Playing With Marbles

Solutions to climate change should be based in the particular rather than the fiction of the universal

In order to even conceptualize a global technological fix for the climate, one must first be able to imagine the totality of the world. The view from space, the gaze of an all-seeing placeless eye that looks down on the blue marble of the globe, was supposed to have ignited our environmental consciousness. But this is the imperial gaze, which empowers action on such a scale that its consequences could never be fully anticipated, and meaningful consent never be acquired from the billions of people such action would affect. When we plan for action on the scale of the planetary, we enact what Donna Haraway has called the “god trick” — we become the eye that fucks the world. The world is not a tidy blue marble, but a cacophony of lifeways, streams of capital, rituals and traditions, migrations of people and animals, homes and workplaces, resources and landscapes.

The infinitely varied and finely grained climate itself is just as patchwork, just as cacophonous, and it is in constant interaction, reaction and adaptation, with the people and societies on the surface of the earth. The variables are innumerable. But many proposals for combating climate change include planet-wide schemes like geo-engineering, which involves human manipulation of the atmosphere. These proposals, while speculative, are extremely attractive solutions that embody a heroic impulse to tame an unstoppable nature with the promise of modern technology. To the observer freely poised in space, his eye ready to fuck the world, inject the seas with iron or stuff the clouds with sulfur, none of the cacophony is visible. None of its complexity, contingency, none of the knowledges that are local and specific and made from dirt and salt and fiber and cane are apparent to the eye. Only the blue marble is visible, the container for the world.

To the observer freely poised in space, ready to inject the seas with iron or stuff the clouds with sulfur, none of the cacophony is visible

The seeming universal nature of such large-scale solutions are assumed to provide for everyone, while the presumed gender neutral nature of scientific enterprise does not require diversity among its practitioners. Yet it is this deference to the neutral universal that preserves the always already masculine gaze, which ultimately obfuscates the gender inequalities that underlie the acute effects of anthropogenic climate change. These effects — and the unforeseeable effects of planetary engineering — will always settle back to the surface and accumulate in the fractal dimension of the local and particular. As much as science operates in a gendered way, its promise — and consequences — are also distributed according to a racialized logic that will always privilege the white, Western world at the expense of the rest of the planet.

Though women have always been one of the populations most vulnerable to effects of climate change, climate action organizations, governments, and scientists until recently paid little to no attention to the disproportionate threat that climate change poses to women, especially women in the Global South. In the past decade, oft-cited research gathered by the United Nations, which shows how climate change will worsen already unequal conditions for women, has prompted a flurry of articles to declare climate change a feminist issue and, indeed, a human rights concern. As the most immediate victims to climate change, women are poised to be the most effective agents of change in climate action. But aside from recognizing the problem and repeating platitudes about centering women’s experience in the effort to mitigate climate change, little has been done to formulate and further implement solutions that actually address gender inequalities and the climate’s impact on women’s lives.

The research and methods used to formulate solutions to climate change effects must begin from marginal lives

For all the emerging discourse about women as “powerful agents of change,” there is also evidence that this agency is created through a gendered division of labor and responsibility related to the protection of the environment. Studies have shown that men view environmentalism as inherently feminized, and are less likely to take even the most basic steps to limit their impact on the environment because they perceive them as a threat to their masculinity. The persistent symbolic linkage between women and nature, and that between men and technology, exempts men from certain kinds of responsibilities, and vulnerabilities, related to climate change. We have come to understand that women are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but there is a growing sense that they will also be forced to take on the responsibility and labor of its mitigation.

Feminist approaches to climate change insist that we ground solutions in the particular, not in the domination of the universal and the fiction of the objective. To move beyond simple recognition of women’s vulnerability to climate change, the research and methods used to formulate solutions to climate change effects must begin from marginal lives, with an understanding of gender inequality. While neither the consensus nor the sufficient evidence exist to implement something as large-scale as geoengineering, there is evidence to support such feminist solutions.

In certain locations in Africa and South Asia, granting land rights to women has bolstered community efforts to mitigate climate change by allowing women the same rights as men to control and manage their own land. Improving the social and economic lives of women in turn positions women to fully participate in conservation efforts. Sandra Harding argues that when we start research projects in marginal lives we are able not only to explain the individual life but the larger social order and a location’s specific interactions with nature. The view of the earth from space, however, elides the gendered social order of a remote town in South Asia as insignificant in the rush to thwart global catastrophe — the marginal lives that research tells us are the most vulnerable are lost in a wash of inscrutable blue and green.

A weakly objective approach to climate change that takes men and maleness as its default constituency and condition, and views the world from the placelessness of that objectivity, has material consequences. The epistemological foundation of the weak objectivity of men isn’t unsound; it is animated by domination and extraction. It creates a situation where consent isn’t just overlooked, it is impossible.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of OBJECTIVITY. Also from this week, Linda Besner on “the view from nowhere” in tech, and Mila Samdub on SimCity’s  capitalist lens.

Anna Reser is a historian of technology and the editor of Lady Science.

Leila McNeill is a writer, historian of science, and editor for Lady Science magazine. She is currently a regular writer on women and gender in the history of science, technology, and medicine for Smithsonianmag.com.