Ecofeminism in the 21st Century

Ecofeminism in the Twenty-First Century. by Susan Buckingham Introduction Since ‘ecofeminism’ was developed as a concept in the 1970s (1), there have been, arguably, major policy shifts in the fields of gender (in)equality and environmental sustainability. Thus a consideration of the achievements of, and work outstanding for, ecological feminism is warranted.

In this paper, I will assess the changing policy landscape to explore the extent to which this has structurally altered gender inequalities and societies’ treatment of the environment, and the imbrication of these wo processes. In order to do so, I will look at the rising profile of gender mainstreaming at the international, European Union (2) and European national level; the application of the ‘feminism’ debate to environmental concerns; and the shifting of the ‘radical edge’ of ecofeminism, to explore future possible trajectories (see, for example, Plumwood 2003; Seager 2003).

To some extent, I will suggest that the transformation of policy and development rhetoric to include gender, as distinct from women’s issues (itself, arguably, a ‘post-feminist’ dilution of women’s equality), masks fundamental attachment to ‘business-as-usual’, where social roles, pay differentials, political representation and environmental degradation remain little changed. However, there is, I argue, sufficient evidence to identify the influence of ecofeminist thinking on major policy initiatives concerning the relationship between women, men and environment at a variety of scales.

The central question of this paper, then, is whether ecofeminism (as a distinct discourse, or as an amalgam of feminism and environmentalism constructed in different times and places in different ways) has hanged the way in which Western society articulates the relationship between men, women and the environment. This, of course, is a problematic and speculative exercise and will follow from an analysis of how discourse and practice themselves have changed.

This paper will consider key changes to gender equality as it is linked to environmental sustainability, and explore how women’s/feminists’ interests have helped to shape the environmental debate in the past decade. I will try to unpick dominant discourses which, on the one hand, are beginning to ‘naturalize’ (some ould say neutralize) environmental concerns (where the terms sustainable development and environmental sustainability are common currency but poorly understood to the point of being anodyne), but on the other hand are marginalizing feminism, to examine the impact of this on ‘ecofeminism’.

Finally, I will explore the territory of ecofeminism’s leading/radical edge to speculate on where this may take both conceptual understanding and policy in the future. First, however, to put this discussion into context, I will briefly review ecofeminist arguments to illustrate their ange, before focusing on the constructivist approach, which has had the most traction in gender/environment debates in the last two decades.

Ecofeminist approaches It is tempting to use a retrospective to try to impose some sort of order on past intellectual activity, and what I am attempting to do first in this article is to explore whether there is an intellectual trajectory, through a not necessarily coherent body of thinking and writing on gender and environment in the late twentieth century. In teasing out the possible relationship between women’s position, gender anage the environment, ecofeminist writers in the 1970s and 1980s explored the relative importance of essentialism and social construction in these relationships.

The social constructivist analyses (which tended to dominate French and British writing; see, for example, Mellor 1992) drew from the Marxist and social feminist literature to show how women’s position in society (as, for example, carers of children and other vulnerable family members, domestic workers, and low paid/status workers) derived from prevailing social and economic structures, which exposed them to a particular set of environmental incivilities.

The specifically ecofeminist argument here proposed that, since the same social and economic structures also produced wide-scale environmental damage, then women could, in some sense, ‘share’ this experience and were therefore better placed to argue on nature’s behalf. The essentialist argument that underpinned some of the North American and Australian analyses proposed that women had a particular relationship with nature by virtue of their biology (predominantly as actual or potential child bearers) and that this proximity to nature qualified them to speak more eloquently on nature’s behalf see, for example, Spretnak 1989; Daly 1978).

Different authors drew on each position to different degrees, and much of the critique of ecofeminism (well articulated in Biehl 1991) over the past 20 years has focused on the problems perceived with essentialism, and on the validity of a shared experience between the human and non-human.

Dennis Smith (2001), in discussing the role of gender in peace and conflict, has argued that essentialism is often used as a tool to mobilize a group around a perceived characteristic which sets it apart, and, certainly, cultural ecofeminism (prioritizing essentialist arguments) did so. Its strength was to demonstrate the possibility of a way of thinking and being which reversed the normal hierarchy in which men stood at the peak; however, little academic feminist environmental thinking is currently framed in this way.