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In Defense of Ecofeminism

Kian is not a fan of either Deep Ecology or ecofeminism, and she cites an earlier post of mine as support for rejecting the former. But I think she's a bit too quick to dismiss the latter.

There are certain elements of ecofeminism that I take exception to, particularly the more cultural, spiritual, and Freudian ones (e.g Charlene Spretnak or Riane Eisler). And I disagree with the commune-based social ideal promoted by many ecofeminists (as well as other philosophies such as bioregionalism). Nevertheless, there are certain valuable insights that come from ecofeminism, and which are preserved in more sociological forms of combining feminism and ecology (e.g. Diane Rocheleau or Val Plumwood).

Kian writes:

The fact of the matter is – if we are to believe that men are the main destroyers of the environment – it is only because men are is the higher places of power in which they drive the capitalistic/consumerist nation… but they are not doing this as a way to oppress women, and they’re not even thinking deep enough into it to believe that what they do to the environment could bug an ecofeminist as much as it apparently does… what they’re doing is looking for money, not looking to place themselves above and beyond women.

I think ecofeminists are right in saying that domination of nature has long been pursued by men as a goal in its own right. The basic ecofeminist idea is that our patriarchal culture says that those characteristics that make humans separate from, and superior to, nature are found more in men than women. Women, like nature, were said to be irrational, parochial, and in need of male/human control. Early feminists recognized this, and responded to it by saying "me too" -- arguing that women are just as human as men. The important step made by ecofeminists was to challenge the dichotomy of good vs bad traits, arguing that the traits traditionally associated with femininity and nature are valuable too. There is a strong temptation (among ecofeminists, and even more so among their critics) to go on to say that the traditionally feminine/natural characteristics are superior, and that they are essentially female. But more sophisticated forms of ecofeminism argue that we should break down the dichotomy, allowing both sexes access to the characteristics on both sides of the traditional line, and developing a relationship to nature that is neither purely "masculine" nor purely "feminine."

Men are driven to cultivate and express those characteristics and to prove through them their superiority over women and nature. There is a strong tradition of conquest of nature for its own sake, as a manly pursuit quite apart from any monetary gain (indeed, one would need to earn money in order to be able to afford hunting trips and so forth). The wolf extermination movement, for example, was driven far beyond the economic needs of the sheep industry by the ideology of manliness-over-nature. Wolves were conceptualized as cowardly and unmanly -- hence they were unworthy of life (or even fair hunting), and it was an expression of masculinity to go kill them.

William James' essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" is a good example of what ecofeminists are thinking of. He points to the conquest and domination of nature as a way to cultivate "manly" virtues of strength and obedience which would otherwise be lost in the effeminate days of world peace. The thinking in James' essay neatly parallels the practice of sexual conquest of women as a way of proving masculinity. While few people today would be quite so explicit, there remains an ideology of the rugged outdoorsman who proves his moral worth by battling the elements. There is also the disdain of environmental protection as a sentimental and effeminate practice, proper to "cat ladies" who treat animals as human, but not appropriate for real, rational men.

Contemporary attitudes toward vegetarianism provide a final example of how masculininty is entwined with environmental destruction (as well as callousness to personal health, a kindred issue to environmentalism). Even if one doesn't buy the animal rights arguments, it's clear that the environment would be better off if we ate less meat (and far less factory farmed meat). But vegetarianism is disparaged as a feminine practice. Male bonding takes place over steaks and burgers, and the man flipping meat on the barbecue is -- despite wearing an apron -- King of his Castle, provider of the most important part of the meal, while his wife merely garnishes it with such veggie dishes as potato salad and cookies. Tofu is the symbol of the man who is effeminate and "whipped." Meat has this significance because killing an animal is the clearest way to demonstrate domination over nature, since animals put up a fight (which explains the added ideological significance of eating steaks that are still bloody, hence allowing the fantasy of having killed the animal yourself, perhaps with your bare hands). The desire to prove masculinity through domination of nature is hence a driving force behind capitalism's destruction of nature. After all, you can only make a profit if people want to buy what you're selling.


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