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26.7.05

Forms of Ecofeminism

This is not meant to be a definitive or expert post, but rather an organization of what I've gleaned from various readings to help myself make sense of it.

In its broad sense, "ecofeminism" can refer to the idea that women have some sort of special connection to nature. This typically means that women have better knowledge of nature, and are more competent at sustainable human-nature interactions. As I see it, there are four basic theories about what this special connection entails and how it comes about.

The Essentialist position is often referred to as "ecofeminism" in a narrower sense. Essentialists argue that women are basically hardwired for understanding nature. This position typically entails a sweeping vision of the uniqueness of female thought and practice, holding that women are holistic, non-dominating, and cyclical thinkers and actors. Thus Essentialists rely on a particular view of what nature is -- specifically that it's best reflected in women's way of thinking rather than the opposite mindset held by men. The exact cause of the gender difference in ways of thinking is unclear, though it's often linked to motherhood and menstruation, "natural" processes that women's bodies alone participate in. This view has been widely criticized for taking patriarchal assumptions about women's naturalness and irrationality, and putting a positive stamp on them. The essentialist view is criticized, and used as a strawman, out of proportion to the number of people who actually hold it.

The Psychoanalytic position is in some ways a subset of the Essentialist view. Psychoanalytic ecofeminists agree with the Essentialist view of the differences between male and female thought, and propose a particular mechanism to account for them. Rather than hardwiring, it's child development that gives women their special connection to nature. In the course of their development, boys are forced to break away from their mothers, defining themselves as different sorts of beings and joining the world of men, who can never embrace them in quite the all-encompassing way that a mother embraces her children. This experience of separation sets the foundation for a lifetime of thinking in terms of oppositions and conflict, which puts men at a disadvantage in connecting with nature.

The Shared Domination position emphasizes a more socially constructed female connection to nature, opening the possibility that ecofeminism is a historical phase resulting from patriarchy, rather than a gender universal. The Shared Domination argument says that both women and nature are oppressed by the current social system, and that this shared experience allows women to relate more closely to, if not nature itself, the domination of nature that environmentalists seek to address. The Shared Domination position has been important in drawing attention to the links between environmental destruction and patriarchy -- such as the way women's supposed greater naturalness has been used to justify their oppression. Yet there remains reason for skepticism about whether the link really results in women understanding nature better. After all, their shared experience of domination didn't make white feminists (at least initially) receptive to the concerns of racial minorities. Further, while empathy between oppressed people seems like a straightforward process, it's unclear to what extent such empathy is even possible, or produces useful knowledge, when the other dominated entity is something as different -- for example, in the sense of lacking consciousness -- from a human as nature.

The final variant of ecofeminism -- and the one I find most convincing -- is the Social Position view. This view starts with the premise that practical day-to-day involvement with something will result in gaining knowledge about it and placing importance on it. Societies around the world give different sets of tasks to men and women, thus cultivating different knowledge spheres. In many cases women are given tasks that involve more direct work with nature -- for example, in many areas of the third world women are left to tend the farm while men seek out urban industrial jobs. Social Position ecofeminism also points out that it's not merely a matter of having greater or lesser connection to nature, but of different types of connection. So men in a society might have a great deal of knowledge of, and concern for, cash crops, while women understand how things affect the medicinal plants that they gather and can advocate for that aspect of nature to be taken into consideration.

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