If you aren’t aware of the term ‘ecofeminism’, that’s completely okay. Neither are most people. What emerged as a powerful activist as well as academic movement in the 1970s, gradually lost its relevance. But as more and more movements seeking climate action and justice gain momentum worldwide, so did the idea of ecofeminism. But what exactly is this feminist movement about? And is it of any relevance to today’s climate discourse? Let’s find out.
What Is Ecofeminism?
Is it a possibility that women and nature are closely related to each other? We often think of nature in terms of ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Mother Nature’, see it as a ‘provider’ of basic resources like water and food. One might argue that we are all connected to nature- which is true, of course. But what if there’s a close link between both nature and women that brings them together in ways more than one? Ecofeminism as a movement acknowledges these links that connect the exploitation and domination of both nature and women under a patriarchal society. Mary Mellor, a British academic, defines ecofeminism as “a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women.”
But what if there’s a close link between both nature and women that brings them together in ways more than one? Ecofeminism as a movement acknowledges these links that connect the exploitation and domination of both nature and women under a patriarchal society.
This activist and academic movement truly emerged in the developing world in the last few decades of the 20th century. But one has to understand that ecofeminism wasn’t just one single movement that arose out of a single place and then went on to spread across the world. It was actually India’s Chipko movement in the early 1970s, the Green Belt movement in Kenya later that same decade, women’s participation in the anti-nuclear, pro-environment movement in the West in the 1980s and 1990, and similar movements which were themselves unique but also collectively shaped the central philosophy of ecofeminism- that women and nature are interconnected in their domination and exploitation, and that nature could only be saved by what is traditionally considered a feminine practice of “healing and nurturing”. Having a more empathetic and reciprocating relationship with the environment and rejecting the capitalist exploitation of nature is supported by ecofeminism.
Even this relationship between environmental damage and the subjugation of women can take different forms. The two major forms of ecofeminism turn out to be: radical and cultural ecofeminism. While the former sees the exploitation of women and the planet by men as one- like men traditionally having more control over the amount of food that can be obtained from nature and controlling women’s access to the procured resources- the latter focuses more on how ecological problems affect women more than men and on the idea that women are more connected to nature in the way that they have a sustainable relationship with nature rather than an exploitative one. Cultural ecofeminism is thus considered more empowering by many because it encourages the idea of women taking action against environmental damage rather than seeing the link between them as degrading.
Ecofeminism In India
One of the leading pioneers of the ecofeminist movement in India and in the world, Dr. Vandana Shiva agrees that women do share a special relationship with nature, and that this relationship is reciprocal and unexploitative. Shiva holds colonialism responsible for the “destruction of nature and women’s work”, and underlines how what might be considered development by many actually doesn’t benefit women and nature in the way that it “perpetuates domination and centralisation through patriarchal control”. Bina Agarwal, professor of Development Economics and Environment at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, has pointed out that Shiva’s theory tends to put all women in developing countries under one category and that it doesn’t take into account other factors such as India’s historical, cultural and social processes that have impacted the relationship between women and nature in India. Agarwal argues that the Shiva doesn’t talk about the impact of precolonial structures such as caste and class inequality that also shaped the environment’s destruction and the suppression of women.
Agarwal argues that the Shiva doesn’t talk about the impact of precolonial structures such as caste and class inequality that also shaped the environment’s destruction and the suppression of women.
Criticism and Relevance
Much like any other social and cultural movement, ecofeminism is not without criticism, most of which is aimed at the movement’s now incoherent ideology and its idea of the ties between women and nature. In her piece called “Ecofeminism is Not What You Think”, author Rosemary Fonseca argues, “The foundation of Ecofeminism is the notion that a woman’s ethics are more closely related to the environment in comparison to those of a man. For example, the female tendency to be a giver and gentle is echoed in nature’s qualities to provide everything necessary for survival. While arguably this can be seen as true, 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.”
So is the idea of ecofeminism relevant today? Well, in the context of modern environmental discourse, one might agree that it is. Environmental damage is a feminist issue and so is climate change- both of which are one of the most urgent social issues worldwide today.
Radical ecofeminism too, receives its own criticism. Since it promotes the idea of eliminating hierarchical structures and replacing them with “communal decision-making and equal valuing of all people” – it rejects the popular notion of cultural ecofeminism that wants women to be a part of the hierarchy and take action against environmental degradation.
So is the idea of ecofeminism relevant today? Well, in the context of modern environmental discourse, one might agree that it is. Environmental damage is a feminist issue and so is climate change- both of which are one of the most urgent social issues worldwide today. By exploring the sustainable relationship between the environment and women, the fight for environmental protection needs to have more and more women at its helm. But for it to be truly intersectional, we have to not just focus on the relationship women and nature have with each other but also on the relationship that women have with each other in a society. For example, indigenous women who live in close proximity to nature have to suffer a lot in the face of environmental degradation. We especially need to empower and support communities that have a close relationship with the environment if we want to protect the said environment from further degradation.
Featured Image Source: Savage Journal