Telling Other Stories of Climate Change in Africa and Around the World

Danger of a single storyA couple of weeks a go, in her CNN opinion column, Mary Robinson wrote her praise for women’s leadership in sustainable environmental progress. The piece was titled: Why women are world’s best climate change defence. Robinson is the former President of Ireland and she is now the head of the Mary Robinson Foundation (a ‘climate justice’ organisation). Robinson puts forward a call to action on the ‘gendered dimensions’ of climate change – but she doesn’t really say what this means. While the title of her paper talks about ‘women’, her commentary focuses on rural women in developing nations, especially in Africa.

Today I unpack the ideas that Robinson presents with respect to gendered environmental practices in African countries and developing nations. I contrast these with practices in advanced nations. I refer to Chimamanda Adichie’s writing about the dangers of telling ‘a single story’ about developing nations, specifically about ‘Africa’.

Different parts of the world face unique environmental challenges due to their national landscape and population distribution. Painting a singular picture about the gendered dimensions of climate change in developing nations narrows the scope of environmental progress.

Women ‘in continents like Africa’

Robinson writes enthusiastically about the ‘sustainable agriculture’ practised by women around the ‘around the world’. She mentions that there are significant economic and environmental costs in burning kerosene ‘for light and cooking’ and how this especially affects women in developing countries. Robinson continues:

in continents like Africa, where women are responsible for 60-80% of food production, unpredictable growing seasons and increased incidence of droughts and floods place women, their families and their livelihoods at risk.

Absolutely, Robinson is correct – in ‘continents like Africa’ and ‘around the world’, women do a lot of agriculture work and much of the cooking. The same is true in advanced nations, where women also do the majority of household chores, including cooking, despite technological advances in household appliances. (See Michael Bittman, James Mahmud Rice and Judy Wajcman’s study – pdf). Women in advanced and developing nations work in agriculture, the service industry, in white collar professions and in numerous other jobs. This work also involves burning high levels of energy. Men also consume energy in their paid and unpaid work – all over the highly diverse continent of Africa and elsewhere.

While there are different sets of environmental challenges in developing and advanced nations, ‘green’ policies need to have an integrative and collaborative approach. Even if Robinson wanted to focus on developing nations, she does not make this clear in her article. Robinson mentions she was heartened by the work of women in developing nations after her attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban. Regardless, focusing on ‘continents like Africa’ in a paper about ‘the world’s best climate change defence’, without focusing on continents that… aren’t ‘like Africa’… is highly problematic given that climate change is an issue affecting the entire globe.

My aim is not to critique Robinson’s humanitarian efforts, which are considerable and very much needed. Rather, I want to begin a discussion about the way in which people in advanced nations tell stories about gender and the environment in other nations. I will make two points in response to Robinson’s article before thinking about the broader issue of otherness discourses of environmentalism. First, the world’s largest and technologically advanced nations are responsible for most of the world’s pollution. Second, Africa is no monolith continent. Its urbanisation is something that cannot be ignored when targeting global environmentalism.

World’s Biggest Polluters

The World Bank Group’s 2011 report Regional Highlights World Development Indicators showed that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in Europe and Central Asia fell by 33 percent per capita from 1990 to 2007. Still, these continents remain the highest polluters in the world (at 7.2 metric tons). Their CO2 emissions are around seven times greater than in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. International data show that China has produced carbon monoxide emissions that are 171% greater than its pollution in the year 2000. The USA, India and Russia, whose economies rely mostly on industrial and commercial production, are also big polluters. The chart below from The World Bank’s Data Catalogue shows that the USA’s greenhouse emissions are more than twice as high as other African regions and some other advanced regions, such as the UK.

Comparisons of CO2 emissions (kt) in African regions, the USA and UK, 2011. Via The World Bank

These data suggest that harnessing women’s gendered environmentalism in agricultural areas will have a limited effect as ‘the world’s best climate change defence’.

Urban centres in Africa

The United Nations has identified important environmental challenges in the African region that require urgent international action, particularly in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. This includes drought, climate change and desertification (the latter refers to land degradation – see the recent UNCCD conference). Nevertheless, Africa is made up of 56 countries, all with highly distinct language, cultural, economic and environmental practices.

The online data of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs show that many African countries house some of the world’s biggest cities, such as Lagos in Nigeria, which the UN ranks as the 18th biggest urban agglomeration (extended city area) in the world (see map below). The United Nations Human Settlements Programme data further show that several African countries are highly urban, such as Réunion, Gabon, Western Sahara, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and Dijbouti (94-76% urban). The level of urbanisation in these countries is on par with some North American, European, UK and Australian cities.

Urban Agglomerations in 2009 – proportion urban of the world: 50.1%. Source: United Nations
Urban Agglomerations in 2009 – proportion urban of the world: 50.1%. Source: United Nations

Are the environmental practices of the urban centres in African nations not worthy of environmental action? Most pertinent is the sustainable planning required in urban slums (see the Read More section). The result of speaking broadly about African agricultural practices perpetuates an historical colonial pattern. It effectively paints Africa as an exotic, underdeveloped place, untouched by modern civilisation.

The Danger of ‘A Single Story’

In her 2009 TED talk, Eastern Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie says that there is a ‘danger’ in telling a single story about ‘the poor’ in developing nations. The story that gets told about ‘poor people’ is perpetuated by people who have greater power. Adichie notes that the story that most people who live outside of Africa tell about Africa is one of overcoming ‘catastrophe’. Adichie says:

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali’. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another’. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person… Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

Adichie’s broader discussion highlights how even when people of power mean well, such as when galvanising international relief efforts, telling singular stories about developing nations is problematic. On the one hand, Robinson’s CNN article can be seen as an attempt to tell a positive story of ‘African women’: they are hard workers and they are being environmentally proactive in their agricultural practices. On the other hand, by failing to acknowledge the environmental stories of women working in urban areas, by not talking about men, by not talking about developed nations, by not acknowledging the diversity in different African nations, Robinson manages to slip back into telling a single story. It is a story of African women as a singular other.

Sociology of the Environment

Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Airpanther via Flickr
Lagos, Nigeria. Photo: Airpanther via Flickr

It’s great to have women’s contribution to environmental efficiency acknowledged. I see immense benefit in incorporating women’s knowledge into sustainable planning. Nevertheless, environmentalism is not useful if it’s primarily constructed as a gendered event. Discounting half the world’s population by not examining men’s environmental practices, and passing on special responsibilities to women is not the best way forward.

Adichie talks about how single stories are used to ‘disposes and to malign’, but she also notes that telling multiple stories can have the opposite effect: ‘to empower and humanise’.

Stories of environmental action would be better focused on the intersecting social issues that impact on environmental progress. This is sociology’s forte. Sociologists take a comparative perspective on climate change, by looking at the socio-economic conditions in different countries and within different rural and urban areas. Postcolonial theory would be particularly useful for such analyses. This perspective focuses on how the historical relations between colonial states impact on modern day inequalities around the world. Postcolonialism also incorporates issues of class, ethnicity, race, gender and power when evaluating local, regional and international policies and practices.

A couple of weeks a go, I argued that sociology can help in sustainable environmentalism and relief planning in Japan with respect to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Sociology can also help in identifying and evaluating sustainable practices for different regions. In so doing, sociology can build up a more cohesive and inclusive story about global environmental efforts.

Learn More

  • Regional issues impacting on environmental change in Africa
  • Top 30 global agglomerations
  • Highly urban countries in Africa
  • Urban slums in African countries
  • Adichie’s TED talk.

Regional issues impacting on environmental change in Africa

Drought in St. Louis, Senegal, 2009. Photo: UN/John Isaac via Flickr

The UN Human Development Report of 2011 finds that 90 percent the population living in poverty in the African region also lack access to modern cooking fuel; 85 percent have either a limited or lack of access to adequate sanitation; and over 60 percent have no access to electricity. Moreover, drought and desertification lead to famine, which is why these environmental problems need a long-term solution. I am not downgrading the urgent environmental crisis these issues present. My objection is with the unproblematic construction of Africa as a singular entity of environmental despair primarily requiring rural women’s knowledge and action.

The figure above shows the environmental devastation in St. Louis, Senegal.  This picture probably fits in with the broad image of ‘Africa’ that many people in the Western world have when they think of the African landscape.

Saint-Louis, Senegal. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The figure left shows the town centre of St Louis. This is a picturesque town with its own environmental challenges that require redress. Far from the image of a barren desert, St Louis actually faces flood devastation due to rising sea levels. (See United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, pp.1-2.)

Thousands of people in St Louis are affected by flood-related climate change. The video below features St Louis Mayor, Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye. He talks about the flooding crisis and how he’s tackling resilience planning for his city. The example from St Louis shows that environmental issues faced by African nations are not neatly swept under the banner of the agricultural environmentalism.

Earth Reporters – My City and Your City (May 2011).

Top 30 Largest Urban Agglomerations Ranked by Population Size, 2010

Rank order Country Urban agglomeration Population                 (millions)
1 Japan Tokyo 36.67
2 India Delhi 22.16
3 Brazil São Paulo 20.26
4 India Mumbai (Bombay) 20.04
5 Mexico Ciudad de México (Mexico City) 19.46
6 United States of America New York-Newark 19.43
7 China Shanghai* 16.58
8 India Kolkata (Calcutta) 15.55
9 Bangladesh Dhaka 14.65
10 Pakistan Karachi 13.12
11 Argentina Buenos Aires 13.07
12 United States of America Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana 12.76
13 China Beijing* 12.39
14 Brazil Rio de Janeiro 11.95
15 Philippines Manila 11.63
16 Japan Osaka-Kobe 11.34
17 Egypt Al-Qahirah (Cairo) 11.00
18 Nigeria Lagos 10.58
19 Russian Federation Moskva (Moscow) 10.55
20 Turkey Istanbul 10.52
21 France Paris 10.49
22 Republic of Korea Seoul 9.77
23 China Chongqing* 9.40
24 Indonesia Jakarta 9.21
25 United States of America Chicago 9.20
26 China Shenzhen* 9.01
27 Peru Lima 8.94
28 China Guangzhou, Guangdong* 8.88
29 Democratic Republic of the Congo Kinshasa 8.75
30 United Kingdom London 8.63

Source: Adapted from United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. ‘The World Urbanization Prospects, Urban agglomerations, 1950-2025’, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revision. (Excel datafile.)

Notes: *The UN says that for statistical purposes, the data for China do not include Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of China.

African nations where at least 50% of the population live in urban areas

Algeria (66.5%), Angola (58.5%), Botsawan (61%), Cameroon (58%), Cape Verde (61%), Congo (62%), Côte d’Ivoire (50.6%), Dijbouti (76%), Gabon (86%), Gambia (58%), Ghana (51.5%), Liberia (48%), Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (78%), Mayotte (50%), Morocco (58%), Nigeria (49%), Reunion (94%), São Tomé and Príncipe (62%), Seychelles (55%), South Africa (62%), Tunisia (67%), Western Sahara (82%).

Source: UN Habitat p. 207, 2010 data.

The level of urbanisation in these countries is on par with Hong Kong (100% urban), France (85%), Germany (74%), Japan (67%), Australia (89%), the United States (82%), Canada (81%), and the United Kingdom (80%). Ireland, where Robinson is originally from, is only 62% urban. (UN Habitat 2011: p. 208.) The difference between African cities and these advanced urban centres is, of course, the standard of living. Most citizens in advanced nations have access to a relatively higher quality of social infrastructure in comparison to many African cities. Then again, class mediates access to technological comforts in different African cities, as is also the case in advanced nations. For an insightful photo essay of the middle classes in African cities, visit The Other Africa.

The disparity between rich and poor is greatest in urban slums. This issue also requires sustainable planning. (UN Habitat p. 207; UN Environment Program.)

African nations where at least 50% of the population live in ‘urban slums’

Central African Republic (94%), Chad (91%), Comoros (65%), Cote d’Ivorie (55%), Ethiopia (87%), Ghana (52%), Guinea (57%), Kenya (55%), Madagascar (84%), Malawi (66%), Mali (75%), Mozambique (78%), Niger (83%), Nigeria (70%), Rwanda (88%), Senegal (49%), Uganda (75%), United Republic of Tanzania (70%), Zambia (57%).

Source: UN Habitat p. 207, 2007 data.

Slum population in urban Africa, 2011. (Source: UN Environment Program.)
Slum population in urban Africa, 2011. Source: UN Environment Program via Grinada

Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk: The Danger of a Single Story


Thanks to Upthink for circulating the TED link to Adichie’s talk.

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