Environmental Citizenship

Virginia Held discusses care as a relational activity which involves taking responsibility for people and situations. By extending care from a relationship between two people, she argues that:

...if we really do care about global climate change and the harm it will bring to future generations, we imagine a connection between ourselves and those future people who will judge our irresponsibility, and we change our consumption practices or political activities to decrease the likely harm.

(Held, 2006: 30)

Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher likewise expand the activity of ‘taking care’ as ‘everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible’ (1990: 40).

This re-valuing and positioning of care has been at the core of a number of movements conceived as challenges to the current neoliberal market-model of ordering society, such as the ‘slow-food movement’ and the advocating of slowing down other activities, including scholarship (Mountz et al., 2015). It is, however, most prominently associated with women’s environmental protests, grounded as many of them are in current unequal and undervalued models of caring.

Often, women’s household and care tasks have sensitised them to particular environmental problems which affect family members’ health, and this can translate directly into expressions of community concern. This has often spurred them to understand these problems in detailed and sophisticated ways: Lois Gibbs and her campaigning against the chemical pollution of her neighbourhood is a good example. Many women have fought tirelessly to address environmental public health issues in their communities, some examples of which have been used in Chapter 3.

A masculinist interpretation of how we manage collective space -the commons - has dominated popular discourse since Garrett Hardin described abuse of these spaces as ‘the tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968). In Hardin’s argument, as the ‘commons’ is owned by nobody in particular, everyone will exploit it to their own advantage, as they expect others to do. This has led to calls andregimes to impose external order and control over common spaces, often limiting the use of such spaces for the collection of subsistence resources - a restriction which is, because of women’s involvement in subsistence economies, itself gendered. An alternative interpretation of how the commons is managed has been provided by Elinor Ostrom (1990), the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize in economics “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons” in 2009. (The second to do so - Esther Duflo - shared the award with two men in 2019, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kramer, “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”.)

Ostrom’s extensive work reveals that collective self-organising and self-government of the commons is at least as prevalent as Hardin’s theory of exploitation. Silvia Federici takes this idea further by arguing that women’s social reproductive work forms the basis of the commons and she consequently demands that the artificial separation of productive and reproductive work in our industrial/ post-industrial society needs to end. Virginia Held also challenges this Marxian division of work between so-called productive (paid and creating monetary value) and social reproductive (unpaid and not seen as creating monetary value, although ‘productive’ work could not take place without it) work. She uses the example of caring for children to illustrate how transformative such activity can be, stating ‘Only a biased and damaging misconception holds that caring merely reproduces our material and biological realities while what is new and creative and distinctively human must occur elsewhere’ (Held, 2006: 32).

This pushes our understanding of care-work, and who should do it beyond its simple redistribution to reconsider the nature of work itself. Gotelind Alber and colleagues (2017) propose that a culture of care needs to be extended to non-human nature: a position now adopted by many contemporary ecofeminists as Chapter 3 has explained. Held wonders what society would be like if care was at the centre of our attention and prioritised at every scale. She speculates on a society which ‘saw as its most important task the flourishing of children and the development of caring relations, not only in personal contexts, but among citizens and using government institutions’ (Held, 2006: 18). She would welcome the rather unusual example of this provided by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern who, in her first year of office led a country shocked by the massacre of 50 Muslims by a follower of the far-right at a Mosque in Christchurch, with compassion and empathy. Ardern committed to never uttering the killer’s name to deny him the publicity he appeared to crave and introduced legislation to ban semi-automatic rifles and assault weapons, which the New Zealand Parliament supported almost unanimously (one MP voted against). Ardern, who campaigned on action to address climate change in 2017, also initiated action to prevent the issue of any new oil and gas exploration permits.

In the global North, where public and private spaces and activities have been most clearly delineated, the ‘intermediate spaces’ in which activities consolidate communities, care for vulnerable members and provide needed services, have (as with the household) been mostly neglected spaces of research and investment. As will be developed in the section on the urban environment below, there have been some interesting historical projects which have prioritised the needs of carers and those undertaking domestic tasks, including shared facilities, although these have never entered the mainstream. More recently, Liisa Horelli and colleagues developed the concept of ‘intermediate space’ as central to their New Everyday Life project developed in the late twentieth century, and where tasks scattered amongst individual households can be brought together such as child and elder care and food co-ops (Horelli et al., 2000). In times of austerity, such community services and places become not only more important, but also even more dependent on the unpaid work of women. In Greece, in the aftermath of the draconian economic cuts demanded by the European Union from 2011 and the subsequent collapse of public investment, women became centrally involved in what Dina Vaiou has called ‘solidarity initiatives’ in public and intermediate community spaces (Vaiou, 2014).

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