by Khushi Anupriya Dudi
Environment and climate have been burning issues in recent times. Here, it becomes important to identify the reasons and solutions for the ongoing crisis. Ecofeminism has emerged as one of the lenses to look into the scenario. It not only brings up a very inclusive understanding of the issue but also tries to address other pressing concerns of the society – gender discrimination, racism and the like. This article explores the basic understanding of the idea and the diversity that exists within its fold. It will also open a channel to connect with real life through examples. Along with that, it will look into the existing gaps in the idea to pave a way forward to a comprehensive understanding.
Lack of education and nutrition among women, global warming and deforestation and the rise of fast fashion – what is the common link in all the three examples? Well, it is a state of misery, but it also represents some common oppressive forces – or that is what eco-feminists would believe.
Ecofeminism is the school of thought that uses a feminist lens to understand environmental exploitation. They believe that the social mentality leading to the domination and oppression of women is similar to the one leading to the abuse of the environment. More precisely, it claims that environmental exploitation and gender discrimination are highly interconnected and have common roots – that of capitalist patriarchy. According to this idea, climate change is not neutral but a gendered concept – both in its process and consequence. It is the male domination and capitalist exploitation that has led to the current crisis.
Exploring the Cause – the Capitalist Patriarchy
This capitalist patriarchal thinking privileges male control over resources. Women and nature are nothing more than a means to an end. They are both feminised and exploited in the name of sacrifice, care and maternal love. Here, the capitalist patriarchy plays into creating dualist and hierarchal thinking. The human-nature and men-women dichotomy are the products of this thinking, where the former is valued more than the latter. This argument furthers the exploitation for the gains of the former. This domination is neither justifiable nor inevitable. For example, traditionally assigning caregiving work to women because of male superiority, strength and intellect is nothing but this generic, oversimplified and hierarchal understanding. Moreover, the act of deforestation in itself symbolises the domination that humans have imposed on nature and has graded the interests of the latter as being lower than that of the former.
Brief History of the Understanding
This understanding has evolved through the 60s and 70s via the history of third-wave feminism, anti-nuclear proliferation sentiments, Green Belt Movements and other similar movements surrounding climate change led by women. The third-wave feminism insisted on not becoming part of the machinery and questioned, reclaimed and redefined the ideas relating to womanhood, gender, beauty, sexuality, femininity and masculinity. Furthermore, the nuclear proliferation and the arms race owing to the Cold War resulted in staunch opposition against its consequences on human health, the environment and the security of the people living in the regions. The first time where one can notice a movement to piece together the twin oppressions is during the Green Belt Movement of Kenya. Initiated by Wangari Maathai in 1977 to fight against deforestation through the collectivisation of village women, this movement was novel in that it acknowledged the intersections of gender and environment and was led by a woman of colour from the third world. Her approach to sustainable development embraced democracy, human rights and women’s rights. References are also made to other movements in the 70s, particularly in the third world. These include Chipko Movement, the Greenham Woman’s Peace camp and Woman’s Pentagon Access. Major writers in the field include Vandana Shiva, Karen Warren and Ynestra King.
Following this long historical trajectory, the main arguments of eco-feminism can be summarised as – oppression of the environment and gender have similar roots and patterns, and environmental degradation has a disproportionate impact on women.
The first line of thought is endorsed by “radical eco-feminists”. This school of thought proposes that in the patriarchal system women are depicted as natural and irrational/emotional placed lower in the hierarchy. This implies that men can come to control them just as they control nature. Women are viewed as natural resources – taken, plundered and used by the masculinist mentality and motivated by patriarchal, dominating forces. This argument can be illustrated in some instances. If we notice language, nature is frequently referred to as “mother earth”, an abode of resources to help civilise humanity. However, this very narrative leads to the overexploitation of nature. Moreover, the feminine value attached to the earth can lead us into thinking about how women are relegated to the care work in the households and are “expected” to be submissive – one of the core reasons for many biases and discrimination prevailing in the society.
The second school of thought, “Cultural ecofeminism”, believes that it is because of the nexus between women and the environment that women are more vulnerable to environmental degradation and, thus, are more suited to work for the policies aimed at the environmental conservation. For instance, agriculture, especially in developed countries, has a large proportion of women workers. Despite a significant number of women workers, the discrimination plays out in ways that keep the yield of women farmers low. The reasons can be many, from the low level of education and lesser land ownership by women to lesser access to credit and technology. This reveals that it is the social and cultural consequence rather than the discrimination that keeps women farmers poor.
Moreover, the cultural ecofeminists argue that in case of environmental disasters like droughts, women are expected to be more vulnerable than their male counterparts in saving their crop yields. Additionally, even in the case of other rural women that are not engaged in farming, it will be an adverse circumstance. This is because drought leads to an increased number of women spending more time fetching water, leading to more women being forced to leave education and get engaged in housework. All of these examples support the proposition that the impact of environmental degradation would be more on women than men. A second instance can be the concept of “Eco Gender Gap” wherein it is claimed that women have to bear more burden of Green Marketing than men. A majority of women are responsible for household chores, garbage disposal, grocery shopping, and laundry. Most of the green marketed products, therefore, get focused on women consumers. Thus, women should have a greater say in matters related to environmental conservation.
Other Offshoots and Philosophies
Apart from these two main understandings of ecofeminism, several other philosophies and ideas contribute to the concept. One of them is “Deep Ecology”, in which the earth is understood to have the right to flourish and live. It is attributed to ideas, feelings, spirituality and action. Humans are understood to have no right to rip the planet off its diversity. Similarly, “Gaia” understands earth to be a living organism and humans as a part of it. It is a synergistic self-regulating complex system. It aims to bring out the symbiotic relationship of humans with nature to lead to a system of sustainable development.
Critiques of Ecofeminism
However, the idea is not unquestioned. In the article “Ecofeminism: An Overview”, Yale University researchers pointed to some of the flaws in the practice and conceptualisation of Ecofeminism. According to them the concept leads to increased gender stereotyping, attaching women to ‘care’ and men to ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality’. The claim that women are closer to nature reinforces the patriarchal ideology of domination. Moreover, they also point to the culturally skewed understanding as women are not associated with nature in all cultures like in the Chinese culture. In general, the idea has been critiqued to have failed to take into account intersectional experiences of gender and environmental oppression. Further, Anne Archambault critiques it for privileging women’s experiences and advocating ethics of care which, according to her, is not enough to deliver liberation.
However, these criticisms lead us to create a more comprehensive definition of Ecofeminism rather than dismissing it given the deep and constructive link in transforming two oppressive links and impacting other similar exploitative linkages like those of race, caste, sexuality and so on. It gives us insights into creating an inclusive space for diverse identities and respecting them in their own right rather than establishing the supremacy of one over the rest. This idea echoes through the writings of eco-feminists like Vandana Shiva when she says, “Diversity creates harmony, and harmony creates beauty, balance, bounty, and peace in nature and society, in agriculture and culture, in science and politics.”. It is this idea of presenting the underrepresented ideas in the question of environmental conservation that makes ecofeminism unique and novel.
Khushi Anupriya Dudi is a third-year undergraduate student of Economics and Political Science at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.