“An Atlas of Human Suffering”: Feminist Approaches to the Future

Shelley Wright*

More than thirty years ago Hilary Charlesworth, Christine Chinkin and I were law lecturers in Australia interested in applying feminist perspectives to our field of interest – Public International Law. After three years of discussions, conversations, draft papers, and conferences we were successful in publishing “Feminist Approaches to International Law”. It changed our lives. But that was thirty years ago. In 1992 the world was a very different place than it is now. The Soviet Union had splintered into many different independent states. Eastern Europe elected democratic governments in nations that had been buried under years of communist rule controlled by Moscow. Climate change and the environment were growing problems on the horizon. World peace seemed possible and the security mechanisms under the UN seemed workable again for the first time since the Korean War. The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing seemed to herald a new future for women and girls everywhere. Violence against women was, and remains, an unsolved problem. Our article could not cover everything. Fortunately, many international scholars have filled in some of the gaps. We each continued to work on institutional and structural sexism in international law; women, peace, and security; Indigenous perspectives; and environmental concerns, especially climate change. In this essay I will briefly touch on just one of those issues – climate change and environmental justice.

*Retired from Aboriginal Studies, Langara College, Vancouver; Northern Director, Akitsiraq Law School, Nunavut; Sallows Professor of Human Rights, University of Saskatchewan; University of Sydney Law School; University of Canterbury, Aotearoa-New Zealand; Singapore National University, Faculty of Law. Currently residing in British Columbia, Canada. Footnotes from original article omitted.

Climate Change

Climate change and the environmental degradation of our planet are the defining issues of our time. The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] tells us that keeping global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels is crucial to avoiding a “truly catastrophic unravelling” of our current climate system. We are already seeing extreme weather events on a global scale after just 1°C of warming over the past 150 years, including unprecedented heat waves (as in the Pacific Northwest, Summer 2021), droughts, flooding (again in the Pacific Northwest, Autumn 2021 effecting many of the same communities scorched by the “heat dome” earlier that year), melting ice, and extreme storms. It seems increasingly difficult to keep temperatures from rising to 2°C and beyond. The key is to stop pumping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and oceans. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it:

“Today’s [2021] IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership . . .With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people, and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”

We now have less than a decade to reduce our global emissions enough to have any chance of avoiding temperature increases above 1.5°C. Meanwhile, corporate entities and governments are pursuing economic development policies that are mostly counterproductive to the goal of avoiding environmental catastrophe.
Law, especially international law, and climate science both tend to be dominated by men focusing on male-centred issues. Reliance on legal norm creation and “hard” science mean that issues surrounding human rights, cultural and Indigenous rights, social issues, and even psychological affects tend to be ignored as peripheral, “soft”, less urgent.

Siila Watt-Cloutier, a leading Inuit authority and activist on climate change and pollution, makes it clear that climate change and environmental degradation are both Indigenous and human rights issues. As Inuit keep reminding us, it’s not just about polar bears.

Feminist Approaches to Climate Change and Environmental Justice

An approach which takes “patriarchal values” seriously is expressed in eco-feminism’s “ethic of care”:

“. . . The current relationship we have with nature is hierarchal and fragmented because it is rooted in a culture of separation created by a ‘masculine’ modernity. The patriarchal values of rationality and power have othered the natural environment and women . . . [A]n ethic of care approach can transcend the modern patriarchal structures that have promoted dominion over nature . . .”

There is much value to this approach. It exposes the gendered nature of concepts such as “rationality”, “nature”, “modernity”, and looks at the gendered dualism created by Cartesian approaches to what it means to be human. It gives some historical context to the marginalisation and “othering” of nature, women, and people of colour.
In 2009 Sherilyn MacGregor of the University of Manchester commented on the lack of research into the gendered nature of climate change, and began work on filling in the gaps, arguing that tackling climate change must include a gender analysis or it would remain unjust and unsustainable.

A relational approach addresses both climate change and law from another perspective:

“It is well documented that environmental and climate justice problems are associated
with local and global extractive industry operations and that concrete legal and policy reforms will be necessary if we might hope both to prevent and remedy harms. . . Thinking of environmental justice focuses our attention on sites of local harm, which are intertwined with histories of colonialism and racism. Climate justice, on the other hand, draws our attention to the international and the ‘global’, which, while equally intertwined with colonial and racist histories, present different challenges of the imagination.”

“Both environmental justice and climate justice are also intertwined with gender justice, whether the focus is upon those who are most vulnerable to harms or those whose voices are crucial as agents of change. Attention to extractive industries (mining, oil, and gas) and gender justice leads us to the tools of international human rights law, including the recognition of the human rights of women and girls, the responsibilities of businesses to respect human rights, and the duty of states to protect human rights from irresponsible business conduct.”

Indigenous Women’s Perspectives

The inclusion of “gender justice” into this discussion moves us away from a liberal focus on the autonomous individual and towards an analysis of positions of vulnerability, empowerment and responses to regional relations, nation-states, the international community and, above all, global material systems – land, water, ice, oceans, weather (both “normal” and catastrophic) and the human-built environment. Indigenous women’s perspectives are, in my view, central to any discussion of climate or environmental justice on a local or a global scale.

For Indigenous women “gender justice” cannot be divorced from communal, ancestral, and spiritual perspectives. For example, protection of water is seen within many Indigenous communities as closely tied to women’s roles as mothers. Water is seen as alive and connected with biological aspects of motherhood and women’s bodies. There are spiritual connections between water and family, water and blood, water and childbirth, and water as life. Maori activists, Lakota Water Protectors in North Dakota, and Indigenous women and men in the Amazon River basin argue that rivers are alive, and that they have rights. Women and water systems are seen as having reciprocal responsibilities of life-giving and protection. Oil and gas extraction is destructive of these living systems, and dangerous to the integrity of all life on “Mother Earth”. Indigenous peoples, including women, see their responsibilities as, not only local, but also global guardians of the Earth.

There is no doubt, as Laurie Zoloth writes, that:

“There will be a time, in most of the world, when the last well goes dry. And this is because so much of the world lives already on the brink of a dreadful thirst, a life only made tolerable because women travel great distances to find the wells or the rivers or the ditches, scoop up the water, and bring it home. They carry it on their backs, or their heads, or on their hips, like a child. In Africa alone, women walk forty billion hours a year to bring this water home. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls are responsible for 72 percent of all the water collected. This means that women spend a significant proportion of their lives simply carrying water. And as the climate steadily gets warmer, droughts will become more frequent and water will become more salinized, harder to find, and farther away from habitation. As it now stands, clean water is already unavailable to over 633 million people—one in ten of the people of the earth. Diseases from contaminated water kill on the aggregate more people than any form of violence, including wars and acts of terror.”

The Problem of Patriarchy

But there are deeper issues that deserve a more extensive analysis than I can give here. First, modern industrial societies are the result of centuries of the accumulation of patriarchal power at every level, from the home to the Law of Nations. Our organizational structures, our institutions, our militaries, our health and education systems, our laws, our religions, our private enterprises both national and international are all deeply infused with patriarchal values of how power works, how authority structures are organized, and how individuals and groups interact. This is permeated with aggressively competitive scrambles for the accumulation of obscene levels of wealth, status, and influence. These values have divorced almost every institution with any significance from the natural world and have successfully relegated almost everyone, outside of a small, privileged circle of (mostly) white men, into a limbo of “otherness” – beginning with women and girls.

The result of this is that our planet is facing an extinction event of massive proportions, possibly endangering not only human civilization but also life itself. The foundation of how these systems retain their power is violence – from abuse by individual men on women, children, and other men, to international warfare. Fossil fuels are the last frontier of industrial capitalism, and the wealthy who feed off this system are well aware of this. Another problem, both in the use of violence and our attitude towards the environment, is how we use language to shape our place in the world.

Discourse and Material Reality

There is a major distraction being produced both at the corporate capitalist level, and at the theoretical level, on what our current crises mean. A problem within our modern patriarchal societies lies in sometimes mistaking what we conceive of as “truth” with what might be called material reality. Language, narratives, or discursive practices create a kind of “reality” that can dominate our thinking to the extent of denying material reality altogether. “Truth” can be a fuzzy concept, depending on whose truth is being spoken and by whom.

There are many different “truths” glimpsed in different ways by many different knowledge systems. All “truths”, whether connected to material reality or not, are interpreted through narratives created in human minds. We are a pattern-seeking animal. These patterns of what we perceive as “truth” can be very convincing. Without narrative frameworks in which to interpret the world, “reality” becomes chaotic and dangerous – random objects and events we cannot control. As a result, we do partially create what we see as “reality”, or “realities”, both collectively and individually. Some of these are verifiably false (the earth is flat, the sun rotates around the earth, the universe was created in six days, biological sex doesn’t exist, climate change is a hoax). Or they can express some element of meaning that might well be “true” for some people in some sense. There can be many ways of explaining a deeper truth (history, myth, art, science, religion, spirituality).

Some would say that reality is nothing more than a human construct created by language or discourse and can be changed by creating a new discursive framework. The idea seems to be, not only to create a more just collective framework for people on the margins of our current world order, but also to deconstruct language and existing social structures out of which new “realities” of individual liberation and empowerment can be born. In this theory of meaning there does not appear to be any objective reality, merely subjective “realities” or “truths”. It’s not that this actually creates a new material reality – there is no such thing according to this epistemological framework – but that dominant discourses around whiteness, masculinity, heteronormativity, etc. can be reversed and overthrown.

There are many problems woth this, the first being the suggestion that material reality, apart from discursive “realities”, either does not exist or is unimportant. According to this, climate change can be interpreted as “not real”, as just a hoax or a trick of words, while the material evidence of climate change surrounds us. Ultimately, what we are all talking about is power, who has it, who controls it, and who doesn’t. If all of reality is just a set of “hegemonic discursive practises” revolving around power, then “reality” cannot exist outside of those man-made discursive practices. How we deal with our current existential crises, including climate change, cannot effectively change the real-world consequences of both our words and our actions within this framework. Not only does this create an ongoing struggle consisting of endless conflicts over who controls the discourse of power; it also creates the bedrock of totalitarian political systems on all sides of the political spectrum. It traps humanity, especially women and children, in an inescapable recurring loop of violent power struggles, from the bedroom to the UN Security Council.

Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am” – is one of the great mistakes of modern philosophy. The words are from one of the original masters of our existing “hegemonic discursive practises” – René Descartes. It is the master narrative of modern patriarchal society. A genuinely woman-centred feminism knows that we don’t exist because we think we do. We think, feel, act, and observe because we exist. Within that existence we, and other conscious life forms, create meaning – sacred, scientific, linguistic, cultural, gendered – that is ultimately embodied. Our existence as part of reality is not ultimately a product of our minds or words. We don’t just make it up. We humans, male and female, including our crazy clever conscious minds, our living relations with the rest of this world, our universe, our bodies, our place on this Earth, are all products of material reality. We do not create reality, we interact with it, not as gods but as humble humans participating in the world as it is or might become.

Meanwhile, as Svitlana Krakovska, the lead Ukrainian scientist on climate change noted while putting together her country’s final report for the IPCC, while she was hiding in her basement with her four children escaping Russian bombs falling on Kyiv:

“I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels, . . . Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way. It will destroy our civilization.”

This is reality. Our collective inability to recognize this, or to do anything about it, means that the men who control this modern capitalist patriarchal world have talked themselves, and many others, out of understanding what is real and what is not. What the natural world will allow us to do, and what it won’t. Who is human and who isn’t. We have become lost in solipsism and narcissism, and our words are nothing more than an endless argument about power making us powerless to change the real conditions of injustice that we can see all around us. Patriarchy is built on this denial of reality – the disengagement of male minds from the material reality of bodies and of the world they, and all of us, live in.

As Dr. Krakovska says, “We cannot continue to live this way.”

Footnotes omitted.

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