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Ecofeminism proposes an alliance between feminism and the environmentalist movement. Both essentialist and constructionist versions suggest that women are potential supporters of environmental politics. Survey data gives modest support for this hypothesis. Qualitative studies have emphasized the situated character of women’s environmentalist action. This qualitative study examines in-depth interviews with Australian women. Issues of social class, orientation to capitalism and aspects of dominant gender politics create a situation in which most women interviewed for this study actively reject strong environmental politics. On the other hand some affinity with the viewpoint of ecofeminism is a theme in these interviews; both for those who are environmentalists and those who generally oppose environmentalism.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Donna Russo for excellent research assistance, my students for helping me with the interviews and the participants in the study, for making this analysis possible.
The Ecofeminist Debate
Ecofeminist writers sometimes claim a global affinity between women as a gender and the movement to save the environment. Salleh writes that "women all over the world are demonstrating an intense personal concern over human and natural exploitation" (1989, 30). Certainly, ecofeminism sees women as likely supporters of environmental politics. This expected alliance should have some observable manifestation (Somma and Tolleson - Rinehart 1997, 155).
There are currently two versions of ecofeminism. Within an "essentialist" framework (as discussed by Warren 1994; Buege 1994; Braidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler, Wiering 1995; Zein-Elabdin 1996) women’s alliance to nature is an inevitable, cross cultural and trans-historical product of biology – giving birth, women are programmed to nurture and empathize with the fertile natural world (for example Daly 1978; Griffin 1978; Collard and Contrucci 1988; Mies 1986; Griffin 1990; Eisler 1990; Razak 1990; Spretnak 1990).
This essentialism perspective is opposed by "constructionist" ecofeminism (Merchant 1990; Braidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler, Wiering 1995). Believing that gender is socially constructed, this perspective claims women’s relationship to nature is constructed in specific social contexts (MacCormack 1980; Merchant 1990; Seager 1993; Plumwood 1993; Warren 1994). "[W]omen’s and men’s relationship with nature needs to be understood as rooted in their material reality" which includes issues of class/caste/race as well as gender (Agarwal 1992, 126).
This study supports the constructionist version of ecofeminism. The constructionist approach sees ecofeminism as a "reverse" discourse (Foucault 1980; Weedon 1987, 110). The alliance between women and nature has been socially constructed as an aspect of patriarchal power. However, a reverse discourse is possible, which makes use of this socially constructed alliance to benefit both feminism and the environmental movement. Women activate their support for nature in public political action. Women gain public power by struggling to achieve environmental goals.
Interviewees for this study produce their environmental politics through several discursive options, of which ecofeminism is just one. Most of the interviewees actively reject strong environmentalist politics. These rejections invoke social class, express orientations to capitalism, and relate interviewees to femininity. At the same time, aspects of ecofeminism are also a theme in these interviews. Women who were favourable to environmentalism drew strongly on aspects of ecofeminist discourse. Even those who rejected environmentalism were sympathetic to aspects of the ecofeminist position.
Surveys of attitudes to environmenal politics have been carried out in many countries. Often these indicate that women are more concerned about environmental issues - as ecofeminists would expect. A 1988 United Nations study is typical (Harris 1988). Asked whether they thought a particular environmental issue was a major or minor problem up to 10% more women than men typically replied that it was a major problem ( for similar results see McStay and Dunlap 1983; Poole, Zeigter, Longman 1985; Shapiro and Mahajan 1986; Steger and Witt 1988; Diani 1989; Schahn and Holzer 1990; ANOP 1992; Blaikie 1992; Franklin and Rudig 1992; Stern, Dietz and Kalof 1993; McAllister 1994; Hampel, Boldero and Holdsworth 1996; Tranter 1996).
However aspects of the survey data are not so supportive of an ecofeminist analysis. Some studies show no gender difference on environmental issues or argue the differences are not significant (Van Liere and Dunlap 1980; Arcury, Scollay and Johnson 1987; Hines, Hungerford and Tomera 1987; Blocker and Eckberg 1989; Theodori, Luloff and Willits 1998). Surveys that also compare gender with class, age or education conclude that gender is less important than these other variables (VanLiere and Dunlap 1980; McStay and Dunlap 1983; Diani 1989; ANOP 1992; Franklin and Rudig 1992; McAllister 1994).
Majority support for environmentalism may not mean strong political action. In Australia, Tranter (1996) found that 10% of men were members of environmental organisations and 9% of women. Women were more involved in public actions - 6% of women and 3% of men. So environmental activism is confined to a small minority. Typical votes for Green parties are less than 10 per cent of either gender (Burklin 1987; Diani 1989; McAllister 1994; Lauber 1997).
Three recent ethnographic studies are particularly useful in developing a constructionist approach to women’s environmental activism. As Brown and Ferguson note, women are strongly represented in "both the leadership and the membership of local toxic waste activism" (1995, 55). Situating these activists, Brown and Ferguson state that they are generally housewives, from working class or lower middle class backgrounds. They are responding to health problems in their communities and are motivated by a sense of responsibility for others to whom they are connected - part of the "meaning of womanhood, and especially of motherhood, in our culture" (1995, 150; see also Seager 1993; Gibbs 1982).
Krauss’ analysis of toxic waste issues deals with these protests in relation to issues of race, class and gender - analyzing differences between three socio-economic groups of women activists (1993). Prindeville and Betting (1998) give a similar analysis of environmentalism on the part of Latino and Native American women activists. Defense of their families and communities is the priority for these women. They regard the mainstream environmentalist movement as divorced from the realities of life for the poor and people of color. They relate environmentalism to traditional culture - women are "life-givers, their connection to Mother Earth is important" (Prindeville and Betting 1998, 51).
What these studies give us is a sense of the situated social context of women’s involvement in environmental politics.
This Qualitative Study
This research is based on a set of in depth interviews with Australians on the topic of the environment. The interviewees were residents of a provincial industrial city and come from a large range of class backgrounds and age categories. Some of the interviews I arranged myself. Other interviews were arranged by my students. Many interviews were one to one, but others involved three to six interviewees. Consent forms were signed by interviewees and all interviews were taped.
A priority was always that the interviewees felt comfortable in the situation. Accordingly topics were followed up if they provoked engaged discussion. At the same time, a consistent list of questions formed the basic framework. There were fifty five interviews altogether with 118 interviewees. I have selected a number of interviews for close examination. In these, the interviewees present perspectives which were widely shared. By focussing on particular interviews I can link perspectives to the material circumstances of the interviewees’ lives.
In terms of theoretical orientation this paper shows the influence of both poststructuralism and of Connell’s mapping of gender theory. According to Connell (1987), "hegemonic masculinity" is "the maintenance of practices that institutionalise men's dominance over women" (Connell 1987, 183). It is not one thing in all times and places; it varies as aspects of patriarchal strategy are worked out historically. It is maintained in dominance over marginal or "subordinated" masculinities; such as gay masculinity in the present period. Along with "hegemonic masculinity", Connell refers to "emphasised femininity" as "femininity defined around compliance with this subordination" to patriarchy. Other types of femininity are organised around "strategies of resistance or non-compliance" to patriarchy (Connell 1987, 183).
Ecofeminism as a stratetgy of reversal can be theorized within this schema. Women’s closeness to nature has historically been created as "emphasised femininity" - as a denigration of nature or as feminine concern for others, which was not meant to embody social power (Bloch 1978; Merchant 1990; Plumwood 1993; Seager 1993). The ecofeminist project is to turn this discourse against patriarchy. It would then become a type of "resistant femininity".
Class Politics in the Context of Environmentalism
Connell makes a point about the relationship between feminist and other politics relevant to this study:
Interests can be constituted on very different bases, which may cut across each other. Marriage and kinship involve collective practices in which advantage may be gained for one family over another family, and people may well see this as the primary definition of their interests. On the other hand 'men' and 'women' are collectivities of a more generalised kind which have conflicting interests. (Connell 1987, 138).
The ecofeminist strategy treats women as a collectivity by stressing aspects of the culture of women which separate them from men on environmental issues. However links of marriage and kinship also tie women to collective practices that define their interests in solidarity with the men in their lives - to issues of social class. These class interests may conflict with environmentism. As well, emphasised femininity asks women to defer to men as political leaders in families. These men may define their economic interests in opposition to environmentalism.
Defining these class and cross class issues is complex and at this stage I will set out a schematic framework that will be made more clear in the analysis.
- Working class people can see the environmental movement as expressing the interests of the middle class - at their expense.
- For the middle class, the environmental movement can be feared as undermining the profitability of capitalist enterprise, with middle class environmentalists seen as betraying their class.
In addition, interviewees of either class may defend aspects of capitalist culture from the attacks of the environmental movement.
- The environmental movement can be resented for its attack on consumerism (Roszak 1992).
- Environmentalism can be seen as undermining the work ethic and associated aspects of puritan culture.
Finally, resistance to political involvement can be an expression of detachment and distrust in a situation where real decisions are taken out of the hands of ordinary people (Cardan 1974; Baudrillard 1988). Environmentalists can be seen as dangerous fanatics, leading us into some new catastrophe.
I shall begin by considering some interviews that confirm ecofeminist expectations.
Mother Nature and the Doomed Dinosaurs: Ecofeminism versus Cynical Masculinity
A good example of popular ecofeminism is provided by a debate that developed in a focus group. The interviewees were a group of friends who were mostly tertiary students. Two of the men were dismissive and cynical about environmental matters. All three of the women, and the other man, put forward an environmentalist position. Early in the interview, Sally asked the group whether they worried about environmental issues. Robbie commented dismissively:
Nuh. I'll be dead before it really, the shit hits the fan.
Megan replied, arguing that this division of the self from nature is not feasible:
I think it's really sacred, (sighs) I don't know, really energising for everyone. Without it, you know, no kind of human potential would be able to be reached.Malcolm agreed, saying that nature was not ours to ruin. Guy replied that it was (ours to ruin), backing Robbie’s cynical selfish position. This provoked a series of comments from Liz and Sally:
Sally: We come from it so if we rely on it so heavily ...
Liz: So you'd just turn around and kill it. Thank you.
Sally: Would you kill your mother?
Liz: Very much. That's the most egotistical.
The three women and Malcolm take up a position close to ecofeminism. Nature is not ours to ruin, it has ethical rights. We should look after nature, realizing what we owe it. Liz and Sally tie this to the essentialist version of ecofeminism; nature as a mother, an analogy between care for one’s mother and care for the earth. The feminine ethical value of nurturance informs an ethics of care for nature, a clear instance of the ecofeminist strategy of reversal. This goes along with what some feminists (Seager 1993; Stearney 1994) criticize as a false and anti-feminist belief that women are closer to nature because of their role as mothers. Nevertheless, it is here used to rebut the implication that Stearney fears in the maternal metaphor - while patriarchs may see mothers as infinitely exploitable, the interviewees claim that both mothers and the earth should be respected.
This conflict of perspectives ran throughout the interview. Robbie argued that environmental catastrophe was inevitable:
It's human nature. Economics is defined by human nature and politics are defined by human nature which is to procreate, dominate and expand. I think humans as dinosaurs are doomed. We're going to die.This is a sociobiological model of human nature - humans are naturally competitive, driven by reproductive imperatives ( for examples of this position see Dawkins 1976; Tiger and Fox 1972 - for a critique see Singer 1993). This sociobiology is a variant of the capitalist ideology of competitive individualism described by Macpherson (1962). It also fits with hegemonic masculinity; aggressive competition as a masculine ideal (Connell 1987; 1995). The women are sceptical about Robbie's view, wondering whether competitive, dominating behaviour is truly universal or is just socially constructed. The sociobiological view of human nature is at odds with femininity, defined as a disposition to care for others (Gilligan 1982; Tannen 1991).
It may seem no accident that the cynical, rational anti-environmentalist position is taken by two of the men in this interview and the caring empathetic view is represented by the three women. This is the ecofeminist paradigm of a cultural split between masculinity and femininity on environmental issues.
The Bambi View of Nature: Naive Ecofeminism
Another interview showed that the ecofeminist discourse is not restricted to middle class tertiary students. Diane has worked as a secretary most of her life. She is a member of a local environmental group, active in local issues, working to prevent a road being constructed through a bush park. She counterposes human selfishness to the needs of the natural environment:
We're not giving any thought to the future. It's a here and now thing. Even though we mouth off about we've gotta save everything for our children, I don't truly believe we mean that. I think we as human beings are quite selfish. We think we own all this. That it's our playground and whatever we destroy will come back again. ‘Cause you don’t see the harm you’re doing. I mean I can’t comprehend what it must be like to pull out a whole load of bush rock and take a little lizard’s home or even smaller than a lizard. Yeah. We’re replacing trees. But we don’t put back the same, we’ll rip that big tree out, and we’ll put a little, we’ll put two bushes in, but that’s not the same, not like that big tree that you used to stand there and think, ‘Ohh, My God, how old are you? What have you seen? Who’s sat up in your branches. Wow’. Two nice little bushes, yeah, birds are attracted to them. They come running. Tweet tweet. But they can’t nest in these little bushes. Got nowhere to sleep now these little birds. Ohh it’s sad.In this passage Diane begins with a point of view similar to Robbie and Guy - humans are selfish. But unlike them she argues that we must resist this selfishness through a change in values. She attacks the view that nature can be owned by humans. Other species also have rights over the natural world.
What immediately strikes one about this passage is its determined cuteness; it is almost a parody of emphasised femininity, what one male environmentalist that I met described derisively as the "Bambi" view of nature. Diane's speech is the "reversal" of the discourse that brings together and stigmatises women, children and empathetic concern for other species. She throws out a challenge to hegemonic masculinity; call me silly and childish if you like but I will not be talked out of my position. Her stance appears as a personal invention, illustrating the view that ecofeminism is currently being discovered by women through their own experiences.
When Diane says that "we" are not looking after the future of our children, her accusation speaks most strongly to women as mothers. Talking about the lizard and the birds, it is the absence of a "home" that is the problem. Animal species are given human concerns, concerns linked to emphasised femininity. In this, Diane’s discourse parallels toxic waste activists, constructing their environmental resistance from their position as mothers.
The ethical claims made by Diane relate to certain versions of ecofeminism. She addresses the tree rhetorically as a person - "How old are you? What have you seen?". This "anthropomorphic" language achieves an ethical point - the tree as a plant species is granted ethical rights. In Diane's speech we are invited to put ourselves in the place of a lizard, a tree or birds, and to derive ethical conclusions through this process of particularisation and emotional response - "It's sad". It is this moral perspective which is found by Gilligan (1982) to be characteristic of women and promoted as an approach to the natural world by ecofeminist theorists such as Plumwood (1993).
The remaining interviews that I will discuss represent much more common positions within the interview data as a whole. The vast bulk of female interviewees were neither environmentalist nor ecofeminist.
Those Bushies Stand Firm: Working Class Women Who Put Class Politics First
Some interviewees rejected aspects of environmentalism for reasons related to working class identity. Mandy is now a tertiary student, her husband Martin is employed as a tradesman and Mandy's sister, Adelle, is on a supporting parent’s benefit. While they are concerned about environmental issues, worries about employment would prevent them from voting for the Greens. They related their allegiance to Labor to the influence of their fathers.
Mandy and Adelle see their politics from a working class perspective; relating this to the views of men as principal wage earners. This became most clear in a discussion of environmentalist attacks on the forestry industry. While Adelle was most strident on this, Mandy joined with her in explaining their position in terms of the way senior male relatives viewed the issues:
I'm just wondering Adelle, if that opinion of it had any to do with Dad working in, when he used to work with the logs years ago. Yeah, see we come from a real country family. Adelle's uncle, Mick. Well anyway, he's a man on the country all his life. And he knows the land. He's explained it to us. And he said. What they're chopping down now is nothing to what's going to grow anyway and he's saying, they've just picked a little spot which people are making money on and causing a ruckus over really nothing. I think maybe a lot of our views about chopping the trees down and the unemployment whatever ...Following this, I asked Adelle if she was concerned that environmentalists would ruin the timber industry. Her reply expressed her confidence in country people:
Ohh, no. I don't think they'll ever do that. ((Laughs)) Those bushies stand firm.This presentation refers to an Australian icon - the "man on the country" who "knows the land" - unlike impractical and sentimental city folk, a dichotomy popularised in the Crocodile Dundee movies. This iconic support is mustered in defence of working class jobs. Adelle and Mandy subordinate any "feminine" concerns they may have about the environment to the requirements of men as key family wage earners.
Environmental activists were resented as middle class. Adelle saw them as spoiled children with no work ethic:
I don't think they know what they're talking about sometimes. I think a lot of them'd come from the city and they'd just go out there and just, you know. I think they go on, yeah they do, they go on. I think half of them are going more for the fun of it. People that haven't got better things to do. They want to get attention. A lot of them are unemployed, they’re a bit radical. I just think they carry it too far.By specifying environmentalists as people who are "from the city" Adelle identifies them as middle class urbanites. According to a sentiment often found to be typical of working class culture (Pont 1997; Sennet and Cobb 1973; Willis 1983), they are seen as mere theorists with no practical hands-on knowledge.
Adelle's most bitter critique of environmental protesters is that they are going for the fun of it, they have nothing better to do, they are unemployed and seek attention. These are themes from puritan Anglo Saxon culture - these people are flouting the norms of the work ethic, they are not serious, they have chosen not to have a job, they are displaying themselves in public.
In one instance, Adelle supported environmentalist politics. Discussing Greenpeace she approved of their efforts to save whales, dolphins, and seals. She liked environmentalists "on the water", it was just the ones on the land that she opposed. While this was only an isolated incident, it may be that the feminine culture of respect for wild animals becomes the governing discourse here with the absence of relevant discourses of class. For Adelle, Greenpeace does not threaten any Australian jobs through their actions on the water.
From this interview, we could argue that ecofeminism is just one way in which women may take up a position on environmental matters. The central issues are the class concerns of working class women. As Connell suggests (1987), interests that tie women together on the basis of gender may be contradicted by interests that link women as members of a class. This class political discourse can be linked to emphasized femininity, with women defining their interests in alliance with men as principal wage earners.
Green Nazis and the Ostrich Syndrome: Working Class Femininity and the Rejection of Environmentalist Extremism
Margie is a working class woman whose interview exemplifies the problems of linking femininity and environmentalism. She ultimately rejects environmentalism in terms of concerns socially constructed as aspects of "emphasised femininity". Along with this, she fears environmentalists as "totalitarians"; a suspicion that Baudrillard (1988) sees as characteristic of people’s reactions to politics today.
In answer to a question about major environmental problems Margie stated:
Ohh. This is a tough one, I've heard about there's a hole in the ozone layer, I have heard, ohh you can see where the oil leaks out and all those animals are getting, full of oil. I don't really know much. I don't seem to be worried about it too much. Other than that there's always the greenies going on about not cutting down wood and so on and so forth. They're all into natural things and trying to save our natural resources and they don't want to cut down the trees, and they don't want you to kill off the animal life, which is all well and good, but sometimes I think maybe you've got to learn to stand back. I mean cutting down the rainforest is awful yes, but people do need fuel, don't they. You've got to sort of decide when it's right to make a stand and when it's right to let other people get on with their life. There are a number of points here where Margie’s view fits the ecofeminist perspective. When asked about environmental problems, she almost immediately focuses on a problem experienced by other species, to footage which evokes sympathy for birds and otters covered in oil. Recognising that cutting down the rainforests is "awful" - she also suggests environmental issues are not just about human needs. However, rejecting environmentalist politics, what takes priority is empathy with other humans. She imagines a scenario in which the poor of the developing world - "need fuel" and are being blocked by environmentalists protecting the forests. Environmentalists should stand back and "let other people get on with their lives".
She developed this theme talking about bushfires. A common practice in Australia has been to set fires in winter to clear undergrowth. Margie believed environmentalists had influenced governments to prevent this "burning off". The result, she believed, was disasters for suburban residents and farmers, their properties destroyed by fire. Here again, a sympathetic concern for other people led Margie to condemn environmentalists.
Margie relates her avoidance of politics to a fear of political fanaticism; she does not want to be drawn into a political allegiance that may lead to totalitarian terror.
I'm basically saying on human nature, that people when they get fanatical about something lose their sense of judgement, you know, they're involved, they're not standing back, but I don't know because I hide from the news ... Oh well sometimes I hear things 'cause my husband watches it and my husband listens to the radio news but I don't go out of my way to keep informed about what's going on in the world ... It's the ostrich syndrome ... I don't like to know about wars which have been going on for years haven't they? Over there. Most things I don't think that you've really got much power to change, being one person on your own. So it's no good getting het up about it. And, and I think it just sort of stems over from when I was a child and I first heard about concentration camps.In this and other passages she links the fanaticism of environmentalists to that of totalitarian regimes. She implies that environmentalists are "rationalists" in Oakeshott's use of that term (1962). That is, they make decisions based on abstract principles; ignoring the situation of individuals. Like Oakeshott, she sees rationalism as incipient totalitarianism.
Margie goes on to say that she decided then that if she had been a Jew in Germany it would have been better not to have known that the holocaust was going to happen; you could have done nothing to prevent it.
This viewpoint relates to the structures of capitalist society. In fundamental decisions concerning daily life, ordinary people have little say – their labour is "alienated". The view that politics is an arena of dangerous violence and manipulation relates to the very real power of global economic forces in ordinary people’s lives and to the constant crises that are the inevitable accompaniment of the capitalist economy (Cardan 1974). Environmentalists are readily seen as just another aspiring elite that wishes to control the conduct of ordinary people, and rejected on this account.
There were many places in the interview where Margie made it quite clear that she saw environmentalists as middle class, as generally better educated and "more aware" people. Her statement that "there's always the greenies going on" encapsulates her working class critique of this use of knowledge. A constant barrage of moralising verbiage is seen as typical of the middle class. As Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich (1979) argue, the delegated control of the middle class is often exercised through verbal encouragements to moral conduct - an approach which can be resented, as in this instance.
Margie's position is related to the construction of emphasised femininity in several ways:
- She defends a moral position based on empathy with particular individuals. She opposes this to what she sees as the abstracted and universalistic ethic of environmentalists.
- Within a dichotomy between public politics and a domestic world of empathy and concern, she chooses the latter. Her culturally constructed femininity actually makes her unavailable for ecofeminist politics; because it is unavoidably political.
An Alternative Breed - Puritan Rejections of Environmentalism
In their classic study of the American working class in Boston, Sennett and Cobb (1973) touch on many issues that are relevant to these interviews. They found the discourse of meritocracy to be highly significant for their interviewees. While their interviewees strove to work hard and to prove their virtue by signs of affluence, they nevertheless worred that they had not done enough. Going along with this was a willingness to attack any group seen as unfairly rewarded. Other aspects of puritan discourse were also brought into play to condemn marginal groups – they live for sexual thrills, they are untidy, they drink to excess.
As already considered, Adelle’s interview applies many of these value judgements to environmentalist activists. Other interviewees showed this perspective was not restricted to the working class. A policewoman argued that people who protested against logging were paid professional demonstrators, and went on to say.
I find them a sort of alternative breed. We had to fumigate the police station last time they were in. They absolutely stunk. It was unbelievable. They’re all kids. Never worked. Just living off the government. They’re actually just people that don’t really want to fit in with the rest of the society and they’re not interested in working hard or anything like that. They’re interested in dropping out. They said, "Well why don’t you come along to the next rally?" And you think, well if I’ve got to wear no deodorant and eat chick peas and brown rice, I don’t think I’ll be part of that. The environmentalist program to reform consumer behaviour was also attacked in terms of puritan discourses. A commerce graduate, Petronella, was vitriolic on this, emphasizing the way environmentalist prescriptions undermined standards of purity. Discussing plans to enforce recycling she said:
… that's not really fair because I mean. What are you going to have? Fifty bins in your house. One for newspaper. One for glass. One for this. You've got no room. Your house will be a pigsty. Discussing cloth nappies, she said the thought of washing a cloth nappy made her ill. She was appalled by the thought that she would soon be forced to buy recycled office paper "that awful paper that is often more like toilet paper".
It could be argued that nature itself is regarded as a disgusting growth within the subconscious ideation that animates puritan discourse. In another study in this region (Pont 1997), a miner’s widow talked about how she had had to cope with the lawn following her husband’s death:
I hit the grass as soon as it pops its head up because I don’t want it to get away from me. It’s dangerous to have long grass in case of snakes and spiders get under things. We all like to keep the grass under control. I put the grass in bags to put it in the bin. If you put it straight in, the bin smells. I wait for the truck and I bring the bin straight in and hose it out. I scrub it out with hot water and disinfectant and leave it uspide down to dry. I don’t like it to get dirty.Nature is anthropomorphised as an unruly person that must be "hit … as soon as it pops its head up".
These cross-class discourses can be related to the structures of the capitalism. The work ethic is a fundamental hegemonic ideology of capitalism, linked to other aspects of puritan discourse, such as cleanliness and sexual propriety. The environmentalist avant garde of "ferals" reject tidiness, the work ethic, consumerism and the project of technological mastery. The environmentalist attempt to create empathy with natural processes contradicts the call to suppress natural urges, inherent within puritan discourse.
It makes sense to see emphasized femininity as tied to puritan values through the discourse of the "moral mother" - a discourse seen by Bloch (1978) to have been pioneered in the eighteenth century and still very much a part of femininity today. Again, emphasized femininity is not an unproblematic resource which can be readily reversed to create ecofeminism.
They Fancy Themselves as Greenies: Conflict in the Middle Class
Middle class women can also experience environmental issues through the filter of their class politics. Beth is trained as a photographer but now stays at home to look after her children, her husband works long hours as a contract engineer. Her critique of the environmentalist movement is both political and cultural.
The greenies don't want you to burn off, so no one burns off. I think in this area now, you've got to have a building permit virtually to burn off. Our neighbours around here, they fancy themselves as greenies. They don't want the burning off. And where we had our farm there was a mob down the end. She works for some Government Department. And they have never burnt off. They have never cleared their land of even all the weeds. So all the scotch thistles and everything are coming up. 'Cause they just want it for the wombats and the you know. But they've gone completely the other way and there's noxious weeds and they won't even pull those out. Now it's just invaded the whole property.Beth sees environmentalists, who are disparagingly referred to throughout as "greenies", as fellow members of the middle class, as neighbours. They are blamed for an increase in governmental supervision of burning. While preventing wildfires is cited as the reason to engage in burning off, the annual burning off that Beth and her husband performed is also a strategy to encourage pasture under trees. She castigates the bush regeneration strategy of her neighbours as irrational. They have allowed a massive invasion of feral nature. The concept of "noxious weeds" used here treats land as serving primarily for the commercial production of grazing animals. This is the productivist ethic of the capitalist economy. The phrase "they fancy themselves as greenies" implies environmentalists are seeking status through a false claim to moral virtue. At another point she delineated the cultural differences between environmentalists and her own section of the middle class:
Some of the ones that I know who are middle class people. On the weekends they like to dress sort of hippyish. And go to the Wilderness Society shop and buy all their Christmas presents and that. Well that's fine. But I don't always know if they actually do as much as they say that they do. I think it's just an image for them, rather than getting out there and doing anything. They're still living in the sixties I suppose. I mean if you stuck them out in the log cabin out in the bush, they wouldn't be there for very long I don't think.This is a case of social closure (Parkin 1979), separating her section of the middle class from their section. While the issue here is cultural difference, such fractions of the middle class can also be distinguished occupationally (Bourdieu 1989). What Beth says about environmentalists is that their lifestyle is merely an "image", a conscious display of style. Their claimed opposition to the growth economy is an affectation; they are no different to the rest of the middle class, who get in their cars to go Christmas shopping and have money to buy expensive presents.
The ostentatious environmentalism of "greenies" is also unnecessary - problems will be solved by increasing technological mastery and without political conflict.
You go back eighty years and we didn't have any of these problems, we didn't have motor cars zooming around. I think once again, it'll probably be dealt with every ten years or something. People will suddenly notice the difference and they'll deal with it.Beth went on to claim there were no limits to growth – growth would continue for the foreseeable future.
Explaining her attitudes to environmental politics, she alludes to economic issues. Stating why she would never vote for an environmentalist party she said:
I mean you can't just vote for someone because they've got some environmental issues that they want fixed. Because that's not going to help run the country.
While environmentalists are a necessary pressure group, today’s extremist leadership could not last:
The term "radical" and the phrase "running the country" come from conservative economic discourse. Running the country is making the capitalist economy work smoothly. The phrase "normal people" links this economic critique to a cultural critique. Environmentalists are a cultural group that strays outside the norms of respectability and good sense.
I mean I think they're necessary and they might be very radical to start with and I think that's necessary to get the politicians thinking, 'cause if you don't have the radicals well nothing happens. It's like with every movement that's ever happened. Then after a while all the radicals are pushed aside and the normal people flow through.
Despite this, Beth has her own share of nightmares about environmental problems:
I suppose it'll take a long time before something drastic happens. But I guess we'll adapt. Maybe we'll end up in one of those glass bubbles ((Laughs)). That big glass dome thing that they've got in America - the Ark. I think that's a good idea what they're trying to do there 'cause it might be necessary in a hundred years ((Laughs)). But I'm certainly not pessimistic about it. Like I think it's a shame that a lot of young kids now are feeling that there's nothing to live for, you know and they're committing suicide and all that.Here, Beth paints an apocalyptic scenario - the life support systems of the planet so destroyed that we will have to live in glass domes. She also mentioned acid rain and nuclear reactor meltdowns, relieved that these were not likely in Australia.
Beth positions herself within several discourses. Primary is a class based discourse of support for the capitalist economy. Society is run for the benefit of all, with science providing the means to deal with environmental problems. Prosperity increases and growth continues. This is hegemonic capitalist ideology - not in itself a gendered discourse. She defends the holders of this discourse as "normal people" in opposition to a small and annoying fraction of the middle class, unreasonable about environmental matters.
Cutting across this dominant vision is an alternative, darker reading of the situation. In this discourse, we are indeed in danger, the situation is so dire that many young people resort to suicide as a way out. Her fear for the young fits well with ecofeminism. This oppositional undercurrent exemplifies poststructuralist analysis - subjectivity is constituted within contradictory discourses (Weedon 1987).
There’s No Way that You Can Force People - The Defence of Consumerism
Petronella is a commerce graduate, still looking for work fitting her education. She sees the environmentalist movement as responsible for an unwanted restriction of choice; part and parcel of a nameless "them". She defined "greenies" as fanatics and people who "force their opinion on to you - like certain sociology lecturers at Garden City University".
Throughout, she expressed her resentment at attempts to control consumer behaviour. She does not recycle her rubbish because she does not have time and rejects any attempt to legislate this:
Well I don't believe they should make it legalized and enforce people, enforcing them to recycle their rubbish. That's not really fair. I believe it should be up to the individual. They can like. I don't know what they can do. But I don't believe that they should. Like they're just talking about taking away all the large bins and making people have small bins so that you're forced to recycle, but that's not really fair.In this statement the comment that it's not "fair" means that environmentalists, who are just individual people in society, should not be telling other people with a different opinion what to do with their rubbish. The "they" in this statement links environmentalists and governmental authorities as part of a package of bureaucratic interference. In another statement "they" are the environmentalists and company owners who are forcing the public to buy recycled paper - "so you’ve got no choice but to buy that awful paper".
Petronella argues that you cannot make people consume and waste less - "There's no way that you can force people. People are used to a standard of living". She likes to drive her "own car", to and from work , by herself. She uses make up that may have been tested on animals and "I don't really care - 'cause I don't know what it's been tested on". She does not recycle because she has no time and rejects recycled paper because she likes "nice white paper" that "makes a good impression". Organically grown vegetables are too expensive. She claims hairspray as a necessity and defiantly states that she would still buy hair spray with CFCs if nothing else was available. In all this she identifies environmentalists as a group that aims to curtail her choices.
A number of writers have stressed the importance of consumer power and freedom of choice in stabilizing political life in rich capitalist countries (Sennett and Cobb 1973; Cardan 1974; Wilson 1985; Willis 1990). Roszak (1992) best sums up the implications of this approach for environmentalism. Within the structures of work and politics in capitalism, consumption offers one of the few arenas in which people can express themselves and exercise choices. Environmentalists are most unpopular when they attack these privileges.
While this is not gender specific, there are some links between consumerism and emphasized femininity. As Mies (1986) argues, women in rich countries are assigned the role of chief consumers for their families, with the boredom and isolation of housework relieved through shopping. Consumption of items such as hair spray is gendered, working to produce emphasized femininity (Smith 1988).
Ecofeminism suggests an alliance femininity and environmentalism. This desired alliance can be seen as a "reversal" of a discourse within emphasised femininity - women’s closeness to nature is turned into resistance to patriarchy and environmental degradation.
Several interviewees appeared to fit ecofemist strategy well. In the first example, women who are tertiary students construct their environmentalism in reference to essentialist ecofeminism - an available discourse of student radicalism. In the second example, a suburban activist in a local environment group constructs her environmentalism using tropes from emphasized femininity. These examples suggest the relevance of ecofeminism as a politics of "reversal".
While the other mostly opposed environmentalism, many suggested a glimmer of ecofeminist discourse or of the way in which feminine concerns can be elaborated to create an environmentalist perspective. Margie and Adelle both referred to their concerns for animals in supporting some environmental lobby groups. Beth was plagued by the concerns that ecofeminism addresses - what will be the long term consequences for our children and grandchildren? So this study does not deny the relevance of ecofeminism altogether; instead it focusses on what prevents this strategy from being fully effective now.
The central issues that animate anti-environmentalism are various kinds of class politics. These are both specific discourses of class allegiance and also more global orientations to capitalism as an economic structure and culture. Working class interviewees stigmatized environmentalists as a section of the middle class whose obsessive concern for the environment harms the working class. For the middle class interviewees, environmentalists threaten the capitalist economy.
For either class, orientations to the capitalist economy and culture also shape rejections of environmentalism. The work ethic and puritanism are discourses from capitalist culture invoked against environmentalism. Environmentalists are also rejected for their attack on consumerism.
Finally I have looked at how environmentalism can be rejected as "political", when politics is seen as a game played by elites and extremists.
Each of these anti-environmentalist positions has a gendered inflection in emphasized femininity, operating against the strategy of reversing emphasized femininity for ecofeminist politics. Women’s nurturing is applied to people - those thought to be harmed by environmentalist campaigns. While ecofeminism depends on women standing up for feminine culture, emphasized femininity has women supporting the heads of their households - the principal wage earners whose jobs may be threatened by environmentalists.
Issues that relate to the culture of capitalist society also take a gendered form. In a gendered inflection of the work ethic and puritanism, the discourse of women as "moral mothers" and "god’s police" can lend itself to vitriolic attacks on environmentalists as ostentatious, loud, and lazy. Recycling can seem disgusting while wild nature is rejected as dangerous and out of control. Environmentalism can challenge emphasized femininity defined as consumption. Femininity as beauty and sexual objectification is both a subject position of compliance to patriarchy and also a set of consumption activities, easily seen as challenged by the dour asceticism of environmentalists. Consumption as a form of status, a testament to respectability and hard work is allied to the role of the wife as herself an object of conspicuous consumption. Lastly, withdrawal from political life and fatalistic resignation fits with emphasized femininity as concentration on the safe domestic sphere.
More qualitative research needs to be done to investigate people's relationship to environmental issues in depth. What this initial investigation does suggest is an answer to the question - why is it that most women do not participate in environmentalist actions or vote for environmentalist parties? It is concerns with class and economic issues which are at the foreground in most women's approach to environmentalism. At the same time, this study also suggests that the viewpoint of ecofeminism has some affinity with the positions taken by women in this study; most obviously with those who are committed to environmental politics but also with women who are generally opposed to environmentalism. Both these findings may indicate that ecofeminism has some potential to expand its support.
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