This paper was written over a decade ago for my anthropology BA; it is my first exposure to, and “take” on, ecofeminism. While I have moved on ideologically from this (rather uninformed) stance, I wanted to keep an archive of all my scholastic work. My, how things have changed. ;)
Ecofeminism: A Negative Solution
Ecofeminism appears to be a rising new tide in the history of environmental consciousness — a new way of looking at some old ideas. The basic premise is that the historical domination of nature is similar to the historical domination of women. To fix our ecological or feminist problems one must deal first with the issue of “domination of weaker beings”. Once the culture has removed domination as a viable societal response, all the other problems will as a consequence also be solved.
This paper will attempt to show that this new arrangement of old ideas does not, unfortunately, accomplish what its stated goals are. In fact, I shall show how ecofeminism, while starting from very valid points concerning quite real problems, somehow manages to neither solve those problems, or reveal any helpful new heuristics in how to deal with those same problems. Ecofeminism, to put it bluntly, sabotages itself.
Ecofeminism, like many other well-meaning efforts to deal with today’s problems, started with a fresh look at old ideas, and the best of intentions. However, I believe that initial promise has been side-lined. There are a variety of reasons I feel this is so. Firstly, ecofeminism by its very nature is unfortunately and apparently ripe for abuse — if domination by the patriarchy is to be removed, what will fill that niche? To use an old saw, Nature abhors a vacuum. Secondly, ecofeminism seems to have lost its way — there seems to be a huge split between theorists and those who are actually active, and there is a decade-long philosophical feud with deep ecologists that is apparently still going on. Finally there is the classically propagandist style of much of ecofeminism’s theoretical writings.
Use of Reductionism
Let us look at the abuses ecofeminism seems to produce. Most of today’s societies are of a patriarchal form. There are documentable commonalties between this current cultural norm’s behavior towards both women and nature. Ecofeminism recognized this, possibly for the first time. They came to the conclusion (not unreasonably) that a solution that solves male domination of females might also solve human domination of nature, and that the obverse might also be true. This was an interesting idea, and as such seems both initially true and a useful heuristic. However, at this point the usefulness of ecofeminism seems to have ended. Instead of becoming a movement that impelled one towards beneficial change of the current cultural norm, ecofeminism seems to have suffered a cumulative attack of penis envy.
Perish the thought that any feminist (eco- or otherwise) would admit to such, of course… instead we have comments such as the following by Brian Swimme:
My proposal is that we learn to interpret the data provided by the fragmented scientific mind with the holistic poetic vision alive in ecofeminism. What is this holistic vision? … I would simply point to the perspective, awareness and consciousness found most clearly in primal peoples and women generally… (Swimme quoted in Lahar 39)
This sort of assumption that women are somehow better than men is still being furthered today. For example, in 1974, Ortner mentions women as the “guardians of culture and morals,” and in 1978 Griffin wrote, “woman speaks with nature… But for him [man] this dialogue is over … But we [women] hear.” In 1982 Gilligan wrote of “women’s ways of knowing,” in 1984 Salleh states “women’s monthly fertility cycle, … ground[s] women’s consciousness in the knowledge of being coterminous with nature… Women already… ‘flow with the system of nature.'” Doubiago in 1989 wrote, “male ecologists will have to admit on any reflection … [that w]omen have always thought like mountains….” Warren, in 1990, wrote “the vocabulary of care represents the essential moral voice of women,” and in 1995 Baidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler, and Wieringa wrote “women know better than men how to save the earth and themselves” (Hendler & Berman 18). This assumption of privilege goes on even today.
Furthermore, it does not appear ecofeminism merely glorifies “Woman” where she was once vilified. Now patriarchy, and by extension men, are being portrayed as the villains. Consider some of the assertions made by ecofeminists: “[androcentrism is] the oldest of oppressions,” (Shiva 3) and “…ecologists have failed to grasp the fact that at the core of our suicidal mission is the psychological issue of gender, the oldest war, the war of the sexes” (Doubiago 43).
Indeed, the titles of some of the prominent ecofeminist books are telling: Judith Plant’s Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (it sounds like she implies ecofeminism is the only healer available), Greta Gaard’s Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, and Nature (can men not be a part of the ecofeminist movement?), Leonie Caldecott and Stephanie Leland’s Reclaim the Earth: Women Speak Out For Life on Earth (I wasn’t aware it was lost — and cannot men also speak out for the earth?), A. Collard and J. Contrucci’s Rape of the Wild: Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth (as if all of our current problems were due solely to men).
These may all seem nit-picky or mocking examples, but I do not mean them so. Instead I find them sobering, even alarming hints of ecofeminism’s deeper beliefs. In their own way, ecofeminists are just as exclusionary as the patriarchal society they purport to despise. There is a sizable portion of ecofeminism that feels women are somehow more inherently “good” than men — enough that they are referred to as a group, within ecofeminism, as “nature feminists.” Thus there are writings by people with these beliefs that claim women should now be privileged because they are closer to nature for a wide variety of reasons: because they’re “naturally” that way, because they think differently than men, because they can give birth, because men oppress both them and nature.
Their logic escapes me — why should demonization of men and/or patriarchy glorify women? If one is careful to delineate the oppressor as different from you, how can a commonalty between you and the oppressor be accomplished? How will replacing an old hate with a new one solve the problem? The unfortunate answer is that it won’t — rather the problem will remain, but with a different oppressor group. Nothing will be fixed, and the original problem (oppression) will remain unsolved.
Use of Propaganda
Most unpleasant of all, there is the propagandist nature of ecofeminist writings. To explain this, I need to go back to the beginning of my researches. Reading the ecofeminist theories left me with a vague feeling of discomfort, although I could not put my finger on exactly why. It was not until a chance comment by a friend that I realized what my problem was — all the ecofeminist tracts I could find reminded me, in their layouts, of some studies I’d done on Nazi propaganda! I am extremely uncomfortable with this perceived similarity, since I no longer feel I can trust any of the stated “facts” within the papers I read. Oddly enough, there seem to be at least one ecofeminist who is aware of this trend. Lahar mentions the
strange reverence for Martin Heidegger whose mystical philosophy and ideological connection to Hitler’s Nazi party give rise to profound questions about the suitability of his ideas as a basis for social revision and reconstruction (Lahar 41).
In an effort to clarify this possibility I went back to recheck my sources. I discovered:
1. Propaganda is printed or visual material designed to win public sentiment or to decrease public hostility towards a particular political cause. Typically it distorts the issue, misquotes sources, or engages in lies. (Vos 1)
After some thought, I realized I viewed the ecofeminist “nature feminist” view of women as being somehow closer to nature than men as a distortion of the issue. People are people. As one simple example, studies have shown that when there is no social condemnation, both genders are equally aggressive. Furthermore, asserting that one must think irrationally, or as “nature feminists” put it, “spiritually” in order to understand the ecofeminist viewpoint appears to be either a distortion of the issue or a lie, whether unconscious or not; e.g. see Lahar 1991 earlier in this paper, quoting Swimme. Unfortunately such “spiritual” attitudes about how women think are common enough that ecofeminism has been referred to as “remain[ing] rooted in an abstract pro-nature stance that continues to call for theory but rarely provides it” (Mills 172) or as being “somewhere between theory and poetry” (King 124).
Later in the same article on propaganda is the following:
3. At the heart of all political conflicts, is a conflict of vision. On both sides there is an accumulation of evidence — accumulated from the world as experienced through each worldview. The worldview whose ‘evidence’ is most consistent with one’s experience of reality is the one which one will adopt.
4. The purpose of propaganda is to make one’s vision accessible to others by giving the accumulated evidence of the validity of that vision. (Vos 1)
I felt uncomfortably that all ecofeminism had to offer was a vision — a hallucination, to be exact, of a world where women would run everything, and everyone would love them for doing so. I don’t believe such a simplistic answer would work. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis points out:
Propagandists love short-cuts — particularly those which short-circuit rational thought. They encourage this by agitating emotions, by exploiting insecurities, by capitalizing on the ambiguity of language, and by bending the rules of logic.
Unfortunately I believe this description closely describes the ecofeminist movement. Emotions are agitated by incessant argumentative rhetoric, as is shown by the on-going, derisive campaign against patriarchy, and the decade long argument with deep ecologists. The ambiguity of language is manipulated to keep the fruitless battle with the deep ecologists going — the term “holistic,” for example, is used by both sides. Both of them deride their philosophical opponents for using the word incorrectly, and describe their own goals as a more “holistic” mode of thinking. Furthermore, women (a traditionally insecure group) are told they are somehow better than men, and always have been — all they have to do is band together, and domination will be overthrown. Finally, the rules of logic aren’t just bent — they’re tossed out, along with other despised tools of the patriarchy, such as reason, scientific method, and rational thought.
The IPA has listed the seven basic devices of propaganda. Some of these are referred to as “name-calling,” “transfer,” “testimonial,” and “plain folks.” Ecofeminism very obviously uses name-calling. “Good” names associated with women can be seen in my previous examples. Some of the “bad” names associated with patriarchy and men are “maldeveloped,” “rapists,” “socialist,” “disinterested,” “denying,” and “hostile.”
Needless to say, not all men fall in those categories, any more than women are universally “good.” Yet the connotations are still there — negative for males and patriarchy, positive for females. Are ecofeminists using negative connotations to simply dismiss ideas and people of which they disapprove? Do the ideas and concepts in question really have a legitimate connection with the real meanings of these names? The IPA states:
Transfer is a device by which the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige of something we respect and revere to something he would have us accept.
This device is quite obvious in the ecofeminist bumper-sticker carrying a picture of the Earth from orbit, and the slogan “Love Your Mother.” Motherhood and religion are both beloved concepts to most Americans, and this bumper-sticker uses transference to apply that reverence to ecofeminism. And yet I found myself thinking, if I leave the propaganda trick out of the picture, what are the merits of this ecofeminist concept, viewed alone? The proposal had validity of its own. Why was there this need to obfuscate the issue? Such techniques will only serve to rabble-rouse (in the short term), and in the long term alienate the thoughtful viewer.
Interestingly enough, there is a voice crying out in the wilderness, so to speak, against this practice. Roach writes of the “misguided attempt to consciously create symbols without attending to unconscious projection and content” (Roach 58). While I find her writing rather politically correct (she uses the term “biodegrade” to describe what she’d like to do with patriarchal cultures and concepts), I believe she is right in this instance.
Testimonials are an especially effective propaganda device, if you like the person giving the testimonial. People tend to be less critical when they admire the person doing the touting. Unfortunately, there’s frequently no one asking if the speaker really has any idea of what would really be best in each case. Ecofeminism has its testimonials, in the person of Starhawk. She is a persuasive speaker, and a revered spiritual leader in the goddess-worshipping circles of feminism. To my knowledge, what she is not is someone who has any university training in ecology, anthropology, or philosophy [later note: Starhawk has a BA and an MA]. Any one of these might have inclined me to attach more weight to her words. Unfortunately she is having a strong effect on the ecofeminist movement. One of her followers writes the following:
[I was] … in a feminist studies class where students were discussing religion, commenting that anyone who remained connected to the mainstream religions obviously did not have a feminist consciousness…. These spiritualities are creating a new story which will reshape human-earth relations, and challenge the andro- and anthropocentrism resulting from human arrogance and ignorance…. I think the earth is calling forth a new religious sensitivity, because of the level of suffering. (Eaton 30, 31)
I found this disturbing. Removal of domination does not have to produce fuzzy thinking. Furthermore, why would a planet call anything? It is physically incapable of doing so.
The use of the “plain folks” propagandist device can be easily seen in ecofeminism. Ecofeminism considers most of its appeal to be to grassroots movements, to
…homemakers organizing to eliminate toxic chemicals from their homes and neighborhoods, … activists standing between trees and the bulldozers coming to fell them, and protesters making peace encampments at military bases. (Lahar 29)
What could be more homey, more “of the people” than that? It sounds wonderful. Indeed, I counted 4 or 5 references to the Chipko Indians of Nepal — they seem quite popular amongst ecofeminists as an example of just plain folks making a difference. And yet I couldn’t help but notice that in the three collections of ecofeminist discourse I found, only the first one contained any articles discussing actual people doing actual work! It was almost dominated by that type of article. However, all the articles in the following two collections are philosophical nit-picking, rhetoric, and theoretical polemic, with a few sparse side references to actual activism. Are the ecofeminists slowly losing ground with the people? Is this an attempt to cover up a lack of concrete successes by the ecofeminist movement? Has ecofeminism become merely another philosophical footnote?
In conclusion, ecofeminism was started on an interesting and innovative new idea: women and nature were viewed similarly by the patriarchal cultures, and similar modes of oppression were used upon them; thus removal of the tactic of domination would potentially solve both problems. Unfortunately this movement has apparently stagnated in propaganda and foundered on irrelevant and ultimately divisive issues.
The goal of ending oppression will not be furthered by the loss of truth, of feeling the need to propagandize rather than to speak and lead with integrity. Saddest of all is the apparent need to glorify women to the detriment of men, and to dismiss all of the patriarchal culture from which we come, rather than taking the best the culture has to offer, leaving the worst, and moving forward into a deliberately planned, better future.
Adams, Carol J., “Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Curtin, Deane, Toward An Ecological Ethic of Care,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Delwiche, Aaron, “Propaganda,” The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, 1995 (dead link).
Doubiago, Sharon. “Mama Coyote Talks to the Boys,” Judith Plant, ed. Healing the Wounds: the Promise of Ecofeminism. Philadelphia, New Society Publishers, 1989.
Ecological Feminism: Environmental Philosophies, ed. Karen J. Warren, New York, Routledge 1994.
Griffin, Susan, Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her. New York, Harper & Row, 1978.
Hendler, Sue and Tzeporah Berman, “Building Bridges, Tearing Down Walls,” Alternatives vol. 2 no. 2, 1995.
Hutcheson, Sharon, “Walking the Line: Facing the Complexities of the Woman-Nature Link,” Alternatives vol. 21 no. 2, 1995.
King, Roger J. H., “Caring About Nature: Feminist Ethics and the Environment,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Lahar, Stephanie, “Ecofeminist Theory and Grassroots Politics,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Mills, Patricia Jagentowicz, “Feminism and Ecology: On the Domination of Nature,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Plumwood, Val, “Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Nationalism,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Roach, Catherine, “Loving Your Mother: On the Woman-Nature Relationship,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Salleh, Ariel K., “Deeper Than Deep Ecology: The Eco-Feminist Connection,” Environmental Ethic, 1: 339-45, 1984.
Sessions, Robert, “Deep Ecology vs. Ecofeminism: Healthy Differences or Incompatible Philosophies?” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Shiva, Vandana, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, London, Zed Books, 1988.
Slicer, Deborah, “Your Daughter or Your Dog?” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.
Vos, Jeff, “Propaganda of the CNG,” 1994. (dead link)
Warren, Karen J. and Jim Cheney, “Ecological Feminism and Ecosystem Ecology,” Hypatia (Ecological Feminism Special Issue) Spring, 1991.