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Acknowledgements: Geoffrey Samuel and Santi Rozario for discussions and advice.
Ecofeminism ties environmentalism to feminism. It argues that both these social movements are fighting the same enemy. Feminists define patriarchy as the power of men over women. Ecofeminists argue that patriarchy is also related to the degradation of the natural environment.
A good example of popular ecofeminism is provided by a debate that developed in a focus group interview in Australia. The interviewees were a group of friends who were mostly tertiary students. Two of the men were dismissive and cynical about environmental matters. Partly as a joke, they claimed that their own selfish interests were more important than anything else. All three of the women, and the other man, put forward an environmentalist position. They linked concern for other species with responsibilities to look after other people; with a set of values that are traditionally identified as feminine values. Elements of an ecofeminist position are particularly clear in this passage from the interview:
Sally: Okay, does everyone worry about environmental issues?
Liz: Now and again.
Robbie: Nuh. I'll be dead before it really, the shit hits the fan.
Sally: You do?
Megan: No it isn't, is it?
Guy: Ohh yes it is.
Robbie: We belong and it's part of us that we belong with it. It's made out of the same basic matter as us.
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.
Robbie: I don't think we look at it as if we're going to kill it. I think we use it and use it. We use it first. The abuse comes later as greed becomes more of an issue.
Guy: We get what we can get out of it.
The passage above goes through various stages. In the first Robbie takes issue with the position of Liz, Megan and Malcolm. While they claim to be worried about the environment he denies that he worries. He will be dead before anything really serious happens. In making this point he implies that the only sensible concern is what happens to him personally.
Megan and Malcolm challenge the narrowness of this conception of the self (Plumwood 1993; Singer 1993). They argue that the individual human self actually depends on nature for its spiritual fulfilment and even for any creative potential. This is a position which Megan and Malcolm share with ecofeminists and deep ecologists alike (Devall & Sessions 1985; Dobson 1990; Roszak 1992; McLaughlin 1993; Plumwood 1993 ). They follow this up with yet another argument; that the natural world has an ethical right to existence, whether or not humans have any use for it. This is the defining position of the deep ecology movement and one shared with ecofeminists (Devall & Sessions 1985; Plumwood 1993).
Malcolm backs up this deep ecology position by saying that we do not own nature. Guy's reply is that we do own nature. So it seems that Guy believes that as owners, we can ruin nature if we choose. Nature is not a person, it is an object and has no rights. In saying this, Guy refers back to current property rights in which people do in fact own land and other parts of nature. He is suggesting that "ownership" is an arrangement that humans make with each other. Robbie makes a strange comment which is not clearly placed on either side of the debate. We are actually a part of nature ourselves. He does not get a chance to expand on this view but it fits with a common anti-environmentalist position. Since we are a part of nature ourselves, whatever we do is a natural act by nature. So when environmentalists claim to defend nature against humans, they are just making a silly mistake of logic.
Sally re-uses Robbie's statement to a different conclusion. If we are part of nature then we must "come from" nature. So we should be grateful to nature for our existence and should repay this debt with kindness. So nature is given the moral rights of a person - to be respected, to have ownership of itself and now to be rewarded for kindness with kindness in return. Sally's question - would you kill your mother? - moves right to the heart of some versions of ecofeminism. Nature is linked to the human species as a mother is linked to her child. Nature is personified as a mother goddess. Robbie and Guy re-state their refusal to deal with this as a moral issue. It is just a fact that we humans make use of nature and may end up by destroying it. Since this is unavoidable it is not a moral issue; we cannot make a moral choice to do things differently.
In all this the three women and Malcolm link themselves to the politics of deep ecology. At the same time they link these deep ecology politics to ecofeminism and to common aspects of femininity as it is culturally defined:
To Deep Ecology
The natural environment is a sacred realm from which humans can draw spiritual energy. We do not have a right to destroy it; instead it has rights to be respected like any human person. These are beliefs which deep ecology and ecofeminism share.
When Sally and Liz argue that nature is a "mother" of the human species and is owed respect as our mother they link deep ecology to a version of ecofeminism - to the beliefs that I will describe later as "essentialist" ecofeminism. Just as women should be respected as mothers of the human species, so too should nature be respected as our mother. There is an "essential" affinity between women and the natural world - they are both mothers. What is more, as essentialist ecofeminism argues, women in giving birth participate in the reproductive creativity that is the key quality of the natural world as a whole.
To Cultural Definitions of Femininity
Within the social theory which looks at gender as a "social construction" (e.g. Connell 1987; Connell 1995) it is argued that dominant versions of masculinity and femininty are socially created. In a social constructionist account, the dominant version of femininity in this society - what Connell calls "emphasized femininity" (1987, 183,187) - defines women as those who are expected to be empathetic - to care for other people through understanding and sympathizing with their situation. As ecofeminists such as Plumwood (1993) point out, this feminine value system can also be extended to the natural world. People can see their role as looking after and caring for nature. To a degree, this attitude to nature is part of what this society already constructs as appropriate for women. In this interview the women and Malcolm defend this kind of ecofeminist position. They maintain that we should care for nature as for a human person, as for a mother. People have a link with nature as we do with our own mothers and it is the height of egotism, pride and selfishness to deny this link, to pretend that nature is merely an object that can be used in any way that seems convenient (Gilligan 1982, Plumwood 1993).
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 can be seen as linked to the social construction of patriarchal masculinity within the dominant Western world view (Macpherson 1962; Connell 1987; Merchant 1990a; Connell 1995). Similarly, it can be seen as no accident that the caring empathetic view of nature is supported by all the women in this group. However, whether most men and women disagree about environmental issues in this way is another matter, which I shall consider in the second article on ecofeminism - "Ecofeminism as Practised".
The ecofeminist position can be related to two key observations about current Western culture, the most powerful form of current global culture.
1. It is argued that within Western societies and those influenced by the West, women respond more empathetically to environmental issues. They see nature as populated by live individuals who deserve respect and, like themselves, produce life. This is especially the case when environmental issues relate to the welfare of animals. Within Western culture it is expected that women will want to look after animals and be upset by cruelty to animals. Also, women are more likely to defend environmental conservation in terms of aesthetic concerns - the beauty of unspoiled forests and wildlife. Men are generally more distanced from empathetic and aesthetic reactions to environmental problems and pride themselves on their cynical, pragmatic and economistic approach to life. Ecofeminism draws the conclusion that women are more likely to defend the environment (e.g. Collard & Contrucci 1988; Seager 1993).
2. It is argued that in dominant Western culture there is a discourse that links women with nature and devalues both. By contrast men are associated with rationality, science and emotional detachment (e.g. Shiva 1989; Plumwood 1993; Seager 1993). Cixous, a postmodern feminist, describes these associations as based on "dual, hierarchized oppositions" (Cixous 1971, 91). Masculinity and femininity are opposed as two terms in a dualistic opposition so that what is not masculine must be feminine and vice versa. This binary opposition is the key to other oppositions within our patriarchal culture. In "Sorties" Cixous links this central binary opposition of gender - Man/Woman - to oppositions such as:
Day/Night (Cixous 1971; Tong 1989).
In all these binary oppositions the term associated with masculinity is the term considered as more important within Western patriarchal culture. In terms of how ecofeminists have considered this issue we may add more oppositions to this list such as:
master/slave ( e.g. Plumwood 1993, 43).
This discourse of masculinity and feminity is given force through concrete instances of the cultural construction of gender. For example "hegemonic" masculinity - the dominant version of masculinity (Connell 1987, 183) - is defined as various kinds of control over nature from which women are excluded. Men are seen as establishing their masculinity through the use of loud powerful machinery that controls nature - such as chainsaws, bulldozers, power boats, guns, even cars. Middle class versions of this masculinity are the use of science and technology to dominate nature and more lowly employees as instruments of one's control (Connell 1987; Connell 1995).
I will take it for the moment that there is some truth in both of these claims about Western culture and in this and the second article on ecofeminism "Ecofeminism as Practiced" these claims will be considered in more detail. These two claims can be seen as shared by different versions of ecofeminism and as the starting points for an ecofeminist analysis of environmental issues. On the other hand, there are different version of ecofeminism corresponding to different political and theoretical strategies within feminism.
Two Versions of Ecofeminism - Essentialist and Social Constructionist
We can trace two basic versions of ecofeminism - an essentialist version and a social constructionist version. An essentialist version sees the closeness of women and nature as being based on the fact that women give birth and nurture the human species, essentially natural acts that transcend different cultural arrangements (e.g. Collard & Contrucci 1988; Eisler 1990). In other words, there is some biological inevitability about the link between women and nature. A constructionist version of ecofeminism sees the link between women and nature as socially constructed but nevertheless significant within contemporary culture. In other words, there is no biological inevitability about the link between women and nature. This link exists in contemporary culture but it has been socially constructed through a historical process. Constructionists trace the historical origin of the link between patriarchy and the degradation of nature to either the Judaic tradition, to the classical Greek civilizations (Plumwood 1993) or to the seventeenth century scientific revolution (Merchant 1990a).
The version of ecofeminism which I am calling "essentialist" believes that there is an essential link between women and nature. This link is not just a product of current Western culture but is based on a real closeness between women and nature, related to the fact that women give birth and reproduce the human species. Women are intimately linked to the productive capacity of nature in a way that men can never be. While men may consume nature and modify the natural world, they do not produce and reproduce nature as women do (Mies 1986). Men can distance themselves from the natural world and believe that they, as humans, are something apart from nature. Women, with their close ties to the reproductive capacity of nature, cannot do this.
The essentialist version of ecofeminism argues that all societies are faced by this immutable fact and that all do recognize it in some way or another. In the most clear cut version of this essentialist ecofeminism this link is thought to be revealed in the connection between the fate of women and the fate of nature. Societies that revere the natural world are said to be "gynocentric", woman-centred societies. Nature is worshipped along with nature goddesses revered for their creativity and fecundity. Women are respected as human representatives of that natural productivity and their role as mothers is associated with high status and social power. By contrast, it is argued, societies that attempt to control the natural world are also patriarchal. They are socially dominated by men and worship male gods that rule humans and nature with an iron fist. The current secular Western society, in which science has replaced religion, is merely the latest form of patriarchal culture. The laws of science and the priesthood of scientists have replaced the laws of the male father figure gods and their male priests.
One example of this essentialist perspective is an article by Riane Eisler. She reviews archaeological and historical sources to arrive at an overview of human history that is tied to ecofeminist politics. She argues that there is a link between the way societies arrange gender relations and their treatment of the natural world:
The way a society structures the most fundamental human relations - the relations between the female and male halves of humanity without which our species could not survive - has major implications for the totality of a social system. It clearly affects the individual roles and life choices of both women and men ... it also profoundly affects our values and social institutions - whether a society will be peaceful or warlike, generally egalitarian or authoritarian, and living in harmony with or bent on the conquest of our environment (Eisler 1990, 26).
In the article she argues that there is evidence that prior to the development of patriarchy in approximately 5000 B.C. all cultures were "partnership" cultures in which there was an equality between the sexes, earth goddesses were revered, there was no social class inequality and peaceful relations between groups were the norm. Since then, patriarchy and hostility to nature have been linked to violent war and social inequality. Only indigenous cultures have been able to hold out against this global development. What is this connection between sexual equality and reverence for nature? She suggests that in partnership cultures "the life-giving powers incarnated in women's bodies were given the highest social value" (Reisler 1990, 24). With the coming of patriarchy, there was a dual displacement. Women as mothers ceased to have social power and nature as the mother goddess was no longer respected and worshipped.
Another statement of this link between women and nature is given in an article in the same collection of ecofeminist writings. Arisika Razak writes as a woman of colour and a midwife:
Birth ... is the first act of magic - and physical testament to the continuity of human and all life. Women are the only birth-givers in the human species. In cultures around the world we find preliterate evidence of the great sacredness with which birth was orginally viewed. The fertility of women was linked to the fertility of the Earth - which produced the food upon which all life depended - and to the reproduction of the herds that also sustained humans. (Razak 1990, 168)
Collard and Contrucci also put this argument when they say that pregnancies and chid-bearing are "a woman's link to the natural world and the hunted animals that are part of that world" (Collard & Contrucci 1988, 14-15).
The essentialist version of ecofeminism depends on the assertion that "the violation of nature and animals ... in patriarchy is inextricably connected with the oppression of women" (Collard & Contrucci 1988, 1). As we have seen, one way to see this link is to argue that it is women's role in birth which links them to nature in all societies. Other accounts of this link are also important in essentialist ecofeminism. One is that the psychological process which motivates men to distance themselves from and control women is also the source of men's desire to control the natural world. For example Collard and Contrucci write:
This violation of the integrity of wild, spontaneous being is rape. It is motivated by a fear and rejection of Life and it allows the oppressor the illusion of control, of power, of being alive. As with women as a class, nature and animals have been kept in a state of inferiority and powerlessness in order to enable men as a class to believe and act upon their 'natural' superiority/dominance. (Collard and Contrucci 1988, 1).
Another statement of this position is Charlene Spretnak's comment:
Western conquest and degradation of nature are based on fear and resentment; we can demonstrate that that dynamic is linked closely to patriarchal fear and resentment of the elemental power of the female. (Spretnak 1990, 11)
Ynestra King puts this argument another way, saying that it is the hierarchical mind set that creates the denigration of nature. In turn, this mind set comes from society and in particular from the domination of women by men (King 1990, 107). As I shall show later, this feminist psychological analysis of the degradation of nature can be separated out from other aspects of essentialist ecofeminism.
Essentialist feminism implies a map of human history in which the invention of patriarchy is also the invention of social class and the control of nature:
All societies before 5,000 B.C. and stateless societies since then.
State based societies after 5,000 B.C.
Women and men equal
A sustainable economy
No social class inequality
Patriarchal. Men have power
Social class inequality
An armed state separated from the people
For evidence of pre-patriarchal goddess cultures, essentialist feminists turn to archaeological findings from Europe and the Middle East. For example Collard and Contrucci consider the findings of small clay figures of women, with feet hands and head shown small in proportion to large breasts and full stomachs as evidence of goddess worship:
... the Mother Goddess is the archetypal female symbol. What impresses me about her is the ancientness and the range of her religion,as well as the fact that the people of the Palaeolithic Age throughout Europe and Asia possessed the imagination, skills and leisure to fashion her likeness in small clay figures dated around 25,000 BC. I take the discovery of nothing but female figures from that period as evidence of gynocentric societies or matriarchy ... female experience determined culture. (Collard and Contrucci 1988, 11)
For evidence of the later influence of goddess worship Collard and Contrucci consider art from Crete, Anatolia and Mycenae. They quote the classicist Harrison who describes a signet ring from Mycenae from the second millenium BC:
Here we have the Earth-goddess or her priestess under her great fruit bearing tree; she holds poppies in her hand; worshippers approach her bearing flowers and leaf-sprays; behind her a woman gathers fruit, while above her is all the glory of Ouranos, Sun and Moon and Milky Way, and down from the sky come the powers of the sky, the thunder in its double manifestation as shield-demon and battle-axe. (Harrison in Collard and Contrucci 1988, 13).
Essentialist ecofeminists argue that traces of this original goddess cult are also found in the mythology and religion of patriarchal societies such as that of classical Greece. For example Mara Lynn Keller describes the worship of Demeter, a fertility goddess in ancient Greece, at her shrine at Eleusis. From 1450 BC and for 2000 years after that, people came to celebrate Demeter from all parts of the Greek and Roman world. Keller claims that the "Eleusinian mysteries were the greatest of all ancient Greek religious festivals" and that as many as 30,000 celebrants would gather together (Keller 1990, 41). Within the essentialist ecofeminist view, such worship of female nature goddesses within patriarchal archaic civilisations gives us an idea of what religion was like prior to the patriarchal period. These religious festivals of the classical world and the beliefs about goddesses such as Demeter and Artemis give us a way to read the voiceless images of the pre-patriarchal world.
This version of history links the rise of "civilisation" with patriarchy. State power is the power of armed bodies of men, controlled by a ruling social class. This patriarchal organisation suppresses women and also the lower classes and the natural world. It is militarily aggressive and expansionist since it feeds off the productivity of women, other neighbouring peoples and nature (Mies 1986). As it expands it tends to exhaust the natural resources of a particular area and move on to further less spoiled areas of the world. State cultures include the Aztecs, Incas, the Mayan empire, feudal Japan and ancient China, the ancient Jewish state, ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Greek and Roman civilisations as well as more recent Western civilisations. Examples of the ecological failures of state based patriarchies include the collapse of the Mayan empire through the exhaustion of tropical soils in corn production, the devastation of Greece by overclearing and goats, the desertification of North Africa by the Romans, even the deforestation of Easter Island by the ruling groups who created the huge stone monuments of that culture. The arrival of this state based patriarchy is seen as a world historical event. Indigenous cultures are, and were in the past, the survivors of the longest period of human history - the history of humans from their evolution on the planet two hundred thousand years ago until the development of patriarchal civilisation.
The ecofeminist critique of these state based civilisations suggests that the common preoccupation of patriarchal culture is the fantasy of overcoming the natural cycle of birth, death and reproduction. Within patriarchal cultures, it is argued, this natural cycle is associated with women and seen as something to be both feared and also overcome (Dinnerstein 1976, Daly 1978, Griffin 1990). Religions of state based patriarchy fantasize the eternal life of ruling patriarchs symbolized in the clay army of the Chinese tombs and the pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs.
According to essentialist ecofeminism, these pre-occupations have not vanished from the current version of patriarchal civilisation (Daly 1978; Griffin 1978). Powerful men fantasize their reincarnation through cloning, or cryonegnic freezing and later rebirth. They make do today with a medical establishment geared to prolonging the life of the rich through open heart surgery, and organ replacement - while other people on the planet starve. Now as in previous patriarchies, powerful men fantasize their endless life through their indelible mark on society, sacrificing the pleasures of embodied daily life for a promise of eternal power, embodied in death-proof inanimate records. Other aspects of modern society also embody the desire to escape nature. The attempt to produce food artificially is an attempt to replace nature with human invention, carried to an extreme in genetic engineering. It goes along with the fantasy that this society could destroy the natural world but that a select group of humans could leave this worn out husk for a new adventure and the conquest of new territory in space (Collard & Contrucci 1988, 162, 167).
Essentialist ecofeminism is a very persuasive position. One of its great attractions as social theory is that it makes some sense of vastly different cultures and periods of human history, bringing them together under one, clear cut, comprehensible framework. However this is also the theory's great weakness if examples can be found to refute it's grand scope. Other problems with the theory relate to the logic of its orginal assumptions and to its implications for feminist politics. I will summarize the essentialist ecofeminist position as based in three propositions with two associated political strategies:
1. All cultures necessarily recognize the fact that women are closer to nature than men.
2. Cultures in which women are socially powerful respect nature.
3. In cultures which respect nature women are socially powerful.
The two associated political strategies are:
1. For the sake of the environment we should support feminism.
2. For the sake of feminism we should support environmentalism.
I will begin by questioning the first proposition; the founding assumption of essentialist ecofeminism. This "essentialist" position was first put in the context of feminism by the anthropologist, Sherry Ortner (1974), following earlier statements in this vein by the structuralist anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss. Ortner entitled her article "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?". In the article, she argued that all cultures create a link between women and nature. She went on to argue that the consequence was that all societies elevate masculinity for its link to culture - to what is created by humans in opposition to the merely natural. She concluded that feminism could only succeed if women removed themselves from their stigmatizing association with nature. Essentialist ecofeminism accepts the first part of this analysis but rejects Ortner's conclusions. Essentialist ecofeminists argue that there have been societies in which humans did not denigrate the natural world. In these societies the link between women and nature implied that both women and nature were to be respected.
There is little doubt that current Western culture sees giving birth as a phenomenon that ties women to the natural world. As has been often argued (Ehrenreich and English 1976), modern medicine treats birth as a medical event, almost a sickness, that male experts have to carefully control. In this way there is an analogy made between birth and other natural processes. It is the province of masculinized science to oversee birth along with other natural events. However, is it actually inevitable that cultures will see women's reproductive role as a key signifier of closeness to nature? There are many processes which closely link men to the natural world - for example breathing, eating, being born, death, bodily experiences in general. Although current culture may seek to minimize our connection, men and women are both similar to other animals and to plants as fellow living creatures. Reproduction is not in fact exclusively a female event. Many cultures, not just recent scientific culture, seem to be aware of men's role in reproduction. Certainly, women have a kind of link with the natural world that men do not share. But it could hardly be said that men, on any unbiased view, are separate from nature, that they float free from nature. If some cultures draw this conclusion, surely it is a cultural construction, an arbitrary invention of culture. As MacCormack puts this argument against essentialism:
Is there anything more intrinsically natural about women's physiology than men's? In most societies men's procreative role is seen as being as essential as women's for the continuity of social groups. Both men and women procreate, eat, defecate and satisfy other survival needs. To do so is natural , but the etiquette of eating, the time, place and position for defecation, and indeed the rules prescribing time, place and position for ejaculation or parturition are cultural. (MacCormack 1980, 16-17)
Studies of different societies back up this disquiet with the essentialist position. Looking at different societies, it seems that many do not make a link between women and nature. However obvious this link may seem from within Western culture, it has been argued by anthropologists that other cultures do not put the world into the same categories (MacCormack & Strathern 1980).
MacCormack summarizes her position by saying that in most societies, both men and women are seen as mediating culture and nature "in the reciprocity of marriage exchange, socializing children into adults, transforming raw meat and vegetable into cooked food, cultivating, domesticating, and making cultural products of all sorts" (MacCormack 1980, 9). The edited collection by MacCormack and Strathern brings together five ethnographic accounts of non-European societies, all written by women anthropologists. The authors argue that in none of these societies is there a view that women are closer to nature than men.
I will briefly describe two of these societies in so far as they are relevant to this issue. The incredible complexity of the beliefs and practices of these societies as they touch on the relationship between gender and the social construction of nature and culture are hard to render in summary so what follows is an unfortunate simplification. The Laymi of the Brazilian Highlands are described by Olivia Harris (1980). This is a peasant culture. In so far as there is a separation of nature and culture at all, it is revealed in various spirit figures that dominate different places. The mountain peaks are male gods which are sources of thunder, hail and rain. They are sacred and powerful places that are also the source of life. The deities that are embodied in these mountains protect some domesticated animals while also being the gods of animals that ravage the flocks. So these aspects of wild and domesticated nature are associated with male gods, not with femininity. The mountain gods also have a female counterpart , the earth mother, who is associated with cultivated land. So this aspect of nature is associated with a female deity. The spirits of the dead, which are associated with fertility, live in the wild mountainous places. So fertility is actually associated with the masculine mountain gods. Men, as ritual specialists, have more contact with these mountain gods and with ancestor spirits. Women are seen as more vulnerable to harm from these spirits. So there is no easy way to map masculinity and femininity on to nature and culture in this society. Aspects of the natural world are associated with both sexes.
In so far as the Laymis see any humans as closer to nature, to the wild, it is the young. From birth until they first begin to speak, children are seen as essentially wild and it is not until marriage that people become fully human. Women are not seen as closer to nature on account of their reproductive powers. While men dominate social life, there are many spheres of culture in which women represent and create key symbols of Laymi society - through their weaving and creation of songs, for example. In all, we can see this as a culture that reveres and also fears various powers of nature. At the same time, these are not particularly associated with women. Some deities are male and some female. In terms of humans, it is the young who are most seen as close to nature and the married who are seen to most embody human culture (Harris 1980). While this is a society that reveres the natural world, it is also a patriarchal society, although women do have many roles which have high social status.
Jane Goodale (1980) describes the Kaulong of New Britain. As Goodale sees it, the Kaulong envisage their most human or cultured place as their permanent settlement, a cleared area in the forest where a permanent house marks the place where ancestors are buried and where the descent group was founded by its original father. It is where unmarried people live and it is quite common for men to delay marriage till later in life. This central place is also the place where pre-eminently social activies such as feasts, and the giving of status goods, are carried out. Further away from this place are the gardens, with the gardens of the married couples furthest into the forest and separated from each other in isolation. The forest is also a place where foods are gathered - so all three areas are occupied by human culture to a certain extent. In terms of beliefs about spirituality, the Kaulong clearly see their dead ancestors as spirits. But the forest is also home to demons and other spirits which may be dangerous to humans. Kaulong men fear pollution from women through marriage and so they avoid marriage. On the other hand, because they can only replace themselves and their descent group through marriage it is an unfortunate necessity. Sexual intercourse is seen as animalistic. Goodale interprets the dispersion of married couples into the forest as a sign of their wild status. There is no link betweeen these categories of wild versus human - and the gender categories of male versus female. Both men and women are most "cultured" when they are unmarried and living in their clan house. They are most "wild" when they are married and living further away in the forest. Both men and women participate in actions which involve the transformation of natural objects into cultural products. They are both involved in bringing up children and in that way bringing children into culture. Both men and women are involved in the production of status goods through gardening. The people who are considered closest to nature, are not women but married couples, precisely the people that the Laymi regard as most human (Goodale 1980).
The Kaulong culture is patriarchal in that men are the managers of descent groups and make many decisions which affect the group as a whole. Men are more likely to gain status through their productive activities although women also do this to some extent. When a man dies his wife is often strangled by her male kin, as it is considered that their marriage links them as indissoluble partners. So, in terms of the essentialist ecofeminist picture of history, we should expect this patriarchy in culture to be associated with the denigration of nature. Yet the Kaulong live harmoniously with the natural world in terms of food production; they are not destroying their forest. It seems a bit difficult to say whether the Kaulong "revere" nature. Certainly the wild is feared as the home of dangerous spiritual forces, which means that these wild places are respected.
So one key problem for essentialist ecofeminism is that societies do not necessarily link women and the natural world. Another problem is the third proposition of essentialist ecofeminism: that cultures which respect nature are also ones in which women have social power equivalent to men. This third proposition is a consequence of the view that the relationship between the sexes determines the way a society relates to the environment (see Eisler quoted above 1990, 26). Essentialist ecofeminism must take it that a society which is in harmony with the environment is also one in which the sexes have equal social power. This follows from the supposed link between women and nature. If a culture respects nature; it cannot at the same time denigrate women, who are so closely related to nature. Writing about indigenous cultures, Eisler strongly suggests that we do indeed find this pattern - indigenous cultures are in harmony with nature and in many, women have social power:
We also know from a number of contremporary tribal societies that the separation between nature and spirituality is not universal. Tribal peoples generally think of nature in spiritual terms. Nature spirits must be respected, indeed, revered. And we also know that in many of these tribal societies women as well as men can be shamans or spiritual healers and that descent in these tribes is frequently traced through the mother (Eisler 1990, 31).
However this supposed link is not supported by available anthropological studies of different societies. While anthropologists debate about whether patriarchy is universal, they certainly regard it as very widespread (Rosaldo 1974; Friedl 1975; MacCormack 1980 ). As well, it is true, as Eisler writes, that indigenous cultures generally revere the natural world. The most common pattern is that aspects of the natural world are regarded as spiritual forces within their religious world view. The combination of these two facts means that most indigenous cultures are both patriarchal and nature respecting. I have already considered two examples where this is the case - the Laymi and the Kaulong. I will consider another two examples of the way indigenous cultures look at nature and organize gender relations. The BaMbuti, as described by Colin Turnbull (1961), are a culture that in many ways fits the essentialist ecofeminist paradigm in being both sexually egalitarian and nature respecting. By contrast the Mundurucu, as described by Yolanda and Robyn Murphy (1974) are a people whose social life is undoubtedly patriarchal. At the same time they also have a religion in which they respect and worship nature.
The BaMbuti live in the Ituri rainforest in Zaire. They combine hunting and gathering with a small amount of gardening and with trading some hunted meat for farm produce. They are sometimes seen as sexually egalitarian and are also often referred to as an example of a group which bases its religion on respect for their forest environment. On the first point, Oakley writes of the Mbuti as a group in which biological sex has little effect on social role and status. She maintains that both men and women share in hunting and gathering and that they also share political descisions and have "the same social status" (Oakley 1972, 149). Similarly, Sacks describes the Mbuti as a society in which there is no discrimination against women in holding political office, in mediating with the supernatural, or in dealing with disputes within their band. In fact, in all relevant aspects of social power she finds women are not discriminated against in this society (Sacks 1975, 223). Looking at Turnbull's detailed description of Mbuti life (1961), I find the society to be not quite as sexually egalitarian as these overviews suggest. Nevertheless there is much evidence of women's social importance, status and ritual power.
The Mbuti are also often seen as people who imbue their natural environment with spiritual power and respect the natural world from which they draw their sustenance. Mitsuo Ichikawa says that the Mbuti believe the forest is controlled by a supernatural power that they call "Apakumandura" or "master of the forest". Turnbull quotes a man of the Mbuti describing the forest in this way:
The forest is a father and mother to us, and like a father or mother it gives us everything we need - food, clothing, shelter, warmth ... and affection. Normally everything goes well because the forest is good to its children, but when things go wrong, there must be a reason. (Turnbull 1961, 92).
If hunting is poor, they hold Apakumandra responsible and conduct a ritual with singing and dancing to please him. Sometimes they make a small shrine at the end of their camp and leave offerings to Apakumandra. A certain species of tree is protected by the Mbuti as a living manifestation of Apakumandra. Ichikawa also notes that despite thousands of years of human occupation by the Mbuti, this forest is still in excellent condition and its biodiversity has in fact been increased by the activities of the Mbuti (Ichikawa 1996).
To understand the equivalence of men and women in Mbuti religious life, it is interesting to compare two ceremonial activities which Turnbull considers. The first was dominated by men and the second by women. The festival of the "molimo" which seems to be another word for the forest spirit "Apakumandra" was held during a month subsequent to the death of an important older woman. To "wake up" the forest after her death and to celebrate her life, the molimo flutes were brought out of their forest cache and brought to the camp at night by the men. The two flutes were long pipes that were blown to make a great variety of sounds, some imitating forest animals and some, sounds to accompany singing by the men. At night after dinner, the men would gather round the molimo fire and several would be sent off to the forest to fetch the molimo flutes. Women and young children were not permitted to see these flutes and in fact were supposed to believe that the noises they heard were made by the "animal of the forest" itself and that they would die should they venture outside their huts and see it. The men gathered around, playing the flutes till late. In the early morning before light, the flutes were again brought into the camp by a group of adolescent and young men, who would run about the camp banging on the huts and playing out the scenario of a raid on the camp by the forest spirits. These events went on every night for at least a month.
While this ceremony has certain patriarchal implications it is strangely mirrored by another ceremony that Turnbull witnessed in which women's power was celebrated. This was a set of ritual events connected with the first menstruation of adolescent girls. A part of a house was set aside for the girls, the "elima" house. They and other adolescent girls would be under the supervision of an appointed "mother" and "father" of the ceremony. At night they would sing and perform in front of the huts while the young men watched. The girls would also pursue young men with whips, striking them quite hard as a sign of interest. If a boy was struck he would have to attend the girls in the elima house. The mothers and female relatives of the girls would surround the house and beat any boys trying to gain entry. Girls would also go in a group to other hunting camps to attack other boys to whom they were attracted. At the closing of these ceremonies the women and girls would gather together round the hut, singing special women's songs to indicate the entry of the girls into adult womanhood.
So the elima ceremony can be regarded as one in which men are the objects of female violence. It is a ritual that affirms women's rights to choose sexual partners. Menstrual bleeding is treated as a sign of vitality and maturity, not as pollution. Turnbull also mentions an occasion during the male dominated molimo ceremonies when an old woman arrived at the camp and took a leading role in the ceremony, drawing women into participation in singing the supposedly taboo molimo songs and leading the dance with the men responding in singing. During this event the old woman and a female companion trampled on the molimo fire, while the men tried repeatedly to build it up again. So even the mostly patriarchal molimo round of ceremonies was interrupted by this matriarchal event.
I am not entirely convinced that this ritual equivalence between men and women was reflected in an equality of social power. Certainly, women participated in decisions and the settlement of disputes. However almost all the examples given by Turnbull suggest a leading role for men. For example it was men who made the decision to end the period of mourning for the old woman whose death began the molimo ceremonies. Turnbull describes the event in this way. The men met round their fire, making sure no women were present to overhear discussion of the molimo. They decided that the whole band would leave the village to go to the forest and call out the molimo:
At this everyone [meaning all the men!] cheered up visibly and began criticizing the women and children who were still ... beating themselves and crying. Masisi said crossly that they would never behave this way if they were in the forest, and as he talked he raised his voice until he worked himself into a real temper ... telling everyone to stop making such a dreadful noise ... He clutched his head to illustrate the point , then grabbed a couple of children, one of them his own and sent them flying. By now his temper was no longer artificial and the women decided it was wiser to keep out of his way and left (Turnbull 1961, 51).
Most of Turnbull's other examples of the resolution of disputes in the group also suggest that men were the key players. I also get the impression from his account that women did more of the necessary survival work of the society, including most of the care of young children. A telling anecdote relates the men's belief that it is good to be married because one's wife will get up in the middle of the night to repair the roof if rain comes through the thatch of leaves. Older and more important men had several wives and there was no corresponding practice in which women had several husbands.
While I have some doubts about whether the Mbuti are as sexually egalitarian as they are sometimes portrayed, there seems to be little doubt about the Mundurucu of Brazil. The Mundurucu have a patriarchal society. Before discussing this issue I will conside their religious beliefs in regard to the natural world.
The Mundurucu believe that the founding ancestors of their clans lived in a time when "animals had the form of people and man and the natural world had a greater unity than they do today" (Murphy & Murphy 1974). So all these clan ancestors have animal and plant names. They are thought to reside in the sacred musical instruments which are housed in the men's house and are given various kinds of tribute. So humans and animals are linked through a myth of common origin. As well, the Mundurucu carry out religious rituals to make offerings to the spirit mothers of animals. Each kind of game is said to have a spirit mother who protects that animal and sees to their increase. Killing more animals than can be eaten is an offense to these spirits who can cause snake bites and accidents or make someone lose their soul. Accordingly the Mundurucu link their respect for animals to concrete ecological practices and characterize animal species as powerful supernatural forces.
To say more of their religion than this is necessarily to demonstrate its links to their patriarchal culture. For example, in the period before the immediate present the Mundurucu were one of the most warlike of the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin. Their war parties would travel through the forest, surprising another village in a dawn raid, killing the men and women and taking the children captive. To become a renowned warrior was the key path to status for men. A trophy head was the token of success. One of its main uses was to please the animal spirit mothers that I have described. The possessor of the head was able to increase the numbers of game and make them more vulnerable to hunting. The warrior would take the head with him when a hunting party of men went to the forest and would simply wait while his hunting companions killed the game.
Another key religious belief of the Mundurucu relates to their sacred trumpets or "karoko". In mythology these were originally fish and were captured by three women. Because the women owned the trumpets they dominated men, forcing the men to live in the separate domestic dwellings while they lived in the communal house, forcing the men to have sex, to carry firewood and to make manioc cakes - all onerous duties of the women in the present. Finally the men were able to take the trumpets because they were the only ones who hunted and could provide the sacrifices of meat that the ancestor spirits in the trumpets demanded. In the present, the men make offerings of meat to the trumpets and occasionally, in the secrecy of the men's house, play the trumpets from night till dawn. When new trumpets are installed in the men's house, the men parade around the village, while the women are confined to their dwelling houses, forbidden to see the trumpets with the penalty being gang rape. The women wail to express their sorrow at having lost their earlier powers. The anthropolgists note that the women are not in fact as impressed by these male secrets as this scenario suggests. Nevertheless these rituals are related to more concrete aspects of male power.
Briefly, we can note the ways in which Mundurucu culture gives men power. Men spend less time in necessary boring work and have more time for activities that are enjoyable or give social power. While men do occasional hunting and make implements, women's work is continuous. A large part of their work is harvesting manioc tubers, washing them of bitterness, grating them and cooking them. They do almost all the care of children under five, who constantly accompany the women on every activity and sleep in their huts at night. Men gain social pleasure from the social prestige of their activities - their hunting has prestige in so far as meat is the prestige food among the Mundurucu. The status of the warrior and shaman are roles only available to men. Women service men by providing food and water, taking the prepared food to the men's house so that men eat first. They wash clothes and weave hammocks for men. The body language of prestige gives men pre-eminence as they walk in front and sit in front of women. Women are not permitted to look directly at a man but have to cast their eyes down. Men gain more sexual pleasure in that the sexual act is seen as a coercive right of husbands over their wives, and women are not expected to enjoy it. Men have more autonomy in so far as they control political relationships between villages, including warfare. Women in this context come to be protected dependents with the "safe" sphere for women being the immediate village. Women grumble about their harsh lot in terms of boring drudgery but are powerless to change this fact. So they are unable to get their own way in the sense of getting a change in the division of labour. Joining a number of these issues is the use of gang rape by men to control women; an exercise of power and an attack on women's social status. Adultery is not uncommon but a woman who is considered loose may be gang raped by all the men. As well, a woman alone in the forest may be gang raped by any man who discovers her. A woman can be punished for any act of defiance by gang rape. For example an adolescent girl left the village to attend a mission school and was gang raped as a punishment for taking this independent action. The women of the village clearly state their opposition to this practice but are unable to prevent it.
I have described the Mundurucu and the Mbuti at some length because it is only through an understanding of some of the detail of these cultures that we can really get a feeling for whether there is any necessary connection between women's power in society and attitudes to nature. The problems for feminism of the essentialist ecofeminist position can now be stated quite simply. There is no necessary link between environmental sustainability and feminist goals. It would be quite possible to create a sustainable modern society that was still just as patriarchal as the one we live in now. Indigenous cultures show many examples of societies that are both patriarchal and live in harmony with the natural environment. Although feminists may make strategic alliances with the environmental movement, they cannot assume that this movement will always support the goals of feminism. Certainly, as people living on this planet, women have plenty of good reasons for supporting environmental politics, but their desires as feminists to control their lives as women will always imply further political demands.
Essentialist ecofeminists have come up with a number of ways of dealing with the cross cultural evidence of indigenous sustainable societies that are also patriarchal. In Riane Eisler's account, indigenous societies are often woman centred and nature loving but they are not necessarily so. She implies that the societies in which there is oppression of women and cruelty to other humans are also ones that oppress nature:
... if we carefully examine both our past and present, we see that many peoples past and present living close to nature have all too often been blindly destructive of their environment. While many indigenous societies have a great reverence for nature, there are also ... cultures that have overcultivated land, decimated forests ... killed off animals needlessly and indifferently. And while there is much we can learn today from tribal cultures, it is important not to indiscriminately blame all our troubles on our secular-scientific age. For clearly such tribal practices as cannibalism, torture and female genital mutilation ... antedate modern times. (Reisler 1990, 32).
There are a number of problems for essentialist ecofeminism in Reisler's account here. Firstly, it becomes clear that tribal cultures can be patriarchal (female genital mutilation) and warlike (torture). In essentialist ecofeminism, there is supposed to be an indissoluble link between the three processes of othering which define patriarchy; a link which is embodied in history - the othering of subordinated peoples in social class and warfare, the othering of nature and the othering of women. Here it is implied that tribal cultures may be at war with other tribal groups without creating social class, and that women may be oppressed in a classless tribal society. Worse still, while Reisler suggests that barbarous relations with other people - cannibalism, torture and female genital mutilation - were linked to the denigration of nature, we have seen that these connections are not necessary. We know that patriarchal and cruel indigenous cultures - such as the Mundurucu - can also be respectful of the natural world.
In the discussion above I have considered the first and the third propositions of essentialist ecofeminism; that all cultures recognize a tie between women and nature and that cultures which respect nature are also ones in which women are socially powerful. Arguing against this, I have looked at anthropological evidence to the contrary. I have not considered whether cultures in which women are socially powerful also respect nature. The BaMbuti come closest in so far as there is evidence of some degree of sexual egalitarianism, and there is no doubt that they have a developed nature-based religion. Some anthropologists claim other societies, such as that of the Iroquois, as sexually egalitarian (Leacock 1981), while other anthropological writers claim there is little good evidence of any genuinely gender equal societies in ethnography (Rosaldo 1974; Friedl 1975). Without going into this issue it is possible to come to some conclusions about the debate in terms of essentialist ecofeminism. There is no evidence that societies which are claimed to be gender equal were any more respecting of nature than other clearly patriarchal indigenous cultures - such as that of the Mundurucu, the Kaulong or the Laymi described above. There seems to be no connection between nature religions and the social power of women.
While I have argued this through an examination of the anthropological literature, other critics of essentialist ecofeminism have questioned the essentialist interpretation of archaeological evidence. For example, Janet Biehl (1991) points out that Minoan culture, which is regarded as "gynocentric" was a class based bronze age society in which human sacrifice was practiced. She accepts that this culture may have been "gynocentric", with women priestesses having an important social role, but questions the essentialist ecofeminist view that such cultures were necessarily peaceful and socially egalitarian. Rosemary Ruether (1992), looks at the archaeological evidence of another site that is often heralded as an example of peaceful gynocentric culture - Catal Huyuk, occupied between 6,500 B.C. and 5,600 B.C. She points to the writings of James Mellaart, the archaeologist of the site, who is often referred to in the gynocentric interpretation of prehistory. According to Mellaart, there is evidence of social stratification and a priestly class at Catal Huyuk. The buildings were built defensively to resist invasion and do not suggest a pacific culture. Men seemed to have a monopoly of violence, being buried with weapons, while women were buried with mirrors, jewellery and cosmetics. While emphasis has been placed on Goddess worship at Catal Huyuk, Mellaart points out that the residents also worshipped male virility as a bull god with horns. Larger platforms in houses for women did not necessarily indicate female power but may have been associated with the fact that women did more childcare and indoor craft work (Ruether 1992). In general, authors such as Biehl and Ruether have argued that it is hard to reconstruct the gender relationships of societies which left no written records and are interpreted purely from their material remains.
Maria Mies in her book "Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale" (1986), develops a different kind of essentialist ecofeminism and a different version of history. Although this is not her explicit intention, her theory allows her to avoid criticisms based on the ethnographic and archaeological evidence of nature-respecting patriarchal societies. She sees the origin of patriarchy and destructive attitudes to nature in the development of hunting weapons. This was linked to a sexual division of labour in which men hunted and women gathered - and reproduced the human species. According to Mies, this brought about a situation in which women's relationship to nature was productive, while men's relationship through hunting was essentially destructive. So this was the origin of men's denigration of nature. The possession of hunting weapons also allowed men to generalise this predatory relationship to nature through predation on women and on other men. This division of labour was reinforced in its implications when women began to be responsible for growing crops while men made war and hunted - a division of labour characteristic of many indigenous cultures. Mies looks in particular at African societies in which raiding parties of men left their villages to capture slaves from other villages, mostly killing the adult men and keeping the women and children to increase their control of productive labour. In this division of labour, women were even more tied to the powers of nature as a creative fertile productivity, while men preyed on this production.
This outlook is essentialist in two ways. It argues that it was women's role as reproducers of the species which prevented them from taking up hunting as a specialisation. In other words, this may be seen as a biologically necessary allocation of time and energy. Mies shares this analysis with some feminist anthropology (e.g. Friedl 1975). She goes further than this to argue that it was men's separation from the natural processes of birth and fecundity that allowed them the necessary emotional distance to spend their lives in killing nature and other humans. So she sees an essential connection between men's biological separation from reproduction and their emotional distancing from nature and other people.
This theory enables Mies to deal with the evidence of indigenous patriarchal cultures. Mies treats these cultures as "gynocentric". By this she implies that these cultures may be patriarchal in terms of the power relationship between women and men. However, in their reverence for nature and the cycle of fertility, birth and reproduction, these cultures centre themselves around women. She argues that men in these patriarchal cultures are forced to acknowledge their dependence on the reproductive capcity of women and nature. She makes a similar argument in reference to the sustainable ecologies of many of the early state civilisations. She argues that in these early state societies too, an organic view of reality goes with an acknowledgement of the tie between humans and nature. She sees this as inevitable in societies in which agriculture and natural cycles are predominant in everyday life. So although hunting and the social control of women are an expression of men's distance from nature, this distancing could not go too far in societies that still depended on a close and intimate connection with nature.
According to Mies, it is only in societies with modern technology that the full potential of men's separation from nature can be realized. Here patriarchy realizes what has always been latent since the time of men's role as hunters. Men separate themselves emotionally from both women and nature, and develop a view in which human civilization depends on the rejection and replacement of nature and women with scientific constructs.
There are several problems with this position. As Mies herself acknowledges, within the indigenous division of labour men did not see their hunting as separating themselves from the natural world or as controlling and exploiting nature. Among many indigenous peoples, the hunted animals were asked in prayer to surrender themselves to the hunter and were thanked for their offering (Mies 1986; Abbott 1990). As Mies also notes, women did not just gather plant food but hunted animals as part of their gathering work. So if the killing of animals was what distanced men from nature, this was something in which women participated. As well, we know that both women and men gave hunting high prestige in indigenous cultures (Friedl 1975). It is probably mistaken to think of women in these cultures seeing hunting as a distasteful male excercize of power over nature.
It may well be true that men's use of hunting weapons was generalized to predation on women and other men. It may well be true that women's role as reproducers prevented them from fully participating as equals in this development, or put them at a disadvantage in power conflicts with men (Firestone 1972, Atkinson 1974, Rosaldo 1974). These are probably quite good explanations of patriarchy. But none of this shows that women had a link with the natural world that was peculiar to their sex, that gave them a special empathy with nature that men in indigenous cultures did not share.
The idea that indigenous and early state cultures were patriarchal in fact but that their hostility to nature was merely latent, waiting to blossom within Western civilization, is peculiar. It saves essentialist ecofeminism only by making the link between patriarchy and hostility to nature a hidden force in history that has no earthly manifestation until the present period. Related to this I find the concept of "gynocentric" cultures that were also - in fact - patriarchal, a travesty of feminism. The worship of the female principle as birth, as fertility, as the cycle of natural reproductivity is not the same thing as women having real social power. As I have suggested in my discussion of the Mundurucu and other indigenous patriarchies, patriarchy has real consequences for women in terms of social status, autonomy, sexual pleasure, boring and difficult work and so on. It is not compensated for by a social mythology in which men respect the female principle in the world of nature. It is in fact quite common for societies to recognize the strength and importance of female goddesses while ordinary human women are oppressed in any number of ways (see e.g. Samuel 1997).
Another Side of Essentialist Ecofeminism
While I have been quite critical of Mies' position, it may point us towards a more satisfactory re-statement of some of the elements of the esssentialist ecofeminist position. Mies suggests that a key feature of all patriarchal societies is the way men distance themselves emotionally from those they wish to control; whether it is women, nature or other men. This insight can be the basis for a defence of the second proposition of ecofeminism. As the reader may recall, the second proposition of ecofeminism is that cultures in which men and women are equal are ones in which nature is respected. As I have indicated above, this is a somewhat difficult proposition to test with anthropological evidence, since examples of "matriarchies", or gender equal societies, are hard to find and much contested by anthropologists. On the other hand, it may be taken as a statement of confidence that a successful matriarchal utopia of the future would necessarily be benign in its relationship to the natural world. This is even more difficult to test. However another way to look at this proposition is to say that it represents the view that the denigration of the natural world has in fact depended on the prior denigration of women. I will argue here that patriarchy has in fact been a necessary condition for the destruction of nature, but not the only condition.
This view can be fitted much more readily to the known anthropological evidence. All societies which have denigrated nature have in fact been patriarchal and may be there is some connection. The following account explores this idea. It draws upon the viewpoint of authors such as Davies and Connell, that gender is socially constructed, in particular social contexts, but also arises as a result of conscious and unconscious choices that people make throughout their lives (Connell 1987; Davies 1989; Davies 1991; Connell 1995). It is also based in common observations by ecofeminists that link the denigration of nature to the psychology of dominance and trace this back to the domination of men over women (for example Collard & Contrucci 1988, Spretnak 1990). King enunciates this position well when she writes that the denigration of nature has its roots in heirarchical dualism:
But the mind set of heirarchy originates within human society. It has its material roots in the domination of human by human, particularly of women by men. (King 1990, 107).
The following version of this theory is also influenced by the work of Dinnerstein (1976) and Roszak (1992).
We can argue that patriarchy depends on and reproduces certain common features of men's psychology that are socially constructed in all patriarchal cultures. Following Chodorow (1974), it could be argued that men preserve their social power by distancing themselves from the everyday work of looking after young children and infants. For boys, growing up, this experience of childhood poses certain problems. Their earliest emotional identification is with their mother, who comes to represent what it is to be human. This is understood in terms of their experience of nurturing and emotional support from their mother and other women. However, men in power in society ensure that boys are pressured to acknowledge that, as adults, they cannot become women. They look to men for role models and find them distant and somewhat mysterious. Their power makes them seem dangerous. They are clearly different from women. Boys decide that to become men they have to separate themselves from femininity and all that that entails. They have to distance themselves from their mothers emotionally and demonstrate their abilities as men. One way to do this is by controlling women. Tbey also separate themselves from the emotional qualities of nurturance associated with their experience of their mothers and other adult women. Another route to masculinity is competing with other men to gain status. So competitive masculinity is a feature of all patriarchal societies. So too is masculine emotional distance from other people.
In indigenous patriarchies, none of this results in a separation from the natural world, which is seen as something to be respected and revered. However, in the context of the Western tradition and the traditions of other state based societies, emotional distance from the natural world is encouraged. Psychologically, it is founded upon the emotional distance that men have already developed in controlling women and children, and in competition with other men. What happens is that men begin to conceive the natural world as "feminine" and distance themselves from it. The same psychological strategies that allow men to control women and children are applied to the natural world (Plumwood 1993).
Furthermore, we can see state societies themselves as a particular development of the competitiveness between men which is inherent in all patriarchies. In states, men compete to become members of a ruling class and ruling classes compete to control the resources of other ruling classes. Such societies inevitably have the potential to exceed their natural resources. Different groups of men exploit these resources as means to win and defend their power against other men. For example, the Ancient Greeks deforested their country to provide wood to build war ships which were used in defending their territory against the Persians, in fighting battles amongst themselves and in extending their imperial control into their colonies overseas. Capitalist patriarchy develops these tendencies in ways that are globally disastrous.
It is also worth noting that this account does not presume that all state societies have been hostile to nature or gradually destroyed their ecological foundations. State societies certainly have a tendency to conquest and competitive imperialism. This often results in the degradation of nature, but not always. It seems, for example, that the ancient Chinese state and other Asian states maintained a close link between humans and nature and celebrated a sustainable agriculture. This was closely tied to state supported spiritual beliefs, as well as to local organisation of sustainable agricultural practices (Warren 1993).
What this account suggests is that patriarchies provide the necessary psychological foundations which make the degradation of nature possible. However, the process by which this comes about is a development that must be traced historically. Inevitably, this account leaves us with further questions about the origins of patriarchy. Here, I agree with some second wave radical feminists who took the view that certain biological facts made it possible for men to gain control over women (Firestone 1972; Atkinson 1974; see also Rosaldo 1974; Friedl 1975). These are basically that women, in any society prior to recent times, have had to be pregnant or wetnursing for considerable periods of their life to maintain the human population. This commitment has put women, as a group, at a disadvantage in power struggles with men. Following more recent social theory, I will also argue that patriarchy is a product of social construction (Connell 1987; Weedon 1987: Davies 1989; Davies 1991; Connell 1995). It has never been a necessary outcome of biological differences between the sexes. If they had wanted to do so, men could have supported women through periods of birth and early childcare, continuing to accord women equal power in society, continuing to take on an equal share of the unpleasant and onerous work which has fallen exclusively to women in patriarchal societies. Empathy and support is just as much a capacity of men's nature as humans as is the emotional distance and exploitative behaviour that actually characterizes patriarchal societies (Connell 1987; Singer 1993).
In this reading of history, patriarchy is no more inevitable than social class. So it may be that patriarchy was invented at some time in human history and became extremely widespread. This must have happened well before recorded history. But that leaves a lot of scope for such a social invention to become predominant in world culture (for an account of this kind see Cucchiari 1981). We can tie this to the picture of history favoured by essentialist ecofeminists. Maybe they are right in thinking that, prior to the patriarchal period, people lived in societies in which men and women were equal. If Minoan society and Catal Huyuk are not good examples of such a matriarchal culture, maybe they are too late. It might be that the origins of patriarchy were ten thousand years before this. If this is true, the many examples of myths of an original period of female power could have their roots in this earlier time. They are also myths that tell us that patriarchy is not biologically inevitable but is culturally produced and continuously maintained through human choices.
This is an argument for the continuing relevance of certain aspects of the essentialist ecofeminist program. The second proposition of essentialist ecofeminism still makes sense; we can claim that a society in which the sexes were equal could not develop the psychological basis for the denigration of nature. It can be reasonably argued that historically, hostility to nature leans on the prior denigration of women. For that reason, it would be no accident that women and nature have come to be metaphorically linked in those cultures that denigrate nature. The first of the two political conclusions of essentialist ecofeminism is also defensible within this framework; for the sake of the environment, we should support feminism. This is because feminism attacks the structure of power in the family which creates emotional distancing as a common attribute of the male personality. It is this emotional distancing which allows men to separate themselves from the natural world and the suffering inflicted on it by modern society.
Paradoxically, I can conclude this discussion of essentialist ecofeminism by saying that feminism has more to offer the environmental movement than the environmental movement has to offer feminism. As I have argued, there is nothing to guarantee that a sustainable society will be favourable to the social power of women. On the other hand, there is a defensible argument that feminism undermines the psychological basis of environmental degradation in patriarchal family structures.
Anti-essentialist or Constructionist Ecofeminism
The version of history mapped out in the preceding section fits broadly within the framework of the second major approach to ecofeminism - anti-essentialist or constructionist ecofeminism. Anti-essentialist ecofeminism begins by arguing that there is no essential link to nature that is unique to women. The relations between women and men and between women and nature are socially constructed and can differ from one society to another . They also argue that, in fact, societies in the Western tradition do socially construct a link between women and nature and do connect patriarchy and the degradation of nature. So the ecofeminist response is a situated opposition to the simultaneous and linked attack on women and nature that is part of the Western tradition. Accordingly this view is sometimes referred to as "constructionist" (e.g. Biehl 1991). A thumbnail sketch of history that fits this anti-essentialist position would probably see the rise of the state as the most important development that separates indigenous, nature respecting cultures from social orders in which environmental devastation was a likely outcome. The following table is a map of history that fits the constructionist position.
State societies (only developed after 6,000 B.C.)
Pluralistic religion, often including female deities
Religious respect for nature
No social class inequality
Patriarchal, ruling class seen as fathers of society
Monotheistic or with leading authoritarian male deities
Within the Western tradition religion gives humans command over nature
Often unsustainable economies, especially within the Western tradition but also in other state based societies
Joined to this general picture is a history of the tradition of Western civilization which is seen as responsible for socially constructing a split between the human world and the natural world and for linking this split to the social construction of gender. The Western cultural tradition gives men authority to control both women and nature while also presupposing that women are inherently closer to nature than men.
This anti-essentialist position has a peculiar relationship to feminist politics as such. If women are culturally constructed as irrational, as emotional, as tied to nature by their role as mothers, feminists may respond to this in one of two ways.
One feminist response is to argue that this socially constructed link between women and nature is a socially constructed "ideology" of patriarchy. In a marxist framework, an "ideology" is a set of false beliefs that helps a ruling class to control society. In the context of feminism, we could argue, then, that the belief that there is a tie between women and nature is a false belief about women. This false belief backs up the power of men by saying that women are tied to their mothering role and are not fully human. They cannot participate as equals in the control of nature. So this false belief about women serves to justify women's exclusion from the public realm. Consequently, an adequate feminist reponse could be to argue for women to be recognized as rational beings who are quite capable of developing scientific knowledge and control over nature. In this feminist response, motherhood is something which women should regard as optional, not the signifying mark of their whole existence. To equalize power between men and women, men should be required to participate in parenting work. While this work does have its emotional joys, it is also forced on women within patriarchy to keep them out of a public sphere in which men wield power exclusively. To construct a defense of the environment that supports women's continued relegation to maternity is seen in this analysis as a betrayal of feminist goals.
Some feminists, such as Janet Biehl (1991), have adopted this argument as a critique of ecofeminism. Biehl believes that feminists should welcome the requirements of rationality embodied in the scientific tradition and defend women's participation in this realm. She sees ecofeminism as a mistake for feminists. Other writers, more sympathetic to ecofeminism, are also critical of the way ecofeminists often seem to imply that women are innately more suited to "mothering" than men. Mellor (1992) and Seager (1993) make this critique and refuse to call themselves "ecofeminists", reserving this title for the essentialist positions that they reject. On the other hand both Mellor and Seager develop a position which can be seen as ecofeminist. They recognize and celebrate women's socially constructed alliance with nature. In this article I will regard their writing as constructionist ecofeminism (see below for a discussion of Seager's work).
Anti-essentialist ecofeminists argue against Biehl's view that women should assume their place alongside men as humans in control of nature through rational science. They maintain that even if this was a possible way to equalize power betweeen the sexes, it would just confirm the worst aspects of the Western tradition of disregard for nature. Instead, gender equality must be sought by promoting women's socially constructed closeness to nature and by generalizing these values to both sexes. They also argue that women's socially constructed ethical position as nurturing carers of other humans is a value stance that can, and should, be extended to the natural world in general. Women's ethical responses therefore provide a guide as to how we should start to regard nature.
In this view, patriarchy has certainly constructed this divide between men and women in a way that gives power to men. However, what has been left to women as their realm - the realm of nature and of empathetic caring - is actually the necessary precondition of any society. Whatever men may dream within patriarchal fantasy, it is not actually possible for women to attain equality by abandoning this sphere. Society depends upon it. It is only through the establishment of this ground as centrally important that modern society can overcome ecological disaster and also equalize relations between men and women.
This ecofeminist response has some parallels with the analysis of class made by Marx in "The German Ideology" (1978). Marx points out that ruling classes have always believed that ideas rule history and that they, as the thinkers, should control society. However, the reality is that ruling classes depend for their existence on the productive work done by the subordinate classes - the material reality of productive daily life. While the realm of pure ideas is thought to be the realm of freedom, freedom for humans can only in fact be attained by paying attention to the realm of material life (Marx 1978). In the ecofeminist account, women's reproductive work and the natural world are the real preconditions of all human culture, including the rationality and science which men elevate to high status. Men dream that they can float free from this natural world. But this is an exploitative illusion. The only satisfactory life for the human species is the recognition and celebration of our participation in nature.
Biehl (1991) develops an argument against constructionist ecofeminism which is worth examining at this point. She begins by pointing out that essentialist ecofeminists believe that there is a real connection between women and nature that is founded in biology. However constructionist ecofeminists signal their departure from essentialism by saying that this supposed connection is actually a fabrication of patriarchal society - it is an ideology of patriarchy. So if it is an ideology, a fabrication, it cannot be true that women are closer to nature than men. If it is not true, why do constructionist feminists attempt to celebrate and promote this connection - which they also regard as a figment of the patriarchal imagination? Summarizing what she sees as the problems of this constructionist ecofeminism she writes:
In my view, the notion of building a movement on something one knows is a reactionary falsehood raises serious moral questions about deception and manipulation ... (Biehl 1991).
In this critique Biehl mixes up two different propositions which are relevant to the debate:
1. Women aew closer to nature than men because of their biology.
2. In some societies women are socially constructed to be closer to nature.
While constructionist ecofeminists attack the first of these propositions as a false belief that is an aspect of patriarchal ideology, they accept the truth of the second proposition. They would probably agree with Biehl that this closeness to nature has been socially constructed within patriarchy and has in the past served the interests of patriarchal culture. Nevertheless, they argue that at the present time it is in the interests of women to accept this socially constructed closeness. The proper political response, they argue, is to retain this connection while attempting to develop the social power of women and strengthen women's defense of the natural environment. They also suggest that this ethic of care of the natural world should be extended to men and that the social construction of masculinity should be reformed so as to create men as defenders of nature. There may be other feminist questions about this program but it is not simply incoherent as Biehl argues.
Different anti-essentialist ecofeminists emphasize different points of Western history as central to the culturally constructed denigration of nature and the culturally constructed link between women and nature. I will consider Merchant, Plumwood and Seager as key figures of anti-essentialist ecofeminism and describe their positions.
Merchant begins her book, "The Death of Nature" (1990a first published in 1980) by saying that the link between women and nature is age old, and has persisted through culture and history. While this may suggest an essentialist position, she distances herself from essentialism quite explicitly. In the preface to the 1990 edition she maintains that:
... concepts of nature and women are historical and social constructions. There are no unchanging "essential" characeteristics of sex, gender, or nature. Individuals form concepts about nature and their own relationships to it that draw on the ideas and norms of the society into which they are born, socialized, and educated. (Merchant 1990a, xvi)
In the introduction to the 1980 edition, she also presents an anti essentialist position by saying that she does not wish to "reinstate nature as the mother of humankind nor to advocate that women reassume the role of nurturer dictated by that historical identity" (Merchant 1990a, xxi). She argues these programs oversimplify the requirements of an ecofeminist politics. At the same time she sees it as important for feminists to become aware of the social construction of the link between the denigration of women and the destruction of nature.
Her book is a careful description of the development of the modern scientific world view. She argues that in the earlier pre-modern cosmology of the classical and mediaeval world view, nature was seen metaphorically as a woman - as mother nature, as mother earth. The natural world, the cosmos and society were seen as alive, organic bodies. She is ambivalent about the implications for nature and women of this earlier world view. On the one hand she argues that this view of reality was sometimes used to argue against ecologically damaging activities. For example, mining was attacked as a desecration of mother nature. This attack on mining was also a defense of the environment since mining involved deforestation and the poisoning of soils and waterways. On the other hand various aspects of the classical and mediaeval world view linked women and nature in a way that supported male control over both. For example, the natural world was sometimes seen as a female essence that was activated by God's male soul. Within the Judaic tradition God gave men the right to dominate nature and women. Merchant also notes that the imperial civilizations of the ancient world were responsible for some degree of ecological damage.
The pre-modern organic view of reality was supplanted at the end of the middle ages. Merchant sees the modern period as intensifying the denigration of women and nature. She sees a first phase of this process in an increasing belief that it was appropriate for men to control nature. Both nature and women were seen as a potentially unruly element that men had to gain mastery over. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe approximately 100,000 people were tried as witches, with 83% being women. The witchcraft trials were focused on women who were supposedly in touch with animal and plant spirits:
Every natural object, every animal, every tree contained a spirit whom the witch could summon, utilize or commune with at will ... Through the power of spells that summoned spirits, witches could control the forces of nature; they could make hail or rain, destroy crops, and bring plagues. (Merchant 1990a, 140).
Those who judged and executed these women as witches believed that the women were actually agents of the devil. So Merchant sees these trials as demonizing both women and nature and linking them as conjoint evils:
Extant representations of the witches' Sabbath present an image of widespread chaos and uncontrolled nature dominated by women engaged in exuberant, frenzied activity. (Merchant 1990a, 134).
Merchant points out that the European witchcraft trials were contemporaneous with the development of the modern scientific world view. The scientific world view promoted the analysis of nature as a woman to be opened up, to be made to confess her secrets in analogy to the witchcraft trials. Bacon's work is singled out as a prime example of this conjunction of ideas. Justifying his new methods of scientific inquiry through experiment Bacon wrote:
For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterward to the same place again ... Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object - as your majesty has shown in your own example. (Bacon in Merchant 1990a, 168).
The last phrase is Bacon's praise of the witchcraft trials instituted by his king, James I. Bacon's experimental method was also joined to a project of control over nature. In this ambitious project human intentions and power were to be given free reign; no ethical concerns were to impede the exploitation of the natural world. Bacon wrote that the noblest pursuit was "to endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe". Doing that, humans could "recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest" (Bacon in Merchant 1990a, 172).
Merchant argues that a further development in these ideas about nature was the growing view that nature was not alive, that the behaviour of natural objects was mechanical. As Merchant points out, within the classical and mediaeval world views, what are now viewed as physical objects, such as the earth and the planets, were understood as live organisms, or as moved by spiritual powers, such as the power of angels. With the development of the scientific world view, such objects came to be seen as inert matter, moving as a result of forces transmitted by other pieces of inert matter. This view was extended further to treat living organisms as machines. Merchant traces these ideas to Hobbes and Descartes, and sees this mechanistic philosophy as permeating our current scientific view of the natural world. In this conception, live bodies move because of the interactions of the intert matter of which they are composed. As Merchant points out, this new mechanistic view legitimates any kind of manipulation of the natural world. In a sense, this view suggests that it is an illusion to see animals and plants as alive. So by implication, they can have no moral rights since they are merely machines - they have no more right to our sympathy and respect than a clock or a windmill.
So summarizing Merchant's account, she sees the older organic philosophy with its respect for nature as being overthrown by two related developments - the treatment of nature as a woman to be controlled and the treatment of nature as a mechanism. In explaining these developments Merchant emphasizes the way both these new perspectives legitimate an intensified control of nature. She sees them as "ideologies" in the marxist sense. They are sets of beliefs that morally back up the activities of a developing ruling class of capitalist entrepreneurs. Firstly, they relate to the spread of capitalist development and exploitation to the "New World". The wild landscape of the New World was to be made over, tamed to allow the production of wealth through agriculture, mining and forestry. The indigenous people of the New World were to be subordinated and displaced from their lands. This could be justified if they were represented as "wild nature" that ought to be "tamed". Within Europe itself, similar processes were destroying old forests to build ships and fuel the production of metals. Swamps were being drained to increase agricultural production. New mines had adverse affects on the environment. As today, these developments often displaced people who depended on the threatened environment. This intensified exploitation of natural resources was justified ideologically by the new views of nature that Merchant describes.
Reviewing Merchant's book as an example of ecofeminism, several questions can be asked. Firstly, if Merchant says that all these changes in the ways that people viewed nature were ultimately driven by the rise of the new capitalist class, what makes her approach ecofeminist rather than just marxist? The answer to this is that the kind of feminist position that Merchant propounds is what has been called "socialist feminism" or "dual systems theory" (Eisenstein 1979; Tong 1989). In this approach, patriarchal capitalism is seen as the joint product of two different social forces - capitalism and patriarchy. In Merchant's analysis, it is capitalists as a class who are looking for a new justification for the subordination of nature. However, in formulating this new justification, they take up and make use of a set of ideas which arises from patriarchy - women must be controlled by men. They join this to a theme of western culture that pre-dates capitalist society - nature is a woman; women are closer to nature than men. The idea in its final form - nature is like a woman and like a woman must be tightly controlled - fits the needs of capitalism and patriarchy. The control of nature is required by capitalism and is justified as being analogous to the control of women. The control of women is required by patriarchy and is justified as being analagous to the control of nature. The alliance between ecology and feminism which is proposed by ecofeminism is the dual assertion that neither the control of nature nor the control of women is appropriate.
A second question about Merchant's book relates to her account of mechanistic views of nature. Since the mechanistic view of nature sees nature as a machine, or as a set of machines, what does this have to do with women? One can see readily why such a view may be anti environmentalist in degrading nature to the status of a machine but why is it anti-feminist? Merchant does not really address this issue and I will show that Plumwood's analysis (1993) deals with this more directly. Before going on to that, a few points may be relevant. The view that living species are merely machines is not a view that it is easy to hold about oneself. Whatever science may say, it goes totally against common sense to see oneself as a machine. However, it may be morally easier to exploit someone else if you think of them as a machine. It could be argued that this has been the scientific implication of attempts by male scientists to understand women as machine like. Women have been seen as machines in the sense of being governed by purely biological, machine-like, processes. Such analyses go back to the nineteenth century in the definition of women's psychological states as "hysteria" or an illness based in the womb (Foucault 1980b). In contemporary society, medico-scientific control of birth is a key site of the use of machinery and science to control women, the analysis of biological processes as machine processes and the treatment of women's bodies as machines. So in this way, men link women and nature by defining both as "machines". Although, from a strictly logical scientific point of view, this means that men are also machines, the reality is that as the agents of control, men cannot really view themselves as machines. Backing up this analysis is the fact that it is men who define their gender in terms of the scientific control and mastery of the natural world and of machines. So even if nature is no longer being identified explicitly as a woman, this analogy lingers on vestigially, making sense of the idea that "masculinity" is the simultaneous control and mastery of women, machines and nature. In the second article on ecofeminism, "Ecofeminism as Practiced", I will show how this conception is still alive and well today.
Like Merchant, Plumwood regards the connection between the denigration of women and nature as a specific product of western cultural history. She sees this as a dualism in which reason is defined by being split off from other aspects of existence:
Reason in the western tradition has been constructed as the privileged domain of the master, who has conceived nature as a wife or subordinate other encompassing and representing the sphere of materiality, subsistence and the feminine which the master has split off and constructed as beneath him. (Plumwood1993, 3).
Plumwood defines a "dualism" as specific type of distinction. The two terms of the dualism are opposed as higher and lower and are thought to be radically different from each other. The lower term of the dualism is made into a "background", or made invisible to a certain extent. This allows the master to believe that they are not dependent on the lower element - be it women or nature. There is a radical exclusion generated between the two terms so that they are conceived of as completely different and any aspects that are actually shared in common are denied or overlooked. There is an incorporation of the lower term by the upper. She means by this that the lower term is never seen as having qualities in its own right but is defined as the absence of the qualities that the master has - so animals are defined as lacking reason rather than seen as independent species that are merely different to humans. The last characteristic of the dualism is that it is only the upper term, or master, which is acknowledged to have significant purposes and goals - the dualism treats the lower element as something which is only relevant in so far as it becomes an instrument of the purposes of the master.
Plumwood argues that a dualistic framework has been central to the western tradition and that key elements in different dualisms are linked. For example the reason/nature pair is mapped on to the male/female pair through the assumption that the rational public world is the sphere of men while women are supposed to attend to the body, a sphere which is identified with nature through the mind/body dualism. While Merchant emphasizes the scientific revolution, Plumwood sees the Greek philosophers, especially Plato, as being key figures, not just through their own writings but through their influence on Christianity. An interesting quote from Aristotle which sets the scene for Plumwood's analysis is the following:
It is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good for animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle of necessity extends to all mankind. Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as is the case of those whose business it is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master ... It is clear then, that some men are by nature free and others slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right. (Aristotle in Plumwood 1993, 46).
In that passage, the links between the dualisms of western culture are made quite explicit. The mind, the soul, the rational element should rule the body, the passionate element. Animals, women and slaves are all identified with the body. Men, or slave owning men more specifically, are legitimated as the ones whose rationality justifies their control over these irrational other beings.
In dealing with Plato's writing, Plumwood points to the way Plato separates the human personality into two parts. There is an animal part, which represents the needs and demands of the body, and a truly human part which is the abstract reasoning essence, separated as much as possible from the confusing demands of the body. In fact, it is suggested by Plato, the rational soul is truly part of the divine, while the merely animal part of human nature is a trap which we must try to escape. Often the implication is drawn that we are better off dead, since this provides us with an escape from our earthly body!
Like Merchant, Plumwood also sees the development of the mechanistic view of nature as a key moment of western culture, which is represented in Descartes' writing in the seventeenth century. In his writing, the separation is between the "mind" and the "body". As Plumwood points out, what we would often see as part of our mental processes - emotions, physical sensations and the like, Descartes sees as merely mechanistic bodily processes. Instead, it is only when we engage in conscious, rational reflection on these bodily processes that we truly make use of our "human" mind. In this way, Descartes is able to deny our kinship with other living beings. True, they may appear to be like us in having sensations and desires, but these are really aspects of a bodily mechanism. They are not animated by a rational soul or mind. Plumwood takes this as a dualism in the sense that it radically separates humans from other species. Humans are a totally different kind of organism animated by a radically different "mental" substance. Like Merchant, she associates this new mechanistic philosophy with an intensified project of control over nature. While the Greek philosophers were content to argue that humans were superior to nature and should control nature, the specifics of control of nature were of little interest. By contrast, with the scientific revolution of the modern period, the control of nature by rational science becomes paramount. The mechanistic philosophy legitimates this.
As with Merchant, we can ask why these analyses of western culture link women and nature as dual victims of the same oppression. Plumwood has a number of answers to this. Firstly, she sees the whole process of creating dualism as something that links the denigration of nature and the denigration of women. Using Foucault's terminology, the creation of dualisms is a key "discourse" of western culture. According to Plumwood both the environment movement and feminism have something to learn by understanding the structures which lie behind the creation of dualisms as a general process of thought. A second point she makes is that these dualisms are linked. This is quite explicit in the writing of Plato and Aristotle, where men's control of women is seen as the control of the body by the rational soul. However, she argues, it is implicit in Descartes. The qualities that are not part of Descartes' version of "the mind" are actually those which were, and are, seen as "feminine" and appropriate to women's role as domestic servants to men. It is women who are seen as more sensitive, more in touch with what Descartes stigmatizes as animal sensation, and more passionate or emotional, less capable of abstracting mental contemplation from its immediate bodily - in other words, animal - context.
Plumwood looks at a further connection between women and nature that arises within the western tradition. She argues that along with women's restriction to the domestic sphere has gone a specific social construction of women as ethical actors. Women are expected to act in terms of particularistic felt connections with other people - their children especially, but also other members of society. Their relationships with these others are supposed to be based on feelings of empathy, kinship, and identification. Plumwood gives a list of these "virtue-based" concepts as including "care, respect, gratitude, sensitivity, reverence and friendship" (Plumwood 1993, 183). While this ethical set of virtues may have its roots in women's oppression as ignored domestic servants, it can be re-used as the basis for a more adequate ethical framework for both sexes.
Plumwood argues that this framework can be useful in our relations with other people as well as with natural beings. The individual sees themself as having, as a part of their own self interest, an interest in the well being of others. Applied to environmental issues, one can see one's "welfare or satisfaction" as "essentially connected to the thriving of a particular set of ecosystems, to the welfare of particular animals or plants ... just as much as to the thriving of human kin" (Plumwood 1993, 183). As she points out, this is just how we regard the relationship of a mother to her child. She wants that particular child to thrive, she sees this as essential to her own happiness. But she does not see the child as replaceable by some other happiness that could suit her own narrow interests in happiness just as well. Yet because she takes pleasure in the child's well being, her actions on behalf of the child are not self-denying altruism; they are based in particular emotional ties of affection and regard. Plumwood advocates this ethical approach as particularly suitable for people's relationships with other species.
What we can see here is that Plumwood identifies a socially constructed ethical stance common to women as an alternative to the dominant view in which nature is radically exterior to the moral world of human beings. We can add that this emotionally based regard for the natural world is also seen as appropriate for women within the Western tradition. It is seen as expected that women will feel sympathy for animals and even for plants. Yet for men, the appropriate attitude is to overcome these sentimental feelings about animals and respond to nature more rationally, or selfishly. As I shall show in the second article on ecofeminism, the culturally approved "feminine" response to nature does in fact play a part in the way women approach environmental issues. It is also present in various popular cultural mediums that are intended to represent a feminine view of nature. Within Plumwood's analysis, the ecofeminist project includes an assertion and defense of this perspective as appropriate for humans in general and not just as a quaintly sentimental view only fit for women and children.
Plumwood and Merchant both trace our current environmental problems to the traditions of Western culture. They both argue that western culture has set up a link between masculinity and the control of the natural world. Control of the natural world is valorized as a masculine project, as the triumph of masculine reason over feminized nature. As I have suggested, Merchant emphasizes this link in the scientific revolution, while Plumwood looks further back to the classical Greek philosophers. However, within essentialist ecofeminist writings, this development is sometimes taken back to the earliest origins of the state as such. For example, Collard and Contrucci (1988), look at the early states of the Middle East as instances of the denigration of nature. This makes sense within the essentialist framework where patriarchy, the state and the denigration of nature are seen as necessarily going together. I have explained why I think this may be unlikely.
On the other hand we can re-read these essentialist accounts within a constructionist framework. Taken this way, the histories of early state cultures of the ancient world suggest that Western culture, from its very origins in Mesopotamia and the Indus valley, began to develop this linked rejection of nature and femininity. Accordingly, the Greek philosophers that Plumwood writes about may have been building on a tradition that began thousands of years previously.
Collard and Contrucci consider the Gilgamesh epic of Babylon, composed in about 2000 B.C. They see the epic as pointing to the foundation of the connection between patriarchy, the state and the denigration of nature. In their analysis, the epic is a myth which documents the overthrow of nature-loving goddess worship. Gilgamesh was supposedly king of the first dynasty of the city of Uruk. According to the epic, he is renowned for his aggression and sexual appetite. The city fathers of Uruk find Gilgamesh's exploits a problem. The patron god of the city orders the goddess Aruru to create a man-beast to control Gilgamesh. So was born Enkidu. Enkidu has long hair which looks like a woman, he eats grass with the gazelles and lives in the wild, protecting hunted animals. Collard and Contrucci believe that he represents a state of harmony between nature and humans. Gilgamesh manages to turn Enkidu away from this peaceful lifestyle. He persuades Enkidu to rape a priestess from the temple of the mother goddess Ishtar. He leads Enkidu to eat animal flesh and drink alcohol. Enkidu becomes the right hand man of Gilgamesh. Later he joins Gilgamesh in a raid on the sacred mountain forest of Ishtar. Enkidu cuts down the sacred cedar tree and kills the guardian of the forest, insulting Ishtar by tearing out the right thigh of the bull of heaven and threatening Ishtar with similar treatment (Collard & Contrucci 1988, 20-21). Collard and Contrucci see the epic as a documentation of the triumph of patriarchal religion over an older matriarchal worship of nature:
The epic indicates that worship of the Great Goddess, characteristic of the way of life in 'the open country' (the birthplace of Enkidu), was on the wane in cities such as Uruk as a result of patriarchal oppression. (Collard & Contrucci 1988, 22)
Within a constructionist account, what this epic demonstrates is the way the patriarchal state of Babylon linked control over women to control over the natural world. The male king takes control of society by destroying the influence of goddesses and by taming wild nature. The tradition of Judaic religion, reflected now in Christianity and Islam, also implies this belief structure, in that the Bible's "Genesis" sees a Father God as giving dominion over both women and animal species to men (see Ruether 1992). While these events can be used as part of an essentialist ecofeminist analysis, they may also play a part in a constructionist account. Within the Western tradition, denigration of nature has been culturally valorized and culturally linked to men's control over women. This tradition can be traced back to the very origins of Western culture and to the formation of some of the first Western states.
Seager is a social constructionist who concentrates her analysis on the current social construction of gender and its implications for environmental politics. She looks at the way both war and business are organised without regard for the environmental devastation which is their frequent effect. She demonstrates the ways in which the American military establishment has been responsible for nuclear and chemcial pollution, and the destruction of habitat both at home and abroad. She cites estimates that the cost of cleaning up existing pollution in United States military sites would be $400 billion. Much of the pollution created has already entered water tables or been deeply buried and is unable to be cleaned up. She claims the US military is responsible for one-third of all the hazardous waste produced in the US (Seager 1993, 32-33). The Fernald facility, which produces nuclear warheads, is a good example of Seager's point:
Since 1952, the facility has released about 265 tons of uranium into the environment, and another 337 tons are unaccounted for; radioactive and toxic wastes stored in pits, tanks and corroding drums have leached into ground water, tainting water supplies; drinking wells throughout the Fernald region were contaminated at several hundred times natural levels, something that Department of Energy knew for several years without informing residents; over a billion pounds of radioactive wasters are currently stored at the site in silos and shallow pits that are now leaking; every year of its operation, until the practice was uncovered in 1988, the plant illegally dumped 109 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes into storm sewers. (Seager 1993, 44).
Other examples include the destruction and pollution of Pacific islands with nuclear tests including the killing and poisoning of local people and wildlife, the disasters of the Soviet military nuclear industry, the deforestation of tropical rainforests to facilitate military operations, the poaching of elephants to provide funds for wars in Africa, the massive oil spills and air pollution of the recent Gulf War.
She links these problems to masculinity in a variety of ways. The people who define what is important for national security in every country are men. While they defend their national interest, they also defend the interests of men as a class, since it is men who continue to control the means of violence. This links into a culture which socializes men to see violence as an appropriate means to dominate other people, including women. Apart from the obvious facts of the preponderance of men in armies she also points to the domination of men in decision making about war; a survey of US government offices involving national security showed that only 44 women had decision making positions compared to 1,015 men (Seager 1993, 38). In this context, environmental concerns are always seen as secondary to military concerns. Environmental issues are defined as taking second place to the pre-eminently masculine field of military operations. For example, in the US the military is usually exempt from environmental legislation on toxic waste. She mentions the fact that military decision makers operate as a kind of men's secret club. An interesting example is the way the wives of men involved in the US nuclear weapons programs were excluded from any knowledge of their husbands' working lives. The prestige of this masculinized sphere is used to deflect concern about the environmental effects of the military. According to Seager, environmental resistance is often initiated by grassroots organisations of women. In response, the army characterizes environmental issues as trivial women's business, which is much less important than the serious business of "defending the country".
Seager presents a similar case to argue for the masculinity of business organizations. As with the army, she considers that the environmental devastation caused by business is related to the way men dominate business as a social institution. She documents many cases of industry neglecting the environment, both by not taking care of the consequences of industrial processes and by more conscious neglect. For example:
American industry alone generates annually 280 million tonnes of lethal garbage and 10.3 billion pounds of toxic chemicals that are spewed each year into the air, discharged into public waters and flushed into sewers. (Seager 1993, 72).
As she acknowledges, much of this can be understood in terms of the pressures on industrial corporations to maximize profits. It is common for environmental protection to cost money in one way or another, so companies avoid it if possible. For example the Hooker Chemical company spent $1.7 million dollars to dispose of toxic waste in an abandoned canal in New York State. Later they sold this land to a school board and eventually it became a suburban housing estate (Love Canal). Finally after prolonged community action, the site had to be cleaned up with a cost of $61 million dollars which was funded by taxpayers (Seager 1993, 80)!
However Seager does not think this environmental negligence can be completely explained as the result of some "profit imperative" of capitalist enterprise. It is not just a "structural" feature of capitalism that is independent of the cultural creation of personalities adapted to success in business:
Environmental degradation on the scale we encounter today raises questions, at the least about morality and behavior and socialization. How can corporate officers approve the pesticide spraying of unprotected children? How can plant managers contract with -fly-by-night waste haulers when they know with certainty that their toxins are going to end up in the backyards of innocent people in Georgia or Nigeria? (Seager 1993, 81).
Seager's answer to this is that it is men, socialized within the forms of masculinity current in this culture, who run businesses. For example among the top 500 firms in the US in 1986, there were 217 women and 5,889 men on corporate boards and 152 women and 9,048 men as corporate officers (Seager 1993, 82). It is the culture of masculinity which shapes the way men behave in business:
Atttributes for success in the corporate world - a privileging of emotional neutrality, of rationality, or personal distancing, loyalty to impersonal authority, team playing, scientific rationality, and militarized paradigms - reflect characteristics that define "manliness" in our culture. (Seager 1993, 102).
She sees this culture as being played out in the relationship between business and the environment. For example, it is masculine to avoid mixing up emotional issues with the requirement of work. So a decision that might have unpleasant consequences for other people and the environment could cause a corporate officer emotional concern. However he would feel that as a worker it was his role to put this concern to one side while thinking only of the interests of his company (his team), and of his loyalty to his superior officers. As members of a team, members of business management regard environmental agencies in government and environmental protest groups as an enemy to be conquered, or at best as people interfering in the ability of the company to compete with other corporate players. She traces various examples of this scenario in particular environmental issues and their handling by business. As an example of moral bracketing and the way business treats environmental problems she quotes a speaker at the 1990 conference of the Public Relations Society of America. Talking about the Exxon Valdez oil spill he claimed:
We are not here today to debate environmental or ethical questions. We are, at least for today, not concerned with the fate of sea otters but with how a huge American corporation spent $2 billion on the cleanup of what was not the worst oil spill ever, yet lost the battle of public relations and more than a year later is still struggling with one of the worst tarnishings of its corporate image in American history. ... Well, let's be realistic. Nobody died at Prince William Sound - no humans anyway. Exxon failed to tell the best sides of its story. (Seager 1993, 88).
As pointed out by Seager, the company that created this disastrous oil spill made a number of decisions to maximize profit at the expense of environmental safety. All of these decisions contributed to the disaster. First was the decision to send oil in massive supertankers rather than smaller ships. A second was the decision not to equip those tankers with double hulls. A further decision was to reduce labour by cutting staff on the tankers. Overtime work was increased and crews were under increasing pressure to hurry shipments. In the public relations account, these negligent actions are put to one side, while attention is focussed on Exxon as a team that has not successfully won the battle of public relations.
These chapters on business, the military and also on government are central to Seager's constructionist ecofeminism. They are designed to show that masculinity as it is culturally constructed has a key part to play in the creation of the environmental problems that beset us. In terms of various theories of the social origin of environmental problems, her analysis is intended to refute the position taken by some socialist environmentalists and social ecologists. While they argue that it is the structure of capitalism itself which causes environmental problems, she maintains that this does not take the analysis far enough. It is capitalism, as it is structured to fit in with current patriarchal culture, that causes environmental problems.
Like Merchant and Plumwood, her analysis fits within the type of feminism referred to as "socialist feminism" or "dual systems" theory. Capitalism and patriarchy are two social forces which together create the institutions and social patterns of current global society. When we are looking at how environmental problems are socially created it is not enough to look at capitalism by itself. We need to see how that capitalist social structure depends on and is shaped by patriarchy.
In making this analysis, Seager concentrates on the social construction of masculinity, of what Connell (1987; 1995) calls "hegemonic masculinity". Connell defines "hegemonic masculinity" as that kind of masculine personality type which is socially created to enable men to maintain their control over women. He sees this as shifting within different historical periods and as differing from one social class to another and from one culture to another. In terms of Connell's perspective, what Seager outlines here is the specific construction of hegemonic masculinity that is adapted to late capitalist society. It both enables the control of women and supports the dominant economic structure of capitalism.
Many of the aspects of masculinity that Seager focuses on - such as emotional distancing and competitiveness - are also explained by Chodorow (1974) as widespread features of patriarchal societies, whatever their economic structure. In an earlier section of this article I have argued that this perspective can be used to link patriarchy to the denigration of the environment. Seager provides examples and evidence for this connection. Men's emotional distance and competitiveness is worked into capitalist economic structures. In turn these personality features allow men to disregard the consequences of their actions for both people and the environment. Often, as in Seager's examples, these go together, as environmental damage and damage to humans are linked.
Seager is also critical of much of the Green movement. She sees the Green movement as being increasingly run by men and increasingly professionalized to the exclusion of women and the less powerful sections of global society. She argues that the result of this is that the environmental movement is often host to various kinds of anti-feminist politics. She documents this perspective through the analysis of environmentalist campaigns. For example, she looks at a campaign against women wearing furs and argues that it played on common male attitudes of hostility to women. She links the professionalization of the Green movement to the power of men in key environmental organizations. It is easier for men who are not responsible for domestic life to rise to the top in organizations that demand huge commitments of time from their senior officers and depend upon a tough, businesslike image. She goes on to argue that the Green movement is increasingly being bought off through its close collaboration with powerful men in business and government. As Seager sees it, the mainstay of continuing radical critique comes from grassroots organizations in which women are the majority of activists. She traces this preponderance of women to the fact that it is women's lives of "lived ordinariness" which make them aware of and immediately affected by environmental problems. These issues will be considered in the second article on ecofeminism.
While I have characterized Seager's work here as "ecofeminist", Seager herself reserves this term for the essentialist wing of the ecofeminist movement:
the most visible expression of women's special contribution to environmental issues, at least in the West, has been a "maternalist," spirituality-based movement known as "ecofeminism". (Seager 1993, 240).
In calling this movement "maternalist" she argues that it is based in a link being made between women's role as mothers and women's environmentalist politics. She allies this "maternalist" environmentalism with a similar strand in the earlier peace movement of the seventies and eighties. She has a number of objections to this kind of politics:
a) By "essentialising" women's nature as "maternal", it ends up by supporting an age old patriarchal belief that women's natural role in society is to nurture children and reproduce the species; while it is men's natural role to dominate and be political. She thinks it is hard to support one side of this old fashioned dualism - women are maternal - without leaving it open for your opponents to re-assert the other side of the dualism - men are political. As Biehl suggests in a similar argument, the identification of women with mothering and with the protection of life, plays directly into the hands of those who want to deny women rights to abortions or keep women out of paid work (Biehl 1991).
b) "Maternalism", Seager goes on to say, does not leave much space for women who do not want to be mothers, such as many lesbians, or for women who do not want to define their personalities in terms of "motherliness", such as a great many feminists.
c) Maternalism, Seager also argues, implies that women are not free cultural actors. Instead it supposes that their political positions are determined by their biology. It can end up leading to a very pessimistic kind of politics. If the behaviour of the sexes is biologically determined, what hope is there of changing men's behaviour to create a more environmentally friendly society?
d) Another criticism of Seager's is that the essentialist position just confirms the worst aspects of the supposed opposition between humans and nature. Because it says that women are closer to nature, it assumes that in some way humans as a group are set apart from the natural world. If humans of both sexes are really just a part of nature, how can you set up one half of humanity as closer to nature?
e) Seager is very critical of the spiritualism of much of the essentialist ecofeminist movement. She fears that it can lead to an a-political concentration on an inward spiritual journey. She maintains that such a journey is not really an option for many people in the world, and not a very effective way of dealing with most environmental crises (see also Biehl 1991).
I am unsure about some of these critical positions. Seager has to construct a critique of essentialist ecofeminism that does not undermine her own constructionist position. As she shows herself, it is often women who "as mothers" recognize and begin to oppose environmental degradation. Her position would have to be that it is alright for feminists to celebrate this socially constructed alliance between women and nature. However it becomes oppressive to women when this alliance is regarded as intrinsic to women's nature. Then the "mothering" role becomes a biological trap which can foreclose other options for women. Also, her argument would be that the social constructionist position allows feminists to advocate that men's culture and socialization change. Men can be "maternal" too, in their relation to their own children and the world at large.
A reply to Seager's critique from essentialists could be that it may just be true that women are essentially closer to nature than men. In other words, there is little point in arguing about the unfortunate political consequences of this belief if it happens to be true. They would go on to say that their political program is not that different from that of the constructionists. Like the constructionists, they too would say that women should mix their maternal role with participation in public power. For essentialists, a gynocentric society is one in which both men and women share public power and in which both men and women revere the life giving powers of women and nature.
For me, the most difficult political problem for this kind of essentialism is the problem of winning men's support for the ecofeminist cause. Essentialism maintains that men's biology does not link them closely to nature. So how is it possible to win men's support for a program that they are not linked to by biological imperatives? The essentialist answer must be that men could have other reasons for joining the ecofeminist cause. Essentialists could claim that men in the environmental movement are coming to see that the survival of the human species depends on the life affirming values which women represent through their very biology. Shiva suggests this kind of perspective when she supports an essentialist analysis but opposes those feminists who attempt to keep men out of ecofeminist politics:
The feminist input serves not just women but also men. There is no limiting relationship between feminist values and being a woman. In this non-gender based philosophy the feminine principle is not exclusively embodied in women, but is the principle of activity and creativity in nature, women and men. (Shiva 1989, 52)
While this may sound contradictory, it can make sense if it is assumed that the feminine principle is biologically located in women while it can be culturally awakened in men. All in all, I am not convinced by objections to essentialist ecofeminism based in its political consequences. If essentialist ecofeminism is true, these objections are a bit beside the point. As well, essentialist ecofeminists have some quite coherent strategies for negotiating the political problems of their analysis. Here, I have suggested that the most important objection to essentialist ecofeminism is that it is not true. It is just not true that women have a closer link to nature than men, through their biology. It is just not true that all societies see women as more closely tied to nature than men. It is just not true that respect for nature always goes hand in hand with a high social status for women.
Seager's suggestion that the essentialist position depends on the dualism of humans and nature is hard to refute. On the other hand the constructionist ecofeminist position is just the same. It maintains that women are culturally constructed to be more in tune with the natural world. For me, an attack on dualism cannot be pushed to the conclusion that there is no politically acceptable use for the human/nature distinction. Evironmentalism is surely about the way humans conduct their relationship with non-human nature. This is quite compatible with the view that humans are a lot more similar to other species than western culture recognizes. It is compatible with the view that humans are a lot more dependent on non-human nature than western culture has traditionally allowed. As well, there is one usage of the term "nature" in which it makes sense to say that humans are part of the natural world and not distinct at all. Despite all this, it is not at all contradictory to say that some humans have a more benevolent attitude to non-human nature than others. This is the basis of ecofeminism, in both its essentialist and its constructionist versions.
Finally, I do not find Seager's criticisms of ecofeminist spirituality particularly convincing. Even her own examples do not always back up the points she is making. For example she quotes Starhawk as advocating a spiritual ritual that could be followed by a more directly political action:
Maybe you will form a circle where members take off their clothes and go to the beach and dance around and jump in the waves and energize yourselves that way. And then you'll all write letters to your congresspersons about the ozone condition. (Starhawk, cited in Seager 1993, 249).
Seager concludes from this and similar statements that these writers believe that political change will follow from personal transformation. She concludes that ecofeminism, "thus defined ... is primarily an exercise in personal transformation" (Seager 1993, 249). She is certainly right in thinking that these authors believe that political change can be assisted by some kinds of personal transformation. However it seems totally unfair to conclude that they define political change as an exercise in personal transformation. The statement quoted from Starhawk is actually quite clear about the difference between the magical ritual and the subsequent political action. Is Seager saying that writing letters to congresspersons is not political? Macy, another spiritual ecofeminist, and Starhawk both talk about political actions as well as about spiritual rituals. Starhawk, for example, writes about occupying a weapons plant and Macy writes about environmental development action (Starhawk 1987; Macy 1991). Is Seager saying that in some indefinable way, such actions are not really political if they are associated with magical ritual? There clearly are examples of meshings between spiritual movements and activist politics. For example Macy describes a Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka that is deeply involved in community organising for sustainable development (Macy 1991).
This issue is made more complicated by the extreme flexibility of the term "spiritual". Is Plumwood's view (1993) that we should respect, love and care for "earth others", as she calls them, a spiritual belief? Plumwood herself does not see it this way, she sees it as "ethics". But Macy represents a similar view as part of the Buddhist religion (Macy 1991). Does Plumwood's ethical standpoint become "spiritual" if it is associated with a "ritual", such as the "Council of All Beings" advocated by some environmentalists (Plant 1989)? Is meditation, in which one feels less of a barrier between oneself and the environment a "spiritual" practice, and how does it relate to political efficacy (Samuel 1990)? Is spirtuality to be supported by ecofeminists in the context of indigenous cultures such as that of Indian tribal people (Shiva 1989; Seager 1993) and opposed ruthlessly when practiced by western ecofeminists who are trying to invent a new religious tradition? Without getting too involved on either side of this debate, it seems only fair to recognize that the personal roots of people's political involvement are various. Some people come to ecopolitics believing that their political action flows from their spirituality while others believe that spirituality has nothing to do with their political actions.
In discusssing Seager's critiques of essentialist ecofeminism, I have argued that many of them fail to distinguish adequately between her own constructionist position and the position she is criticising. When she is talking about the political problems of essentialism, I partly agree with her critique, but also think that the key issue is whether the essentialist ecofeminist analysis of history and contemporary society is true. In this article as a whole, I have begun by considering whether the three propositions of essentialist ecofeminism can be defended as social science. I have argued that it is not true that societies always link women and nature. I have argued that it is not true that patriarchal societies always denigrate nature. On the other hand I have agreed with the essentialist argument that patriarchy provides the psychological foundations for the denigration and emotional rejection of the natural world. This conclusion led on to a discussion of constructionist ecofeminism. I have supported the analysis of writers like Merchant, Plumwood and Seager, who argue that gender has been socially constructed within the Western tradition in ways that imply a link between masculinity and the denigration of nature. This historical fact provides the current basis for a political alliance between feminism and the environmentalist movement. For men to embrace their connection with the natural world they have to go against various aspects of hegemonic masculinity, as it has been socially constructed within this particular society. For women, the empowerment of their feminine culture through feminist struggle can also aid the environmentalist movement. For both men and women, environmentalist action is in many ways pitted against the power structures of patriarchy as it has been set up within the Western tradition. In the second article on ecofeminsm I will consider the extent to which these general conclusions can be fitted in with particular aspects of culture and politics in modern global society.
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