Gendering the Anthropocene

Last October, Oxford economist Kate Raworth wrote an op-ed criticizing the Anthropocene Working Group, an international team of scientists charged with determining whether the Earth has, in fact, entered a new geologic epoch. Raworth wrote that, whatever their intellectual merits, “[leading scientists] still seem oblivious tothe fact that their own intellectual deliberations are bizarrely dominated by white northern male voices.”

Here I would like to consider what Raworth’s central question—“Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?”—means beyond the realm of academic deliberation. How does our perspective on the Anthropocene change when we take gender into account?

The first step toward addressing this question is to signal what’s at stake: why is it important to make gender an explicit part of our conversations about the Anthropocene? Raworth offers one answer: we need to ensure that discussions of global ecological change include diverse voices not just for reasons of social equity, but for the sake of institutional efficacy.

But that’s only part of it.  Let’s go back to the “why gender” question and replace the word “gender” with the word “power” or “difference.” Gender is not synonymous with either power or difference, but it is a crucial dimension of both social identity and stratification.  The stakes of this question should, then, be self-evident to anyone who writes for or follows this blog.  Our conversations about habitability are inevitably about power and difference and thus also inevitably about gender.  That gender often remains unarticulated in discussions of the Anthropocene is a problem that I encourage each of us to address in our own way.

Further, and less obviously, gendering the Anthropocene is important because it requires that we engage with Feminism, which will in turn help guard against the risks of Anthropocenic cosmopolitanism that I identified in my first post.

That is, Feminist approaches remind us that treating the “anthropos” of the Anthropocene as an undifferentiated species will reproduce the privilege of conventionally unmarked social actors (i.e., white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men in the global North). Our epochal moment means different things ontologically and experientially to different people, and this variation is deeply inflected by social, geopolitical, and cultural differences. Difference matters, even (and perhaps especially) in a time when global accountability and cooperation seem increasingly necessary.

If this perspective seems anthropocentric, let’s recall that Feminists have for decades been at the forefront of challenging the nature/society binary and foregrounding multispecies entanglements.  Feminist scholars use the term intersectionality to describe how structural inequalities emerge through intersections of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, nationality, and, yes, even species. Any hope for distributional, representational, or ecological justice in the Anthropocene depends on recognizing how these intersecting structural inequalities reinforce the same political-economic system that has brought on planetary ecological crisis. Challenging the exclusion of particular humans from equal standing in global society thus goes hand in hand with challenging a system that imperils all earthly beings.  In more concrete terms, this means that Feminist perspectives are crucial not just for the sake of gender equity, but also for the equity and efficacy of climate-change adaptation, urban sustainability, environmental policy-making, biodiversity conservation, and many other Anthropocenic challenges.

What habitability means in the Anthropocene is a question fraught with many others. For whom do we hope the planet will be habitable? Whose voices define habitability? Which earthly beings have a right to habitability? And so on. We cannot convincingly or justly answer such questions—and thus we cannot convincingly or justly address habitability—without a gendered perspective on the world we inhabit and the challenges we face.

For those interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend the following starting points:
– J.K. Gibson-Graham’s essay in Gender, Place & Culture on “A feminist project of belonging for the Anthropocene.”
– Donna Haraway’s corpus of work, particularly her book When Species Meet (2007, U Minnesota) and her essay in the new issue of Environmental Humanities.
– A new volume on Practising Feminist Political Ecologies, edited by Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid Nelson (2015, Zed Books).

One thought on “Gendering the Anthropocene

  1. Pingback: History Carnival: Facets of Environmental History | Historical DeWitticisms

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