Rethinking the Environment : Women and Pollution

Author(s): Joni Seager
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #3, Spring 1996

Pollution is an umbrella term that encompasses a wide array of assaults on the environment. Broadly defined, it is best understood as the introduction of substances into the natural environment which cannot readily be assimilated or rendered harmless by normal biological processes (Crump 1991; Rodda 1991). Pollution is usually categorized into one of three types, although there is considerable cross-over and transfer among the three: air pollution (gas, chemical, and particulate emissions), maritime and freshwater pollution (runoff and dumping of chemical, industrial, biological, and waste effluents), and land pollution (dumping and disposal of wastes of all kinds). Because the planetary ecosystem is maintained by large-scale circulatory processes such as the hydrological cycle, air circulationn systems, and ocean currents, pollution released in one place is seldom contained: typically, pollutants are circulated over wide areas (even globally) and throughout large ecosystems.

Natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions and erosion, produce pollution, sometimes quite acutely, but the primary environmental concern today is with anthropogenic pollution. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have produced pollution at a dramatically accelerating pace, and the pollution produced is increasingly toxic and persistent. "Man-made" substances of extreme toxicity, such as pesticides, plastics, synthetic chemical products, and radioactive wastes represent an increasing preponderance of the pollutants that are being released into the environment.

Pollutants undermine the integrity and health of animals, humans, and ecosystems. Over much of the globe, our oceans and waterways have become dumping grounds; in many places just breathing is a health hazard, and wastelands of extreme and chronic toxicity dot the global landscape. However, specific knowledge of the effects of pollutants typically lags far behind our capacity to produce and release them; controls over pollution lag even further behind. This gap is due to several factors. While some pollutants act acutely and dramatically, others act slowly and almost imperceptibly; in some cases, the effects of pollutants may not be manifest for years or decades. The materials produced by chemical industries are of particular concern. Literally thousands of synthetic compounds have been introduced and accepted into ordinary life with little understanding or monitoring of their potential environmental effects. The long-term effects of slow-acting pollutants are often noticed only if someone is looking for them. In general, there is much less commitment to examining the pollutant effects of new substances than there is to their initial production and dissemination. Many of the materials, products, and processes which produce pollutants have become thoroughly integrated into modern lifestyles and economies (this includes plastics, chemicals and cars, among others); it is difficult to achieve consensus on the implementation of pollution control if such control is seen to necessitate sharp reductions or elimination of these materials. Powerful forces are also at work in undermining the efficacy of pollution control: industries, governments and militaries typically have vested interests and profits in the economic activities which pollute; while pollution control, in contrast, is often perceived as an impediment to the conduct of their business.

Feminist perspectives and the work of women have made significant contributions to our understanding of environmental issues and of pollution.

Feminists have been particularly active in reframing the ways in which environmental relations in general, and pollution in particular, are understood. Women's Studies scholars, especially in the sciences, have produced trenchant critiques of the extent to which the ideological underpinnings of modern Western science are environmentally destructive (see, for example, Harding 1986). Indeed, feminists argue, the conduct of Western "industrialized" science, and the widespread reliance on scientific rationality, is responsible for much of the egregious environmental damage we now face (see for example Shiva 1989). Recent feminist scholarship further challenges the prevailing paradigm of environmental understanding which frames environmental problems as disruptions in physical systems. If environmental problems are framed as physical phenomena, then feminist, humanistic and cultural analysis is marginalized. It is clear to feminists that the environmental crisis is not just a crisis of physical ecosystems; it is, rather, a crisis of culture. Feminist environmental analysis refocuses attention on "agency" - the institutions, behaviors, and norms that produce our dominant "culture of pollution" (Seager 1993). Since these institutions, behaviors and norms are gendered, it is clear that a feminist analysis of gender, power, and agency is crucial to understanding the current environmental crisis. Everywhere, militaries and multinational corporations rank at the top of the list of agents of environmental destruction; militaries are especially powerful agents of destruction and are responsible for a disproportionate share of global pollution of all kinds.

At the same time, many women activists and scholars have forged a vision of recasting human relations to the environment with an "ecofeminist" sensibility. Although there is a considerable range of ecofeminist thought, most ecofeminists share a core understanding that the earth is a living entity, that the web of life is interconnected, that all life is dependent on the health and integrity of the whole, and that degradation of the environment is the product of a cultural imbalance (see for example Caldecott & Leland 1983, Diamond & Orenstein 1990).

Women activists and scholars have been instrumental in focusing attention on the differential impacts of pollution. The effects of exposure to pollution cannot be generalized across a population; they will vary considerably with age, class, race, nationality, gender, geographic location and social location. Feminists are particularly active in exploring the ways in which the health impacts of pollution are different for men and for women. Women, whether in Vietnam, India, or Canada, often experience distinctive - or singular - health problems from exposure to environmental pollutants. The timing, prevalence, and rate of particular cancers (especially breast cancer), reproductive disorders, and chronic health impairments are typically very different in women than in their male counterparts. Until women started organizing around these issues, the impacts of pollution on women's health were ignored by mainstream environmental organizations, by official health monitoring organizations, and by the biomedical research establishment. Questions about women's health and pollution, until recently, were not examined, not taken seriously, and not followed up. In consequence, women's health has suffered and the opportunity for early detection of pernicious environmental degradation was, in many cases, forfeited. Women community activists and researchers in the medical and environmental fields are increasingly effective in raising these issues and insisting that women's experiences of pollution be disaggregated from the more typically generalized studies of pollution impacts.

The fact that men and women often do not experience the effects of pollution in the same way can be attributed to three factors: economics, biology, and gender roles. The effects of environmental degradation are pushed down the socio-economic ladder and felt more acutely by those who cannot afford the means to buffer themselves from environmental deterioration. Everywhere in the world, women are disproportionately clustered at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Biological differences between women and men, including important differences in hormonal structure, mean that women and men are susceptible to different health effects from exposure to toxins and other pollutants. For example, the globally escalating rate of incidence of breast cancer in women is possibly due to exposure to industrial pollutants, especially to the synthetic organo-chlorines which are ubiquitous in industrialized countries. Everywhere in the world, women do different work, in different places, and they fill different social roles, than do men. Women everywhere have primary responsibility for meeting the daily needs of their families. This often means that, literally, women are in the front lines of exposure to toxins in the environment. Because of their social location, (which also often has a real locational correlate), women are much more likely than their male counterparts to have early and prolonged exposure to water-borne pollutants, pollutants in the food chain, and household pollutants including indoor air pollution.

Except for dramatic pollution incidents, such as oil spills or chemical factory explosions, the effects of pollution are often subtle and only slowly apparent; deterioration in environmental quality more typically shows up in small ways in the ordinary, lived environment. As a result of women's social location as managers of the ordinary domestic environment, they are also typically the first to notice the effects of pollution. As a result, everywhere in the world, women are now in the forefront of grassroots environmental organizing. To an astonishing extent, women are the leaders in community-based environmental activism.

Women are less represented in the "official" channels of environmental assessment, organizing, and policy-making. They are grievously under-represented in the environmental sciences, in government agencies with environmental responsibility, and in the large international environmentalist organizations. However, a number of women who have been able to speak from positions of legitimated authority have made significant contributions to our understanding of pollution. Dr. Rosalie Bertell, an American now living in Canada, and Dr. Alice Stewart, of England, have both challenged the nuclear establishment and have conducted research into the health effects of exposure to radioactive materials. Both researchers have compiled compelling evidence to support their conclusions that exposure to low levels of nuclear radiation, even officially-designated 'acceptable risk' levels, is extremely dangerous. The late Rachel Carson, in 1962, alerted the world to the dangers of pesticide pollution; in her book, Silent Spring, she wrote, "What we have to face is not an occasional dose of poison which has accidentally got into some article of food, but a consistent and continuous poisoning of the whole human environment." When Silent Spring was published, the chemical industry attacked Carson with great vehemence and misogyny. However, the clarity of her argument and the strength of her evidence eventually led to the banning of DDT and dozens of other pesticides in the US and in many other industrialized nations. (The pesticide industry, however, continues to produce and sell in the Third World products which are banned in the wealthier industrialized countries). Carson died of cancer in 1964, but the importance and prescience of her work remains undiminished.

Joni Seager, a Professor of Geography at the University of Vermont, is the author of Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis and The State of the Earth Atlas.

References and Further Reading

Caldecott, Leonie & Stephanie Leland (eds.) (1983) Reclaim the Earth. London: The Women's Press.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring (1962) Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Crump, Andy (1991) Dictionary of Environment and Development, London: Earthscan.

Diamond, Irene & Gloria Orenstein (eds.) (1990) Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Harding, Sandra (1986) The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.
Rodda, Annabel (1991) Women andtheEnvironment. London: Zed Books.

Seager, Joni (1993) Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms with the Global Environmental Crisis. NY: Routledge, London: Earthscan.

Seager, Joni (1995) The New State of the Earth Atlas. London: Penguin; NY: Simon & Schuster.

Shiva, Vandana (1989) Staying Alive: Women, Ecology &Development. London: Zed Books.