Sorry, boys, but it’s all your fault. Melting ice caps, flash floods, rising sea levels: men are to blame for the lot of it. Please don’t drown the messenger, I’m just relaying the results of a Swedish study that found that men’s spending habits cause 16% more climate-heating emissions than women’s. The biggest difference seems to be that men spend more money on petrol. Another big difference: the men surveyed bought more meat than women. So this is the way the world ends, eh? Not with a bang, but with blokes eating too many burgers.
I don’t know how many studies published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology go viral, but this paper has had an enormous amount of traction. Of course, this is largely because its findings leant themselves to delicious clickbait such as Men Are Worse for Climate Change Than Women Because They Love Meat and Cars. To be fair, the study didn’t lean into gender war territory in the way you would expect based on the headlines it generated. Gender wasn’t even mentioned in the paper’s title, which was “Shifting expenditure on food, holidays, and furnishings could lower greenhouse gas emissions by almost 40%”.
The climate crisis is undoubtedly a feminist issue. Climate change exacerbates increasing inequality and hits women harder than men. UN data suggests that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. However, while gender is an important part of the climate crisis conversation – and an essential part of its solution – it is not helpful to focus on the gender-based spending habits of ordinary consumers. Placing the burden of mitigating climate change on individuals, no matter their gender, feels futile as we watch corporations and the 1%, who are the main drivers of climate change, do whatever the hell they like. I am not saying we don’t all need to do our part; of course we do. But it’s galling to be lectured on the evils of flying while billionaires are fawned over for shooting themselves into space.
While it’s always convenient to blame men for the dire state of the world, you can’t get around the fact that women in rich countries (myself included) are responsible for far more emissions than men in poor countries. The problem isn’t that certain men are spending more on motoring and meat than their female counterparts – it’s the obsession with economic growth at any cost. The rich world does the bulk of the sowing, while the poor world does most of the reaping.
Just look at what is happening in Madagascar. More than a million people are facing desperate food shortages due to what has been called the first famine in modern history caused by global heating alone. “This is an area of the world that has contributed nothing to climate change, but now they’re the ones paying the highest price,” said an executive from the UN World Food Programme last week.
We are not going to fix the climate crisis by shaming largely powerless individuals or getting men in the west to eat more plant-based burgers; it can be fixed only through systemic change.
Alas, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That adage feels truer every day. While us plebs keep being told we have to change our habits, the masters of the universe have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of changing theirs. Worse still is the fact that billionaires and corporations seem intent on having us believe not only that their greed isn’t ruining the world, but that it will in fact be its salvation. “We have to go to space to save Earth,” Jeff Bezos has opined loftily. It’s not just emissions that are the problem; it’s the greenhouse gaslighting.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist