Ecofeminism: our last great hope?

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By Allan Irving
Thursday, October 29, 2009
“When the planet is ruined, the continent forlorn in water and smoke,” writes Canadian poet Dionne Brand, in her long, unflinching elegy, Inventory (2006), in which she tallies up the disaster that is the present.
 
There is a chilling sense of foreboding. There is the sense as well that the sand is fast running out on our time to act; it may already be too late.   
 
However, with the most crucial meeting on climate change in the history of the planet taking place over 14 days in Copenhagen in early December  involving, it is estimated, 15,000 participants, representing about 200 countries there is a flicker of hope, even perhaps optimism  for the future. 
 
Nevertheless it may very well be that our most likely chance for planetary survival lies in what has come to be known as ecofeminism.
 
The contemporary environmental movement and ecofeminism can be historically located in 1962 when the marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) published her pathbreaking study Silent SpringThe books opening sentence contained its own implied lament: “there was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” The book reflected Carson’s long standing concern that the reckless use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II was not only detrimental to the environment but to human beings themselves as a part of the natural world.
 
Another formative figure in the intellectual development of ecofeminism is the French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne (1920-2005) who actually came up with the word ecofeminisme; in 1974 she published Le Feminisme ou la mourt which strongly linked the devaluation of both women and the earth. Her book provided solid historical arguments that many women in the past used sound ecological methods that almost always were disrupted by male-dominated interests. The book was also a call to action: women needed to take steps immediately to save themselves and the earth simultaneously. If we listened to, and followed the counsel of ecofeminists, d’Eaubonne maintained, “our planet, close to women, would become verdant again for everyone.” Nothing less than the extinction of people and the planet is at stake, she insisted, and a complete revolution in thought and action is required.
 
Ecofeminism is the bringing together of environmentalism and feminism; it’s the view that there are significant connections between the domination of women, androcentrism, and the domination of nature, anthropocentrism.  These two dominations are inextricably linked in philosophical discourses, the scientific revolution and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. There is a long standing discourse that has created a fundamental dichotomy between subject and object. The objectification of nature in the thought of Aristotle occurs by locating reality in the objects of the natural world. With Rene Descartes’s 17th century discourse on the separation of mind from the body or matter – thinking subject from external object - the justification for domination was solidified. This dualism between an active subject and passive object suggests literally man who receives, interprets, and organizes the sense data of a passive objective nature. 
 
Since women were often associated and even conflated with earth/nature it was a simple logical step to both see women as objects and as passive, with men retaining a higher position in the symbolic order as active subjects. Aristotle did not mince words on this issue. He writes in De Generatione Animalium “the female, as female, is passive and the male, as male, is active, and the principle of movement comes from him.” 
 
The ‘father of modern science’ Francis Bacon (1561-1626) urged his new “man of science” to force from nature the secrets she conceals in her womb, to unearth “the truth that lies hid in deep mines and caves” and “to shape her on the anvil.” Nature, as far as Bacon is concerned, must be “bound into service” turned into a “slave” put “in constraint” and “molded” to serve man’s (not woman’s) ends. Both nature and women were nothing more than objects to be undressed and exploited. Two 19th century art works are informative here.  A sculpture located in the entry to the School of Medicine in Paris is entitled, Nature revealing herself to science, reflected the prevailing view that nature was only too eager to cast off her veil and expose her secrets. In Edouard Manet’s painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, a naked women picnics on the grass with two fully clothed men. 
 
The overall intention of ecofeminism is to restore, mend, and empower the hidden, censored and crushed voices of women and the voices of the distressed and imperiled earth. Two influential ecofeminists who share similar wishes for a dual liberation although offering differing analyses are Ynestra King and Starhawk.  In 1983 King outlined a number of tenets of ecofeminism.  First, she notes that the building of Eurocentric culture largely in opposition to nature also promotes the subjugation of women since women are often constructed as being closer to nature. She writes that “nature hating and woman hating are particularly related and are mutually reinforcing.” Second, she sees all life on earth as an interconnected web and not a hierarchy. There is a socially created hierarchy that is then projected on to nature and consequently used to legitimize domination. Third, a healthy ecosystem containing human and non human dimensions needs to be built on and to maintain diversity. Fourth, our very survival calls out compellingly for a new or renewed understanding of our relationship to nature. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of human society based on feminist and ecological principles will suffice. 
 
Starhawk is a highly respected voice in contemporary earth-based spirituality.  She is a wiccan and has written extensively on paganism, and defines the spiritual wing of ecofeminism as based on goddess traditions, indigenous spirituality, and immanence rather than transcendence.  What is necessary, she affirms, is a full understanding and acknowledgement that the earth is alive and will talk to us, call out to us “to act to preserve her life.”  For Starhawk “ecofeminism challenges all relations of domination. Its goal is not just to change who wields power, but to transform the structure of power itself.”  
 
It would seem appropriate to conclude with some lines from another ecofeminist Canadian poet, Di Brandt.  In her 2003 collection, Now You Care, she writes: ....all our night flying has made us bold, here we come riding quantumly through your armoured glass windows on our multicoloured cyborged wings, still bats, witches, goddesses, still unruly mistresses of our, your, the world’s pulsing heart.
 
The writer is a professor at King’s University College and a regular contributor to Western News on environmental issues.
 

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