In European countries such as Sweden, Belgium and the United Kingdom, the current climate movement is attracting enormous interest, and it is perhaps not by chance that it has female (and even teenage !) frontrunners such as Anuna De Wever (Belgium) and Greta Thunberg (Sweden). Women seem to be at the forefront of tackling climate change problems and at the same time they are also the main victims of persistent gender inequality. Since the 1970’s, ecofeminist analyses have drawn attention to the links between women and nature, both in celebration and in highlighting their subordination to patriarchal capitalist regimes.
However, when we play the devil’s advocate, we wonder what makes women different from men that they could improve the environment? Are they really that different? Is there no danger that we let men off the hook in our transition toward a more just and balanced world? Some feminist and environmental writers say that women are more connected with the nature and that makes them the perfect “sustainability saviours”. Why is that? Other writers point out that women have more pro-environmental behaviour and even do more environmental activism (compared with men). Why is that? Or do these correlations (which are not necessary causalities) point to a more hidden truth?
Are women more connected with nature?
Neurosciences can provide a first answer if women are more connected with nature. Female and male bodies have different neurotic systems which cause different feelings and thoughts. Jean Shinoda Bolen is drawing on this in her book “Like a tree: how trees, women and tree people can save the planet” to point out that empowering women can save trees (and the nature in general), because “female brains” make “oxytocin” in stress related situations which let them behave in “tend-and-befriend strategies” while “male brains” produce more “adrenaline” which results in “fight-or-flight” strategies. Bolen argues that women are more capable of solving environmental problems, because they tend to cooperate more, which is in her opinion a key for a more sustainable world.
However, this idea is problematic in the sense that it could exclude men from environmental decision making, which is also a critique about certain streams in ecofeminist philosophy and activism.
Ecofeminism: origins and today
The term “ecofeminism” is coined in 1974 by Francoise d’Eaubonne in “Le Feminisme ou La Mort” and used afterwards in the context of actions and activities by women against environmental destruction and disasters in the seventies (example is the Greenham-Common) and against the development of technologies, especially weapon technology, and bio-engineering, and in 1980 during the Amherst Conference which had the title “Women and Life on Earth”, where they saw the “liberation of women as part of a bigger fight for the conservation of life on earth”. (Van de Ven, 1996, Van de Ven, 2015)
Nowadays, I see the word coming up again. Korean friends recommended me to read “the vegetarian” by Han Kang, and told me they really liked the ecofeminist message behind it. Some days ago I found an invitation for a panel and film screening in Belgium which is called “ecofeminism” and points to female frontrunners as Aruna and Greta.
But … what is ecofeminism?
There is not really a definition for ecofeminism, because there are many streams. The common characteristic of the different streams are the suppression of the nature and the suppression of women, both by the patriarchy. (Van de Ven, 1996, Van de Ven, 2015). Karen Warren et al (1987) defines patriarchy as a framework “which takes traditionally male-identified beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions as the only, or the standard, or superior ones; it gives higher status or prestige to what has been traditionally identified as ‘male’ than to what has been traditionally identified as ‘female’. A Patriarchal conceptual framework is characterized by value-hierarchical thinking” (1987:6).
Ecofeminism is all about rejecting the binary power structures that suppresses nature and women. One interesting stream is the essentialist stream, which draws on the fact that nature and women have both “built-in biological clocks” and experience life-death-life cycles and nurture. (Van de Ven, 2015:6).
These thoughts were very present in the seventies and eighties among many ecofeminists, but are abandoned in the nineties by especially people from the Global North, because this thinking is still based on dualistic thinking and ecofeminists want not be seen as “children” which “should be nurtured by Mother Earth” and can use this view to avoid responsibility. (Van de Ven, 2015:6).
However, in Latin-America, they see it differently. Kate Jenkins describes the anti-mining activities of “old man women” in Peru (2017), and explains how this visualisation of the connection between the earth and women can function as a symbol in the resistance. Paddock (2018) is using an ecofeminist epistemological framework to analyse narratives of women to understand challenges of food insecurity and diet-related ill-health across the Caribbean and the West Indies, the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Does having a female body mean you are more connected to nature?
The American feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner researched if “female is to male as nature is to culture” (1972). In this classic paper, she rejected biological determinism (or essentialism) and pointed out that women’s social association with motherhood, nurturing children and working at home places them closer to “nature” than men are (1972). Also an UN Women Report of 2014 pointed out that the relationship between women and environment is not intrinsic, but based on gender roles and norm: “Women-environment connections -especially in reproductive and subsistence activities such as collecting fuel wood, hauling water and cultivating food – were often presented as if natural and universal rather than as the product of particular social and cultural norms and expectations.” (UN Women, 2014: 40)
We should not look to the biological body or the sex, but to the gender, which is according to Candace and Zimmerman “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category” (1987:127). Sex category is “a categorisation established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the other category”. (1987:127). Candace and Zimmerman also argued that gender is not something we are, but something we do. “Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine “natures”” (1987:126). In other words, gender is expected and a product of social doing and often seen as natural given, but it is created by society and people are often not aware of that.
As Ortner noted, this relationship between nature and women is part of gender expectations, which are only present in certain cultures in a certain time. Also Judith Butler (1990) wrote that gender is a product of culture and history. In certain cultures, mostly in rural areas in developing countries, the relationship between gender roles and environment is still visible because women and men live in separate spheres. The “separate sphere” of women in (rural areas) in developing countries is the domestic, the forest, the nature and staying in this separate sphere gives them more insight than the men of their culture who live in another sphere which was not so connected with nature.
One of the most famous stories, which is often mentioned in ecofeminist papers, books and lectures, like Miess and Shiva’s “Ecofeminism” (1993) is the Chipko movement. In the seventies, tribal women in a village in the Indian Himalaya protected the trees which were going to be felled by embracing the trees. (Van de Ven, 2015) These Chipko women lived also in a separate sphere, which was mostly in nature, and could “see” what would happen if these trees were felled down and they were right.
Although their gender role linked with the separate sphere can motivate them to protect the environment, like the Chipko women, this is not the case for all women. They are even not conscious about it. Smith et al. (2015) did a study about food self-provisioning in Poland and Czech Republic. While in West-Europe, food self-provisioning is seen as a (luxurious) hobby, often out of health or environmental consciousness, in Czech Republic and Poland it’s more done out of economical necessity. They introduce the term “quiet sustainability”, which “summarises widespread practices that result in beneficial environmental or social outcomes and that do not relate directly or indirectly to market transactions, but are not understood by their practitioners as being driven by explicit environmental or sustainability goal.” (2015) Stern (2000) researched that someone with an environmental intent may fail to result in environmental impact when actions undertaken with the intent to benefit the environment are futile. (Stern, 2000), while there are other determinants, like financial reasons, that also lead to pro-environmental behaviour (Whitmarsh, 2009). It could be argued that many women in rural areas, who are also often not educated, do not have notions of sustainability, but rather do things because of economical benefit and gender/cultural norms.
In “Western” countries, like in West-Europe and USA, most women do not collect wood and fruits in nature, partly because of the innovations in food and agricultural technology, partly because more women go to work and are not anymore the “traditional housewife” as the ones of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique” (1963) and do not belong anymore to a separate sphere. There are even women in “Western countries” which probably pollute more than men in the same countries and men in more developing countries. A person in a Western culture could have pro-environmental intentions, but still by using car or airplane (to go to a “climate conference” to make it more ironic) and drinking coffee have a higher environmental impact than women and men in less developed areas.
The cultural norms and the asymmetry between impact and intent point out that because you’re born in a woman’s body, like essentialists would argue, that you are more environmentally sustainable, but because of certain gender roles in certain cultures in certain time you become a sustainable person. De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (1949: 309) could even be changed that “one is not born a sustainable person, but rather becomes a sustainable person”.
Back to Greta and Aruna
I see also the counter-attacks to young ladies as Aruna and Greta. Some people joke that these young people are naive and stupid, because they do not realize they are protesting again “their own lifestyle”. There is critique that these young people do not provide solutions and should stop skipping school “so they can become smarter and find solutions”. Some older people complain about the arrogance of young people, using arguments that they were more sustainable in previous decades when there were no iphones, ast fashion, and even plastic bottles. I saw even social media messages with a list of Aruna’s flight travels (which are true or not, does not matter). What a hypocrite, many people say.
Based on my own experience as researcher, it is actually sad to see how we work with “guilt feelings”. I am involved in a project with youth of all walks of life and their introduction to the circular economy.
In our society, we are more often reminded of our individual responsibilities, when perhaps that is not the solution? The arsenal of choices we offer is also accompanied by the development of guilt feelings among individuals. “If you don’t eat like that or take the plane too much, you’re not sustainable.” I think most people will recognise these feelings of guilt. Often during this project, I heard the young people “joking” that they would eat less, eat earth, or just don’t eat anymore. While some of them are already underprivileged. That is not the intention of the educational project.
My own consideration is that a faster transition to a more just world without waste can happen if policy makers concentrate on the structural limits (in political, legal etc.) instead of insisting on (even more) sustainable choices that individuals should make.
That means focus on cooperation, passiveness, being careful, reproduction, passiveness, cycles, and coming together. These are “feminine” or “yin” values, and these are missing in many domains of our life and of our society and how things are arranged, decided and are done. For me, Aruna and Greta, which let people talk and cooperate, and protest together… that is “yin”.
It does not matter they have a female body.
It matters that we give more a voice to the “yin”.
And yes, that means, in 2019, still giving a voice to (more) women and indeed use symbolic ideas as ecofeminism.
Part of this blog is written as a final essay for a Master course “introduction to feminist studies” at the University of Graz, Austria, submitted in June 2015, together with my friend Marielis Suárez Rivera, an engineer from Puerto Rica. In this blog I added some extra scholar references, because in the last 2,5 years I learned more about ecofeminism. Please share in the comments your ideas about ecofeminism anno 2019, and which ecofeminists are active in your country or state.