In 1993 a book emerges which provocatively probes ecofeminism’s epistemology during its analysis of the historical roots of the oppressive conflation of women with nature. The collection of essays titled Ecofeminism, by Maria Mies & Vandana Shiva, is a biting critique of the colonization of nature, women, and the Third World by the white male hierarchy, via their oppressive application of the scientific conceptualization of “progress.” Admittedly, while Mies & Shiva’s Ecofeminism is ground-breaking work for the time, it suffers somewhat from that ideological newness. The opening essays are vivid and insightful exposés of the modern conceptualization of science as “a Western, male-oriented and patriarchal projection which necessarily entailed the subjugation of both nature and women” (Shiva, 22) as well as the faulty theorizing underlying the “catch-up development path” (Mies, 55) emphatically pushed on Third World countries by First World economies. Further, despite the uneven writing style, several of the essays stand well on their own, embodying an ecofeminism which is rooted in the needs of everyday life. The authors’ epistemological points are clear: it is modern patriarchal capitalism, science, and military might which is responsible for the shattering of the localized, holistic worldview common to many indigenous Third World peoples. In response, the authors suggest an axiology which is accepting of personal limits for the sake of others, rejects the commercialization and/or reification of needs, and is committed to a new and more ecofriendly ethics.
However, it is troublesome that, in a book with the ambitious title of Ecofeminism, the authors at no point actually offer their own definition of the word. In what way is their version of ecofeminism different from that of others — or from, say, post-colonialism? Further, there is disturbingly uncritical use of, for example, the word woman — such that at some points in the book woman is framed as earth’s healer due to their close, shared relationship; while at others she is presented as being responsible for environmental destruction due to her irresponsible consumption patterns in the North. In a similar vein the authors call for a rejection of dichotomies in favor of a more holistic paradigm. However, if only women can heal the earth, is that not a reinforcement of the dichotomy of “man equals civilization” and “woman equals nature”? Consequently while the essays are often informative and innovative, they do not feel coherent; nor do the authors present a holistic ecofeminist methodology.
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In 1997 Karen J. Warren presents an ambitious project which builds on Plumwood’s call for ethical, empathic recognition of both congruence and difference: a multidisciplinary collection of essays titled Ecofeminism: Woman, Culture, Nature which excellently demonstrates the then-current state of the field. The authors of the 25 articles span a tremendous breadth of experience, with backgrounds including not simply known ecofeminists and philosophers but also indigenous activists, political figures, chemical engineers, and other professions. Further, essays are deliberately international in scope, including writing on India, Eastern Arctic Canada, Germany and the European Green Party, Brazil, the Persian Gulf, and Kenya. There are a myriad of (sometimes contradictory) perspectives presented as well, which — while occasionally leaving the reader wondering just what precisely ecofeminism’s main focus is — also encourage one to question and research further. Perhaps the most personally significant essay is Griffin’s lyrical “Ecofeminism & Meaning.” She beautifully resolves the current theoretical feminist debates troubling ecofeminism as essentialist — first through debunking the common US usage of the charge of essentialism to shut down discussion, then by demystifying the argument’s actual basis in language. As she points out, it is true that meaning cannot be fixed; nevertheless words such as woman and nature do in fact bear socially interconnected connections and significance. The solution is not to erase the words — and by doing so, potentially negate the usefulness of ecofeminist contributions to the discussion — but rather to bear close attention to the relational context in which these words are used, so as to track their shifting identities and overlapping boundaries in order to effect social change.
For myself, Warren’s Introduction left something to be desired: while it does explicate the decision to offer a multidisciplinary approach to ecofeminism (which it fully accomplishes), one might wish Warren had also spent a bit more time explaining why this is relevant and necessary. What internal or external epistemological issues or philosophical debates are being addressed by her collection at this particular time? Someone steeped in the academic exploration of ecofeminism will doubtless know already, but the impression Warren gives in her Introduction is that this is a book for any reader interested in the subjects mentioned in its title. For example, some of the deeply personal stories inspiringly frame ecofeminism as a grassroots movement, such as the writing of indigenous professor and activist Eliane Potiguara or American engineer Joseph R. Loer; other authors (such as anti-violence activist, professor, and woman of color Andy Smith) seem more focused on an ecofeminism which highlights social inequities rather than potential solutions. I am particularly impressed by the inclusion of African American environmental justice activist Dorceta E. Taylor’s thoughtfully critical article, as I believe addressing these issues is the only way the movement can advance. Despite this small nit-pick, the need for political action in order to change the dominant paradigm is a common thread weaving throughout the book, which thoroughly explores ecofeminist premises regarding the oppressive linkage between nature and women/non-human Others, via philosophical exploration, empirical data, and interdisciplinary analysis.
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Three years later — almost as if Warren herself was not yet satisfied with her previous writing — the author brings forth her own perspective on the subject of ecofeminism, in her extraordinarily lucid Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What it is & Why it Matters. Where her earlier book was a collection of essays by many authors, accurately reflecting the dynamic nature and broad appeal of the movement, in this book Warren narrows down her focus sharply, presenting a perspective on Western ecofeminism which maintains academic rigor even as it remains clear and comprehensible for the person on the street. This is, as far as I know, the first effort made in the ecofeminist movement to condense its academic epistemological explorations into a format approachable by the educated lay reader. Equally impressive is how skillfully Warren does so, even as she simultaneously explains complex theoretical issues and replies respectfully to criticisms of the movement.
The book begins with a philosophical exploration and synthesis of ecofeminism, identifying common threads which weave together the various epistemological questions which ecofeminism strives to address. Building on Plumwood’s recognition of the dominations inherent in Western hierarchy, Warren further extrapolates the conceptual interconnection of a required “logic of domination” (24) to socially justify the designation of the other as inferior — which rôle, in androcentric and anthropocentric Western culture, is fulfilled and justified by patriarchy. The author advances the précis that just as exploration of the exploitation of nature will assist in clarifying the concurrent exploitation of women and the othered, so too will the reverse. To that end, Warren next addresses a number of contentious issues within ecofeminism, offering discerningly perceptive interrogation of patriarchy’s reductive, positivistic biases as she explores the “ethical contextualism” (88) surrounding, for example, vegetarianism, environmental justice, and the spirituality of ecofeminism. Perhaps most valuable, however, is the author’s proposal of a spiritually based “care-sensitive ethics” (108) as an axiological contribution to both ecofeminist praxis and ecological flourishing.