What do the destruction of the environment and the oppression of women have in common? The answer to this question lies in the concept of ‘ecofeminism. ’ Through her article, Disha Verma explores the origins of ecofeminism and its principles as posited by academics like Prof. Maria Mies and Dr Vandana Shiva. She tells us the practical implications of the ecofeminist theory, its often cited critiques and argues why ecofeminism remains relevant even today despite its shortcomings.
A small village called Khejarli, nestled to the south of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, prides itself on two historically significant facts. One, that it gets its name from sacred khejri trees that once speckled its landscape. Two, that in 1730 AD, following a royal order to fell all of the village’s khejri, an ordinary woman named Amrita Devi led India’s first chipko andolan: by protesting against armed woodsmen and mobilising over 83 Bishnoi villages to guard the trees with their bodies. The Khejarli massacre resulted in 363 deaths, half of which were Bishnoi women.
Over two centuries later, in the lush forests of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, armies of women adopted the Bishnoi chipko approach to stall large-scale deforestation projects in Gopeshwar (1973), Reni (1974) and Badyargarh Patti (1979). The decade-long resistance was led by women like Gaura Devi, Bachni Devi and Sudesha Devi who, with support from notable politicians, birthed the ‘modern Chipko movement’ reported widely by international media.
A few more years later, Bhopal was enveloped in 40 tons of toxic gas overnight. A leak at the Union Carbide pesticides plant, causing over 15,000 deaths and irreparable damage to the city, also birthed women-run unions such as the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Karamchari Sangh. Women of Bhopal, most notably Rashida Bee and Champadevi Shukla, have been fighting aggressively to restore the city’s human and natural settlements for the last 35 years.
It is no coincidence that India’s most prominent environmental movements – from Chipko to Narmada Bachao, or Bhopal Gas to Tehri Dam, all heavily feature women activists at the forefront. Historically, women have been most severely affected by environmental degradation, owing to their proximity to nature and their practices of harvesting resources directly from nature in order to feed, bathe and sustain a household. This has, evidently, made them the most persistent social group in their demand for climate action.
The understanding that women share a sacred, intimate and symbiotic relationship with the earth, and thus tend to protect its bounties more aggressively, is found in the academics of ‘Ecofeminism’. Ecofeminism operates from the intersections of ecology, environmentalism and feminism, encouraging one to view interactions between humans and the natural world through the lens of gender. The proximity between women and nature is foundational to this study and practice, which admittedly has made ecofeminism an older, dated vein of feminism. With capitalism dictating modern social interactions, feminist schools of thought such as socialist or liberal feminism have taken the spotlight. However, it may be time to revive ecofeminist ideals again.
Reading Ecofeminism (1993) by Prof. Maria Mies and Dr Vandana Shiva, I felt distanced from feminism, with how certain terms, analogies and spiritual arguments were used in an academic context. I could see why ecofeminist principles have weaved in and out through history – but seldom appeared whole – for they were too vast, too theoretical, too devoid of quick results, too unfit for modern feminism. But I also saw some familiar faces. Throughout the book, which is now essential feminist literature, the spotlight lay on liberating women, the environment, and along with it, vulnerable social groups of the global South. Not once was focus taken away from intersectionalities – both within feminism and climate movements. This is what mainstream feminism aspires to be today, which is why I think ecofeminism deserves not only a revisit, but a revival.
French author and feminist Françoise d’Eaubonne first used the term Ecofeminism in her 1974 publication, Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death). Ample literature has been written on it since, the most prominent being Ecofeminism (1993) by Shiva and Mies.
Ecofeminism is often called “a new term for ancient wisdom” which has driven women-led environmentalism for centuries. Be it the forest dwellers of Reni in the 1970s or the mothers of Dibang valley today, women’s instinct to preserve nature is said to stem from her experience of being violated, subjugated and exploited at the hands of men: an experience she shares with mother earth and her resources. It is the control and conquest men assert over nature and women that bind the oppressed together and makes women better conservationists.
The academics of ecofeminism address parallels between the oppression of nature and of women. Examples of such parallels may be – viewing women and nature as property, or growth of male-dominated industries at the cost of the environment.
Laying the foundation: North – South Divide
Any discussion on ecofeminism is incomplete without referencing the North – South divide. The “global North” refers to countries hosting better socio-economic and political quality of life, which incidentally sit in the Northern hemisphere, whereas “global South” countries are marked by lower economic growth, lower per-capita income, higher population and a deeper attachment to culture.
Ecofeminism identifies the global North to be creators of patriarchal capitalist systems, that exploit both the environment and the global South through their unwelcome interventions: be it colonialism, globalisation, investment or war. Women of the global South are seen as the worst-hit target of these interventions, which is where ecofeminism finds its calling. Its ultimate goal is to liberate all women: as well as other victims of Northern exploitation such as indigenous communities, children, farmers, labourers and the poor.
Although defined as an intersection between environmentalism and feminism, ecofeminism does not only restrict itself to women-led climate movements. Its wide ambit can be divided into three broad perspectives, which form the bulk of ecofeminist literature:
First, looking into the history and politics of women as exploitable ‘resources’ and how patriarchal capitalism has reduced both women and nature to mere ‘commodities’.
Second, exploring religions which often equate the earth and its bounties to women.
Third, environmentalism, and amplifying the role of women therein, without whom landmark movements such as Chipko or Narmada Bachao would have been meaningless.
Feminism vs Ecofeminism
While theoretically ecofeminism is a branch of feminism, there are foundational differences in the way both ideologies operate on ground. For instance, mainstream feminism may encourage looking inwards – at relationships between men and women, internalised misogyny or casual sexism in interpersonal interactions.
With ecofeminism, this focus is outwards. Women and nature are seen as comparable “commodities” in a patriarchal capitalism system. Viewing the global North as the root of capitalist exploit, ecofeminism attempts to form political alliances with not just women but workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, minority groups and other oppressed communities.
In this way, Ecofeminism most closely resembles intersectional feminism, which focuses on liberating women from their unique intersections of caste, class, creed, etc. Ecofeminism, too, brings oppressed groups to the forefront of climate action, as these groups have strong ancestral ties with the environment and their women are nature’s closest allies.
Ecofeminism in Practice
Prominent ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies, Greta Gaard or Karen Warren have dealt with specific structures, concepts and practices in their works, that systematically oppress both women and the environment around them. For instance, Shiva famously advocates that nuclear power and atomic energy adversely affect women welfare, and Gaard’s work simultaneously denounces meat industries and queerphobia. Some of these concepts and the way they stifle feminist movements is explored below.
Free trade has liberated developing nations and accelerated local market growth. It has also allowed industries to exploit cheap human labour and abundant resources of the global South. Since the dawn of globalisation, transnational corporations (TNCs) have shifted production to cheap labour countries like Bangladesh. Within these markets, women stand out as the cheapest labourers. About 90% of textile factory workers in Bangladesh are young women, with lower wages than anywhere else in the world. These factories are run by fast fashion corporations like Adidas, H&M, Nike to name a few, already infamous for their large carbon footprints and environmentally irresponsible production-lines.
Adding to the misery of underpayment are the inhumane work conditions at these sweatshops. Working hours, sanitation, lighting, permanency of job contracts and even factory infrastructure, is abysmal. Women – being the largest employee base for apparel factories and generally unable to find daily wage jobs in alternative fields – bear all brunt of this exploitation. The 2013 Rana Plaza apparel factory collapse in Dhaka took 1,100 lives, most of whom were women. Yet, these factories show no signs of shutting down, lest capitalism suffer.
At the front and centre of patriarchal capitalism is industrialisation, expansion and megaprojects. All three are also notable antagonists of environmentalism. Ecofeminism denounces irresponsible megaprojects on two levels: first, sanctioning of projects, granting of licenses and inadequate Environmental Impact Assessments by the government, and second, lobbying, project proposals and mistreatment of affected communities by corporations. A fitting example are the Tehri Dam protests (2001-02), a long-drawn battle against a destructive river dam in Uttarakhand, where hundreds of women made themselves heard by leading demonstrations and hosting chipko protests in the neighbouring forests.
Agriculture is an instrumental source of livelihood in the global South, especially for women. When policy decisions such as the Gandhian five-year plans are made to “open up” the agricultural industry and attract foreign investments therein, farmers are snatched of their autonomy to sow grain best suited to their climate, culture or current need.
Unlike all other debates, this one is not global North vs South. Farmers everywhere feel disenfranchised through TNC intervention in their personal (often ancestral) agricultural practices. It just so happens that these TNCs arrive from the North. The introduction of foreign Bt Cotton in 2002, for example, proved disastrous for Indian women-farmers who not only endured health complications from cultivation, but spent twice as much time on field for unsatisfactory cotton yields. Shiva boldly equates all “seed revolutions” to colonialism.
Biotechnology and GMO
An interesting argument made in Ecofeminism by Shiva and Mies is how new developments in biotechnology, genetic engineering and reproductive technology are “characteristically patriarchal” and “aim to dispossess women of their generative capacity as it does the productive capacities of nature.” This is echoed by vociferous networks of women worldwide, such as the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Genetic and Reproductive Engineering (FINRRAGE) established in 1984.
Genetic modification in science is neither new, nor free from controversy. Ecofeminists claim that artificial reproduction is akin to “seizing the womb”, which further stifles a woman’s role in a society. This argument, while based on lived history and shared experiences, may stunt benevolent attempts to genetically enhance natural resources for the greater good.
Dr. Shiva, a leading ecofeminist and former Bhabha Atomic Energy Plant employee, claims that one of the biggest modern challenges to women is the increasing construction of nuclear power plants. She dismisses the notion that atomic technology is malevolent only when used in bombs and benevolent in generating electricity, by pointing out that it still only benefits the global North.
A fitting example are the anti-nuclear protests in 1970s Wyhl, Germany. Feminists were instrumental to this movement from day one. At the time, taking precedence from World War – II, protestors draw a link between nuclear power and war: against nature, women and future generations. Back in 1945, they recalled, the ‘success’ of nuclear bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was measured in manhood. Creators of the bombs called their small explosion over Hiroshima ‘Little Boy’ and the bigger explosion over Nagasaki ‘Fat Man’. International media appropriately named these creators ‘fathers of destruction’. It was quickly understood that destructive nuclear power was a ‘brainchild’ of such ‘fathers of destruction’. That this brute force was indeed gendered.
Recalling Chernobyl, a nuclear disaster that decimated several cities worth of wildlife and affected millions of lives, there was no good reason left to support atomic energy for the youth of West Germany. Wyhl protests were among the first to view nuclear power through gender dynamics, and have since become a beloved citation in ecofeminist literature.
Work in Progress: Critiques of ecofeminism
Ecofeminism has meandered through feminist discourses for decades, becoming relevant one moment, disappearing the other. A plausible reason for this could be the amalgamation of dated feminist perspectives (like spirituality or sanctity of womanhood) with very modern takes (such as non-binary gender identity) all under one academic roof. While it is possible to sever the relevant bits from dated ones, the discipline as a whole becomes prone to some criticism:
Spirituality and politics: The term ‘spiritual’ is understandably ambiguous, but appears too often in ecofeminism. By leaning on spirituality and primal state of the earth, ecofeminists separate themselves from those putting in tangible labour, from political discourses on rights and policies, from material but essential possessions like income, insurance, etc.
Advancements in science: Ecofeminist authors have time and again highlighted the inherent misogyny of science as a practice and tool for advancement. That has two distinct effects: one, of undermining ‘Women in STEM’movements and erasing women’s contribution to scientific progress and two, of suggesting that all such progress will continue to dilute women’s rights without offering many preventive solutions.
Gendering in the binary: Gendering in environmentalism is justified when women have evidently been the torchbearers of climate-action throughout history. But in the quest to define femininity and equate the ‘gentle, loving compassion of women’ with nature, ecofeminism belittles queer identity and gender non-conforming movements, which are most relevant right now. Authors like Greta Gaard have written on queer contribution to Ecofeminism, but unless those texts are read synonymously with traditional literature, this gendering is dangerous.
The ecofeminism ideology is as simple as maintaining all life on earth, whether human or non-human, through co-operation, accommodation, mutual care and love. Yet, it is as complicated as dismantling patriarchal capitalism and undoing science. It is as ancient as woman worship; yet as current as intersectionality and inclusion in social movements. There is a lot to be learnt from feminist disciplines that claim, “to undo the oppression and domination of nature, is to undo the oppression and domination of all marginalized groups”, especially in the current political climate, where the well-being of all minorities are just as compromised as the environment. As long as patriarchy is the common oppressor and adversary, ecofeminism can be instrumental in moving this wave of feminism forward, while also healing the environment. One could say ecofeminism could potentially save this planet.