This summer, I wrote an article for a small newspaper about natural gas extraction and production in Chautauqua County, N.Y., interviewing at least half a dozen people from local industries, governments and activist organizations. Natural gas is an influential yet contentious industry in this rural, economically depressed area. Though high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has been banned in New York state, there are plenty of individuals trying to frack around that ban or overturn it completely.
While writing the article, I was so busy researching, interviewing and putting together quotes and concepts that I didn’t put time into reflecting on the actual people with whom I spoke. Looking back on it, I realize now that all of the climate change activists and anti-fractivists I talked to for this article were women. The representatives from local industry and government, on the other hand, were all men. While natural gas may have brought revenue into the county, most of that money was concentrated in the hands of a few men in the industry who weren’t even from the area.
While my sample size was small, I think these details are telling. What does it mean when the politicians running a local community are men, when local business owners are men and the activists fighting for environmental justice, silenced in town hall meetings and pushed out of the decision-making process, are women?
What does it mean when worldwide, women are disproportionately hurt by climate change and other environmental issues, particularly women of color in the developing world, yet they often aren’t represented in their governments? What does it mean when environmental degradation is justified in the name of “economic growth” and “job creation” but the vast majority of those jobs aren’t helping the women in the communities in which extraction takes place, and sometimes don’t even serve the men in those communities either?
We’ve created an economic system that exploits the earth in the same way that it exploits certain people. When more Americans started to embrace environmentalism in the 1960s, this connection was not made explicit, at least not among mainstream environmentalists. But today, with climate change killing more people worldwide than terrorists, and with most of these victims already burdened by other economic and social injustices, no environmentalist can ignore these deep connections any longer.
The fights for gender equality (and against racism and colonialism) are intrinsically linked to the fight for climate justice. The economic systems in place today — capitalism, neoliberal and neocolonial attitudes about development and trade — have given rise to great injustices to people and to the planet. The concept of environmental justice often focuses on who is hurt most by environmental degradation, but a sometimes-forgotten element is who benefits most from environmental degradation. The answer is almost always the white, male, Western ruling class.
There was never a more misleading concept than the so-called trade-off between environmental protection and “job creation.” When only some people get the jobs, and only some deal with the environmental destruction, the questions we should ask are “jobs for which people?” and “environmental destruction for which people?”