications.

___________. 2000.  Planet Earth, The Latest Weapon of War: A Criticial Study into the Military and the Environment. London: The Women’s Press Ltd.

Hartmann, Betsy. 2007. “War Talk and Climate Change.” Truthout 26 November (on-line news source). 
Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.

_____________. 2014.  This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, New Delhi: Simon & Schuster.

Kumar, Corinne. 2005. “South Wind: Towards a New Political Imaginary.”  In Dialogue and Difference: Feminisms Challenge Globalization, ed. Marguerite Waller and Sylvia Marcos. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mooney, Pat. 2013. “The Big Squeeze: Geopirating the Remaining Commons.” In Asking We Walk: The South as New Political Imaginary, ed. Corinne Kumar. Bangalore: Streelekha publications.