About a year ago, San Francisco resident and Department of Environment employee Lavanya Deepak found herself sitting at a table with the venerable Patricia Espinosa. The United Nations Executive Secretary was in town to attend the Global Climate Action Summit, and explore ways to empower more women around environmental leadership. Wanting to “lean in” and earn her keep, Deepak spoke up.
“I said, we shouldn’t try to make women fit into a male-dominated world,” she repeated for me during a recent conversation. “Why don’t we just solve the problem, and show men how to get it done?”
Deepak is starting the process. On September 18, the San Francisco Bay Area Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), which Deepak also chairs, is hosting a hackathon. The nonprofit organized the event to bring women together to deconstruct traditional male-dominated solutions to environmental problems, and develop a framework for a more inclusive future.
The idea is both fantastic and important. Our global population is tasked with solving a myriad of environmental crises. We can only accomplish this monumental endeavor equitably and urgently if we accept the fact that change affects us all differently.
Numerous studies have highlighted differences between male and female responses to climate change. A recent report published in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, found that women experience mental health issues at a higher rate than men as temperatures climb above 86 degrees Fahrenheit. For low-income women, the incidence of mental health cases associated with elevated temperatures is two-times higher than high-income men.
These mental health issues can manifest themselves in different ways, but anxiety is a common experience associated with climate change and environmental degradation. In fact, “eco-anxiety” is so prevalent among women that the WEN hackathon will focus specifically on the topic. This is one of the reasons Dr. Renee Lertzman, a renowned Bay Area psychologist, environmental researcher and communicator, plans to attend.
“When we experience ourselves as alone in having to solve all of this, that’s when eco-anxiety kicks in and can be debilitating,” Dr. Lertzman told me. “Having the experience of being a part of something bigger — a shift from a “me” to a “we” perspective — is critical to reducing anxiety. It may be literal — joining groups — or how we see our own acts as contributing to a larger picture way beyond our small selves.”
Dr. Lertzman has studied the relationship between environmental crises and anxiety extensively, and believes women are more affected. Women, as generally more relational, may worry about how the climate crisis will impact their loved ones. Maybe a mother feels guilty about driving her kids around in a gas-powered car or buying them medicine in a plastic bottle. These feelings may trigger the experience of anxiety, particularly when alternatives aren’t clear.
Feeling powerless can also lead to anxiety, and may be why research shows that people from disadvantaged communities tend to exhibit greater mental health issues associated with climate change. Women have struggled to have a voice at the table. Seeing the world change around you, and feeling helpless to act can make it even scarier and even more overwhelming.
“There’s an anxiety to feeling like you can’t go out and get your voice heard and engage at an equal level to the males in the field,” Dr. Lertzman told me. “We urgently need more women, younger people and people of color to offer critical, different perspectives, and to shift away from what continues to be a strongly male-dominated space.”
This is why the upcoming WEN hackathon is so important. Our planet is continuing to heat up. Our forests are continuing to burn. We’re witnessing the sixth mass extinction, and whales with stomachs full of plastic are washing up on shore. Clearly, the traditional, European-colonist, male response to the climate crisis shouldn’t be our only approach. As Deepak said, not everyone fits into this world.
Bringing more voices to the table can help alleviate eco-anxiety, and bring us closer to a healthier, more sustainable world. And maybe women can solve the man-made problem our Earth faces.
“We as women communicate, organize, care and lead differently,” Deepak told me. “We are finally at a place where not only can we expect equality, we can do one better — thrive in our own unique way. It is time to normalize this to build diverse organizations and movements.”
Advance tickets for the WEN hackathon on September 18 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. are available on Eventbrite. In addition to eco-anxiety, topics include chemical pollution in our bodies, resources for the next generation, dissolution of resilient communities, and a lack of mentoring for women.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com