LEAD Action News Vol 2 no 2 Autumn 1994
Women and the Environment
by Theresa Gordon
The following is from a speech given to CAPOW (Coalition of Australian Participating Organisations of Women) in 1993 by Theresa Gordon, one of the truly great Australian environmental campaigners. Theresa became a lead campaigner after growing up in the shadow of a lead zinc smelter.
It is a challenge being a messenger for the environment. It is virtually impossible not to paint a gloomy picture. To be knowledgeable on the environment is a very uncomfortable burden. Late last year 99 of the world's greatest scientists (many Nobel prize winners) got together to look at world wide environmental problems. The conclusion was; they warned that we only have 30 years before the world becomes very significantly qualitatively less habitable.
But speaking here today is different. Today is the day I get to talk about the environment in the only place that there is not only a world of hope but I believe it is one of the only places that there is hope, and that is in the united voice and strength of women.
I will speak later about the impact we as individuals and a group can have on the environment, but first I will look at the spiritual nature of environmental degradation.
In pre-Christian times the fertility of women and the earth were celebrated. The gods and goddesses were not distant gods of the sky but gods and goddesses of the earth connected to fundamentals of life such as the fertility of both the earth and women. At around the same time as Christianity took a dominating hold over these so called pagan attitudes, the powers of women as the healers and midwives were crushed by three hundred years of witch burnings during which 9 million European women were killed. This ever effective tool, fear, forced women to disconnect themselves from their skills and intuition, and as a consequence they became disempowered and devalued. We have since been dominated by patriarchies both within the church and the medical field, including birthing practices, technology, agriculture and society in general. The effect of this on the environment has seen man plunder and dominate, controlling and exploiting our natural resources. I believe women must regain power and also allow themselves to redevelop intuitive skills and not devalue our gift of nurturing. I also believe it is time to bring the gods (whatever doctrine) down out of the sky and connect them to the mother earth. We need to realise our spirituality should be connected to the air, the water and the land in a way that will ensure we no longer take these essential life giving elements for granted. We must look upon environmental degradation as a sin not only to our gods, but to ourselves.
This extract from a prayer by Michael Leunig, from his book A Common Prayer, although harsh, highlights for me the nature of our environmental sins.
Father do not forgive them for they know precisely
what they do.
It is true. There are no more excuses. We must stop and move towards positions. In this area we can learn much from the indigenous people of the world that have struggled against the tide to hold on to this gift of oneness that they still share with the earth and its elements. There is none more beautiful and powerful as our own Australian Aboriginal dreaming, to highlight what I mean. And as this year is the year of the indigenous people, it is a great opportunity to reach out and learn, and hopefully regain the feeling that we are a part of this complex web of life, and that we must stop the destructive domination of our natural resources.
On a more practical level, we must look at women's place in the environmental debate today. "Women are the mainstay of the majority of current programmes for environmental conservation in Australia. Household recycling, tree-planting programmes, Landcare groups and domestic energy conservation are activities in which most of the actual work is done in a voluntary capacity by women. Yet the great majority of waste production, land development and energy use is in industry, in which women hold few decision-making positions" [Brown & Broom, 1992] This serious imbalance must be addressed. Women also have to cope with conflicting environmental messages. "As the principal teachers and managers of households, we are expected to practice recycling, reusing and renewing materials and reducing consumption, so that our impact on the earth is less" [Brown & Broom, 1992] Yet we are expected to do these things in an environment that continually subjects us and our families to messages of wasteful hyper-consumerism. It is not an easy job to find a balanced perspective. Do we pour phosphates into our mop buckets and washing machines everyday and therefore be party to toxic algal blooms? Or do we use more environmentally friendly detergents which do not remove the lead dust?
An ominous trend is developing that is seeing women being handed the burden of responsibility and guilt for environmental matters. "Manufacturers should be held responsible for their environmentally damaging products. We must not allow the onus to be put on women to solve problems such as domestic waste when it is the manufacturers who create waste." [Brown & Broom, 1992] This is where women's groups working together can make the difference. If the groups represented here today put collective energy into the forcing of legislation to combat excess packaging and ban heavy metals from packaging inks and adhesives, it would not only be helping the environment. but also telling governments that women will not allow themselves to be used.
As some of you may be aware, I have been involved for two years with the problem of lead contamination in the Boolaroo area. The situation at Boolaroo is again one that is seeing housekeepers, whom we all know are mainly women, being handed the area's problem. When the discovery was made that the majority of the children had excessive blood lead levels, the answer came in the form of "behavioural guidelines". This means training the house keeper, changing behavioural patterns so that a family can learn to safely live with lead. This includes damp mopping daily, damp wiping all food preparation surfaces before preparing food, washing children's hands frequently, washing all toys frequently, only vacuuming whilst children are out of the room...the list goes on, but I would think that you get the idea. This has neatly handed the burden of responsibility onto women. Of course, what happens when some poor woman does all she can humanly possibly do, and her child's blood lead level does not come down? Well, she can blame herself.
Last year at the Speers Point Park annual Environfest, I overheard a conversation at a company display. Some women were enquiring about the problem of children's lead levels. They were told by the industry representative that there was nothing to worry about because the children that had high blood lead levels came from dirty homes. He didn't mention that the Industry emits 30 tonnes of lead from the stack each year, along with an estimated additional 15 tonnes of uncontrollable emission from buildings. You still may be thinking "Behavioural guidelines" seem a sensible short term solution. Well yes, but they were never originally offered as short term, and the NO LEAD group thought it prudent to make a fuss to ensure that the words "short term" accompanied these guidelines after finding out the women of Port Pirie in SA have been following behavioural guidelines for fourteen years. Two years down the track, in Boolaroo, behavioural guidelines are still all that has been offered, along with a lot of research, and there has been no change in blood lead levels.
They knew from Port Pirie that these guidelines were largely ineffective and unsustainable, but they do effectively shift the burden of responsibility, and relieve the pressure of obligation to do something about the cause. Whether it has to do with waste management or contaminated sites, we must stop this insidious shifting of the burden of guilt and responsibility onto women. It is happening, it is serious, and we must again take collective action to halt this becoming normal practice.
There are, however, obvious and important individual actions which we should take responsibility for, such as recycling, reusing, reducing, composting and conserving. But I believe that, along with the usual preaching of these practices, it should be pointed out that it is not easy to do all these things, and that it is yet another burden for women to handle. So I would like to say again, try to find the balance. Don't expect yourself to do everything instantly, and don't feel guilty if you find something is too much. It would be negligent to make no effort at all, but it is enough to set realistic goals and chip away at your own pace.
It is also very much the time for women to reach in and use their intuition and common-sense to decipher the truth on environmental matters. The unfortunate situation is that the vast amount of research money lies with the multinational companies. International truth has been, and continues to be, distorted time and time again. I will give only a few examples out of the many which I have experienced in my own issue. In an area that found a lead industry not wanting to rehabilitate toxic soils, they produced a report which concluded that lead in air has more impact on children's health than lead in soil. In the case that finds an industry not wanting to bring down emissions, they produced a report which concluded that avoiding soil and dust exposure is more important to children's health than lead in air. Similar situations can be found for pesticide use, herbicides, effects on water quality... the list is endless. Along with vested interest come the many reports supporting the appropriate weight of evidence to suit. So it is time to ask. firstly, who may have funded this study and who would benefit from this result? Then use your own judgement and stick to it. I suggest this is prudent practice in health matters as well as environmental. The cold hard facts are that governments cannot afford to produce enough independent research to keep abreast of the times, and this offers the advantage to industry.
Apart from the outward practical things we must do, we also, as educators, nurturer's and givers of life, must take the responsibility of helping ourselves and our families cease taking for granted the basic gifts that this earth and this life hold for us. We must connect our human spirit with our physical environment.
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