Environmentalist Science: Anti-Development, Anti-Western, Anti-Science

In March of this year, an Open Letter signed by 265 Canadian academics urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not to provide an economic bail-out to Alberta’s oil and gas industry, instead allowing it, along with its many energy and economic benefits, to die out in favor of “sustainable economies.” Alleging that the oil industry is already over-subsidized and will soon be out-competed by “climate-friendly energy sources,” the letter advised the federal government to retrain fossil fuel workers and invest in renewables.

The letter was written by two University of Alberta professors: Laurie Adkin, Professor of Political Science, and Debra Davidson, Professor of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. One can only hope that, if their plan for gutting Alberta’s major industry comes to fruition, these two social scientists will be some of the first redundant employees to have a taste of their recommended “retraining.” 

It may seem bizarre that so many academics are reflexively opposed to oil and gas development despite having little or no scientific background, little knowledge of the industry, and only a passing acquaintance with the presumed viability of alternative sources. 

But what these academics have in common is immersion in radical environmentalism, which opposes the oil industry as a white male technology seeking to “dominate” the earth. The extent of the takeover of environmental studies by presuppositions that are explicitly anti-development, and actually anti-scientific, deserves to be taken very seriously.

Feminist eco-criticism is a major framework of environmental studies that claims to chart a more sustainable and socially just future. It rejects much of traditional science in favor of a feminist, anti-colonial approach not because feminist theories are more reliable or objective but because they are avowedly feminist. It stresses the need for “indigenous knowledges, local perspectives, or alternative narratives,” not because these are more trustworthy or replicable but because they are “indigenous” and “alternative.” The anti-science bias is overt and unashamed.

A few years ago, an article funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation called “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,” was published in the journal Progress in Human Geography. Though it caused much hilarity in the wider non-academic community, few people took the time to read it in full as a window onto an influential pseudo-science with wide academic appeal. The article proposes that feminist science (more specifically “feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology”) is necessary to achieve a “more just and equitable science.”

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According to authors Mark Carey, M. Jackson, Alessandro Antonello, and Jaclyn Rushing, feminist science sees story-telling as equally important as the gathering, collection, and interpretation of measurable data. In the specific context of glaciers, but with relevance to science overall, the authors tell us that scientists must place new emphasis on “knowledge that has been marginalized or deemed ‘outside’ of traditional glaciology." 

The assumption throughout the article is that scientific knowledge is never arrived at in a neutral or objective manner. All scientific processes and results are political, formed through systems of “power, domination, colonialism and control—undergirded by and coincident with masculinist ideologies." This is by now a familiar feminist assertion, a respectable part of what passes for academic truth: that science is untrustworthy because it is white and male.  

The answer to the alleged “masculinist” (and colonialist) bias of science is not to attempt greater objectivity, transparency, or openness. Rather, it is to surrender objectivity altogether in favor of female and non-white perspectives, which are asserted to be “crucial” to the scientific enterprise. Why are they crucial? In an act of classic circular reasoning, the authors state that they are “crucial” because they have historically been “marginalized.” In their words,

The feminist lens is crucial given the historical marginalization of women…. Additionally, the feminist perspective seeks to uncover and embrace marginalized knowledges and alternative narratives, which are increasingly needed for effective global environmental change research.

In other words, what has been typically excluded from science must be included for no other reason than that it has been typically excluded.

Marginalize this.

The article’s authors do not deem it necessary to show specifically how white male science has failed us—they simply point to the alleged “climate crisis”—or how women and non-white peoples will bring something to environmental science that white men lack. We are simply told, for example, that white male science has achieved a false authority, with “credibility… attributed to research produced through typically masculinist activities or manly characteristics, such as heroism, risk, conquests, strength, self-sufficiency, and exploration." Additionally, the authors claim in an astoundingly simplistic caricature that:

[T]he Baconian view of knowledge engendered a strong tendency in the environmental sciences to classify, measure, map and, ideally, dominate and control nonhuman nature as if it were a knowable and predictable machine, rather than dynamic, chaotic, unpredictable, and coupled natural-human systems. 

It is arresting to see authors criticizing science for its interest in knowing nature (!) and alarming to sense the sneering objection to human attempts to “dominate and control nonhuman nature.” Do these authors believe that it is better not to know nature—or that human beings will be better off if, instead of seeking to control nature, we allow ourselves to be controlled by it?

This question is never explicitly answered, but readers are invited to consider projects that explore “how ice may be meaningful and significant beyond common efforts of control and domination." The article describes the goal of feminist environmentalism to be “the unsettling of Eurocentric knowledges, the questioning of dominant assumptions, and the diversification of modes and methods of knowledge production through the incorporation of everyday lived experiences, storytelling, narrative, and visual methods." In other words: not much actual science, and a lot of sentimental puffery about women, stories, and folk wisdom.

The basis of the article’s claims—that people have knowledge that is inseparable from their particular identity categories as European, non-European, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, male or female, and that knowledge is valuable mainly when it contests dominant assumptions and is produced by black, female, or Indigenous people—is embarrassingly retrograde, scientifically untenable, and asserted rather than logically defended. The authors of the article even lament that in a particular study of climate change in Tibet, female Tibetan herders consistently refused to be interviewed, “citing their own lack of knowledge." For the authors, it seems, these women who did not want to be interviewed about climate change were crucial sources of “alternative knowledges,” if only they had recognized the fact, and if only their male-dominated culture had celebrated them for it. 

In another part of the article, the authors write with evident respect of a study of Indigenous women’s climate knowledge in Canada’s Yukon, in which the Indigenous women spoke of local glaciers as “willful, capricious” beings, warning the researcher “about firm taboos against ‘cooking with grease’ near glaciers that are offended by such smells” and explaining that “[c]ooked food, especially fat, might grow into a glacier overnight if improperly handled."

No cooking with grease, the glaciers don't like it.

Don’t laugh. This is dead serious.

Like the feminist, anti-white, and postcolonial theories from which it springs, feminist environmentalism relies on many such non-scientific, unproven and unprovable ideas. It accepts that women and non-white peoples have been excluded from western science due to its white and masculinist biases; furthermore, it accepts that “subjugated knowledges”—including fanciful notions about fat and glaciers—are crucial for improving scientific research. It seems that science itself is far less important than the political claims that can be made on its behalf.  

The authors’ willingness to rely on anecdotal and experiential rather than scientifically replicable studies is particularly concerning here. At one point, referring to a video project that explored Indigenous perceptions of climate change, the authors celebrate the project’s focus on women’s voices despite the apparent banality of the women’s observations. They report that “Knowledge about changing climatic conditions and glaciers varied among the women involved, with one participant appreciating the warmer weather at high elevation, another lamenting the loss of a glacial lake for its hydrologic impacts, and another who inhabited an urban area being largely unfamiliar with nearby environmental changes." These non-scientific observations are acclaimed as “divergent local voices” that significantly “diversify” and “localize” so-called “scientific” information. 

Carey et al. thus enthusiastically propose an alarming future for climate change research in which political correctness is valued more than sound, usable science. The anti-male and anti-western animus on display here is so profound that one suspects nearly any regressive outcome would be acceptable so long as the methods are ideologically pure. No wonder so many academics can blithely call for the destruction of the oil industry, with its enormous benefits to Canadian health, security, and energy production. Ultimately, the anti-scientific basis of the feminist strand of environmental research poses a threat to civilization itself.

How Feminism Distorts Environmental Science

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a great deal about women in environmental science, and about the need to get more women into environmental science, with the clear implication that women bring something to research and policy on the environment that men don’t bring. 

We’ve been informed of “5 Women Environmental Leaders You Should Know” and invited to “Meet 4 Inspirational Women Working in Environmental Science Today.” Articles that profile such scientists abound, almost always including a discussion of the (allegedly unique) “challenges” the women faced in a male-dominated field, with exhortations about how such challenges can be overcome, almost always through state and global initiatives that benefit women by providing them with money and opportunities not available to their male colleagues. 

The alleged distinctiveness of women’s scientific perspective is a never-challenged assumption in many policy documents and political proclamations. An article outlining why “[w]e need to build more networks of women in science” predictably informs readers that women are “far more nuanced in [their] approach to just about anything, including science,” which is why “environmental science can only become stronger if we have more women in research, because [women] often bring the human angle into the science.” The male angle, apparently, is somewhat less than human. Keystone Environmental, a Canadian company that helps businesses comply with environmental regulations, echoes the mantra, saying that “there is a need for more women and girls” in the field.

Getting the female perspective.

World agencies and organizations are responding to such unabashedly partisan (and evidence-lite) claims with initiatives to promote opportunities for women. The United Nations has declared February 11 to be International Day of Women and Girls in Science; and its 2019 theme made the point even sharper: “Investment in Women and Girls in Science for Inclusive Green Growth.” The website admits that despite committed effort in “inspiring and engaging women and girls in science,” they “continue to be excluded from participating fully.” They offer little to corroborate this claim, but we are assured that “long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are steering girls and women away from science-related fields.” The idea that women might be somewhat less interested than men in certain types of scientific study, including some areas of environmental science, is never considered.

Citing the principle that “[w]e cannot afford to deprive ourselves of the talents of half of humanity,” UNESCO funds lavish awards for female scientists around the world. Its webpage reveals that “Since its creation in 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme has distinguished 112 eminent women at the height of their scientific careers and supported more than 3,300 promising young women scientists from over 110 countries.” Participating nations have followed suit with state-funded programs, scholarship, and grants. Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council outlines a variety of monetary and other incentives designed to “increase the participation of women in science and engineering, and to provide role models.” 

Beyond the feel-good hoopla, these costly female-only programs are based on a set of untested assumptions about women and the environment that are as bigoted and misguided as they are widely accepted, if sometimes unconsciously. For decades, radical feminist ideologues have claimed that both women and nature are oppressed and have been made to serve men’s needs. Men’s sacrifices and good-faith efforts to build societies in which women and children could flourish are never acknowledged. Although not all female scientists are feminist ideologues, a great many have been influenced by feminist doctrine.

A specific branch of feminist theory called ecofeminism alleges that only the full liberation of women from male control can likewise liberate and “save” the environment. According to this theory, the idea of the natural world as a resource to be exploited for human benefit partakes of the same worldview that sees women as the property of men to be exploited for male pleasure. 

Ecofeminists such as Carolyn Merchant, Mary Daly, and Vandana Shiva observe that nature in western culture is frequently represented as an untamed female entity, requiring male control. They claim that western men have tended to impose hierarchical structures to bind the feminine in all its forms and deny the interconnections between human and non-human nature through actions, resulting in horrific environmental damage. 

Women, on the other hand, have a different (and, from their perspective, superior) appreciation of the intimate connections between all living things, partly because of their sensitive, nurturing natures and their role as child bearers. French feminist theorist Francoise d’Eaubonne, for one, insisted that women would create a much-needed ecological revolution to bring about justice for all marginalized and exploited beings.

Inherently male and rapacious?

Such feminist perspectives are at their root confessedly anti-male, anti-western, anti-industrial, and anti-capitalist. At their most radical, they reject all exploration, development, and utilization of the earth for the purposes of energy and wealth creation. Activities such as drilling, mining, extraction, and the construction of pipelines are seen as inherently male and rapacious. Some feminists even reject what they refer to as “western science,” which they claim is merely a projection of the flawed masculine way of perceiving nature. Though most feminist scientists and scientific agencies do not express such an extreme position, many of them actively seek to minimize the achievements of male scientists in favor of female, place women in visible positions of leadership mainly because of their sex, and transfer resources and authority to women on the assumption that women care more about children, and thus the future, and therefore make more compassionate stewards of the environment.  

In a recent example of such a female-centric view, CNN reported on an all-female crew that is “sailing the world” to research plastic pollution in sea water. The clear implication of the story was that women who exclude men from their research expeditions deserve public admiration and applause for their daring. I found it impossible to imagine men posturing and patting themselves on the back for doing anything as men, and expecting praise for it. “The days feel longer at sea. You really have an opportunity to connect with nature,” claims an enthusiastic female voice at the video clip’s opening. Soon we see the smiling face of a young woman, Emily Penn, the co-founder of Exxpedition (note the reference to women’s two X chromosomes), a series of all-women teams sailing the world to study plastics and toxins. Here we have a made-for-United Nations feminist fantasy. 

Why are men excluded from these crews, and how is such exclusion a laudable scientific development? It’s never made clear, but it is suggested that women have a deeper passion for the environment and, relatedly, that women are more seriously impacted by ocean pollution, especially by the micro-plastics under study. These plastics, we learn, break down in the ocean, bind with toxic chemicals, and are ultimately ingested by human beings, where they mimic the body’s hormones and interrupt its chemical messages. “I realized that being a woman, having those chemicals inside my body during pregnancy would be really bad news,” Penn asserts, explaining why she came to see ocean plastics as a “female-centered” issue.   

Are men not affected by the chemical-plastic stew? Are their bodies invulnerable to endocrine disruption and its implications for reproductive health? Penn doesn’t say, and doesn’t seem to care. In this case and elsewhere, the frequently heard claim that women are more empathetic and bring a human perspective to science seems to apply only to issues affecting women. Where men are concerned, feminist compassion quickly runs dry.

The story, furthermore, implies that Penn and her fellow female researchers are breaking new ground in analyzing this problem. No mention is made of the very significant work already being done by male scientists not only in highlighting the issue but actually seeking to solve it. We hear nothing, for instance, of Boyan Slat, the Dutch inventor who, at age 18 in 2013, founded The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit foundation involving some 90 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modelers who have developed systems to remove plastic from the world’s oceans before it breaks down into micro-plastics. 

It’s hard to imagine young Boyan making a self-satisfied show of his maleness, deliberately choosing an all-male crew, or claiming that he is interested in plastics because they disproportionately affect the male sex. It would be bizarre if he did. So why is the inverse claim—that women should and do care particularly about women—seen as admirable? In my opinion, it is evidence of a deplorable narcissism.  

There is nothing wrong with encouraging women, at least those with the necessary talent and dedication, to seek out careers in environmental science. But a preoccupation with women’s allegedly greater care for our world distorts our understanding of the real (and fake) environmental challenges we face; and the frequently-heard claim that we need to access all the world’s available talent is belied by the focus on women only (how many talented young men will thereby be neglected?).

Even more seriously, the idea that there is something wrong with male perspectives and “western” science is alarmingly regressive, grounded in female supremacist fantasies and long-standing anti-male resentment. These feminist biases are unscientific to the core, and their impact on environmental research and policy are likely to be wasteful and counter-productive, if not downright disastrous, in the long term.