The language around the climate crisis, the journalist Anne Karpf writes in How Women Can Save the Planet, can conceal as much as it reveals. Take “natural disaster”. There is nothing “natural” about the disasters that have struck our planet owing to global heating. They are not freak accidents, Karpf says, but rather the culmination of long-term environmental degradation caused by human activity. Then again, consider “human activity”. The slipperiness of language emerges once more. When speaking about the crisis, campaigners in the west commonly invoke a universal “we”, setting up an abstract notion of “humanity” harming a vulnerable planet. David Attenborough famously warned last year: “We’ve not just ruined the planet, we’ve destroyed it.”
But what happens if we dig further to discover the fissures within this “we”? To acknowledge, for example, that the world’s richer nation states are responsible for 86% of global CO2 emissions (compared to 14% for the poorer half) or that the average Briton emits more carbon in two weeks than a citizen of Uganda, Malawi, or Somalia does in a year. Besides, consider any number of leading governmental organisations addressing the climate emergency – those representatives of the supposedly undivided “we” – and the illusion of universalism dissipates fast. The UK’s initial senior delegation for the Cop26 UN climate change conference was composed entirely of men.
Karpf, a sociologist and professor of writing at London Metropolitan University, is principally concerned with how this “we” breaks down when we consider gender. It is women – especially women in the global south – who are suffering most from the crisis, she argues. And it is those very same women who have done the least to cause it. Karpf tells the story of “water pilgrims” across Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique who collect the daily drinking and washing resources for their families. The chore previously took two to five hours – now it often takes up to 12 as water sources have dried up. “Some days I’m too weak to go so we either borrow from our neighbours, or wait until I’m strong enough,” Margaret Atiir, a 40-year-old from Kapua, Kenya, says.
Sometimes the damage the climate emergency does to women can be indirect. The Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, which manufactured clothes for Primark, Matalan and Mango, made global headlines in 2013 when the eight-storey structure collapsed. More than 1,000 people died and 2,500 were injured. Less known is how many of the women who worked there came from Barisal, a Bangladeshi city on the edge of the river threatened by rising sea levels and flooding (“Your Clothes Were Made by a Bangladeshi Climate Refugee”, warned one headline in 2013). And it is not just those on the move who are in danger. Many of the fatalities in the 2003 European heatwave involved older women who lived alone in old apartment blocks, in small, unventilated top-floor rooms that had previously been maids’ quarters. “There’s a tragic symmetry to the fact that these inadequate dwellings, built in a previous era for young women whose needs didn’t matter, have become the graves of old women who were also invisible,” Karpf concludes.
Writing from London on the vulnerability of women in the global south, one could risk paternalistic condescension. Karpf quotes the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay “How to Write about Africa”, which stipulates: “You must always include the Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West.” What distinguishes Karpf’s account from, say, the increasingly criticised charity campaigns that promote such images, is that she positions the west – or the “Global North” – alongside the Global South, observing how social and political developments in one place have an effect on those in the other. (To do otherwise, Karpf writes, is to position the north as a benevolent external overseer, never having a hand in the issues that it is purportedly so dedicated to solving.)
And often, the north’s relationship with the south is found to be one in which brute power trumps conscience. Karpf is critical of measures such as carbon trading – which allows nations and companies to “buy” a right to higher emissions from those below the emissions limit – and observes that, despite the increasing reality of climate migration (itself disproportionately caused by activity in the north), many countries in the north are more interested in taking back control of their borders than dealing with the reasons for it. She draws attention to those calling for global climate reparations, who ask richer nations to recognise and redress their role in the climate crisis. Currently, the opposite is true: an Oxfam report last year found that poorer countries, seeking to protect themselves from climate breakdown, are being driven into debt from taking out high-interest loans from lenders in richer ones.
Karpf writes with a strong and invigorating moral purpose – and also warmth. She is not interested in exploring what women can and should do about the climate crisis, but rather seeks to draw attention to how the politics of gender is intermingled with it. She translates academic ideas in an engaging manner, such as the “feminisation of responsibility” identified by development studies scholars – in which the responsibility for wide-ranging social problems that need large-scale solutions are instead “privatised” on to the household, and often on to women (just shop green!). Other engaging theories include Cara Daggett’s “petro-masculinity” and Carol J Adams’s sexual politics of meat – in which traditional markers of masculinity (fossil fuels and eating meat) are actively harming social attempts to transition to greener ways of life. Karpf’s analysis is weaker when she attempts to give the mere presence of women a political orientation. A discussion on the “manmade” roots of the climate crisis points out that most fossil fuel executives have historically been men – though it leaves open the question of whether, and how, installing women in the same positions would precipitate revolutionary change.
There are some who may see this parsing of class, gender, race and nationality as a distraction from a much bigger threat; that we cannot waste time quibbling among ourselves as the world burns. But the world is currently experiencing another disaster that purported to unite humanity against a common challenge. Covid-19, initially deemed “the great leveller”, has instead deepened existing fault lines within towns, countries and around the world. And it was this very blindness to how the virus would affect different communities that worsened its impact on them. Seen in this way, the “all in this together” rhetoric is not just naive, but harmful. Though Covid-19 has also shown how entrenched norms, such as the government aversion to public spending, can dissipate within a matter of days.
In the stirring final chapter, Karpf writes that addressing the climate crisis is not just a matter of buying green, or getting emissions down, but also touches on the fundamental question of how we want to live together – a project, Karpf writes, that is intimately tied to decades of feminist activism. She calls for a way of life that is slower and much more attuned to our families, friends and communities than our cubicles; a life that respects and works alongside nature, rather than dominates it. We may be a long way from our governments endorsing this new paradigm. But then again – Karpf’s warning about calling things “natural disasters” aside – language does not always obfuscate. Sometimes, her book shows, it can also inspire.
How Women Can Save the Planet is published by Hurst (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.