Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.
I got into a heated debate recently that I'm wondering if you could weigh in on. It seems like women, in general, care more about the environment than men. (At least among the people I know.) Is there anything to back this up?
One look at two recent environmental disasters -- the BP oil spill and the ill-fated Massey coal mine in West Virginia -- and one might wonder if men are not only less concerned about the planet, but directly responsible for its demise.
After all, it's men who fill the highest ranks at both BP and Massey Energy. And perhaps to prove your point, the most influential female executive at BP, Katrina Landis, is in charge of the company's alternative energy division. (Though she's not nearly as powerful as her predecessor, Vivienne Cox; BP rather presciently slashed its alternative energy budget by nearly $900 million last year, right around the time that Cox "retired.")
But before you pounce on me for partisan posturing, let me step in and say that I don't believe that either of these examples proves that men are somehow less likely environmentalists than women. In my mind, they only demonstrate two inconvenient truths: 1) Women are still poorly represented in leadership roles in large corporations (to wit: 29 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000); and 2) a lot of large corporations are too greedy to put environmental concerns before their bottom line.
I think that those of us who don't work for Big Oil (and even some of us who do) are equally horrified at the devastation that's befallen the Gulf. I've talked to a lot of men and women in the 51 days since the onset of the worst oil spill in United States history -- scientists, fishermen, mothers in Louisiana, fathers in Florida. To a person, each has said that this tragedy is the final wakeup call for this country to move toward a clean energy future.
This sentiment is all well and good, but here's where I think your question really comes in to play: Who -- man or woman -- will be most likely to translate this conviction into action?
For inspiration, there's no shortage of green heroes on either side. It was Rachel Carson, after all, who set in motion the modern environmental movement with her seminal work, Silent Spring, which sounded the alarm about humanity's impact on nature and the dangers of untested chemical pesticides. In more recent history, Al Gore has helped drive the issue of climate change to the mainstream consciousness.
But when it comes to the day-to-day doings of men and women who haven't devoted their lives to saving the planet, it's not so clear which is the greener gender. Andrea Duwel, a PhD candidate at UC-Davis who has studied the differences in sustainability between the sexes, says that in her own research, she's found that women show a "small, but statistically significant" greater concern for the environment; but she notes that on the whole, the empirical evidence is mixed. "Some other research does not find this effect, and the effect of gender on environmental concern is somewhat controversial in the academic literature in this area," she says.
There's one thing studies have shown, however, and that's that how women and men approach their environmentalism is as different as how they approach their relationships (cue Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus slideshow). Generally speaking, men like to focus on "big-picture" issues, while women are more interested in smaller eco-friendly changes that they can implement at home.
This could justify the increase in green disputes described by therapists in a recent New York Times article (she gets annoyed when he throws recyclable yogurt cups in the garbage; he argues that such minutiae make no real difference to the planet). It also could explain why 72 percent of men but only 40 percent of women favor building more nuclear power plants (big picture), or why women are 60 percent more likely than men to be vegetarian (smaller change).
I've witnessed this in my own life: My mother-in-law, to her credit, willingly jumps on almost any eco-improvement I've written about, especially when it comes to household purchasing. No change is too small -- organic milk, BPA-free cans, biodegradable doggie doo bags -- you name it. My father-in-law, on the other hand, isn't as excited by recycled wine totes (although I'm sure he uses them), but he does boast a fabulous career in the green energy sector.
Which brings me to my final point: With women in the US controlling 85 percent of all purchasing decisions, and our largely consumer-based economy, maybe it just seems like women are more effectively able to translate their green principles into daily action.
And as we all know, actions speak louder than words. "Just because someone expresses concern for the environment, does not mean that the concern translates into behavior," points out UC-Davis' Duwel.
Want to see how one half is working toward environmental change? Don't miss the Women of the Green Generation Conference in Los Angeles this Saturday, where I'll be moderating a panel on environmentalism and the media. Hope to see you there!
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