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Why Women Will Save the Planet (Friends of the Earth and C40 Cities)- a review

A book review by Yasmeen Arif

Yasmeen Arif

A book review of:

Why Women Will Save the Planet (Second Edition). A Collection of Articles for Friends of the Earth and C40 Cities. 

Publisher: Zed Books, London. Published 2018.

by Yasmeen Arif

We know that global experiences of the climate crisis are desperately uneven, with the majority of the world affected by the consumption and emissions of a comparatively tiny population. A recent report has further shown that the experience of climate crisis is highly gendered: not only does climate breakdown increase violence against women and girls, but efforts to challenge the crisis are impeded by gender inequality and discrimination[1]. This book’s promise to showcase ‘the critical role of women’s empowerment and leadership in achieving environmental sustainability’ (p1) is thus very timely, although the triumphalist title raises a few questions. Will women save the planet? If so, which women, and how? Or, as a friend asked crossly when she saw the bright-green cover on my desk, ‘Why do women have to clean up after everybody else?’

Why Women Will Save the Planet doesn’t offer any single answer to any of these questions, perhaps because the perspectives of its contributors are so diverse. The book is made up of twenty-seven chapters contributed by women in politics, academia, NGOs and for-profit corporations. These chapters cover a wide range of topics including fashion, family planning, food sovereignty, community seed banks and renewable energy. The chapters are not thematically grouped, but the editor, Nicola Baird, helpfully uses the introduction to summarise ten key messages from the book that cross-cut the different contributions, including the need to find solutions that work for everyone, the importance of listening to marginalised voices, and the benefits of gender diversity at every level of leadership. Several chapters also have common themes: Susan Buckingham and Gotelind Alber’s chapters both focus on urban planning, while Zandile Gumede offers a perspective as Mayor of Durban on changes taking place in the city. Given the range of different organisations represented here, a couple of introductory lines at the beginning of each chapter would have provided valuable context for readers.

The range of professional and political backgrounds of the contributors means that very different views are presented, including the way that contributors understand one-sixth of the book title – the word ‘women’.  While Zandile Gumede asserts that ‘Women are nurturers by nature’ (p27), the economist Julie Nelson rejects ‘the close association of women with carefulness, community and connection with nature…. An essentialist view that identifies women with nature and morality has the dangerous side effect of letting men morally ‘off the hook’ for action on sustainability’ (p128). These different perspectives reflect a wider debate in feminist theory, about whether ‘womanhood’ can be seen as a universal experience, or whether the very idea of ‘woman’ itself is socially and culturally constructed. Similarly, there are a range of views presented in the book on capitalism’s relationship to gender inequality and the climate crisis. Celia Alldridge, an activist from the World March of Women, argues that anticapitalism is an intrinsic part of ecofeminism because of the way that nature and women’s bodies are both exploited by capitalism (p141-153), while L’Oreal’s Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer Alexandra Palt argues that consumption can support environmental protection and gender equality because ‘By making sustainability desirable, we are encouraging people to make healthier, more sustainable life choices’ (p43). Although the difference in perspective between contributions can feel jarring, the effort to include views from a wide range of professional and political affiliations is very worthwhile. As Baird notes in her introduction, tackling climate breakdown requires ‘joined-up thinking’ (p2) which conversation across political boundaries might enable.

The chance to have a conversation, however, is where I think this book misses a potential opportunity.  Outside of Nicola Baird’s introduction there is no intra-text commentary from any of the authors – each chapter is self-standing, presenting different case studies, arguments and solutions. Discussion between different contributors, perhaps in the form of mutual interviews or commentaries on each others’ chapters, would have enabled differences and contradictions across the different chapters – for example on the widely diverging views on capitalism’s relationship to environmentalism – to be teased out. Nathalie Holvoet and Liesbeth Inberg’s useful critique of gender and development discourse, wherein they identify a tendency to characterize women as either ‘virtuous’ or ‘vulnerable’ recipients of development (p58), is an insight that I think would have been helpful to some writers in this volume in considering their presentation of case studies. However, there are no references within the text to other chapters; instead, the book reads more like a series of monologues, with contributors presenting their arguments separately rather than engaging in dialogue.

The chance for dialogue might have also helped to address an issue of representation in this book. Most, if not all the contributors note the disproportionate effect of climate changes on women and girls in the Majority World, but by my reckoning, more than two-thirds of the twenty-seven chapters are written by women based in organisations in Europe or America, with fifteen in the United Kingdom, giving an impression that women and girls from the Majority World are objects of feminist discussion, rather than co-creators. This could have been remedied by inviting responses or collaborative discussions from those being written about. For example, given that several contributors reference Bangladesh as a country at risk of climate change-related flooding, and mention the Rana Plana factory disaster of 2013, I would have loved to hear from Bangladeshi activists or academics who are working with these challenges every day.

That said, this book contains a wealth of information that will be useful to many readers looking for an overview on the diversity of perspectives on gender and climate change. Although this book doesn’t provide a single answer to the questions I began with – will women save the planet? Whichwomen? –  it does bring a range of different views, combined with useful date and case studies, into a single volume. Perhaps readers of this book will be the ones to take the arguments forward by bringing these different perspectives into conversation.

[1] ‘Gender-based violence and environment linkages’. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2020.

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