Will Women Save the Earth?

by Leigh Felesky

Sunlight twinkles on the water as waves cover the rocks, then recede, and then engulf them again. The light breeze is fresh and the day welcoming. Surroundings are resort-like, with beaches, green playgrounds and tiny, ivy-covered houses.

"Open?" I inquire. "Yes, the water is considered safe to swim in," explains my born-and-raised-in-Toronto companion. "I wouldn't go in there though."

Still, many barefoot and water-winged children laugh and play at one end of the beach.

Sunlight twinkles on the water as waves cover the rocks, then recede, and then engulf them again. The light breeze is fresh and the day welcoming. Surroundings are resort-like, with beaches, green playgrounds and tiny, ivy-covered houses.

"Open?" I inquire. "Yes, the water is considered safe to swim in," explains my born-and-raised-in-Toronto companion. "I wouldn't go in there though."

Still, many barefoot and water-winged children laugh and play at one end of the beach.

"Mommy, watch this!" screams a girl with a shiny blue ball. Meanwhile, bikini-clad teens flirt with guys in boxer shorts. The swimming and sun create the illusion of an afternoon without reference, timeless.

But despite the apparent never-ending scene, in the past 50 years, many such scenes have ended for Lake Ontario. The world's largest freshwater eco-system has been an ecological destruction zone. In the early 1970s Lake Erie was "dead" and Lake Ontario wasn't far behind. Pollutants included deadly chemicals, human and animal waste, minerals and toxins. In one study, pregnant women who ate Great Lakes' PCB-laced fish twice a month gave birth to children with severe learning disabilities and lower-than-average IQs.

Christine Elworth, senior policy analyst for the Sierra Club of Canada, adds that the Lakes' health was improving, but recent funding cuts have stalled much of the progress. The Great Lakes environmental crisis was one of the first to attract mainstream concern in Canada.

The list has grown to include a warming planet, the cutting down of rainforests, the overuse of pesticides and the creation of genetically modified foods-all these recent issues scream for our attention. Then, last May, seven people died and 2,300 fell ill in Walkerton, a southwestern Ontario farming town, after drinking tap water contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Elworth links Walkerton to trade agreements like NAFTA because they favour intensive livestock operations that can pollute groundwater. Despite what often seems to be a litany of bad news, green energy generators thrive in Canada and the world. Among those dedicated to saving the planet are politicians, non-profit leaders, grass roots volunteers, scientists, lawyers, grandmothers, students, solar entrepreneurs and nuns. While the obvious link among these crusaders is their dedication to a cause, a second common link is often a pair of X chromosomes.

Many Canadian environmental organizations are headed by women. In addition, many women have gender parity among staff and on boards, where policy decisions are made. Others, like Women's Health and Environment Network (WHEN) are dedicated to environmental issues that affect women's health. "There's a definite energy right now, and a female energy at that," observes Tracey Keeling, a recent graduate from the environmental program at Capilano College. About 70 percent of her classmates were women. Keeling, who now works at the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) in Vancouver, watches environmental trends.

"Right now so many polls I come across say women, including young women, are overwhelmingly interested in the environment."

On the West Coast, many of those women watched the 1993 Clayoquot protest unfold in B.C.'s temperate rainforest region. Clayoquot protest organizer Tzeporah Berman believes that women's social and cultural roles as caretakers were instrumental in empowering the Clayoquot protesters, who were mostly women. Sharon Batt, a journalist and founding member of Breast Cancer Action Montreal and author of Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer, attributes women's environmental keenness to several factors.

"A central theme in feminist discourse has been the link between the health of our bodies and the health of the planet." She continues, "Women don't have as much power as men. It's easier for us to challenge the status quo."

Challenging the status quo is what environmental epidemiologist Dr. Rosalie Bertell does best. A world-renowned expert on radiation, she headed the International Medical Commission-Chernobyl and the commission that examined the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. In her newly-released book, Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War, (The Women's Press, U.K.) Bertell documents the environmental impact of the military industrial complex.

"It is my belief that we have been treating the symptoms, but not the cause of the disease of the Earth. We have been abusing Earth's natural systems, the way it regulates temperature and water supply, recycles waste and protects life. Some of the most fundamental abuses have occurred because of our continued reliance on the military," she says.

Organochlorine pesticides, the Chernobyl disaster and nuclear waste are examples of military hand-me-downs. "If women had more decision-making power, the world would be a better place," says Bertell, who is also an ordained Roman Catholic nun.

"Feminine modes of action are different from the male model. Women have different expectations in a workplace and in positions of authority. They develop strengths like compassion, flexibility and understanding which can call forth skills and talents from others who they themselves do not know they possess."

Feminist thinking employs an integrated approach, says Dr. Dorothy Goldin-Rosenberg, associate producer of the 1997 video Exposure: Environmental Links to Breast Cancer. "We think in webs. Women think in relationships and connections, how things are connected together. We don't see things in a linear way," she observes. Exposure brings together the voices of artists, cancer experts and environmental researchers to show how a health issue like breast cancer has become a political, personal, scientific, artistic and environmental issue.

Environmental issues also cross-pollinate with social justice issues. In the new book Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada's Love Canal, Elizabeth May, chief executive officer of the Sierra Club of Canada, and Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, write: "When we look more closely at pollution of neighbourhoods in Canada and the United States, a common theme emerges. Deadly toxic waste sites are more likely to be found near First Nations communities, or near non-First Nations communities of poorer people, people of colour and politically marginalized people. This phenomenon has been given a name: environmental racism."

Indigenous women in Canada and the U.S. are leaders in the fight against environmental racism. Katie Rich, former chief of Davis Inlet, led a fight against the Voisey's Bay mining company, while Winona LaDuke, U.S. Green Party president Ralph Nader's running mate in the last presidential election, campaigns against dumping nuclear waste on aboriginal land. Diversity encourages new understandings and coalitions. Elizabeth Christie, a lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, has observed that as women take on leadership positions in the environmental movement, the viewpoints and participants become more diversified.

"There is an effort to broaden the scope of people in the movement; for example, to include more people from rural areas who obviously have a real interest in environmental issues, but who haven't traditionally been considered activists. I think women are potentially more aware of the need to ensure diversity." Diversity is at the heart of sustainability. In the introduction to Frederick Street, Farley Mowat predicts, "A hundred years from now the message in Frederick Street will be regarded as one of the vital revelations of the millennium.

That is, of course, if there are any human beings around to regard anything. If there are not, it will be because we have ignored this book and the few others like it." Ten years ago, Elizabeth May wrote a chapter in Mowat's book, Rescue the Earth! entitled "Gaia Women!" In it, she set out to find out why women were at the forefront of the environmental movement in the late 70s and 80s.

"Everyone had their own, different answers," she found. "And then there was my answer for which I was roundly criticized by politically correct feminists. My answer was and still remains that women are essentially different than men. We operate more from an intuitive thought process. We are biologically and spiritually connected to the cosmos, its planetary shifts, the earth's tides and phases of the moon. We are more nurturing, more concerned with the flow and flux of life-people, plants, animals, even seas. Consciously or not we find ourselves part of the Gaia, part of the living planetary whole… ."

Another leading environmentalist, Beatrice Olivastri, chief executive officer of Friends of the Earth, has noticed that the growing tide of women's environmental involvement parallels a deepening of the ecological crisis. "It's not just symptomatic pollution anymore. It goes to the core of creation and reproduction in terms of genetically-modified food, in terms of gender-bending chemicals."

Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, is at the forefront of Canada's consumer movement against genetically-modified organisms. GMOs are seeds or plants that have had their genetic structure altered by biotech corporations, usually to withstand applications of the company's pesticide. They claim that GM crops have improved results, however the promises have not been consistently born out. About four percent of Canada's agricultural output is derived from GM crops. GM varieties like canola and corn are not segregated from non-GM crops, resulting in an estimated 60-70 percent of prepared foods contain some modified genetic material.

Exposure to organochlorine pesticides sprayed on crops has been linked to increasing rates of breast and prostate cancer among humans. Clearly, women and men have an equal stake in saving the planet. However, many, including Olivastri, believe that reproduction issues strike a direct chord with women. "We're talking about such a level of impact on the planet, today's generation, tomorrow's generation that I really feel it's a mission that women are in the best place to take on."

Joan Russow, the leader of Canada's Green Party, observes that not all feminists have an environmental agenda. She was not impressed when the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) excluded her from its leader's debate on women's issues during the recent federal election. "It's ironic," Russow says from her Victoria home. "

Forty-three years earlier, the University of Toronto Hart House, where the NAC debate was held, was a men's-only facility and defiantly I sat in on a lecture anyway.now I'm being excluded by women." None of the main party leaders showed up at the NAC debate, Russow says. They delegated other party members to go. Just shows you, she says, "how much they care about women's issues." Russow is unsure whether women bring a different perspective to environmental politics.

"Women are bringing more of a health aspect. For instance, an example last night (at a political debate) there was a woman who was pregnant and she was up at the microphone. She said, 'I'm going to give birth and I don't want to be exposed to toxic materials. What are you going to do?'

But at the same time I hate to even give that example, in fear of being too essential." What Russow refers to is the essentialism debate found in any feminist theory classroom. Essentialism is the belief that there are unique male and female natures. Some have suggested in this article, for example, that because women have the capacity to give birth to human life and tend to bear responsibility for nurturing children, they are connected to the natural world in a way men are not. Others tend to support the view that women have been 'socially programmed' to be caring and nurturing. And that means men are just as capable of becoming nurturing if they are 'trained' or are 'socially constructed' to do so.

There's a history here. Anti-feminists tried to stop women's liberation with 'biology is destiny' arguments. There is a fear that if women are viewed as naturally more nurturing, then perhaps women naturally belong at home nurturing men and children. Another worry is the potential to compartmentalize women's issues along these apparently natural lines.

"I remember once I was at a conference and someone asked me 'How can you say nuclear arms testing is a women's issue?'" recalls Russow. "A lot of the men at the conference said it's not a women's issue, [meaning] 'You shouldn't be dealing with those sorts of issues.' I think feminism has made all issues women's issues."

Russow adds that women often bring different knowledge to environmental issues.

"Experience in general, as a way of knowing, is not valued," she explains. "Women come with a strong gut feeling about what should be done. You know, 'This should be stopped. It's wrong.'"

At a recent hearing on pesticide spraying to kill gypsy moths, she recalls, "Activists were speaking with an incredible amount of knowledge and the only questions that the lawyer asked were, 'Do you have a degree in toxicology?' 'Do you have a degree in this? Do have a degree in this?' And the women had to say, 'No.'" Traditional science tends to ignore the value of experience, observes Sharon Batt, who holds the position of Nancy's Chair in Women's Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

"As women became more political, we began to analyze health and environmental issues beginning with our personal experiences," she says. "The women's health movement has always stressed the importance of checking medical authority against our own personal experience and listening first to our experience. We've also stressed prevention and that means looking at the upstream causes – the environment. The cause-and-effect model of modern science and technology encourages researchers to narrow their focus, to control, to compartmentalize and to pillage. It's a very masculine model."

The same patriarchal model that devalues nature also undermines women. When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, one of the most influential environmental books of the 20th century, she faced the same criticism from her opponents. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore writes in the introduction of a recent edition of the book, ".because Carson was a woman, much of the criticism directed at her played on stereotypes of her sex. Calling her "hysterical" fit the bill exactly."

Despite the personal attacks against her, the book eventually led to the banning of DDT and other carcinogenic chemicals. In the new book Sweeping the Earth: Women Taking Action for a Healthy Planet, (Gynergy Press), artist Matuschka recalls how "Maclean's magazine wrote about me this way: 'A former model, Matuschka angrily refused to hide her scars.' How does one angrily refuse to hide one's scars? Did I defiantly rip off my top and expose my breastlessness to the world?

"Hardly. I wanted to show that a woman can be beautiful, sexy, strong and powerful no matter what her body looks like. It seems that when a man has an opinion, it's called an idea. When a woman has an idea that challenges the norm, it's called anger."

Some women just starting their careers also see the old gender disparities at work. According to recent graduate Keeling, "When trying to get the message across to boards of directors and city councils and that type of thing, there's definitely a male domination. Being taken seriously is always an issue. I think it's unfortunately still the truth that women have to push a little harder to be taken seriously and listened to." At the same time, Batt explains:

"We're all part of it. I don't think feminists can stand loftily apart from environmental degradation and just point fingers at others. Very few North Americans never use cars or fly in planes or consume more than we need. We will be more effective in bringing about change if we acknowledge that, as North Americans, we have benefited tremendously from the pillage of the planet, even if we reject the underlying values driving this kind of pillage. When we think about change, we need to put ourselves in the picture. We need to confront the contradiction of working for changes that will mean, for most of us, giving up privileges that we now take for granted."

Mindful of those words, I return to my apartment. As I sit down to write, Tracey Chapman sings in the background: "Mother of us all, place of our birth, we are the witness to the rape of the world… If you care, you will stand and testify."