books equality

Book review: How women can save the planet, by Anne Karpf

“Women are affected by the climate crisis in powerfully distinct ways” writes Anne Karpf in the introduction to her book, How Women can Save the Planet. “If you don’t recognise the role that gender plays in causing the climate emergency, especially when it intersects with race, you stray from solutions that work and risk getting enticed by those that don’t.”

The book explores this inequality through a variety of angles, starting with how and why women are more affected by natural disasters. There is plenty of evidence of this, with women and children 14 times more likley to die from floods or droughts. This isn’t because floods and droughts target women somehow or that women are biologically more vulnerable. It’s cultural. If a woman in Bangladesh hasn’t been included in disaster preparation discussions, hasn’t been taught to swim the way her brothers were, and has been left to carry a baby to safety, a flash flood presents a significantly greater risk.

Climate change affects women indirectly in all sorts of ways too. Rates of violence against women go up after natural disasters, for example. The pressures of a changing climate ratchet up all the existing inequalities.

The book goes on to look at the causes of climate change and the link between masculinity and fossil fuels – petro-masculinity, as it has sometimes been called. White men are very much over-represented in the boardrooms of the energy corporations that are destroying the world. Women have often been under-represented when discussing the solutions to climate change too, epitomised by the all male COP26 leadership team announced by the UK government in 2020.

This has consequences, Karpf argues. Among them are the tendency for climate discussions to focus on science and technical questions. If more people from the margins were included, the social and the justice aspects of climate would get more attention, and that would deliver more effective solutions – and ones with more benefits. This is not just a theory. Evidence suggests that some of the places with the most progressive attitudes to climate change also have more inclusive decision making, with a growing list of women mayors and heads of state demonstrating the difference.

Before any male readers go huffing to the comments section, Karpf is clear that this is not “a story about bad men and good women, as though one gender has more selfish genes than the other.” Again, this is about culture and social norms, and which perspectives are backed up with power and which ones remain on the margins.

One thing that I liked about the book is that it interrogates efforts to make a difference as well as the unequal status quo. Nike’s corporate ‘girl effect’ campaign for example, or the failure to include any reference to gender in the Green New Deal. Buzzwords such as empowerment or degrowth are discussed and critiqued. And despite the title, the book has no time for sentimental ‘earth mother’ narratives that suggest women are naturally more attuned to the environment. That just makes women responsible for tidying up after the men – again.

Another thing that I appreciated was that although the book is about women and climate, it also comments at length on other forms of exclusion, including race. There are actually a lot of references in common with my own work on climate and race, and both books make a similar point: that climate change is not happening in a neutral world. It is unfolding in an unequal world, and it compounds and entrenches existing divides. The climate solutions that deserve our support are those that address those injustices at the same time as lowering carbon emissions.


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