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Ecofeminism and its Relevance

Illustration by anonymous
Written by Smriti Chawla

Ecofeminism is defined as a branch of feminism that deals with the relationship of women and environment. Ecofeminist activism grew famous during the 1980s and 1990s among the second wave feminist movements. The “Women and Life on Earth: Ecofeminism in the Eighties” conference held at Amherst, Massachusetts, United States of America (1980) was the first in a series of ecofeminist conferences, inspiring the growth of ecofeminist organizations and actions. There have been debates around the need of the subject itself, given its uniqueness. But feminists have identified a key connection between women and nature, and how capitalist society has chosen to exploit that notion.

Women and nature have both been seen as mothers, as ‘providers’. During our primary education, we were encouraged to call nature as ‘Mother Nature’, and ‘Mother Earth’. The addition of the feminine identity helps us look at our planet as the caregiver and provider of resources like food and water. However the motive behind this connection is not as innocent as it seems. The link goes deeper than mere providers, and takes us back to the cardinal debate of feminism.

Ecofeminism as a movement acknowledges the links that connect the exploitation and domination of both nature and women under a patriarchal society. Mary Mellor, in her book ‘Feminism and Ecology’ writes, “Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women.” She goes on to explain how Ecofeminism brings together the feminist movement and the green movement. From the green movement arises the concern about the impact of human actions on the material world, and from feminism, the view of humankind as gendered in ways that suppress, subordinate, exploit and oppress women.

As Ecofeminism continued to develop in Western society, it bifurcated into two distinct schools of thought - radical Ecofeminism and cultural Ecofeminism. Radical ecofeminists have explored ways in which both women and nature have been associated with negative or commodifiable attributes while men have been seen as capable of establishing order. Women are conveniently reduced to cheap labour and resources. Cultural Ecofeminism encourages the association between women and nature. The central philosophy of cultural Ecofeminism talks about the feminine ideas of ‘nurturing’ and ‘healing’ as the only ways to protect nature from exploitation, since women share a deeper connection with nature and earth. Cultural Ecofeminism also has roots in nature-based religions and goddess and nature worship as a way of redeeming both the spirituality of nature and women’s instrumental role in that spirituality.

The concern one faces in 2020 is simple - is Ecofeminism necessary and relevant?

Cultural Ecofeminism is rightly considered a problematic movement. According to author Rosemary Fonesca in her article called ‘Ecofeminism is Not What You Think’, “The differentiation between feminine qualities and masculine qualities presented in Ecofeminism play right into the notion of patriarchy. By presenting men as conquerors and women as gentle givers it undoubtedly creates a divide between men and women, contradicting the feminist movement of equality.” Clearly Cultural Ecofeminism propagates patriarchy under the garb of feminism, and has faced harsh criticism ever since its inception.

Several feminists have raised concern over Ecofeminism being a movement for the privileged. Feminists find themselves unsatisfied with the limitations of the movement. Women in developed countries have failed to acknowledge the ways in which their lifestyles have led to further degradation of their counterparts in developing or less-developed countries and of the Earth as a whole. While Ecofeminists have been accused of promoting this exploitation by purchasing goods created as a result of inequity (fast fashion, among others). Yet another issue is that of the appropriation of indigenous cultures and religions for the purpose of advancing a philosophical position. Contemporary Ecofeminism must evolve to acknowledge the effects of race, class, ethnicity and sexuality on a woman’s social position in society, in order to retain its relevance.

Women involved in environmental justice issues and women representing minority cultures have attempted to establish a unique sense of Ecofeminism to include local, ethnic cultures and spirituality, and a celebration of their roles as mothers and providers. They have recognised the ways in which Western colonization has compromised those beliefs, and have attempted to reconstruct the idea of Ecofeminism to work around it. .

In the context of modern environmental discourse, Ecofeminism is an important movement. However, to gain momentum, and have a genuine impact, Ecofeminism needs to develop into an intersectional movement. For example, indigenous women who live closer to nature have to suffer a lot more due to environmental degradation.

An ideal Ecofeminist would argue the need to amplify the voices of such women who have a closer relationship with the environment, to protect from further degradation and nurture said environment back to a healthy state. Similarly, when one looks at individual levels of greenhouse gas emissions, income becomes a determining factor for one's lifestyle and therefore, their individual emissions. It is in such contexts that intersectionality becomes paramount.

Ynestra King, a key advocate for Ecofeminism, writes, "Ecofeminism is about connectedness and wholeness of theory and practice. It asserts the special strength and integrity of every living thing." In theory, Ecofeminism is an honourable concept, but it's evolution has been exclusionary and impractical, and has made it a movement for the privileged. To reincarnate Ecofeminism back to relevance, inclusion of marginalised communities in the discourse is essential, along with making the debate intersectional; each individual reacts to climate change depending on their gender, race, or class and their positions in context-specific power structures based on social categorisations.

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