Ecofeminist Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics: A Comparative View
Ecofeminist Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics: A Comparative View
Abstract and Keywords
Ecofeminism emerged in the late 20th century as a major school of philosophical and theological thought and social analysis. Ecofeminism sees an interconnection between the domination of women and the domination of nature. This interconnection is typically made on two levels: ideological-cultural and socioeconomic. This chapter surveys several ecofeminist perspectives that are emerging from a number of religious and cultural contexts—those of Vandana Shiva from India, Ivone Gebara from Brazil, and Carolyn Merchant, a North American historian of science. It concludes with some questions about the utility of this effort to interconnect the domination of women and of nature, social justice, and ecological health.
Ecofeminism has emerged in the late twentieth century as a major school of philosophical and theological thought and social analysis. The word “ecofeminism” was coined in 1972 by Francoise d'Eaubonne, who developed the “Ecologie-Féminisme” group, arguing that “the destruction of the planet is due to the profit motif inherent in male power.” Her 1974 book Le Féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death) saw women as central to bringing about an ecological revolution.1
Ecofeminism sees an interconnection between the domination of women and the domination of nature. This interconnection is typically made on two levels: ideological-cultural and socioeconomic. On the ideological-cultural level, women are said to be “closer to nature” than men, more aligned with body, matter, emotions, and the animal world. On the socioeconomic level, women are located in the sphere of reproduction, child raising, food preparation, spinning and weaving, cleaning of clothes and houses, roles that are devalued in relation to those of the public sphere of male power and culture. My assumption is that the first level is the ideological superstructure for the second. In other words, claiming that women are “naturally” closer to the material world and lack the capacity for intellectual and leadership roles justifies locating them in the devalued sphere of material work and excluding them from higher education and public leadership.
Many ecofeminist thinkers extend this analysis to include class, race, and ethnic hierarchies. That is, devalued classes and races of men and women are said to lack capacity for intellect and leadership, denied (p.78) higher education, and located socially in the spheres of physical labor as serfs, servants, and slaves in households, farms, and workshops. The fruits of this labor, like that of wives in the family, are appropriated by the male elites as the base for their wealth and freedom to exercise roles of power and culture. These male elites are the master class who define themselves as owning the dependent classes of people.
The ruling class inscribes in the systems of law, philosophy, and theology a “master narrative” or “logic of domination” that defines the normative human in terms of this male ruling group. For Plato, and even more for Aristotle, the free Greek male is the normative human. Descartes, a major philosopher for early modern European thought, deepened the Greek dualism between mind and body, seeing all bodily reality as mere “dead matter” pushed and pulled by mechanical force. The mind stands outside matter contemplating and controlling it from beyond.
In modern liberal thought essential humanity corresponds to rationality and moral will. Humans are seen as autonomous egos “maximizing their self-interests” who form social contracts to protect their property and in which their individual pursuit of profit can be guided by an “invisible hand” to the benefit of the larger society. Although such views of the self claim to define the generic “human,” what is assumed here is the male educated and propertied classes. Dependent people—women, slaves, workers, peasants, and colonized peoples—are made invisible. They are de facto lumped with instrumentalized nature.2
This master narrative, with its logic of domination, has structured Mediterranean and Western societies for thousands of years. Since the sixteenth century it has been extending its control throughout the globe, eliminating smaller indigenous societies with alternative, more egalitarian and nature-sustaining social and cultural patterns. Most other urban civilizations and religions, such as Hinduism in India and Confucianism in China, also developed patriarchal ideologies with similar social expressions. But even these earlier patriarchal worldviews, which retained some sense of the sacrality of nature, are being subordinated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by the one triumphant master narrative of Western science and market economics.
How do ecofeminists envision a transformation of this deeply rooted and powerful ideology and social system? Some feminists have objected to any link between the domination of women and that of nature, seeing (p.79) this as reduplicating the basic patriarchal fallacy that women are closer to and more like nonhuman nature than men. They believe that women need to claim their equal humanity with male humans, their parallel capacity for rationality and leadership.3 They too, like males, are separate from and called to rule over nature. But this solution to women's subordination ends with assimilating a few elite women into the male master class, without changing the basic hierarchies of the ruling class over dominated humans and nonhumans.
Most women remain subordinated in the home and in low-paying, menial jobs, even as a few elite women make it into the cabinets and boardrooms of the powerful. The same can be said of racial, ethnic men. Token inclusion of women, black or white, and racial ethnic men buttresses the claim that American society is completely inclusive and is open to talent from whatever group. The many who do not “make it” have no one to blame but themselves. This show of “equality” thus masks the reality of a system in which the super wealth and power of a few depends on the exploitation of the many.
Some ecofeminists do claim that there is some truth in the ideology that women are “closer to nature.” They see this closeness as having been distorted by patriarchy to dominate both women and nature as inferior to male humans. But this distortion is rooted in an essential truth that women, by virtue of their child-bearing functions, are more attuned to the rhythms of nature, more in touch with their own bodies, more holistic. Women need to claim this affinity with nature and take the lead in creating a new earth-based spirituality and practice of care for the earth.4
Most ecofeminists, however, reject an essentializing of women as more in tune with nature by virtue of their female body and maternity. They see this concept of affinity between women and nature as a social construct that both naturalizes women and feminizes nonhuman nature, making them appear more “alike.” At the same time, by socially locating women in the sphere of bodily and material support for society, women may also suffer more due to the abuse of the natural world, and hence also become more aware of this abuse. But this is a matter of their experience in their particular social location, not due to a different “nature” than males. Such experiences would vary greatly by class and cultural (p.80) location. An elite Western woman living within the technological comforts of affluent, urban society may be oblivious to the stripping of forests, and the poisoning of water, while a peasant woman who has to struggle for the livelihood of her family in immediate relation to these realities is acutely aware of them. This awareness, of course, does not translate directly into mobilization for change. For that, one needs a conscious recognition of these connections and a critical analysis of the larger forces that are bringing them about, together with the rise of leadership that can translate this into organized resistance to dominant powers and efforts to shape alternatives to them.
One must also question the universality of the cultural ideology that places culture over nature as male over female. Preurban people who depend primarily on hunting-gathering and small-scale agriculture often have very different patterns of thought. Often males are associated with either wild nature (the sphere of hunting) or the fields that men control, while women are associated with the domestic realm. Men may see their activities as superior to those of women, but this is a matter of opinion, with women seeing their work as equal or better. A hierarchical sphere of male elites controlling culture and politics has not yet subsumed these earlier patterns that relate the whole society more directly to the fields and forests. But these earlier peoples have today been largely subordinated to patriarchal societies that identify themselves with a culture transcendent to nature and regard tribal and peasant peoples as inferior.5
Ecofeminist hope for an alternative society calls for a double conversion or transformation. Social hierarchies of men over women, white elites over subordinated classes and races, need to be transformed into egalitarian societies that recognize the full humanity of each human person. But if greater racial and gender equality is not to be mere tokenism that does not change the deep hierarchies of wealth and power of the few over the many, there must be both a major restructuring of the relations of human groups to each other and a transformation of the relation between humans and the nonhuman world. Humans need to recognize that they are one species among others within the ecosystems of earth, to embed their systems of production, consumption, and waste within the ways that nature sustains itself in a way that recognizes their intimate partnership with nonhuman communities.6
(p.81) In this essay I will briefly survey several ecofeminist perspectives that are emerging from a number of religious and cultural contexts—those of Vandana Shiva from India, Ivone Gebara from Brazil, and Carolyn Merchant, a North American historian of science. I will conclude with some questions about the utility of this effort to interconnect the domination of women and of nature, social justice, and ecological health.
Vandana Shiva, of Hindu background, was trained as a physicist but abandoned her career in nuclear energy to become an environmental activist who writes and organizes against the Western systems of “development,” which she sees as destructive of the ecology and economy of India as well as responsible for the debasement and impoverishment of humanity and the earth, generally. She seeks to propose sustainable alternatives to the Western model of “development” that are rooted in traditional Indian peasant agriculture.
In her first major book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, published in 1989, she enunciated the major lines of her ecofeminist critique and vision. She has continued to elaborate these views in her subsequent volumes: The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics (1991); Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and the Third World (1993); Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (1997); and Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (1999). With Maria Mies, leading German feminist socialist, she wrote Ecofeminism, published in 1993.7
Shiva speaks of both Western science and development as “projects of patriarchy.”8 Western developmentalism picks up in the post–World War II period where colonialism left off and is a continuation of colonialism (neocolonialism). The British colonialists in India had stripped the forests for timber to build their ships and railroads and organized the land for expropriation into wealth that supported their empire. In the postcolonial period it becomes the national elites of India who continue the same model of exploitation and plunder in the name of modernization and development.
For Shiva this model of development is built on a false assumption that nature and women are mere passive objects that are unproductive in themselves. Both nature and human labor become productive only when taken into a system that uses them for profit within the dominant (p.82) system of accumulation. This model of development, “lifting all boats,” is claimed to produce wealth for all. But it actually creates only a short-term extraction of wealth for a global elite, while impoverishing women, poor people, and nature itself, destroying the very base on which it is founded.
The destructive results of this model of development are not accidental, but are themselves rooted in the distorted epistemology of Western science. Drawing on Western feminist critics of science, such as Susan Harding, Evelyn Keller and Carolyn Merchant,9 Shiva views Western science as being based on an epistemology of male domination over women and nature. This epistemology abstracts the male knower into a transcendent space outside of nature and reduces nature itself to dead “matter” pushed and pulled by mechanical force. Western science thus “kills” nature, denying its possession of self-generating organic life. It also imagines nature as a dangerous female that must be tormented and forced to submit in the laboratory, even as witches were forced to submit to inquisitors in torture chambers.10
India, like other developing countries, has been traditionally a rural society, based largely on subsistence agriculture, in which women have played a predominant role. For Shiva, Indian rural women have been the base of a sustainable system of subsistence agriculture because they have understood the interconnections of the cycles of life in the land and animals that they have tended. Western science and developmentalism, by contrast, sees this work of women as completely unproductive and the forests they tend as mere “wasteland” because they have not been incorporated into a system of commodities for profit in the market of international exchange.
Shiva mounts a severe criticism against the Western-style imposition of agricultural development on India in the form of the “green revolution.”11 The revolution promised abundance for poor third-world farmers through an increased grain supply, but in practice it has been a disaster. Women are eliminated from agriculture—so, too, are their roles as the maintainers of sustainable soils, forests, and food for humans and animals. Petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel for tractors poison the soils and waters, and the water table itself is depleted through overuse for irrigation. Rivers and wells dry up, and regions that had had (p.83) sufficient water suffer water-famine. Farmers must buy their seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel and sell their harvest to companies that respectively charge them high prices and pay them poorly for their labor. The result is impoverishment of the people and the land. Yet this calamitous model continues to be promoted by Western global corporations, development banks, and national elites as the epitome of “modernization.”
Shiva's solution to the miseries of modernization and development is to turn back to traditional sustainable agriculture. There needs to be a recovery of the ecological knowledge of how forests, water, plants, animals, and humans are maintained in a renewable system of interaction with nature, a partnership that based itself on nature's own cycles of renewal. Women and tribal people are the privileged repositories of this ecological knowledge. Thus instead of seeing them as ignorant, primitive, passive, and unproductive, one must learn from them how to maintain genuine life within nature.
The Western model of knowledge and economic value has proven to be delusory. We must shift to a different understanding of knowledge and economic value. The epistemological model we need is not one of dominating mind over passive body, but how to think within nature's own interrelationships. The economic system that produces true value, that maintains life, is decidedly not one that destroys nature, but rather one that cooperates with it and fits human life within its cycles of self-maintenance.
Shiva turns to traditional Hindu cosmology to express the worldview that is needed for the recovery of ecological knowledge and life-sustaining practice. She speaks of this as the recovery of the “Feminine Principle”: not in the Western sense of a dichotomizing of masculinity and femininity as binaries of aggressive activity and dormant passivity, but as a dynamic interaction of creative energy, female Shakti (activating energy), together with male form (Purusha), which together produce nature (Prakriti). In Hinduism, both Shakti and Prakriti have been understood as feminine and as goddesses. Shiva thus suggests that traditional Hindu culture, both in its high philosophy and in its popular spirituality, has seen women as the active principle for the maintenance of life.12
To reclaim Shakti is, for Shiva, a reclaiming of human interdependency with, and immersion in, the organic vitality of the natural world. Shiva (p.84) argues that this veneration of the Feminine Principle as self-creative nature is not a gender ideology that makes women different from, or better than, men. Rather it is a rejection of the Western gender ideology that defines males via a masculinity of disconnection from the body, women, and nature, violent domination over women and nature, and the subsequent distortion of women and nature into passive objects of this violence. Men need to overcome their alienation and violence, and women their passivity and acceptance of denigration. Both men and women must see themselves as active participants in nurturing life in partnership with nature's own vitality.
Some Indian ecofeminists have been critical of Shiva for her use of this Indian tradition of Shakti and Prakriti as feminine cosmological principles for ecological life. They see her as ignoring the negative aspects of this feminine cosmology, which they view as world-negating and instrumental in the subordination of women to male control.13 Some critics also see her as ignoring the caste structure intrinsic to Hinduism that has traditionally marginalized tribal people and Dalits (untouchables.)14 Shiva often writes as though patriarchy was invented in the seventeenth century and imported entirely from the West, rather than having been a part of Hindu society for millennia.
These are valid criticisms, but they perhaps ignore Shiva's primary purpose, which is to use popular symbols in Indian culture to honor rural women as the base of knowledge and practice of a sustainable subsistence economy. She also wishes to point to a vision of nature itself as vital and dynamic, not as dead matter to be dominated by knowers disconnected from it. Perhaps it is not accidental that in her subsequent books she has ceased to speak of a feminine cosmological principle, of Shakti and Prakriti. But she has grown even more devastating in her critique of the model of development coming from Western neocolonialism that is impoverishing rural people in India and throughout the world. She sees rural women and tribal people as centers of resistance to this model of development and preservers of ecological knowledge of sustainable life. This is a precious resource for an alternative that we all—men and women, East and West, urban and rural people—need to relearn if we are to survive on the planet earth.
(p.85) Ivone Gebara is a Brazilian and a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame. In her book, Intuiciones Ecofeministas (Ecofeminist Intuitions), Gebara talks about how she came to adopt an ecofeminist perspective.15 She acknowledges the criticism of some Latin American feminists that ecofeminism perpetuates the stereotype that women are “closer to nature.” But she believes that her own viewpoint has nothing to do with essentialist anthropology. Rather it springs from her concrete experience in her impoverished neighborhood. There she observes that poor women are the ones who primarily have to cope with the problems of air pollution, poverty, poor quality of food, and lack of clean drinking water. This creates health problems for themselves and their children, for whom they are primarily responsible.16
Gebara speaks of doing her theology “between noise and garbage.” The noise is that of a crowded neighborhood with machinery, trucks, and cars that lack mufflers, and also the shouts and loud music of the people as they find ways to survive each day. The garbage is the waste of society disproportionately discarded where the poor live, with little organized clean-up. To do one's theology amidst noise and garbage is to do it in daily awareness of the oppression of the poor and the degradation of their environment. It is also to do theology inspired by the vitality of the poor, who manage somehow to keep going and sometimes even to celebrate despite these challenges.17
Gebara sees her ecofeminist theology as a third stage of feminist theological work in Latin America. The first stage, in the 1970s, recognized that women “are oppressed as historical subjects.” In the second stage, in the 1980s, women began to question the dominance of masculine theological symbols and to search for feminine symbols for God, such as Wisdom.18 For Gebara both of these phases are still expressions of a “patriarchal feminism,” a feminism that has not deeply examined the androcentric model of theology, of God and the cosmos, but rather has simply sought to include women in it. Gebara sees ecofeminism as moving to a more radical stage that calls for a deconstruction of patriarchal thinking, with its hierarchical structure and methodology of thought. Ecofeminism seeks to dismantle the whole paradigm of male over female, mind over body, heaven over earth, transcendent over immanent, the male God outside of and ruling over the created world—and to imagine an alternative to it.
(p.86) Changing the patriarchal paradigm for an ecofeminist one starts with epistemology, with transforming the way one thinks. Patriarchal epistemology bases itself on eternal unchangeable “truths” that are the presuppositions for knowing what truly “is.” In the Platonic-Aristotelian epistemology that shaped Catholic Christianity, this epistemology takes the form of eternal ideas that exist a priori, of which physical things are pale and partial expressions. Catholicism added to this the hierarchy of revelation over reason; revealed ideas come directly from God and thus are unchangeable and unquestionable in comparison to ideas derived from reason.
Gebara, by contrast, wishes to start with experience, especially the embodied experiences of women in daily life. Experiences cannot be translated into thought finally and definitively. They are always in context, in a particular network of relationships. This interdependence and contextuality includes not only other humans, but the nonhuman world, ultimately the whole body of the cosmos in which we are embedded in our particular location. Theological ideas are not exempt from this questioning from the point of view of embodied, contextual experience. In addressing ideas, such as God as Trinity, she asks, “to what experience is this idea related?” What in our embodied daily life is the basis for thinking about reality as trinitarian and hence ultimately of God as Trinity?19
Such an effort to dismantle patriarchal epistemology for ecofeminist thinking includes the nature of the human person. How do we move from a patriarchal to an ecofeminist understanding of the self? Patriarchal theology and philosophy start with a disembodied self that is presumed to exist prior to all relationships. The body is seen primarily as an impediment to the soul to be controlled, not an integral part of the self. The ideal self is the autonomous self, that which has extricated itself from all dependencies on others and stands outside and independent of relationships as a “free subject.”
In this view of the human, only elite men are fully selves; women and subjugated people are by definition dependent. The apparent credibility of such a view depends on making invisible this whole structure of support on which the apparent male freedom is itself “dependent.” This notion of autonomy and independence is translated into global corporations. Such corporations dominate and control all else, turning them into things and making invisible their dependency on them.
(p.87) An ecofeminist understanding of the human person starts with the person in a network of relationships. The person does not exist first and then assume relationships; the person is constituted in and by relationships. One does not seek to extricate oneself from relationships in order to become “autonomous.” Such autonomy is a delusion based on denial of the others on whom one depends. Rather, one seeks to become ever more deeply aware of the interconnections on which one's own life depends, ultimately the network of relations of the whole cosmos. One seeks to shape those relations in ways that are more life-giving and reciprocal, to respect the integrity of the other beings to whom one is related, even as one is respected by them and respects oneself. To be is to be related; shaping the quality of those relations is the critical ethical task.20
This reflection on the network of relationality reaches from the most intimate relation with one's own body-self, to interpersonal relations, to intergroup relations of one human to another and of humans to the earth, generally. It culminates finally in recognizing our interrelations with, and dependency on, the whole cosmos. It is on this understanding of interrelationality that Gebara bases her reflection on the meaning of God as Trinity. For Gebara, God as Trinity is not a revelation from on high that one imposes on people as eternal and unchangeable truth outside of, and incomprehensible to, daily experience. Rather, the idea of God as Trinity is itself an extrapolation from our daily experience of interrelationships. The Trinity is a way of expressing the dynamics of life as interrelational creativity. Creativity by its nature ramifies into diversity while at the same time interconnecting in community, leading to new diversification. This process of dialectical diversification and intercommunion can be seen on every level of reality.
This concept of trinitarian dialectics as the process of creation of life on earth raises the issue of good and evil. If whatever develops is part of a natural process, from whence come systems of violence and oppression? Gebara insists that there is good and evil in natural life itself. Natural life exists in a dynamic tension of life and death, creativity and vulnerability. Death is an integral part of life, not foreign to it as traditional Christian cosmology had claimed. But the very vulnerability and fragility of life provides the impulse for possible distortion of this dialectical process. Each being in its species context seeks to protect and expand its own life against others that compete with it. Nature limits the extent to which (p.88) some species can expand at the expense of others. When some exceed their life-support niche by destroying others on whom they depend, this precipitates the collapse of the dominant group.21
But humans have developed an ability to stand out somewhat from these limits. They have been able to organize their own species power in relation to land and animals to monopolize the means of life. This takes place in the context of some humans seizing power and organizing relations to other humans so these subjugated people do the brute labor. Those in power extract this into means of wealth, dominating power, and leisure for themselves at the expense of others, while claiming to represent the well-being of “all.”
This pattern of exploitation of some humans over others and over the nonhuman world has been endlessly repeated through human history. These systems of exploitative distortion are always based on denying the interconnection of the powerful with the powerless, men with women, ruling class with slaves, workers, and peasants. Those on top imagine themselves as “autonomous” and naturally superior, while the inferiority of those they rule over demands their subjugation. Thus the systems of exploitation “naturalize” themselves by shaping ideologies that pretend that these systems simply represent the “order of creation” and the will of God or the gods.
We are now living in the nadir of this system of distortion that has grown increasingly centralized worldwide while impoverishing the majority of humans and destroying the earth. Yet this system continues to claim that the privations it imposes on others are necessary for all to eventually prosper and attain comfort and leisure equivalent to those of the affluent. If the poor but “tighten their belts” a bit more, the wealth generated at the top will “trickle down.” But this is a fallacious ideology belied by reality. This system of distortion, violence, impoverishment, and oppression is immoral or “unnatural” evil, built on the denial of the interconnection of all beings with one another.
For Gebara there is no original paradise of blessedness without finitude or death at the beginning of human history, nor is it possible to construct a paradise of deathless goodness in some future millenium. Rather humans need to accept our limits, our fragility, our partial joys and sorrows within finite life. We need to lessen the patterns of distortion that allow some few humans to flourish inordinately at the expense of most other (p.89) humans and the earth. We must shape more egalitarian societies where joys and sorrows, flourishing within finite limitations, are shared more equally and more justly between humans and between humans and the other earth beings with whom we share this planet. This is the very real but limited utopia that Gebara allows herself, recognizing that within our lives today we can expect only momentary glimpses of this more justly shared life in interconnected mutuality.22
Carolyn Merchant is a historian of science whose 1980 work The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution has been formative for ecofeminist thinkers worldwide.23 The book opens with a dramatic declaration: “The world we have lost was organic.”24 She goes on to detail the organic view of nature that the medieval world inherited from Mediterranean antiquity. In this worldview, nature was typically conceived as female, either as a virgin or nurturing mother, or as a witch—a disorderly, demonic woman. The whole universe was seen as organic and alive. The anima mundi (world soul), imagined as a woman, animated the universe.
In the seventeenth century, with the rise of Cartesian philosophy and Newtonian science, this model of the “world-as-organism” was converted into a view of the “world-as-mechanism.” The clock and other machinery became its image. Metaphors based on the persecution of women as witches were brought into scientific thought by writers such as Francis Bacon. Nature was described as needing to be “unveiled,” stripped of her concealing clothing, dragged by her hair into the laboratory, “vexed” (tortured) and forced to “yield her secrets.”25 Despite these personalized metaphors, nature came to be seen as a mechanical order composed of tiny, dead balls of matter (atoms) that are pushed or pulled by external mechanical force. All intelligence, soul, or life was taken out of the material world and lodged in a transcendent mind (God) and made manifest in the human (white Western male) mind. This intellect knows reality from the outside, objectively, in a value-free and context-free fashion based on mathematics.26 Scientific knowledge was identified with the power to control nature, as fallen humanity was seen as having lost dominion over nature. Both humans and nature thereby fell into disorder. Through scientific knowledge, dominion is restored to humanity and nature, and humanity thereby redeemed.
(p.90) Merchant sees the organic holistic view of nature being reclaimed in ecology. She calls for the redevelopment of “communities based on the integration of human and natural ecosystems.” Her Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (2003) picks up these themes from a different perspective.27 Merchant here posits that Western cultures have been shaped by two opposing narratives, both aimed at the “recovery” of Eden, the primal paradise of the biblical narrative where humans, male and female, nature, and God were in harmony. One narrative, which has dominated Western thought since the seventeenth century, secularizes the Christian story of redemption through Christ that pointed to a transcendent heaven as the ultimate locus of this redemption. In the secular progressive redemption story, paradise is reestablished on earth.
Based on Bacon's view, human dominion over nature, given by God at the beginning, was seen as impaired by the fall. Disorder and savagery have reigned since this early collapse. But science and technology are restoring human dominion and thus transforming primitive disorderly nature into civilization. This task of civilizing nature is the “white man's burden.” The white Western male is subduing the whole world, first Europe and then the colonized areas of the Americas, Asia, and Africa and elevating them to this higher order. Women, Africans, the indigenous peoples of the Americas are all to be subdued, domesticated, cleared out of the way, or transported as slaves to be the work force for civilization, although denied its full benefits.
Merchant sees the North American shopping mall as the ultimate image of the reinvented Eden.28 Surrounded by a concrete desert of parking lots, the shopping mall presents an artificially constructed total world of commodified pleasure. Shops and restaurants line the walkways that are set in artificial gardens with waterfalls, flowers and trees, even with modeled animals and birds and live fish. Against this narrative of recreating Eden as a fabricated world freed from natural constraints is what Merchant calls the “declensionist” narrative. This narrative has been adopted by some feminists, ecologists, and ecofeminists. This narrative looks back to an original Eden that subsisted in human history for hundreds of thousands of years—before the rise of plow agriculture, urbanization, slavery, and war—some time in the eighth to fifth millennium BCE in the Ancient Near East. All these ills are often spoken of collectively (p.91) as “patriarchy,” the rise of societies dominated by a male elite who subjugated women, turned the majority of humans into slaves, and redefined all these humans, as well as nature, as property.29
Thus ecologists and ecofeminists call for an urgent revolutionary transformation of the world order that has been shaped by a “5000- year” process of domination, and the recreation of “Eden,” as small self-governing communities that integrate democratic relations and economies of natural renewal. This is what David Korten, leading critic of the neoliberal corporate global economy, has called in his new work, “The End of Empire and the Step to Earth Community.”30
Merchant concludes Reinventing Eden with the call for a “partnership ethic,” which would integrate the narratives of both progress and decline but in a new way. The basis for this ethic draws upon new scientific and philosophical developments of quantum mechanics, as well as chaos and complexity theories, all of which have come to recognize that nature is not passive or mechanical, much less composed of “dead” matter. Rather nature is alive, holistic, and interconnected. Nature has its own self-organizing patterns of life. Humans must come to view nature not as comprising dead objects to be exploited, but rather as a totality of active subjects with which they must learn to partner.31
This comparison of three ecofeminist thinkers from North America, India, and Brazil reveals significant commonalities. There is in each a critique of Western epistemology that posits an isolated knower outside of, and unrelated to, the reality that is known and whose knowledge is a means of control over others. Each questions the model of the self based on the premise of an isolated individual disconnected from relationships and which ignores the actual support services that other humans and nature are providing to create the privileged appearance of this “autonomous” self.
They all also reject a view of nature as “dead matter” to be dominated in favor of an understanding of nature as living beings in dynamic communities of life. They call for democratic relationships between humans, men and women, ethnic groups, and those presently divided by class and culture. Ultimately, they each seek a new sense of partnership between humans and nature. The keynotes of interrelationship, interdependency, and mutuality echo across all three perspectives.
(p.92) The circulation of ecofeminist ideas across cultures resonates with deep conflicts, struggles, and changes of consciousness that are happening worldwide. The destructive impact of a pattern of “dominology,” based on a top-down epistemology and a destructive concept of the self and its relation to other humans and nature, is widely seen as the root, not only of sexism and racism, but also of imperialism, with its ongoing expressions in neocolonial exploitation of third-world societies and their natural resources. Groups of people around the world are working to change these patterns. Similar ideas of the needed alternatives are emerging in many contexts and linking up with one another.
It is widely assumed that there is a need to refound local community, in democratic face-to-face relations with the variety of people—across genders, classes, and ethnic groups—living in a given community. There is a need for renewed regional communities to redevelop their relation to the land, agriculture, and water such that they might be utilized in a sustainable way; such changes will need to be based on democratic decision making that takes all parties, including nonhuman nature, into consideration. This also means withdrawing from the centralized systems of control that have been forged by colonialism and neocolonialism. By banding together in communities of accountability, it is hoped that this system of domination can be undermined and changed to new ways of networking local communities across regions and across the globe.
Visions of humans in interrelation with one another and with nature express this longing for an alternative way of situating people in relation to society and the world. To see nature itself as a living matrix of interconnection provides the cosmological basis for this alternative vision of relationship. This common ecofeminist worldview shares some of the following characteristics. There is a rejection of a splitting of the divine from the earth and its communities of life to project “God” as a personified entity located in some supercelestial realm outside the universe and ruling over it. The concept of God is deconstructed. The divine is understood as a matrix of life-giving energy that is in, through, and under all things. To use the language of Paul in the book of Acts, God is the “one in whom we live, and move and have our being.”(17:28) This life-giving matrix cannot be reduced to “what is” but has a transformative edge. It both sustains the constant renewal of the natural cycles of life and also (p.93) empowers us to struggle against the hierarchies of dominance and to create renewed relations of mutual affirmation.
This divine energy for life and renewal of life is neither male, female, nor anthropomorphic in any literal or exclusive sense. It can be imagined in many ways that celebrate our diverse bodies and spirits. What is excluded are metaphors that reinforce gender stereotypes and relations of dominance. It can be called “divine Wisdom,” the font of life that wells up to create and recreate anew all living things in what Thomas Berry calls “ecozoic” community.32 “Ecosophia” calls us into life-giving community across many strands of tradition, culture, and history, and also empowers us to stand shoulder to shoulder against the systems of economic, military, and ecological violence that are threatening the very fabric of planetary life. (p.94)
(1.) See Carol J. Adams, Ecofeminism and the Sacred (New York: Continuum, 1994), xi.
(2.) See Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1993), 104–40.
(3.) On the essentialist debate about ecofeminism, see, for example, Mary Mellor, Feminism and Ecology (New York: New York UniverSity Press, 1997), 44–70. See also Stephanie Lahar, “Ecofeminist Theory and Grassroots Politics,” in Ecological Feminist Philosophies, ed. Karen J. Warren (Bloomington: Indiana UniverSity Press, 1996), 11–12.
(4.) Feminism and EcologyCharlene Spretnak, “Earthbody and Personal Body as Sacred,” in Adams, Ecofeminism and the Sacred, 261–80.
(5.) See discussion of the relativity of culture-nature hierarchies and its inapplicability to tribal and peasant peoples in Heather Eaton and Lois Ann Loren-tzen, Ecofeminism and Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context and Religion (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), especially chapters 3 and 4, 41–71.
(6.) For an effort to imagine an ecofeminist society, see my Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earthhealing (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 258–68.
(7.) Staying Alive (London: Zed Books, 1989) was published originally in Delhi, India, by Kali for women. The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology & Politics (London: Zed Books, 2006) originally appeared with The Other India Press. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity & Biotechnology (London, 1993) was published in the West by Zed Books, and Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature & Knowledge (1997) and Stolen Harvest (2001) by South End Press, Boston. Ecofeminism (1993) appeared with several world Presses, including Zed.
(8.) See Staying Alive, 1, 15.
(9.) See Susan Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell UniverSity Press, 1986), and Evelyn F. Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven: Yale UniverSity Press, 1985).
(10.) In this context she cites Brian Easlea, Science and Sexual OpPression: Patriarchy's Confrontation with Women and Nature (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981).
(11.) See her chapter on “Women in the Food Chain” in Staying Alive, 96–178, and The Violence of the Green Revolution.
(12.) Staying Alive, 38–54.
(13.) See the critique of these themes in Hinduism in chapter 2 of Rosemary Ruether, Integrating Ecofeminism, Globalization and World Religions (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).
(14.) This critique was made by Aruna Gnanadason in a conversation at a World Council of Churches consultation on ecofeminism in Geneva in July 2003.
(15.) Intuiciones Ecofeministas (Madrid: EditorIal Trotto, 2000).
(17.) Ivone Gebara, “A Cry for Life from Latin America,” in Spirituality of the Third World: A Cry for Life, ed. K. C. Abraham and Bernadette Mbuy-beya (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994), 109–18.
(18.) “Ecofeminism and Panentheism,” interview by Mary Judy Ress, Creation Spirituality (November–December, 1993): 9–11.
(19.) Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Minneapolis: AugsburG Fortress, 1999), 25–65. See also my Women Healing Earth, Third World Women on Ecology, Feminism and Religion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996), 13–23.
(20.) Gebara, Longing for Running Water, 82–92.
(21.) See her reflections on “The Trinity and the Problem of Evil” in my Women Healing Earth, 19–22.
(22.) See particularly her chapter on “Women's Experience of Salvation” in Out of the Depths: Women's Experience of Evil and Salvation (Minneapolis: AugsburG Fortress, 2002), 109–44.
(23.) Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
(25.) Merchant, Death of Nature, 168–72.
(27.) Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2003).
(30.) David Korten, speaking at the Call to Action Conference, Milwaukee, November 7–8, 2003.
(31.) Merchant, Reinventing Eden, 205–20.
(32.) Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 240–61.