FEATURED WORK: Environmentalism as a Feminist Issue
Author’s Statement: My name is Jamila Stevenson and I am a sophomore at Warren Wilson College where I am studying Gender and Women’s Studies (GDS) and Environmental Studies (ENS) with a concentration in environmental education.
Author’s Statement: My name is Jamila Stevenson and I am a sophomore at Warren Wilson College where I am studying Gender and Women’s Studies (GDS) and Environmental Studies (ENS) with a concentration in environmental education. Environmental studies and gender and women studies don’t often intersect, so when I first heard the term “ecofeminism” in an environmental documentary class, I was very excited. When I took my first GDS class, which was an introduction to gender and women’s studies, I decided to write a paper on ecofeminism so I could learn more about it.
Jamila Stevenson is a student at Warren Wilson College in the Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies program with Laura Vance, Ph.D, May, 2009.
The Earth is My Mother
Since the introduction of eco-fèminisme, coined in 1974 by French feminist Francoise d’ Eaubonne to depict the potential of women to create a non-sexist, bio-centric society, ecofeminism has evolved as a social movement and environmental ethic of great potential, complexity, and criticism. A unique conjunction of radical ecology–commonly referred to as deep ecology– and radical feminism, ecofeminism can, in short, be defined as an examination of the many connections between the domination of women and nature. Although ecofeminism is often inaccurately identified as a unified perspective, resulting in its denouncement by numerous feminists groups, contemporary ecofeminism contains subgroups representing varied feminist perspectives and understandings of the causes and solutions to environmental issues. These groups include Third World, black, Marxist, liberal, social, and the most prevalent group, radical ecofeminism.
While acknowledging the historical attempt of patriarchal society to emphasize the connection of women and nature to justify the exploitation of both, radical ecofeminists, also referred to as cultural ecofeminists, argue that we should embrace and validate this connection, affirming the differences of women and men, as well as our biological roles as nurturing, caring, and intuitive beings (Cronan Rose 150). However, as I attempt to argue, the approach of radical ecofeminism is detrimental to both feminism and environmentalism. In this paper, I discuss prevailing critiques of radical ecofeminism and why socialist ecofeminism is the best approach to better tackle the issues concerning ecofeminists.
Environmentalism as a Feminist Issue
According to ecofeminists, in addition to the other connections that work to support the oppression of women and nature, women make up the majority of those denied access to basic resources such as food, shelter, clean water and air, and are also the primary caretakers of those affected by environmental issues. Therefore, ecofeminists argue that an understanding of environmental issues will lead to an understanding of the oppression of women.
Claiming that the most pressing feminist issues are conceptual issues, those that concern how one conceptualizes such mainstay philosophical notions as reason and rationality, ethics, and what it means to be human”(Warren 323), ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren discusses the five critical components of an oppressive conceptual framework, which include: (1) value-hierarchal thinking”- establishing traits or entities as either up” or down” and placing greater value or status on that which is identified as up” in lieu of what is down”; (2)– value dualisms”- disjunctive pairs in which one disjunct is viewed as oppositional and exclusive, and which give greater value to one disjunct than the other”; (3) power- over conceptions of power,” which work to sustain relations of domination and oppression; (4) conceptions of privilege,” which are used to sustain power- over relations of domination and oppression with ups” or downs” and; (5) logic of domination”– a formation of reasoning that is used to defend oppression (Warren 324). These components, particularly the logic of domination, are used to justify oppression and subordination within the oppressive framework.
To further explain why a critique of naturism– the oppression of nature– is critical to any critique of patriarchy, Warren outlines the assumptions used to transform a group of differences into a justification of superiority and domination:
i. Women are identified with nature and the realm of the physical; men are identified with culture and the realm of the mental.
ii. Whatever is identified with nature and the realm of the physical is inferior to (below”) whatever is identified with the human” and the realm of the mental…
iii. Thus, women are inferior to (below”) men…
iv. For any X and Y, if X is superior to Y, then X is justified in subordinating Y.
v. Thus, men are justified in subordinating women (Warren 325-326).
This logic of domination, which has historically been used to draw connections between women and nature, also function as a justification of their oppression. Although radical ecofeminism aspires to free women and the natural world from patriarchal domination, radical ecofeminist theory only reinforces the current mind set that contributes to such oppressive and destructive behavior.
A Critique of Radical Ecofeminism
Central to radical ecofeminist theory is the belief that women must reclaim their biology and nature as a source of power. By transforming the negative perceptions associated with biological processes, women will discover a source of empowerment and ecological advocacy. However, as Carolyn Merchant argues, in emphasizing the female, body, and nature components of the dualities male/ female, mind/body, and culture/ nature, radical ecofeminism runs the risk of perpetuating the very hierarchies it seeks to overthrow” (Merchant 102). Asserting that women are essentially or biologically closer to nature only reinforces the patriarchal ideology of domination. This form of biological determinism supports the idea that biological factors determine inequalities between women and men.
Ecofeminist Cronan Rose further explains the possible complications of the body based argument by comparing it to Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in which an environmental disaster creates a reproductive crisis in which women become infertile. Cronan Rose argues that similar to the situation in The Handmaid’s Tale, emphasizing women’s particular sensitivity to toxicity could result in an attack of women, not pollution, prompting society to exalting and expropriating the reproductive capabilities of some women for the benefit of the state” (Cronan Rose 160). Furthermore, as Rose points out, with the exploitation of natural resources by our capitalist society, along with the usage of social policies and pop culture which support a society that views women primarily in terms of their reproductive function, this haunting scenario is not too far- fetched (Cronan Rose 160).
Moreover, radical ecofeminists claim that it is not only women’s biological processes that enable their close relationship with nature, but it is also the nurturing and caring characteristics that these processes provide. This assertion is problematic in that it constructs an ethic around women’s biological attributes which are claimed to naturally” make women nurturing and caring, thus confining them to the role of caretaker. It is important to acknowledge that just as these feminine deemed characteristics allow misinterpretations of the nature of women, they also allow a false understanding of nature, for just as nature can be nurturing and giving, it can also be vicious and destructive.
If, as radical ecofeminists claim, men are the group primarily responsible for human destruction of the environment, then it is imperative that men are included in ecofeminists attempts to transform our existing anthropocentric society. Instead, the current concepts of radical ecofeminism function to keep men separate from nature, implying that they are incapable of developing reverence for the natural world. While men are allowed to continue their environmentally destructive practices, women are left to return to traditional roles as nurturing mothers.
In addition to the problems that this argument presents for women, there is also a concern with the apparent intention of rendering the bodily experiences of women as superior to those of men in opposition to promoting equal. As philosopher Michael Zimmerman implicates, lessening men’s status to other” will only reverse the male/ female dualism that feminists are fighting to break down (Zimmerman).
Another central component of radical ecofeminism is the oppression based argument which claims that because women have been less involved than men in environmentally destructive processes, women and other marginalized groups have a unique perspective to offer to environmental degradation and patriarchy (Eckersley 67). In conjunction to the critique that this argument may lessen the impact that masculine stereotypes have had on men, the biggest concern is that it fails to acknowledge the roles women have also played in environmental destruction, allowing them to continue these practices. If women are unable to recognize their own environmentally degrading behavior, their critiques of men’s destructive and oppressive practices become inefficient and hypocritical.
Both the body-based and the oppression argument have been critiqued for not providing a framework to understand the environmental practices and behavior for different women. Just as women’s presumed close association with nature does not guarantee a nurturing relationship, nor will conceptual connections necessarily result in sustainable environmental behavior. Also, these claims fail to acknowledge other social relations, such as age, race, and socioecomic status that influence women’s relationship with nature.
The consequences of radical ecofeminist philosophy have already been experienced in Third World countries where international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and development agencies are creating development interventions based on the idea that women have a special relationship with nature. International programs are being designed with the assumption that women are the natural constituency for conservation activities. These programs assume that women must engage in conservation and rehabilitation to make their lives easier, which has expected women to undertake this work in addition to all their other work. It is only by seeking out the root causes of women’s environmental behavior that addressing environmental degradation and women’s position becomes possible.
Mother Nature Analogy
For many ecofeminists, spirituality is viewed as a source of personal and social change. The vision of a culture that embraces nature as a Goddess or mother is a critical source of inspiration and empowerment (Warren 119). In explaining why Mother Nature imagery in particular is such a critical part in the creation of an organic society, ecofeminists point to the historical interconnections between women and nature. Although there are differing historical explanations used by ecofeminists to examine the connection of the domination of women and nature, the explanation that fits most appropriately to the need of a shift in our perception of nature is that which focuses on the cultural and scientific changes that have occurred within our society.
Many ecofeminists argue that between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, an organic perspective of the world that primarily identified nature as a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe”(Merchant 274), was replaced by the mechanistic world- view of the scientific revolution which primarily portrayed nature as a wild and disorderly female and later, in addition to society and the human body, as a machine composed of interchangeable atomized parts that can be repaired or replaced from outside” (Merchant 281). This world- view is deemed responsible for allowing unrestricted commercial and industrial expansion and rendering the destruction of the Earth as morally acceptable (Warren 255). According to radical ecofeminists, reviving the image of nature as Mother will lead to the transformation of an organic culture in which we honor the Earth as an individual. However, I will argue that this imagery will only work to maintain the destruction of nature.
In the book Green Paradise Lost, ecofeminist theologian Elizabeth Dobson Gray argues that the male psyche makes a connection with the primal female parent and nature” (30), which is largely responsible for men’s destruction of nature. Dobson Gray argues that infants make their primary identifications with their mothers, developing a sense of themselves as one with the female parent. However, as children mature and begin to develop their own sense of identity, while the female child learns that she has identified with the correct sex and continues to model herself after the mother, the male child learns that he has identified with the wrong parent, and he must learn to separate himself from her. In our culture, which holds masculinity in the highest esteem, males must adopt masculine qualities, while repressing those deemed feminine, mainly emotions of weakness, vulnerability, or dependency. Dobson Gray argues that it is impossible for men to think clearly and feel positively about our human dependence upon [nature] if [men] have not resolved in a satisfactory way their basic psycho-sexual conflict about feelings of dependence and weakness” (38).
Dobson Gray also examines how men’s control over nature is similar to our society’s conception of marriage, in which women are trained to be submissive and non-threatening to their husbands. While men are often heavily dependent on their wives, Dobson Gray argues that this dependency within a dominant/submissive relationship” (41) is viewed as non-threatening. This relationship can be seen in men’s relationship with nature, in which Dobson Gray argues, They have by their technologies worked steadily and for generations to transform a psychologically intolerable dependence upon a seemingly powerful and capricious Mother Nature onto a soothing and acceptable dependence upon a subservient and non- threatening ‘wife’” (42).
In respect to Dobson Gray’s analysis, the revival of the Mother Nature imagery will only function to keep women in their role as caretakers, while reinforcing the dominant/submissive relationship that men currently have with nature.
There is also the question of what ideals ecofeminists want to be associated with this image of Mother Earth. Just as women are stereotypically identified with the positive characteristics, we are also identified with negative traits. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that our perceptions of feminine characteristics are greatly shaped by patriarchal society.
Socialist Ecofeminist Theory
As I have argued throughout this paper, radical ecofeminism threatens both the environmental and feminist movements through the reinforcement of essentialist and dualistic thinking, and its inability to adequately acknowledge other factors, besides gender, that affect people’s relationships with the natural world. For ecofeminism to become an influential and successful movement, it must be represented by a subgroup that can address the multitude of issues that contribute to the oppression of women and nature. Through an examination of social ecofeminist theory, I will argue that social ecofeminism is the subgroup that can achieve such extensive analysis.
Social ecofeminism argues that human’s destruction of the Earth is a result of the growth of capitalist patriarchy and the use of science and technology to exploit natural resources for the progression of humans. Similar to radical ecofeminists, socialists examine the domination of women and nature through an analysis of historical connections, arguing that the rise of capitalism degraded subsistence—based farming and communal cities centered on environmental ethics and economic equality between women and men. This transformation resulted in a capitalist patriarchal economy and a domestic sphere in which women’s labor in the home was unpaid and valued less than men’s labor in the market place. Socialist ecofeminists argue that in an attempt to free humans from the constraints of nature, women and nature are exploited. As a consequence, both men and women are alienated from each other and from nature (Merchant 103).
By not centering on women’s biology or supposed natural roles as a key component in their ability to connect with nature, socialist ecofeminism does not reinforce dualistic thinking that perpetuates the hierarchal ideology of domination. Moreover, it acknowledges that society’s perception of both gender and nature is a social construct. It is not that women are naturally closer to nature, but that they have been perceived to be so because of their historic roles in the domestic realm. This acknowledgment implies that both men and women are separate from nature and both have the ability to develop reverence for the natural world. It does not work to exclude men from the ecofeminist movement, as does the oppression and body- based concepts of radical ecofeminism. Social ecofeminism also recognizes the participation of women in environmentally destructive practices, insisting that they also examine and transform their behavior and world- views.
Similar to radical ecofeminists, socialists aim to examine the historical role of gender in our society’s oppression of women. However, instead of seeking to transform society’s negative perception of women’s reproductive and nurturing roles, socialist ecofeminists want to omit any treatment of these roles (Merchant 103). In conjunction to an analysis of the ways in which biological roles have affected the oppression of women and nature, socialists also incorporate the influence of social reproduction.
While spirituality is seen as a powerful source of social transformation within radical ecofeminism, social ecofeminists view materialism as the driving force of social change, aiming to transform over consumption and greed.
Although science and technology have contributed greatly to our current exploitation and destruction of the Earth, socialist ecofeminists acknowledge the importance of these implementations to human existence. Central to radical ecofeminism ideology is a nature extremist” view that focuses on the past relationship of humans and nature. Ultimately, radical ecofeminists desire to transform our world- views so that we may revert to our traditional, ecocentric lifestyles, preventing a critique of our current technological, scientific, and economical behaviors that are greatly responsible for our destruction of the Earth. The ability of social ecofeminism to acknowledge human’s dependency on science and technology is one of its greatest features. In addition to providing analyses of why humans destroy nature, social ecofeminism can also provide insight of how to use our science and technology—which we will continue, whether sustainable or not—to work with nature, possibly reversing some of the existing environmental damage while slowing down or preventing further destruction of the Earth.
Also, by focusing on materialism as the source of transformation to a positive relationship between humans and the natural world, socialist ecofeminism can address a wider variety of factors that contribute to the oppression of nature, which radical ecofeminism fails to incorporate. The amount of materials we consume, which is in large part correlated with race and class, greatly affects the health of our environment. By addressing materialism, people can better understand how what one consumes and how much one consumes contribute to environmental degradation and the oppression of various groups of people.
Despite its many complications, ecofeminism is an ideology of great potential. The promise of ecofeminism lies in its theory centered in the conceptual framework of domination that connects all oppressed groups. This conjunction has the ability to transform both feminism and environmentalism into movements that can strengthen connections and strategies by acknowledging the multitude of groups affected by these issues and the wide range of problems that contribute to these issues.
Although currently at the forefront of the ecofeminist movement, radical ecofeminism is too narrow of an ideology to tackle the issues of environmentalism. The monolithic approach of radical ecofeminism fails to adequately examine the multitude of factors that affect both women and men’s degradation of nature. It is critical that radical ecofeminist theory is either reexamined, or that another subgroup better capable of addressing environmental concerns takes the place of radicalism as the voice of ecofeminism.
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