#ChennaiFloods: How climate change discourse is marred by gender bias

Across the world, sustainability is viewed as a 'feminised' topic, not fit for male-dominated boardrooms overflowing with planetary aggressiveness.

 |  Angiography  |  7-minute read |   02-12-2015
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Ever since the devastating images of Chennai deluge have been flooding our television screens, with a choked-to-neck social media trying its best to fill in the gaping blanks, sending out SOS alerts, retweeting helpline numbers, broadcasting locations where people are stranded fearing for their lives, somehow the importance of the Paris Climate Conference, and the overall dystopian future of mass environmental displacements, are staring us in the face. Though "commitments" to fight climate change have been sounded again and again at various air-conditioned seminar rooms and summit halls of super-luxury hotels, somehow the world leaders, most of whom are men, cannot come to terms with adapting to a more caring, nurturing discourse, instead preferring an aggressive self-aggrandising stance, out-competing each other in a you-budge-first game of climate wars.

In fact, "sustainability" is often seen as a feminine discourse, not suited to the high table conversations among presidential men, who find it far easier to take "snap decisions" on bombing entire countries, but wait out indefinitely to sanction funds for coping with climate change. Examples abound. Currently, Russia and the US-led NATO powers, including Turkey, are fully immersed in the labyrinthine video game-like universe called "fighting ISIS", while decisions to reduce carbon footprints become a footnote, even though the latter will affect far, far more people, mostly in developing and less developed countries.

In India, we have been witnessing severe floods and drought-like situations during the same time of the year, often in adjacent regions. After months of under-reporting the Andhra Pradesh drought, the national media is now waking up to Chennai rains and floods, the most dangerous and calamitous since the early 1900s. However, only last year did we see devastating floods in Kashmir valley, which submerged even Srinagar. Prime Minister NarendraModi offered a meager relief package of Rs 1,000 crore at first, and the TV coverage quickly became a matter of patting on Indian Army's back (notwithstanding their commendable job: it's a matter of televisual focus). For months at end, Assam and Odisha have been ravaged by floods which no one seems to care about. Marginality and un-macho appeal of the states being the chief reasons why mass uprooting and systematic, serial creation of internally displaced peoples don't nearly jolt anyone in this country as does a stray remark by a suitably high-grossing movie star. On the other hand, the war on Greenpeace and the harassment of Priya Pillai have assured that the Indian regime, despite the prime minister's grandstanding at the Paris Summit, is, in the end, only interested in turning our public resources into private, extractable backyards of a handful of billionaire businessmen.

If American presidential candidates like Donald Trump are any indicators, #ClimateChange is at best a liberal conspiracy and at worst, a plot against entitled white men of the Wall Street brigade. Newsroom conversations, whether in New Delhi or in London, or New York, often bracket ecological consciousness with being "effeminate", and catastrophe comes home only as heroic tales and rescue missions of gadget-laden, armed male soldiers and volunteers, ferrying the hapless to safety. Disaster films imagine the heroic protagonist, arch-survivor, banging his/her head against the metaphorical wall of environmental bureaucracy, governmental apathy and an over-reliance on nationalist exceptionalism of every hue. Conservation is relegated to a sub-topic that can be dealt with in future, at leisure, over cocktails and highfalutin recreation in hotels that are the monuments of this "Capitalocene" era.

There is an inherent ruthlessness, a pungent bias which is as ravaging as it is anti-equality, especially anti-women and anti-ecology. Statistics show how women are at least 14 times more likely to be killed as a result of extreme weather and retaliatory violence from the planet. In addition, any aftermath of a (mostly manmade) natural disaster sees the biggest brunt faced by women and children, who are subjected to physical and sexual violence, evicted, displaced from familial ties, left without documentation and therefore without state-aid. As climate refugees, women are doubly jeopardised, particularly because most of them are from small, economically weak, island and coastal nations. Female climate refugees, much like their counterparts among the war displaced, become inserted into quasi-slavery that feeds the "disaster tourism" industry, of which media is an important part. In fact, India Today did a cover story on how women were sold into sex trafficking in the wake of Nepal earthquake. Environmentalism is gaining ground but is still a fringe movement that, although with immense investment in and impact on gender justice, nevertheless has been turned into green crusades by men - white, black and brown - with writers like the American Jonathan Franzen finding in it a lost cerebral vigilantism, self-indulgent and bigoted against women and the coloured people.  

Climate change's impact on women cannot be overstated since scarcity of water, devastation from flooding, depletion of forest biomass, polluted air and water have a direct bearing not just on the female body but also on the networks of filial and civic togetherness in which women play the central role. Though dubbed "Mother Nature", worshipped and museumised, there's a sinister disregard for the great riches of our natural world, with male decision-makers perpetually hatching mechanisms to deplete even the remaining, absolutely essential reservoirs of minerals, hydrocarbon-rich fuels, all to continue with the art of being rich. Arundhati Roy is cent per cent correct when she brands these the "Lifestyle Wars", and includes in the same bracket what's happening in Syria with what happened in New Orleans in 2005 (Hurricane Katrina) and what's happening now in Chennai. Even Thomas Piketty, celebrated French economist, equates the current mayhem in Syria with the extreme ill-distribution of fossil fuel riches as well as the battle of the future which will be fought over water rights.

Mohammad Nashid, the Maldivian former president, who's wrongly, and now illegally incarcerated, has been one of the champions of climate justice in which small island nations, as well as the Global South, are heavily involved. Coastal stretches across Asia, Latin America and even North America are under threat from being completely submerged because of rising sea levels. While the petro-dollar-driven chaos in the Middle East is the chief source of creating "swarms of refugees" all over Eurasia, climate change will be single largest source of conflict in the years to come. Forget tiny islands scattered in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, even entire countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka are looking at a future of being erased from the world map. But even now, the conversation on climate change hovers blindly above a question of "burning the fossil fuels safely", ensuring unlimited supply of cheap oil and electricity so as to fund and keep alive the critical chaos that is the gap between macho megalopolises with obscene concentration of wealth and wastage, and the vast swathes of land and water panting for breath, battling toxic air and soil, seeing mass extinction of species, languages, tribal cultures, among other chronicles of slow civilisational deaths.

Until planetary sustainability and gender justice are connected, the discourse will remain intentionally ineffective. In a world that seems to be always on the brink of a nuclear disaster, issues like floods, earthquakes, droughts, depletion of coral reefs, women developing reproductive and psychological disorders from infections during natural calamities appear marginal, second-grade, feminised. It looks as if decision- and policy-makers would prefer a mutually assured annihilation to go in a blaze of glory instead of changing the conversation to suit a worldwide need for healing - environmental and humanitarian.


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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