I came across Plenty magazine for the first time yesterday, when the brightly colored cover of its April/May issue -- featuring a woman lying in a grassy field while a guy stands behind her holding a shotgun -- caught my eye at the newsstand. "Which is the greener gender?" the cover asked. And even though the illustration kind of gives away which gender wins the eco award (many hunters are committed environmentalists, but in cartoon terms, I figure "reclining blonde with flowers" trumps "dude with gun"), I took the bait and bought it.
The enviro/lifestyle mag is more or less what you'd expect: full-length features on oceans and rapid transit, infographics on natural Easter-egg dyes, and ads from companies like Solumbra and the Environmental Defense Action Fund. All good stuff, in other words. But while the environmental battle of the sexes is good for controversy (and, presumably, sales), the cover story doesnt delve any more deeply than the cover cartoon. The article is light on data and reliant on pundits saying stuff like "being pro-environment is manly" and "nature is feminine." The writer, Richard Bradley, asserts that "women are more likely than men to buy organic milk, recycle cans and bottles, turn off the lights, lower the heat, and so on," but doesn't support the claim with statistics (or determine whether women are more likely than men to buy organic, or just more likely to be the ones in charge of buying household items in general).
And what could have been an interesting history of the politics of environmentalism -- including tidbits about Teddy Roosevelt's hunting-oriented conservationism and Barry Goldwater's Sierra Club membership -- winds up blaming "ecofeminists" for eroding political support for enviro causes: "The left didn't simply adopt environmentalism in a way that alienated conservatives; it adopted environmentalism in a way that alienated men by claiming that women had a special relationship with the environment... it's not hard to see why male conservatives felt threatened by it, or stopped taking it seriously, or simply rejected it altogether." And though Bradley says ecofeminism killed the nonpartisan green movement of the 1960s and early '70s, his only tangible examples of ecofeminism's influence are Julia Butterfly Hill's late-'90s logging protest and a 2002 article in California Monthly magazine. (Bradley tries to interview a female environmental consultant, but she's not interested in his approach: "If your article is premised on gender determinism -- i.e., women are a homogenous class, men are a homogenous class, and gender trumps other social variables in determining attitudes toward environmentalism... then I'll take a pass," she writes. Not that her smart rebuff shakes Bradley from his thesis.)
In the end, Plenty hands women the green-gender award -- but warns that environmentalism won't really take off if the ladies keep hogging it: "...the environmental movement can appeal to the ostensibly business-oriented male psyche. For their part, women might have to accept that men don't much appreciate language that frames them as rapists of nature while claiming that women have a special, exclusionary bond with the planet."
Strong words, but somehow I doubt all those recycling moms Bradley referred to earlier are exalting in their special exclusionary bond while they separate cans from cardboard. Sure, some New-Age types proclaim the beauty of our mother Earth -- and a few of them probably even assert that men have historically been rapists of the land -- but those messages are far, far from the mainstream. Presenting environmentalism and feminism as competitors bespeaks the same kind of narrow thinking that prevents progressives from building consensus and developing a coherent message. And to suggest that women's participation hinders environmentalism's wider appeal stinks like a pile of compost.