Patriarchy — the hierarchical social system of power relations in which men dominate over women that has defined human interactions in many societies for thousands of years — is contributing to the destruction of our environment.
It’s a blindingly obvious insight, I know, and the fact that I’m a man doesn’t excuse the fact that it took me many years to realize it as such. But living in a privileged position frequently makes it more difficult to see the unpleasant truths which form the foundations of that privilege.
Now when I say that patriarchy is, at least in part, to blame for our civilization’s ecological woes, I’m not even talking about the fact that it’s mostly men, in their predominant position as owners, bosses and prime movers of industry, who are erasing our planet’s forests, consuming its non-renewable resources and polluting its soils, waters and atmosphere. No, I have in mind a deeper, more intimate connection between human gender relations and the natural environment. Let me try to explain by looking at some concrete examples.
The world’s burgeoning human population, which continues to grow by nearly 80 million people each year and is projected to reach 9 to 10 billion by 2045, places huge and increasingly destructive stresses on the environment. By definition, patriarchal societies like ours undermine the ability of many women to control their reproductive capacity and fertility. According to Yvette Abrahams of the South African Commission for Gender Equality, “women […] cannot choose to have children because they want to. They have children because they have to, […] providing men with heirs and capitalism with labour.” While this observation is particularly true for developing countries like South Africa, where I live, it applies with varying degrees of severity everywhere else as well. When women have control over their own bodies and lives and when they have more choices, says Abrahams, “they tend to chose to have fewer but healthier children.”
Women and girls also frequently get short-changed when it comes to education. The majority of children around the world who are not in school are female. They are traditionally expected to make substantial contributions to their families from an early age, working to raise extra money, grow food, collect water and firewood and care for younger, frail or elderly relatives, and are less likely to be sent to school than boys. Early motherhood and marriage also tend to keep many young women from attaining basic or further education.
But one of the most effective ways of reducing high poverty and fertility rates – two major causes of large family sizes and population growth – is to provide adequate education for boys and girls. Research has shown that women who are empowered by education tend to have fewer children.
Perhaps the most brutal calculus in the gender-nature connection involves the relationship between physical gender-based violence and ecological degradation as a result of population growth. Put bluntly: what is the ecological footprint of rape?
In South Africa, a country with shockingly high rape statistics, Abrahams estimates that “something like 24-30% of children born are conceived through gender based violence, and that a majority of children born are not planned or responsibly chosen.”
I’m sure many of you can think of several other ways in which patriarchal gender relations have a direct and detrimental impact on the environment. It seems obvious to me that in today’s world, fighting against patriarchy and for equality and justice between men and women is a way of working towards a greener and more sustainable society. Or do you think this is all just simplistic hogwash?
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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