In both its essentialist and constructivist versions, ecofeminism proposes an alliance between feminism and the environmentalist movement. While constructivist writings are more cautious, a conclusion from both varieties of ecofeminism might be that women are potential supporters of environmental politics. The evidence of survey data gives some modest support for this hypothesis. Qualitative studies in the tradition of constructivist ecofeminism have emphasized the situated character of women’s opposition to environmental degradation. This study examines women’s responses to environmental issues through in depth interviews in a first world country. Interpreting the project of ecofeminism as a strategy of "reversal" within a poststructuralist constructivist framework, it can be argued that the discourse of ecofeminism was central to some interviews and was not entirely absent from any. On the other hand opposition to environmentalism was based in discourses of class or emphasized femininity.
The Ecofeminist Debate
Within some of the more ambitious claims made by ecofeminist writers it is suggested that there is a global affinity between women as a gender and the movement to save the environment. Discussing the actions of women since the 1960s on environmental and peace issues, Salleh writes that "women all over the world are demonstrating an intense personal concern over human and natural exploitation" (1989, 30). At the very least, in both its essentialist and constructivist versions, ecofeminism argues that women are likely potential supporters of environmental politics because of their innate or socially constructed connection to the natural world. As Somma and Tolleson-Rinehart understandably require, such an alliance should be manifest:
If the argument as made by its theorists that ecofeminism emerges from biology, gender role, and shared exploitation is accurate, traces of ecofeminism ought to exist within mass publics in post-materialist societies, (1997, 155).
Examining this proposition through in depth interview data is the central topic of this article.
While it might be tempting for the purposes of this research to gloss over differences between different types of ecofeminism, these debates go to the heart of what ecofeminism actually means. Within what has become known as an "essentialist" framework (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 to understand their close affinity with the natural world as a reproducing fertile environment (for example Daly 1978; Griffin 1978; Collard & Contrucci 1988; Mies 1986; Griffin 1990; Eisler 1990; Razak 1990; Spretnak 1990). Within such a framework, situations where women oppose environmental politics or actively take part in environmental degradation must be regarded as proof of the power of patriarchal ideology to overcome women’s essential link to nature (Daly 1978; Mies 1986; Mies & Shiva 1993).
This essentialist perspective is opposed by what has become known as "constructivist" or "constructionist" ecofeminism (Merchant 1990; Braidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler, Wiering 1995). Based in the belief that gender is socially constructed, rather than biologically given, this perspective argues that women’s relationship to nature is constructed in specific social contexts and consequently there can be no claim for a cross cultural and transhistorical affinity between nature and women (MacCormack 1980; Merchant 1990; Seager 1993; Plumwood 1993; Warren 1994). Merchant, in a clarifying preface to the 1990 edition of her 1980 classic The Death of Nature states the foundation of this position:
… concepts of nature and women are historical and social constructions. There are no unchanging "essential" charactersitics of sex, gender, or nature. (1990, xvi)
In her account of the Chipko struggle in India, Agarwal applies this approach to look at the socially located opposition of peasant and tribal women to forestry in the Himalayas. Departing from Shiva’s (1989) somewhat essentialist account of these events, Agarwal argues that "women’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 (1992, 126).
The constructivist perspective may make good sense as social theory but it is not without some problems as ecofeminism. If the alliance of women and nature is merely socially constructed within the social context of Western scientific patriarchal culture (Merchant 1990; Plumwood 1993; Seager 1993), what is the point of feminists validating and celebrating this social construction? This critique is made most forcefully by the social ecologist Biehl, who writes:
In my view, the notion of building a movement on something one knows is a reactionary falshehood raises serious moral questions about deception and manipulation … (1991, 4)
In other words, the essentialist position that women are by their biology closer to nature is precisely the point of view which has been socially constructed as a patriarchal ideology denigrating both women and nature. Other writers stress the unfortunate implications for feminism of such a position — women who are not mothers or who do not want to define themselves primarily as mothers are marginalized within this framework. Ecofeminism can be seen as validating the domestic = women/public = men split which feminists have for many years argued is central to patriarchal power (Seager 1993; Stearney 1994; Zein-Elabdin 1996). Stearney also points out that the metaphor of nature as a mother can be problematic for environmentalists if mothers are seen within the terms of patriarchal culture as endlessly exploitable (Stearney 1994).
One response to this dilemna is to argue that this social construction can be turned to the advantage of the environment if women gain power through feminist struggle. Salleh puts this position:
The feminine role prescription has always demanded a responsiveness to the needs and survival of living things … In the short term, given most women’s continuing exclusion from the public sphere, an extension of this ecological sense may well further their exploitation as shadow-labour … In the longer term, though, if a ‘feminine’ voice can make itself heard in the polis, it carries a promise of a social revolution quite unlike anything seen before. (Salleh 1989, 30).
Braidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler and Wiering go further than this, arguing that however misguided essentialist ecofeminism may be as social theory, there is no denying its efficacy as part of a social movement that is both feminist and environmentalist (1995).
A good example of the application of such a perspective to a particular struggle is Seager’s discussion of the toxic waste movement as it developed at Love Canal (1993; see also the analysis of the toxic waste movement by Brown and Ferguson 1995). Seager makes it quite clear that the white working class women who began this struggle did so in the context of a socially constructed role as mothers; concerned about the health of their children and future generations. The validity of Seager’s analysis is quite clear from Gibbs’ autobiographical account and testimonies presented to a senate hearing by women involved in the Love Canal struggle (Gibbs 1982; Gibbs 1998; McCoulf 1998; Gambino 1998; Matsulavage 1998). Further than this, it seems extremely likely that most participants saw this socially constructed role as a given of biological femininity. On the other hand the struggle itself called on women to organize politically to combat a patriarchally structured power elite of business and government authorities. Doing this, they moved out of the domestic arena into the public sphere, with implications for power structures in their own families as well as for society more broadly. The struggle promoted values of nurturance and care for other people which are associated with femininity as socially constructed and also marginalized within the public world.
Within the context of this paper I am going to analyze this approach as presenting ecofeminism as a "reverse" discourse of the kind mentioned by Foucault in his History of Sexuality (1980). Foucault introduces this concept in the context of a discussion of the medicalizing discourse which appeared in the nineteenth century, postulating homosexuality as a medical or natural condition. While this discourse "made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area" it also allowed "the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified" (Foucault 1980, 101). In the accompanying passages, Foucault argues that discourses are not in themselves necessarily on the side of powerful social forces or against them, instead, discursive elements can get used in a variety of different strategies with different implications for social power. Weedon applies this concept to strategies within feminism and speaks of the way "devalued subject positions characterized by emotion, intuition and an abandonment or redefinition of rationality" have become the basis of feminist strategies which resist patriarchal power (Weedon 1988, 110).
Ecofeminism fits this framework of analysis well. We can characterize the constructionist position as follows. Constructionists realize that the alliance between women and nature has been socially constructed as an aspect of patriarchal power in certain cultural contexts. However, a reverse discourse is possible, which makes use of this socially constructed alliance to the benefit of both feminism and the environmental movement. The environmentalist movement benefits as women realize their support for nature in public political action. The feminist movement benefits as women gain public power by struggling to achieve the environmental goals that they have been socially constructed to desire as women. Within a poststructuralist framework the question of whether this alliance is based on true social knowledge is a separate question from whether it works politically to support women or the environment.
While this presentation of ecofeminism as a "reverse" discourse may at least defend the coherence of the constructionist position, what this research is concerned with is whether there is in fact an affinity between femininity/feminism and environmental politics within the current period. In depth interview with Australian women suggest that women actually produce their environmental politics in relation to a number of discursive options, of which ecofeminism is just one. Discourses of social class and other uses of discourses of gender can be seen to create a situation in which most women actively reject strong environmental politics.
Ecofeminism as a political strategy is premised on the translation of a feminine culture of respect for nature into a political force for environmental reform. A range of surveys of attitudes to environmenal politics have been carried out in many countries and it is possible to argue that women are more concerned about environmental issues than men - as ecofeminists would expect. Findings of a 1988 United Nations study of fourteen countries, both rich and developing are both typical and more comprehensive than most. Asked whether they thought a particular environmental issue was a major or minor problem women were more likely to reply that it was a major problem. For example 46% of women and 40% of men thought changes in climate were a major problem; 74% of women and 68% of men thought air pollution by cars and industry was a major problem; 66% of women and 59% of men thought the use of dangerous chemicals to control pests and weeds was a major problem (Harris 1988). These finding are typical as well in that gender differences are less than 10% and both women and men express majority concern with most environmental problems (McStay & Dunlap 1983; Poole, Zeiger, Longman 1985; Shapiro & Mahajan 1986; Steger & Witt 1988; Diani 1989; Schahn & Holzer 1990; ANOP 1992; Blaikie 1992; Franklin & Rudig 1992; Stern, Dietz & Kalof 1993; McAllister 1994; Hampel. Boldero & Holdsworth; Tranter 1996).
The environmental issues on which men and women seem to be most differentiated are concerned with nuclear power, nuclear weapons, animal welfare and toxic waste. For example a US study tied to the 1980 election found 53% of men wanted to build more nuclear plants and only 27.4% of women wanted this (Poole, Zeiger, Longman 1985). A more recent study in the UK found a significant gender difference in attitudes to the issue of nuclear missiles on British soil (Rudig, Bennie, Franklin 1991). Other similar findings on nuclear issues date back to the seventies (Passino & Lounsbury 1976; Reed & Wilkes 1980). On issues to do with animal welfare Kellert and Berry (1987) summarize the results of a survey of over 3000 adults in the United States. They report a "dramatic" difference in attitudes with women much more likely to have "humanistic" attitudes to animals, to be attached to individual animals, to have higher scores than men on issues of cruelty and animal exploitation. Their study also allows a comparison of membership. 89% of members of hunting organisations are men; 62% of environmental organisations are men but 80% of members of animal welfare organisations are women (see also Herzog, Betchart & Pittman 1991). A similar case for gender difference on environmental issues has been made for toxic waste activism. Krauss (1993) and Brown and Ferguson (1995) both argue that it is women who have assumed leadership of environmental struggles against toxic wastes. In the US, the toxic wastes network estimates that 70% of local and statewide activists are women (Brown & Ferguson 1995).
In all three of these areas, women’s concerns fit with the ecofeminist analysis. Ecofeminism is a discourse of reversal which takes elements of women’s socially constructed role as nurturing carers of humans and other species and mobilizes this social construction around environmental issues. Both Brown and Ferguson (1995), writing about toxic waste and Kellert & Berry (1987), writing about animal issues relate women’s attitudes and political activism to the moral framework identified by writers such as Chodorow (1974) and Gilligan (1982) - in other words, to a particularizing of ethical concern around specific possibilities of harm to others; to a propensity for nurturing behaviour on the part adult women, related to the psychic structures engendered by women’s predominant involvement in the care of young children.
While all this sounds favourable for the ecofeminist strategy there are some other aspects of the survey data that are not so reassuring. Some studies show no difference between men and women on environmental issues or argue that the differences are not statistically significant (Van Liere & Dunlap 1980; Arcury, Scollay & Johnson 1987; Hines, Hungerford & Tomera 1987; Blocker & Eckberg 1989; Theodori, Luloff & Willits 1998). Some studies actually suggest that women may be less concerned than men about some environmental issues. For example Papadakis discusses a 1990 Australian study of 2037 voters. 79% of women thought pollution was a very urgent problem compared with 74% of men but waste, uranium, logging, wildlife and greenhouse were considered more urgent by men - for example 75% of men nominated the greenhouse effect as a very urgent problem compared to 66% of women ( Papadakis 1993, 158; for a similar result in the US see Burch, Cheek & Taylor 1972).
It is extremely common for surveys that also compare gender with other variables such as class, age or education to conclude that gender is less important than these other social variables. For example the ANOP Australian study with 33 focus groups found that 36% of women mentioned environmental issues as important compared with 26% of men. However 50% of high school students and 36% of the tertiary educated nominated these issues as important (see also VanLiere & Dunlap 1980; McStay & Dunlap 1983; Diani 1989; Franklin & Rudig 1992; McAllister 1994). So if there is a generalized ecofeminist effect it is definitely overlaid by important issues of age, education and social class.
More seriously still, the support for ecofeminism suggested by attitude surveys is not necessarily translated into strong political action on behalf of the environment. While ecofeminist writing and analysis of environmental actions led by women can suggest that women are everywhere waking up to their alliance to nature, other indicators imply this is something of a minority position. For example Tranter (1996) in Australia found that 10% of men were members of environmental organisations and 9% of women - yet women were more active with 6% of women and 3% of men having been involved in an environmentalist demonstration. Even so, these figures show that environmental activism is confined to a small minority of either gender. In countries where Green parties are strong, typical votes are less than 10 per cent of the population as a whole, with men often being slightly more likely to vote for the Greens (Burklin 1987; Diani 1989; McAllister 1994; Lauber 1997). Studies of voter behaviour in the US suggest that strong majority commitment to environmental reform expressed in surveys does not translate into voting for more pro-environmentalist candidates (Dunlap 1989). More specifically, strong gender differences on nuclear issues did not stop Reagan doing better than Carter amongst women voters (Poole & Zeitger 1985).
So what these surveys pose as a question for qualitative analysis is twofold. On the one hand, we could consider why it is that women are slightly more willing than men to express an environmentalist position, especially on some issues. Does the activism of women around specific issues such as toxic waste correspond to a more general sentiment among women in the community at large which fits the explanatory framework and strategy of ecofeminism? A second question is to explain what it is that stands in the way of women becoming active in their environmental commitment, if the ecofeminist analysis is correct?
Three recent ethnographic studies are particularly useful in developing a constructivist approach to women’s environmental activism. As Brown and Ferguson note, studies report women to have lower rates of involvement in the broader environmental movement while at the same time it is clear that 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 and that compared to the environmental movement generally, toxic waste activists include more people of colour, and older people. Brown and Ferguson emphasize the way these activists develop their action out of the resources that they bring to this situation as women. Their activism begins from their daily experiences of health problems in their communities and they are motivated by issues of caring, responsibility for others and connectedness that are part of the "meaning of womanhood, and especially of motherhood, in our culture" (1995, 150). Coming from less powerful sections of the community their actions also develop from the understanding that the powers that be are unjustly burdening their communities with environmental problems.
Krauss’ analysis of toxic waste issues deals with the specificity of these protests in relation to issues of race, class and gender (1993). Like Brown and Ferguson, she claims that as women in this culture, their role as mothers gives them responsibility for the health of their children which leads on to environmental action. However this response is differentiated within the three groups she studies - white working class women; African American women and Native American women. White working class women conceptualize issues of social class around attempts to make democracy real and develop a critique of the corporatist state. They feel disillusioned and betrayed by the sense that "their" democratically elected government is not representing them but working with ruthless business interests. African American women see their activism in terms of racial politics more broadly - what they are suffering from is environmental racism. Their public participation is not a departure from what is expected of women within the black community, but also challenges white racist stereotypes of the black woman as dumb and lazy. For Native American women, toxic waste is seen as one more genocidal assault on their people and a further encroachment on their rights to land. They refer to traditions of respect for women and mother earth.
Prindeville and Betting (1998) in a similar analysis of environmentalism on the part of Latino and Native American women also stress the specificity of the social contexts of their activism. In terms of gender issues these activists shared an ethic of care with other women activists. However most rejected the labels "feminist" and "environmentalist". They proposed defense of their families and communities as the priority rather than individual empowerment for women. They regarded the mainstream environmentalist movement as divorced from the realities of life for the poor, working class and people of color. Interestingly, the interviewees claimed a link between their environmental ethic and spirituality that fits with essentialist ecofeminism saying that women are "life-givers, their connection to Mother Earth is important" (Prindeville & Betting 1998, 51).
What these studies give us is a sense of the situated social context of women’s involvement in environmental politics. The theoretical framework of these studies can also be applied to looking at the question of support for ecofeminism in the community more broadly and at the question of why it is that many women are not strong supporters of the environmentalist movement. The discourse of femininity as caring, and discourses of class that are relevant to these studies are also relevant to an analysis of women’s rejections of environmental politics. For example, the rejections of the mainstream environmentalist movement described in the studies of toxic waste activists also apply to working class women who are not part of any environmental activism. We can also look at the way middle class women use discourses of class to critique the environmental movement.
This Qualitative Study
The rest of this paper 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 conducted myself, gathering respondents through the technique of snowball sampling. The others are from focus groups arranged by my students with families and friends. At some of these interviews I was present and conducted the group; others were conducted by the students themselves. There are fifty five interviews altogether with 118 interviewees.
Some Metatheoretical and Theoretical Issues
This paper makes use of some of the key ideas of poststructuralist theorising. "Discourses" are ways of thinking, speaking and acting that are socially constructed and include causal analyses, truth claims and ethical viewpoints (Foucault 1980a; Foucault 1980b; Foucault 1984; Weedon 1987). People construct their subjectivity, their sense of themselves, by taking up subject positions that are offered in socially available discourses. As with many authors who have made use of poststructuralism to understand interview data, I assume that people's subjectivity is both constrained by socially available discourses but also open to a certain amount of choice and innovation - what is usually called "agency" (e.g. Davies 1991; Smith 1988; Walkerdine 1986). Ultimately new discourses come from a process of collective invention (Castoriadis 1987). I shall be looking at the way people develop their subjectivity in the context of available discourses that have conflicting implications for action. This sense of the individual as positioned within a multiplicity of discourses is one of the key insights of poststructuralism (Foucault 1980b; Foucault 1984; Weedon 1987) and one which has been made much use of in a variety of ethnographic poststructuralist accounts (e.g. Davies 1989; Hudson 1984; Nilan 1991; Nilan 1995; Smith 1988; Walkerdine 1987).
A second source of insights for this paper is what have been called "structuralist" marxism and "structuralist" feminism - at least in their humanist/ interactionist guise. I have been particularly influenced by 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 social places; instead it varies as aspects of patriarchal strategy are worked out in different circumstances. 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. He also maintains that there are other types of femininity, organised around "strategies of resistance or non-compliance" to patriarchy (Connell 1987, 183).
How can one relate all this to poststructuralist terminology? Both Connell's "gender types" and poststructuralism's "discourses" have ideational content, animate action and participate in power relationships. The key difference is in the way discourses and gender types are marked off as social entities. Each of Connell's gender types is defined in terms of its relationship to structures of patriarchal power. The ideational content of each gender type can vary in different locations in social space, while its relation to structures of social power stays the same. For example, Connell refers to the way duelling was considered to be an appropriate expression of hegemonic masculinity for upper class men in Europe at a certain period of history and was subsequently discarded for a new "rationalised" masculinity (Connell 1987). These are two versions of hegemonic masculinity with a different ideational content, in a different social setting. By contrast, a discourse is defined by its ideational content. So, from the point of view of discourses, what has happened in this example is that a particular discourse of male honour and duelling has been discarded and replaced by another discourse of masculinity and rationality. Accordingly, for the purposes of this article, what poststructuralists would call "discourses" of gender are particular versions of Connell’s various types of "gender character".
Ecofeminism as a stratetgy of reversal can be theorized within Connell’s schema of gender categories. The discourse of women's closeness to nature has historically been created as part of "emphasised femininity" - as part of the denigration of nature or as an aspect of feminine concern and care for others, which was not meant to embody any real social power (Bloch 1978; Merchant 1990; Plumwood 1993; Seager 1993). The ecofeminist project is to wrench this discourse from its roots and turn it against patriarchy. It would then become a type of "resistant femininity" within Connell's theoretical schema.
Class Politics in the Context of Environmentalism
Connell makes a general point about the relationship between feminist politics and other political allegiances which proves particularly 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 defined by the inequalities of income power and so on already documented. (Connell 1987, 138).
In this context the project of the ecofeminist strategy is to represent the interests of women as a collectivity in relationship to environmental issues. It stresses 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 are often defined in conflict with the aims of the environmental movement. As well, aspects of the discourse of emphasised femininity also prioritize loyalty to the political positions of key men in their families as political leaders of the family. In turn, these men may define their interests within the economic structures of society as inimical to the project of environmentalism in its broadest sense.
We can split these issues along class lines or also consider shared allegiances to a capitalist status quo that is seen as preferable to the possibilities implied by environmentalist discourse. As seen in the studies of toxic waste activists, working class people can come to see the environmental movement as a middle class preserve, expressing middle class interests at the expense of the working class. The reality of the first of these claims is hard to dispute. Morrison and Dunlap in a study of environmental groups in the US found for example that 60% of the core members of environmental groups had a college degree compared with 10% in the general population, 60% were from professional or technical occupations compared with 15% of the general population and 50% had family incomes over $15000 p.a. compared with 16% of the general population (Morrison & Dunlap 1986; see also Diani & Lodi 1988; Diani 1989; Schann & Holzer 1990; Rudig, Bennie & Franklin 1991; Snow 1992; Tranter 1996; Theodori, Luloff & Willits 1998). Morrison and Dunlap point out that members of other pressure groups are also disproportionately middle class. Nevertheless, it is important to note that supporters of environmentalism and voters for environmentalist parties are also more likely to be middle class or well educated (Burch, Cheek & Taylor 1972; Burklin 1987; Diani 1989).
This resentment of environmentalists as middle class can be understood within the class theory presented by the Ehrenreichs (1979; see also Sennet & Cobb 1978). The Ehrenreichs argue that modern consumerist capitalism has thrown up a new class whose function is to control and supervise the daily work and consumption of the working class. They call this the "professional managerial class" and include in it professionals such as teachers and social workers, as well as those in the entertainment industry and advertising. It also includes managers, bureaucrats and technicians who supervise work. In all cases, the antagonism that exists between these classes is a result of a central reality of modern capitalism. Modern capitalism separates mental and manual work in order to remove the control of culture and work from the working class. This separation is not a necessity of "complex modern production" but a necessity of capitalist social relationships. The role of the new professional-managerial class is to moralise and guide the working class, in both work and culture at large. Writing of the relationships between these two classes the Ehrenreichs comment:
... the antagonism between the PMC and the working class does not exist only in the abstract realm of "objective" relations, of course ... The subjective dimension of these contacts is a complex mixture of hostility and deference on the part of working-class people, contempt and paternalism on the part of the PMC. (Ehrenreich & Ehrenreich 1979, 17).
This conflict is central to the way working class women (and men) view environmentalism.
Looking at environmental issues from the perspective of the middle class, there is another set of reasons why environmentalism can seem dangerous. The environmental movement can be seen as attempting to undermine the profitability of capitalist enterprise. The environmental movement is placing barriers on growth. In this critique the environmental movement is viewed as a representing a fraction of the middle class who are betraying the middle class as a whole through their attacks on consumerism and technical progress. As we shall see, they may be viewed as distasteful in terms of the work ethic and respectability or as disingenuous in claiming the moral high ground through a pretence of separation from middle class lifestyles and privileges. Again, it is hard to deny the alliance between the environmental movement and other critics of capitalism. For example in Europe the Green parties join environmental and social justice issues in their programs and green voters are more likely to be on the left (Burklin 1987; Schahn & Holzer 1990). Even in the United States there is a link between left or liberal political ideology and pro environmental behaviour (Theodori, Luloff & Willits 1998).
These qualms about the environmental movement may not be restricted to the middle class but can also be shared by working class people who believe that the success of the capitalist economy is essential for employment and decent wages. More broadly, we could regard the middle class and the working class as parts of the proletariat - those who have to get employment to get an income and are not owners of the means of production. In this context we could see the environmental movement as problematic for many in its attack on consumerism (Roszak ). As Cardan (1974) suggests, over the last one hundred years the working class of the rich countries have concentrated their political efforts on increasing real wages through unions and left political parties, leaving the issue of alienation in work untouched. In this context consumer goods function as an arena of choice and self expression in a context where hierarchy and the dominance of the market does not offer much of this at work (Willis ). As Sennett and Cobb also point out, respectability can become tied to consumerism when consumer goods are seen as evidence of self sacrifice and hard work. They argue that this is particularly relevant to working class people who are constantly informed that they have not achieved a great deal because of their lack of ability. It could also be seen as relevant to the middle class who also judge their achievements competitively with those above them in terms of a discourse of ability and meritocracy. While these feelings may be shared by different classes they are related to a class situation created by capitalism in so far as alienated labour and consumerism as well as ideologies of the work ethic and meritocracy are intrinsic to the class structure of the current capitalist economy.
Finally, it has been argued that consumerism and resistance to political involvement can be an expression of detachment in a situation where real decisions are taken out of the hands of ordinary people at all levels of the society (Cardan 1974). Baudrillard argues that people may even subconsciously desire the apocalyptic end of the current social order, consuming in full awareness of the environmental disasters that may follow (1988). Both these authors also suggest that the realm of politics is seen by most people as a dangerous place of manipulation by elites. Environmentalists can be seen as dangerous fanatics whose desire to transform society may sweep up ordinary people into some new catastrophe. While such uneasiness about environmentalists is not class based in the narrow sense, it certainly takes its basis from the context of current capitalist society as a social structure organised on class lines.
I shall begin this analysis by considering some interviews that seem to confirm ecofeminist expectations about feminism/femininity and environmental politics and go on to other interviews that call this linkage into question.
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. Elements of an ecofeminist position are particularly clear in an early part of the interview. Sally asked the group whether they worried about environmental issues. The two other women and Malcolm said that they did but Robbie commented dismissively:
Nuh. I'll be dead before it really, the shit hits the fan.
The implication of his remark is that what happens to you personally is the only thing which counts. Megan went on to define a supposed link between humans and the natural world that would imply that this division of the self from nature is not feasible:
I think it's really sacred, I think, you know that it's, it's really, (sighs) I don't know, really energising for everyone. Without it, you know, no kind of human potential would be able to be reached, I don't think.
Malcolm agreed, saying that nature was not ours to ruin. Guy joined Robbie’s cynical selfish discourse by flatly denying Malcolm’s 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.
In this debate, the three women and Malcolm take up a position shared by deep ecologists and ecofeminists alike. Nature is not ours to ruin, it has ethical rights. Further, following ecofeminist discourse they argue that we should look after nature, realizing what we owe it and deriving an ethical position from this. Finally, Liz and Sally tie this to the essentialist version of ecofeminism by claiming nature as a mother and making an analogy between care for one’s mother and care for the earth. (Devall & Sessions 1985; Dobson 1990; Roszak 1992; McLaughlin 1993; Plumwood 1993; Seager 1993). The feminine ethical value of nurturance here informs an ethics of care for nature that ties femininity to environmentalism, a clear instance of the ecofeminist strategy of reversal. This goes along with what constructivists criticize as a false and anti-feminist belief that women are closer to nature because of their role as mothers (Seager 1993; Stearney 1994). Nevertheless, it is here used precisely to rebut the connection that Stearney fears in this metaphor - while patriarchs may see mothers as infinitely exploitable, this argument makes a feminist claim that both mothers and the earth should be respected for what we owe them. On the other hand, there is equally no doubt that the discourse suggests to women that their most ethically validated role is that of the mother.
There were many other examples of this conflict of perspectives within the interview. One incident began with a debate about whether it was moral to buy something that had been produced by sweated labour in a developing country. Saying that this kind of economic rationality was inevitable, Robbie expanded on the definition of human nature as necessarily selfish that informs his and Guy’s statements in the previous passage:
It's human nature. Economics is defined by human nature and politics are defined by human nature which is to procreate, dominate and expand. We are sort of directed in that manner to dominate is why capitalism and western society is dominating the rest of the world. I think humans as dinosaurs are doomed. We're going to die. The planet'll be alive a lot longer than we are. I mean even if we kill it the earth and soil will still be there and it'll regenerate in a hundred thousand years or the meantime.
Robbie here presents a sociobiological model of human nature in which humans are naturally competitive and this is related to reproductive imperatives (Dawkins 1976; Morris; 1967; Tiger 1969; Tiger & Fox 1972 - for a critique see Singer 1993). Macpherson (1962) argues that this conception of human nature is a capitalist ideology dating back to Hobbes and Locke. Belief in the inevitability of aggressive competition also fits with a hegemonic masculinity which upholds this behaviour as a masculine ideal (Connell 1987; 1995). In combination, these discourses treat men as the primary instance of human nature, with women departing from this normative standard. Fatalistic acceptance of a catastrophic outcome fits another discourse of contemporary hegemonic masculinity; death and destruction can be seen as merely an event, to be regarded dispassionately without identification (Seager 1993).
In terms of the discourses of class specified above we can argue that Robbie firstly presents a pro-capitalist discourse of the middle class in which capitalism is seen as an expression of human nature with environmentalism revealed as impractical, unscientific. He then moves to the discourse discussed by Baudrillard (1988) in which the current order is expected to end in catastrophe; a catastrophe which is in some ways welcomed.
In this and other sections of the interview, the women are sceptical about Robbie's view of human nature, wondering whether competitive, dominating behaviour is truly universal or is instead socially constructed within this particular society. Women are encouraged to be nurturing and sympathetic, especially in the context of motherhood. Women are also expected to avoid overt competition (Gilligan 1982; Plumwood 1993; Tannen 1991). So women are unlikely to take up a subject position as humans within a discourse that postulates the human species as unrelentingly competitive. In another passage in this interview, Robbie and Guy argue that humans will use up this planet and move to another planet so environmental destruction of the Earth does not ultimately matter. They acknowledge that only a small minority of the human population would be saved within this scenario. The women find this an immoral option. In other passages they debate whether animals, such as a stick insect, have value whether or not humans have a use for them. Of course Robbie and Guy resolutely refuse to accord any moral value to animals unless it is a value that they have for humans. The women and Malcolm reject this human-centred ethical outlook.
In this debate it may seem to be no accident that the cynical, rational anti-environmentalist position is taken by two of the men in the interview. This distanced, scientific appropriation of the natural world is a discourse of hegemonic masculinity within the current forms of patriarchal capitalism (Connell 1987; Connell 1995; Macpherson 1962; Merchant 1990). Similarly, it can be seen as no accident that the caring empathetic view of nature is supported by all the women in this group. In other words, this interview represents the ecofeminist paradigmatic case of a cultural split between masculinity and femininity on environmental issues. However, as I shall go on to show later, other interviews seriously complicated this picture.
While the two men and the three women are opposed in terms of environmental politics in this interview, there is a sense in which they are united in presenting gender as a complementarity within the terms of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. The three women take up a position within patriarchal discourse that Bloch (1978) has called the "moral mother"; the role of women within Western patriarchy as the gender that takes care of the puritan moral order while men step out into the world of pragmatic moral compromise and risk. From the masculine point of view the position of playful cynicism and radical scientific scepticism answers the "moral mother" with the discourse of "cutting the apron strings" or "boys will be boys". While poststructuralists call for a deconstruction of the gender order, here everyone except Malcolm stays within their prescribed gender roles and takes up an expected position (Kristeva; Butler; Davies).
All Sorts of Creative Things: Ecofeminist Men
While Robbie and Guy took a stridently anti environmentalist position in this interview Malcolm, who spoke only very rarely, mostly sided with the women. I also note that Malcolm tended to speak in a light, slightly sing song manner, that might be considered effeminate, compared to deep booming assertiveness of the other two men and their occasional noisy rambunctious interventions. He described himself as "dabbling in music and art and - all sorts of creative things". By contrast Robbie and Guy announced themselves as students of the human and social sciences. In introducing himself for the tape Guy called attention to his masculinity, saying "Oh yeah. By the way, I'm male too. You got that!". Within the interviews, Malcolm agreed with all the points raised by the women and sometimes introduced ideas that they were happy to take up. He was not uncomfortable taking up a speaking position as a supporter of the women in the group.
What I want to suggest here is that Malcolm positions himself as a supporter of "ecofeminism"; not just as an environmental philosophy but as part of a package in which key aspects of hegemonic masculinity are being opposed. This makes sense within the framework of poststructuralism in that a discourse of femininity is available as a position which men can also adapt for their own use (Davies 1989; Hudson 1989). Discourses of gender are not fixed in their social location and aspects of what is discursively constructed for one gender are also available to the other. Connell's research into masculinity and the environmentalist movement also found that many Australian male environmentalists had adopted a pro-feminist environmentalism similar to that which Malcolm puts forward (Connell 1995). This finding also fits with the study by Somma, Tolleson and Rinehart (1997), which found that while women are more likely to be feminists than men, feminists of both sexes were more likely to be environmentalists than non-feminists. In other words, they argue, the key to the supposed alliance between feminism and environmentalism is the link between different aspects of the package of the "new politics" that both represent.
The Bambi View of Nature: Naive Ecofeminism
Another interview showed that the ecofeminist discourse is not restricted to middle class tertiary students and their friends. Diane has worked as a secretary most of her life and was beginning her training for a more professional position when she was interviewed. She is a member of a local environmental group and has for a number of years been active in local issues, working to prevent a road being constructed through a bush park. She counterposes human selfishness to the needs of members 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 because we can’t because the big trees get into the drains, or into the swimming pool, so we can’t have anything that’s gonna get into the drains, so 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 that of Robbie and Guy in the last interview - humans are selfish. But unlike them she argues that we must resist this selfishness through a change in values. She also attacks the view that nature can be owned by humans. We think we own nature but actually other species also have rights over the natural world.
What immediately strikes one about this passage is its determined cuteness; it is almost a self parody of the moral position associated with emphasised femininity. It is 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. Her intentional naivety 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 position strikes the listener as a personal invention, illustrating the ecofeminist view that this strategy of reversal is currently being discovered by women through their own experiences in a time of environmental crisis.
When Diane says that "we" are not looking after the future welfare of our children, her accusation speaks most strongly to women as mothers. When she is speaking about the lizard and the birds, it is the absence of a "home" that is seen as the problem. The animal species are given human concerns and these are the human concerns associated with emphasised femininity and mothering - looking after the home or nest. In this, Diane’s discourse parallels that of the toxic waste activists who have been found to construct their environmental resistance out of the hegemonic discourse of motherhood. Yet whereas they sometimes accuse the mainstream environmental movement of neglect of the human aspect of environmentalism, Diane links her concerns with the human future to concerns about the welfare of animals and trees.
Her presentation of animals and plants reminds one of texts written for children. The most extreme example is when 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. This ethical viewpoint is implicit in the stigmatised "Bambi" view of nature and comes closest to the ecofeminist ethics proposed by Plumwood in which individuals and species are granted ethical status, rather than nature as whole being hypostatised as a person (Plumwood 1993). Plumwood also suggests that our ethical relationship to nature should be guided by empathy and identification. 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" (Gilligan 1982; 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 in their approach to environmental matters.
Those Bushies Stand Firm: Working Class Women Who Put Class Politics First
Some interviewees made a very clearl link between their rejection of aspecs of environmentalist politics and their working class identity. One group consisted of Mandy, who is now a tertiary student, her husband Martin, who is employed as a tradesman and Mandy's sister Adelle, who is on a supporting parents' benefit. While all three are concerned about environmental issues and discuss environmental problems, they indicate quite firmly that they would never support an environmentalist party. The unanimity of the different speakers is marked. In a situation where Martin does not dominate the conversation as patriarch, the two sisters nevertheless relate their political position to the influence of key men in their life.
Martin: I still remember. Ohh, you gotta vote Labor, gotta vote Labor, as a young feller. I always remember that. And I, I haven't seen a change in my life yet of what goes on in the Parliament. Whoever gets in, it's good for their side.
Adelle: Yeah I agree. I've always voted Labor ((Laughs)).
Mandy: I think too that comes a lot from our father. He's very Labor right down the line. He was a union delegate and whatever and very Labor and I think that we were just brought up to.
In this passage all three interviewees are explaining why they would not vote informal even though they have little faith in the political process. Starting with Martin, they relate their support for Labor to the influence of their fathers. Martin implies his father through the phrase "young feller" which suggests that part of adult masculinity is to take up a political position, preferably based on one's father's example. Mandy and Adelle specify their father directly as someone who was an active participant in the Labor movement.
Mandy and Adelle take their politics quite seriously as members of the working class. However at the same time, within patriarchal capitalism, it is men who are active participants in the public political process associated with social class, men carry the political culture of their families. This politics is often based in the economic position of men as principal wage earners. So for Adelle and Mandy, class issues take priority over any allegiance to the natural world that might be a part of the discourse of femininity. For example, they explained that they would not vote for an environmentalist party because they were concerned about the issue of unemployment.
The way these class issues were tied together through men’s employment became most clear in another discussion of environmentalist attacks on the forestry industry. While Adelle was most strident on this, Mandy and Martin joined with her in explaining their position in terms of the way senior male relatives viewed the issues. Mandy explained:
I'm just wondering Adelle, if that opinion of it had any to do with Dad working in, when he used to work in the, when he used to work with the logs years ago. Yeah, see we come from a real country family. We all come from the bush. 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 summarized the discussion, asking 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" - in opposition to impractical city folk who base their views on mere theory or sentiment, a dichotomy popularised in the Crocodile Dundee movies. For Mandy, Adelle and Martin, this iconic support is mustered in defence of working class jobs. As women, Adelle and Mandy subordinate any "feminine" concerns they may have about the environment to a politics which is tied into the requirements of men as key family wage earners. Almost every environmental policy threatens the jobs of some section of the working class (see Leahy 1994; McLaughlin 1993; Trainer 1985; Trainer 1991; Trainer 1995). This becomes the key issue in the way these working class women relate to the environmental movement.
This rejection of environmentalism was tied to an analysis in which environmental activists are seen as members of the middle class. Adelle implied that environmentalist protesters are spoiled children who have no commitment to the 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. They just don't know what they're talking about. I really don't. I mean, I think these umm. No I think they go on, yeah they do, they go on. Yeah. That's about it.. I think half of them are going more for the fun of it. People that haven't got better things to do I think. 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 typical sentiment of working class culture, they are seen as mere theorists with no practical hands on knowledge (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979; Pont 1997; Sennet & Cobb 1973; Willis 1983). From the perspective suggested by the Ehrenreichs, the rejection of environmentalists as mere theorists ties in to the resentment of professionals and managers within industrial work situations - the time and motion experts, engineers and the like who control work practices.
The direct action taken by environmental protesters is seen as theatrical and extremist. 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. In all this Adelle draws on 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 (Pont 1997). These criticisms amount to the view that environmental protesters are the spoiled children of middle class parents who have the time and money to go around interfering in the serious business of other people's occupations. The rejection of environmentalists in terms of the norms of the "work ethic" and puritanism was a cross class phenomenon in these interviews, which I will consider at more length later in the article.
There was only one part of the interview where Adelle supported environmentalist politics. In a discussion of Greenpeace she said that she approved of their political actions to save whales, dolphins, and seals. She claimed that she liked environmentalists "on the water", it was just the ones on the land that she opposed. So, interestingly, Adelle applied none her usual criticisms of environmentalists to the actions of Greenpeace on the water. While this was only an isolated incident, it could be suggested that here the feminine culture of respect for wild animals becomes the governing discourse because of the absence of discourses of class which are seen as relevant to the situation. From Adelle’s point of view, Greenpeace does not threaten the jobs of any Australian workers through their actions on the water.
Looking at the response of working class women to environmentalism through this interview, we can argue that ecofeminism is just one way in which women may take up a position in relation to environmental matters. In this interview 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 cut across by interests that link women as members of a class. In terms of discourses, women can adopt the subject position, "working class woman" instead of the subject position, "caring nurturer of the planet". This class political discourse can be linked to emphasized femininity in so far as women define 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 position illustrates very clearly the problems of linking femininity and environmentalism. She ultimately rejects environmentalism in terms of a number of concerns that are socially constructed as aspects of "emphasised femininity" - empathy, ethics as particularistic, the rejection of masculine violence. Her analysis also relates to a suspicion of environmentalists as "totalitarians"; the kind of suspicion that Baudrillard (1988) sees as characteristic of many people's reaction to political life today.
In answer to a question about what she took to be some major environmental problems Margie replied:
Margie: 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 know. Other than that there's always the greenies going on about not cutting down wood and so on and so forth. Not much. I don't really know much. I don't seem to be worried about it too much.
Terry: What do the greenies go on about then?
Margie: Well, I think that 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, and it's good of them to do that to be interested in and to take that part of their life, 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 and things like that. I mean 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 in this passage where Margie acknowledges aspects of the ecofeminist perspective. When asked about environmental problems, she almost immediately focuses on a problem experienced by another species, and relates this to a particular piece of news footage in which we were shown birds and other animals covered in oil, and invited to feel sympathy with their plight. In her statement about the rainforests - that cutting down the rainforests is "awful" she also suggests that environmental issues are not just about human needs. So in both of these statements she echoes the ecofeminist position that women may come to environmentalism through an empathetic relationship with other living beings (Plumwood 1993). However in ultimately rejecting environmentalist politics, what takes priority for Margie is her empathy with other humans. She imaginatively constructs a scenario in which people in other countries - the poor of the developing world - "need fuel" and are being hampered in their lives by environmentalists who are trying to protect the forests. In general, environmentalists should stand back and "let other people get on with their lives". For Margie, the issue is sympathy for the daily experiences of other people.
Another instance she cited of a situation where environmentalists act to trample on the needs of ordinary people came in her discussion of bushfires in Australia. A common practice in Australia has been to set fires in winter to clear undergrowth. Environmentalists are supposed to have stopped this burning off to save wild animals. As a result, it is claimed, ground fuel built up to the point where destructive wild fires were inevitable. So following this theory, Margie blamed environmentalists for the disastrous bushfires of 1994. She supposed that they had influenced governments to prevent burning off. The result was disasters for suburban residents and farmers, whose properties were destroyed by fire.
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 turn out to be totalitarian.
I'm basically saying on human nature, using human nature that people when they get fanatical about something lose their sense of - what's the word - judgement, you know, they don't , they don't, they're involved, they're not standing back, but I don't know because I can't give you any actual instances of this. Hey, this is sitting on the fence, talking about this. I don't actually know any greenies or ... and I hide from the news... Oh well sometimes I hear things 'cause my husband watches it and my husband listens to the radio of a morning and the evening news, you hear certain things 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. 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. Umm. 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.
Margie goes on to say that at this time she decided 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, because you could have done nothing to prevent it. One of the effects of this and other passages in her interview is to make an association between the fanaticism of environmentalists and that of totalitarianism. She suggests quite clearly that environmentalists are "rationalists" in Oakeshott's use of that term (1962). That is, they make decisions based on abstract principles without looking at the particular situation of individuals. Like Oakeshott, she sees this approach as incipient totalitarianism, that can at any moment turn into the full blown article (see also Baudrillard 1988).
While in the narrow sense, this response is not class determined, in a broader sense it relates to the structures of capitalist society. In fundamental decisions concerning daily life, ordinary people have little say — their labour is "alienated" to use a marxist expression. As Cardan (1974) points out, this experience of bureaucratic control extends into the political sphere where unions and political parties are regarded as beyond the control of ordinary people. The view that politics is an arena of dangerous violence and manipulation relates to the very real power of global economic forces to intervene in ordinary people’s lives and to the constant crises that are the inevitable accompaniment of the capitalist economy. Environmentalists can be readily seen as just another aspiring elite that wishes to control the conduct of ordinary people.
There were many places in the interview where Margie made it quite clear that she saw environmentalists as middle class. When I asked her what kind of people environmentalists were, she said that they were generally better educated and "more aware", middle class people. Her statement that "there's always the greenies going on" encapsulates her working class critique exactly. Environmentalists are an extremist fragment of the middle class whose constant barrage of moralising verbiage is typical of the middle class in general. The correspondence between this account and Adelle’s comments is exact on this point and fits with the Ehrenreich’s analysis. The role of the professional managerial class within capitalism is to supervise the working class. A large part of this is various kinds of verbal moral exhortation.
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 - those whose homes are burned in bushfires, those who need to cut wood and so on. She opposes this to what she sees as an abstracted and universalistic ethic of environmentalists. So in this she, like the ecofeminist interviewees described above, defends an ethics of empathy, identification and particularism (Gilligan 1982).
- Within a dichotomy between a public world of politics and a domestic world of empathy and concern, she chooses the latter. This is the position nominated as the feminine one within emphasised femininity (Bloch 1978). She avoids the news, which only contains stories of violence and war, while her husband watches it. Her culturally constructed femininity actually makes her unavailable for ecofeminist politics; because it is unavoidably political.
Within a poststructuralist framework, Margie's position on environmentalism is established through a negotiation between a number of different discourses of emphasised femininity. One is the discourse in which women have an emotional relationship of sympathy for other creatures on the planet. Another is the discourse in which women have an emotional relationship of sympathy for other humans. Another is the discourse within emphasised femininity by which women stand back from political involvement. Around this are various discourses of class and political experience within capitalism that are taken up to reject environmentalists as a moralising and fanatical section of the middle class.
An Alternative Breed - Puritan Rejections of Environmentalism
In their classic study of the American working class in Boston, Sennett and Cobb (1972 touch on many issues that are relevant to these interviews. Central is their finding that the discourse of meritocracy and the work ethic provides their interviewees with a sense that their own lives have been less than fully successful. While they strive to work hard and to prove their virtue by signs of affluence they nevertheless worry that they have not worked hard enough. Going along with this is a corresponding willingness to attack any group who are seen as being unfairly rewarded without effort. This applies both to members of the middle class who are often seen as being unfairly rewarded for the mere fact of having an education and also to people on welfare who are loathed for their supposed laziness. In the latter case, other aspects of puritan discourse are also brought into play to condemn people on welfare — they live for sexual thrills, they are untidy, they drink to excess. While Sennett and Cobb concentrate on working class interviewees they also showed that these discourses were still important for the middle class professional children of these migrant families.
As already considered, Adelle’s interview applies many of these value judgements to environmentalist activists. Their political action is not regarded as work but as ostentation and a sign that they do not need to work to be rewarded. Other interviewees stressed this and other related themes from puritan discourse, and also demonstrated that this perspective was not restricted to the working class. A policewoman argued that people who protested against logging were professional demonstrators in the true sense of being paid by the conservation movement to demonstrate and moving from one protest to another around the country.
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 of cleanliness and tidiness. A commerce graduate was virulent in her attacks on the green movement and in many of these statements she emphasized 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 she would never use them because the thought of washing a cloth nappy makes 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". At a deeper level, it could be argued that nature itself is regarded as a disgusting growth within the subconscious structures that animate 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.
Here, as in Diane’s interview, nature is anthropomorphised but in this case as an unruly person that must be "hit … as soon as it pops its head up".
While these are cross-class discourses, we can see them as linked to the broader structures of the capitalist system. As Sennett and Cobb’s research indicates, the work ethic is a fundamental hegemonic ideology of capitalism in its link with the belief in meritocracy. The sense that we should all work hard in our paid jobs underlies all production within the capitalist economy, which would not survive through purely economic coercion (Cardan 1974; Castoriadis 1987). As Weber’s work suggests, this work ethic is part of a package with other aspects of puritan discourse, such as cleanliness and sexual propriety. Environmentalism can be seen to be a challenge to the psychic structures that make capitalist society legitimate. Its avant garde of "ferals" reject tidiness and the work ethic along with consumerism and the project of technological mastery and endless growth. Its attempt to create empathy with natural processes goes against the metaphors of suppression of natural urges that are inherent within puritan discourse. It makes sense to see emphasized femininity as closely tied to the puritan system of values through the discourse of the "moral mother" who trains children in purity in a protected space and through her own example (Bloch 1978). We can see this as yet another way in which 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
It can be even more obvious that middle class women 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, a choice which she defends in terms of her children's needs, but which also fits with her husband's long and unpredictable hours of work as a contract engineer for an industrial firm. 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. You can't burn off, so they're making it more difficult to burn off. I think in this area now, you've got to have a building permit virtually to burn off. Just talking to the average person, like our neighbours around here, they fancy themselves as greenies. They don't want the burning off. Until now. They've seen the devastation that it caused. And where we had our farm there was a mob down the end. She works for some Government Department. Department of Lands or whatever, in Canberra. 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. I mean but you don't go crazy with these things. You don't just go and burn everything either. I mean back burning. When you're burning off you do it sensibly. That's what we tried to do.
Beth sees environmentalists, who are disparagingly referred to throughout as "greenies", as fellow members of the middle class, as neighbours. Environmentalists are also seen as responsible for an unwanted increase in governmental supervision of independent action. While the damage of wildfires is cited here, it is also relevant that the annual burning off that Beth and her husband performed is an ideal strategy to encourage pasture under trees and maximise fodder for cattle. While Beth’s annual burning off would eventually extinguish many native species, the bush regeneration strategy of her neighbours is seen as irrational (Buchanan 1989). It has occasioned a massive invasion of feral nature - "it's just invaded the whole property". The concept of "noxious weeds" that is employed here also treats land as serving primarily for the commercial production of grazing animals. The development of land for the sake of non-commercial species is stigmatised. Central to this whole account is the productivist ethic that is an ideology of the capitalist economy.
The phrase "they fancy themselves as greenies" suggests that they are seeking status through claiming to be environmentalists. The term "mob" suggests that the neighbouring environmentalist hobby farmers she describes may not live in families like normal people. Both these accusations are framed within a puritan discourse in which sensible people live in proper families and do not indulge in vain displays of moral correctness. This link between capitalist ideals of productivism and puritan values of restraint was repeated in other sections of the interview.
At one 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. Umm, you know. 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, sort of thing. About certain things. 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 can be regarded as an instance of social differentiation and social closure (Parkin 1979; Bourdieu 1989. While members of environmental movements are undoubtedly middle class (see above) it is also argued that they are drawn predominantly from sections of the middle class in the humanities, welfare and government employment (Pakulski 1991). Beth, however, comes from a different section of the middle class - those with jobs as scientific advisers to industry, a group who are understandably worried by environmentalist policies. Her rejection of environmentalists here is a rejection of their culture - a form of "social closure" that separates her section of the middle class from their section (Parkin 1979).
What Beth says about environmentalists is that their lifestyle is merely an "image", a conscious display of style. This critique works within an Anglo Saxon puritan discourse that condemns ostentation. Clothing should be "sensible", "rational" and "practical", rather than individualistic and expressive (Hebdige 1979; Wilson 1985). As above, this cultural critique goes along with an economic point. According to Beth, the image favoured by environmentalists lies. The "hippy" image affected by "greenies" pretends that environmentalists live a subsistence lifestyle in the bush. In actual fact, 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. These people are a sad self-deluding relic of the failed social experiment of the counterculture. As with Beth’s discussion of the noxious weeds, the key issues around which this turns are to do with the capitalist mode of production as an engine of economic growth and consumption. Here she claims that environmentalists’ claimed opposition to the growth economy is a mere image.
Going along with this is a discourse in which environmental problems will be solved by increasing technological mastery:
You go back eighty years and we didn't have any of these problems, we didn't have motor cars zooming around. Things have changed a lot in eighty years too. And I suppose they'll just have to change drastically in the next forty years. 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.
So it is not necessary to reign in the growth economy as environmentalists propose. At one point I asked her directly whether endless economic growth was possible in view of arguments that there were environmental limits to growth. She denied that there were any limits — growth would continue for the foreseeable future.
Explaining her attitudes to environmental politics in more detail, she alludes to economic issues by using certain words and phrases that are frequently invoked in conservative discussions of the economy. 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 were a necessary pressure group to influence governments, even they would see sooner or later that their current policies were unnecessarily extreme:
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.
In these passages the term "radical" and the phrase "running the country" can be seen as standing within a certain discourse of the economy. Running the country is making the capitalist economy work smoothly. Environmentalists’ opposition to the growth economy makes them unreliable for this necessary task of government. In that, their solutions are too radical because, like the socialists who are the paradigmatic instance of radicalism, they might undermine the capitalist economy. The phrase "normal people" again links this economic critique to a sense of environmentalists as part of a cultural subgroup within the middle class — a cultural group that is outside the norms of respectability and good sense.
Despite this dismissal of the environmental movement, 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. You have to 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. 'Cause I think there's always something to live for. There's always something will be sorted out. You know I don't think the world's going to blow up with a big bang ((Laughs)).
In this passage, Beth paints a scenario which one would have to classify as apocalyptic - the life support systems of the planet will be so much destroyed that we will have to live in glass domes. The fact that she shares this apocalyptic view with so many of my other interviewees backs up the views of eco-psychologists like Macy (1981) and Roszak (1992). They argue that a deep, if often unconscious, fear of environmental apocalypse plagues everyone in modern society. Beth distances herself from the horror of this scenario. She moves this scenario at least one hundred years into the future; a time by which her own children will be dead. In other parts of the interview she expressed her relief that she lived in Australia and not in America where acid rain was a problem or in Europe where nuclear disasters might affect many countries at a time. These passages also revealed that her technological optimism was not unmixed with some real concern about environmental problems.
We can see Beth's talk as positioning her within a number of discourses. Primary among these is a class based discourse of support for the capitalist economy. In this discourse, society is run for the benefit of all, with science providing the means to deal with any environmental problems that might arise. The future is one of increasing prosperity within the framework of the capitalist economy. This is a hegemonic discourse within current capitalist society and is not in itself a gendered discourse, but instead a discourse of social class. Beth defends the holders of this discourse through a process of social closure. We are "normal people" in opposition to a small and annoying fraction of the middle class, who are unreasonable about environmental matters.
Cutting across this dominant vision in her account is an alternative, darker reading of the current situation. In this discourse, we are indeed in danger and the environmental problems are not always sorted out in the present and may not be in the future. The situation is so dire that many young people resort to suicide as a way out. Her concerns here fit well within an ecofeminist framework. This strange oppositional undercurrent in Beth's talk well represents the insight of poststructuralism that our subjectivity is constituted within contradictory discourses and that we do not achieve the seamless closure of personal identity postulated by liberal humanism (Weedon 1981).
Ecofeminism suggests an alliance between women's culture and environmental concerns. I have suggested here that this desired alliance can be seen as a "reversal" of a discourse within emphasised femininity - a reversal in which women’s closeness to nature becomes part of a resistance to patriarchy and environmental degradation. My interview study explains some of the barriers to that reversal. The most fundamental of these is social class. For both working class and middle class, environmentalism is perceived as a threat to the capitalist economy. For women, class politics can be taken to be more important than any alliance with nature that they may experience as part of their feminine culture. Emphasized femininity can itself be a barrier to environmentalism. Women are expected within patriarchy to stand back and follow their husbands and fathers in political matters. This is a serious enough barrier to feminist politics itself, but it is even more so for environmentalism, which operates directly on the terrain of class politics. Emphasized femininity can also come to anti environmentalist conclusions by positing human beings as the ones who most need to be cared for. Environmentalists are painted as uncaring fanatics, ruining the lives of ordinary people.
While this is all very disheartening from an ecofeminist perspective, there are some glimmers of hope. For women who do take up environmental politics, ecofeminism provides a way to link the ethics of deep ecology to persistent and important aspects of feminine culture. For feminists, ecofeminism can make sense as a celebration of women’s culture. It is available for men - as a framework in which they can both support feminism and develop an environmentalist ethic. Even women who reject environmentalist politics also express aspects of the ecofeminist position at some times. It is no accident that Margie specified her concern for animals, when she was asked to nominate key environmental problems. It is no accident that she focused on the plight of third world people when she looked at environmentalist issues. It is no accident that Adelle specified Greenpeace and their actions on the water as one of the things that drew her towards environmentalism, since these protests are so closely associated with the sufferings of non human species. Even Beth is plagued by the concerns that ecofeminism addresses - what will be the long term consequences for our children and grandchildren if we go on in this present course? Why are young people so despairing of the future that they are turning to suicide?
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 shows that the strategy of ecofeminism has some real support amongst women in wealthy countries, and that it has some potential to expand its support. Both my research and Connell's show that the ecofeminist position is also available to environmentalist men as a way of linking their support for environmentalism with an acceptance of feminist politics.
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