Welfare and Social Issues

Quality of Life Before Sustainability: Questioning Contemporary Green Discourse

A Green New Deal is good, but an ecofeminist one is even better. University of Manchester environmental politics expert Sherilyn MacGregor has explored the writings, theories, and critiques of ecofeminism to develop the concept of ecological citizenship on how citizens are key to social and ecological transformation. She spoke to Tine Hens about what we can learn from justice-centred ecofeminist theories and why climate action must look beyond technological innovation to embrace quality of life for all.

Tine Hens: So tell me, what is ecofeminism?

Sherilyn MacGregor: Ecofeminism is often deliberately mis­interpreted as concern for the planet that almost essentially belongs to women, as if they were pre-programmed simply because they have children and can be mothers. These are precooked, unscientific assumptions. In the course of its own history, ecofeminism has evolved into a critical, political movement that not only focuses on women’s rights, but also connects different forms of oppression.

Ecofeminism was born in the 1970s out of a feminist critique of the environmental movement and an ecological critique of the feminist movement. The analysis is fundamentally simple: the oppression of people and the subjugation of nature start from the same logic that we find in colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal thinking. In this sense, you cannot tackle one injustice if you are silent about the others. As a feminist, you can’t simply argue for higher wages for women if you remain blind to planetary boundaries and the fable of eternal growth. In the same way, it’s pretty perverse for an ecologist to work towards alternative ways of living and consuming without pointing out gender role patterns or the over-representation of male standard-bearers.

In this sense, ecofeminism is essentially intersectional in that it links different forms of exclusion and injustice – from racism to environmental pollution – and challenges privilege and the existing order. It is therefore not surprising that the existing order reacts to it in a poisonous and dismissive manner. Or that they deride ecofeminism as a product of oversensitive, panicky women. Or that they attack women as such. And yes, they even react by casting suspicion on climate science.

In the US, a Feminist Green New Deal has been put forward by a coalition of women’s rights and climate justice organisations.1 Is a Green New Deal not transformative enough?

This Feminist Green New Deal was launched in October 2019 and at first glimpse it makes certain points that aren’t put forward enough in mainstream green politics. Reproductive rights, for example, especially in the face of climate change.

The best-known environmentalists like Jane Goodall and David Attenborough are neo-Malthusian: “Stop population growth to stop climate change.” That cannot be allowed to carry on without criticism. We have to call it what it is: a form of racism and neocolonialism. Feminists in particular should speak up about this issue, because it will be an attack on women’s bodies.

The oppression of people and the subjugation of nature start from the same logic that we find in colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchal thinking.

Another principle in the Feminist Green New Deal is a different approach to work and labour. We have to understand work as being much more diverse. It’s not just about paid jobs – all caring work has to be seen as an integral part of a green jobs agenda. We can’t rebuild or transition to a new kind of economy if people just keep on making things. We need to employ people and pay them well in caring jobs: educators, nurses, community workers, home helpers.

So these are all good and necessary points of this Feminist Green New Deal. At the same time, it’s still very human-centred and mentions nothing about moving to ways of respecting and giving agency to the more than human. If it was an ecofeminist Green New Deal, that would be in there – the idea that humankind is just one species among others on this wonderful planet.

How can you move these more profound understandings of the climate crisis from the side rooms to the centre stage of the debate? How do you start redefining work when the focus is on the deployment of big, green infrastructure through a “world war-like mobilisation”?

The dominant perspective within green economics is that of green growth, a kind of ecomodernist idea that is all about investing in the right technology and triggering fantastic innovation. The strategy is not to say that’s wrong, but to show that it’s not going to bring the masses along. We’re all worried about right-wing populism, and how this has an attraction for people who are feeling left out, not listened to, and neglected.

You can’t answer rising populism with more elite solutions. Technofixes are exactly that. They’re not going to create jobs for the masses and put money in everyone’s pockets. So how can you turn your green agenda into a popular agenda? Every Green New Deal must appeal to the working class, the cleaners, the hotel workers, the restaurant cooks. What’s in it for them? Why is it good for them? If we change the economy, it has to change in a way that improves quality of life for all. In terms of money, economic justice, healthier air, cleaner neighbourhoods, better food, and time. It’s about these intersections of low-carbon and high-welfare policies.

Ecofeminism criticises the traditional environmental movement. Is it too privileged, too white, and blind to its own exclusion mechanisms?

Two examples from the past year. For every Greta there exists a young person of colour. Yet Greta draws all the attention. That’s not her fault, but it’s important for the media to make sure diverse voices can be heard. Second: Extinction Rebellion (XR). Their strategy is civil disobedience and getting arrested. However legitimate that may be, it ignores the simple reality that someone with a dark complexion would rather not end up in a cell. There are plenty of reports about police violence and racism. You can’t sweep that under the carpet because the end would justify the means.

Right now, like the rest of the environmental movement, XR is pretty white. The debate about the importance of representation, diversity, and inherent justice is starting to unfold. Inequality and climate policy are two sides of the same coin. Not everyone likes it, but it is a necessary debate. You cannot talk about climate policy and remain silent about structural injustice or other forms of exclusion. And it is not only about injustice at a global level, but also in our own backyards. In my research, I have experienced how and why green themes are regarded as elitist when they do not have to be. But this is the result if you talk more about electric cars than about the importance of public transport.

You did research in different neighbourhoods in the UK city of Manchester where you found out that people weren’t interested in the green agenda. How do you make this agenda popular?

Stop talking about sustainability and start talking about and investing in quality of life. Under the conditions of austerity in the UK, this is crucial. Working-class people are harmed by all the cuts in social welfare and are concerned about their daily comfort. You can’t go to them and speak about buying less or changing behaviour. Some people simply need to consume more because their basic needs aren’t fulfilled. That’s why justice is the right word, rather than equality. The minute you start to talk about justice, about a fair distribution of means, it resonates with people.

The most recent research I did in Manchester was in a community called Moss Side, which is well known as a very deprived and diverse area. We reached out to the inhabitants on subjects like quality of environment and quality of everyday life, and one of their biggest concerns was rubbish on the streets. We also worked with migrant residents from Somalia, who are treated by policymakers as hard to reach – a community they don’t understand. We discovered that there’s a great need for the non-Western engagement of immigrants with nature and the environment to be acknowledged. They see the world through Islamic principles about not wasting and caring for the natural world. Being open to that brings hope for a more inclusive understanding of sustainability. We have to stop making it seem like environmentalism is a white, middle-class concern. It’s time to start decolonising environmentalism and climate change policies. The more we question the narrow frame of Western environmentalism, the more will change.

I would rather have democracy in a poor environment than repression in a perfect environment. We don’t need less democracy, we need much, much more.

It doesn’t help that a lot of the communication about climate change is quite abstract about “reducing emissions”, “parts per million”, or “going climate neutral”. As if this existential crisis is the excel sheet of the accountant of the planet.

The science is clear. There is no longer any discussion about that. So what do we do? That question turns it into more interesting discussions in which more people can participate. What does a post-carbon, fair and just society look like? We need to translate the knowledge and the science into a palpable imaginary. How do we employ people? What kind of society do we want to live in? What are its basic principles? That’s where caring for people and the planet becomes a more accessible vision than solar panels, energy-efficient housing, and precision agriculture. In Moss Side, people live in houses so outworn you cannot even begin to make them carbon neutral. So where do you start? By leaping over the scientific jargon and putting quality of life at the centre.

Elections prove over and over again that people are willing to vote against their own interests. Some voices in the environmental community even hint at the straightforward choices a non-democratic government can make. It seems like we’re not only living a climate crisis, but also a democratic crisis.

I would rather have democracy in a poor environment than repression in a perfect environment. We don’t need less democracy, we need much, much more. All over the world, and certainly in the UK, party politics is becoming extremely polarised and toxic. There’s a loss of vision, and hatred is being nurtured by strategy and negative campaigning. It’s a sad and troubling evolution. But maybe it is also is a chance for alternatives to blossom.

There have been some interesting and successful experiments with citizens’ assemblies in Ireland and in British Columbia over a carbon tax. In the UK, smaller and more specific citizens’ juries led to the banning of GMOs.

Finding common ground, speaking, and listening are so desperately needed. I can imagine citizens’ assemblies starting to take shape in cities, or even on a community level. Cities are way ahead of national governments on climate – they’re the right size for doing this. But they also struggle to reach out to the non-converted. The mayor of Manchester tries every year to organise a green summit. It’s really nice to go there, but you look around and only see white faces. “We don’t know how to reach out,” is an often-heard complaint – to which I say, “Get out there and instigate kitchen table discussions around a few common questions. Record people’s ideas. Decentralise and remove thresholds.” Decentralising is a very ecofeminist point of view. Not just the process of decision-making, but also the dominant knowledge.

Some would argue we don’t have time for the slow process of citizens’ assemblies. They argue we need big solutions that we can upscale at an unprecedented tempo.

I don’t deny that climate is an emergency but sometimes this has been used to force a certain direction, which is why this “climate emergency” language worries me. It may be rhetorically useful, but there’s a negative side. What happens in emergencies? You’re allowed to take exceptional measures. This could mean taking people’s rights away, which is something we can never allow to happen.

In response to the “we need to upscale” argument, I like to point out that we have to value every kind of meaningful action. It’s a very masculine thing to focus on big solutions, on a politics of resisting and fighting. This must be called out because it’s a way to plant doubts in the minds of those who are willing to act. It’s saying that caring for your community garden has no value.

Let me give you an example from my neighbourhood, where there is a lot of poverty, alienation, and social isolation. People have decided to come together and start cleaning up forgotten green spaces and alleys, to plant flowers and to create nice places for children to play and elderly people to sit. It’s no big deal, you could say, it’s just about people coming together, caring together, and keeping those plants alive. But what you really make happen is restored contact and connection. It starts with someone from Malaysia talking to an elderly Jamaican woman and realising they have so much in common. There is such hope in that.

Footnotes

1. See the Feminist New Deal.

This interview is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.

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Quality of Life Before Sustainability: Questioning Contemporary Green Discourse

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