Keeping motivated with activism, especially in the environmental movement where change at a political level is often unyielding and unwilling, is a difficult feat and can leave us feeling powerless, apathetic and despondent. Our newsfeeds are saturated with negative, destructive and irresponsible reports of new environmental degradation every day or in even worse cases, a silence is casted over issues often leaving them unreported or even manipulated with. Inevitably, it is easy to succumb to the dreaded question of the hopeful activist,
“What’s the point of even trying?”
Personally, I feel this way frequently as I’m sure many of you can relate to as well. When I do get frustrated, it often helps me to take a moment and look back on how far we’ve come since the birth of the environmental movement. In the beginning, there was a far steeper climb in creating change locally, nationally and internationally. Many of the pioneers of the movement where scorned at and dismissed, in particular women. However they persevered and went on to improve their lives, health and environment with their determination.
In this article, I want to take a look of some of the female environmental activists that have inspired change, in order to allow us to borrow some of that wilful determination for times when ours is lacking. In the words of the American writer Toni Morrison,
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
Rachel Carson is probably one of the most recognised figures in influencing the birth of the environmental movement today. In 1962, she published her famed book “Silent Spring” which sold more than 2 million copies today. The book propelled the discussion of the safety of pesticides and chemical pollutants, in particular the pesticide DDT to the foreground of society.
After WWII, chemicals were being developed and used more and more, with their effects being slowly recognised and documented through fish kills and the destruction of ecosystems. As a marine biologist by training, Carson had a deep respect for nature. She began to question the effects of the pollutants were having on us and our environment through bioaccumulation.
The ideas she presented in this book were revolutionary to the public but a threat to the industries, research universities, the United States Agricultural Department and others who profited off relaxed chemical laws. These institutions attempted to discredit Carson’s training and her ideas even before the book was published. Satire comics were published in “Monsanto” of insects dominating the world and The Velsicol Chemical Corporation even tried to convince her publisher not to bring the book to print. Even more criticism came after the book’s success with negative book reviews and articles being printed in various outlets like Time and other peer reviewed scientific journals.
In spite of this unwarranted negative criticism and in some cases slander, Silent Spring still went on to shape the world we live in today. It has inspired provoking thought in others, creating movements of protests against pollution like Earth Day and which eventually evolved into national and international discussions like United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972.
Furthermore, in the 70’s a number of policies were created in the US such as the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, which at the time were absolutely revolutionary even at a global scale. Carson’s legacy is held within these policies, conferences and protests and I am certain her work will continue to inspire for years and generations to come.
In the 70’s, the women in the Chipko Movement made huge waves in the environmental movement in India. The Hindi word ‘chipko’ literally translates to ‘hugging’ which is exactly what these women did. Local women of the village Kashmir in the Himalayas, blocked their forests from deforestation that was going to be inflicted on the region by interposing themselves between the deforester’s machinery and the trees.
Initially, the odds of winning this battle towered over these women. The Simon Company, a private sporting goods company who was backed by the government, was given permission to fell 300 ash trees in the region. The women in Kashmire, like most rural villages, relied heavily on the forest for their livelihood – for instance, for fuel and food. This deforestation threatened that livelihood and so traditionally, as women were the caretakers of these affairs, they were also caretakers of the forest.
Their peaceful protest was a success and pushed back the workers who came to deforest the land. The permit given to The Simon Company was revoked by the Indian government. This victory then began the spread of the Chipko movement to other villages in the Himalayas, diversifying into new tactics such as raising funds and committing to research in to order to save the forests.
In 1983, the region Uttar Pradesh even achieved a 15 year ban on green felling enacted by Indira Gandhi.
Evidently, these women of the Himalayan villages through non-violent protest ignited huge change in India and sparked a national green movement. In the face of adversity, even when given written warnings to confine themselves to their homes and fields or even one of their leaders Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s life was threatened, they persevered and brought about conservation not only in their own communities but to other’s.
Lois Gibbs was a housewife, a member of her neighbourhood watch and the leader of the 3 year long protest against two powerful opponents, the US government and the Hooker Chemical Corporation. Her conflict against these corporations arose when she and many other residents of Love Canal, Upstate New York learned that they were living next to a chemical dumping ground. 20,000 tonnes of chemicals were dumped in the disused canal, mostly by the Hooker Chemical Corporation, the location of which lay under an elementary school where Gibb’s son attended. As her son was sickly, Lois Gibb was worried about the effect the chemical dumping ground had on her child. She immediately took this matter to the school after receiving two notes from her doctors stating that the child should move school. When the school denied Lois’s sons transfer, she began to make more drastic actions.
She founded the Love Canal’s Homeowner’s Association (LCHA) in 1978, consisting mainly of housewives in the area. It was founded in order to raise funds, gain media attention, organise protests and public speeches in an effort to have the citizens of Love Canal moved. They conducted their own research of the alarmingly high occurrence of birth defects and miscarriages in the Love Canal area and continued to lobby the American Government, demanding to be relocated due to the chemical contaminations.
After a tireless effort, Gibbs and LCHA were successful. Their leadership led to the relocation of 833 household and over 129 million dollars were distributed for the clean-up costs by the Federal Government. Lois’s influence can also be directly credited in the creation of crucial pieces of legislation such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986.
A seemingly ordinary woman and blue-collared community group were capable of invoking monumental change, keeping Love Canal a place in history for years to come.
In 2004, Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Noble Peace Prize as the founder of the Green Belt Movement. Maathai was a wilful force in politics and environmental conservation, opposing the Kenyan government’s attempt to build a skyscraper in Nairobi’s only park in 1980. Although the plan was eventually dropped, Maathai was found at a protest to be brutally beaten by police to the point of unconsciousness.
She founded the Green Belt movement in 1977, a movement which sought to empower women, create change in the community and reduce environmental degradation through planting trees. Although labelled as “subversive” by the government of Kenya at the time, the project has gone on to see amazing success in many parts of central Africa.
As of today, the Green Belt movement is responsible for the planting of 51 million trees in Kenya and empowering over 900,000 women. The additional forests provides more water retention in the soil, allowing the water table to recover from its once falling state due to deforestation, helping restoring receding streams and rivers. The trees also provided a source of income for women for timber in Kenya and allowed them to volunteer with the Green Belt Movement, giving them invaluable skills and knowledge in forestry, ecology and conservation. The movement went on to fight against land grabbing and the rapid rate of deforestation that is encroaching upon many African countries bordering on the Sahel, leaving them vulnerable to desertification and degradation.
Each of these women activists have instilled a great sense of pride in me of what one is capable of creating with by themselves, with our communities and governments. They continuously inspire me and I hope that some of what they have done will resonate with you the next time you feel dishearten by the mountains we must climb today.