Writing by Julia Carreiro Pereira Rolim. Illustration by Berenika Murray (@photograberry_)
'Simple tips to live a more sustainable lifestyle', '30 ways to become more environmentally friendly', 'The Ultimate 20 Step Guide to Eco-friendly Living'. These are all real article titles taken from a quick google search on 'sustainability'. Countless articles, think-pieces, and news segments have been written with the same uncomplicated prescription(s) for solving the climate crisis. When we engage in sustainability rhetoric, it seems that it invariably means telling people how to live their lives in ways that won't fundamentally disrupt them.
Stop eating meat on Mondays, recycle, cycle to work, buy organic produce. Such individual-level fixes are the only thing we can tolerate on a mass scale, possibly because the systemic change needed to address the climate crisis is daunting in its complexity. It is not a 'simple' fix. A recent study by Klas et al. found that people perceive environmentalists more negatively if they engage in direct action. People who do not consider themselves 'environmentalists' prefer the odd vegan who recycles to someone who participates in environmental groups and direct action. This trend says something about how we as a society choose to platform and praise individual over collective action. If only we all recycled, ate a plant-based diet, and cycled to work, there would be no such thing as climate change, right?
Consistent with the belief that individual environmentalism will solve the climate crisis is the corresponding ideology that technological innovation will mitigate the environmental ills associated with our modern lifestyles. For example, the UK's proclamation that net-zero will be achieved with the spread of electric vehicles and a pretty classist ban on petrol vehicles by 2035. Unfortunately, mass ownership of Tesla vehicles is not as feasible as the government seems to think, given that hybrid and electric vehicles remain three times more expensive than petrol cars, even with government subsidies.
Most environmental activists, especially grassroots movements at the forefront of climate change, have historically eschewed this western focus on individual action and technological innovation as panaceas to climate change. I am not implying that activists do not support technological advances, say in renewable energy technology, or living a more environmentally conscious lifestyle - but if these things are done in isolation within a capitalist system, they won't be effective. Instead, calls for systemic transformation of our social, political and economic systems have long been central to climate action. Logics of consumption and extraction at the core of Western capitalism are incompatible with a climate just future. It is within this outlook that the work of Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson is situated.
In their most recent book, 'All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis' they coin the term 'Feminist Climate Rennaisance' as a practical framework for countering the individualistic tendencies of some environmentalists rhetoric and government policies. Core tenants of this approach include: divesting power from individual decision-makers to more communal forms of governance and allowing for emotion in decision-making and technical spaces.
There is a tendency to see science and objective facts as the be-all and end-all in climate policy circles. Anything outside the realm of technical expertise is depreciated. Emotive appeals on the effects of climate change are positioned in stark contrast to rational and evidence-based policy approaches. Evidently, climate science is central to addressing climate change, and evidence-based policymaking is in no way inherently 'wrong'. However, an inclusive climate solution depends on listening to and integrating the lived experience of people at the frontlines of climate change. Governments, institutions and experts must understand the devastating effects climate change has had and is currently having on island nations, indigenous populations, and the global south.
FCR's appeals to traditionally 'feminine' forms of leadership are crucial to platforming lived experience by confronting the aversion to emotion in technical spaces. By feminine leadership, Johnson and Wilkinson refer not to attributes intrinsically present in 'women' but qualities coded as feminine, which are devalued in political and technical realms. Empathy, tolerance, long-term thinking, and non-hierarchical structures are examples of such feminine traits that ultimately create an environment of cooperation over competition and allow many experiences and actors to be equally respected. In valuing such feminine leadership, FCR calls for a radical expansion of the technical realm, putting more faith in ourselves and our peers as capable of making decisions and offering solutions to climate change.
From their description of feminine leadership, it is clear that FCR should not be understood as the simplistic idea that women should be in charge. It is nothing like what we have come to know as the 'add women and mix' approach favoured girlboss feminism, in which women become the re-branded face of a deeply oppressive system. Johnson and Wilkinson explicitly caveat the calls for 'feminine' climate leadership as not being tied to one gender but instead as a radical collaborative form of thinking and decision-making that we should all aspire to.