The Gender Factor In Environmentalism

DEBATES over environmentalism can skitter off into competing philosophies and sometimes mythologies that seem to have little relevance for most people.

Several shelfloads of books have appeared in recent years - including Al Gore's controversial ``Earth in the Balance'' - focusing on humankind's debate with itself over its relations with nature. Are we cogs and wheels in a machine (the Cartesian view), or is nature a reflection of (indeed part of) a spiritual world? The provocative film ``Mindwalk,'' a conversation between a physicist, a poet, and a politician set at Mont St. Michel, explored these contesting views of reality, too.

It's as old as the tension between a patriarchal God somewhere off in ``heaven'' and a ``Mother Earth,'' as new as the ``new physics'' questioning the traditional view of matter or the preparations underway for the United Nations Conference on Population and Development to be held in Cairo this September.

President and Mrs. Clinton probably didn't see it this way, but they were brief actors in this drama when they met with Pope John Paul II last week.

After 40 minutes of what was described as ``cordial'' conversation (Mr. Clinton called it a ``profound honor,'' and feminist Hillary Rodham Clinton covered her head in respect to the Pontiff), it was clear that the official line on population control coming from the Vatican and from the United States government hadn't changed. The Pope - the spiritual leader of 950 million Roman Catholics - is adamantly against it. The Clinton administration - after 12 years of resistance by Republican administrations - vows to assume a global leadership role here.

Of course, there's a major political dimension in the run-up to the UN's population conference, just as there is in the current ``International Year of the Family'' designation. For many people, how governments should proceed with family planning programs boils down to an argument over abortion.

But there's also something that reflects this historical and profound argument over values referred to at the beginning of this little ``mindwalk.''

It's interesting that there is an apparent gender gap - if not in interests, at least in activism regarding population and the many issues that surround it, including the environment.

Nafis Sadik, the Pakistani obstetrician who serves as executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, is a woman, as are most of the nongovernment activists working to influence the agenda at Cairo. Treatment of women by societies - particularly in education and health care - will be a big part of the population conference expected to include representatives of 184 countries. (Abortion, in fact, is a relatively minor issue.)

There is a parallel here too with attitudes toward treatment of the environment. One hesitates to suggest (especially if one is a man) that there is a particularly ``feminine'' view toward environmental issues. But it is more than coincidence that many of those leading the fight to preserve clean and healthy communities are women. (Seventy-five percent, according to Carolyn Merchant of the University of California at Berkeley.)

Take, for example, Lois Gibbs, who blew the whistle on Love Canal and now heads a national effort to end toxic waste. Or Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya who has been physically attacked and thrown in jail for her environmental activism. Or sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, Shoshone Indians who last year won a prestigious Right Livelihood Award for fighting government mining and nuclear testing on Native American land.

This is related to, but not the same thing as ``eco-feminism,'' which means different things to different people but is more than the linking of women's rights to environmental issues. It's more like how one views one's place in the natural world. Which gets to competing philosophies and sometimes mythologies and is always interesting. And more relevant than we think.

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