Feminism and Ecology
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Feminism and Ecology

Mary Mellor

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Feminism and Ecology

Mary Mellor

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The relationship between feminism and ecology has grown in importance in recent years. This book provides a comprehensive introduction to the ecofeminist movement and its history, as well as an extended analysis of the main perspectives within it.

Mellor examines the connections between feminism and the green movement, and outlines the contributions of the major participants, while contextualizing them within a wider range of debates. She re-examines classic feminist texts from an ecofeminist perspective, and explores the relationship between ecofeminism and other ecological movements, such as 'deep' ecology, social ecology and ecosocialism.

Mellor discusses the association of women with biology and 'nature', and argues that the relationship between women and the environment can help us to understand the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Against the trends towards radical economic liberalism, global capitalism and postmodernist pluralism, she argues that there is within the feminist and green movements the basis of a new radical movement which draws on the principles of both.

A useful and engaging account of feminist perspectives on ecology, the book will be welcomed by students and researchers in feminism and gender studies, sociology and political theory.

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Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It emerged in the mid-1970s alongside second-wave feminism and the green movement. Ecofeminism brings together elements of the feminist and green movements, while at the same time offering a challenge to both. It takes from the green movement a concern about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism the view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit and oppress women.
The green movement starts from the basic tenet of ecology, that all living organisms must been seen in relation to their natural environment. Humanity must always be seen as embedded within local and global ecosystems. The ecosystem surrounding any living organism imposes boundary conditions upon it. Humanity’s failure to respect the ecological limits of these bounding conditions has caused the present ecological crisis (McKibben 1990). Greens then divide on whether humanity can use its technological ingenuity to overcome or adapt to those bounding conditions (light green or shallow ecology) or whether it is necessary for humanity fundamentally to rethink its relationship to the natural world (dark green or deep ecology).
Ecofeminists tend to share the perspective of deeper greens that humanity is not just reliant on its physical environment, but that the natural world, including humanity, should be seen as an interconnected and interdependent whole. This raises fundamental questions about the socio-cultural human world in relation to the non-human natural world, including humanity’s own physical existence. While ecofeminism shares with (light and dark) greens a concern about the ecological damage caused by contemporary socio-economic and military systems, it also challenges the failure of the ecology movement and its theorists to address adequately male domination and women’s subordination. Although green thinkers and activists pay more attention to feminism than most other political perspectives, ecofeminists have argued that they fail to see the fundamental role of gender inequality in creating the ecological crisis. This failure results largely from male domination of green movements themselves (Salleh 1984; Doubiago 1989; Mellor 1992c; Seager 1993).
Ecofeminism’s challenge to feminism lies in its assertion that to the extent that human societies are biologically sexed and/or socially gendered, men and women stand in a different relationship to the natural world. Human embeddedness in the environment is related directly to human embodiment. Ecological impacts and consequences are experienced through human bodies, in ill health, early death, congenital damage and impeded childhood development. Women disproportionately bear the consequences of those impacts within their own bodies (dioxin residues in breast milk, failed pregnancies) and in their work as nurturers and carers. Some ecofeminists have gone further and argued that women have a greater appreciation of humanity’s relationship to the natural world, its embeddedness and embodiedness, through their own embodiment as female. This opens up the whole question of human society and culture in relation to bodies, biology and non-human nature. To argue that women as biologically sexed or socially gendered beings are connected with, or in some way represent, the natural world is seen as dangerous by many feminists. It undermines the struggle that they have waged against the way the identification of women with nature has been used to justify women’s subordination. Women have been seen as limited and determined by their bodies and thereby excluded from playing an equal role in public life. To open up the question of women’s association with ‘nature’, as well as positively to assert it, would seem to be a regressive move. The ecofeminist case for doing so will be a central theme of this book.
There has been a tendency to identify ecofeminism with an essentialist universalism. It is seen as positing a biologically based unity between women and the natural world that excludes men and unites all women through their essential life-giving, life-loving ‘natures’. Critics argue that such a perspective is reactionary as it essentializes and naturalizes both women and nature. This presents a falsely universalized image of ‘woman’ that ignores differences and inequalities between women. Much of this criticism has been aimed at ecofeminism in the United States (and particularly its West Coast variant) which has been strongly identified with radical/cultural feminism and the feminist spirituality movement. However, ecofeminism has been greeted with deep suspicion in many quarters even where it draws on materialist or socialist feminism rather than cultural or spiritual feminism (Hekman 1990; Biehl 1991; Agarwal 1992; Evans 1993; Jackson 1995).
Ecofeminism’s link with cultural and spiritual feminism and more radical approaches to ecology led much early ecofeminist literature, particularly in the United States, not to distinguish between academic and poetic/spiritual writings. Although many of the writers were academics, such a split was seen as reproducing the division within western culture that had allowed science and expert forms of knowledge to be distanced from ecological and social life. The introduction to one anthology describes how:
[I]ts chorus of voices reflecting the variety of concerns flowing into ecofeminism, challenges the boundaries dividing such genres as the scholarly paper and the impassioned poetic essay. In so doing, it acknowledges poetic vision as a form of knowledge and as one of the important steps in the process of global transformation. (Diamond and Orenstein 1990: vii)
The poetic and impassioned style of writing did, however, fuel some of the criticisms of ecofeminism as essentialist and mystical. As ecofeminism has matured, its writings have become more academic, although no less impassioned, losing some of the poetic energy of the early work, but setting out a more clear theorization of the connection between a feminist and an ecological framework (Mellor 1992a; Plumwood 1993; Mies and Shiva 1993; Warren 1994). Although ecofeminism is a diverse movement with differences in emphasis, and particularly in rhetoric, I would argue that its logic as it has developed in the past twenty years has produced a distinct and very valuable theoretical perspective on the relationship between human society and its natural surroundings that has implications for both social theory and political practice.

Ecofeminism as a movement

The history of ecofeminism can be found in its writings and in the wide range of women’s involvement in environmental issues and grassroots struggles around the world. The size and impact of ecofeminism as a movement depends upon how broadly it is defined. A very narrow definition would only embrace those women (and a very few men) who identify themselves explicitly as ecofeminists. Many of these are academics who are contributing to the growing literature on ecofeminism, seeking to establish it as a perspective as well as a movement. A wider definition would include all women who campaign on environmental issues or who bring together feminist and ecological concerns, whether in grassroots actions or more formal movements. The broader definition would include women’s campaigns on environmental issues even where a specifically feminist or ecofeminist politics has not necessarily been expressed.
While ecofeminism as a distinct body of thought has been largely (but not exclusively) developed by feminists in the North, its emergence must be seen in the context of a wider involvement of women in struggles and campaigns concerned with the environment around the world. It is important that the North’s domination of the published literature (of which this book is yet another example) should not distort the history of ecofeminism or give the impression that it is a unified movement. As with all perspectives and movements that emerge within a framework of social and economic inequalities, ecofeminism carries the danger of reproducing those inequalities within its own structure and development (Amos and Parmar 1984).
Global inequalities mean that while poor, exploited and marginalized women bear the brunt of the physical, economic and social impact of ecological degradation, and engage in direct struggles around their immediate environment, those privileged by class, nation and ‘race’ dominate and formulate the debate that ‘names’ and theorizes that movement. This is not to underestimate the contribution of those women who have abandoned their privilege to join in grassroots struggles – but privilege once gained is always available if only as cultural capital. For those without access to even the basics of existence there is no choice. The danger in the domination of the ecofeminist movement by a North perspective is that a distorted view of the ecological crisis and the position of women will emerge. Amos and Parmar’s critique of the women’s peace movement could as easily be applied to ecofeminism:
Internationally, while Black and Third World Women are fighting daily battles for survival, for food, land and water, western white women’s cries of anguish or concern about preserving the standards of life for their children and preserving the planet for future generations sound hollow. (1984:17)
Saving the whale, the preservation of wilderness, recycling or green consumer campaigns pale into insignificance against the immediate need for clean water, food, sanitation and personal health (Sen and Grown 1987, Rao 1989). However, it would be equally wrong to see these as in opposition. Amos and Parmar do not argue for a rejection of peace campaigning, but for western feminists to see the political issues that affect them in an international context. They also argue against an exclusively feminist focus that does not take account of the economic and political context: ‘A definition of patriarchal relations which looks only at the power of men over women without placing that in a wider political and economic framework has serious consequences for the way in which relationships within the Black community are viewed, (1984: 9). Angela Davis makes the equally important point that those concerned with immediate economic and political struggle should not neglect issues like the campaign against nuclear weapons: ‘Peace, my sisters and brothers, is a Black folk’s issue and it is a Black woman’s issue. The failure to realize this might very well cost us our lives’ (1990: 64). Both are valid arguments. Struggles around socio-economic inequality must take account of the ecological context, while the concerns of ecofeminists in the North and the struggles of women around environmental issues in the South must both be seen in an international politico-economic context.

Ecofeminism and feminisms

Most ecofeminists follow radical feminism in identifying patriarchy, and particularly western patriarchy, as the main source of global ecological destruction. The central dynamic of western patriarchy is seen as the division of society into hierarchical dualisms. Culture and society are divided from the natural world; science and expert knowledge displaces traditional folk knowledge. A valued public world is carved out of the complexities of human existence, much of which remains in a private/domestic world. Above all, male/men/the masculine is valued as against female/women/the feminine. However, the historical period in which patriarchy is seen to emerge ranges from 4000 BCE (Eisler 1990) to the Greek city-states (Ruether 1975) to the Scientific Revolution (Merchant 1983). Such a wide-ranging historical sweep leaves the question of the role of patriarchy in pre-industrial and non-western societies in some contention. Some feminists, particularly in the South, have argued that ecofeminism has encouraged a benign attitude toward non-western patriarchy (Agarwal 1992). It has also been claimed that ecofeminism’s emphasis on patriarchy deflects attention from racism, imperialism and capitalism as agents in gender oppression and ecological destruction (Lorde 1980, Agarwal 1992). Mies et al. (1988), on the other hand, argue that women suffer disproportionately in social and ecological terms, where there are patterns of exploitation based on colonialism, racism or worker exploitation.
Although ecofeminist thinking draws heavily on radical feminism and the critique of patriarchy, ecofeminists vary in the way they see patriarchal relations structuring the relationship between women and the natural world. Those who come from a cultural or spiritual feminist background will tend to stress male domination per se, and even maleness itself, as the cause of ecologically destructive and socially oppressive behaviour. Those who come from a socialist feminist background see the division of power, and particularly of labour, between men and women as holding the key to unsustainable patterns of development (Mellor 1992a; Salleh 1994). The two groups also differ in the connections they see between women and the natural world. Those from a cultural and spiritual feminist background will tend to stress an elemental connection between women and ‘nature’, while those who take a more social constructionist view of gender relations will tend to stress the historical and contextual basis of that connection. However, as will become clear, the similarities between ecofeminists in terms of their basic analysis far outweighs these differences, which often reflect differences in rhetoric.
In relation to other perspectives within feminism, there are strands that are incompatible with an ecofeminist perspective. One example is the liberal feminist argument for equal opportunities within the present socio-economic system. The approach of ecofeminism is summed up by one of the founders of the movement, Ynestra King: ‘what is the point of partaking equally in a system that is killing us all’ (1990: 106). Ecofeminism also opposes Marxist and socialist feminisms that do not challenge the ecological, as well as the economic, contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. For ecofeminists, equality through economic growth and ‘development’ for women, and for working-class, racially and (neo)colonially oppressed peoples, is not ecologically possible (Mellor 1993; Mies and Shiva 1993). They share the green critique that economic growth is a dangerous illusion (Douthwaite 1992). The present level of ecological destruction caused by industrialism and ‘development’ has substantially benefited only around one-fifth of the world’s population. Even within rich countries such as Britain or the United States, about a quarter to a third of the population, mostly women and children, are living in poverty. Whatever claims women have for equality with men, for ecofeminists it cannot be on the basis of consumption and production as promised by capitalism, or even a communistic redistribution of wealth on the present model of industrial production and mass consumption.
Ecofeminism is also incompatible with a radically social constructivist position, whether from a phenomenological, socialist / Marxist or postmodern perspective. By this, I mean a perspective that prioritizes human society/culture not only epistemologically, but ontologically. Although some ecofeminist philosophers have embraced a postmodern critique of western culture (Cheney 1989), and many ecofeminists argue that women’s subordination and ecological devastation have social causes, the ecological basis of ecofeminist thinking demands a rejection of perspectives that accords all agency to human society and culture. Meanings may change with discourses, human knowledge or power relations may affect physical and social conditions of life, but the physical materiality of human life is real, however it is described or ‘constructed’. For ecofeminism, the natural world of which humanity is a part has its own dynamic beyond human ‘construction’ or control.
Such a realist perspective is deeply problematic for those feminisms that have sought to reject a biological construction of sex difference in favour of a socially or culturally constructivist view of both sex and gender. However, a rejection of wholesale social or cultural constructivism does not mean a collapse into ecological or biological determinism. What it is both politically and theoretically vital to understand is the relationship between socially constructed relationships and physical realities, whether of embodiment or embeddedness. It is this interface that concerns ecofeminism, the connection between the biological and ecological processes surrounding human society and women’s subordination and oppression. For ecofeminists, concern for the vitality of the ecology of the planet is directly related to concern for women’s lives and experiences. The postmodern/poststructuralist domination of contemporary social theorizing is presenting a false choice between radical social constructivism and various forms of universalism and essentialism. In this book I want to argue that the logic of the ecofeminist position demands a radical materialist and realist analysis.

Weaving threads

Early images in ecofeminist literature are of weaving and spinning (Daly 1978; Henderson 1983; Diamond and Orenstein 1990) and the arguments in this book are equally interwoven. A book on ecofeminism(s), feminism(s) and ecologism(s) must necessarily be a tangle of ideas, an interweaving of many threads that will sometimes gather into untidy knots or trail out in numerous loose ends. A great deal of the confusion will be around the meaning of words. ‘Nature’, in particular, is a very problematic concept (Soper 1995). Sometimes it refers to a metaphysical idea of ‘Nature’, often taken to be a consciously knowing agent – the ‘mind of nature’. At other times it refers to the physical world that is the ‘object’ of scientific study and material exploitation. Sometimes it is taken to be only that aspect of non-human nature that has not been contaminated by ‘man’ – nature as wilderness. At other times it is taken to be the whole planetary ecosystem which includes human beings. Although, as will become clear, I see humanity as part of an embracing natural world, as most of the debate concerns the divorce between hu(man)ity and nature, I will generally use nature to refer to the non-human natural world.
Reference to women’s subordination and male dominance in society is also difficult without presupposing the basis of that domination in the words used. Reference to male, men, masculine, or female, women, feminine can imply an essentialist approach either in terms of biological determinism (women’s bodies make them think and act in particular ways) or universalism (all women share common experiences and responses) or appear to accept patriarchal definitions. Equally, concepts such as patriarchy, subordination and oppression demand an explanation of the relational dynamic involved. I will generally use male dominance to refer to the fact that all existing societies have a majority of men in the most powerful positions. I will also use the term ‘patriarchy’, as this is the concept used in many ecofeminist writings, although, as will become clear towards the end of this book, I am not happy with the term. I also would not wish the use of concepts such as male dominance and patriarchy to prejudge the theoretical explanation of that phenomenon. I do not intend the use of the word ‘male’ to imply biological determinism or to claim that all men are equally involved in the process of domination and all women are equally subjected to it. However, I do not adopt the position that male domination has no material or structural base and that there is not a substantive category of ‘woman’ to be addressed (Riley 1988; Butler 1990).
Another difficult area is the description of male-female inequality in terms of sex and / or gender. There has been much debate over these words (Oakley 1972; Gatens 1991a; Delphy 1993). The original division of the concepts was between that which related to biology (sex) and that which related to social characteristics (gender) (Oakley 1972), although it was quickly recognized that the two ideas could not easily be kept theoretically separate (Rubin 1974). Later writers have increasingly argued that sex, like gender, should be seen as socially constructed rather than biologically given (Delphy 1993; Butler 1990). As I have argued, from an ecofeminist perspective the latter approach is problematic, as it is not possible to see the body as (totally) socially constructed. I would follow Moira Gatens in seeing embodiment as a material and an historical phenomenon that cannot be ‘degendered’ through socialization or counter-socialization (1991b). It is true that there is no Archimedean point from which we can ascertain what of the body is natural as opposed to social. However, social constructions do not begin from a blank slate.
To say that human beings as reproductive mammals are embodied in sexed bodies does not imply anything about the sexual identity or sexual orientation of individual people, or even some unified and singular bodily form of the male and the female. Embodiment is a universal human condition, not a determining factor at the individual level. It is also important not to limit discussion to sex, sexuality and reproduction. Human embodiment covers all aspects of human biological needs and developments such as hunger, excretion, maturing and death. If the realities of human embodiment in its broadest context are not discussed...