March 30, 2016
We get the futures we imagine.
This simple statement carries within it both hope and warning. It covers past, present and future. The present we now have was once an imagined future; the future we imagine now will be carried forward. If we look at popular media, such as films and television, our imagined future does not look very bright – post-apocalyptic futures such as portrayed in Mad Max and the Hunger Games trilogy, or futures in which we abandon this planet, such as in Elysium and Interstellar, fill our movie theatres and our minds.
But what if we imagined a different future? What if instead, we imagined a future where the environment is green and flourishing, where all people have equal access to fresh water, fresh, healthy food, adequate shelter and health care? What if we wrote a completely new and different story?
This is the hope and vision of ecofeminism.
Feminism, and by association ecofeminism, has become something of a dirty word in recent years, raising images of militant, man-hating women who vengefully scheme to replace patriarchy and the oppression of women with a matriarchal structure for the oppression of men. This, however, is not at all what feminism aims to achieve. Feminism, and ecofeminism, are much more sophisticated, more nuanced, far-sighted, and far-reaching than this.
Feminism is concerned with creating a society in which men and women are treated equally, fairly, and respectfully. It strives not to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, but to create an egalitarian social system that values all people equally. In other words, the goal of feminism is to create social justice. This paradigmatic shift is not about swapping one oppressive power for another, but instead is about creating new ideologies that represent a balance of power between genders, and also takes into account other intersections of identity, including ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and more.
Ecofeminism is also concerned with social oppression, but in addition pays attention to what is happening with the environment. Ecofeminism contends that in order to end the oppression of people (not just women, but also those who live in Third World countries, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community, etc.), we must also end the oppression and destruction of nature. This would involve a major shift in societal ideals, affecting almost every aspect of the dominant Western social order. If these ideals could be adopted, what would an ecofeminist social transformation look like?
Perhaps the best place to start is with a little bit of history. Feminism as a movement gained momentum as part of the more general social justice movement in the 1960s. The peace movement and the modern environmental movement gained traction at about the same time. These three things – the social justice movement, the peace movement, and the environmental movement – have been called the three great movements of our time. The early feminist movement focussed on obtaining equal legal footing for women in terms of workplace opportunities, equal pay for equal work, and advocating for anti-discrimination legislation. Over time, the movement evolved to encompass not just political but also personal freedoms, such as sharing of household assets, sharing in child-rearing, and being allowed to make their own decisions regarding their bodies, for instance, access to birth control. Much of this work continues today.
The fusion between environmentalism and feminism came about in the 1970s. The term “ecofeminism” was coined by French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 to describe “ecological feminism”, or the role that women in particular could have in creating changes to the way society exploits the natural world. She noted that the way in which patriarchal society devalues, disregards, and mistreats women in many ways reflects the same kind of thinking that allows for the devaluation, degradation, and mistreatment of nature. While ecofeminism has been criticized for essentialising women – the idea that women are better placed to take care of the environment because of an essential nurturing nature – it has also been pointed out that in many societies women have historically been the ones who till the land, fetch the water, and gather plants and firewood, and that the knowledge that women have thus gained can be used in environmental reparation. This is not saying that women are somehow “closer to nature” than men, but that their experience and expertise is in caring for the environment in which they work.
From this beginning, two basic premises of ecofeminism emerged. The first is that the oppression of women and the degradation of the environment are at least conceptually linked; therefore if we can find ways to improve the condition and treatment of one, this will lead to improvement in the condition and treatment of the other. Second, there are differences in the way women and men relate to and interact with the natural world. This is mediated by social, economic, and historic factors. But the complex weaving of relationships and cultural contexts is finely nuanced and influenced by many variables – not only gender but also (as previously mentioned) such things as race, class, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, where you live, and what you do.
Today, some of the more prominent ecofeminists include the activist and physicist Vandana Shiva, and the well-known primatologist Jane Goodall. Goodall’s Roots and Shoots organization is a good example of what, at least in part, an ecofeminist social transformation would look like. Roots and Shoots empowers young people (ages 9 to 17) to create change in their communities. While it is an international organization with groups in over 130 countries, each Roots and Shoots group focusses on projects in their own communities. The group creates three projects; one that helps animals, one that helps the environment, and one that helps people (although clearly there will be some overlap in these categories). This kind of grassroots activism is an essential component of ecofeminism.
Vandana Shiva is perhaps best known for her opposition to GMOs and the companies that produce them. She is the founder of Navdanya, a seed-saving and sharing organization based in India. Seed saving and sharing between farmers is a tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of agriculture. Navdanya describes itself as “a women centred movement for the protection of biological and cultural diversity,” and fights against the “biopiracy” of indigenous agricultural knowledge and plants by corporations such as Monsanto. The group supports small, organic farms planting locally sourced crops, and lobbies against agribusinesses and the creation of huge monocrop plantations.
An ecofeminist social transformation encourages local grassroots activism, in both First World and Third World countries. It is important to understand that the motivations for activism vary – First World feminism tends to focus on changing minds about issues, whereas Third World activism is more often aimed at challenging the incursion of foreign corporations to preserve traditional cultures and ways of life.
In this way, an ecofeminist social transformation seeks to change our relationships not only with each other but also with the natural world. Rather than seeking to dominate or coerce nature, an ecofeminist environmental ethic seeks to create a partnership ethic with nature – working with natural processes, such as soil types, climate, water cycles and water availability – rather than against them. It seeks to create relationships based in an ethic of care and compassion, grounded in power-with rather than power-over, in both societal and environmental contexts.
But if we are to create ethical relationships and partnerships of compassion and care, we will have to change the ways that we do many things. One thing in particular that would need to change is the way that we produce and reproduce knowledge. After all, if we simply continue to tell the same stories in the same ways, and if we simply continue to seek new knowledge in the same old ways, we end up reproducing the same kinds of results and living in the same kinds of ways. Two ways that we can change this is by looking at different approaches to science, and to history.
Now, if we count Shiva and Goodall among today’s leading ecofeminists it is easy to see that following an ecofeminist theory of scientific research leads to rigorous, reproducible, and groundbreaking advances in scientific knowledge. But what do they do differently from traditional science? What characterizes an ecofeminist approach to science and knowledge production?
One thing to realise about science, whether feminist or not, is that it is always contextual and it changes over time. Since the time of the Scientific Revolution (beginning in the mid-1500s), science, at least the way science has been done in the Western world, has been dominated by men. Additionally, science as we now conceive of it and practice it, often serves to oppress rather than liberate humanity. If we accept the idea that technology is the practical application of science, then upon reflection it is not too hard to make this case.
Feminist science aims to use science to help make the world a better place for people, rather than a better place for technology. In its simplest terms, feminist science is about uniting head, hand, and heart. That is, it uses sound methodologies, based in experience rather than just observation, and emphasizes holism, harmony, and complexity rather than reductionism. Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees again serves as a good example: her work was based on experience in the field, interacting with and getting to know her subjects, thus making discoveries about chimpanzee behaviours that could never have been made through experimentation and dispassionate observations. She also got to know and understand the situation of the people living in the communities surrounding the chimpanzee habitat. Goodall used her research not only to increase our knowledge about primates, but also to help preserve chimpanzee habitat, and to encourage and engage young people in conservation work.
Her work, and the work of other feminist scientists, such as Shiva, Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson, and many others, is widely accepted as rigorous, but it is also compassionate. One of the main objectives in feminist science is to “do no harm” –research should never inflict suffering. Further, they aim to use science for harm reduction, and to improve the lives of not just women, but all people and all creatures and for Earth itself. Creating a new conceptual framework for science also creates new outcomes and possibilities. Rather than leading to the creation of harmful technologies, feminist science looks to heal relationships between humans and nature, and between culture and nature.
So, an ecofeminist social transformation would also include the practice of feminist science. It would understand the importance of uniting head, heart, and hand in relevant, experiential, movement-generated research that remains reflexive and accountable, and understands complexity and connectivity to be more useful than reductionism. Feminist science looks for technologies that improve lives for both humans and the other than human world, in ways that conserves and works in partnership with Earth, with an ethic of care and compassion.
Another way to create social transformation is to ensure that the historic contributions of women, indigenous people, and people of colour, to science, medicine, politics, art, literature, and all other areas of human endeavour are acknowledged and celebrated. Currently we tend to emphasize certain kinds of achievements –we commemorate historic wars, colonization, and the deeds mainly of dead white men. This is a product of the Enlightenment and the approach to history taken during that time. Of course, records of wars and colonization are important to know and understand, but we need to move away from allowing history to be written by the victors with no regard for those defeated, and what happened to them. In fairness, there has been more attention paid in recent years to the abhorrent treatment of Aboriginal populations in both North America and Australia, but this acknowledgement and remediation needs to continue. All voices deserve to be heard, and all people deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion.
Lastly, an ecofeminist social transformation would recognise the importance of a spiritual, loving connection to the earth, understanding that everything is connected – that we really are all made of stardust. Ecofeminism helps us to understand that to harm the Earth, or any of its inhabitants, is also to harm ourselves. By practising care and compassion for the natural world, we also practice care and compassion for our communities, ourselves, and each other. This care and compassion does not have to follow one particular religion, or any religion at all for that matter. Care and compassion for the earth and for people can be found in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and any of the many indigenous religions, such as those of North American First Nations, and pagan spiritualities, such as Druidry or Wicca. A person may also choose to follow their own set of spiritual beliefs and practices without adhering to any specific religion.
This approach allows the embrace of multiple spiritualities, including major world religions, pagan, and indigenous spiritual traditions, and honours the elders in our communities, while treasuring the young. It values women’s wisdom about the Earth and about creating and sustaining life. It would practice rituals and celebrations that honour the Earth and its inhabitants. Everyone would have a place – each person treated with respect, dignity, and compassion, in a community that practices hope and envisions an ecologically and socially harmonic future.
In sum, then, an ecofeminist social transformation strives for social and environmental justice, achieved through a partnership ethic with the natural world. It challenges existing ideologies and power structures to create an ecotopic (rather than dystopic) future, centred on equal participation and equality. Ecofeminism recognises that change and healing needs to take place within and between cultures, and between nature and cultures. It also recognises the healing power of nature, and understands that healing includes healing hearts, land, and culture. Ecofeminism understands that the three great movements of peace, social justice, and environmentalism work together.
Ecofeminism understands that we get the futures we imagine, and seeks transformative action through the practice of hope, believing that change only happens through intentional action and taking responsibility for both social and ecological challenges and change, and realizing that change is always possible. Ecofeminist historian and scholar Carolyn Merchant wrote that “Ideology is a story told by people in power. Once we identify ideology as a story… we realise that by rewriting the story, we can challenge the structures of power. We recognise that all stories can and should be challenged.” In challenging those stories, we imagine and write a new story about the present, and about the future. These are the stories that create the paradigms that create the society in which we live. In essence, we live within these stories.
But the thing about stories, is that you always have a choice about what story you listen to, and what story you live. Choosing to live the story of an ecofeminist social transformation is as simple, and as complex, as imagining a different future.