“Ecofeminism” (or environmental feminism) might seem like a new-fangled term thrown around by millennials, but this socio-political theory, which connects both environmental and gender issues to the structure of patriarchy, has actually been around since the 1970s as an offshoot of the environmental activism of that period.
The term was first used by French feminist and activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her 1974 book Le Féminisme ou la Mort, in which she relates the oppression of “subordinate groups” (such as women and people of colour) to the oppression of nature by man. In the environmental activism of the the 70s, of which ecofeminism was a product, a number of female environmental activists noticed that a large part of the participants in these environmental movements were women. This led to one of the initial prevailing theories that the split between nature and society could be healed only by women’s “nurturing spirit”, and that feminism and environmentalism are linked due to certain “feminine” values present in nature – such as reciprocity, co-operation, and nurturing.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Around the world, environmental conditions impact the lives of women and men in different ways as a result of existing inequalities. Gender roles often create differences in the ways men and women act in relation to the environment, and in the ways men and women are enabled or prevented from acting as agents of environmental change”. Ecofeminism widely accepts a similar view as the basis for its theories.
Stripped down to its very basics, ecofeminism is a philosophical and political theory that links both environmental degradation and gender inequalities as a result of oppression (by man over woman, and capitalism over the planet), putting a gendered lens on the environment and how humans interact with it.
It also prioritises having a more empathetic and personal relationship to the environment, as a response to the rise of “green capitalism” in the form of environmentally-ethical consumerism. Ecofeminist theories pertaining to this claim that people respond better to and have a need to take care of something when they have a more emotional connection to it than a scientific one.
There are two largely simplistic schisms within ecofeminism:
- Radical ecofeminism – This strand of ecofeminism maintains that the planet and women are both exploited and used by men in the same uncaring manner. Social relations are formed in the same way one’s relation to the environment is formed. In patriarchal societies, men worked the fields and thus controlled the amount of food that could be extracted from the earth. Along with this, men also had control over how many resources women could have access to. Thus, the link between ecology and women is degradation.
- Cultural ecofeminism – The other strand of ecofeminism considers the fact that ecological problems affect women disproportionately than it does men. Cultural ecofeminists assert that women are more connected to nature via biological phenomena such as menstruation and pregnancy, as well as activities like gathering (eg: water gatherers are usually women). This link between women and the environment is more empowering than the one advocated by radical ecofeminism. According to those who subscribe to this school of ecofeminist theory, this means that women are better placed at tackling environmental issues – as JR Thorpe, author of “What Exactly Is Ecofeminism?” on Bustle says, “women in their capacity as natural resource managers might have unique perspectives on how to help stop environmental damage, but if their voices are silenced, they can’t help”.
Ecofeminism is thus based around dismantling the system to prioritise the environment and bring about structural equality, more so than, say, liberal feminism – it is a lot more inclusive of and connected with grassroots small scale movements, and tends to be incredibly intersectional.
However, this also shows us ecofeminism’s key problem today – why haven’t you heard of it? Its very small scale and radical nature, which allows it to be effective within communities, hinders it from being visible on the global feminist platform, where radical ideas are rarely accepted into the mainstream. While many feminists might also care for the environment, the connection between the environment and gender is rarely recognised explicitly.
At this point, one might well ask – in what way is ecofeminism relevant today? How does it help us gain a better understanding of the ecological and socio-political inequalities we are faced with in 2018?
Environmental feminism faded in the 1980s and 90s; however, it has seen a resurgence today with the inception of the new wave of feminism in the 21st century. It offers a new point of view of looking at increasingly important issues of environment and climate change, and a common framework to understand the interrelation of ecological issues and gender inequality as being mutually responsible for the other.
At its core, ecofeminism recognises that environmental problems are inherently intersectional. The impacts of climate change are felt unequally all over the world and among different communities, often exacerbating existing inequalities. For example, especially in developing countries, women lack the same financial and social agency as men, and hence are unable to relocate when affected by factors such as natural disasters and climate change. On the other hand, in developed countries, menstrual products are often low on priority lists during natural disasters and Hurricane Katrina serves as a perfect example of this.
Ecofeminism manages to unite two pressing problems of today – gender inequalities and climate change – under a common framework to solve them. In fact, many of you might already be ecofeminists if you have a joint concern for the wellbeing of the environment and gender equality and if not, ecofeminism may help you expand your feminist concerns.
Sources:Ava Mohsenin, “The Essential Interconnectedness of Ecofeminism”, The Huffington PostJR Thorpe, “What Exactly is Ecofeminism?”, Bustle“Feminist Environmental Philosophy”, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
By Rutvi Zamre and Rhea Kamath
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.
Rhea Kamath is a geography student who is still trying to convince people that she doesn’t know why it is cold outside.