Exploring the political role of women in the fight for environmental sustainability.
words Siân Berry
On 30 November this year, seven men were convicted of the murder of Honduran environmental defender Berta Cáceres. The verdict came more than two years after Cáceres was killed, and five years after she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending her community against one of the biggest hydropower projects in Central America.
Cáceres and her family spent years living under the shadow of threats of sexual violence and death. Three years before her murder, she spoke of being ‘watched’ - and as a result rarely stayed in the same place for long. Yet instead of letting threats and fear defeat her, Cáceres bravely continued her work as coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, protecting indigenous land and natural resources. Cáceres was one of the countless women around the world stepping up to find solutions to the world’s man-made environmental and climate problems. I used a gendered term consciously in that last sentence, because of the fact that it is women, particularly the world’s poorest women, who are set to be worst affected by climate change, and because there is no surprise in finding that so often it is women at the front of the fight to stop it. Who understands the approaching danger better than we do?
Cáceres’ murder is a constant reminder of the deadly reality of environmental activism for so many brave defenders. In Brazil, the deadliest place in the world to be an environmental activist, Maria do Socorro Silva has faced intimidation and physical attack for her work leading Amazonian forest people against the destruction of their home by the world’s biggest alumina refinery. Two of Socorro’s comrades were recently killed within a matter of months. Meanwhile, in India, campaigner Fatima Babu was overwhelmed when 20,000 people heard her rallying cry and took to the streets to oppose the creation of the second largest copper smelter in the world. Yet they were met by police with bullets and tear gas, killing 13 people.
Closer to home, the risks are less acute. Yet women across the UK are still regularly putting their bodies where their beliefs are to stand in between the machines of climate-wrecking infrastructure and the future of our planet. As co-leader of the Green Party, I am incredibly proud of the many Green women elected to serve their communities here who are at the heart of campaigns to stop new fossil fuels being pulled from the earth. From councillor Gina Dowding in Lancashire, who was given a conditional discharge for standing in the way of fracking in her community, to Sussex councillor Vicki Elcoate, one of six women taking an oil and gas company to court over a draconian injunction designed to stifle protest at its site.
During my career, I have had the privilege of working, campaigning and learning alongside a number of brilliant women campaigners for the environment, and each has taught me the power of strategic campaigning. Like Becca Lush, whom I worked with when we were both road campaigners at the charity Campaign for Better Transport. A leader in the dramatic and successful anti-roads movement of the 1990s, Becca famously went to prison alongside five others for violating an injunction at Twyford Down, and it was Becca who taught me to understand the vital role of direct action in the climate movement. From the history of this and past campaigns against dirty, damaging infrastructure, I also learned how each generation needs to heed the lessons from past successes.
They also need to find their own ways to win, in the face of changing rules and tactics from the governments and industries who want us to go away and leave them to trash our precious land and atmosphere to make their money.
Throughout my career, I have constantly fought two types of campaigns: one based on individual issues as part of the movement for climate and social justice, and the other based on a shared vision for the future as a candidate in election campaigns for the Green Party. I have always believed that it is not enough only to bang on the doors of decision-making chambers from outside. To really win the attention of those in power the best platform is one that aims also to take their votes and, ultimately, take their seats at the table as well.
The Green Party knows that true climate justice will only be achieved when we rid our democratic systems of the toxic influence of corporate interests - particularly the fossil fuel industry which has done so much to prevent and delay meaningful global agreements to cut our emissions quickly enough to prevent runaway global warming. In the light of new warnings from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that we have just 12 years left to limit climate catastrophe, the need for governments around the world to come together in collective action to reduce carbon emissions and end environmental destruction cannot be overstated.
But the Paris Agreement, and the changes needed to heed the IPCC’s advice, will only happen if those in the driving seats of the biggest nations are willing to take the radical action needed. The UK, once a world leader when the Climate Change Act was introduced ten years ago, currently has a fatally distracted government that never cared much about the climate to begin with, an Environment Secretary who wants us to believe a few new policies on plastics (however good) are the same thing as a comprehensive environment programme, and a Chancellor who has failed to say ‘climate change’ for three budgets in a row. No wonder so many green campaigners are joining groups like Extinction Rebellion to take disruptive action and try to grab more attention for this crisis.
I joined the Green Party not long after our first Green London Assembly members were elected in 2000. Under the fairer voting system used to elect London’s Mayor and Assembly it was impossible at first for London’s budget to pass without our Green votes. I had the pleasure and inspiration of watching Green AM Jenny Jones take a turn as Deputy Mayor, while each year our group forced serious money into schemes to insulate homes, invest in cycling and achieve social goals like setting a real Living Wage for Londoners. I saw first hand the difference it can make having a strong Green woman speaking truth to power when policies are made.
Now I am elected in City Hall alongside my brilliant colleague Caroline Russell, and we’ve learned from our Party’s past successes too. Though we don’t have the same veto on budget voting days, we have kept up the pressure on cycle funding, called out the Mayor’s limited efforts to support green energy, and won a big new £45 million fund to support youth projects after exposing the cuts to these vital services across London. Caroline has been at the forefront of work which has seen the Mayor of London forced to take more radical action than ever before to tackle London’s deadly air pollution, and is there still telling him his plans don’t go far enough to protect all Londoners from our toxic air.
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Caroline Lucas MP is the ultimate inspiration for anyone who wants to see what leadership looks like even when you don’t hold the reins of power. Caroline shows better than any of us the difference just one Green in the room can make, single-handedly holding the Government to account on their environmental and ethical failings.
These two sides of climate action taken by women - one on the streets and the other in the chambers - are both essential parts of my Green politics. The progress of each is strengthened by the other, and it is critical this is not forgotten when we look to build new leaders. While Green parties around the world will keep battling to win elections, seats and power, we feel keenly that the scale of the crisis is too acute to secure victory without the battle on the ground - as Cáceres, Socorro, Babu, Dowding and Elcoate have shown.
The future of climate justice does not need a new type of ‘lean in’ feminism focused only on winning elections by securing places on ballot papers through old parties, or the approval of an establishment that guards its power fiercely, or by only engaging with failed structures made by men. It needs a swarm of radically empowered women to rise up from the grassroots and stand against climate and environmental destruction wherever and whenever it is found. Thanks to the bravery and hard work of women around the world, this future is already being written.
SIÂN BERRY is the co-leader for the Green Party. As a green campaigner, politician and author, she has been a candidate in numerous council and parliamentary elections and was the Green candidate for London Mayor in 2008 and 2016. She is set to stand again in the 2020 London mayoral election.
Essay originally featured in POSTSCRIPT No. 2.