Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Where are the women?

Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, visited Oxford last night and answered questions in a Town Hall so packed people were standing in the aisles and peering in from doorways. Miliband’s question and answer session was preceded by a short panel discussion on climate change headed by Mark Lynas, Ian Legett, Dr MA Khalid, and Oliver Tickell. The evening underlined an aspect of climate change discussion that has been troubling me for some time: it’s overwhelming dominance by men.

While living in Oxford I’ve been to talks by George Monbiot, David MacKay, George Marshall, Mark Lynas, Chris Goodall, Mark MaslinColin Tudge, Oliver Tickell and Mayer Hillman. Most of these people were promoting books. Only one public event I’ve been to in this city had a woman on the panel: the literature festival discussion with Jay Griffiths, Phillip Pullman, John Ashton and Peter Gingold. Although outnumbered Griffiths was eloquent in presenting her book, which is not exactly about climate change but brings fresh outlooks crucial to the discussion.

We do have one especially prominent female climate change campaigner in Britain, Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and MEP, but it’s clear that women are strikingly under-represented in political, scientific and technical discussion of climate change. It can’t be argued that the issue itself is not attractive to women, that we are put off by the scientific and technological debate, since audiences at events and workers in environmental organisations include women and men in fairly even numbers. At the Climate Camp women are certainly as active as men. In fiction, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Hall, Jeanette Winterson and Liz Jensen have all written climate change themed novels. Why then in discussing climate change in fiction do we usually refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an unremittingly masculine novel that isn’t about climate change? In poetry too women are engaging with ecological questions to an extent that has not been recognised. (I declare a special interest here, as I have an article coming out on this next month, ‘‘Shadows in their voices’: British women writing wild poetry’ in The Wolf).

The inequality is largely within public discussions where the climate change movement is being shaped and taken in new directions. I don’t think there is any simple reason for this: it is likely to be merely a reflection of wider power structures, the difficulties women have in getting their voices listened to seriously, and perhaps the difficulty we sometimes have in taking our own voices seriously. But it does matter. It is recognised that climate change will affect women disproportionately. Climate change activists often express dissatisfaction with the unfair way in which the few dominate resources in today’s global society and with the intractable way power stays with the powerful. We repeat these patterns in our own structures. Several of the men I named above I admire, and I deeply respect what all are doing, but even they must get a little weary of treading and re-treading the same circuit. We need to pay attention to where women are speaking, celebrate them and welcome more variety in our discussion of climate change.

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