The Natural World and the Nature of Gender

Irmgard Schultz. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

This chapter presents a survey on how the field of gender studies approaches research on the environment and environmental problems. The survey is divided into three main sections. The first elucidates the principal theoretical debates on women and nature, presenting the main epistemological approaches on (post-)gender and the environment. The second identifies the main gender issues and gives some examples of research in this field. The third is a brief outlook on upcoming challenges to this research field in gender studies. The whole chapter focuses on questions of integrating gender into interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary social-ecological research.


‘Environment’ is a scientific and political category that includes the question, Whose environment? In contrast, ‘nature’ is primarily a philosophical category and one common to everyday life. Contemplating ‘nature’ raises the question, What is not nature? Is culture ‘not’ nature? Is society? Rationality? Men? Technology? God? And to what extent does the distinction between nature and ‘not nature’ explain the problems and relations that humans associate with these categories? Against the background of these considerations, this chapter presents a survey on how the field of gender studies approaches research on the environment and environmental problems. I start with the principal theoretical debates on and approaches to women and nature, (post-)gender, and the environment. Second, I identify the main gender issues and offer some examples of research in this field. I conclude with a brief outlook on upcoming challenges to this research field in gender studies.

Theoretical Debates

In environmental studies, feminist theoretical debates have focused on the relationship between women and nature. These debates go back to the nineteenth century. Current debates use twentieth-century critical theory and look forward to an integrative post-modern approach.

Assumptions about the Relationship between Women and Nature

Assumptions about the relationship between women and nature strike at the core of feminist debates because they have to deal with societal idealizations and normative regulations about how images of ‘the woman’ and ‘the feminine’ are constructed. In modern European thinking at the end of the nineteenth century, the ‘inner nature’ of woman was related in a special way to ‘outer nature,’ combining it with the question of woman’s morality and identity (Schultz, 2001a). The first European women’s movement at the beginning of the twentieth century sparked a controversial debate about the nature of women. This debate defined women in a moral way as closely connected with nature, in contrast to men, who were seen as connected with culture. Against the background of Darwin’s nascent evolutionary theory, Mendelian laws, and genetics, there was a strong scientific and public discussion about the sexual instincts of women and their part in heredity. The predominant discourse in physiology and early psychology combined the question about the nature of women with the issue of women’s sexuality and morality. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, head of the first psychiatric university hospital in Vienna, exemplified this view in his 1886 study, Psychopathia sexualis. In the predominant moral discourse of that time prostitutes, who were portrayed as having a strong sexual desire, were contrasted with the ideal woman, who was a moral housewife with almost no sexuality. Prostitutes were given as examples to demonstrate what kind of woman is ‘not natural.’

At the fin-de-siècle there was a vast, popular body of gender literature that gave educational advertisements and instructions to mothers and daughters warning them against becoming a ‘brain woman.’ This literature defined the nature of women as moral reproduction. Because of its misogyny, Paul J. Möbius’ 1906 pamphlet ‘Über den Schwachsinnn des Weibes’ (‘On the Imbecility of the Wife’) was a famous example of this new sort of literature. In his pamphlet, Möbius argued that the reproductive function of a woman’s uterus suffers when a woman uses her brain too much. Feminists rejected the misogyny of this argument, but they were in conflict about the question of women and their relation to nature (Feministische Studien, 1984). In her well-known ‘Kritik der Weiblichkeit’ (‘Critique of Feminity,’ 1922), the feminist Rosa Mayreder refuted the dominant idea that women have a special bond with nature. Instead, she argued that women are able to do cultural work in the same way that men do. Her argument criticized, in particular, the position of the feminist psychoanalyst Lou Andreas Salome, who had accredited a certain closeness of women to nature, seeing women as more self-centered and more bound with the cosmos than men.

Despite the fact that this discussion took place almost a hundred years ago, one experiences a certain ‘déjà vu effect’ when examining more recent debates on the question of whether women are closer to nature than men. First-wave feminists argued for or against a special bond between women and nature, but they did not depart from the frame of the hierarchical dichotomous worldview that posited women and men as separate and related to nature and culture, respectively. After World War II, however, second-wave feminists began to examine this hierarchical constellation critically.

The anthropologist Sherry Ortner asked in 1974, ‘Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?’ An emphatic answer to Ortner’s question was given by the French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne (1974). In her radical feminist manifesto Le Feminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death), d’Eaubonne linked the question of the relationship between women and nature to the ‘ecological question,’ which examined whether human activities were destroying Earth’s ecosystems. D’Eaubonne argued that the success of women’s struggle is the only way to guarantee the survival of the entire human species. The term ‘eco-feminism,’ as defined by d’Eaubonne, is an important approach in gender research on the environment. The subject matter is not the philosophical idea of nature but the natural environment of human beings, women and men, and their society.

Radical feminist thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s argued philosophically that the exploitation and commodification of women is similar to the way humans treat nature. In a more poetic manner, Susan Griffin, in her 1978 Woman and Nature, argued that patriarchal thinking is grounded on the principle of separating and dividing from wholeness and thus converts the living wholeness of nature into dead material. Similarly, in her popular book Death of Nature (1980), Carolyn Merchant presented historical evidence of the violent character of the simultaneous oppression of nature and women in the emergence and implementation of a new mechanistic worldview in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Since the 1980s, the eco-feminist approach has been closely connected with Vandana Shiva in India and Maria Mies in Germany. Shiva sees the linkage between nature and women as the result of a gendered cultural development that led to a deeper spiritual connection between women and nature than men have. She shows this connection by the example of pankriti, which is a principle in Indian mythology. In modern society, pankriti has been replaced by Eurocentrism, which has succeeded with a mechanistic concept of sciences, colonialism, and the Western model of development (Mies and Shiva, 1993; Shiva, 1988; see also Von Werlhof, Bennholdt-Thomsen, and Faraclas, 2002). Materialistic eco-feminists, such as Maria Mies and Mary Mellor in England, see the privileged bond of women with nature as the product of an historical development that devalued the ability to give birth and excluded life-giving experiences from the historical record (Mellor, 2001).

As these examples show, there are strong theoretical differences among eco-feminist approaches (see also Biehl, 1991; Plant, 1989; Plumwood, 1986). Some eco-feminists are closely connected to spiritual thinking while others are linked with psychological or materialistic arguments. Despite the different theoretical positions, all forms of eco-feminism stress in some way women’s privileged bond with nature. In emphasizing this relationship, eco-feminists are reversing the predominant evaluation and giving nature (Mother Earth) more worth. Because of their argument of a special bond between women and nature, eco-feminist approaches have provoked responses from other feminists, who disagree with eco-feminism’s undifferentiated generalizations and view of women as a ‘naturalized’ category.

New Feminist Approaches to the Question of Gender and Nature

Epistemologically grounded theoretical positions, which are diametrically opposed to eco-feminism, are presented by post-structural feminists, on one hand, and by feminists in the tradition of critical theory, a feminist approach in Germany, on the other. Both theoretical positions stress, in different ways, a logic of identity as a prerequisite in the epistemology of eco-feminism. They do not agree with the assumption that all women have a ‘female identity’ that can become the basis of feminist policies and political action.

In Germany, a feminist critique of a logic of identity refers to the critical theory of the philosophers Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin (Becker-Schmidt, 1999; Kulke and Scheich, 1992; O’Neill, 1999; Scheich, 1996). Following Adorno, this approach looks for ‘mediations’ between abstract oppositions. Critical theory distinguishes the ‘outer nature’ from the ‘inner nature’ of human beings in a special way. In their book Dialectics of Enlightenment (1944/1972), Adorno and Horkheimer argue that ‘enlightenment’ entails the intellectual surmounting of natural myths and the generation of an objective, rational understanding of nature. But this rationality, which was successful in developing technology, capsized and became a myth itself. Rationality, which levels all qualitative aspects of societal living and de-emphasizes emphatic emotions that human beings could have with each other and with other natural beings, became the character of a ‘second nature.’

Critical theory is an important approach for gender research in the environmental field because it constitutes a critical understanding of gender relations within the frame of a gender order that distinguishes among questions relating to the symbolic order, the economic and political order, and the social organization of sexuality (Becker-Schmidt, 1999). Yet, it is not the prominent ‘instrumental reason’ argument that makes the dialectic between inner and outer nature attractive to feminists. Instead, it is critical theory’s philosophical reference to mimesis, which visualizes in art a capacity for integrated feeling and reflecting by acting with each other and nature. If the idea of mimesis were viewed not only with respect to cultural productions, but also with regard to developments within natural sciences, it would open access to new venues of reflection. Searching for an example of a quality like mimesis within the natural sciences, feminists embraced the biologist Barbara McClintock, who won the Noble Prize in 1954 for her work on genetic transposition in cell genetics. Her biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller (1983), underlined the surprising way in which McClintock’s investigative procedures differed from the ‘male-objective standards’ in biological research. McClintock developed a deep connection with the corn plants she observed every day, which could be described as a quality of mimesis (Schultz, 1992).

With new forms of techno-scientific mediation, which recombines ‘the enfleshed and the technological’ (Braidotti, 1997) in genetic cell transplantation technology as well as in many new technology fields, there is a need for a new approach in gender studies in the area of the environment. Such an approach should provide a distinct and critical perspective on natural sciences and technical design in their multiple interconnections with the social and economic sciences and societal developments.

With respect to natural and technical sciences, the post-structuralist perspective of natural scientist Donna Haraway is predominant in environmental gender studies. Haraway criticizes the postulate of scientific objectivity by focusing on the principle of generalization. She shows that the goal of trans-ferability of scientific assertions extracted from specific (gender) situations is as constitutive for an epistemological position of a universal perspective ‘from Nowhere’ (that means a perspective that is not self-reflective, not located and not embodied). In contrast to this kind of objectivity of the ‘techno-sciences,’ Haraway demands a ‘situated knowledge’ (Haraway, 1988).

In the international discourse on science, Haraway became famous because of her practice of deconstructing the dichotomies of nature and culture, living and dead material, and humans and non-humans, which are deeply grounded in modern dualistic thinking and language (Haraway, 1989). In feminist environmental research, it is not her method of discourse, but rather her epistemological point of ‘situating’ and ‘recontextualizing knowledge’ that is utilized as the feminist perspective on technology and consumer products. The first attempts to use this approach to innovate socio-technical constructions demonstrated that the idea must be further developed before it can make additional contributions in the field (Weller, Hayn, and Schultz, 2002). What is needed is a series of new methods and categories to combine the deconstructive perspective of ‘situating’ and ‘recontextualizing knowledge’ with reconstructive perspectives. The feminist historian of science Londa Schiebinger (1997: 203) names this change in the perspective of feminist critiques on natural sciences to reconstruction, ‘sustainable science.’

Societal Relations to Nature and the Double-Sided Perspective on Gender Relations

The Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt am Main uses a modified version of critical theory’s idea of theory-guided empirical research. Its interdisciplinary approach on societal relations to nature takes the philosophical critique on the abstract general—that it can be approximated only by reflections. This idea, promulgated by Adorno and Horkheimer, has serious consequences for research, as it posits that theory must be developed further within its subject matter—the society—by empirical studies (not only ‘proved’ by empirical studies). But, the approach of societal relations to nature goes beyond the epistemological reflections of critical theory on society by separately examining the prerequisites and impacts of natural sciences as well as those of social sciences. This approach also values the interconnections between social scientific and natural scientific explanations (Becker and Jahn, 2004; Schultz, 2001a). It refers to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and especially to Niels Bohr’s concepts of complementarity and correspondence in early quantum physics, which are examples of scientific self-reflectivity and are, in a certain sense, postmodern perspectives within natural sciences. Thus, the approach of societal relations to nature opens a space for a double-sided critique that scrutinizes the predominant epistemological prerequisites, concepts, and methods of social sciences as well as those of natural and technical sciences.

Within the framework of a dualistic worldview, the relationship between nature and society can be theoretically conceptualized in two mutually exclusive ways: as a naturalizing of society or as aculturalization of nature. These alternatives divide theoretical discourse on the relationship between nature and society into two camps: naturalist and culturalist. Taking this argument as a new form of dualism opens a double-sided critique and a new position for socio-ecological thinking: against naturalization of societal relations to nature (naturalism), on one hand, and against culturalization of societal relations to nature (culturalism), on the other (Becker and Jahn, 2004: 12). This double-sided critique opens new starting points for scientific reflection and problem-oriented research. It takes the Nature-Culture opposition not as substantial dualism (worldview), but as scientific distinction within environmental problems.

With respect to an understanding of gender, the concept of societal relations to nature starts with the strong theoretical assumption that the interconnections of the natural sciences with the social sciences are grounded in symbolic, abstract, and fragmented inventories of knowledge about gender relations. This assumption can be proved by considering the history of sciences. Since the formation of the disciplines of sociology and economy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the different disciplines of evolutionary biology, physiology, medicine, and psychology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there has been an ongoing knowledge transfer about gender issues between the two scientific cultures, with normative implications (Schultz, 2001a). This ‘gender knowledge’ was basic for the construction of gendered relations in different societal and scientific fields. As a result of this dynamic knowledge transfer, gender can be reconstructed only through interdisciplinary research and cooperation between the two scientific cultures.

The double-sided critique against the naturalization of gender relations, on one hand, and against the culturalization of gender relations, on the other, can be connected by situating and recontextualizing knowledge through problem-oriented research. These practices of critique according to the approach of societal relations to nature result in a new understanding of the difference between sex and gender: ‘sex’ is seen in a constructive way, but nevertheless remains different from ‘gender.’ ‘Sex’ implies the descriptions of gender relations by medical, technical, and natural sciences, while ‘gender’ means the descriptions of the same gender relations from cultural, social, and economic perspectives. In this perception of gender relations both sides are understood from a (de)constructive and reconstructive perspective (Schultz, 2001a).

Main Gender Issues and Research in Feminist Environmental Studies

Thus far, the theoretical feminist debate on the environment has been strongly influenced by the discourse on development policy strategies within the international women’s movement and the UN’s incorporation of women’s issues.

Political Issues and Feminist Studies on the Environment from a Global Perspective

At the World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985, the ‘women and environment’ issue was brought into public consciousness through the example of the Chipko movement in the Himalayan region. By embracing the trees, which they owned commonly, the Chipko women tried to protect them against commercialization and destruction. The woodland was their reservoir for food, materials for house building, and small non-timber products. Governmental and industrial interests denied the Chipko people their traditional right to the commons and tried to expropriate them.

Since that time, there have been strong ‘women for the environment’ movements in the countries of the South. They struggle for women’s right to own land and for the preservation of subsistence economies, in which women generally have a more powerful position. They fight against the pollution of rural and urban environments, the depletion of resources, and hazardous large-scale technical projects, such as large dams in India.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, these types of debates and studies were subsumed under the women, environment, and development (WED) debate. The WED debate is anchored in a critical view of development policies and focuses on the link between modernization and technology, on the one hand, and environmental deterioration, on the other. One very important aspect of this debate thus far has been the empowerment approach of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN, see, a network of women scholars and activists from the economic South that, since 1984, has engaged in feminist research and analysis of the global environment. DAWN conducts research with the goal of developing a global theory of the interdependencies between the macroeconomic level and the everyday life of women. Central to DAWN’s analysis is the perspective of women’s empowerment. This perspective argues that formal equity for women is not enough; what is needed is an improvement in the actual power relations with a specific focus on the transformation of global societal relations, including nature (DAWN, 1985).

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 provided further important input into feminist environmental studies by establishing the political perspective of sustainable development as a major frame of reference for international and UN policies. After UNCED, many issues from the WED debate were grouped under the concept of sustainable development. Many international women’s NGOs, above all the Brazilian section of WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization, see, an international advocacy network that seeks to increase the power of women worldwide, were very active in preparing for UNCED. WEDO and other women’s organizations and activists brought women’s issues into the agreements of the conference. The commitment to overcome gender inequality and the objective of necessary, full, and equal participation of women form the essential components of Agenda 21, one of the most important agreements to come out of UNCED. Since then, the debate surrounding sustainable development has constituted a frame of reference for environmental and feminist studies in this field, mainly in Europe and Canada. Nevertheless, the understanding of what sustainable development is differs considerably, most of all between the countries of the South and the countries of the North. In the countries of the South, sustainability is seen more with respect to development and more in terms of its promise of better economic and social conditions. In contrast, in the countries of the North, the normative aspect of preserving the environment for the next generation is emphasized more (Becker and Jahn, 1999).

In the last decade, the debate on women, environment, and development has become more and more connected with the questions of basic rights to livelihood, control over reproduction, and environmental justice and equity. At venues such as the most recent World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, new issues have been raised. These include (a) the interdependency between women’s poverty and environmental degradations in their living conditions; (b) the important role of women in preserving healthy food and nutrition; (c) the preservation of women’s and Indigenous traditional knowledge against commercialization by biotechnological firms; (d) the effects of organic pollutants on women’s and men’s reproductive health; and (e) the debate on population policies, which were discussed in Beijing in the context of human rights, reproductive and sexual rights, and self-determination for women. Poverty elimination, information provision, and capacity building for women are seen as the most important objectives (Ogunleye and Hemmati, 2000: 8ff.)

In feminist ecological studies which refer to the international debate, there is another approach that can be characterized as more pragmatic. Indian feminist ecologist Bina Agarwal provides a good example. Agarwal (1992) argues, in opposition to eco-feminist approaches, for a ‘feminist environmentalism’ that reflects the predominant power structures of policy and economics. In this perspective, the environment is not seen as a vital subject, ‘Nature,’ but as an ecological system that is described by natural sciences and (trans)formed by human cultural work. Agarwal raises issues about the policies of gender relations in connection with environmental management strategies in concrete contexts and stresses the role of customs, laws, and social structures in determining women’s relationship to their environment. In this perspective, the different forms of relationship to the environment are seen as caused by different forms of interaction between human beings and their material interests. The feminist environmentalist approach opens scientific space for empirical feminist studies by going beyond normative reflections.

It is very important for these gender studies, which are framed by political and normative strategies and concepts, such as gender equity, environmental justice, and sustainability, to reflect in an analytical way on the normative dimension of research. Maggie O’Neill emphasizes this point for gender studies in general in her introduction to the edition Adorno, Culture and Feminism: ‘We have to face the moral as well as the analytical issues’ (1999: 5).

European Gender Mainstreaming and Environmental Studies

Within its strategy of gender mainstreaming, the European Commission launched, in 2001, gender impact assessment (GIA) studies in order to introduce a critical dimension in the way gender issues are treated throughout the Fifth European Framework Program for Research, Technology Development and Demonstration (RTD). The GIAs are part of an ongoing monitoring process by the European Commission that aims to take the gender dimension more fully into account within research policy. To this end, seven studies were carried out, one of which was entitled ‘Environment and Sustainable Development’ (ESD).

The ESD subprogram contained seven thematic research fields, which reflected the dominance of natural and technical sciences in environmental studies. These fields included: (1) urban sustainability; (2) global change, climate, and biodiversity; (3) sustainable marine ecosystems; (4) sustainable management and quality of water; (5) natural and technological hazards; (6) earth observation technologies; and (7) socioeconomic aspects of environmental change in the perspective of sustainable development. A state-of-the-art report described the results of gender research on the environment and sustainable development in general and in the seven research fields in particular (ISOE, 2003; Schultz, Hummel, Hayn, and Empacher, 2001). The report identified three main gender dimensions in environmental research:

  • Work: the gendered division of labor and women’s work
  • Body: the organization of intimacy
  • Science: the shaping power of women and men in science, technology and environmental policies

These three components are characterized as gender dimensions in environmental studies, and they incorporate a list of highly gendered issues within environmental and sustainability research. Gender dimensions in gender impact assessments (Verloo and Roggeband, 1996) are a heuristic concept to identify and, according to the approach of mainstreaming, to integrate gender issues into research and politics. To identify gender issues in this field is, in contrary to some research fields of social sciences, still very avant garde. One important finding of the gender impact assessment of the ESD subprogram was that the program did not mention gender issues explicitly and concretely with respect to the different sub-research areas. As a result, from a total of 2,125 research proposals, only one mentioned gender in the abstract. Thus, the identification of gender issues in environmental research is important to bring those issues into research programs.

Assuming that gendered power relations are at the core of all gender dimensions, the three gender dimensions correspond with three main theoretical and political debates on women and gender studies: a feminist understanding of work, a feminist understanding of the body, and the feminist debate about science:

  • A feminist understanding of work: This gender dimension focuses on the connections between paid and unpaid labor, between work inside and outside the home, and between gendered tasks and professions such as market-mediated labor and domestic work, subsistence work, care work, ‘informal’ and ‘illegal’ work. Within environmental studies this gender dimension is strongly connected with a daily life perspective.
  • A feminist understanding of the body: The feminist debate about the body is connected with questions of gendered identities and a critical perspective on heterosexuality. This is not the case in environmental studies so far. In environmental research, the issue of health and risk perception is predominant. The example of the different impacts of radiation on women, men, children, seniors, and others illustrates that a perspective on different vulnerable bodies, such as pregnant women and ill men, is needed, one that does not ignore knowledge from physics and (feminist) medicine and is able to differentiate between the symbolic gender order, sexual politics, and physical gender differences.
  • The feminist debate about science: Feminist reflections on science are numerous, especially with respect to epistemological prerequisites such as rationality and objectivity. However, the empowerment approach in the women’s movement and in gender studies of the 1980s and 1990s focused on an exclusively social and economic perspective. Even within the debate surrounding sustainable development, the assumption that science functions as a ‘motor’ of unsustainable development was very seldom examined. In connection with its environmental research, the women’s movement needed to expand its approach to include a perspective on empowerment with relation to the sciences.

Against this background, the approach of gender and environment within social-ecological research focused on empowerment of feminist perspectives within the sciences and combined it with the sustainable development framework (Schultz, 2001b; Schultz and Weller, 1995). One key challenge for the empowerment perspective in the sciences is to develop inter- and transdisciplinary research. In order to achieve such gender studies, environmental research has to be changed at the level of standards, methods, instruments, and tools as well as at the content level. The blending of the gender approach with the natural sciences and technological research cannot be achieved by simply adding the gender perspective to existing approaches. What is needed is the development of new concepts and methods to integrate the different perspectives, including those of different scientific disciplines and those of different laypersons and civil society groups. The difficulty in overcoming this challenge is exacerbated by the fact that, even in feminist and gender research, ‘interdisciplinary’ is often understood as between the social, cultural, and historical sciences only. Research examples that integrate perspectives from natural sciences and feminist critique on natural sciences are rare.

The next section provides examples of environmental studies in each gender dimension: work, body, and science. In the interest of brevity, I describe only one example for each gender dimension.

Work: Sustainable Production and Consumption Patterns

Pollution was the leading issue when the new research field of environmental studies was being developed in the 1970s and 1980s in Europe. The pollution problem was elaborated with respect to air, water, soil, and forests. A significant amount of ‘end-of-the-pipe technology’ was developed to avoid pollution, such as filters in the chimneys of industrial plants. Women’s studies could hardly be found in this research. Today, the issue of pollution is no longer focused on end-of-the-pipe technologies, and new methods of evaluating environmental costs are available. The life-cycle analysis (LCA) of products calculates environmental loads with respect to different life phases of a product. In addition to the production phase of a product and its waste disposal, the LCA includes the use of the product as a possible source of environmental pollution. Thus, the issue of consumption became an environmental issue. After UNCED in Rio and its call for sustainable consumption patterns, especially in the countries of the North, a broader field in environmental research was established: sustainable production and consumption. This field includes different economic, ecological, and social scientific approaches, such as demonstrating the effects of energy use in households and examining consumer behavior in different areas with respect to material flows. In this type of research, socioeconomic environmental approaches dominate, and gender studies play a significant role.

The gender perspective in this research stresses the importance of everyday life for environmental strategies, which is a feminist conceptualization of the issue. The feminist perspective is based in debates and theories about the gendered division of labor and women’s work. To conceptualize waste work in a household or the special tasks of consumption work from a gender perspective, for example, one needs a critical gender analysis of new forms of housework and everyday life. To this end, a number of different social scientific approaches have been elaborated, including the concept of daily life organization (Jurczyk and Rerrich, 1993) and the concept of everyday life ecology within socio-ecological research (see A prominent economic feminist approach in this field is that of ‘provident economy,’ which aims for the satisfaction of needs rather than abstract values (Busch-Lüty, Jochimsen, Knobloch, and Seidl, 1994). Similar to provident economy, but from a more global perspective is the subsistence perspective (Bennholdt-Thomsen and Mies, 1997). There are some empirical studies on consumption patterns in general or with respect to specific fields of consumption, such as the use of energy, water, and traffic and mobility. Most recently, food consumption has arisen as a prominent issue. Within this framework, two analytical trends are becoming more important for gender studies in environmental research. The first trend is research on gendered time patterns (Adam, 1994), and the second is a greater focus on gendered patterns of using public and private space (Paravicini, 1999). In general, reflections on new concepts of time and space in environmental gender studies can be frequently found.

Despite new developments in the content of research, the methods and instruments of measuring environmental degradation and environmental loads (material flows) have not been thoroughly questioned from a gender perspective. Only a few studies have begun to consider these methods and their standards as being gendered as well (Weller et al., 2002). Furthermore, only a few feminists from the natural and technological sciences have begun to work on conceptual questions of material development and product design with a (re)constructive approach (Weller, 2004).

Body: The Issue of Vulnerability

There are a growing number of feminist environmental studies about risk perception and disaster research that focus on the important issue of vulnerability. To take a prominent example, in Europe, environmental issues were seldom discussed at the beginning of the women’s movement. This changed considerably after the nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986. Women in many European countries organized demonstrations against nuclear technology. In Finland, women called for a ‘birth strike’ against nuclear technologies, and in Germany, even a year after the accident occurred, there were still more than 1,000 groups of Mothers Against Nuclear Technology. The first studies from a feminist perspective appeared soon after the accident and led to a lively discussion on the risks of nuclear technologies. This discussion incorporated a wide spectrum of arguments that shape research on technological risks from a gender perspective.

Research on attitudes towards environmental issues showed, and continues to show, that risk perception is highly gendered. In the German feminist debate on the effects of the nuclear accident, the concept of gendered vulnerability was discussed for the first time. Mothers Against Nuclear Technology criticized those strategies that were aimed at minimizing radioactivity to so-called limit-values. They criticized not the method to set limit-values, but instead the fact that the limit-values were modeled for an average, healthy man, instead of taking into account the special vulnerability (with respect to radioactivity) of pregnant women, the ill, and children. The issue of environmental impacts on the health of diverse vulnerable groups has since been a core topic of gender research in this field. Feminist studies in medicine and gynecology are the epicenters of such research.

Fifteen years after the Chernobyl accident, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety (BMU) undertook the project ‘Gender Impact Assessment in the Field of Radiation Protection and the Environment,’ which evaluated the renewed Radiation Protection Ordinance (RPO). The GIA focused on new provisions that regulated the overlapping area between radiation protection, protection of reproductive health, and protection of the unborn child. The new RPO repealed the general ban on pregnant women’s access to workplace areas that are exposed to radiation and replaced it with a concept of differentiated protection. These new regulations targeted those persons exposed to radiation working as medical, research, and other staff at nuclear facilities or in airline crews. The GIA focused, in particular, on the question of why different gender-specific regulations are applied to women and men with respect to reproductive health. Since the RPO contains additional limits for women, the researchers investigated whether men could be disadvantaged in the sense of protection and women in the sense of access to working places and career. However, the latest status of medical research justifies gender-specific provisions, citing differing degrees of incorporation of radioactivity in the ovaries and uterus, on the one hand, and in sperm, on the other (Hayn and Schultz, 2002).

This example shows that environmental research, when referring to questions of bodily needs and physical vulnerability, sometimes has to take into account physical differences between the two sexes (and within them), even if the differences appear to be socially constructed. From a perspective of the empowerment of women, the stereotypical idea of associating reproductive health only with women must be critically examined. Men’s vulnerability is an equally important issue in environmental gender studies.

Science: Genetically Transformed Organisms

One current field of environmental research deals with genetically transformed organisms in agriculture, and is conducted with the aim of sustaining biodiversity. This research shows that new scientific methods are required to expand the influence of women in science, technology, and environmental policies. The areas of biotechnology and genetic-technological research, which deal with the risks of development and analysis of agriculture, nutrition, and the protection of nature in the wider sense, are also incorporated into this field.

Today, there are many women researchers in the field of genetically transformed organisms. They are very active in NGOs working on this theme, in ethics commissions, and in the women’s organization Diverse Women for Diversity. Similar to feminist approaches in the field of economic development (Busch-Lüthy et al, 1994), many feminists stress the ethical point of techno-economical developments in genetic transformation. They view ecological developments with respect to an ‘ethic of precaution.’ A specific gender approach that includes natural scientific perspectives has yet to be fully elaborated in this research field. A preliminary attempt at gender-sensitive research on genetically transformed organisms was made by the German state of Bremen in its monitoring of the environmental impacts of genetically modified plants (Weller, 2003). The monitoring, which was carried out in a GIA of environmental research projects, focused on conceptual and methodological questions of situating and contextually reconceptualizing knowledge.

With respect to empowerment that reflects gendered daily life conditions in technological development, several groups of research questions should be combined. These include questions of the health of vulnerable groups of women and men, agricultural sustainable development and everyday nutrition, giving special attention to the use of ‘novel’ food, which contains genetically modified substances. Methods of risk assessment fall into three different fields: (1) agriculture/ecology, (2) health/medicine, and (3) daily life and society. Initially, each of these fields needs to be elaborated independently. Then, they have to be combined with new methods of research integration. These results must be viewed within the context of the gendered daily lives of different social groups. Thus far, these three research fields are separated. With respect to methodological questions, the clarification of the perspective of evaluation is indispensable for the elaboration of new methods of integrating social, ecological, and medical impact analyses. In this case, that means clarifying the normative dimension by defining the ‘precautionary principle.’ Here, the ethical debates within feminist and scientific discourses are crucial.

Outlook for the Future

In her book Silent Spring (1962, see Hynes, 1989), the US biologist Rachel Carson first described the catastrophic consequences that the use of agricultural pesticides has on human beings and nature. Many environmentalists claim that the environmental movement began with this book and with Carson’s involvement. Carson accurately depicted how pesticides move from plants sprayed with DDT to other plants that were not sprayed. From the trees, the pollution reaches birds, which eventually die from the toxins; therefore, the silent spring is the spring when the birds no longer sing. Before Carson’s book, there was little scientific knowledge about these ecological interdependencies, and such connections would not have been accepted if Carson had not demonstrated them by using the language of natural sciences and the methods and measurements of biology and biochemistry. Carson’s call for an end to environmental pollution formed the nucleus of the nascent environmental movement. Later, the movement led to a ban on the use of DDT and to the implementation of the Environmental Protection Act in the United States. A new governmental institution, the Environmental Protection Agency, was founded, and new scientific methods within natural sciences and technology were developed, namely, environmental impact assessments and technological risk assessments.

In the forty years since the publication of Silent Spring, the environmental movements in the United States, Australia, and Western Europe have seen their ups and their downs. They received a push by the movement for ‘globalization from below.’ In Eastern Europe and in some Asian, Latin American, and African countries, the movements are very active in dealing with local and regional conflicts and needs. Women and feminists, like the Kenyan Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, play an important role within these movements all over the world. There are strong women’s networks with respect to different environmental issues, such as Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), the international network on Gender and Sustainable Energy (ENERGIA), the German Focal Point Gender Justice and Sustainability (GENANET), and the Gender and Water Alliance. GIA methods were developed to mainstream gender issues similar to the main-streaming of environmental impact assessments.

Despite these advances, the women’s movement still requires a greater contribution in environmental studies by feminists like Rachel Carson, simultaneously scientifically oriented, innovative, and engaged. The field of environmental science has never been exclusively defined by natural sciences, as is the case with quantum physics, for example. To examine an environmental problem such as biodiversity means to observe and measure the loss of biological species while at the same time evaluating why this loss happens. By its very nature, this research demands an understanding of social, economic, technical, and natural interconnections and dynamics. In other words, it requires an understanding of the constant transformation in societal relations to nature. Gender studies within environmental science have advanced significantly in the analysis of social and economic interactions and planning demands.

In this respect, the example of urban research and city planning is significant. Gender approaches in academic urban research, research networks, and professional associations have been established successfully in many different countries. New planning instruments and concepts in gendered urban planning are being elaborated. However, the core of knowledge on material construction in physics, chemistry, and some disciplines of engineering remains without a feminist perspective.

To bring gender issues into the hard sciences would mean to open their disciplinary boundaries to so-called social issues. A gender perspective functions in this sense as an eye opener for social questions. Thus, it requires interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. In the European landscape of gender studies, first experiences with a new type of transdisciplinary, gender-sensitive research occurred through special research programs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. To identify gender issues and integrate them into a project involving different disciplines, professionals, and laypersons is a new and difficult task. Predominant themes of gender-sensitive, social-ecological research projects deal with the highly complex set of interactive natural and social systems: life-support systems for water, energy, and food. They are embedded in fragile natural environments which require intelligent regulation in order to satisfy the needs of a growing population now and in the future.

Projects of this new type of transdisciplinary, gender-sensitive research analyze the privatization of communal water services and the European and national shaping of the new emissions trading systems. One research project developed with explicitly feminist perspective is ‘Supplying the population-interactions among demographic trends, needs and supply systems’ (Hummel, Hertler, Niemann, Lux, and Schulze, 2003). These examples show that one tendency within environmental gender studies is to go ‘mainstream.’ Mainstreaming gender requires elaborate concepts of scientific critique with respect to social as well as to natural and technical sciences and their reconstructive integratation. In the words of the feminist historian of sciences Londa Schiebinger:

It is not enough to understand how sciences had been made; we need to develop more practical, constructive ways to employ tools of gender analysis creating what I will call ‘sustainable science.’ Only when gender analysis becomes an integral part of science research programs will the problem of women in science be solved. (1997: 203)