As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
Feeling powerless about climate change? Osprey Orielle Lake has initiated a collective, women-led global movement to help save the planet. Interview by Stav Dimitropoulos.
Since 1979 the Arctic sea ice coverage has been shrinking every decade by 3.5 to 4.1 per cent while sea levels have been rising by 3.4mm each year, their fastest rate in 2,000 years. Oceanic waters today are 26 per cent more acidic than at the start of the Industrial Revolution, which is threatening marine life. The ‘lungs of the Earth’ and major ‘carbon sink’, the Amazon, is facing might degrade its rainforests, pouring their colossal carbon stores into the atmosphere; two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been severely damaged; over the past 40 years wildfire seasons have lengthened, with devastating consequences for land and wildlife; by 2030, the number of people exposed to flooding each year will have rocketed to 54 million; by 2100 global temperatures may escalate by seven degrees Celsius. Grim news? How can women take action before it’s too late? Osprey Orielle Lake, Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International has a solution.
When did you become a campaigner for the environment?
Until I was eight years old, I lived in San Francisco. But then, my parents divorced and my mother moved my sister and me to the small coastal town of Mendocino in northern California and I suddenly found myself a country dweller, knowing very little about nature. It took me several years to venture out of the house and into the forest. I mention this because walking in the majestic and ancient redwood forests and along the rivers of Mendocino was a big part of my healing as a child. So you can imagine how devastated I was in high school when I learned that the redwoods along the river that had become my friends and solace were going to be logged. I knew what that would mean because I had seen clear-cut forests before – they resemble a battlefield with fallen trees and stumps like fallen or wounded soldiers, very heartbreaking to see. When we become close to land, to a special place, our bodies become part of the landscape. So it is very devastating if anything should happen to these places we love.
At age 17, I immediately became involved in an organisation that was fighting the cutting of the redwood forest near my home in Mendocino, and fortunately we were victorious. But this experience brought me to some deeper questions as a young person: Why were humans destroying the Earth? Why is there industrial logging of ancient forests at a time of ecological crisis? Why are humans polluting our own waters? That’s when I dedicated my life to defending and protecting the Earth.
What is WECAN?
WECAN engages women as powerful stakeholders in climate education. We have a variety of programs including partnering with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo to undertake reforestation of damaged lands and protect old growth of the Itombwe region [this wild-life-rich mountain range is currently being mined for gold, diamonds, and columbo-tantalite, a mineral used in semiconductors and computer chips]. We organise frontline women’s delegations for fossil fuel divestments as well as advocate at international climate forums such as the annual United Nations climate talks. Our four guiding principles are the rights of women, the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of nature, and the rights of future generations.
Why and how did WECAN begin, and why are women coming on board?
The climate crisis is urgent and we have an ever smaller window of time to take action, with pledges by nations to cut carbon emissions falling far short of those needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Importantly, women can and are making a significant difference in changing our current trajectory, and it is vital that we accelerate the power, leadership, and visibility of women at every level of decision-making. WECAN was founded because, alongside many women allies, I wanted to support a diverse women’s climate justice movement to accelerate action.
Studies worldwide demonstrate that women are simultaneously the most adversely impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. When I founded WECAN I began asking questions such as: “What can women from different parts of the world do to connect and grow our collective efforts to halt climate change, stop fossil fuel extraction, and protect our lands, our water, and our children’s future? How can we as women address interconnected issues of climate change, government inaction, social inequality, extractive economies, and the pervasive disconnect from nature in most modern societies? How can women accelerate solutions that address systemic change and a just transition to a sustainable, renewable, and regenerative energy future?”
Clearly we cannot make such large changes or win these struggles on our own, so we need to strengthen our relationship and efforts together. And so WECAN was born. From the heart of the Amazon Basin to the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and from the Gulf Coast of the US to the islands of the Pacific, women stand on the frontlines of global efforts to heal our world. They are rising with fierce resolve, cognisant that current responses at the national and international level do not suffice given the scale of crisis we face.
How does climate change affect women?
Women experience the harms and dangers of climate change because their basic rights are often denied in varying forms around the world. Social and political gender inequality reduces women’s physical and economic mobility, voice, and opportunity in many regions, making them more vulnerable to increasing ecological stresses.
Women comprise about 80 per cent of climate refugees, and studies report that of the 26 million people estimated to have been displaced by climate change, 20 million are women. Importantly, the poor are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 a day or less are women.
Indigenous women, women from low-income communities, and women from the Global South bear an even heavier burden from the impacts of climate change because of the historic and continuing impacts of colonialism, racism, and inequality, and in many cases because they are more reliant upon natural resources for their survival, or live in areas that have poor infrastructure. Drought, flooding, and unpredictable and extreme weather patterns present life or death challenges for many women, who are most often the ones responsible for providing food, water, and energy for their families.
Do you think that violence against women and violence against the Earth are interconnected?
There is an inseparable link between violence against women and violence perpetrated against the Earth through exploitation and extractivism. These are violations that result from unchecked patriarchal societies, colonisation, racism, and capitalism – all of which are based upon the same systems and ideologies that promote power over, and exploitation of, women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, and the land. It is time to end these old and destructive social constructs and call for a new worldview of gender equity, balance, and harmony with nature. We must transition from an extractivist, colonial paradigm of exploitation to one that honours and respects the Earth.
Additionally, all around the world, women land defenders are increasingly being criminalised, attacked, and [sometimes] murdered. The international community became aware of this situation in 2016 after the assassination of the beloved Honduran indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres, who was murdered for leading a campaign against the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River in her people’s territory. I am very passionate about this issue. How can we protect the land if we cannot defend the defenders of the land?
Why are indigenous women integral to WECAN?
Indigenous women remind us of our inseparable connection to the Earth. Due to their close relationship with the land, indigenous women hold invaluable traditional knowledge, as well as spiritual and philosophical understandings critical to healing the Earth.
Your work also includes the Rights of Nature legal framework. Can you please explain what this is?
Our human activities are rippling out across the entire Earth. We are affecting 4.5 billion years of evolution. What is our responsibility at this critical juncture of the Anthropocene? I think respecting and implementing the Rights of Nature is a central part of our way forward. Our current legal systems recognise the rights of corporations, but not the rights of nature upon which all life depends. This does not make sense. The current system is not leading us to justice and wellbeing for people and planet. Instead, we need to respect the laws of Mother Earth, the natural laws of the planet.
Rights of Nature is a groundbreaking legal framework that recognises natural systems, such as rivers, forests, mountain ranges, and the climate, as rights-bearing entities with an inalienable claim to protection, preservation, and evolution. A growing global movement for the recognition of the Rights of Nature is gaining momentum, from Ecuador, Nepal, Colombia, and New Zealand, to communities across the US. For long-term solutions, we need to recognise the Rights of Nature in law and in practice. It is time to stop treating nature as property, but rather as a rights-bearing entity as we put an end to the commodification, ownership, and exploitation of all ecosystems. We need to respect the natural laws of Mother Earth if we are to survive and thrive on this magnificent planet. Rights of Nature is a way for us to practise laws that respect the sacred systems of life.
You have written a book titled Uprisings for the Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature, in which you discuss the importance of establishing a renewed kinship with nature, even for those living in urban environments. Can you please explain this a little?
My book focuses a great deal on story – how modern people not from indigenous nations can renew our cultural narrative to connect to the natural world. Our modern civilisation comes from an industrialised world and a lot of our stories are disconnected from the natural environment. Over half of the world’s population now live in cities, consequently most of our storytelling is becoming increasingly disconnected from nature because people are not living in forests, mountains, around wildlife, or near rivers and lakes. The question is, how do we reconnect with the wild as urban dwellers? This is one of the big questions and explorations in my book.
As an example, there is a very big difference between watching a television special about sea life while sitting at home in the city, and actually going to the ocean and being present with the sea. In some of the WECAN trainings, we have hiked with participants to their local watersheds so people can actually see the river, the lake, mountain stream or reservoir where their local water comes from. When we turn on our faucets, take a shower, or drink from the tap, we can ask and then learn, where does our water originate? How can we best care for our water?
Studies have shown, both with children and adults, that people can recognise over 1,000 brand names of commercial products or recognise their logos or songs from television, but if you ask them to walk outside their door, most people from urban environments cannot name even ten of the birds or plants or trees right outside their homes. This is an indication that we really need to change our relationship with our living planet. The good news is that this actually something we can do something about.
What happens when women become more active in fighting for and protecting the environment, and why is this important?
When women are empowered, studies show that there are immense benefits to entire communities and societies. Sustainable and local economies grow, populations stabilise, and children’s health and education improve. In many countries, women lead on environmental and social legislation when elected to public office. Women’s involvement in decision-making has important implications for climate change; for example, a study of 130 countries found that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties. In a recent victory for the climate movement, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has banned all new offshore oil exploration as part of the carbon-neutral future that her administration is implementing.
Women across the world act as an immense force of social change in directing family values, lifestyle, and consumption habits. As an example, women in the United States make decisions about 80 per cent of all consumer purchases, and start 70 per cent of new businesses – power that could be leveraged into the transition to clean, regenerative energy, and local economies.
Women as a constituency are a strategic and powerful force that is often not recognised or supported,
despite clear evidence that women are key to making the societal, economical, political, and ecological changes we so desperately need. These points of leverage need to be recognised and acted upon.
Can you name some of the ways through which women can help stem climate change?
Although this is just one piece of the puzzle, we know that curbing our consumption is critical to reducing our carbon footprints, as individuals and at the national and international level. Even so, there are some household purchases like food, clothing, and energy that are essential. Women are having a huge impact in fostering a shift to safe, renewable, regenerative energy sources like small-scale, site appropriate solar and wind energy projects, by switching to these alternatives in their communities. Of course, one of the most important areas to address is food and agriculture. Supporting local, non-industrial, low-carbon intensive diets is key. And we’ve seen women leverage the power of the purse with strong campaigns in Europe and the US that have led to a phasing out of toxic or less sustainable products and led to the introduction of more rigorous certification standards. There is so much to learn from campaigns that have protected ancient forests by leveraging consumer values to force companies to change the sourcing for wood and paper products, for example. And the campaigns that have extracted lead out of cosmetics and child toys, or others that have led to more organic foods, non-GMO foods, less use of pesticides and herbicides, and so on. We need to use such an approach to have an even greater impact in curbing climate change. Yet, this all must be coupled with meta-level changes, meaning we need a shift in policy and investment priorities. So this includes the power of the vote as well, and alerting our elected officials that in addition to voting with our dollars, women will also vote for individuals who show leadership in protecting the planet.
The change also involves a cultural shift. Women supporting clothing swaps, ‘up-cycling’(reusing materials to make new items) and ‘staycations’ (staying close to home instead of embarking upon carbon-intensive aeroplane or road trips) are just a few of the ways women are building a less carbon-intensive future.
All said, we cannot buy our way to a sustainable future. We also need to transform our consumption habits and our views about what is valuable. We need to create the inner conditions for this transformation. It seems clear that uncovering and then changing the beliefs and ways of thinking that got us into this crisis in the first place are actions that are equally central to the solution. The crisis began with world views, philosophies, and beliefs now very much out of step with current reality; it makes sense that significant, rapid, and enduring change requires a transformation of values – change that allows the biosphere to survive and recover from human predation. In her short film and book, The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard quotes retailing analyst Victor Lebow’s ‘solution’ to ramping up the US economy after World War II: “Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
We have followed this course to its tragic ‘success’, and it has made people feel emptier than ever. Leonard goes on to tell us that, “in the US we have more stuff than ever before, but polls show that our national happiness is actually declining.” I think it is well past time to adopt new indicators of wealth and wellbeing other than consumption and economic growth. To truly address systemic change at the level required we have to address the disaster of unchecked capitalism and economic models based on endless economic growth on a finite planet.
What lifestyle changes can the everyday person make now?
I think it is very helpful to approach new indicators of wealth and economics with the concept of sumak kawsay, which comes from indigenous peoples of the Andes in Ecuador. The term has been translated as buen vivir in Spanish and loosely means “living well”.
The term is multilayered and so I will relay it here as it was taught to me; that it means living in ecological and economic balance, having harmony in relationships, personal and collective growth appropriate to local conditions, good health, and living well in community including the community of nature.
It also offers a world view of a living cosmos that we are a part of. In the south, sumak kawsay or buen vivir has been the way of life for many indigenous peoples for thousands of years, but the idea has been growing in social movements to respond to conventional concepts of development plans and their destructive environmental, social, or economic effects, especially for frontline communities.
Sumak kawsay calls for a reduction in economic and product development, and an increase in human development such as encouraging education, ethics, spirituality, world views, creativity, and a deepening of our connection with Mother Earth. We can work toward this kind of development wherever we live.
What is the most important message you’d like to impart to women at this crucial moment in the evolution of planet Earth?
It is time to speak out for the sacred interdependence of all life on Earth and to recognise that social and economic models based on extraction and exploitation, patriarchy and racism, have ushered in an era of unprecedented social and planetary destruction, and we must act now if there is to be a future of wellbeing for our children. I think it is also important to understand that as we engage and take action for change, we are part of social and environmental movements that are much greater than ourselves, greater than our communities and our countries. We are part of our planet’s immune system that is rising up against injustices that are destroying our Earth and all life, as we know it. This is the time of rising up and everyone needs to participate.