This year, Rachel Carson would have turned 100. Had she lived, the “mother of the environmental movement” might have been pleased with how popular environmental causes have become. On the other hand, she might not have liked current shades of green.

Don’t lose sight of the forest.

Photo: iStockphoto

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The great lesson of Silent Spring, Carson’s brilliant critique of the pesticide industry, is that technology requires wisdom more than faith. In recent years, however, discussion about global warming has focused almost exclusively on high-tech hopes, as President Bush’s much-repeated remarks from last year’s State of the Union address make clear: “America is addicted to oil. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

Yet our addiction isn’t to oil but to consumption, so this view confuses food with appetite. By contrast, Janet Welsh Brown of the World Resources Institute describes a more internal task, writing that “the greatest accomplishment of the environmental movement” is a “revolution in awareness and understanding.” And four decades ago, Carson wrote that “we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.”

The distinctions between these views reveal a more general difference not often associated with the environmental debate: gender. Surveys — from sources including the Yale School of Forestry, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and American National Election Studies — consistently show that women feel a stronger connection to the environment than men do:

  • Women are up to 15 percent more likely than men to rate the environment a high priority.
  • Women comprise up to two-thirds of voters who cast their ballots around environmental issues.
  • Women are more likely than men to volunteer for and give money to environmental causes, especially related to public health.
  • Women report both more support for environmental activists and more concern that government isn’t doing enough.
  • Women support increased government spending for the environment, while men favor spending cuts.

Polls also show that about 68 percent of American consumers have gone green, preferring health-conscious and environmentally responsible products. Since 90 percent of women identify themselves as the primary shoppers for their households, and women sign 80 percent of all personal checks, it’s safe to say that women are leading a quiet revolution in green consumerism.

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These trends suggest more than simply stronger support for the environment — they reveal a completely different attitude about it. Prevailing masculine views see environmentalism in terms of energy independence, as a political or military tactic. In the speech quoted above, President Bush pointed to alternative fuels such as hydrogen as a way for America to wean itself off foreign oil. A few years earlier, the CIA called the environment “the national-security issue of the early 21st century” and “the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate.”

Journalist Thomas L. Friedman is more emphatic. In a recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine, he wrote that America should redefine green to make it more “muscular” and transform its characterization by opponents as “sissy,” “girlie-man,” and “vaguely French.” Elsewhere, he has summed it up this way: “Green isn’t some ‘wussy’ tree-hugging thing. Green is patriotic. Green is strategic. Green is the new red, white, and blue.” Wussy being derogatory slang for “especially unmanly,” consider Friedman’s view to be the opposite. Call it “manly green.”

In Manliness, his recent lament on the loss of masculinity in American culture, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield lists the titular qualities as aggression and risk-taking and encourages their return in society and affairs of state. “Manly men defend their turf, just as other male mammals do,” he writes. By dealing with the environmental crisis as an isolationist security issue, manly green seeks environmentalism without sustainability. Manly green separates; womanly green unites. The “unmanly” view embraces not independence but interdependence.

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva is a leading voice for this inclusive attitude. In Earth Democracy, she writes, “How can we as members of the earth community reinvent security to ensure the survival of all species and the survival and future of diverse cultures?” Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman prime minister of Norway and the chair of the commission that created the most popular definition of sustainability (“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”), emphasizes that the U.S. has an unprecedented responsibility and opportunity to become better global citizens by providing a different model of development. “We must now fully recognize how interdependent we all have become. Only by working together, not against each other, can we have a vision of a better-managed world.”

As code for isolationism, “energy independence” is unsustainable, and Carson would not have approved. In 1953, she wrote a letter to The Washington Post that seems even more relevant today: “It is one of the ironies of our time that while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.”