13. Man-made disaster: How patriarchy is ruining the planet

Author’s note:

There are many ways to write a piece like this one.

Of course, none of those ways will prevent MRAs, trolls, Reply Guys and ’splainers from #notallmenning (or worse) all over our Twitter feed. But a girl can dream.

To the gender theory professors amongst you, scroll down to start reading.
To everyone else, consider these the terms of debate:

  • The flavour of patriarchy we’re using is what bell hooks calls ‘the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy’
  • Patriarchy has no gender – it’s a heteronormative social structure in which men hold power, and women are largely excluded from it
  • Masculinity is a set of qualities or attributes considered characteristic of men
  • Masculinity is not the same thing as gender (which is fake), and is not exclusively owned by cisgender men
  • Gender is a social construct that is not the same as biological sex
  • Toxic masculinity is a set of socialised, regressive male behaviours that regard traditionally ‘feminine’ traits as inferior or weak; it is neither genetic nor innate
  • Sexism is an ideology that justifies patriarchal social roles and power imbalances
  • Misogyny is the ‘law enforcement branch’ of patriarchy, policing, punishing and expressing hatred toward women

Mind the gender gap

There is a well-evidenced gender gap in climate action. Or, to put it in more familiar terms: men are disappointing.

Multiple studies have found that women outperform men – across age group and country – in virtually every type of environmental behaviour:

But why?

We’ll give you three guesses…

Ding, ding ding! You aced that test like a girl.

It’s the patriarchy (and its symptoms, like sexism and toxic masculinity).


White conservative men are most likely to be climate change skeptics

Under the patriarchy, women and girls are expected to be more selfless, other-oriented and socially responsible than men. They are socialised to value and express empathy more strongly, which ‘prepares’ them for lives as mothers, teachers, carers and other woefully underpaid roles in our society. Their altruistic impulses also mean women are more likely to make choices to help protect the planet for future generations.

At the same time, research suggests men influenced by the patriarchy and toxic masculinity may reject eco-friendly behaviour for a similar reason: because environmental altruism and selflessness make men feel less macho, and they fear that green actions will brand them as ‘feminine’.

Meat-free men

A group of vegan men are redefining masculinity as “protecting the planet, not dominating it”

Across several experiments, male participants managed to demonstrate just how sensitive they could be… about their own masculinity:

Men said they were more likely to donate to an environmental charity with a ‘masculine logo’ (“black and dark blue colours featuring a howling wolf with the name ‘Wilderness Rangers’ in a bold font”) rather than a charity called ‘Friends of Nature’ with an image of a tree and green and light tan colours in the logo. Smh.

Toxic to health

The American Psychological Association has issued new guidelines that frame masculinist ideology as bad for men’s physical and mental health

In another experiment, both male and female participants agreed that single-use plastic bags were more masculine than bringing a reusable canvas bag to the grocery store. Smdh.

The researchers in these studies conclude that, if ‘green-feminine stereotypes’ stop men from taking eco-friendly actions, then we should consider using masculine affirmation and more ‘manly’ branding of environmental products as a way to narrow the gender gap in climate action. (They actually used the words ‘men-vironmentally-friendly’ but let’s not dwell on that).

“The idea that emasculated men try to reassert their masculinity through non-environmentally-friendly choices suggests that in addition to littering, wasting water, or using too much electricity, one could harm the environment merely by making men feel feminine.”

Aaron R. Brough and James E. B. Wilkie, two lead authors on the study ‘Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption’ published in the Journal of Consumer Research

So, basically, the survival of our species is being held hostage by the fragile masculinity of gym bros? Cool. Coolcoolcoolcoolcool.

Climate change is sexist

But even though women are proven to be the real planetary champions, as climate change intensifies everywhere – leading to extreme weather, water scarcity, crop failure, food insecurity and more – it is women, predominantly poor women of colour, who will suffer its most harmful effects:


After the 2004 tsunami, a report found that surviving men outnumbered women by almost 3:1 in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India

It is women who make up 80% of people displaced by climate change.

It is women who are 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters (because warning information is often transmitted by men to other men in public spaces, while women tend to be at home, caring for children or the elderly. Women are also less likely to be able to swim).

As dry seasons extend and lakes disappear, it is women in rural developing communities who are forced to work harder, walk further and put their health at risk to feed and care for their families.

During Hurricane Katrina, most of the people trapped in New Orleans were African American women and children

And it is women who are more likely to be poor, making it more difficult for them to recover from disasters (because they are the ones most often left unemployed, overburdened with domestic responsibilities and vulnerable to forms of sexual violence and exploitation like forced marriage or prostitution).

Climate change disproportionately affects women and girls precisely because women and girls are already marginalised. In a patriarchal world, climate change simply magnifies the existing inequalities within our society.

This only compounds the outrage over continued apathy about gender inequality and climate change. And it is why the calls for ‘gender-responsive’ climate action are becoming more urgent. In the face of grave climate predictions (our oceans are on ‘fire’ and the clouds are disappearing, ffs), we must find ways to distribute more power and resources to women – not just suffering.

Seats at every table

Women are often the eco-moral leaders of their families and communities. And yet, at every level of decision-making – from major international organisations to grassroots activism – their voices, ideas and energy are underrepresented, undervalued and taken for granted:

Prof. Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement mobilised women across Kenya to plant 51 million trees

Women are a minority on every major committee of the United Nation’s own top climate change decision-making group, the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Women account for just over 20% of the authors on recent reports for the International Panel on Climate Change (the world’s leading scientific body on climate change).


When the IPCC published its first report in 1990, only 2% of its authors were women

Women account for less than 30% of most major national and global climate change negotiating bodies.

Women-led community initiatives often miss out on vital climate financing and grants because their projects aren’t considered large enough.

But, if women smallholders were given the same access to credit and tools as their male counterparts, they could grow 20-30% more food on the same amount of land – cutting two billion tons of emissions by 2050.

“Women are often not involved in the decisions made about the responses to climate change, so the money ends up going to the men rather than the women," environmental scientist Diana Liverman told the BBC's Science in Action”

Environmental scientist Diana Liverman to the BBC’s Science in Action


of the presidents and board chairs of US environmental groups are men

Women are on the frontlines of climate change. Their perspectives are vital as governments develop the laws and policies that will shape our global response to it.

The world’s top climate policymaker is Costa Rica’s Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN FCCC

We already know that countries with more women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties. And engaging a ‘critical mass’ of women is linked to more progressive and positive outcomes (and more sustainability-focused decision-making) across all sectors.

Silencing or excluding women from climate decision-making will only serve to choke off opportunities to find solutions, and will squander our last chance to avoid the (melting) iceberg ahead.

Does this planet spark joy?

This is not about pathologising masculinity or blaming individual men for their role in accelerating climate change (well, one or two probably deserve some major side eye).

It’s about recognising a complicated, connected set of facts:

  • That men are beneficiaries of a pernicious power structure (patriarchy) that has long oppressed women and sought to dominate the natural world
  • That men are also influenced by – and victims of – gendered social expectations (toxic masculinity) that lead them to make choices that harm the environment
  • And that, when compounded over hundreds of years and billions of people, these two experiences have likely contributed to the acceleration of climate change on Earth, and the disproportionate suffering of the women who live on it

What the data shows is that the chronic and cumulative effects of patriarchy isn’t only bad for the culture – it’s bad for the planet, too.

For too long, women weren’t (and still aren’t, in some cases) considered full citizens; not given permission to operate freely in economic, social or political life.

It’s fair, then, to ask the question: how can we share equal blame, and be expected to bear equal or greater responsibility, if we have not been afforded equal humanity in the first place? It is fair to consider climate destruction a form of gender violence. And it is fair to demand justice for both.

Because there is no way we will ever be able to robustly fight climate change if we have to handle men’s egos with kid gloves, trying to woo and cajole them (like the children we are expected to bear and care for) into making choices that will benefit everyone.

“I’ve come to understand that climate justice is a way out of the capitalist and paternalist way of living that’s gotten us into this climate change mess in the first place.”

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland

Maybe a better way of thinking about all of this is as an episode of the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.

By exposing the patriarchy/planet dynamic that has been lurking under the surface all along, we’re simply pulling all our clothes out of the closet and piling them into an embarrassingly excessive textile tower on the bed.

It’s the only way we are ever going to truly understand the source and scale of the crisis, and it is the only way we can begin to meaningfully solve it.

Just as the fight against patriarchy is not only women’s fight, the fight to curb climate change and save the planet cannot be one-sided either.

What we choose to do now, together, will have profound consequences for us all.

Maybe we can start by teaching kids that single-use plastic bags aren’t for girls or boys. They’re just for assholes.

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