By Bianca Pasca
Women have played a key role in activism, helping to shift the paradigm time and time again. With climate change, no single form of activism holds the answer and a multi-pronged approach seems most effective . Many female climate activists have already left their mark on the scene and have also inspired younger generations to take part.
Women have played a key role in activism, helping to shift the paradigm time and time again. With climate change, no single form of activism holds the answer and a multi-pronged approach seems most effective. Many female climate activists have already left their mark on the scene and have also inspired younger generations to take part.
The contemporary environmental movement was arguably set in motion by a woman: Rachel Carson. In her book Silent Spring, (1962) she was the first to bring to the attention of the general public, concerns about conservation and the use of toxic chemicals such as the DDT pesticide. She revealed that the pesticide could cause cancer as well as great damage to wildlife (particularly birds, such as the bald eagle) and this led to the US banning the substance as a result. Her influence didn’t stop there- the book led to the very creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, marking her as ecologist way ahead of her time, marine biologist and author.
Rachel Carson’s faced undue criticism that sought to undermine her work on the basis that she was a woman. Branded as an ‘amateur’, too ‘emotional’ in her writing and a ‘fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature’ Carson also faced a backlash from chemical companies, such as DuPont, for opposing pesticides. However, that did not stop her from sparking a movement that paved the way for the banning of DDT.
Actually, some of the shocking data about the negative effects of the pesticide on birds in particular were provided by the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the initiative of Rosalie Barrow Edge, a New-York conservationist and suffragist. She was also the founder of the Emergency Conservation Committee, in order to advocate for species preservation at a time when few conservation groups cared about the excessive hunting of species that weren’t yet considered rare.
Jane Goodall has also had a big impact on the conservation movement, herself an ethologist (the science that studies animal behavior). She is known for her prolonged and very detailed research on chimpanzees in Tanzania. Thanks to her work, we now know that chimpanzees are omnivorous, not vegetarian and that they can create and make use of tools, as well as present many more complex aspects of social behavior. In 1977, she co-founded the Jane Goodall Institute (for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation), served on the Nonhuman Rights Project since its founding in 1996 and created other initiatives such as Roots&Shoots, a youth service program. She continued to write about environmental and conservation problems into the 21st century, becoming a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002.
Professor Wangari Maathai, winner of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize (and first African woman to win a Nobel) is also a female icon in the environmental movement[c2] . She was also the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate (in Biology). Working with the National Council of Women in Kenya, she established The Green Belt Movement, an indigenous NGO that encourages local communities to actively engage in conservation and the fight against deforestation, by planting trees. But one of its other most important aims is to organize women in Kenya, helping them generate a source of income. Since its foundation, the organization has trained over 300,000 women and planted over 51 million trees. Unfortunately, it was inevitable that Maathai’s work was often deemed as subversive and uncalled for in her own country, where she also had to step over barriers raised by traditional gender roles.
In Honduras, Berta Cáceres was the victim of a system in which this ‘subversive’ behaviour had disastrous consequences: in 2016, she was murdered in her home, after criminal charges had been filed against her and she and other activists were threatened with murder and kidnap. She had co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), to fight against issues like illegal logging, while also campaigning against the building of the Agua Zarca Dam, which was planned without consulting the indigenous Lenca people. For this effort, she was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize.
While women have had a key role in the establishment of the conservation movement and the fight against the impact of the environmental crisis on indigenous people, a woman is also behind the Zero Waste movement that has gained huge momentum in the last couple of years. In 2008, Bea Johnson started leading a minimal waste lifestyle, aiming to reduce her family’s waste for an entire year to a jar. Since then, her blog and book, Zero Waste Home, offering tips for achieving this goal have inspired over 500,000 of her followers.
Women are also at the forefront of leading a new generation of activists, aware of the dangers for our planet and active in trying to tackle the climate challenges. Greta Thunberg, with the skolstrejk for climate movement is an example we can all think of. But the list goes on- for example, LEGO’s deep sea exploration building kits were inspired by oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Time Magazine’s first Hero of the Planet (1998), founder of Mission Blue and advocate for the importance of oceans.
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