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Closing the Eco Gender Gap

The fight against global warming is seen by some men as women’s work. Countering this sexist narrative, and thus engaging more people in climate activism, requires moving beyond our received understanding of rationality and embracing an interdisciplinary approach to ways of knowing.

LONDON – A recent Twitter spat between influencer Andrew Tate and climate activist Greta Thunberg epitomized the eco gender gap. Tweeting at the activist, Tate – the epitome of a man who views saving the planet as a threat to his masculinity – boasted about the “enormous emissions” of his luxury car collection, to which Thunberg replied with a takedown that currently ranks as the fourth most liked tweet ever. As columnist Rebecca Solnit writes, “There’s a direct association between machismo and the refusal to recognize and respond appropriately to the climate catastrophe.”

While some may laugh off an online dispute between two high-profile individuals, the differences between how women and men respond to global warming are well documented. Recent studies have shown that only 59% of men in the United Kingdom are committed to a green lifestyle, compared to 71% of women, and that men are less likely than women to recycle and consume environmentally friendly products. This gap has been attributed to some men’s perception of environmental justice as a feminine pursuit.

With air pollution from fossil fuels killing millions of people each year (many of whom live in the Global South), we have a clear ethical obligation to combat climate change. And since sexism evidently harms the capacity to act rationally in this regard, we need to clarify and transform the perceived relationship between climate change, gender stereotypes, and rationality.

Like all gender gaps, this one is the result of deceptive and biased thinking – the opposite of rationality. It is this, not emotion, that undermines reason. Emotions make us human, not irrational. Bias, whatever its cause, is what makes us incapable of objectivity, and it underlies the entrenched gender stereotype that women are emotional while men are rational. This stereotype is a well-known cause of gender inequality. But a point that is seldom addressed is how the stereotype relies on an idea of rationality that is limited in the first place.

Rationality is not simply “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals,” as the cognitive and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Nor is it merely a philosophical concept to submit to logical and metaphysical examinations. Rationality has also become an overarching moral framework with deep sociopolitical implications. Our understanding of rationality can influence political strategy, shape policy design, and inform our relationship with the natural world. We can’t change these domains without questioning our understanding of rationality.

The eco gender gap clearly demonstrates how rationality functions as a moral framework, and why it needs rethinking. A research project in Sweden found a correlation between a “sturdy belief in … science rationality” and climate skepticism among a group of influential older men in academia, indicating that the problem extends well beyond far-right influencers like Tate. The rationalism of the Enlightenment was of course at the root of industrialization and the evolution of modernity. Despite its many important contributions, however, it is also a significantly oppressive framework.

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From dualism and techno-solutionism to effective altruism and international development models, our world is shaped by a scientific doctrine stemming from the idea that rationality is strictly to do with data, quantification, analytics, and methodological sense-making, and that these traits are tied to whiteness, masculine identity, and separation from nature.

There are other ways to think about rationality, and we need them desperately. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for example, distinguishes between what he refers to as “communicative rationality,” which views rationality as depending on successful communication and a consensus of actors, and “cognitive-instrumental rationality,” the mechanistic type of rationality that shapes modern society.

Among the feminist, postcolonial, and pan-African spaces where I work, there are numerous important critiques of rationality. One such body of work was created by the black feminist thinker Audre Lorde, who wrote about the “non-european consciousness” that elucidates reality not only through rationalizing but also through phenomena such as the erotic and the poetic.

I experienced the latter during lockdown, when I had climate-related nightmares – perhaps the most vivid being a sudden hailstorm on a sunny summer beach. These could be described as a type of eco-poetic rationality that the political theorist Stephanie Erev refers to as “feeling the vibrations.” Sure, conventional rational thought can explain unexpected weather changes, but when I learned that many others were having climate dreams, too, I could not discard this eco-poetic way of knowing as irrelevant to the broader discussion of the planetary crisis.

To be clear, I am not a relativist when it comes to knowledge. I don’t believe that all ways of knowing are equal in every context. There are instances when objectivity and impartiality should be privileged, especially when questions concern scientific knowledge. But when it comes to knowledge itself, we need to embrace multiple perspectives and a pluralist approach to reduce normative biases. Even if all ways of knowing are not equal in every context, they are all relevant.

For as long as I can remember, my temperament has been informed by a need to break free of social norms. When I first started exploring feminism as a tool for doing so, I thought of these norms as structural: patriarchy, white supremacy, neo-colonialism. But I increasingly recognized that the prison was also intellectual, in the truest sense of the word: relating to what, why, and how we know. Thus, to break free from structures of oppression, one must fight for an intellectual revolution as well, by returning to the source of knowledge itself.

In a world confronting what many are calling a “polycrisis,” disrupting the dominant framework of rationality with an intersectional approach to knowledge is not only a feminist ideal. As the Tate-Thunberg exchange reminds us, it is necessary for humanity and the planet to flourish.