Episode 21: How Women Built the Environmental Movement
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Dr. Tina Sikka
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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In this episode, the hosts talk about the long history of women advocating for nature and wildlife conservation, and how these early women paved the way for our current environmental justice movements. Dr. Tina Sikka joins in to talk about feminist science as a remedy for anthropogenic climate change.
“The Mouse’s Petition” by Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Science, Animal Sympathy, and Anna Barbauld’s “The Mouse’s Petition” by Mary Ellen Bellanca
Fowl Intentions: Fashion, Activism, Conservation by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
Race, Class, Gender, and American Environmentalism by Dorceta E. Taylor
Speaking For Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England by Sylvia Bowerbank
Transcription by Rev.com
Rebecca: Welcome to episode 21 of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topic centered on women and gender in the history, and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.
Anna: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I am a historian, a writer, and an editor. And I study 20th century American culture and the history of the American space program.
Leila: I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science.
Rebecca: And I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums in public history, around the internet and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. So since it's summer, and it's hot, and I can guarantee you it's hot here in Philadelphia, I made the mistake of stepping outside earlier today, and that was silly. Anyway, not a particular compelling tie-in, but hard not to point it out. So today, we're going to be talking about the environmental movement and climate change. So we'll be going over some of the many different ways that women throughout history have engaged with nature and how they've shaped environmental and climate justice movements that we have today.
Rebecca: Then a little later researcher Tina Sikka will be joining us to talk about her book, Climate Technology, Gender, and Justice: The Standpoint of the Vulnerable, and how feminist approaches to science can help us tackle climate change. We'll be diving into some pretty crunchy feminist theory in that segment. So if you're into that sort of thing then you're definitely in for a treat.
Anna: In the United States at least the story of environmentalism sort of typically begins in the 1960s with Rachel Carson, and the publication of her book Silent Spring. And of course Carson and her book were an important turning point in American culture, and in the environmental movement, but before Carson, women had always been leaders in environmental activism for more than a century. Always more than a century, whatever, you get it. They organized for bird conservation, they campaigned against animal cruelty, they wrote popular science books, and spicy poetry that lampooned male scientists, and they spearheaded legislation for unadulterated food and housing regulation.
Anna: So all of these things actually shaped, and built the movements that we have today for environmentalism, even if they don't sort of necessarily conform to what we think of as the environmental movement would be chaining yourself to a bulldozer or something. But before we get into who some of these women were and what they did, I think we should just back up a little bit and look at the unique cultural relationship that women have had with nature to kind of help us understand how and why some of these earlier women engaged with nature and science in the way that they did.
Rebecca: Yeah. So since basically forever, both science, and sort of general culture have connected women, and the nonhuman natural world in predictably oppressive ways. The line of thinking kind of goes something like this. Women, like nature, are unknowable and mysterious. Our wombs are magical cauldrons of reproduction and our bodies are haunted by specters of hysteria. So all of this stuff we talk a lot about and is pretty familiar to longtime Lady Science fans I'm sure.
Rebecca: Unsurprisingly, since men were the ones running around calling women mysterious. Men are also the ones investigating the mystery. And many scientists took it upon themselves to discover women secrets, and ultimately control them. And at the same time they're looking at ways to control nature, and often end up conflating the two. So for one particularly terrible example in the 17th century, Francis Bacon who is often called the father of modern science used a rape metaphor to illustrate man's power over nature. Blegh.
Rebecca: A couple hundred years later Charles Darwin and his German colleague Karl Vogt both placed women lower in evolutionary hierarchy because of course they did. Vogt wrote we may be sure that whenever we perceive an approach to the animal type, the female is nearer to it than the man. Meanwhile, in the field of psychology, Havelock Ellis, and isn't that a name, echoed the sentiment. He wrote, “Women are for men, the embodiments of the restrictive responsiveness to nature. To every man, the women whom he loves is as the earth is to her legendary son. He has but to fall down and kiss her breast, and he is strong again.”
Rebecca: Women's inferior place in society and relegation to the home could also be justified by her lower rung on the evolutionary ladder and her emotional and nurturing biological nature. It's just science guys. In the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir put it like this, “Woman is the privileged object through which man subdues nature.”
Leila: So what's actually interesting is that despite how oppressive this connection between women and nature has been, it was exactly this position in nature and society that gave women unique perspectives to engage in environmental activism. And that's not because women are essentially, quote unquote, “more natural” but because they're inferior position in society and culture next to nature has shaped their approaches to it. And because women were seen as the human embodiment of non-human nature, they were ironically placed in a position of authority to speak on behalf of it, and sometimes we mean that quite literally.
Leila: One example of this literal speaking for nature is Anna Leticia Barbauld 1771 poem, The Mouse's Petition, and she writes this poem from the perspective of a captive mouse that was intended for scientific experimentation. And she addresses it specifically to the famous chemist, Joseph Priestley. So one night Barbauld went over to Priestley's house for dinner, and afterwards as one does, he brought out a mouse that he intended to use in an experiment the next day and showed it to Barbauld. And these experiments included experiments with gases, and air pumps, and all sorts of things that are not great for animals to be caught up in.
Leila: So that night Barbauld wrote The Mouse's Petition, and as the story goes she shoved it between the wires of the mouse's cage so that Priestley would find it the next morning, and speaking as the mouse in the poem, Barbauld argues for the mouse's release. And allegedly Priestley was so moved that he did let the mouse go.
Anna: So Priestley was, I think very much what we think of when we think of this like man of modern science. He wrote, "the immediate use of natural science as the power it gives us over nature "in his book The History and Present of Electricity. But Barbauld writes in the poem that this is actually quote a strong and oppressive force that shouldn't capture in cage, in this case a mouse. So she already has like a very different idea of what science should be about than Priestley and the way that she kind of expresses this is by writing on behalf of the mouse that he wants to experiment on.
Anna: So Barbauld is writing to Priestley at a time when debates about the use of non-human creatures and science were really ramping up, and it was largely women who were sort of turning up the heat on this. Barbauld and other women couldn't respond to scientists in the laboratory or in the pages of journals because they weren't welcome there. So poetry offered women an avenue for dissent. And what's also interesting about the poem about the mouse is the context in which Barbauld wrote it, she did it in a domestic space in the dining room and at meal time, and kind of keeping with the expectations of her sort of feminine domesticity. This is the place from which she makes her argument.
Leila: Yeah. One thing that like I think it's important to highlight is like because nature and science were so gendered that like women experienced both of those things very differently than men did. And that's one of those things like was shaping their approaches to nature. It also shaped their approach to science which was that oppressive force on nature.
Anna: Well, I can kind of imagine Barbauld like listening to Priestley yammer on about what he's gonna do to this mouse, and really feeling like you're in that you could be in the same position as the mouse because you've been told your entire life that you're just this like kind of almost an animal yourself because you're a woman. So you're just sitting there and he's like, “Yeah. I'm going to put it in this jar, and then we're going to suck all the air out and see what happens.” I really wish you wouldn't do that.
Leila: This is also around the same time when the debates about abolishing the transatlantic slave trade was going on, and Barbauld was involved in that as well. So you see kind of a connection between like her liberation of animals and liberation of people going hand-in-hand. That was kind of like a thing that was really prominent among a lot of women activists and suffragists is that they were also… A lot of them were also involved in some sort of environmental conservation type of effort as well. Those things didn't necessarily seem like they were separate avenues for activism that they were kind of related in a way.
Rebecca: And frankly it seems like it's… Because in a funny way society set it up that way. It's like you were saying earlier, Anna, that if women, and nature are one in the same or more closely connected then the preservation rights of those things is also interconnected, and women are going to notice that.
Leila: And it's not like… Obviously they were very like… This wasn't like subtext that when people were talking about women and nature as being connected. They were like… It was very explicit these types of things.
Anna: There are lots of paintings and statues that were very obvious about that connection.
Leila: So if we jump ahead a little bit to the 19th century, this trend of women speaking for nature continues, and many other women also used poetry to register their dissent for science. There's so much poetry during this time, in this vein. But with the rise of the steam-powered printing press and a popularity of the popular press, women started publishing more books and magazine articles in order to organize and raise awareness for nature conservation even though they were still largely barred from publishing an academic journal. So this was kind of a way that they could get their voices out there to a larger audience even though they weren't allowed to do so in journals.
Leila: So in fact we owe many of our bird legislative protections to women in this period who popularized the practice of birding through popular science writing and organizing. In England, women made up the majority of bird conservationists, and in the US women like Florence Merriam Bailey were founding chapters of the Audubon. Rosalie Edge even pressured the Audubon Society to stop taking money from rifle manufacturers which seems like that would be a no-brainer, but I guess it wasn't. German opera singer, Lilli Lehmann refused to wear feathers during her time at the Metropolitan Opera, and she exchanged photographs for a promise of those people not to wear feathers which I think is kind of neat. I just like the different ways that like women find a way to do their activism.
Rebecca: I like the kind of how contemporary those kinds of examples of activism feel like the idea of a like, quote-unquote, “nonprofit advocacy organization,” whatever you want to call as I'm referring to the Audubon probably anachronistically, the idea of them divesting from like a harmful supporter like is something that environmentalists talk about a lot today or the idea of combining your interested in particular celebrity like showing in some ways showing what kind of causes you're interested in, those things being connected in some ways feel super modern, but, yeah I love these two examples showing how that those ideas go back, those kinds of activism go back further than you'd think.
Leila: Yeah, absolutely. And it was really like the birding and the writing that allowed more women to engage in conservation because they could do it from their homes which was much more an acceptable place for women during this time obviously like Barbauld. So they wrote field guides in ornithological texts that observed birds from real life instead of observing them from captured and killed specimens. Many of these texts were aimed at children and other women. So again staying kind of within that accepted domestic role. And they were writing and observing from a shared identity with nature as gendered authorities and caretakers in their own homes.
Leila: And Allison Meier actually wrote a piece for us on women's writing about birds. And she says that the contributions of these women have been easy to overlook because they wrote in a feminized tradition of women's literature, but they were able to instill in readers of love a love of birds and parks and gardens outside of traditional scientific discourse.
Leila: And I'm assuming they also like in a large way reached more people publishing in this medium than if they were doing this in journals.
Anna: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Rebecca: Yeah definitely. And it makes me think of sort of the connection to so much other like women's activism in the 19th century where there's a degree to which like women are like, “Okay, fine. You say that the one thing we're good at is like taking care of babies. So we're going to advocate for all things related to babies.” Or “Okay. Fine you say that like we are these like naturalistic mysterious creatures. So okay, we're going to protect all the other naturalistic mysterious creatures.” Well, obviously there are certainly problems in this interesting kind of taking this obsession with the domestic sphere, and going, “Fine. We'll just like plant our flag here, and still like be out in public, and make a difference in the world, but do it in this way that you've told us is okay.”
Leila: Yeah. I think it's really interesting how these women used the cultural capital that they had in a way that they were able to acceptably still navigate it as well. You know what I mean?
Leila: Kind of like with the opera singer using her cultural capital as a well-known opera star to demand certain things in exchange. I find that really interesting. Even though some of these women were like, I guess, to modern feminist eyes like it's actually not great to like accept your centralization as nature or something like that. But like, I don't know. I find that it's really interesting the way that we nuance this a little bit to understand what they were actually doing even if they were kind of embracing in an essentialized feminine nature.
Anna: Yeah, and I think maybe one thing to remember is that in the 19th century if you were not independently wealthy, and you're a woman there's… It's not like they're not being radical enough by not accepting that they have to do science in their home, it's that they would not survive and they would end up like in the workhouse if they were trying to strike out on their own that way. So staying in your domestic context is like a survival thing. What's radical is that they refuse to be silenced about the things they were interested in. And they leveraged all of these sort of technological and like media developments to get all this information out there. And like what you said, Leila, that they probably reach way more people, absolutely, they reached way more people like publishing in the popular press meant that they not only was the distribution higher than it would be for a scientific journal, but it's just way cheaper for people to be able to access that information than buying like scientific books that would have been published by men of science.
Leila: Yeah, and it didn't earn like a lot of these women their livelihood. It's becoming more acceptable in the 19th century for women to earn their own money. It still wasn't as acceptable as it is today for instance, but this gave women a way to earn an income without the support of a male relative from their homes. So there's a lot of different… There's economics and like you said, Anna technological things going on as well that's kind of creating this atmosphere where women are able to do these things.
Anna: Yeah. There's also just this idea of like a natural theological context for nature writing too that is like for religious women observing nature and writing about it as like an act of like piety because you're observing God's works and talking about it. So there's that context too that affords women an opportunity to kind of pursue the observation nature in a context that accords with their kind of religious beliefs. So there's a lot of like… I know we talked about this sort of moment in time I think on the podcast a lot because they're just… Like you said there's so much poetry, there's so much popular writing. It's a really kind of fruitful moment for women doing nature writing, and it's because of these kind of intersections of all of these things that are happening in the 19th century. It's just like a really fascinating period. Go to grad school, study it.
Leila: Yeah. Go study the 19th century like a million other graduates history students.
Rebecca: But it's so weird and awesome, and you'll realize that so much about the modern world. It's great.
Leila: The bad stuff and the good stuff.
Rebecca: Exactly. The 19th century is great. It's where it's at. So we've been talking about the environment kind of purposefully vaguely, but mostly in a way that kind of means the stuff untouched by the human world kind of the non-human nature. But in the 20th century environment started to take on a different meaning especially as the world industrialized and urbanized. Environment didn't just include non-human nature, it also included our immediate surroundings in cities, and in workplaces, and in our own homes. And it wasn't just about what was happening to nature outside of the city, but also the conditions inside it. Environment became more and more connected to social inequalities.
Rebecca: And I think sort of as it did that the feminine, and the environment kind of still stayed connected even as the idea of what the environment was changed. And while men were out mountaineering and pioneering their way into environmentalism, and this kind of traditional environmental like
Leila: Teddy Roosevelt.
Rebecca: John Muir.
Rebecca: Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir who are like in Yosemite hanging out being cool. Women are still excluded from these masculine forms of activism because you can't be… It's harder to be a mountain man if you're a woman basically. But they were focused on their immediate environments. What they saw was poverty and dangerous working conditions, and abysmal pay, and inhumane living conditions, and pollution. I feel like particularly pollution will sound familiar to people who are like, “Oh, that's an environmental thing that I know about.” But all of these things of course are part of the environment.
Rebecca: Ellen Swallow Richards was one of the first people to combine an interest in ecology, civic improvement, and political activism. She investigated the Massachusetts Water Supply, and ended up accusing the American Public Health Association of murdering 200 children a year for creating hazardous conditions in schools such as open sewer pipes and dirty toilets. Richard focused on the experience of women and encouraged them to apply chemistry to their knowledge of food and home goods. This is another thing where a woman is taking something that is sort of very traditionally in the feminine female sphere, and saying, “Hey, we can make this better through different scientific practices.”
Rebecca: She believed that women had the power to introduce balance and equality back into a system that the industry had disrupted. And at MIT, Richards opened an all-woman lab where they developed the scientific principles of food. In her lab, she undertook studies to weed out food that had been adulterated with toxic off-label ingredients. This led to the first Food Purity Laws in this country.
Leila: Those sound familiar to people.
Rebecca: Yeah. People know what those are too.
Anna: One thing we should think about is the sort of larger social context even of some of the really awesome things that Ellen Swallow Richards did because Richards kind of really missed the mark on her food activism in a big way because her work did not speak to all women. So she wanted to impose her kind of scientifically prepared food on immigrant working-class families that wanted to keep their own traditional foods from their homes. And she also excluded non-Christians by saying that the native religions of immigrants were like a hindrance to true reform that there's no way they could kind of join the modern age of clean food if they were still practicing religions that weren't Christian.
Leila: What's crazy about that is like she was making these foods and putting her kitchens and stuff into like poor immigrant neighborhoods to feed them her food, but like she's trying to like save them in this really like white Christian savior-y type of way which again something else would be familiar with today as well. Like serving them while disparaging them at the same time.
Rebecca: Right. It's kind of funny because like there's so many non-Christian religions that have strict ideas about food that are basically about food purity, and like people not dying of weird diseases. Most like kosher and Halal laws for example are really about like don't get trichinosis, and don't eat rotting meat. And there are other examples in other religions as well. I think there's a particular irony to this idea that like non-Christian food is dirty when actually Christianity because it doesn't have the same kind of built-in checks against food purity necessarily.
Leila: Yeah. I think that shows like a real limitation of science. Like what she was able to do to kind of not create, but like give us a firm understanding of nutritional science has been really important but also the limitations of that science when it comes to like real human beings and culture, and stuff.
Anna: So in the same era, Rebecca Cole who was a black physician was speaking specifically to the environmental conditions of black people, which is something that people like Richards weren't doing. There kind of isn't like universalizing everything in a way that doesn't account for the social differences. So Cole saw environmental conditions in cities to be worse for black people because white landlords kept black people living in unhealthy conditions. So she advocated for regulation in housing through the Cubic Air Space laws which tackled overcrowding, and inflated rent on an unhealthy living spaces. And Cole is typically seen as developing a sociological approach to medicine, but her work in this time period easily overlaps with that of urban environmentalists like Richards.
Anna: And I think that's looking at a larger picture of urban environments as environments, and who's kind of like intervening to clean them up, and in what ways, and what counts as dirty, and who is dirty, and those kinds of ideas are really important to kind of for grab when we talk about the environment. Just the idea of what's clean and what's dirty is so culturally loaded. It's just really important to kind of think through these ideas.
Leila: Yeah, and I think like that not… Even though like there's this connection between like women and nature that not all women had the same relationship with nature or were aligned with nature in the same way either. Even though it was rare for women to be able to go out mountaineering in pants, some did right but like that got to be a choice. Women who didn't get the choice to be out of doors were like enslaved women, migrant workers. Those relationships to nature are also very different and culturally and socially constructed as well. These movements that we've been talking about 17th century… I guess we're not talking about 17th century, 18th century, 19th century.
Rebecca: We talked about Francis Bacon so there's some 17th century in there.
Leila: Yeah. They all kind of lead up to this moment in the 20th century with the current or the more modern environmental movement, but they didn't appear just with Carson in Silent Spring. It had been well underway for centuries. In the book, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters, Robert Musil says that Carson was an inheritor not a creator of both a movement of women writing about their love of birds, and nature, and conservation of wildlife, and this other movement that came a little bit later driven by concerns over pollution and the health of communities. I know that we kind of like plowed through 200 years of history, but I think it at least gives people an idea of what was out there and what was going on.
Anna: Yeah, and I think it's also a good way to kind of help revise our thinking about what the environment is, I mean not to get into the whole like what is nature discussion, but just like the environment isn't just like Yosemite.
Anna: And that the environmental spaces that we need to protect are, yes, sure like the habitats of endangered creatures but also the places where human beings live, and whether or not they have adequate conditions. Those things all fall under the umbrella of environmentalism. I think that's what you know a lot of the examples that we talked about kind of prove that like we're talking about everything.
Rebecca: As we were talking about especially in the 19th century, and there's this idea, and the 18th century of like there is the nonhuman world out there as the environment, and, Leila, your examples, you're pointing out that for migrant workers, for slave women, for different kinds of indigenous people the environment isn't out there. And I think that in these 20th century movements, and thinking about sort of the environmental of preserving places like Yosemite, and environmental justice sort of looking at histories, and cultures, and communities where there isn't this sort of… There hasn't been this Western divide between the natural stuff and the non-natural stuff or the human stuff. And that's where you see this really interesting expansion of what the environment and what environmentalism means.
Leila: Yeah, and I think what's interesting about all of the examples that we talked about is that their activism and their writing, and everything came out of like a connection to place. The more interesting I think stories come out of this connection to place and we're talking about the environment because then we get to see what environment means to different people and why, but then like… And we're going to talk about this with Tina but environmental activism has often happened in the context of place. So when you have these like huge kind of global solutions to climate change that don't take into account people's connection to place you kind of miss something. You're going to miss solutions. You're going to miss perspectives that are important to solving environmental problems.
Anna: Yeah, and one of the things that you and I have talked a lot about, Leila especially with these like huge global or technological solutions to climate change that think of the environment as like a planetary-scale thing, you run into questions of authority and consent who gets to decide what we do to the entire planet.
Anna: And if we have to have some kind of like tiered representational decision-making who gets to decide who is involved in that, and who's left out of that? What about people who don't have any contact with the Western world who is thinking of doing this? How are we supposed to for what they want? We can't. In thinking of the environment as a planetary-scale thing, you run into really serious issues where you're just running roughshod over people and over everybody basically. I got off track there.
Leila: No. It's fine.
Anna: But this idea of like who gets to decide in a more sort of place-based context. Of thinking of the environment in smaller chunks that way, the stakeholders become much more clear and are given much more of an opportunity to speak in like a smaller place-based context than the planet which we already have people who say they are speaking for the planet. Our favorite dipshit CEO [crosstalk 00:34:20].
Leila: Jeff Bezos?
Anna: The one who smokes weed on Joe Rogan's podcast because he's so cool.
Leila: Oh, Elon Musk.
Anna: Yeah, right. I mean he launched a bunch of satellites into the sky and now they have changed the way the constellations look.
Rebecca: It's so weird. I mean, come on guys didn't we all learn in grade school that like the Earth is really varied in its environments? There's a very important social question of authority and who gets to decide what's good for people on this global scale and the importance of localness. But I feel like some of these technical technological solutions or global solutions don't even keep an eye on the specifics of different climates, and different environments around the world. One of the things I think that gets us like… That's so annoying about the way that we talk about climate change, and the way that like people who don't want to hear about climate change dismiss it, is that yes climate change is affecting different parts of the world wildly differently because the world is wildly different.
Rebecca: There is too little rain where I grew up in Southern California because it is naturally a drier place, and there is too much rain here where I live in Philadelphia because it has always been a wetter place. And the idea that those could have opposite reactions but because of this whole global system is something I feel like we don't grapple with enough, and what that means for solutions.
Anna: Any of these like global geoengineering solutions are predicated on models of like understanding the global climate that are just… There's no way for them to be granular enough. We don't have enough like data capacity to make a granular enough model of the entire planet's climate so that we could understand what those changes would be. I was thinking while you were talking about in the last couple of years or something, I saw this great study like a survey of all of the creatures that live inside your house. So it's mostly bugs. It was really fascinating though because they took… No one had ever really done this before just done like cataloged every single living organism that they could find inside just like a regular person's house. And I believe they discovered a couple of new species while doing that.
Anna: So the idea that we have enough information, enough data to make a decision about what will happen to the entire planet and if we shoot a bunch of stuff into the clouds is ridiculous. There's no possible way we can even… We're just guessing at this point. It's not even really an educated guess.
Leila: Just throwing spaghetti.
Anna: Yeah, exactly. We don't even know how many bugs live in our houses. Come on.
Leila: Coming back to our old friend, Francis Bacon in the 17th century that…
Rebecca: Do we have to?
Leila: We're going to have to. But equating the natural sciences discoveries in the natural world, and I'm going to use this word intentionally, penetrating her secrets as a rape metaphor. And like that's something that Anna and I have written about is that these like massive solutions, global solutions, quote-unquote, “solutions” to climate change are in a way the same thing that Francis Bacon was talking about in the 17th century because you do have this idea of consent that there is no way that you can get a consent on a global scale to authorize something that will fundamentally alter the entire planet. And it's that same kind of still dominant masculine pioneering type of behavior and framework of which we think solutions to problems.
Rebecca: And like that's paired with the fact that in kind of the popular discourse culture, education which certainly has an impact on what scientists are doing. The Earth is still feminine. It's still Mother Earth. It's still her a lot of the time, and that's just like real baked in real deep. And those things… We got to grapple with those ways of using language are related.
Anna: I mean just one last thing I wanted to say, it goes the other way too. So if we continue to think of the Earth as a feminine form, if we continue to think of it as a… I'm not doing this to be crass, but like as a figure whose secrets need to be penetrated like that goes the other way in that we still live in a world where it's cool for men like Elon Musk to just do whatever they want because they have money, and to shoot a bunch of stuff into orbit basically with nobody's permission just because they can. And that kind of stuff trickles down into how we treat women still. If we think of the Earth as a as a female figure that we can do whatever we want to, what does that mean for us here on the surface. It's all connected.
Leila: Yeah. I think that's a good time to bring in Tina talking about shooting things into the atmosphere.
Leila: Yes, indeed.
Rebecca: We've been looking at feminism and the environment from a historical perspective, but let's turn our attention to something a little bit more present focused. We're excited to welcome Dr. Tina Sikka to the podcast. Tina is a lecturer in media and culture at Newcastle University in the UK where she works in areas of feminist science studies, critical race theory, health in the environment. She's written for the Jacobin, Public Seminar, and the Ottawa Citizen. Tina's latest book is Climate Technology, Gender, and Justice: The Standpoint of a Vulnerable published with Springer Press, and that's what we'll be talking about today. So welcome, Tina.
T. Sikka: Thank you very much.
Anna: Let's just jump right in. Your book looked specifically at geoengineering as a solution to climate change, and examines it from a feminist perspective. So maybe to get us started, could you describe what geoengineering is and sort of how it's being considered as a solution to climate change?
T. Sikka: Sure. So the best way to think about geoengineering is to use the rural societies definition. So it's a set of technologies and practices that aim to deliberately intervene in the Earth's climate in order to mitigate global warming. So there's two types, carbon dioxide removal, which are technologies that aim to actually extract carbon from the atmosphere, and then solar radiation management, which is sort of the area I work a bit more on, and that tries to offset greenhouse gases by getting the Earth to absorb radiation.
T. Sikka: So the one that I tend to look at most is stratospheric aerosol which attempts to basically replicate the way that volcanic eruptions can lower the global temperature. So it's saying that okay the sulfates that volcanoes emit have been found to lower the temperature, and can we put sulfates in the atmosphere to do that.
Leila: So you described a specific approach called feminist contextual empiricism. Can you tell us what that is?
T. Sikka: Sure. So the easiest way to think about feminist contextual empiricism is that it basically marries feminist research methods with empirical science. And the interpretation that I use comes out of Helen Longino's work. She's from an American philosopher of science now I believe affiliated with Stanford. And it's an approach that moves away from a model of science that sees it as something that's static, and it argues that science in the way that we do science is actually quite contextual. So you have to justify your theories in a certain context. There are certain assumptions you make, certain priorities you have, certain methods. So research context matters. So it incorporates that, and then it's also socially situated.
T. Sikka: So there's this idea that the political values and the ethics of the time, the social morays, common-sense ideas about gender and politics, this all also comes out of science. This idea that you know science changes, that models change, adjustments are made based on new ideas and discoveries, we sort of found that Western practices can be quite masculinist, and you know value hierarchy, and competition, and feminist science tries to critique those values, and to put forth a framework that is empirical. So it retains the rigor, but it's feminist. So it looks at how context and social norms matter as well.
Leila: Rebecca, before you jump in to your question, I wanted to ask something about what you said, Tina. You called kind of the Western science static. I don't think that particular feature of science is something we've talked about before on the podcast. So could you explain what you mean by a static science.
T. Sikka: Yeah, absolutely. So we sort of have this idea that scientific truths are out there to be discovered, and they're just immutable, and they're just something that we can find and they're universal, and they won't change. But we often find that technologies change how we view science and how we practice science. So that idea of science is ever-changing, and we build upon it. It's something that I think it's really important and feminist science studies really tries to highlight that.
Rebecca: Yeah. One of the things that I found really neat about your book is that it did kind of give this really great theoretical grounding for a lot of the things we talked about in Lady Science. So for readers and listeners who kind of appreciate our looking at the different ways that culture and society influence how science is done, and if you want to get like a really good crunchy overview of those theoretical underpinnings, Tina, I think you do a great job of kind of laying that out.
T. Sikka: Thank you.
Rebecca: And I found it fascinating. And along those lines, sort of you talk about these five virtues of feminist empiricism. And we won't go into all of them because that would, I think take at least a whole hour, but I'm hoping you could explain, and people who just read the book, but it'd be great if you could explain just maybe one or two of those virtues, and how it helps us analyze geoengineering in particular.
T. Sikka: Sure. You can kind of think about them as complementing or building on Thomas Kuhn's virtues. So those do exist. Thomas Kuhn, that philosopher of science looked at accuracy, simplicity, consistency, breadth of scope, and fruitfulness. So Helen Longino argues that there are other types of values and virtues that we can use. So two of them that I think are most important are the empirical adequacy, and then also the ontological heterogeneity. So empirical adequacy is an epistemic virtue. So it's really important in terms of knowledge production.
T. Sikka: It's this idea that we have to have a fit between theory and observation. Its quantitative, it's testable, it's falsifiable, but there are values there as well. We have to sort make the fit between theory and observation have values also in background assumptions. So when I talk about geoengineering, I try to probe those background assumptions that we use to even argue certain truths about the science. So for geoengineering models. I talked about why is there an over reliance on theory over observational or historical data.
T. Sikka: There tends to be this preference. Why do we use CO2 as a control? What about methane or nitrous dioxide? Why do we choose the 280 parts per million as the baseline, and that's from the Industrial Revolution, but we've sort of gone back and found that there was a lot of carbon intensive activities from deforestation, early agriculture that was quite disruptive. So if we go back to that baseline it's not like everything would be great. And then also it sort of argues… It would also probe why we prefer global averages over local averages the sort of politics of scale.
T. Sikka: And also there's this inbuilt bias towards large big data quantitative, this tendency towards militarization, which are also part of how we build empirical adequacy. And then ontological heterogeneity looks at trying to expand the way we do science. So to make it more participatory, more open to difference, to try and make marginal findings, consider them as not inferior or something we can just eliminate to sort of ask why we're getting these findings, and what is it telling us. And not to sort of think in a way that everything is monocausal that there's just like one cause and one effect.
T. Sikka: So this would be you know looking at different local specificities. So what are the ozone effects of geoengineering? What is it going to do to monsoons? Look at the different economic sectors, heat, electricity, and agriculture. What are they emitting? To look at questioning the urban/rural, binary that we have as parts of our methods where we see urban areas is really cosmopolitan and where all the solutions come from. But rural areas are likely to bear most of the consequences of climate change, and there's a sort of colonial underpinning of that as well. So it pays attention to model disagreement, and deviations, and nonconformity, which is something that science tends not to do as much.
Anna: So I wanted to return to geoengineering and think about these theoretical concepts kind of more specifically to the problems you're working on. So you call climate change and geoengineering both wicked problems, which I think is a really great phrase, and can you kind of explain what you mean by wicked problems, and maybe how feminist science is approaching such problems?
T. Sikka: Yeah. So the term itself is actually over… It's over 40 years old, and it came out of urban planning, and policy studies. And it sort of argues that in our are kind of modern or postmodern environment that the problems we have are really, really complicated. So Horst Rittel came up with this conception of the term actually itself of wicked problems, and he talks about problems… The characteristics are a bit, they're large-scale social problems, that they tend to have many variables span national boundaries. So they're not confined to one place which is something of course geoengineering and climate change would have those characteristics.
T. Sikka: They're a massive scope. They don't have a of timeframe where they'll go away, and they're really hard to diagnose. And they can't easily be undone. If you do find a solution, it's sort of something that you can't change. So that's one of the concerns around geoengineering especially solar radiation management that I work on is that if our present society decides to use it that a lot of the modeling has found that if they abruptly stop, temperatures will rise really quickly. And then there's also this idea that intergenerational justice. We're sort of locking in the next generation into the solutions that were not sure are going to work.
T. Sikka: So it's these really kind of uncertain and fragmented, and complicated problems. Another example are pandemics. It's a really, really useful way to think about problems that are multi-causal and that are complicated in a way that are basically global problems.
Rebecca: Sorry. Before I jump into the last question, Leila, just one thing I've been thinking about is sort of… There is a like indisputable like old-school sci-fi-ness to all of the ideas I feel like related to geoengineering in this way that is frankly a little bit creepy to me, but it is understanding, I think you said something earlier about the connection between militarization and science, and I think also this idea of I feel like in some way sci-fi seeks to solve or work through wicked problems, but also there's a certain genre of classic sci-fi that does that by simplifying what the problems are, and I feel like… I don't know quite where I'm going with this, but I feel like there is something about geoengineering that… And this goes to show kind of the idea of like scientists are part of their culture, but there is an attempt to simplify a wicked problem that feels like some kind of like super masculine kinds of sci-fi that I find fascinating and distressing.
Leila: It feels like a super villain-
Rebecca: Yeah, exactly.
Leila: … type of scheme. I know exactly what you mean.
T. Sikka: I think the best example of that is the proposal, which is another solar radiation management one to put mirrors in space. So to put these mirrors to reflect. Absolutely, it is this sci-fi kind of… And it also has a like a bit of a phallic sensibility in terms of just relationship related to the space program. And it also goes back to like Reagan's Star Wars Missile Defense Project. But I think this idea of space as a locus of kind of how we can intervene in ways. It's sort of the unknown and I think science fiction does this really great… It's this really great way to grapple with some of those really complicated wicked problems in a way that I think is much better than these solutions.
T. Sikka: It has all these attributes and I think that looking through the lens of Octavia Butler or other kind of writers that are trying to make… And it's really feminist that type of writing because it's making the problem more complicated, and trying to sort of navigate through solutions, and ways that these kind of very uni-causal intervene fix-it technology will save us kind of technophilic sensibility doesn't. And it really is married to a kind of heteronormative patriarchal structure of scientific practice.
Leila: I had a man on Twitter once suggest to me that we blow up all of our volcanoes to solve climate change. I'm not kidding.
T. Sikka: Yeah. I'm not surprised.
Leila: So if we're talking about like aggressive male solutions to things I think blowing shit up is the immediate go-to for a lot of people.
T. Sikka: You can also see that all the people that are involved in these projects and this research, I think there's like one woman who is doing any kind of actual engagement with projects around geoengineering. So it's Marcia McNutt. She's actually the president of the National Academy of Sciences right now I believe. And there are projects that are in the works. David Keith out of Harvard is a scientist who is putting together a plan to sort of test solar radiation management. Not solar radiation management not putting sulfates base testing the delivery system. So can we set up these balloons.
T. Sikka: And I think it might be in Arizona or Monterey that they are thinking about doing it. And he's got money from Bill Gates. So there's this strange billionaire's club, this Elon Muskey type of support of these technologies as well.
Leila: Well, I'm sure you know we spend a lot of time critiquing science here. Really similar to what you're doing in your book, and one thing that we hear a lot, and I'm sure that you do as well that right now that it's dangerous to question science. Because we already have… We've got anti-vax going on. We've got people going around saying climate change isn't real, much less having discussions about what solutions can be. So I'm just wondering what your responses to people who say that because we're kind of in this massive crisis of authority and consensus and facts, and stuff like that; they say we can't critique science. So what's kind of your response to those people.
T. Sikka: Yeah. It's a really difficult dilemma. A lot of my research is aimed at finding ways to critique scientific processes and methods along the lines of gender, race, disability sexuality, class but preserve its truth content. So the argument that I sort of make is this approach to feminists of sexual empiricism would result in better science, more rigorous eyes even when we are critiquing it. It's not a relativist approach. It has the empirical adequacies so it grounds itself in some conception of truth, but it remains open to questioning science.
T. Sikka: So marrying empirical adequacy with all of these other virtues and the second part of feminist contextual empiricism is what really gives it, or grounds it in a kind consensus formation. So it argues that to make scientific discoveries and values have a kind of truth content. You have to have a scientific community that does this. So you have to have spaces to engage. Science has to be open to criticism. It has to incorporate that criticism, public standards. Intellectual Authority has to be equally distributed so it can't be that people from the public have no say. So this is what makes it objective is that it is this process of checks and balances, and consensus formation within the scientific community that's open to public citizen science as well.
T. Sikka: And I think it's also important to make it clear that another sort of issue that comes up as part of this is that how is this science feminist? Isn't it just good science? And I get that question a lot as well but what's feminist about it is that it highlights experiences and marginalization and it sort of argues that the experience of marginalization that women and other oppressed groups have had throughout their lives have left them in this unique place to see things differently and to have distinct concerns, and to have specific questions, and to maybe explore different methods and new models.
T. Sikka: And I think that that's a really good way in avoiding essentializing this approach. So it's not a feminine science, it's a feminist science. So it's a kind of practice. And I think that's what this framework does. So it simultaneously avoids being relativist, and it also makes it feminist in a way that doesn't essentialize women as one kind of thing.
Leila: Well, before we wrap up, I just want to say that first of all thank you for being here. And also Tina is going to be having a piece coming out for the magazine soon in which there's a bunch of good sources that you can follow up on in there, do some more reading about a little bit more detailed about some of the stuff that we talked about today. So be on the lookout for that on the site. So thank you so much, Tina. And for the rest of you if you liked our episode today, leave us a rating in a review on Apple podcast so that new listeners can find us. If you have questions about any of the segments today, tweet us @ladyxscience or #ladiesiPod. For show notes, episode transcripts, to sign up for a monthly newsletter, read monthly issues, pitch us an idea, and more, visit ladyscience.com.
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