'In order to create a more equal world, we have to include gender issues with sustainability issues'
This International Women’s Day, March 8, Wendy Harcourt will be inaugurated as Professor of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development. Her inauguration marks the launch of the first European based international feminist political ecology research network, WEGO-ITN. In her inaugural speech, Wendy Harcourt plans to address how gender and diversity relate to sustainable development. She argues that as we face climatic conditions never before experienced on this planet, we’ll need gendered knowledge of everyday experiences, combined with a politically and ecologically aware approach to global economic dynamics.
We spoke to her in the week leading up to her speech.
How are gender and diversity linked with sustainable development? They’re not often considered linked...
‘The point is that these concepts are deeply interconnected. We need to understand gender not just as a biological concept, but also as a political and sociological construct. Gender is a broad concept. Everything we do in some way relates to gender and diversity. As someone who is very concerned with global justice, I would bring this broad understanding of gender to social and economic justice, and environmental justice. In order to create a more equal world, we have to include gender issues with sustainability issues.
Of course, we all have different experiences of gender, diversity and sustainable development. For example, a white Dutch woman from Rotterdam will have a different understanding of sustainability than a Nigerian black man living in the Shell oil fields. It is important to create a framework that encompasses these different points of view. By learning from these different experiences of sustainability we create a feminist political and ecological framework. We need to have conservations that bring such diverse ecological thinking and experience together starting from research on how different communities are experiencing economic, cultural and environmental change.’
How will you approach this?
‘I received a large grant from the European Union for this purpose – a Horizon 2020 Marie Curie Innovative Research Network grant. The grant enables me to connect my research here at ISS and Erasmus University on feminist political ecology with other university and environmental institutes – 17 in fact – around the world together with 15 PhD students. It’s very exciting that the EU is willing to support work on gender, diversity and sustainable development. It is important recognition for something I’ve been working on almost all my life. I’m looking forward to my inaugural speech on March 8 where I can share more about my vision with the ISS and Erasmus community. Aside from the theme, or perhaps in line with the theme, I chose March 8 - International Women’s Day - as the moment to celebrate my new role as a female professor at Erasmus as we still have only 17% female professors.’
‘Finally people are beginning to recognize the urgency of these matters.’
These subjects (diversity, gender, sustainable development) are trendy right now.
She laughs. ‘They might be trendy now, but they have always been important issues. 25 years ago I was already writing about these subjects and how they interconnect. Now it has finally high on the academic and policy agenda. Even if given the state of the world it might be almost too late. People are starting to listen and recognize the urgency of these matters.
Achieving social justice and sustainable development is very important for future generations. I believe these are vital issues. So I’m pleased I can now open up the space to speak about them with students. Though I believe everybody should be aware and acting on sustainability.’
I once heard this statement: ‘Women’s Marches are only for privileged women. Those who are the real victims or our patriarchal system do not have the time or ability to walk these marches.’ Do you agree?
‘I think the good thing about a Women’s March is that it makes people aware of issues like sexual harassment and women’s rights and that feminism is still needed. The pictures and stories of those marches are spread through Facebook and prime-time television news. That way, they raise awareness on a big scale. And yes, for a lot of women just marching is not enough. There are other strategies required to ensure women of colour, migrant women, economically marginal women can lobby and gain income equality, better childcare, et cetera. There are many levels where gender equality needs to be addressed. As long as we are aware of privilege also among women all actions are valid, they don’t cancel each other out.’
Another question: how can you expect someone who is really poor, and hardly able to feed himself or herself, to care about the environment?
‘Before anything else, poor people need access to resources and livelihoods. That’s true. Every person deserves secure livelihoods, good education and food security as a basic set of social and economic as well as human rights. But environmental issues are also important to consider, and sometimes need to be considered in relation to finding a steady state economy not necessarily based on economic growth, even in places where there is poverty. We have to think about redistribution, access and how we value the environment for local people as part of complex systemic connections. Most of all we need a deeper understanding of how we can work with the Earth’s limited resources and address difficult political issues to protect the environment. Maybe rich people should learn to live with a less stuff.
I would like to add something here: when we talk about ‘poor people’, the image of third-world countries often comes to mind, but I don’t like to present it that way. It’s not a North/South issue. There are poor people in Rotterdam as well. Poverty exists everywhere. We need to look at social justice and how to address inequality in our back yard. It’s important to use language that people can understand. I see March 8 as a moment when I can open questions around how to achieve sustainability aware of gender and diversity in order to engage the Erasmus community in a language that speaks across disciplines.’