Professor Chris J. Cuomo reflects on why we have a fresh philosophy for our troubling times
What if philosophy, ethics, science, and hence our own values and visions, began not with aspirations of separation from and dominion over nature and one another, but instead with the intention of mutual health and wellbeing, in addition to healthy individual and community flourishing? Even a narrow aim of human wellbeing, if interpreted appropriately, calls for revamping much about our economies, values and relationships with nature. Multicultural ecofeminisms provide philosophical and spiritual perspectives that can help us imagine and realise the “another world is possible” ethos that rings out in alternative cultures of resistance the world over, from the global climate justice movement to the movement for universal health care, from green anti-racist movements to decolonise our cities, to efforts to decentralise energy production and go organic.
A fresh philosophy that rejects the neocolonial, neoliberal, misogynist, nature- hating capitalist paradigms and projects that have gotten our worlds into the messes of climate change, pandemic, plastic-infested waters and resurgent xenophobic violence, could help bring peace of mind. A fresh philosophy for the benefit of the collective – various collectives – but that also values our autonomy and our boundaries could help us find our diverse ways forward, together and on our own. Ecofeminism has much to offer as a philosophy for our times, for it helps diagnose the ethical, political and spiritual roots of the massive troubles we collectively face, while offering alternative values and ways of interpreting and engaging with the world.
Ecofeminism highlights Western philosophy’s role in promoting white- male-centred dualisms and hierarchies of value (man/nature, masculine/feminine, civilised/primitive, mind/body), and in fostering sexism, racism and the destruction of nature. Recall how Earth is represented in Plato’s allegory of the cave, as a realm of illusion and manipulation from which we must escape to realise true knowledge. Remember Descartes’ argument that animals are not capable of experiencing pain and suffering. Consider the presumption in all liberal economic theory that pollution and harms to nature are externalities that need not be considered when we evaluate the true costs of a product or policy. Philosophical dismissal of the value and agency of nature occurs alongside denial of the philosophical importance of the perspectives and interests of women, people of colour, workers, and advocacy for nature is criticised for being economically unrealistic.
The positive vision, or ontology, that ecofeminism articulates stands in stark contrast to the modern liberal vision of economic man. Neoliberalism treats us like interchangeable billiard balls, or perhaps like pinballs to be mercilessly whacked around inside the machine. Instead of imagining that we are isolated selves collected in communities, like billiard balls colliding or sitting next to each other without changing, ecofeminism understands selves to be organic and dynamic, deeply social and ecological, yet also empowered with autonomous reason and agency. We are human – physically, essentially, and unpredictably influenced by one another and by our environments – but through dialogical thinking and feeling we are also able to critically engage those processes and shape ourselves.
Some identify ecofeminism with its criticisms of the oppressive male dominance and masculinist logic at the heart of the devaluation and destruction of the natural world, and the oppression of nature-centred, female-respecting cultures, witnessed in recent centuries. Linking feminism with environmentalism, ecofeminism also notes the ways women and nature have been associated with each other conceptually (Mother Nature, virgin land, cute chick), and practically, through norms of work and family that assign care-taking and domestic labour to the realm of the feminine. Typical norms of masculinity project the idea that it is desirable to transcend or subdue nature, females, femininity and the realm of basic needs and sustenance. They relegate women to the realm of nature, and then say men are superior to women or more transcendent because men are less tied down to nature and its rhythms and demands.
Fantasies of transcendence drive the development of cultures, economies, and religions which regard nature as a debased realm and resource, rather than as a dynamic and inherently valuable living system of systems and beings. Unfortunately, those cultures instil in many of us a tendency to believe nature ought to be conquered, manipulated, exploited or ignored, even as it might also be enjoyed for its beauty.
A freshness in political vision and moral strength comes when we weave together our social justice and environmental commitments and concerns. This has become clear as Earth-centric values and social justice commitments have cross- pollinated even in mainstream politics. In the world of un conferences an climate negotiations, strides have been made in articulating the inherent links among gender equality, biodiversity and sustainability. In the us, the Sierra Club, a powerful mainstream environmental NGO, has broadened its mission and placed environmental health and justice for marginalised communities at the forefront of its efforts. Environmental awareness and caring for other beings is also illuminating new questions for feminists: How does the economic equality and fairness we seek require accepting the structures of capitalism or neocolonialism? How should feminism approach the discourses of feminine sacrifice often marshalled to promote behavioural changes for the good of the planet?
The ecofeminist image of the self is already familiar to many, for Earth-centric cultures that are also feminist or humanist exist and persist even amidst capitalist landscapes, and feminists have always emphasised the political importance of recognising the truth about human connection and dependency. If we are interested in fairness, once we become curious about our own dependencies, and who or what is dependent on us, we may see quite a lot about the politics of gender, class and power in our own personal, political and economic relationships. We may also easily see how dependent we are on ‘nature’, Earth, other species, clean water and air and climactic regularities.
In these days of pandemic, for many, quarantine became an experiment in ecofeminism – a time of homesteading, connecting and working with physical and household rhythms, of enjoying morning birdsong and unusual peace at night, and 55 trying to be our best selves. There was no choice but to simultaneously pursue enlightened self-interest and embrace the quotidian feminine. We took up experiments in cooking, gardening and communication, and saw how our class and material privileges helped us weather a difficult time. When sharing space or loneliness brought bad moods or difficulty, we played outside, enjoyed home-cooked food together and respected each other’s space and preferences.
Multicultural ecofeminism has emerged from diverse cultures all over the globe, yet in any idiom ecofeminism begins with the belief that people are capable of ethical and mutually supportive relationships with each other, as well as with, and in, nature. Valuing women and girls and people of all genders as full and equal human beings, ecofeminism can help guide our everyday lives, our politics, culture, laws, institutions and technologies. Ecofeminist praxis can emerge from gratitude for a precious planet, sadness over the state of the world, or joy and pain in the predictable/unpredictable everyday. Strength for the struggle can be garnered through our human, animal connections with Earth.