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Women, Warriors and War in a Warming World

Wednesday, 23 March 2022  | Claire Harvey

Back when I lived in Melbourne’s bible belt (the Eastern suburbs), I had opportunity to house-sit for an American family living on the Mornington Peninsula. These friends generously invited others to ‘mind’ their home while they went back to the States to see family and friends over the Australian summer. There were no pets to mind, and not even really many precious plants to water; they were just community-minded people who knew that a week nearer to the beach might be a timely blessing to folk, especially those on lower incomes. They were used to having regular guests in their home, and accordingly they’d developed a reasonably comprehensive ‘how to’ guide for visitors, including a warning that the wash cycles on their front loader took an eternity (they were most certainly right). But I clearly remember one helpful, summative statement, toward the end of the document, which was that as much as they weren’t asking for much in return, they encouraged guests to leave their home better than they found it. I thought this was a lovely ethic for guests, indeed for human beings in communities everywhere. The same approach could certainly be encouraged in workplace kitchens, or anywhere there are shared facilities.

A matter of justice

Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it might look like for us, as a species, to adhere to a similar ethic with respect to our ecological home: planet earth. Rather confrontingly, national Earth Overshoot Day, for us here in Australia, this year falls in the middle of Lent (March 23). For those unfamiliar with it, Earth Overshoot Day estimates “the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year”. The Australian date provides a reflection of where that date would fall if all of humanity lived like us Aussies. This is effectively a different way of illustrating the more familiar carbon footprint equation, i.e., if everyone lived like us we’d need 4.5 planets. While it’s obviously a very inexact science, especially with lags in the supply of accurate annual data, the message for us is really very clear: not only are we failing to leave our planet better than we found it, we are effectively running up a massive ecological debt. As this date falls earlier and earlier with each passing year, the cumulative debt grows bigger and bigger. Except that debts are things we accrue with the intention of eventual repayment. Which is now simply beyond us, all things being equal.

Until quite recently, I think many folk might have questioned the legitimacy of this whole Earth Overshoot paradigm, on the basis of our lives still - on the whole - working out just fine. Sure, some are doing it tough, but most can still access what they need for a reasonably good life. At least most of the people we know, in our privileged little bubbles. However, the inconvenient and harsh truth is that it is predominantly others who pay, downstream from us, to prop up our material existence. It is the world’s poorest, who live in what Naomi Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, and it will also be the generations to come, who are set to inherit a ‘used up earth’ (to borrow a phrase from the musician Sting). I would suggest we’re a long way from living lives that depict much faithfulness in loving these particular neighbours of ours. Yet isn’t loving our neighbour at the core of what we’re called to, as disciples of Christ? Was Jesus not sufficiently clear in articulating that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable (Matt 22:36-40)? Or are we still, like the experts in the law in Jesus’ day, trying to split hairs over who even qualifies as ‘neighbour’?

That said, recent years have perhaps hit the message home that we, the affluent, are not immune from the effects of destablised ecosystems, and our neighbours in need of help might be closer to us than we’d like to think. Just ask those in our own country who have lost everything in fires or floods, or whose homes are at significant risk of becoming uninsurable in the near future. It is increasingly clear that we will all suffer for our propensity to live beyond our ecological means, however the impacts will be dished out in ways that are incredibly unjust, often highly unpredictable and seem increasingly cruel. I think it is time to call this burgeoning ecological debt what it actually is: theft. We steal from others more vulnerable than us the opportunity to live well, all so that we can continue to enjoy incredible material comfort and profit from the conveniences of the modern economy (think single use disposable coffee cups for a start: 2.7 million of these are ‘consumed’ every day in Australia alone).

Our predicament, and our complicity in the suffering of all of creation - God’s good creation that is home to us all - should make us weep.

Which brings me back to Lent, a time of solemnity and of sacrifice, pointing back to the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. It would seem that ‘going without’ is a discipline we would be wise to reclaim. We could certainly start by learning to live with less. Lent is also a time of looking forward, in focused anticipation, to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a time of reflection and of preparation. And as much as Easter does not mark the start of a new liturgical year, some of us are overdue for a reality check around the things we take for granted, particularly the excesses that have been normalised in so called ‘developed’ economies. It’s not just time for confession and contrition, but for penitence and action, and for recalibrating our expectations. Perhaps this Lenten season, and Easter itself, could become a catalyst for real and lasting change.

Women on the frontline

Dr Lara Stevens’ excellent article, Motherhood in a Climate Crisis, highlights the vital role of mothers as warriors at the forefront of advocacy and activism. So it’s perhaps appropriate to vent some of my rage that International Women’s Day (IWD) has been sneakily co-opted by a corporate platform, drawing attention away from the actual theme set by the founding organisation UN Women that launched the IWD concept in 1977. This year I participated in a number of IWD events where the theme was widely promoted as being #BreakTheBias. This idea in itself isn’t bad - there are certainly still biases that need to be challenged and broken. I was just frustrated to learn - all a little too late, or so it felt - that we’d been robbed of a wonderful opportunity to recognise the crucial link between gender equality and sustainability, which was the actual topic designated by the UN for IWD 2022. March 8 was supposed to be the day for recognising ‘the contribution of women and girls around the world, who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response, to build a more sustainable future for all’.

As someone who has actively worked for stronger action on climate change for several years, within my home, through my vocation and within the broader community, I didn’t feel I could let this opportunity just pass us by. That in itself would have felt like another deep injustice! Women are so often at the frontlines of community-led efforts to work for a more stable and secure future, on behalf of all of our children and those who follow. We donate. We gather. We strategise. We circulate petitions. We volunteer on committees. We campaign. Some knit. Some write. Some dress up as climate guardian angels and politely harass politicians!

Hastings, Victoria - 2015: these Climate Guardian angels expected they might be up there well into the evening. I visited to drop ‘up’ a blanket and umbrella, and to cheer them on. Image credit: Counteract.

Women also often lead decision-making processes within households about the environmental impact of various purchasing decisions, whether it be utility providers or chemical use or food miles or nappy use. It becomes a part of our emotional labour. Don’t get me wrong - there are certainly many men who care and lead and act: I see them, acknowledge them and hold them in very high regard. However, despite this fight for our survival being the great moral issue of our times (as per Kevin Rudd, all the way back in 2007), environmental activism is a work that still too often remains unseen and under-valued. This still, so often, remains the case with what has traditionally been ‘women’s work’ in the nurturing and caring realm.

Contrast this to the defense force personnel who also fight to preserve our way of life for future generations. The ADF has about 85,000 full-time employees and reservists, who receive a salary for their work, along with training and uniforms and badges of honour (not to mention shrines and RSL clubs and special pensions and retirement homes). They serve their government and their country and are respected and remunerated accordingly. In contrast it seems those called to action on climate, and environmental protection more generally, are increasingly working in opposition to our own elected parliamentarians! How else are we to interpret last week’s Federal Court decision that our Federal Environment Minister ‘does not have a duty of care to protect young people from climate change when assessing fossil fuel projects’?

Grief and hope

It is quite possible, at this point, that some readers might take me as a riled-up eco-feminist. I confess to feeling angry. I care about our planet, our shared home. And yes, I deeply desire equal opportunities for women. But sitting just under the surface of my rage is grief. A deep, unceasing, river of grief.

I want you to know about Berta Cáceres, the indigenous leader and environmental activist from Honduras. I want you to know that she won the Goldman Prize in 2015 for her work to defend the habitat and rights of the Lenca people. And I want you to know that she was assassinated in her home - in response to this service to her people. I want you to know the names of her four children, Olivia, Bertha, Laura and Salvador, who now live without their courageous and compassionate mother. It was only last July that the man who plotted her death was brought to justice: he was an executive of the hydroelectric corporation DESA that builds dams as renewable energy projects. Unfortunately, this incident is not isolated, and it is not yet a thing of the past. In fact 2021 is estimated as being the worst year on record for the number of deaths of environmental activists. It may not have been declared a war, but all over the globe battles rage over lands and rivers and forests and habitats. Unsung heroes risk their livelihoods and their lives.

This is serious stuff. We’re talking about the difference between life and death, certainly for those on the front lines, but also for those downstream from us without power or privilege, especially the world’s poor.

Well known climate scientists such as Tim Flannery have expressed that more confronting than climate science itself is the inaction in response to the clear and present dangers, especially here in Australia, and especially by our own Federal Government. Our government’s failure to act seriously and urgently to reduce the risk of harm through an altered, hostile, climate is both bewildering and terrifying. The sense of powerlessness to effect change is not only demoralising, but can become paralysing. US lawyer and conservationist David Buckle had hoped that his life, and more so his death, would send a clear and urgent message to the world and galvanise action on climate change. It may certainly be the case that people are reluctant to glorify death by suicide in any way, but contrary to his intentions, his death by self-immolation largely went unnoticed by the global community. Perhaps you could remember him, on April 14, which will mark 4 years since his death? Perhaps you could recall his own tragic choice to break his own body, and lay down his own life, for the sake of our common future?

And of course, as we journey through Lent, toward Easter, we fix our eyes very much on Jesus, the name above all names, whose own body was broken for our incredibly broken world. We know that this Lenten journey doesn’t end with death, but with the deep hope of resurrection life: life in all its fullness. It’s my suspicion that we all need this life-changing, narrative flipping kinda hope more than ever before. And, if you take time to look deeply into the diverse fabric of your local community, I guarantee you’ll find people of hope, working for change, investing in regenerative practices, looking to restore and renew, for the sake of our collective future. Imagine what newness might spring to life if we were to focus our attention there, and to join our efforts with theirs, embodying a deep and abiding hope that goes way beyond chocolate bunnies and easter egg hunts?



Claire Harvey is a part of The Village Church in Mount Eliza, where the challenge of climate change gets a mention most Sundays. She is mother to two, and serves on Frankston City Council and the Ethos Board. Her COVID survival hacks have included growing food and 10kms a day on a second-hand exercise bike. Her over-thinking time includes wondering whether her long-held dream of building a co-housing community in central Frankston will ever become a reality…


Main image credit: 'Activism is a way that the Tender Hearted deal with grief.' Artwork by Leaf Klevjer. Used with permission.

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