Environmental Ethics: IV. Ecofeminism

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"Environmental ethics" refers to a wide range of normative positions, from traditional Western, utilitarian, rights- and justice-based ethics to nontraditional and non-Western ethics. Feminist concerns in environmental ethics span this broad range of positions. However, one feminist position is distinctive: ecological feminism.

"Ecofeminism" is expressly committed to making visible the nature and significance of connections between the treatment of women and the treatment of nonhuman nature, or "women-nature connections." Ecofeminism claims that understanding women-nature connections is essential to any adequate feminism or environmental ethic.

Varieties of Ecofeminism

Just as there is not one feminism, so there is not one ecofeminism. "Ecofeminism" is a term that refers collectively to various environmental perspectives with roots in different feminisms: liberal feminism, traditional Marxist feminism, radical feminism, socialist feminism, and Third World feminism. These roots give rise to different, sometimes competing, ecofeminist positions on the nature and resolution of contemporary environmental problems. What makes them ecofeminist is their explicit focus on "women-nature connections."

Consider the range of women-nature connections explored by ecofeminism (see Warren, 1993). Some ecofeminists discuss historical connections: for example, the role rationalism has played in Western philosophy and science in justifying the inferiorization of what is associated with female nature (Plumwood). They argue that to the extent that either the concept or the ascription of reason historically has been applied only to (some) human males, rationalism has been male-gender-biased. The male-gender bias arises from the mistaken assumption that women (and, typically, men of color) are incapable of the impartial, objective, abstract, universalizable reason by virtue of which rational men are both distinguished from and superior to nonrational "nature" (see Warren, 1989). These ecofeminists argue that philosophical conceptions of the human self, ethics, and culture that rely on Western historical conceptions of reason will thereby be male-gender biased (see Warren, 1989).

Some ecofeminists discuss conceptual women-nature connections: for example, the way women and nature have been conceived as inferior to male-identified reason and culture. Many ecofeminists claim that the twin dominations of women and nature grow out of and reflect oppressive ways of thinking. These are characterized at least minimally by value dualisms (mind/body, reason/emotion, man/woman, culture/nature), value hierarchies (assigning greater status, value, or prestige to what is "up" in "up-down" hierarchies), conceptions of power as power of "ups" over "downs," conceptions of privilege that systematically favor the "ups," and a logic of domination (the assumption that superiority justifies subordination) (Warren, 1990). On this view, oppressive patriarchal conceptual frameworks sanction behaviors that maintain the domination of women and nature.

Ecofeminists discuss empirical women-nature connections: for example, Third World women as managers of domestic households, primary gatherers of food and fuel (typically wood), and collectors and distributors of water (see Warren, 1992). These women must walk further for fuel and suffer greater exposure to contaminated water; in Western countries, poor women, men, and children of color face increased health risks associated with radioactive waste and hazardous waste incinerators (Warren, 1992; Commission for Racial Justice, 1987). Development policies and practices do not recognize the distinct gendered division of labor experienced by Third World women, or the gender, race, and class factors that contribute, even if unconsciously and unintentionally, to the subordination of women and people of color cross-culturally.

Ecofeminists also are interested in epistemological and methodological women-nature connections. At least 80 percent of the farmers in Africa are women, and women grow about 60 percent of the world's food (see Warren, 1992). A study in Sierra Leone showed that while local men could name an average of eight products of nearby bushes and trees, local women could identify thirty-one (see Warren, 1992). Such data suggest that women often have "indigenous technical knowledge" (ITK) or farming and forestry due to their gendered-role responsibilities in these areas (see Warren, 1992). Consequently, issues of epistemology and methodology in framing environmental ethics, policy, and decision making must ask not simply "What is known?" but "Who has the requisite knowledge and expertise?" According to ecofeminism, what women know as household managers of domestic economies, forests, and agriculture is important to the development of environmental ethics.

Symbolic associations between women and nature appear in art, literature, religion, and philosophy. This is especially evident in the sexist, naturist, and ageist language used to describe women and nonhuman nature. Women are characterized frequently as cows, sows, foxes, chicks, bitches, beavers, dogs, mares, dingbats, old bats, pussycats, birdbrains, harebrains, and serpents. They are pets, dolls, babes, childlike, whiny, "domesticated creatures." Nature is raped, mastered, mined, penetrated, domesticated, manipulated, conquered, and controlled by "the man of science." Virgin timber is felled, cut down; land that lies fallow is barren and useless (not "impotent" and "sterile"). (Similarly, men of color are disproportionately described in the subordinating language of the "downs" as animals, studs, dicks, weasels, wolves, unruly and dangerous "savages" driven by "animalistic instinct"; as docile, wimpy, sissy, childish, or childlike, and not fully rational; as childlike, simple [nonrational] "slaves" who need the guidance and protection of the paternalistic master, the "up.") In a patriarchal context, whatever is woman-, animal-, nature-, or even child-identified has historically been inferior ("down") to what is man-, male-, human-, adult-, or culture-identified. Thus language that feminizes animals and nature, animalizes and naturalizes women (and some men), or describes women, nature, and some men as domesticated pets or children, serves to reflect and reinforce their inferiorization.

What, then, about the allegedly positive connotations of "Mother Nature" or "Mother Earth"? Ecofeminists disagree about whether such female-gendered language truly liberates or merely reinforces harmful gender stereotypes (see Roach). However, all ecofeminists agree that within a patriarchal context, where gendered language has functioned historically to elevate that which is associated with men and male culture, its uncritical continued use in the prefeminist present is problematic.

Finally, there are political ("praxis") women-nature connections. The term "ecofeminism," coined by Françoise d'Eaubonne in 1974, has always referred to grass-roots activism by local women interested in bringing together feminist environmental concerns. Whether it is the Chipko women in India, who are attempting to save trees from commercial fiber producers by hugging the trees, or Native American women, who are protesting the dumping of uranium mining residue on their lands, or the thousands of women from various cultures who gathered to develop strategies for policy and community organizing to combat water pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, and desertification at planning sessions, conferences, and seminars in conjunction with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, ecofeminism has always been grounded in grass-roots, local community political organizing (see Lahar). Properly understood, then, ecofeminist ethics is largely a theoretical response to such grass-roots political concerns involving women's lives globally.

Contributions of Ecofeminism

One might summarize ecofeminism's contributions to environmental ethics as threefold: First, ecofeminism challenges male-gender bias wherever and whenever it occurs. Second, ecofeminism offers a corrective lens to oppressive malegender bias by self-consciously attempting to develop environmental analyses and positions that are not male-genderbiased. Third, ecofeminism offers a transformative perspective in environmental ethics, one that builds on but goes beyond both feminisms that do not have an adequate environmental component and environmental ethics that does not have a distinctly feminist component.

Ecofeminism does this by using a feminist lens to form different insights about women-nature connections; those environmental ethics that do not include (eco) feminist insights are viewed by ecofeminists as either antifeminist or nonfeminist. Nonfeminist environmental ethics, unlike antifeminist environmental ethics, is not ipso facto malebiased; its claims and conclusions might be quite compatible with and supportive of ecofeminist ethics. What an explicitly (eco)feminist environmental ethic does is overtly challenge androcentric (male-centered) bias in the way environmental ethics is conceived and practiced. For this reason, many ecofeminists criticize other environmental ethics (e.g., deep ecology, traditional Western ethics) for either their androcentric bias or their inattention (however inadvertent or unintentional) to important historical and empirical data about women-nature connections. Ecofeminists insist that within the intellectual traditions of the past few thousand years and at least of Western cultures, anthropocentrism (human-centeredness) has functioned historically as androcentrism (male-centeredness); failure to see this results in a gender blindness that is harmful to the framing of an environmental ethic or philosophy.

Similarly, ecofeminist conceptual concerns challenge the dominant notions of reason, knowledge, and objectivity, as well as the dominant notions of the human self that underlie them, that have been a mainstay of Western philosophical and environmental ethics. What ecofeminists seek is the development of different, nonoppressive notions of each that change or expand how the notions of reason, knowledge, objectivity, and the human self are conceived. In this vein, many ecofeminists challenge the extension of rights by animal-rights ethics to some nonhuman animals because those rights are based on historically intact, unrevised (and hence problematic) notions of the human self as moral agent (claimant, right holder, interest carrier) separate from and superior to lower plant and inorganic life.

Ecofeminist epistemological concerns raise related issues about the underrepresentation of women's voices in environmental ethics. Such concerns prompt ecofeminists to criticize, for example, land ethicists for their apparent lack of interest in gender issues. Ecofeminist concerns about gendered language and nature symbols (e.g., Mother Earth) challenge those environmental ethics (e.g., stewardship ethics) that uncritically adopt or perpetuate gender-exclusive or gender-problematic language and symbol systems (see Adams). Ecofeminist political concerns about unequal distributions of power and privilege in maintaining systems of domination (e.g., domination over women and nature) challenge any environmental ethic uncorrected by feminism to pay more attention to power and privilege in discussions of environmental ethics (see Warren, 1990).

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, ecofeminist ethics is a self-consciously feministbiased ethics insofar as it consciously, intentionally, and explicitly adopts a feminist perspective as the organizing lens through which any environmental ethic is constructed. Despite their critics (see Biehl; Fox), ecofeminists argue that in contemporary patriarchal society, the label "feminist" does add something important to the nature and description of environmental ethics; in a nonpatriarchal context, "feminist" concerns may well be unnecessary and the label "feminist" may drop away (see Warren, 1990). But for now, ecofeminist ethics reminds us that in contemporary patriarchal culture, there are important ways in which the domination of nature and the domination of women are linked, and that failure to acknowledge such links perpetuates the mistaken view that feminism does not contribute anything significant to any environmental or biocentric ethics.

karen j. warren (1995)

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SEE ALSO: Care: Contemporary Ethics of Care; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Environmental Health; Environmental Policy and Law; Ethics: Normative Ethical Theories; Feminism; Hazardous Wastes and Toxic Substances;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Environmental Ethics subentries


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Environmental Ethics: IV. Ecofeminism