Feminism's Contribution to Environmental Ethics

In formulating a theory of Ecofeminism, Greta Gaard and Lori Gruen posit that those involved must answer four questions:

1. What are the problems that Ecofeminism has addressed?

The first acknowledged issues stem from current consumption patterns in the "most affluent of nations." Most damning are, of course, the statistics concerning the US. The most potent of these is stated early on, "The average US citizen uses 300 times the energy that a Third World citizen does," (276). This imbalance of resources consumption from North to South hemispheres generates the majority of those problems discussed later in the article, from the lack of safe drinking water in the South, the ubiquitous loss of forests and consequent loss of species, to rampant starvation in the "Third World." While the numbers associated with these effects are staggering, the primary goal of this article is to articulate a connection between the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature.

2. How did these problems arise?

In searching for the sources of man's perceived justification for exploitation, several groups of ecofeminists contribute sectional genealogies, all of which overlap to generate the current state of things. First, the scientific revolution is implicated as redefining nature in mechanical terms, incapable of feeling pain and not requiring moral consideration. Another strain confirming man's right to dominion over nature and woman is to be found in the the change from female deities to male, specifically in the dominance of the Judeo-Christian deity. Yet another cites the rise of hunting cultures leading to the perceived feebleness of women and necessary dominion over nature to survive. A Marxist ecofeminist perspective places women at the most unfortunate end of the capitalist production process. The point is, by Othering women and nature, male dominance was ensured, and enduring practices of exploitation took root. This historically continuous strengthening of the system of domination eventually asserted itself in the Third World, in the form of cash crops. Through this economic "improvement," the oppression of women, indigenous people, and the natural world continue to grow in developing nations.

3. Why should these problems concern feminists?

Gaard and Gruen define succinctly the process by which a feminist critique of environmental degradation is made possible, "If we can establish that a proposed activity or practice contributes to the subordination of women, then by necessity it becomes a feminist concern," (279). By this criterion, all of the aforementioned consequences of uncontrolled materials consumption engender a feminist deconstruction. Ecofeminists hope to achieve this greater view of the modes of oppression "by examining global economies, Third World debt, underdevelopment, food production and distribution, reproductive rights, militarism, and environmental racism," (280). Demonstrating the connected oppression of women and nature is relatively simply in the case of the cash crop, as it involves most of these points: through the pressure of a global economy, the cash crop overturns sustenance farming and forests. Underdevelopment and "Third World debt" widen from this economic imperialism, bringing industrialization as a "solution." Food production and distribution are disrupted and reformulated to place both men and profits above women and the integrity of the ecosystem. Reproductive rights are severely abridged as male-dominated tradition forces certain roles upon the women, such as hoeing and weeding of both cash crops and food crops, and "environmentalists" focus on overpopulation as the primary cause of the developing world's problems. With pollution causing disease and death in young children, thus further contributing to the limitation of reproductive rights for women, greater birthrates are required to increase available labor in a family and fight encroaching poverty. Obviously, this is an impossible loop to break without further environmental degradation, natural resources sold as capital. With women bearing the crushing weight of the "debt-for-nature swap," "affluence of the North is founded on the natural resources and labor of the South," (280).

4. Why might Ecofeminism offer the best framework for analyzing them?

By emphasizing the interconnectedness of the various forms of oppression, ecofeminists hope to present a more holistic view of environmental degradation, a view representing its total effects. The final section shows this by recognizing many different theories which emphasize "one or two elements of oppression as primary in its analysis," but stressing the need for the total view. Uncovering the root causes of and responses to the "population problem," ecofeminists hope to better explain specific instances of oppression with reference to systems. The efforts of ecofeminists carry implications for those concerned solely with endangered biodiversity, the exploitation of the Third World for the continued wastefulness of the First, the reification of gender roles in developing countries, etc.

Assessment of Ecofeminism

However, these same efforts show both the extensiveness of human influence on the environment and the multiplicity of interests in group identities. On the level of theory, the Ecofeminist framework contributes greatly to the list of concrete changes humans, especially the privileged inhabitants of the First World, can make for positive results. The difficulty lies in the same area plaguing the other ethical theories and ecological outlooks: the amount of influence gained is proportional to the effort exerted by those sensible to the causes and effects of these environmental threats. Without a dedicated body, devoted to increasing public awareness and unconcerned with the backlash of friends, neighbors, family, etc, these concerns remain in the realm of theory, troubling reading for a rainy day. Keeping one's reaction to these articles limited to the field of personal action, one's beliefs and habits, does not solve the free-rider problem, a torpid public drunk on its complacency, ignorance, or simply preferred habits. Attempting to convince the "oppressors" of their moral infractions are likely to provoke either anger or laughter. Another difficulty of ecofeminism is shared with pragmatism: on the level of public policy, full consideration of the varied interests within a group may never generate agreement, the "unity-in-diversity" Gaard and Gruen advocate. The conclusion of this article is incredibly ominous in light of these points, "Nothing less than the future of the earth and all of its inhabitants may well depend on how effectively we all can work together to achieve global justice and planetary health," (287). Now to begin arguing our way out of nihilism…

Fellenz's Critique of Ecofeminism

The Feminine Voice

As an important as it is reconnect for our race to reconnect with the natural world , many have wondered whether or not ecofeminism is an effective approach, given the magnitude of the threat humans pose on the environment. With this understood, there has been a need for a “broader challenge to the dominant culture” that Fellenz feels is not offered by deep ecology (Moral Menagerie 173). Ecofeminists share with deep ecologists “a general concern for biocentrism and an appreciation for personal interaction with the nonhuman reality”, yet they offer some rough criticisms towards “advocates of the deep ecology approach” like Leopold and Callicott. “like deep ecology, ecofeminism is not a singular theory, and covers a broad range of thought; in rough terms, its criticism of other forms of nature ethics is grounded in an attempt to synthesize the insights of environmental ethics and animal advocacy with a feminist analysis of western ethics and culture” (173). Janis Birkeland, a known feminist, states the ecofeminist challenge of deep ecology and animal advocacy: “the focus on changing our anthropocentric way of experiencing or perceiving nature is inadequate either as an analysis or a program of action. While human chauvinism must be overcome, it cannot be overcome without addressing male-centeredness and sexism” (175). With the overall goal of Ecofeminism being to reassess our relationship with the “ animal and nature cast speciesism and anthropocentrisim as symptoms of a deeper patriarchy in the Western tradition that needs to be deconstructed before a successful animal ethic can be produced” (173). And this, according to Fellenz is what ecofeminist try to do.

He first addresses many scientists whose beliefs support the basic ecofeminist’s ideals and indicate that sexism and anthropocentrism are intrinsically correlated problems. First he mentions Josephine Donovan who believes there is significant evidence which ties together antivivisectionists and suffragette’s emotions and philosophies due to rise in scientism and Enlightenment rationalism, in response they want to feminize our culture. Furthermore post-traditional thinkers like Derrida address ethical issues through “rationalism, humanism, and patriarchy of the Western society. Biologist Valerius Geist believes that this relationship has been developing since the Paleolithic age, while the studies of some object-relations psychologists have “situated anthropocentrism within a boarder diagnosis of masculine psychology. Basically, males are institutionally dependent on both females and nature, and this social norm needs to change.

Feminists use considerations like these to help link ethical or philosophical problems to their gender-political agenda because it is essential in truly understanding the issue and eventually correcting our culture. “For unless one understands that the Western tradition is not only hierarchical but also patriarchal, not only anthropocentric but androcentric, then the social origins of philosophical problems will be overlooked” (175). The feminist examination of ethics is directly related to the moral standing of non human species because by exposing male centeredness and the associated flaws of individualism, anthropocentrism, and rationalism complications arise involving the accommodation of nature and animal. Birkland feels that the lack of a feminine voice has hindered our cultural development on an environmental level as well as generally. If mankind is inherently “ autonomous, aggressive, and competitive”, all masculine traits, then our hierarchical structure was developed to keep those traits in check and maintain social order. This point is directly related to how we treat other organisms because it suggests that “human exploitation of animals and nature is ‘natural’ or inevitable’” (176) since humans are on top.

Ecofeminist also feel that care, sympathy, or attentive love is important in changing our ways which is the main point of the Care Ethics approach. Feminist place “emphasis on emotional authentic and personal experience… [and find it] imperative to establish a connection with the nonhuman world”. I think Fellenz is against this point because he fears it may cause self delusion if the connection is not backed by reason and further the relative factor of human emotion makes it hard to appeal to the masses. Regardless, Fellenz states that “emphasizing the themes of community, holism, and integration, ecofeminists envision a synthesis of the concerns of environmentalism… [which] compensates for their … shortcomings” (180).

Fellenz discussion was just that a discussion on ecofeminism. It did not seem like he was taking a stance on the matter instead discussing the topic with an open mind which seems wishy-washy at times and comparing it to deep ecology. He states that “If the feminist analysis is correct, then…” This suggests that he does not wholeheartedly believe this approach and may even take a neutral stance which was a bit frustrating to me because at times it seems he is trying to prove why the ecofemininst approach is correct. Yet, I did like how he allows the reader some freedom to make up their own mind and he just provides the information. My feelings on ecofeminism are confused because I do feel an appeal to emotion is crucial and that all the ethical isms are related to one another but I don’t blame it all on the male population that’s just absurd.

For more information or to connect to a page click: Terms Defined

Fellenz, Marc R. "Ecophilosophy: Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism." The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007.

Gaard, Greta and Gruen, Lori. “Ecofeminism: Toward Global Justice and Planetary Health.” Environmental Ethics. Ed. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

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