What can we learn from ecofeminists?

Dibattito Analisi

Prof. Dr. Patricia Purtschert giugno 2020

Some of the most striking movements of the past years emerged around feminist topics on the one hand and ecological themes on the other. The Women’s marches, MeToo or women’s strikes opened up new and powerful ways of addressing gender inequalities in many places around the world. At the same time, Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellions or Climate Justice were taking up the streets in order to point out the urgency of ecological change. But how are the burning questions of these movements connected?

What are feminist answers to climate change? And in what ways do ecological movements need to rely on feminist insights? These questions led me to offer a seminar on “ecofeminism” at the University of Bern in fall 2019. In what follows, I share some of the material and insights as a possible entrance to ecofeminism. This explains why this blog entry contains an unusually extensive list of references. Before I start with my brief tour d’horizon, I would like to thank the students who participated in my class. Many traces of our collective thinking are interwoven in this text.

Ecofeminist insights

Ecofeminism is based on the insight that the problematic perception and treatment of women and nature do not only contain striking similarities but are in fact deeply connected. The term “ecofeminism” was coined 1974 by the French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne, and popularized in the environmental movements of the late 1970s and 1980s. They were driven by the protests against environmental catastrophes such as the Bhopal gas tragedy (1984), the Chernobyl disaster (1986), or, in the Swiss context, the Sandoz chemical spill in Schweizerhalle (1986). The Three Mile Island nuclear accident from 1979 gave rise to the first and influential ecofeminist conference that took place in 1980 in Amherst, USA.

In their seminal book “Ecofeminism” (1993), Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies describe ecofeminism as a common interest in addressing „the inherent inequalities in world structures which permit the North to dominate the South, men to dominate women, and the frenetic plunder of ever more resources for ever more unequally distributed economic gain to dominate nature“ (Shiva and Mies 1993, p. 2). The authors focus on women in a double way, as victims of as well as agents in ecological conflicts: women are more affected by ecological disasters than men, the authors claim, but they are also everywhere on the forefront of protests against the destruction of nature (p. 2-3). Shiva and Mies believe that the various destructions that women experience across the globe can be related to similar structural problems. A strong aspect of this book is thus its insistence on how capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism are interrelated, shaping the living environments in many places of the world in problematic and devastating ways, especially for women.

The collection of single-authored essays by Shiva and Mies is preceded by a common introduction entitled “Why we wrote this book together?” The authors make a strong point for feminist thinking across differences, especially between the global North and South. They register “a convergence of thinking arising from our participation in the efforts of women to keep alive the processes that sustain us” (p. 2), a conjunction that makes unlikely collaborations possible. Shiva and Mies aim at an ecofeminist perspective that is neither uniform nor homogenous, but “rather a creative transcendence of our difference” (p. 2). The careful ways of relating to each other and many other women on the planet that they carve out in this text is a source of inspiration to this day.

Gender, sexuality, and nature

Shiva and Mies’ analysis is grounded in their activism. They have learned their main lessons in the “university of the streets”, as Mies remarks in the preface to the renewed 2014 edition of “Ecofeminism”. In contrast, Val Plumwood develops a philosophical account of what she calls ‘critical ecofeminism’ in her book “Feminism and the Mastery of Nature” (1993). She argues that “nature” is not a descriptive category. In the dualistic worldview of the West, nature has rather emerged as a counterpart to reason. “Nature, as the excluded and devalued contrast of reason, includes the emotions, the body, the passions, animality, the primitive or uncivilized, the non-human world, matter, physicality and sense experience, as well as the sphere of irrationality, of faith and of madness.” (p. 19)
By situating reason in opposition to these other aspects of life, men (as the incorporation of reason) erase their dependency on nature, on other beings, on processes of reproduction, conditions of subsistence and the work of women. Plumwood calls this “backgrounding”: women and the life-sustaining activities that they perform, are shifted to the background, or made fully invisible. “Traditionally, women are ‘the environment’ – they provide the environment and conditions against which male ‘achievement’ takes place” (p. 22). In other words: The individuality and autonomy of (male) subjects are in no way as independent as they claim to be. In the dualistic account of Western thought, they can only take shape in contrast to (female) others who are relegated to the background. Since this dominant model of the human is based on the ongoing domination, control and (ab)use of naturalized others, feminists can neither consent to the proximity of women and nature (as some essentialist ecofeminists do) nor can they simply take over the place of the male subject (as some liberal feminists attempt to do). Rather, critical ecofeminists need to put “the question of relation to nature explicitly […] up for consideration and renegotiation” (p. 23). Reconfiguring our relation to nature requires us to overcome the dualistic framework of the (gendered) human (p. 35) and thus of humanity as such.

Greta Gaard adds another dimension to this analysis by pointing out the crucial role that sexuality plays for this dualistic order. In her article “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism” (1997), she demonstrates how sexuality and gender identity are used as tools of domination in patriarchal and colonial societies. Nature is not only degraded within these systems of oppression but also used as a source of legitimation. On the one hand, procreative and male-controlled heterosexuality appears as the one and only natural sexuality, pushing women into economic dependency and compulsory motherhood. Queer sexualities and non-normative gender identities on the other hand are criminalized with the argument that they contradict nature. During colonialism, indigenous gender-identities and non-heterosexual erotic practices were used as justifications for colonial rule and genocide (p. 128). “The range of colonial assaults on sexuality […] is the reason I name the colonizers’ perspective erotophobic rather than simply homophobic” (p. 129), writes Gaard. Like Plumwood, she aims at overcoming the binary at the base of this problematic concept of the human, asking “to explore the eroticism of reason and the unique rationality of the erotic”(p. 132). Plumwood’s and Gaard’s feminist analyses help us to understand how gender and sexuality are constitutive of a dominant approach to the world that enforces the exploitation of nature as well as women and many other humans.

Ecofeminism and its limits

Ecofeminism has been critiqued by many feminists and for good reasons. If one watches Greta Gaard’s insightful portrayal of ecofeminism in the mid 1990ies [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTbLZrwqZ2M], one gets an idea of the zeal but also the constrictions of this movement, at least in the US context. In what follows, I will briefly present two crucial critics to ecofeminism. They point out problems that arise of the mostly Western and white context of the movement and its perspectives.
In her ground-breaking article “Women of Color, environmental justice, and ecofeminism” (1997), Dorceta E. Taylor puts forward a feminist of color critique of ecofeminism.  She reminds us how traditional, white-dominated environmentalism focused on wildlife and wilderness protection, forest and park management. As a response to these narrow views, “environmental justice movements” emerged in the 1980s. Led by people of color, they brought up much neglected perspectives on environmentalism, such as housing, public health, human and civil rights, waste management, Native water rights or labor organizing (p. 51). Taylor emphasizes that ecofeminists also made valuable challenges to the prevailing androcentric views on ecology. They “broke new ground when they began arguing that the capitalist exploitation of resources was connected to the degradation of nature and women” (p. 58). However, like traditional environmentalism, ecofeminism turned out to be a predominantly white and middle-class movement (p. 62) that was not able to address the struggles of women of color appropriately. Besides gender issues, their “fight is also about racial and sexual discrimination, inequality, civil rights, and labor rights” (p. 63). Taylor concludes that ecofeminism offers a very reductive perspective to women of color, as long as it does not relate to their specific experiences, including those of being dominated by white women.
In a similar way, Bina Agarwal questions the Eurocentrism in much of ecofeminist writings in her seminal text “The gender and environmental debate: Lessons from India” (1992). Ecofeminists, she claims, tend to create a uniform category of women, neglecting the role that class, caste, race, ethnicity and other differences play (p. 122). Where women of the South are considered at all, she detects a tendency to generalize from specific experiences and thus to “conflate all Third World women into one category” (pp. 124). Furthermore, ecofeminism focusses on the ideology of gender differences while neglecting “women’s lived material relationship with nature, as opposed to what others or they themselves might conceive that relationship to be” (p. 123). Dealing primarily with dominant accounts of nature, ecofeminists cannot recognize and value the “subaltern” knowledge enough. However, such alternative approaches provided by marginalized women (and men) are crucial for the developing of novel answers to ecological questions (p. 127). What is needed, according to Agarwal, is “a widening of the definition of ‘scientific’ to include plural sources of knowledge and innovations, rather than merely those generated in universities and laboratories” (p. 152).

Enlarging the ecofeminist library

As this short overview on some strands of the debates make apparent, ecofeminism is not providing us with conclusive answers. Especially if we take its critics into account, it offers important insights on how to deal with the ecological crisis from a feminist perspective. Furthermore, Taylor’s preference for the term “environmental justice” and Agarwal’s suggestion to speak about “feminist environmentalism” instead encourages us to look for feminist ecologies that surfaced outside, beside and beyond ecofeminism in the narrow sense. Such a different ecofeminist library could contain Gloria Anzaldúa’s reflections on how Chican@s, and especially queer Mestizas in the US-Mexican borderland “have always taken care of growing things and the land” (p. 91) with and against constant experiences of colonialism, racism, disposition and displacement. It could include Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch” (2004), an encompassing feminist analysis of how the emergence of capitalism was based on the exploitation of women, the body, nature, on colonialism and witch-hunts.

Finally, it could comprise Donna Haraway’s work. Her fearless dealing with technology, for instance in her mediations on the cyborg, made her a feminist antipode to the technophobic ecofeminists in the 1980s. However, the current struggle with the corona virus covid-19 makes us realize, once again, that we need creative and critical feminist approaches to technology and sciences. In Haraway’s most recent book “Staying with the Trouble” (2016), she endorses a “tentacular thinking”, i.e. learning from the octopus, rather than looking at things from high above. And she advises us to become compost rather than posthumanists, creating new alliances with all the other earthbound critters that share this planet with us. These ideas are uncommon and audacious and they have the power to open up new trajectories for ecofeminist dialogues, even under different names.

Agarwal, Bina (1992): The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India. Feminist Studies 18 (1): 119-158.
Anzaldúa, Gloria (1987): Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Federici, Silvia (2004): Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
Gaard, Greta (1997): Toward a Queer Ecofeminism. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 12 (1): 114-137.
Haraway, Donna (2016): Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mies, Maria und Vandana, Shiva (1993): Ecofeminism. London: Zed Books.
Plumwood, Val (1993): Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London / New York: Routledge.
Taylor Dorceta E. (1997): Women of color, environmental justice, and ecofeminism. In: Karen Warren (ed.), Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 38-81.

Gaard, Greta: “Ecofeminism now!” (1996)

Date di pubblicazione:

25 giugno 2020


Prof. Dr. Patricia Purtschert