Yes: feminism and environmentalism are essential partners

Reflecting a speech I gave at the Women’s Environmental Network Forum, January 26, 2017

I was asked to speak a little about my personal political history, so I begin with chronologically the first part of my politics: feminism. That started at age five, when I was told “Because you’re a girl, you’re not allowed to have a bicycle.” That was a product of the thought processes of my aspirational working class grandmother, who thought it wasn’t ‘ladylike’.

I didn’t know the word feminism then, and it wasn’t until I accidentally encountered the novel The Women’s Room at about age 16 that I realised other people thought as I did.

My other key political strand came later, in my university years, as I studied agricultural science, and came to understand that Australian farming, using methods transplanted from the other side of the world, was mining the soils, destroying them. In that lay the foundation of my environmentalism.

But it would be decades before I started to see the links between the two sides of my politics.

One element that they share is that feminists and environmentalists seem to keep having to fight the same battles again and again. For feminism, this was brought into focus for me by one of British feminism grande dames, Sheila Rowbotham, in 2010, when I heard her say: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there. … It is much harder to argue for equality in a situation where equality is not respected.” As we’ve found now fighting for a ban on companies forcing female staff to wear high heels.

Preparing for tonight, I was struck by the parallels with the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report, sneaked out by the government. The Climate Change Act was hailed as a great victory, and it was a success, but not one whose continuation was assured.

The problem is that when we fight battles on individual issues, once that issue is apparently won, the momentum, the energy, heads off in new directions, and the system reverts to status quo settings.

This reminds me of many years ago when I founded the blog Carnival of Feminists. I was also at the time a regular host of the Britblog roundup, a political blogging carnival. I had a lot of trouble getting the (mostly male) hosts of that to see feminism as part of politics, but I also had some problems getting the feminist bloggers to conclude the same.

What we’ve not really grasped in many parts of feminism and environmentalism is that what we are doing is, must be, has to be, politics.

We can’t just lobby politicians – we have to be politicians. In other words, we have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things.

What’s increasingly clear now if that the problems identified by feminism and the problems seen by environmentalism are joined up – they are part of a system, a model, that’s broken – that’s based on an economic system that’s trashing the planet while society tramples all over the rights of women, failing to treat them with the most basic respect.

We can’t win by picking off small issues – we need system change, a transformation to move towards a society and economy that works for the common good within the environmental limits of our one fragile planet.

And here’s where I think a concept that comes from agriculture can help us see more broadly what we need: agroecology. I wrote about it recently after returning from the climate talks in Marrakesh.

It’s a concept of farming and land management that aims to work with each plant, animal and microbes natural strengths, to support and go around its weakness, to create a natural environment in which every species can thrive and flourish, not overstretched, not be a cow pumped with hormones to produce heroic quantities of milk, or a soil treated like a cake mix whose ingredients can be fiddled at will.

It might just be a useful way for feminists to think about the kind of society that we need, one in which everyone has access to light, and air, to space and time, to the opportunity to flourish without undue demands and pressures.

It’s one more way in which we can join up feminism and environmentalism.