By Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán
Ecofeminism is a critical theory, a philosophy and an interpretation of the world that seeks to transform it. It brings together two emerging currents of political theory and practice into one approach that aims to explain and transform the current system of domination and violence by focussing on the critique of patriarchy and the overexploitation of nature and their impacts on society, bodies and nature, all as part of the same phenomenon.
In relation to alternatives to the system, ecofeminism’s enormous value lies in the fact that it is a precursor of a dialogue between the proposals coming from the different social struggles and political theory of the past century. It allows for the interaction between two currents of thought and activism that have conceived an alternative society by questioning the main economic and cultural pillars of oppression and the crisis of the modern world: human domination of nature and the violent domination of women by patriarchy.
Ecofeminism also develops a proposal for social change that promotes comprehensive social changes based on the recognition of interdependencies between human beings and between humans and nature. It sees humans as interdependent and eco-dependent beings that all need care and attention to survive. What is more, we are all beings that need quality care to live “a life worth living”, just as nature needs us to take care of it and respect its limits and vital cycles (Herrero 2013, Eisler 2014). The change proposed by ecofeminism basically involves highlighting the material bases of care and sustainability of life and denouncing the anchors of the capitalist system of domination. These anchors are: invisibility, devaluation, disregard, exploitation, plundering and the appropriation of wisdom, knowledge, work and all activities – the majority of which are carried out by women – without which human survival and the production and reproduction of culture and society would be impossible (Shiva 1995, Herrero 2013).
Ecofeminism proposes a critical analysis of the capitalist economy and patriarchy and the singular way of thinking that organises the world into pairs of opposites and assigns them hierarchical values, such as “man-nature”, “good-bad”, “rational-savage.” This was developed by the patriarchal West as an ideological and philosophical complement to the power and domination over nature and is at the service of capitalism. This dichotomous and reductionist way of thinking extends to other dimensions of life and culture and to value systems: the good and the bad; culture and nature; science and traditional knowledge; man and woman; men’s work and women’s work.
“These dyads are associated to one another in what Celia Amorós calls ‘overlaps’: One particularly transcendent overlap is the one formed by the pairs ‘culture-nature’ and ‘masculine-feminine’. Understanding culture as freeing oneself from nature ideologically justifies its domination and exploitation. Belief in the primacy of the masculine (associated to reason, independence or the mind) legitimises the domination of the physical world by men and reducing women to the body, the unstable world of emotions and nature” (Herrero and Pascual, 2010).
In spite of their differences, the different currents of ecofeminism agree on the basic idea that the oppression of women – and of men – and the overexploitation of nature are part of the same phenomenon. They denounce a cultural and symbolic order – patriarchy – and an economic order – capitalism – which render invisible, devalue, violate and appropriate the work of caring for human life by overexploiting bodies and women who, due to the sexual division of labour socially imposed by patriarchy, are the majority of care providers. Patriarchy and capitalism also overexploit nature, pushing it to the brink of collapse, even though it constitutes the fundamental basis for the well-being and sustainability of life on the planet.
Ecofeminism is both a theoretical and political proposal and a social movement. This is why we can rightly speak of “ecofeminisms” – that is, of a diversity of movements, positions and currents that come together in dialogue, practices and debate.
This is also why ecofeminism is constantly evolving. It is fuelled by dynamic and forward-looking movements that are prefiguring a political proposal for social change based on the struggles, experiences and theoretical contributions of feminist, social and women movements, activists, and scholars and philosophers from different currents: essentialist, spiritual, constructivist, ecofeminisms from the Global North, ecofeminisms from the Global South… Women and men activists from various currents and social movements have adhered to ecofeminism, as they see in it an alternative path for the transformation of society.
Some background information
The ecologist movement emerged in the 20th century in response to the impact of industrial society on the planet. An important part of ecologist thought and work on the limits of the planet has been done by women since the 1950s and 1960s. Prior to this, women were the first to protest against the destruction of the balance of life, the impacts of the industrial era, nuclear energy and the violence of war.
One of the most important references of the ecologist movement was US biologist and oceanographer Rachel Carson. She denounced the use of pesticides by soldiers in World War II, as it led to the expansion of its use in agriculture and the contamination of ecosystems and the health of humans and other species. Her work played a key role in giving origin to ecological thought. Her book Silent Spring (1958-1964) constitutes one of the most visionary contributions to the critique of the notion of progress and agribusiness, as it contains the first elements of an ecologist philosophy that is critical of the relations of domination of nature:
“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself” (Carson, 1962).
As for the Meadows Report on The Limits to Growth, which was prepared for the Club of Rome and contributed to the Earth Summit and arguments on the economy, ecology and development, substantial contributions were made by another woman scientist and journalist, Donella Meadows. Donella directed the production of this report, along with other scientists, which addresses the unsustainability of development by questioning the principle of unlimited economic growth. It had a major impact on ecologist and anti-systemic narratives, which has lasted even until today. This report presented an in-depth analysis on the consumption of resources, economic distribution, demographic growth and pollution and estimates for the new century. It is considered a notable attempt to steer humanity towards a different path to industrialism. While many activists quote Einstein to say the same thing, Donella Meadows was truly a precursor of complex thought and the questioning of traditional and reductionist systems of scientific thought:
“…If we want to bring about the thoroughgoing restructuring of systems that we know is necessary to solve the world’s gravest problems – poverty, pollution and war – the first step is thinking differently” (Meadows, 1991).
With regards to the other school of thought in ecofeminism, feminism emerged as one of the most important social rebellions of the last century. It was initiated by the Suffragist movement and with the reflections of women thinkers who analysed the social processes of the Russian revolution and the German and European political processes. The thought of Simone de Beauvoir would later contribute substantially to its development. De Beauvoir revived feminism from the suffragist era with her work in the area of philosophy and her critique of patriarchy, namely the social construction of gender and the naturalisation of the traditional roles of women:
“One is not born a women, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” (Beauvoir, 1949).
Alicia Puleo analyses the elements in de Beauvoir’s works that contribute to the reflection on the relation woman-nature, which are few, as her works concentrate more on the “construction” of the female being. Even so, her reflections on nature incorporate substantive elements for the evolution of feminist thought and proposals:
“Man seeks in woman the Other as Nature and as his peer. But we know what ambivalent feelings Nature inspires in man. He exploits it, but it crushes him. He is born of it and dies in it… Both ally and enemy, it appears as the dark chaos from which life springs forth, as life itself, and as the beyond it reaches for… woman sums up Nature as Mother, Wife and Idea…. Since the coming of the patriarchate, Life has worn in his eyes a double aspect: it is consciousness, will, transcendence, it is the spirit; and it is matter, passivity, immanence, it is the flesh” […] Man’s case is radically different. He does not provide for the group in the way worker bees do, by a simple vital process, but rather by acts that transcend his animal condition… Through such actions he tests his own power; he posits ends and projects paths to them: he realizes himself as existent…” (Beauvoir, quoted in Puleo, 2009).
But it was French feminist activist and de Beauvoir’s contemporary Françoise d’Eaubonne who was the first to address the relation between ecology and feminism, to coin the term in 1974 in her book Feminism or Death and to lead a movement in that decade. She proposed the term “ecology-feminism” as a response to the fact that humanity was facing the dilemma between “feminism or death” due to the devastation of natural goods. She argued that only feminism was capable of defending life on the planet against the phenomenon of unsustainable growth and defends women’s control over their own bodies to ensure sustainability, control population growth and rebel against the dictates of patriarchy.
“…if masculine society continues, tomorrow, humanity will no longer exist (…) Until now, feminist struggles have been limited to demonstrating the harm done to over half of humanity. The time has come to demonstrate that with feminism, it is humankind that will change (…) By liberating women, feminism liberates all of humanity. It is what is closest to universalism. It is at the basis of the most immediate values of life and that is why the feminist struggle and the ecologist struggle coincide” (d’Eaubonne, 1974).
She also affirmed that “The capitalist system is the engine that gives patriarchy devastating power” and that “socialism is not free from it”.
Her reflections were motivated by the destruction of the planet and the totally unsustainable system of domination that has its origins in patriarchy and in the organisation of social relations that subjugate nature, women and the feminine. She argued that “women and nature must unite” and inserted the issue of how to address the relation between nature and women without reproducing the naturalisation of gender identities into the feminist debate. She was one of the first to speak of the expropriation of women’s time and power to decide over their own bodies in relation to procreation.
Even though they were contemporaries, d’Eaubonne disagreed with Simone de Beauvoir who argued that women should be considered culture, and not nature. Françoise d’Eaubonne defended women’s closeness to nature and sought to valorise their practices by considering them as being vital and of universal value to humanity. She defended this position as part of her criticisms of modernity, which exploits nature and women by subjugating them to the imperatives of reproduction and growth. She proposed the creation of a global pacifist movement in favour of birth control in order to increase women’s ability to make decisions about their own body and life itself.
In the late 20th century, many thinkers contributed to the development of the basic ideas of the first wave of ecofeminism, which questioned the hierarchies established by Western patriarchal thought: culture-nature, mind-body and man-woman, among others. They did so by redefining the value of the terms of the dichotomy that until then had been treated as second-rate – woman and nature – and by confronting militarism, war, nuclear energy and environmental degradation, which, according to them, are manifestations of a sexist culture that had devalued nature.
Critical of masculinity, this line of ecofeminism developed the first generation of ecologist systemic critiques and inspired thousands of women and similar movements, especially in North America.
Essentialism and constructivism
According to Yayo Herrero (Ecologistas en Acción, Spain), the evolution of ecofeminism over time gave rise to two major tendencies. First, there is essentialist ecofeminism, which associates being a woman to nature and thus concludes that the defence of nature is inherent to women’s gender identity. She takes as an example the feminism of Petra Kelly who argues that women have the innate capacity to challenge the system thanks to their capacity to give birth. Secondly, there is constructivist ecofeminism, which insists that the close relation between “women and nature is sustained by a social construct that involves the assignment of roles that give origin to the sexual division of labour and the distribution of power and property in patriarchal societies” (Herrero, 2013). This is what awakens the ecofeminist consciousness in women.
She proposes that throughout ecofeminism’s evolution, one can identify:
essentialist ecofeminisms that criticise the subordination of women and nature and propose defending being a woman as an alternative to save the planet;
ecofeminisms from the South that criticise patriarchy and “maldevelopment” and consider women bearers of respect for life;
constructivist ecofeminisms that see women’s relation with nature as part of a social construct linked to the sexual division of labour that sustains capitalist patriarchal societies.
What is certain is that the different approaches and distinct views contribute to ecofeminisms’ development as they mutually enrich one another and all contribute to the construction of a diverse and constantly evolving current of thought and political action. All lines of ecofeminist thought share a systemic vision of the interdependent relation between humans and with nature.
Although the profound reflections mentioned above are from one of the earliest versions of ecofeminism that we can call “essentialist,” they served as the basis that enabled women students and thinkers from the 1970s and 1980s to advance the theory on the construction of patriarchy and its relation with nature and analyse in more depth how the feminine is treated as second-rate. This is the case of anthropologist Sherry Ortner who affirms that the feminine collective has been treated as second-rate for carrying out tasks such as childrearing and cooking meals, functions that had been given little value for a long time: nature (Ortner quoted by Puleo, 2009). There is also the work of Riane Eisler, Austrian-American thinker who, in 1987, through her analysis of anthropology and history, described how patriarchy tore women’s power away from them and culturally established an epistemological double standard so that women and nature would be valued less and considered inferior in a hierarchical and predatory society (Eisler, 1989).
Ecofeminism from the South
and the critique of “maldevelopment”
Ecofeminism is also said to be a very ancient practice that is revived and rebuilt through social struggles and the defence of nature. In the 1970s, other ecofeminist movements in the South emerged, with different characteristics, which took up women’s ancestral struggle for the defence of life once again. The Chipko movement from the Himalayas is one of the most emblematic cases. It emerged in India in the 1970s in response to forestry policies that would have resulted in thousands of trees being cut down. Using a tradition from their own history, women from the hills of the Himalayas resisted these policies by hugging trees, just as their ancestors had centuries earlier.
The Chipko movement represents the resurgence of a resistance struggle from over 300 years earlier. In 1730, Amrita Devi, a woman from a Bishnoi community, which is a religion that prohibits hunting animals and cutting down trees, lost her life while resisting tree cutting with her daughters and over 350 villagers who did the same to stop the trees from being killed. They continued to resist until they succeeded in having logging banned in that region.
This ancient resistance tactic reappeared in 1974 when another Hindu woman, Gaura Devi, organised the women in her village to protect 2.500 trees along the Alaknanda River that authorities wanted to cut down. This action stopped the tree-cutting and forced the government of Uttar Pradesh to prohibit similar acts in the region by imposing a ten-year moratorium. This way of taking care of the forests of the Himalayas – tree-hugging – became a peaceful form of resistance to deforestation and a symbol that won international recognition. This movement received the alternative Nobel prize (the Right Livelihood Award) and its message of care, traditional knowledge and non-violence spread around the world. It inspired one of the most well-known ecofeminists from the South, Vandana Shiva:
“The violence against nature, which seems intrinsic to the dominant development model, is also associated with violence against women who depend on nature for drawing sustenance for themselves, their families and their societies” (Shiva, 1995).
Born from the experiences of anti-systemic resistance in the Global South, this line of ecofeminist thought highlights the connection between women and nature. It also criticises the dichotomous and androcentric logic of development and science, and defends women’s involvement in the struggle for respect for life. It incorporates an analysis of colonialism as a fundamental element for comprehending the destruction of natural goods and the development of capitalism. This feminism calls the Western economic model imposed in Third World countries “maldevelopment” – a model that intensifies the pillaging and destruction of nature for the benefit of a minority of elite in the Global North.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Vandana Shiva (India) and Maria Mies (Germany) developed ecofeminism’s most elaborate theories and postulates by furthering the understanding of how the dichotomous logic of the dominant capitalist system is based on a patriarchal vision:
“…The rise of a patriarchal science of nature took place in Europe during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries as the scientific revolution”, Shiva affirms. “The scientific revolution in Europe transformed nature from terra mater into a machine and a source of raw material; with this transformation it removed all ethical and cognitive constraints against its violation and exploitation. The industrial revolution converted economics…into a process of commodity production for profit maximisation” (Mies & Shiva, 1993).
They see women as bearers of respect for life and accuse Western “maldevelopment” of being the main cause of the grabbing of knowledge, nature and wealth of women and indigenous peoples.
“Maldevelopment is maldevelopment in thought and action. In practice, this fragmented, reductionist, dualist perspective violates the integrity and harmony of man in nature, and the harmony between men and women. It ruptures the co-operative unity of masculine and feminine, and places man, shorn of the feminine principle, above nature and women, and separated from both. The violence to nature as symptomatised by the ecological crisis, and the violence to women, as symptomatised by their subjugation and exploitation arise from this subjugation of the feminine principle” (Shiva, 1995).
Furthermore, they are very critical of the reductionist dichotomy in industrial society that produces a violent and exclusionary way of knowing and thinking according to which nature is categorised as productive or non-productive and, therefore, one can intervene in it. It even conceives the possibility of transforming and making nature “grow”. They centre their analysis on how modern science – that of “maldevelopment” – was born to control nature, convert it into an object in which one can interfere and dominate. As a result, modern science, which emerged with Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century who “promised to create ‘a blessed race of heroes and supermen’ who would dominate both nature and society”, is said to be a “patriarchal project” in which “there was a dichotomising between male and female, mind and matter, objective and subjective, rational and emotional… testing of hypotheses through controlled manipulations of nature (predominated)…formulated in clearly sexist metaphors…” (Shiva, 1995).
Shiva and Mies argue that patriarchal reductionism is violent:
against women: women, tribals and peasants due to the expert/non-expert divide that pillages their knowledge.
against nature: when modern science destroys its integrity in the process of both perception and manipulation.
against the beneficiaries of knowledge: as violence against nature affects the people the most.
against knowledge: as reductionist science suppresses and falsifies facts and declares traditional knowledge to be irrational (Shiva, 1995).
They also question the traditional indicators of growth that govern modern society. In practice – using the analysis of the anti-globalisation movement – these indicators measure destruction rather than growth (Shiva, 2004). This is one idea that links ecofeminism to the different groups of activists, academics and social mobilisations that contested the globalisation of capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s.
This so-called “essentialist” feminism concludes that sustainability and care for life are guaranteed by women’s qualities and their relation with nature, as women produce life. According to Maria Mies, women “make things grow”:
“a) Their interaction with nature, with their own nature as well as the external environment, was a reciprocal process. They conceived of their own bodies as being productive in the same way as they conceived of external nature being so.
- b) Although they appropriate nature, their appropriation does not constitute a relationship of dominance or a property relation. Women are not owners of their own bodies or of the earth, but they co-operate with their bodies and with the earth in order ‘to let grow and to make grow’.
- c) As producers of new life they also became the first subsistence producers and the inventors of the first productive economy, implying from the beginning social production and the creation of social relations, i.e. of society and history” (Shiva, 1995).
Ecumenical ecofeminism and spirituality
Another important current of thought is Latin American ecofeminism. Part of this current’s origins lies in the reflections of progressive women of religion who work with indigenous communities and poor communities in marginalised neighbourhoods in situations of territorial dispossession engaged in resistance struggles to defend their territories, rivers, forests or to fight against poverty and marginalisation. It is in context of these spaces – where women confront violence and poverty in concrete terms – that this line of ecofeminism emerged.
Ivone Gebara (Brazil) is one of its most well-known representatives. Theologian linked to the liberation theology, Gebara began to question this approach due to its lack of sensitivity to issues related to the body, sexuality, abortion and domestic work, among others, including the analysis of the use of guilt as a mechanism to dominate women to keep them in submission and poverty. Thus, a proposal was developed that looked at all of the tremendous injustices done to women and their bodies, which were the object of “forgiveness” for the Church hierarchy, but not really contemplated by liberation theology.
“…for me, feminism has been an encounter, a consciousness, a meeting with women from popular classes, a malaise, a learning process…and suddenly, I began to speak and I don’t know how I became a feminist theologian. I can’t say it was one specific woman who made me change, but rather a movement, an awareness created by newspapers, books, articles and daily life in a neighbourhood, seeing how people live” (Gebara, 2000).
This line of ecofeminism maintains the feminine principle for care and the reproduction of life, and questions how the dominant ideology and the traditional theological scheme, in particular, reinforce the oppression and the androcentric vision of spirituality based on “the structure of God, the creator, his only Son who suffered for us.” This scheme forces women to adopt the idea that sacrifice is valid because it can be justified as a way to contribute to society based on guilt.
Feminist icons of the Latin American social struggle such as Domitila Chungara, the land and housing movements and the Marian movements all share this vision that defends the engagement of women in the struggle for social change. They question the bases of oppression of religions and large land ownership, which naturalise the roles of women and poverty.
“There is a notion of nature that has to be changed. It is not women’s priesthood that is essential, but rather their right to think, act, be leaders, say things that are different from what men say and to be recognised for this. New relations must be created in society. This means that we must also rethink theological works because there are things that can no longer be upheld – things that were validated in a theocentric, medieval world, where everything was organised based on an image of God as “the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” (Gebara, 2000).
The current of ecofeminism linked to spirituality and theology generated much debate in the Church and provoked a reaction from the ecclesiastic hierarchy dedicated to criticising the rebellion of women theologians and nuns committed to feminism by evoking the most conservative elements of Catholic doctrine.
Ecofeminism and extractivism:
My body, my territory
A broader current is being forged in Latin America and other parts of the world in contexts marked by environmental conflicts in regions whose natural resources are being overexploited by mining, oil and forestry operations. Women participating in this current are fundamentally reacting to defend their territory and denounce the environmental violence of its impacts on their lives as women.
“…in the context of the current struggles against extractivism, the language that gives greater value to women in the framework of the care culture tends to express a potentially radical pro-commons ethos that conceives social relations according to a different logic and rationale and questions capitalism by recognising ecodependency and giving greater value to the work of social reproduction” (Svampa, 2015).
Representatives of this current include Berta Cáceres, Honduran leader and winner of the Goldman Prize assassinated by hired gunmen defending the interests of the transnational corporation behind megadam projects, and Máxima Acuña, a leader of the fight to defend the lakes in the Andean region in Peru from mining projects who also receives threats for her activism. These women embody the broad struggle of the communities, which has influenced Latin American feminist thought.
This current of ecofeminism proposes paths that bring the division between essentialism and constructivism into question. They explain that environmental devastation and extractivism affect women in their daily lives and exacerbate their vulnerability not only by increasing their work burden and intensifying their exploitation in domestic chores, such as collecting water, feeding their family and taking care of their own health and that of their loved ones. They do so also by forcing them to move to places where they are more vulnerable to sexist violence, trafficking, prostitution and feminicide.
Though it is essentialist, this current of thought goes beyond essentialism and challenges the system on the economic and political level by seeking to build a different relation to nature:
“In light of the ethical-political imperative to make this transition from the rentier and extractivist model towards the “Buen Vivir” and the defence of the rights of the Earth, we, organised groups of women, ecofeminists resisting and struggling against the oppressive world system of predatory capitalism, analyse and put forth here our strongest arguments to warn about the consequences that the development of the Mining Engine and large-scale extractivist mining projects the Venezuelan government is proposing as part of the so-called “Mining Arch of Orinoco” will bring. (…)indigenous and mestiza women have not been mere victims. As a result of their own experience, women possess a greater awareness and the vision that the destruction of nature and its resources will lead to the destruction of life. Many have bravely overcome the constant sexist coercion and have become the protagonists of the struggle to build a different type of social connection and another model for relating to nature and living beings, at the risk of their own lives, as demonstrated by the figures of Berta Cáceres and Máxima Acuña” (Comunicado Ecofeminista contra el extractivismo minero de la Orinoquía, Peru, 2014).
The number of women’s networks and collectives that reflect on and propose radical activism for the defence of their territories have multiplied in various parts of the world. They coordinate their actions and connect with one another. They engage in mutual solidarity and take action in a complex scenario that links them to political processes and involves facing repression and even death. This is particularly true in Latin America where the feminist premise “my body, my territory” originated. This premise is political in nature and challenges violent sexist power and the dynamics of pillaging established in recent decades in the region through the development of predatory capitalism with the complicity of several governments, even the so-called “progressive” ones.
Intersectionality, the importance of
social class and ethnicity
Other approaches have sought to go beyond essentialism. Thinkers and writers such as Bina Agarwal from India or Val Plumwood from Australia believe that it is key for ecofeminist analysis to consider the construction of social relations and interaction with nature as the origin of the special ecological awareness that women have. Agarwal does not share the essentialist position of Vandana Shiva and other representatives who put the emphasis on an essentialist identity basis for ecofeminism. On the contrary, she argues that ecofeminism is built from the concrete experience of women in their relation to work, territory and production.
Other feminists, thinkers and activists with a long history in social struggles, such as Angela Davis, insist that the identities and potential for emancipation cannot be generalised or conceived on the basis of an essentialist conception of the feminine nature. Instead, it is necessary to cross this analysis with the categories of social class, gender and ethnicity, as well as territorialities and specific age groups. The constructivist approach to which Yayo Herrero refers argues that the sexual division of labour and distribution of power and property is what has subjugated women. Proponents of this approach agree with all ecofeminists that this is one component of the predatory domination of nature governing the world today.
Marta Pascual says:
“It is not a matter of exalting what has been interiorised as feminine or confining women once again to a reproductive space by denying them access to culture; nor is about holding them responsible for the enormous task of fighting against capital and rescuing life on the planet, as if they had nothing else to do. It is about making their subjugation visible, denouncing the immoral logic of the system, identifying responsibilities, reversing the order of priorities of our economic system and making men and women share the responsibility for all work necessary for survival” (Pascual, 2010).
Australian philosopher Val Plumwood insists that ecofeminism is a philosophical, theoretical and practical construct. She criticises androcentric rationality and proposes a dualist interpretation of reality and social relations. Like other ecofeminists who opt for a constructivist vision, she proposes that we must overcome the hierarchical dualisms to which we referred in the first section of this chapter by deconstructing the patriarchal logic and, while rooted in rationality and ethics, by reclaiming affection, bodies, interdependency and our relation with the planet as a proposal for the evolution of civilisation.
The contributions of feminist economics
to the sustainability of life
In recent decades, ecofeminism has interacted with feminist economics to incorporate reflections and elements based on the analysis of work and the sustainability of life.
Since the end of the 20th century, and especially on the basis of the analysis of domestic work and the issue of domestic workers and their relation to the economy, feminist economics has developed a variety of inputs and analyses that have contributed enormously to advances in ecofeminism in the new century.
The analyses of unpaid domestic work and paid domestic work in stratified societies draw attention to the invisibility of this sphere of work, which is so vital to the economy and life in societies. The category of work and value were incorporated into ecofeminist thought as a point of departure for understanding the profound lack of sustainability of the current system, which gives no value to and disrespects the work needed to ensure the reproduction of life and society, despite the fact that it is absolutely fundamental to human survival.
Silvia Federici, Riane Eisler, Lourdes Benería, Elsa Chaney and Cristina Carrasco, among others, are renowned representatives of these contributions. They take up women’s struggle for the right to work on equal terms – a demand of first-wave feminism that defended the inclusion of women in the workforce and public space. This inclusion has not necessarily brought improvements to women’s status in society. In the majority of cases, it has turned domestic work into an additional and invisible burden in relation to the use of their time and energy.
Cristina Carrasco says that this is, in fact, the result of a conflict between two contradictory objectives: “on one hand, to make profit and, on the other, to care for life.” She also affirms that “this tension grows due to the dependency of the capitalist system on the processes of reproduction and sustainability of human life that take place beyond its sphere of relations and its direct control” (Carrasco, 1999).
This approach questions how the androcentric economy and capitalist system have no concern for the reproduction of life and have concentrated instead on giving visibility only to those spheres that have an exchange value.
“By focusing explicitly on how each society resolves the problem of the sustainability of human life undoubtedly offers a new approach to social organisation and allows us to give visibility to everything that tends to be implicit and is normally not mentioned” (Carrasco, 1999).
Riane Eisler, for her part, develops a proposal for changing gender relations, elaborates gender indicators and proposes a care economy based on the collaboration of both genders working together in solidarity and in a complementary way.
The main contribution of these reflections and feminist economic theory is the questioning of society’s unsustainability due to the failure to recognise or give visibility to reproduction work. There are, however, nuances and differences among authors on how to approach the construction of a system of care. Such nuances and differences focus on society’s restorative and transitional processes while considering degrowth as a means to stop the crisis of the limits of nature generated by capitalist civilisation. Other approaches are more concentrated on developing public policies and a system of indicators that give visibility to care work and the use of time.
Cristina Carrasco affirms that the care crisis goes beyond gender equality and leads to the questioning of the system and neoclassical economics.
The key contribution of the analysis of feminist economic theory is the questioning of the unsustainability of society due to its failure to recognise reproduction work and the importance of organising care in society. This questioning seeks to dismantle the power of financial capital that only values human activities linked to money and the pillaging of nature. Some initiatives, such as the one led by Yayo Herrero in Spain, are focused on restorative and transitional processes in society and reflecting on energy and social transitions towards degrowth to confront the crisis of the limits of nature generated by capitalist civilisation. Other currents of the feminist economics of care are more concentrated on developing public policies and a system of indicators that give visibility to care work and the use of time.
Cristina Carrasco notes that the elaboration of indicators, which are based on surveys of women on the use of their time, has not made progress in relation to men’s use of their time and their involvement in providing care. For her, resolving the care crisis requires going beyond gender equity and leads to the questioning of the system and neoclassical economics to open paths to dismantle the essence of the capitalist system.
Some pending challenges for ecofeminism
Through its development, ecofeminism raises some important debates and reflections that are still to be addressed, as it is both a kind of activism for social change and a current of thought that puts forth alternative, dynamic and constantly evolving proposals.
One of them is the one that emerges at the nexus between equality feminism and difference feminism and their convergence with ecofeminism. This raises questions on what alliances or linkages ecofeminism can develop with these other currents of feminism.
The social change on ecofeminism’s horizon is systemic. It is not only focused on achieving gender equity or getting certain public policies passed, but rather taking the contradiction to the limit by addressing the structural economic and philosophical bases that underlie human relations of gender oppression. Ecofeminism can contribute to these other currents of feminism by taking the analysis on the relation between gender equity processes, the exercise of rights and the fight against violence further, towards the debate on systemic change, structural change and changes in civilisation. This could allow the issues of discrimination, inequality and violence that women experience to be connected to political proposals with a greater scope for change.
Another pending dialogue is the one between essentialist ecofeminism and constructivist ecofeminism. In theory, they are actually two opposing trends or different stages of one single process. Constructivist ecofeminism insists that the relation “women-nature is sustained by a social construct that involves the assignment of roles that give origin to the sexual division of labour and the distribution of power and property in patriarchal societies”. This is a historical construct linked to the development of the sexual division of labour and the power relations incorporated into the economic and productive systems of society.
The essentialist current, however, proposes an interpretation linked to being female, maternity and the paragon who has the innate ability to take care of nature. This feminism is based on the idea, which is essentially naturalist, that women have the quality of being the “keepers” of the relation between humanity and nature.
What is clear is all currents of ecofeminisms are reflecting, evolving and building theory, philosophy, vision and proposals for change based on their own practices and contexts, which all point in the same direction: the one to destroy patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism.
In fact, the ecofeminism of Vandana Shiva, considered essentialist, is one of the currents that has contributed the most to the comprehension of the systemic coordination between the financial system, the pillaging of nature and patriarchy. Ecofeminisms from the South and Latin America, for their part, are also contributing to this with the concept “body-territory,” which is based on the fight against extractivism and the gender violence shaking the region; these are symptoms of the dystopia capitalism is generating in its alliance with patriarchy and colonialism. These lines of ecofeminism are questioning the system deeply and dismantling its structural bases. As for constructivist ecofeminisms, they contribute enormously with theories and concrete experiences in the organisation of care, proposals for transitions and energy democracy – experiences that must come together and converge with the resistance struggles underway in various contexts.
Even though some currents may strengthen an essentialist vision and avoid, in a way, entering into the systematic deconstruction of patriarchy and capitalism, they do point towards a systemic reflection. As Svampa states, “ecofeminism provides a view on social needs – not based on scarcity or a focus on misery – but rather based on reviving the culture of care as the main inspiration for conceiving an ecologically and socially sustainable society founded on values such as reciprocity, cooperation and complementarity” (Svampa, 2015). This systemic reflection must include an analysis of the processes of the left and of socialism of the 21st century, which provide numerous elements for taking the leap from essentialism to a critical and profound ecofeminism.
Another area of debate, reflection and dialogue is the relation of ecofeminism to the eco-social transitions, el Buen Vivir, the movements of the commons and degrowth. Degrowth proposals have been around for years. They originated in the questioning of capitalist industrialism and “socialism that really exists” – that is, socialist and unsustainable industrialism, which accelerated after World War II. They began to be developed further in the 1960s and 1970s. Among their precursors, one finds not only the critiques of development of the Club of Rome, but also those coming from the ranks of socialism and communism. These currents of thought criticised the direction that the political and economic processes in the socialist countries were taking – towards an arid and arbitrary type of industrialism – as they returned to unbridled capitalism with predatory relations towards nature and human beings. These pioneering critiques were masterfully elaborated by Ivan Illich, André Gorz, Cornelius Castoriadis, among other, and taken up again by Serge Latouche at the end of the last century.
Based on constructivist questioning and the critiques of political ecology and feminist economics, we, ecofeminists, argue that degrowth is unavoidable in the future of humanity. Yayo Herrero insists that if we do not organise societies to adapt gradually – to make the energy transition and to a rational and sustainable use of resources – this will be imposed eventually, but in an authoritarian and even fascist way. She is not wrong: society is currently on the path to collective suicide, as it fails to coherently address the climate crisis produced basically by societies addicted to overconsumption, fossil fuels and the pillaging of the environment.
The concrete experiences of ecofeminists are contributing enormously to the building of alternative currents for a new civilization. Based on feminist economics and the transitions approach, they require an entirely different view on social organisation: one that points out the unsustainability of current society; and one that does not accept neoliberal dogma, but rather recognises care work in harmony with nature and solidarity. In other words, they strive to build societies that care for life and a life that “is worth living.”
On the other hand, the establishment of a relation between the movement of the commons – that is, of solidarity-based collective management of natural or symbolic goods or knowledge, which has been catapulted by the valuable theories of Elinor Ostrom and the Common Strategic Group (Silke Heilfrich, David Bollier and Michael Bauwens) – and ecofeminist debates and movements represents an important challenge. It raises questions on how to incorporate the reflections on care and solidarity as fundamental components of the management of the common goods. These cannot continue to be dealt with as if they were “resources” back in medieval times or only by trying to resolve the tensions between the State and the private. They are only viable and vital if we transcend the notion of “property” and “resources,” incorporate – as many are already doing – the reflection on the ecologic crisis of anthropogenic origin and the crisis of humanity caused by capitalism and patriarchy, and propose systemic change.
For ecofeminism, it is a major challenge to propose paths based on these experiences, which until now are isolated and small in scale, that contribute to processes of social, energetic, economic and cultural transition towards the dismantlement of the capitalist State that restricts society’s capacity to reproduce life.
It will also be a challenge to find strategies that apply to different political and economic contexts. It is one thing to apply ecofeminism in a welfare society where public goods have been dismantled to a lesser extent, but quite another in poor societies strongly marked by the scars of colonialism or “developing countries,” where social anomy, lack of services, poverty, unbridled extractivism and authoritarian regimes can affect the implementation of these approaches. It will be a major challenge to build proposals in different social contexts and propose ecofeminism, buen vivir and degrowth so as to address the crisis of the limits of nature and its impacts, which are already being felt in the majority of the regions of the world. This requires going beyond merely influencing public policies to propose, instead, systems and paths that restore nature and strengthen social ties rooted in solidarity.
By way of an epilogue: embracing life
The dialogue between feminism and ecology is producing a new synergy that is intended to act on the harsh reality of capitalism. Capitalism only strengthens and exacerbates very old systems of oppression: patriarchy, colonialism and the destruction of nature, which are entirely at its service. The violence and destruction of our times – the fruit of an economic system that is totally unscrupulous and vile towards nature and humanity – alert us to the danger of it leading to barbarism, which can be the fate of a civilisation trapped in unprecedented levels of pillaging.
When we look back at the first questions raised on the sustainability of infinite economic growth, we see that intuition on the unfeasibility of the myth of development that had subjugated humanity was right. However, the tricks of the imaginary of civilisational developmentalism, infinite accumulation, androcentrism expressed as blind faith in technology and the political power and money to resolve all problems worked well to culturally sustain the system’s renewal. “Sustainable development” ended up being the deceitful catch phrase that paved the way to: even more preying on territories, communities and ecosystems; continue subjugating women, their bodies and their time; subdue the peoples for one’s own benefit; and seize the richest corners of the planet and convert them into simple objects and commodities.
Part of the trick of the myth of “sustainable development” was that the formula never incorporated “us,” the interdependencies or the human ties to nature, nor did it worry about questioning the oppression of women as the structural basis of depredation. Therefore, nature and humans continued to remain separate, as if isolated from one another, and plundering was imposed as the dominant model. Change is only possible, then, if we include the body itself while creating a new epistemology and ethic of nature that allows us to regain a profound sense of belonging, empathy and the humanising sense of time that is required to create and recreate life, wealth, relations, humankind, knowledge and culture.
Restore and repair should be the new paradigm of human coexistence today, the new model of civilisation that puts degrowth on its horizon. We must end the myth of “sustainable development,” a path where memory and forgetfulness combine, in order to revive the feminine energy for healing, care and profound rebellion.
Thousands of women in the world are speaking out and taking the lead in pointing the way to this new path for the defence and care of life. Some of them have fallen along the way, attacked by capital’s violent henchmen, such as Berta Cáceres or the Mirabal sisters. Yet, their strength lives on and the ideal of nature being restored, protected from pillaging, capable of sheltering all human beings as equals and as loving and empathetic carers and healers of the planet is increasingly transcendent.
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