By Krishna Advani
Picture Credit: Google Images
Coined by the French feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974, ‘ecofeminism’ focuses on multiple relationships, such as the equality of two genders (which forms the basic tenets of feminism), the closer analysis of what constitutes nonlinear/non-patriarchal structures along with what comprises holistic and organic processes for the welfare of the environment. Largely, it lays emphasis on the relation between women and nature, drawing larger connections between the two for the benefit of the environment. However, the underlying correlation takes place due to the common ground they seemingly share based on their joint exploitation by men.
The claim staked by this theory is that the associating women and nature had led to the joint deterioration in respect and treatment of both. The premise was set to be that of the depiction of both as irrational, wild and chaotic and in general in need of control (presumed to be by the man). The characterization of men was said to be rational and thus capable of harnessing women and nature alike, in order to attain the ‘development’ of both. However, the contention posed by this is that due to the women and nature being put on the same level, it allows for not a difference, but a hierarchy to form, thus giving the men the power (or rather enabling them to) exploit women and nature.
A prominent voice for this school of thought has been Vandana Shiva, an Indian sociologist whose self-proclaimed aim is to go “beyond this narrow perspective and to express our diversity and, in different ways, address the inherent inequalities in world structures which permit the North to dominate the South, men to dominate women, and the frenetic plunder of ever more resources for ever more unequally distributed economic gain to dominate nature…”. She claims that the capitalist understanding of equality presupposes hierarchical inequality, which is to say that for two things to try to become equal, they must be unequal first. As a consequence, she stands in strong opposition to the capitalist ideology, claiming that the commodification of women and nature alike is what is making this stark gap wider.
My aim, through this paper, is to try and dissect this argument, and pose a brief critique from my limited understanding of the vast (and fueled) topic.
In doing so, the first opposition I have to offer is that of gendering nature. For all the flack received by the so-called ‘superior’ North, West, Male, or even Privileged Class, we see that ecofeminism does not pose a logical disagreement, just an irrational opposition. To elucidate, the entire premise of the concept itself lies on the concept of gendering nature — a fact that is hypocritical coming from people who claim to be commodified, and gendered themselves. This is to say that there is no revolutionary change in mindset if the opposition to the depletion of nature and women’s rights are clubbed so as to attain a unanimous goal or meaning, because the fact of the matter is that ‘nature’, in its basic scientific understanding, is a neutral force beyond the realm of gender, sexes, or culture. Granted that there is a close link of cultures to nature, and some even tie their practices closely to nature, but by claiming that the interests (and suffering) of women and nature are one, one is only further propagating the patriarchal ideal of women boiling down to their physical representation. The body becomes the summation of what a woman is — and is that not the idea being fought? If one is to give credit to the ecofeminists for celebrating the togetherness of women and nature, they cannot contest the idea of gendering without any right to do so. For if one stakes a claim on nature, the sheer sense of equality is defeated, and all it becomes is a desperate attempt at claiming victimhood alongside an inanimate, mute and representative-lacking force that falls under everything but ‘human’ (which just so happens to be the base of the sexes, genders, and dichotomy in question).
The concept of feminism, as per my understanding, is contingent on there being a sense of equality. Through ecofeminism, the thought propagated is that the struggle of women and nature alike, has not just been the same, but unites them against a larger force of the Big Bad Capitalist Male. It refuses to take into account any perspective of the other, assuming it to be as mute as the co-sufferer it unites its claims with. If the solution (as legitimately proposed) to heal this fissure between culture and nature is to allow the holistic female energy to prevail, then all it does is feed further into the most basic and schematic understanding of the female ideal — the nurturer, the caretaker, and the one who provides healing. Aside from the fact that it plays into that stereotype, it also refuses to account for a large section of the planet (aside from the trees and rocks), ie. the people who do not fit into this ideal, because it is based on the convenient presumption that all women and females (strictly biologically) share the same suffering, hold the same opinion, and go through the same exploitation. The fact of the matter is that equality involves not just the consideration of the other animate side, but also their perspective. Suffering, here, is not a competition.
It is obvious through history that women have been on the receiving end of unjust standards, practices, and conditions — however, all of womankind does not go through the same exact challenges, and not all those challenges can be pinned on the economic system, much less its assumably exploitative tendencies. This mindset conveniently excludes the concept of intersectionality, where a black woman’s suffering is different to that of a Latina woman.
It also, by this infuriating comparison with nature, takes away the most important aspect of being female (and living) — agency. By comparing ourselves to forests and mines, we are not being as poetic or accurate in our analogy as we think we are, because it then implies that we do not have a voice, are the props of someone else’s benefit, and cannot assume control or speak up against what is done to us (much like a tree, which is the point, I assume).
Vandana Shiva’s dense claim about how women are supposedly closer to Nature than men due to their “interaction” with nature being more regular, refutes the logic of history. This is because if it were about interaction and closeness, a woman (hypothetically) in the corporate sector would, by this scale, be farther away from nature than a male woodcutter, who is surrounded by it. This does not make the basis for one’s bond or likeness with nature. If we were to look at the basic dichotomy presented by such reductionist and simplifying claims, we could take into account the archaic example of women gathering, and men hunting. Since capitalism set its claws into the human society much after the stone age, this could imply that the divide and oppression in tandem with nature’s existed without industrialization. This then brings into question the idea of what constitutes nature — plants or animals? And if the answer is both, what makes men less oppressed and further from nature for hunting, than women who, with the same proximity, gather instead?
Finally, it brings me to question its understanding of not just women and nature, but also capitalism and its diverse forms. Why is it that the theory presumes the villainous intent of capitalism, without taking into account its sustainability attempts and successes? Just like how communism does not promise the assured protection and welfare of women (and depends on its implementation from place to place and ideology to ideology), capitalism does not promise the assured exploitation of women and/or nature (and depends on its implementation from place to place and ideology to ideology). There can and do exist models of capitalism that are not contingent on the exploitation of women and the environment, but sometimes seek to profit from the sustenance of the latter and positive influence of the former.
Some of the other prominent critique of ecofeminism has been by the likes of Janet Biehl, who criticizes ecofeminism for focusing too much on a mystical connection between women and nature and not enough on the actual conditions of women. Others claim that it does little to actually help the women in question, and focuses solely on creating a hegemony on sympathy. While, in conclusion (and in my opinion), it is closer to the mythological representation of women than their human, real and non-mystic counterparts.