If you’re anything like me, watching Our Planet, the live-action version of The Lion King, or this illustrated video makes you immediately break into tears. As a Monterey Bay native, who grew up with conservation messages woven into not only my education, but almost all local messaging (#PackYourTrash, please), I was raised to be an environmentalist. When I think too hard about what impact humans have made, I feel so deeply sorry for our planet that I am sent into an abyssal feeling of helplessness and anxiety. And apparently, I’m not alone.
Climate anxiety—or feelings of anxiety and depression due to the environmental effects of climate change—is a growing phenomenon, increasing alongside the accelerating effects of climate change on our planet. From annual raging wildfires in my home state of California to the possibility of Miami being underwater by 2100, the environmental impact of our actions can no longer be ignored. And according to research, these feelings are especially poignant for women, who are more likely to be affected by climate anxiety than men.
Gender plays a more significant role in environmentalism and climate change awareness than we may realize. Not only do women experience greater climate anxiety, but women are more likely than men to be pro-environment and tend to pay closer attention to the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, women are more often the ones taking on zero-waste work, making it their responsibility to reduce plastic consumption, purchase organic foods, or lead reusable Tupperware/silverware/water bottle efforts in their homes. So why are women feeling more pressure to save the world—literally?
Firstly, women—namely, Black and indigenous women—have always been at the forefront of the environmental movement. Not only have women historically taken the lead on protecting the environment—from Vandana Shiva’s introduction of ecofeminism to Rachel Carson’s iconic Silent Spring—but still today, women of color are the fiercest conservation activists.
Currently, two of the greatest environmental disasters in the United States—the complete lack of clean water in Flint, Michigan, and the ongoing fight against oil pipelines polluting Tribal Nations’ water and land—have been designed by white corporations to pollute the resources of communities of color, while keeping environmental disasters out of sight (and out of mind) for white people. Women like Mari Copeny and Tara Houska have brought these instances of environmental racism to the public eye, and led the fights to protect their communities. Women of color are at the forefront of the environmental movement, despite environmentalism being coded as an elite interest for white men.
This gendering of climate anxiety and proximity to the environmental movement is intertwined with climate change being a reproductive justice issue. Climate change threatens the right of all people to have and raise the children they want, as now and in the future, environmental conditions could make it impossible for children to have safe, healthy lives. As highlighted by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, young people today are seriously taking climate change into account when considering whether they want to have children.
In the cases of Flint, Michigan and the Dakota Access Pipeline, the harm to reproductive justice for people in those communities is an essential part of activists’ fight. The pollution of water causes sickness, chronic illnesses, or long-term, developmental issues in children—outside of the parent’s control. It disrupts pregnancies with those same effects, endangering both the parent and child they are carrying—outside of the parent’s control. Lead poisoning like that in Flint can cause permanent damage to reproductive organs—outside of people’s control. These are preventable harms to everyone caused by greed, racism, and a complete disregard for the environment, violating all fundamental tenets of reproductive justice. The loss of reproductive justice threatens the lives of women and all people with reproductive capacity as well as families and entire communities, making climate change—and elected officials and corporations’ inaction to reverse its effects—far more foreboding, and causing the environmental movement to become the women-led effort it is today.
So, following a deeper understanding of why climate anxiety and climate activism is gendered, what can we do? We can begin by acknowledging that environmental activism is not a movement sans-identity, but is also a response to other forms of bigotry—namely racism, classism, and sexism. We can also learn more about how environmental justice is reproductive justice, and advocate for policies which benefit both the environment and families: increasing green space in every neighborhood, calling for pollution-free water and air in every community, and the ceasing of using low-income communities of color as a dumping ground for pollutants. All oppression is connected, and the effects of climate change reflect that; we must understand all its intersections to combat it effectively.