Hypatia Symposium – Gender & Geoengineering by HOLLY JEAN BUCK, ANDREA R. GAMMON, CHRISTOPHER J. PRESTON

Gender and Geoengineering

Ph.D. candidate, Development Sociology, Cornell University

Ph.D. candidate, Environmental Philosophy, Radboud University Nijmegen

Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Montana




The following is an excerpt, click here to read the full article

Browse the entire special issue here


In the years following Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen’s 2006 landmark editorial essay on atmospheric albedo enhancement (Crutzen2006), the idea of engineering a technical solution to climate change has seen a surge of interest. The suggestion that the “perfect moral storm” (Gardiner 2011a) of climate change might be solved by turning an intractable social, economic, and political problem into a solvable technical and scientific one has created a giddy sense of relief in some quarters and a dark sense of foreboding in others. Although there is a rapidly growing literature on the ethics of geoengineering (Gardiner 2011a; Svoboda et al. 2011; Preston 2012a), very little has been written about its gender and justice dimensions. Given that the ethical considerations pertinent to geoengineering include challenges about participation, potential harm to the marginalized, hubristic attitudes about control, and the emblematic question of “whowould get to set the global thermostat?” it is clear this is an area ripe for gender analysis.

Geoengineering has been helpfully defined as “the intentional manipulation of the earth’s climate to counteract anthropogenic climate change or its warming effects” (Corner and Pidgeon 2010, 26). An early report by the UK’s Royal Society on the main technical and governance issues of geoengineering established what has become a canonical distinction between methods focusing on solar radiation management (SRM) and methods involving carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Whereas CDR would slowly remove atmospheric carbon to restore a safe level of greenhouse gases, SRM would cool the planet more rapidly by reflecting back a portion of the sun’s energy before it has the chance to warm the earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere. Examples of proposed SRM techniques include shooting aerosols into the stratosphere using ballistics, fighter jets, or specially erected hoses and pipes; spraying seawater into the air from ships with tall towers; launching mirrors into space to act as a shield; and wrapping deserts in shiny polyethylene-aluminum sheeting. Examples of the CDR “family” of technologies include afforestation, ocean fertilization, capturing carbon directly from ambient air, and burying biochar to sequester carbon within the earth (Launder and Thompson 2010; SRMGI 2011).

This two-part division of the technologies might already seem gendered for its Freudian imagery: tall spraying devices, nozzles, ejections, dressing up the earth versus fertilizing the oceans, burying things, and sequestering away material. The commonly portrayed risk profiles of the two approaches are also suggestive of a matching gendered slant. SRM gets the attention as a technologically advanced, bold, and risky method. Deployment of an atmospheric shield to deflect solar radiation suggests an Apollonian type of confrontation demanding quick action, steely nerve, and technological prowess. The Royal Society characterized CDR, by contrast, as “a longer term approach to addressing climate change” with “fewer uncertainties and risks” (Royal Society 2009, 54). CDR is usually perceived as slower, gentler, and more natural. Pollution control, if that is what CDR really amounts to, may lack some pizzazz, but it is something almost everyone can get behind, especially if it involves planting trees and engaging citizens.1

Our intention in this paper is not to address this question of whether the SRM/CDR distinction is gendered, though it may be an interesting question in its own right. We plan to look at engineering the climate more broadly in order to examine where gender appears—and where it ought to appear—in the politics, ethics, and science of geoengineering. We intend to suggest areas where the geoengineering discussion should be opened up to issues of gender. Moreover, the need is urgent given that preliminary discussions of geoengineering are rapidly moving toward field-testing and plans for the governance of future deployments.

The Gender Dimensions of Geoengineering

There are a number of compelling reasons to raise gender awareness across several geoengineering axes. From a sheer numbers perspective, half of those who will be affected by geoengineering are women, though women are currently represented at only a fraction of this proportion within the geoengineering community. From an impacts perspective, some women are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of climate change (Dankelman 2002; Cuomo 2011) and in these cases might have more to gain from the benefits geoengineering promises. At the same time, the exact impact of many geoengineering strategies on precipitation and other climate parameters is uncertain and may remain so. Some women may have more at stake in this uncertainty, for example, if they lack access to typical adaptive coping mechanisms, such as migration to cities, access to capital, or educational opportunities to pursue different types of work. From a history of science standpoint, the narrative of masculine attempts to control earth systems introduces many fascinating questions. This means that from a political, funding, and purely pragmatic perspective, geoengineering is particularly vulnerable to an ecofeminist critique, and a failure to acknowledge gender-associated concerns could easily derail the geoengineering agenda. No matter where you sit—as a citizen, policy-maker, natural or social scientist, historian, ethicist, engineer, or lobbyist—to understand what geoengineering means for society in anything more than a superficial sense, the gender-and-geoengineering dynamic must be an integral part of the conversation.

In the discussion below, we consider four contexts in which geoengineering appears to have important gender dimensions: (1) the demographics of those pushing the current agenda, (2) the overall vision of control it involves, (3) the design of particular technologies, and (4) whom geoengineering will most impact and benefit. Our treatment of these areas is intentionally introductory; we aim only to open up discussions deserving greater attention. Following that, we explore three ways the geoengineering discussion could potentially become more gender-aware.

Who Is Pushing Geoengineering?

In an article written in 2011 for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Australian environmental commentator Clive Hamilton lambasted what he called “the geoclique” currently responsible for much of the geoengineering discourse. Using a term coined by Eli Kintisch (2010), Hamilton argued that global debate on geoengineering is dominated by a remarkably short and recurring list of individuals. According to Hamilton, this group is made up of “a very small group of North American scientists”—harboring mostly “Promethean” views of a “science-as-saviour” culture—who have made themselves the “go to guys” on climate engineering (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton suggested this clique lacks an appreciation, more common in Europe, for the “complexity and capriciousness” of the earth.

Although Hamilton’s characterization may be critiqued—some European governments are actively funding geoengineering research—it is beyond question that the geoengineering discussion is not being driven by a representative sample of those with a stake in it.

An early study of media reports on geoengineering counted the assertions made about geoengineering in print and online news articles through mid-2010, and found that women made just 3% of those assertions (15 out of 500). Women were simply not being quoted on this topic (Buck 2013).2 In geoengineering science, women author research less often than men. A look at the top 100 journal articles sorted by relevance in EBSCO Academic Search Premier—a multidisciplinary database—revealed that 17% of authors were women.3 A similar level of representation was found at the IPCC expert meeting on geoengineering held in Lima, Peru in June 2011, where 8 of the 51 attendees were women (15%) (IPCC 2012, 97). Furthermore, when women do appear in the discourse, it is frequently—though not exclusively—within domains peripheral to the “hard science” of geoengineering: social science, policy, and ethics.

Women’s under-representation in engineering more generally has been highly criticized, often out of concerns about women accessing opportunities to succeed in these fields or about lost innovation opportunities. Part of our disquiet about women’s under-representation here, however, lies not so much in the idea that women/society are missing out on geoengineering careers/discoveries, but in the framing and decision-making powers that participation in geoengineering research implies. Women’s under-representation in the early discussions of geoengineering is consistent with a more general pattern of “power inequalities in decision-making” about natural resources (Arora-Jonsson 2011, 749). In a draft report written for the Green Political Foundation, Christa Wichterich notes a persistent glass ceiling and lack of “recognition of feminine expertise” in climate matters:

Only after 14 rounds of negotiations, did the UNFCCC secretariat finally call on the parties to carry out gender-sensitive measures in 2008. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon assembled an advisory group on Climate Change Financing in 2010, however, he appointed 19 men. Following vehement protests, the high-level body was expanded to include then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. (Wichterich 2012, 4)

These low figures provoke all sorts of questions (Denton 2002). Emerging technologies are subject to rapid and contentious framing in the print and electronic media. Exactly how (and by whom) the technology gets framed has broad implications for which of the numerous ethical and political dimensions of geoengineering are seen as most salient (Nisbet 2009; Scott 2012). Women currently have a minority voice in explaining what geoengineering is and in influencing how it is presented in the media.

Of course, the gender breakdown of the participants in these types of discussions does not tell the whole story. Equally important as who is doing the talking and the framing is what are they talking about. Matters here appear to be improving, but progress is slow and still mixed (Dankelman 2002). Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does now consider women and gender issues when considering impacts, adaptation, and vulnerabilities (for example, IPCC 2007), but only in 2011 were efforts to include references to gender throughout the Green Climate Fund finally successful (Wichterich 2012, 14). A submission by the Asia-Pacific Women’s Group to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June of 2012 did add a gender component to the nascent geoengineering discourse, stating that:

Women are greatly concerned by corporate driven technological solutions to climate change that are harmful to the planet and people. Such technologies must be subject to rigorous, transparent and participatory assessments including the implications on women’s and children’s health and well being. (APWMGS 2012, 18)

Yet a meeting held simultaneously in Lima, Peru that discussed geoengineering at the IPCC for the first time did not include the words “women” or “gender” anywhere in its ninety-nine-page meeting report. The report mentioned the word “justice” only once. Although it’s certainly imaginable that these sorts of omissions might be justified by the nature and intent of any one particular meeting, the omissions raise questions about whether decision-making power is already skewed (Dankelman 2002; Arora-Jonsson 2011) and the geoengineering agenda currently reflects only the visions of those who dominate it.

Geoengineering and the Domination of Nature

Path-breaking work in ecofeminism in the 1980s and 1990s found the roots of the environmental crisis in a masculinist approach to nature that favored objectification and domination of the nonhuman world (Merchant 1980; Plumwood 1994). Reductivist and mechanistic trends coupled with a Baconian view of scientific knowledge as “power over nature” led to the idea of science best serving human needs only through complete and total control of the nonhuman, transforming nature “from a teacher to a slave” (Merchant 1980, 169). The image of nature as machine, devoid of animus, ready to be molded to serve a technology-driven civilization was the outcome of a sequence of ideas from European men such as Bacon, Harvey, Descartes, Newton, and Boyle. The machine image asserted a “new confidence in control as well as the narrow and instrumental view of nature associated with a technological outlook” (Plumwood 1994, 109). Faith in the predictability of mechanistic nature reached its apogee in the claim made by Pierre Laplace that, if given the position and the velocity of every particle in the universe, an intellect vast enough could predict all future states. For such an intellect, Laplace asserted, “nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes” (Laplace 1951, 4). The quest for certainty hinged on an understanding of nature as passive, determinate, and entirely predictable.

The old mechanist’s dream of predictability still lives on in much research, from the “hard” sciences to economics, quantitative social science, and geopolitical scenario-building. Carolyn Merchant writes: “the assumption of order is… fundamental to the concept of power, and both are integral to the modern scientific worldview” (Merchant 1980, 230). A growing appreciation of nonlinear dynamics and chaotic systems means that the confidence of early mechanists has today been replaced by a more sanguine approach to the possibility of perfect prediction in certain domains. Climate science offers a powerful example of a case where, despite huge advances in observation and modeling, the ability to precisely predict and control is limited. Although scientists can predict general trends with great confidence (IPCC 2007), the ability to model the exact nature of local impacts remains constrained. The complexity of the climate system provides a distinct caution against the flight to objectivity (Bordo 1987) and the quest for certainty.

These features of climate science spill over into a dilemma about geoengineering. On the one hand, the climate is obviously a physical system subject to the influence of incoming short-wave solar radiation, the composition of the atmosphere, and numerous chemical and hydrological parameters. Mechanistic principles clearly apply. Such a system might invite the “imposition of human purposes and treatment as an instrument for the achievement of human satisfactions” (Plumwood 1994, 110). The flavor of old hopes lingers within the geoengineer’s dream. On the other hand, the nonlinearity in the system makes the exact nature of geoengineering’s outcomes uncertain, especially on local and regional scales (Pongratz et al. 2012). This uncertainty is something almost all contemporary geoengineers are careful to acknowledge, if to differing degrees. Alan Robock thinks that the “inherent risks and uncertainties” are enough to prevent SRM from “ever be[ing] implemented on a global basis” (Robock 2012, 202). Juan Moreno-Cruz and his colleagues suggest that regional inequalities “may not be as severe as is often suggested” (Moreno-Cruz et al. 2011, 649).

In the first article written by an ethicist on geoengineering, Dale Jamieson lamented the hubris in “attempts to manipulate nature in order to make it conform to our desires rather than forming our desires in response to nature” (Jamieson 1996, 331). Jamieson suggests caution with the mechanistic and manipulative metaphors that have informed technological endeavor since the scientific revolution. To the extent that those metaphors can still be found within geoengineering, Carolyn Merchant’s and Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist critiques will apply as much to the age of geoengineering as they have to earlier technological endeavors.

Hypatia Symposium – Climate Change & Complacency by MICHAEL D. DOAN

Climate Change and Complacency

hypatia_covermichael_doanMICHAEL D. DOAN
Assistant Professor, History & Philosophy Department, Eastern Michigan University


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Climate scientists, social scientists, and environmental ethicists have issued dire warnings. Current global greenhouse gas emissions trajectories exceed the worst-case scenario envisioned in the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC2007), making it unlikely that the global average temperature will be held to a 2°C increase over preindustrial levels given present mitigation efforts. Societies are already coping with unusually frequent and intense weather events (heat waves, cold spells, “supercharged” storms), ecological disturbances (melting glaciers, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, wildfires), pressures to modify traditional agricultural practices, and compromised food and water security. Current inaction has prompted experts to consider even more dangerous scenarios involving more than 3 or 4 degrees of warming (Smith et al. 2009). These scenarios force societies to face devastating collapses of social and technical infrastructure, forced displacements and relocations of peoples, conflicts over lands and resources, and escalating losses of life.

Although climate change is undoubtedly a physical phenomenon, as the editors of this special issue emphasize, it is one built on complex social and political understandings and responses. Its origins and impacts cannot be understood without taking into account complex histories of the transformation and domination of lands and of peoples under settler colonialism and other imperialist systems of rule, propelled by capitalist imperatives of economic growth and white supremacist, heteropatriarchal social orderings. Indeed, the causes, benefits, and burdens of environmental degradation have rarely been parceled equally. Much less can climate change be understood in isolation from current patterns of socioeconomic inequality and political disempowerment that stand to be exacerbated in societies structured and expressed spatially along lines of gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, race, age, and ability (Goldberg 1993, ch. 8; Anthony 1995; Pulido 2000; Westra and Lawson 2001; MacGregor 2010). As Chris Cuomo stresses, “climate change is a matter of global social justice” that is already intensifying the ecological and social vulnerabilities of large portions of the world’s population, in many cases “precisely because they uphold ecological values that have not been engulfed by global capitalism and technological modernization” (Cuomo 2011, 693, 695).

Sorting out the responsibilities to be assigned and assumed in responding to climate change is a task that calls for broad-based participation. However, delegations from nation-states have persistently failed to elaborate and execute long-term coordinated response strategies, and surveys and polls suggest worrisomely low levels of public engagement within nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada (Nisbet and Myers 2007; Leiserowitz 2008; Upham et al. 2009; Newport 2010; Leiserowitz et al. 2011). These motivational challenges are particularly pressing in nations that have historically been among the highest emitters of industrial greenhouse gasses, and that continue along unsustainable pathways of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste. In spite of detailed documentation of the role of corporate campaigns in promoting skepticism by generating misunderstandings of climate change (Hoggan 2009; Jacques 2009; Oreskes and Conway 2010), reverberating through conversations on what is commonly called the “problem of inaction” or the “value-action gap” among communications specialists (Moser and Walser 2008; Moser 20092012), social psychologists (APA 2009; Gifford 2011), social scientists (Eliasoph 1998; Blühdorn 2007; Norgaard 2011; Webb 2012), and geographers (Bulkeley 2000; Swyngedouw 2010), these motivational challenges remain puzzling. As political sociologist Ingolfur Blühdorn notes, “Trying to make sense of the evident contradiction between late-modern society’s acknowledgement that radical and effective change is urgent and inescapable and its adamant resolve to sustain what is known to be unsustainable is a hugely important and difficult task” (Blühdorn 2007, 272). Meanwhile, accusations abound of widespread apathy, ignorance, denial, and—to the point of my paper—complacency. Charges of this sort signal that there is nothing benign about resting content with the status quo, passively allowing for the formation of misinformed, imprudent, and ethically suspicious policies and practices.

What exactly does it mean to be “complacent on climate change”? Getting a better handle on diverse forms of what we might think of as “motivational inertia” seems crucial to furthering the political project of reducing the harms of climate change. I take it that the unprecedented nature of the problem calls for the reinvention of concepts that help us hold ourselves and others accountable in meaningful ways. For this reason I want to help make “complacent” a weighty political charge—a charge that, along with “corrupt” and “cruel,” picks out a “vice” that we need to work on remedying.

To be clear, complacency is one of several forms of motivational inertia standing in need of philosophical attention: apathy, indifference, resignation, and despair have all been subject to neglect (although see Geras 1998; Tessman 2005, ch. 4). Although I am interested in developing an account of the specific phenomenon of complacency, I propose that philosophers should understand multiple forms of motivational inertia from within a general framework of motivational vices. Further, there is cause to view these as species of what Lisa Tessman calls “ordinary vices of domination” (Tessman 2005, 54–79). Very roughly, a person should be seen as in the grips of a motivational vice when the ways she has been constituted as a moral agent prevent her from inquiring into, understanding, and responding well to a range of complex ecological and social problems. Although the broader vision of vice I espouse is indebted to more traditional treatments of virtues and vices, it is distinguished by its focus on the relational dynamics and structural processes that foster, sustain, and enforce various forms of motivational inertia.1 For this reason, I will draw upon and extend the work of feminist ethicists, critical philosophers of race, and moral psychologists, especially those who take relational and structural approaches to understanding human motivational capacities (Campbell 19972003; Walker 2007; Downie and Llewellyn 2012) and the epistemic practices of situated agents (Mills 1997; Code 2006; Sullivan and Tuana 2007).

I proceed as follows. In section I, I take up the recent work of Chris Cuomo and Susan Sherwin on the ethical and political dimensions of climate change. I suggest that Cuomo’s discussion of the “insufficiency” problem and Sherwin’s call for a “public ethics” jointly point toward particularly promising harm-reduction strategies. In section II, I review extant philosophical treatments of complacency, before going on to argue that Nicholas Unwin’s and Jason Kawall’s accounts are inadequate to the task of sorting out what it means to be complacent on climate change. In section III, I offer a sketch for an alternative account. To anticipate: although complacency is commonly thought of in terms of feelings of “self-satisfaction,” I argue that regardless of an agent’s self-directed feelings and explicitly held beliefs, they are complacent on climate change insofar as they are caught up in patterns of behavior that express settled expectations of self-sufficiency. Examining the phenomenon of complacency through a critical-feminist lens, I chart relationships between motivational inertia, privilege, and power by considering the circumstances under which changes in behavior and lifestyle are promoted and pursued as suitable responses to complex ecological and social problems. I also put into question depictions of complacency as a product of epistemic negligence for which individuals are solely and wholly responsible, and as a vice that individuals might “overcome” on their own, resisting the temptation to reduce complacency to ignorance or denial. Recognizing the urgent need to work collaboratively toward sustainable societies, those who are eager to be “shaken out of” complacency on climate change should not expect their journeys to be easy, or to take place overnight, worthwhile though they may be.

I. Publicizing Climate Ethics

No individual can even begin to slow climate change by reducing her own personal and household greenhouse gas emissions, even if she recognizes an ethical responsibility to do so. To make matters worse, should the vast majority of individuals and households the world over manage to drastically reduce their privately controlled emissions (changing light-bulbs, recycling more, and so on), their collective efforts would still be inadequate. Cuomo dubs this the “insufficiency” problem (Cuomo 2011, 701). Her recent work highlights the “rarely emphasized fact” that “household consumption and personal transportation account for a significant but minority slice of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,” which means that, “Even if personal sphere reductions that can be directly controlled by individuals and households are ethically imperative, they are insufficient for adequate mitigation” (701).

Indeed, mitigating climate change is an extremely complex practical challenge that cannot be met solely through the efforts of ethically conscientious individuals acting qua individuals. It is a political challenge in addition to an ethically and practically demanding one, which is to say that citizens of industrialized nations are called upon to exercise political agency in recognition of responsibilities we share with others worldwide (Young 2011). Especially weighty claims have been pressed on citizens of Western nations that have contributed the most to producing the industrial greenhouse effect over the last century and a half, and that continue along unsustainable pathways of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste.. When government and corporate agents in high-emitting nations persistently refuse to acknowledge their roles in causing climate change, and decline to take responsibility for addressing the problem, Cuomo suggests that for concerned citizens, “political activism, popular education, and effective coalitions may be even more important than private-sphere mitigation efforts such as reducing one’s own carbon footprint” (Cuomo 2011, 707).

Cuomo’s argument should give us pause for at least two reasons. First, many people living in the West have grown accustomed to the individualization of responsibility for addressing climate change. As sociologist Janette Webb points out, it is not only environmentalists who have been pushing the idea that changing a light, recycling more, and planting a tree are particularly effective ways of slowing climate change and of transforming into environmentally conscious citizens. The prevalence of these recommendations must be understood in the context of neoliberal micro-economic governance in nations such as the US, the UK, and Canada, where common tactics include deploying behavior-change technologies to enable the transformation of individuals into “green consumers,” while offering incentives (for example, differential government funding; investment options with energy firms) to induce the cooperation of environmentalist groups. One effect is that consumers are encouraged to develop the capacity for performing “carbon-calculus,” internalizing the long-term environmental costs of their purchasing behaviors (Webb 2012, 116; cf. Szasz 2011). By coming to make more informed decisions in “markets designed to associate satisfaction, prestige and self-worth with increasing consumption of carbon-intensive products” (Webb2012, 119), green consumers are led to see themselves as undergoing profound lifestyle changes. Meanwhile, because the demands placed on individuals’ limited cognitive resources “leave little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society” (Maniates 2001, 33), the basic lesson absorbed through this mode of governance is that “we have to change radically, but within the contours of the existing state of the situation… so that nothing really has to change” (Swyngedouw 2010, 219). On the basis of her case study of Scotland, Webb argues that these tactics allow “the work of governance to proceed seemingly productively” (expert behavioral knowledge is guiding public policy; some people have become carbon-calculators), while ultimately offering “limited and largely self-defeating means of transition to a sustainable society” (Webb 2012, 121).

Second, engaging in political activism, popular education, and forging effective coalitions need not mean struggling to create alternatives to unsustainable policies through suitably democratic processes. Eric Swyngedouw argues that nurturing “apocalyptic imaginaries” of the world coming to an end is “an integral and vital part of the new cultural politics of capitalism,” for which a central leitmotif is the management of popular fear (Swyngedouw 2010, 219). These imaginaries tend to be wielded as means of disavowing social conflicts and antagonisms, effectively clearing the ground for invocations of Humanity as an agent of change while silencing the dissent of marginalized, disempowered groups. Swyngedouw contends that stoking populist sentiment in this manner “forecloses (or at least attempts to do so) politicization and evacuates dissent through the formation of a particular regime of environmental governance that revolves around consensus, agreement, participatory negotiation of different interests and technocratic expert management in the context of a non-disputed management of market-based socio-economic organization” (227). Thus, he underscores the need to turn “the climate question into a question of democracy and its meaning” (229)—not just a question of whether to engage in collective action, but of how to do so, with whom, through what organizational forms, with what modes of collective decision-making, and so on.

In light of growing acknowledgment that the only responses that seem workable involve collective action, Susan Sherwin has issued a call for a new kind of ethics: a “public ethics” (Sherwin 20082012). Extending her earlier work on “relational autonomy,” Sherwin attends to the many ways in which the activities of individuals, groups, and institutions are framed and constrained by the actions of agents at other “levels of human organization,” reminding us how thoroughly intertwined are the actions of individuals and the organizations to which they belong.2 Whereas her earlier work focused on how the autonomy of members of oppressed groups tends to be limited by the reasonable options made available in specific circumstances, she now appreciates that when it comes to climate change, “even those individuals with privilege and power are caught up in patterns of behaviour that are contrary to their deepest interests” (Sherwin 2012, 27). The problem is that many of us “lack the skills and infrastructure options necessary for making choices that give proper weight to the long-term consequences of the practices in which we collectively engage, and we find ourselves continually encouraged to focus on immediate gratification” (25).3

Hypatia Symposium – Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, & Collective Action by KYLE POWYS WHYTE

Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, & Collective Action

hypatia_coverkyle_powys_whyteKYLE POWYS WHYTE
Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Michigan State University


The following is an excerpt, click here to read the full article

Browse the entire special issue here

1. Introduction

Indigenous peoples encompass the 370 million persons globally whose communities exercised systems of self-government derived from their own cosmologies before an ended or ongoing period of colonization. Indigenous peoples now live within areas where states, like Australia or Canada, are recognized internationally as the preeminent sovereigns (Anaya 2004). Like other communities, indigenous peoples must adapt to climate-induced ecological variations like sea-level rise, glacier retreat, and shifts in the habitat ranges of different species. Climate change adaptation refers to adjustments that populations make in response to such variations, which include actions and policies from weather-protection programs to permanent relocation. Indigenous peoples are also engaged in efforts to mitigate climate change, like transitioning to renewable sources of energy and contesting incursions of fossil-fuel-burning industries into their territories. Climate change mitigation refers to actions and policies that attempt to curtail certain variations from occurring in some way in the first place. Some indigenous peoples see adaptation and mitigation as crucial endeavors because climate variations can disrupt the systems of responsibilities their community members self-consciously rely on for living lives closely connected to the earth and its many living, nonliving, and spiritual beings, like animal species and sacred places, and interconnected collectives, like forests and water systems (Osofsky 2006; Salick and Byg 2007; Cordalis and Suagee 2008; Krakoff 2008; Macchi et al. 2008; Tauli-Corpuz and Lynge 2008; UNPFII 2008; Wildcat 2009; Kronik and Verner 2010; Tsosie 2010; Voggesser 2010; Krakoff 2011; Shearer 2011; Tebtebba 2011; Willox et al. 2011; Grossman and Parker 2012; Roehr 2012; Abate and Kronk 2013; Maldonado, Pandya, and Colombi 2013; Wotkyns 2013). Such systems include those that persist from time immemorial, like webs of reciprocal relationships between a particular community and the aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal species in their homeland. They also include systems of responsibilities emerging more recently from creative, indigenous-led efforts to establish political relationships of peaceful coexistence among neighbors like nation-states, settler towns, nongovernmental and religious organizations, subnational governments like provinces, and international bodies like the United Nations (UN). Examples include treaties, formal agreements, schedules of indigenous rights, and other political instruments that increase respect, mutual understanding, and accountability among indigenous parties and parties of other heritages and nations.

In ongoing conversations on climate change, some indigenous women articulate how seriously they take the specific responsibilities they perceive themselves to have within the systems of responsibilities that matter to their communities. Such responsibilities can range from acting as custodians and teachers of local ecological knowledge to acting as conveners of political movements aiming at respectful coexistence with neighbors. For these indigenous women, the responsibilities that they assume in their communities can expose them to harms stemming from climate change and other environmental alterations. Yet at the same time, their commitment to these responsibilities motivates them to serve as enablers of adaptation and mitigation efforts (LaDuke 1999; Denton 2002; Yanez 2009; Glazebrook 2011; Tebtebba 2011). Not all indigenous women share this view, of course; however, I show why, at least for some indigenous women, this is an important way of framing their actual and potential experiences of climate change impacts (sections II and III).

I then outline an implication of this framing for theories of political responsibility between indigenous women and parties like governments and organizations in adaptation and mitigation contexts (section IV). Political responsibilities are the attitudes and patterns of behavior that various parties are expected to express through the structure and implementation strategies of political institutions like laws, courts, policies, mandates, agencies, departments, treaties, declarations, schedules of rights, codes of ethics, agreements, memoranda of understanding, and so on. The nature and expression of these responsibilities depend on the assumptions that parties make about their roles in relation to one another. I offer a starting point for the following positions: Some indigenous women have their own unique capacities for collective action that advance adaptation and mitigation. Non-indigenous parties’ political responsibilities include deferring to indigenous women’s own knowledges of and motivations for such capacities for collective action. Deference can be expressed through political institutions that bolster the conditions needed to support indigenous women’s collective action (section IV). In many cases, this political responsibility is incumbent on indigenous national governments (for example, US federally recognized tribes) and political organizations (for example, Union of Ontario Indians). The positions in this paper seek to complement the work of environmental philosophers Chris Cuomo, Robert Figueroa, and Patricia Glazebrook, who have recently argued that responsibility must be thought of in terms of the unique agencies of indigenous and other populations—instead of focusing only on vulnerabilities (Cuomo 2011; Figueroa2011; Glazebrook 2011).1 More work beyond this paper should seek to further clarify the political reforms needed to support indigenous women’s collective agencies for adapting to and mitigating climate change (section V).

2. Climate Change Impacts, Collective Continuance, and Indigenous Peoples

Section I cited the growing academic, policy, and grey literature (informally published written material) documenting actual and potential climate change impacts on indigenous peoples. A key dimension of this literature concerns how climate change impacts affect the various culturally derived responsibilities assumed by some indigenous persons as participants in particular communities. In this section, I describe the basics of why these cultural effects matter. This view arises from my perspective and particular experiences as a Potawatomi Indian living in the US, from my conversations and collaborations regarding climate change with numerous indigenous persons within and outside of North America, and from engagement with relevant academic literature from several disciplines. Although this view may not reflect the diversity of views among all indigenous peoples about climate change, I feel it nonetheless highlights important elements of the discourses cited in section I and in which I am involved as a participant.

Impacts include variations of the patterns of community relations of diverse entities. These patterns are the structures of organization, which include political, societal, cultural, religious, and familial institutions that tie together humans and multiple living, non-living, and spiritual beings, and natural interdependent collectives (forested areas, species habitats, water cycles, and so on). Climate-induced variations—or climate change impacts—are the impacts arising based on the capacity of patterns of community relations to absorb local ecological alterations stemming from climate change (Liu et al. 2007; Cuomo 2011). Climate change impacts are disruptive when structures of organization can absorb the ecological changes only by changing key components of the structures themselves. For example, sea-level rise may force a community to relocate and adopt a new economy. Shifting growing seasons may require a community to change its diet. Climate-enabled invasive species may require a community to adopt new and more attentive environmental stewardship. Such disruptions are often experienced as harmful to certain values (as in the case of a changing diet), but can also serve as a motivation for improvements (as in the case of more attentive environmental stewardship).

Many indigenous persons interpret climate change impacts as jeopardizing the values associated with the collective continuance of the communities in which they participate. Collective continuance is a community’s aptitude for being adaptive in ways sufficient for the livelihoods of its members to flourish into the future. The flourishing of livelihoods refers to both indigenous conceptions of (1) how to contest colonial hardships, like religious discrimination and disrespect for treaty rights, and (2) how to pursue comprehensive aims at robust living, like building cohesive societies, vibrant cultures, strong subsistence and commercial economies, and peaceful relations with a range of neighbors, from settler towns to nation-states to the United Nations (UN). Given (1) and (2), indigenous collective continuance can be seen as a community’s fitness for making adjustments to current or predicted change in ways that contest colonial hardships and embolden comprehensive aims at robust living (Whyte 2013).

Climate change impacts can be understood as affecting the quality of the relationships that constitute collective continuance. According to this view, collective continuance is composed of and oriented around the many relationships within single communities and amid neighboring communities that persons assume based on their culturally framed perceptions of what matters. The capacity to contest colonial hardships, for example, may require relationships of solidarity among community members that cultivate political action, furnish healing from colonial traumas (like boarding schools), and ignite spiritual awakening (Ortiz and Chino 1980; Alfred 1999; LaDuke 1999; Tinker 2004; Green 2007). It may also require establishing relationships of trust and common political purpose across indigenous peoples who face similar hardships (Mayer 2007; Grossman 2008). The capacity to build cohesive societies, vibrant cultures, and subsistence economies may require close-knit family and social relationships, such as strong intergenerational ties and shared experiences between elders and youth and sustainable regimes of land-tenure (Merculieff 2007; Trosper 2009; Wildcat 2009; Tebtebba2011). Emotion-laden relationships among species and with features of the land (like rivers or mountains) and natural interdependent collectives may also be required (Willox et al. 2011). Commercial economies require relationships that generate feasible, culturally appropriate opportunities and relationships that regulate economic production (Trosper 2007; Ranco et al. 2011). Peaceful relations with neighbors require relationships that respect the differences of each community in terms of culture, relative power to exploit one another, specific needs, and capacities to exercise agency (Alfred 1999; Holmes, Lickers, and Barkley 2002; Napoleon 2005; Turner 2006; Davis2010; Ross et al. 2010; Middleton 2011).

The significances of these relationships are realized through the responsibilities incumbent on the parties to the relationships. That is, to be in a relationship is to have responsibilities toward the others in the relationship. Many indigenous authors have described the idea of responsibility. I interpret them as seeing responsibilities as the reciprocal (though not necessarily equal) attitudes and patterns of behavior that are expected by and of various parties by virtue of the assumptions made about how the parties relate to one another within a community context (Weaver 1996; Alfred 1999; LaDuke 1999; Kimmerer 2000; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000; Borrows 2002; Mayer 2007; McGregor 2009; Wildcat 2009). For example, elders may assume responsibilities to mentor youth by passing on wisdom or leading certain ceremonies; younger generations are, in turn, responsible for learning actively from the elders about the nonhuman, spiritual, and ritualistic dimensions of the community and its conception of the earth, its living, nonliving, and spiritual beings, and natural interdependent collectives. A community may have a responsibility to care for salmon habitat; salmon, in turn, may provide food and support for other species. Community members may be responsible for kindling spirituality by not evaluating their fellow community members according to colonial stereotypes about indigenous women or by visibly standing up against policies that victimize some people because they are indigenous women (Smith 2005). Such may be understood as a mutual responsibility of honor and respect among community members. International bodies like the UN may have responsibilities to respect emerging norms that acknowledge the special needs and knowledges of indigenous peoples (Anaya 2004; Mauro and Hardison 2000). These and other similar responsibilities are among the constitutive features of collective continuance because—on this view—they enable the contesting of colonial hardships and the pursuit of robust living. Some indigenous people’s concern with collective continuance has to do with maintaining the capacity to be adaptive with respect to relational responsibilities, or all those relationships and their corresponding responsibilities that facilitate the future flourishing of indigenous lives that are closely connected to the earth and its many living and nonliving beings and natural interdependent collectives. I refer to relational responsibilities as responsibilities in the rest of the paper.

Responsibilities constitute collective continuance as part of larger systems of interconnected responsibilities. Systems of responsibilitiesare the actual schemes of roles and relationships that serve as the background against which particular responsibilities stand out as meaningful and binding. For example, a responsibility to maintain species habitat is part of a more comprehensive web of interspecies responsibilities that are tied to a community’s cosmology. Cosmology refers to the fundamental way in which community members, in common, experience everything around them as endowed or not with agency, spirituality, and connectedness. Systems of responsibilities have intrinsic value and instrumental value for communities. For example, in Wabanaki culture the responsibilities surrounding berry plants have intrinsic value because they are integral to customs and rituals and establish part of the cultural status of Wabanaki women (Lynn et al. 2013). Thus, an entire system of responsibilities is embedded in and permeates everything about the berry plants. The system has intrinsic value because it is essential for framing certain dimensions of Wabanaki existence. The berry plants have instrumental value because they are superfoods, according to nutritionists, having health benefits like cardiovascular protection. Even systems of responsibilities amid communities have both kinds of value. For example, the government-to-government relation between the US and federally recognized tribes has intrinsic value because it can honor, at least in part, indigenous senses of nationhood. It also has instrumental value because respecting tribal sovereignty is considered to be the best way to formulate, implement, and assess policies (Lynn et al. 2013; Whyte 2013).

The concept of collective continuance identifies a range of values that some indigenous persons hold in relation to the patterns of community life in which they participate. The relationships and responsibilities constitutive of collective continuance can be disrupted by climate change impacts. A reason for this is that climate change impacts can alter the ecological contexts in which systems of responsibilities are meaningful. Changes in landscapes may engender fewer opportunities for elders to assume the responsibility to teach youth in practical situations. Climate change may affect the range, quality, and quantity of species like berries, making it more difficult or even impossible for tribal members to assume the responsibilities they perceive themselves to have toward those species (Lynn et al. 2013). Anishinaabe scholar Deborah McGregor, for example, discusses how variable weather patterns, invasive species, and widely fluctuating temperatures are engendering spring conditions that make it hard to have sensitive knowledge about when to begin or stop tapping maple trees for syrup. Making syrup is a traditional cultural and familial activity that spans generations and provides a source of nourishment for family and community members. Multiple, interconnected responsibilities are bound up in this activity, among young and old, siblings, between humans and trees, and natural interconnected collectives (GLIFWC 2006; Cave et al. 2011). Disruptions of webs of responsibilities involved in relations with elders, berries, and maple trees jeopardize some of what is valued intrinsically and extrinsically by certain indigenous peoples. The severity of disruption is of course influenced and amplified by the obstructive political orders rooted in colonialism, industrialization, imperialism, and globalization to which many indigenous peoples are subject. I treat these obstructive circumstances in more detail elsewhere, though I do not discuss them in any substantial detail here (Whyte 2013).

Hypatia Symposium: Comments open until July 20th

The discussion isn’t showing any signs of slowing down at the Hypatia Symposium, so we’re extending the comment period for another week, until July 20th. Perhaps even longer if there are still fruitful discussions to be had.

Below, we’ve cherry picked one or two comments ‘overheard’ in the discussion threads of the symposium pieces to give you a quick flavour of discussion taking place. Your voice is welcome.

Recently ‘overheard’ at the symposium…

  • “…But surely animals are not the only objects we fear and cannot neatly define…” http://bit.ly/MqG0g4 
  •  “…I wonder at Steiner’s comment about feminist theory not being “useful” and hope to see an elaboration in future” http://bit.ly/NmiDGf 
  •  “…what would it mean to rethink ethics such that we imagine that we have obligations to those who are not like us?” http://bit.ly/NuRjUL 
  •  “…caring about animal suffering means caring less about the suffering of human women…” http://bit.ly/OCCfWg 
  •  “…Derrida’s writings on animals have opened up Continental philosophy to animal welfare issues…” http://bit.ly/P4uEn5


Hypatia Symposium: Speaking of Animal Bodies by GRETA GAARD

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title:  Speaking of Animal Bodies


Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

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Download a PDF of this Symposium

Has the growth of animal studies been good for animals?

The capacity to ask this question—indeed, to make it central to one’s intellectual, scholarly, and pedagogical work—is the hallmark of feminism. Not merely an academic endeavor or a “way of seeing,” feminism emerged through women who recognized their own lived experiences of marginalization, oppression, and inequality (whether via race, gender, class, sexuality, age, ability—and usually some nexus thereof) not as personal deficits or biological necessities to be accepted and endured, but rather as socially produced political problems to be challenged. As political and material circumstances allowed (and often when they didn’t), feminist women stepped forward to work with other women and feminist men to challenge social hierarchies and create social change. From the start, feminism has been a Continue reading “Hypatia Symposium: Speaking of Animal Bodies by GRETA GAARD”

Hypatia Symposium: “The Animal” and “The Feminist” by EMILY CLARK

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title: “The Animal” and “The Feminist”


PhD Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Read the full special issue here

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In the Fall of 2011, I attended a day-long animal studies symposium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. One of the presenters, an anthropologist, began his talk by projecting onto the screen behind him a black-and-white photograph of a kitten. The kitten was hanging crucified from a wire, completely disemboweled, with a cigarette butt sticking jauntily out of its very dead mouth. The presenter proceeded to speak for more than twenty minutes without mentioning a single word about the image. Instead, it loomed from the screen behind him, silently willing us audience members to look at it, and to look away from it. In the final minutes of the panel’s Q and A, in what I can only describe as the tone of someone “willing herself to be calm,” a female graduate student asked the presenter what I am certain was on all of our minds: why that image? His response was to nod knowingly, and state that Continue reading “Hypatia Symposium: “The Animal” and “The Feminist” by EMILY CLARK”

Hypatia Symposium: Disciplinary Becomings: Horizons of Knowledge in Animal Studies by CARRIE ROHMAN

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title: Disciplinary Becomings: Horizons of Knowledge in Animal Studies


Assistant Professor, dept. of English, Lafayette College

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

Recent work in animal studies and animal theory has sometimes coalesced around a kind of “primal scene” in which subjectivities that we call human and animal confront each other, retreat, respond, or otherwise intermingle. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Derrida’s naked-in-front-of-cat scene and, subsequently, Donna Haraway’s insightful reading of its limitations. I have been reminded of both my own scholarly “primal scene”— as a young scholar en route to a career in feminist theory who then turned to the animal—and of the disciplinary “primal scenes” of animal studies itself.1

The present moment in animal studies brings to mind the quite similar disciplinary “disputes” that went on within feminist theoretical circles in the late 1990s. Anyone interested in the way that high theory is regularly coming under suspicion in animal studies right now would do well to revisit the exchange between Susan Gubar Continue reading “Hypatia Symposium: Disciplinary Becomings: Horizons of Knowledge in Animal Studies by CARRIE ROHMAN”

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