The impact of climate change is not felt equally by all. In addition to the racist power structures already addressed, women and non-binary people are often more negatively affected than men by coal projects and climate change – and are often not the people making the decisions. They tend to be the ones looking after people when they are sick, and they are more affected by water and food shortages, dust from coal, and air pollution. Feeding people and providing for most of our needs is heavily reliant on the unpaid work of women. The perceived benefits tend to favour men – such as employment in the coal supply chain – whereas the damage is largely carried by women who care for families and workers, including those severely harmed by coal mining. Despite the vital nature of this work, it is undervalued in society – social reproductive work and emotional and care labour tend to be invisibilised and taken for granted under capitalism.
Some affinity groups have decided to bring the gender-based harms caused by the extraction and burning of coal to the forefront of the messaging on direct actions. Below are two recent examples.
The Earth is a woman
Under the slogan “Ziemia jest kobietą” (The Earth is a Woman) and to mark International Women’s Day, on 9 March 2020, a group of women from Zielona Fala (Green Wave) occupied the coal mine in Tomoslawice, central Poland. They hiked through the moonscape of the mine, including through 800 metres of ankle-deep mud, and shut down and blockaded the mine for ten hours. The women had brought banners, which they unfurled on the roof of a large digger, and locked themselves onto heavy machinery.
The action aimed to draw attention to the fact that the global system that facilitates ecological destruction is set up and dominated by men.
Tomoslawice mine not only contributes to the climate breakdown, but also threatens local community health and the nearby EU protected areas – Nature 2000 sites. Its opening was strongly resisted by local communities, councils, and NGOs. It has already had dramatic impacts on local water systems. The local Noteć river has dried out on a 30km stretch, and the water levels of the two nearby lakes have dropped greatly.
FLINT action against Banks Group’s coal projects
As part of the 2019 Earth First! Summer Gathering in England, a group of women and nonbinary people took action against the Shotton opencast coal mine in the North East of England, blocking the only entrance to the mine for a full working day. The mine operator, Banks Group, at the time also operated two other UK opencast coal mines, and had proposed two new opencasts and an extension to an existing one.
The action was also to draw attention to Banks Group’s restoration project near the Shotton mine – a huge landform in the shape of a naked, prone, female body, created from the rock and soil that was originally stripped away to mine the coal. The sculpture illustrates all too well the links between the domination of women and nature, and the gendered hierarchies inherent in colonialism and capitalism, reliant on the commodification and exploitation of nature, women, and nonbinary people.
Since the action took place, Shotton and the other two existing Banks Group opencast sites have all stopped producing coal, having reached the end of the planning permissions. The extension applied for was prevented due to local pressure. Local pressure, and broader solidarity support, also led to the British government to finally reject Banks Group’s largest new opencast mine application and a local council to unanimously reject Banks Group’s only other opencast coal application. As of the end of 2020, Banks Group no longer operates any opencast mines producing coal.
When we fight against the injustice of the coal industry it is important to consider the interconnected prejudices which mean that some people suffer more than others and that the nature of this suffering is not necessarily visible. Often, women form the backbone of campaigns against coal infrastructure, holding together the groups resisting projects, and meeting the group’s basic needs. The coal companies and the decision-making bodies which enable them are dominated by men. It is predominantly men who allow extractive industries, and then police any effective form of descent against them in the form of both security and police officers.
Sometimes the most visible, confrontational aspects of actions and campaigns are done by men, but the often forgotten, sustained, and reproductive work is carried by people of other genders. Actions where men play a caring and reproductive role can be incredible powerful for other people, but also for allowing men to strengthen their other often overlooked skills.
Interview with Ash from the affinity group that blockaded Shotton
Ash, you were one of six FLINT activists who shut down the Shotton coal mine in North- East England last summer, by blocking the entrance with lock-ons. What is a FLINT action?
Ash: It is an action where only FLINT people (female, lesbian, intersex, non-binary, and trans people)153 take on the major roles, so they can break free from oppressing patterns of men deciding for women and monopolising the exciting roles.
What made you do this?
Ash: I don’t think this was a conscientious choice at the beginning to make the action FLINT (or at least I missed that part of the discussion), but we were a group of people who felt safe with each other, maybe because there was not so much toxic masculinity amongst us. We blocked a coal mine because there should not be any sort of fossil fuel burnt in regard of what we know about climate change today, let alone dirty coal in a country that could easily do without.
What does coal and the climate crisis have to do with patriarchy?
Ash: The decisions as to what happens in the world, such as how much coal is going to be burnt, are still mostly taken by rich white men. While the work of caring about the people made sick by these decisions (respiratory illnesses due to dust in the air where coal is extracted and burnt, or drought and other natural disaster due to climate change) is, in a great part, done by women around the world. It is rich white men imposing climate chaos, and women, people living in poverty, and people in the Global South that are going to suffer most from it. That’s why we have to fight patriarchy and racism, as well as fossil fuels, if we want to change the world for the better.
Where do you see patriarchy reflected in activist structures? Do our movements have a ‘gender problem’?
Ash: Yes, of course. Our movements are made of us, people who grew up in a sexist society. After this action for example, as some people were locked up at the police station, a small group of us were organising the arrestees support and trying to survive in a town we didn’t know while under a great amount of stress. So naturally, the people who were assigned female at birth took on the reproductive work and all the decisions were left to the only person assigned male at birth present – who could really have done without this mental charge. This person was trying hard to make us participate in the decision-making, but we just ignored it and left it all to them. We realised only later what we had done, when they called us out. It was another reminder that we all have to constantly reflect on our automatisms and not only tell CIS-men to do it.
How can we actively integrate a critical understanding of gender, patriarchy, and intersectionality into our struggle against extractivism and climate change?
Ash: Be kind to each other, and listen and reflect when people call us out instead of reacting defensively. Talk about these topics every day, organise workshops and discussion rounds. Don’t let one struggle seem more important than another because they are all linked.
Sex – the way the person’s physical body reflects characteristics associated with gender. Assigned female/male at birth – the sex given to babies depending on their genitalia
Intersex – an intersex person has sex characteristics e.g. sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, and/or chromosome patterns that do not fit the typical definition of male or female. Intersex refers to sex, not gender.
Gender – refers to a person’s experience of their identity relative to the categories of masculinity and femininity. An individual’s gender is unique and it can be difficult to express this gender to others. There are different sides to gender, including gender identity (how someone thinks of their own gender within themselves), gender expression (the way a person presents themselves to others), and relationship to gender roles (the way, and extent to which, a person performs the roles that society expects them to play).
Non-binary – describes a gender identity which does not fit the woman or man binary.
Cis – someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth.
Trans – someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Intersectionality – refers to the way that forms of oppression, including but not limited to racism, classism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and xenophobia, are mutually dependent and intersecting in nature, and together create a unified system of oppression.154
Reproductive work – the work that is necessary in order to maintain and reproduce human life (e.g. pregnancy, childcare, looking after the physical and emotional well-being of others, etc.). In a capitalist society, reproductive work is often taken up by women and is largely unrecognised and undervalued. In the West, this work is increasingly outsourced to lower paid labourers, generally young people, and migrant workers. Often reproducing global power structures, this is sometimes referred to as the ‘global care chain’.
Toxic masculinity – gendered behaviour which characterises the worst of male sexist behaviour.