Women lead on climate change; men have painful psychological work to do to catch up.
In an informative article in The Guardian titled The eco gender gap, Elle Hunt asks “why is saving the planet seen as women’s work?” Citing a variety of sources, Hunt argues that men are discouraged from being environmentally responsible because the green revolution is predominantly female.
It’s not just that the movement’s standard bearers, Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are women. “From soap to reusable cutlery,” Hunt writes, “green products are overwhelmingly marketed to and bought by women.”
It goes deeper. Rachel Howell, a lecturer at Edinburgh University, notes that most of her sustainable development undergraduate students are women. Howell says that men “are much more inclined to believe that, if they accept there is a problem, then somebody or some technology will sort it all out – that we don’t need to change our lifestyle.”
Hunt reports on a study by Janet K Swim at Pennsylvania State University, which found that “men could be disinclined to carry a reusable shopping bag… for fear of being perceived as gay or effeminate.”
It’s a particularly fragile kind of masculinity that fears being seen as “gay or effeminate” for using a reusable shopping bag. That isn’t a rational response. When rationality fails, unconscious behaviour is rearing its ugly head. What is that behaviour, and what is its driver?
It’s a fair bet to say that many men who fear being perceived as effeminate hold responsible jobs and/or are responsible parents. However, they quail at buying an eco-friendly toothbrush “to safeguard their gender identity,” as the Journal of Consumer Research reported in 2016.
Two kinds of responsibility
This paradox reveals two kinds of responsibility.
There is ‘holding responsibility’, a technical form of responsibility that we either choose—e.g. training for a highly responsible position—or must accept—e.g. a reluctant parent who looks after their children out of duty, not desire. This is tick-box, fear- and compliance-driven responsibility.
Then there is ‘being responsible’. This is responsibility that’s willingly, even gladly, exercised. It’s part of nurturing. It’s naturally extended to children—though it’s not so much the act of breastfeeding as the desire to nurture emotionally—and to the environment that houses, clothes and feeds us.
This feminine sense of responsibility has propelled women to the forefront of the ecological movement—just as it will propel them to the forefront of the drive for political and economic sanity and sustainability.
This is the sense of responsibility that’s propelled women to the forefront of the ecological movement. Equally, it will propel them to the forefront of the drive for political and economic sanity and sustainability.
“See her into school”
Here’s an example of the difference between holding responsibility and being responsible. The father of a girl at my son’s primary school was a doctor. He held responsibility for his patients’ health—and, for all I know, may have been a very good doctor.
One morning, while walking my son to school, the doctor swerved his car onto the footpath ahead of me. The passenger door flew open. The girl leapt out. As I approached, the doctor shouted, “See her into school for me, will you?”
Without waiting for an answer he slammed the door shut and sped off. He had literally tossed responsibility for his daughter getting to school to me—and left me no option but to catch it. He almost discharged his technical responsibility—but he wasn’t being responsible.
The two forms of responsibility can be seen as ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ responsibility. One is accepted or imposed; the other is innate. One is masculine in nature, the other feminine. I’d like to suggest that true responsibility is a feminine quality. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility for nurturing new life on the planet that women have borne forever. Furthermore, it’s been badly damaged in men by several millennia of patriarchy.
Under the crushing pressure to be as masculine as possible—to be able to kill to survive—men’s access to their innate, feminine sense of responsibility was lost.
This is why so much of what men have done has been damaging. It’s been done from a psychological core bereft of innate responsibility—and it has left women to clean up the mess.
“Occasionally, I feel quite angry,” Rachel Howell admits. “A lot of problems have historically been created more by men… but it sometimes seems that women are getting more desperate about trying to solve them.”
Ouch. Although younger men are more ecologically attuned, older men have painful psychological work to do to catch up to women’s contribution to the green revolution.
Men must face the uncomfortable truth that women don’t just lead on climate change. Women lead on change, period. As well as picking up a spade and planting trees, men also need to unearth some of the root-bound patriarchal programming buried in their unconscious and become truly responsible.