joIt is no coincidence that both care and our climate are in crisis. Addressing each of us requires us to recognize that we are vulnerable and interdependent, as a species and individually. This will only become more evident, because as the world gets hotter and therefore more dangerous, we will have to take care of each other more than ever. As initiatives such as Naomi Klein’s The Leap and the Feminist Green New Deal have explained, we need an attention-focused approach to meeting the demands of a future that looks very different from our past.
First, we need to broaden our understanding of what constitutes “green work”. Feminist Green New Deal research has found that most people identify solar panel installers as green workers, but far fewer consider care workers to be in the same field. This shows us something important about our mindset. So far, we have thought in terms greening highly polluting industries, moving from fossil fuels to renewables, rather than identifying what is simply green, that is, what is low in carbon by nature. This is the difference between adjusting our current system and entering a new approach that makes different types of work central to our economy. From this perspective, care work becomes a central component of our future, as advocated by those calling for its inclusion in a new green agreement.
Focusing on industrial visions is a bold and expansive new way of thinking about our future, but we must be wary of making a categorical mistake. Care is not just a sector or a job; it is also what the political scientist Joan Tronto has called “species activity”.
Most care for the sick, disabled or elderly in today’s world is done without pay and informally, by family and friends. When we think in terms of care as an economic sector, we risk ignoring what this means from a climate perspective. The carbon intensity of care, as an activity of the species, depends on the general structures and patterns of our lives. It is a bigger question, then, than a green jobs strategy. For example, many caregivers make frequent trips to drink gasoline to support their elderly parents. This raises obvious questions about transportation, but we also need to consider housing.
The Older Women’s Co-Housing project in north London offers a pioneering model, based on broader co-housing movements in northern Europe. Their hybrid approach to private, accessible housing with shared community spaces allows older women to care for and care for each other more effectively than if they lived as isolated individuals. This reduces the need for displacement of family members living apart.
On the other hand, through my interviews with caregivers, I have learned that many would value modular homes to allow elderly parents or disabled adult children to live with them without losing privacy and personal space. Any of these housing alternatives would reduce the well-documented stress of caregivers by limiting the financial and energy impact of care, while reducing the carbon footprint.
Keep in mind, too, that 14% of the UK workforce juggles care responsibilities (not including standard parenting) with paid work. Scholars have found that the resulting “time constipation” (also known as pure exhaustion) can affect the carbon intensity of lifestyle choices, such as opting for prepared food or food delivery, driving in instead of using longer or less predictable public transportation and using more electrical devices that save time. This cannot be resolved without introducing new labor rights for caregivers, including the right to work flexibly and sufficient and paid caregiver permission.
Care, arduous bodily practice, which is sometimes forgotten, is also a minefield of disposable devices and devices. The use of medical equipment in the home has increased and many products considered vital to both hygiene and dignity are non-reusable. The market for adult incontinence products is just one example. In 2020, its global market value reached $ 15.4 billion (£ 11.2 billion) and is projected to reach $ 24.2 billion by 2026. This is due to the fact that incontinence, however uncomfortable it may be. in fact, it is a common side effect of aging and specific health problems, such as dementia, Parkinson’s and cancer treatment. The work that is currently being done to make the NHS zero could be transferred to care, including attempts to reduce waste.
If care is not only considered a sector but also a life practice, there are frightening intersections between it and the global climate crisis that also need serious attention. When we think of climate-induced migration, we seldom wonder who can emigrate. They are not unpaid caregivers. Anil Patil is the founder and CEO of Carers Worldwide, a charity that supports carers in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. “We need to make carers aware of the specific risks of climate change,” he told me. In each of these South Asian countries, Carers Worldwide and its partners see climate change as directly damaging caregivers ’ability to meet basic needs.
Dry wells or domestic water supplies are diverted to dry farmland causing long trips to collect water to be created, trips that are simply not feasible for those who support someone with large dependencies.
Many caregivers cannot leave the person they support for more than a few minutes at most, depending on the specific illness or disability. However, in Nepal, when increasingly frequent landslides occur, access to relief trucks often requires a two- or three-hour walk. “In most disaster and mitigation plans, caregivers are forgotten,” Patil explains. “They can’t access help, and if there are no organizations defending them, they have no voice.” This is not unique to the global south: care worker Theresa Santos died in 2017 in a forest fire in northern California when she was left with her immobile client instead of being saved. We must be wary of assuming that all people are equally mobile when it comes to considering the dangers of the climate crisis.
Santos stands out because he acted selflessly. After all, he was paid to be there; others may have abandoned their client to save themselves. But for unpaid caregivers who support a loved one, they will have no choice but to remain in danger. And it is those people, mostly women, to whom we must focus the narratives on climate and care. They and those who care for them are the ultimate example of these two inescapable facts about our species: we are vulnerable and interdependent. The challenge for our future lies in whether we have the courage to recognize these facts and create a vision that puts them at the center.
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