Planet 50:50? Linking labour and environment this International Women’s Day
The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is ‘Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030’.
iOn 8 March women will strike to show what it would be like to live in a world without women, the other 50%. More than just an annual demonstration of feminist solidarity, it will be an occasion to reflect on women’s longstanding struggles to challenge capitalism. From Iceland’s ‘Women’s Day Off’ in 1975 to Kenyan women’s sex strikes for peace in 2009, the purpose of women’s withdrawal of the labour on which human societies depend has always been to make a ‘silent resource’ for the capitalist economy silent no more.
The fight for decent jobs, fair wages, and safe working conditions has been an important part of International Women’s Day since it was first organized in New York City in 1909. The first IWD was held to show support for the women garment workers striking for better working conditions. This year’s rallying cry, set out by eight prominent feminists in The Guardian, is for ‘a feminism for the 99%, a grassroots, anti-capitalist feminism – a feminism in solidarity with working women, their families and their allies throughout the world’.ii
We urgently need to develop a new international and intersectional feminist agenda that represents the interests of the majority of people living with the vagaries of the global capitalist system. But where are the feminist cries for action on environmental pollution and climate change? The call for a ‘50:50 planet’ surely must be accompanied by politicized concern for the state of the very planet that is to be divvied up equally between men and women. The global environmental crisis is a feminist issue. Why? Because violence to workers—both paid and unpaid—goes hand-in-hand with violence to nature. And because capitalism is sustained by the free inputs of natural systems and the reproductive labour (such as childcare and domestic work) that is primarily supplied by women. Making the link between the two is a signature insight of ecofeminist political economy. It is for this reason that many feminist environmental scholars are not only critical of neoliberal capitalism-as-usual but also look askance at visions that promise a fundamental reorganization of the capitalist economy in line with goals for ecological sustainability.iii There are many alternatives (i.e.,‘TAMA’, not ‘TINA’ – There is No Alternative – as Thatcher once told us), it would seem, but few who champion them have feminist tools to hand. This observation needs more attention from women marching for change.
The idea that reconceiving capitalism should lead to a ‘green economy’ fuelled by sustainable and inclusive growth was made popular at the Rio +20 UN Earth Summit in 2012. After the 2008 financial crisis, policymakers at UN and national levels embraced the prospect of a Green New Deal as a programme for ‘the social and ecological transformation of the economy.iv Yet this vision is notorious for its failure to give ‘the social pillar’ as much attention as the economic and ecological.
Moreover, scholarship on sustainable consumption and production tends to overlook the place of workers, and women workers in particular, in grand schemes for a greener, cleaner economy. Most discussions of the ‘green economy’ are fixated on technological change and reduced resource use with little consideration of social impacts. There are related types of alternative economic visions being championed by environmentalists such as degrowth, the circular economy, and the sharing economy. We have to think about how these visions look from the vantage point of underpaid and unpaid workers. A close examination from a perspective that integrates feminist and ecological principles raises at least three concerns.
First, proponents define the ‘green economy’ as a new industrial strategy for greening production and consumption. This vision of ecological modernization is to use new technologies to replace carbon-based production and improve energy and resource efficiency, creating jobs and growth in the process. In a recent lecture at the University of Manchester, green economist Michael Jacobs argued that the acceleration of low carbon technologies, coupled by Keynesian-style state investment in R&D, is the best way to decarbonize the economy and the only hope for keeping to 2Co climate change targets.v On the one hand, this policy focus is vital in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change. On the other hand, however, it seems important also to ask questions about who gains and who loses in a techno-centric industrial strategy. According to the (now defunct) eco-labour activist organisation Sustainlabour, the vast majority of ‘green jobs’ created by such a strategy will be in construction, manufacturing, and energy production, with a moderate number of jobs created in the high-skilled, high paid fields of engineering and financial services.vi These are male-dominated fields (as statistical evidence supports). The economy may be moving down the long and winding road toward decarbonisation, but this plan will do very little to change the masculinist social order on which it was built.
Second, the ‘green economy’ may create good jobs for elite men, but it will also create low wage and undesirable jobs for the masses. Predictions of robots taking human jobs aside vii there will be numerous types of work that can’t ever be fully automated. And there are others that (for now at least) can be filled by cheap labour, making investment in automation unnecessary. Take jobs in ‘resource recovery’, a central part of the circular economy concept which is now being taken up in EU environmental policy. Many are optimistic that increased recycling will lead to job creation: the European Environment Agency reports that jobs in recycling-related activities are increasing by over 10% per year in Europe.viii And yet, the jobs created by companies seeking to rescue usable materials from the waste stream and turn them into resources are most often poorly paid and demeaning. Conditions are dirty and dangerous; the work is precarious, gendered, and tends to be done by migrant labourers. For example, research by Nicky Gregson and colleagues found that textile recycling depends on migrant women workers from Eastern Europe who are paid minimum wage to sort through dirty clothing while putting their health at risk due to poor air quality and long-standing shifts without breaks.ix Labelling these industries ‘clean and green’ and endorsing them as a positive route to economic transformation seems highly questionable when viewed from the perspective of people working on factory floors.
Third, most ‘green economy’ visions pay insufficient attention to reproductive labour, the demand for which is growing while the supply of paid and unpaid care workers is in crisis.x Rather than incorporating strategies for collectivising caring services or creating jobs in lower carbon sectors such as social care and education, advocates of ‘inclusive and sustainable growth’ appear to assume that unpaid reproductive labour, which is overwhelmingly performed by women, will be infinitely available to green capitalism. They continue to turn a blind eye to the growing need to import cheap domestic and health care workers from the global south, a ‘solution’ creating a global care chain that perpetuates the feminization of caring labour while reinforcing class and geopolitical hierarchies. Some also chose to celebrate the rise of a ‘new domesticity’ (that includes activities such as ‘canning, sewing, mending, trashion and upcycling’xi) because it can reduce carbon emissions and material throughput by harnessing people’s skills, creativity and time. But these advocates do not stop to consider the gendered nature of these activities or their impracticality for those who struggle to juggle heavy loads of paid and unpaid work on low incomes. Why ‘green economy’ champions have not called for eco-friendly laundry services and childcare centres or affordable, locally-sourced meals-on-wheels is a question to ponder this International Women’s Day.
Any kind of economy – whether capitalist, circular, sharing, gig or ‘green’ — and the social relations on which all economic activity depends, would collapse in a dangerous heap without women. The strike on March 8 is part of a long tradition of trying to bring this point home. While doing so, let us not call for a ‘feminism for the 99%’ or a 50:50 distribution of resources without challenging the links between the labour and the environment on which we depend.
- i The full statement by UN Women explaining the theme is online at http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/international-womens-day/2017
- iiFor a full explanation of this statement, including what is meant by ‘the 99%’, see Linda Alcoff et al ‘Women of America: we’re going on strike. Join us so Trump will see our power’, The Guardian 6th Feb 2017, online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/06/women-strike-trump-resistance-power
- iiiSee, for example, Christine Bauhardt (2014) ‘Solutions to the crisis? The Green New Deal, Degrowth, and the Solidarity Economy: Alternatives to the capitalist growth economy from an ecofeminist economics perspective’. Ecological Economics Vol. 102, June: 60–68; and Beate Littig (2017) ‘Good green jobs for whom? a feminist critique of the green economy’. In S. MacGregor (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment – forthcoming. London: Routledge.
- ivUnited Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2009) https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/cc_global_green_new_deal.pdf
- vSee also Dimitri Zenghelis (2016) ‘Decarbonisation: innovation and the economics of climate change’ in Jacobs, M. and Mazzucato, M. (eds) Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, pp. 172-190. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
- viSustainlabour (2009) Draft Report: ‘Green Jobs and Women Workers, Employment, Equity, Equality’. Online at: http://apgreenjobs.ilo.org/resources/green-jobs-and-women-workers-employment-equity-equality
- viiPeter Spence ‘Whole industries will be wiped out by new technology, warns Bank of England’s Mark Carney’ The Telegraph 8th June 2016. Online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/06/08/whole-industries-will-be-wiped-out-by-new-technology-warns-bank/
- viiiEuropean Environment Agency (EEA) (2011) Earnings, Jobs and Innovation: The Role of Recycling in a Green Economy. Copenhagen: EEA
- ixNicky Gregson et al (2016) ‘Doing the “dirty work” of the green economy: Resource recovery and migrant labour in the EU’ European Urban and Regional Studies Vol 23, Issue 4: 541 – 555.
- xGenanet (2012) ‘Sustainable economy and green growth: who cares?’ International workshop report available at http://wedo.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Int_WS_Sustainable_Economy_Green_Growth_who_cares_EN.pdf
- xiDavid Schlosberg and Romand Coles (2016) ‘The new environmentalism of everyday life: sustainability, material flows and movements’ Contemporary Political Theory 15: 160.