The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

Patriarchy and Climate Change

Gender Equality OverallMartha BurwellComment

By guest author Alec Connon

The narrative that has led us to modern day climate change can be said to have begun in the early 1600s, where it can be found in the opinions of men such as Francis Bacon and the world’s first scientific organization, the Royal Society. It was here that the world was told, for the first time, a new story: Nature is not something to be revered and feared as it has been for all of human history; rather it is something that can be controlled, manipulated, dominated. Nature is but a machine and it can be made to bend to our will, we were told by these confident men. We are the masters, they insisted.

James Watt Statue   by  DncnH  is  licensed under   CC BY 2.0.

James Watt Statue by DncnH is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For the century that followed, however, this remained but an idea. Ships still required wind to sail, factories still needed rivers to run. But some 100 years later, James Watt found this idea its perfect expression. It was the marriage of a revolutionary idea to a revolutionary technology: the steam engine. And from there the world, and our role in it, was forever changed.

After a history of remaining beholden to the whims of nature, for the first time, we were free; liberated from the Earth that created us. By piercing the Earth with our industrious power we could extract from it all that we needed. We could sail without wind, we could build our factories wherever we pleased. Soon we even learned to fly.

This new-found power only served to bloat our already deeply ingrained traits of patriarchy and imperialism: arrogance, selfishness, dominance, egoism.

First we, men, told ourselves that we could dominate women. Then we created a similar story to try and justify the subjugation of entire nations. Before, finally, we told ourselves that we could conquer and dominate nothing less than nature itself.

And for a couple of centuries that is what we did. Whole forests fell in days, entire mountains were dispensed with, the deepest oceans were breached. We had become Gods.

But just as the hubris of patriarchy and imperialism led us to the deep into the bowels of a truly dark and dangerous place, so too has the ideology of dominance over nature failed us and brought us disaster. Islands have already been swallowed, countless species have already vanished, hundreds of thousands have already died. By any humane definition of the word, catastrophic climate change is already here. And yet every year, more records are broken. Ever year, the floods, the droughts, the heatwaves, the storms get worse.

And just as women and girls have always faced the brunt of patriarchy, so too it is women and girls who disproportionately feel the full and brutal force of global warming:


“Climate change increases challenges to women’s and children’s health. There is more likelihood of women and children suffering and dying from problems such as diarrhea, undernutrition, malaria, and from the harmful effects of extreme weather events, including floods and drought. While women and children have made comparatively small contributions to historical carbon emissions they bear the brunt of the health effects of climate change, both now and in the future.”

These words come from an authoritative report that was published by a coalition of groups including the United Nations Foundation, the World Health Organization and Save the Children.

The London School of Economics found that women die in consistently higher numbers than men both during and after natural disasters. The 1991 Bangladesh cyclone and flood killed almost five times as many women as men; but across the world regardless of whether the event hits in the world’s poorest corners or in the richest nation in the history of the world, casualties are disproportionately women.

And it isn’t solely in the shortening of their lives that climate change will have an unequal effect on women and girls. According to U.N. studies when food is scarce, as it will be as crops increasingly fall to drought or flash floods, it is women and girls who go hungry first.

In most of the developing world, the job of gathering water is women’s work. The trek often robs them of the chance to earn money, learn skills or engage with their communities. For these girls, as the reality of their climate growing drier hits, education will remain nothing but a distant dream as their water gathering duties become ever more arduous and take ever longer.

Arrogance, selfishness, dominance, egoism.

These are the central human traits that have driven patriarchy. They are the central traits that have driven imperialism. And they are the central traits that have driven human-caused climate change.

But what does this realization mean to us today? What should it mean to today’s feminists and climate activists?

Well, one thing it should mean, I believe, is that to be a feminist in today’s world means being a climate activist; it means acting to prevent the climate change that will so disproportionately affect women and girls.

But it also means that to be a true and effective climate activist one must confront the underlying causes of anthropogenic climate change. And that means confronting, head-on, the narrative that has dominated our world for centuries. It means confronting the selfishness, the arrogance, the dominance, the egoism; the key drivers of the narratives that have enabled empire, slavery, endless war and human-caused climate change.

Or to put that another way, being a climate activist means facing down the traits that have come to define patriarchy. And that, of course, means nothing less than being a feminist.

Alec’s first novel, The Activist, is due to be released in summer 2016 by Ringwood Publishing. Alec is also a founder and organizer of Gates Divest, a Seattle organization that is calling on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels.