What is Ecofeminism?

To define ecofeminism, it might be useful to look at the terms it synthesizes. Any conversation, in this case, between environmentalism and intersectional feminism, amounts to more than the sum of its parts; relationships are generative. The ecofeminist critical framework “situates humans in ecological terms and nonhumans in ethical terms,” and models itself after the global ecological community it describes. It contains contradiction, allowing for a polyphony of perspectives, taking relativity and context into account. Ecofeminism sees social justice and environmental protection as “complementary, mutually supportive projects.” 

The science of ecology, which is “inherently multidisciplinary,” can be defined as the study of the relationships amongst “plants, animals, and microorganisms and their natural environment, living and nonliving.” There are no absolute components of any ecosystem; it depends on the parameters set by the observer. This approach disrupts classical reductionist notions that we are separate from what we observe. Ecofeminism is interested in a self-aware approach to ecosystem ecology, which acknowledges the importance of context and rejects the idea of a neutral observation stance, bridging scientific inquiry and ethics. 

The term “feminism” applies to a broad range of ideologies and waves of social and political movements that seek to define and establish gender equality in all domains: social, personal, economic, and political. Per activist-scholar bell hooks, “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” The heteromasculinized social order, and the hierarchical structures that arise from it, is called “patriarchy.” One common criticism of feminism by those who are not familiar with it, is the incorrect idea that it seeks to position women over men. This is an uninformed criticism; to state it simply, feminism’s goal is equality and not female supremacy. 

However, as with all -isms, there are many feminisms, and mainstream liberal feminism begs deep interrogation and reform. Susan Watkins points out that “advances in gender equality have gone hand-in-hand with soaring socioeconomic inequality across most of the world,” demanding a more coherent egalitarianism. Mainstream liberal feminism has focused almost exclusively on white, college-educated, middle-class women. These elitist and incomplete feminisms fail to include the experiences of indigenous folks, Black folks and people of color, and working-class, poor, queer, and differently-abled folks. Ecofeminism was birthed from a diversity of countercultural movements in the 1960s-70s and its innate intersectionality arose out of critiques of the myopic direction in which mainstream feminism was heading. Feminism without intersectionality falls prey to the unconscious hierarchical suppositions of the very mindsets it wishes to eradicate. 

To tease out how social and political identities intersect, and to challenge the primacy of gender alone in informing discrimination, Black feminist scholar and attorney Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. Intersectionality describes how social and political identities, including but not limited to gender, race, class, sexuality, ability (and I’d like to add, species and assumed sentience), compound and magnify systems of oppression. Learning to see these identity-based modes of oppression as intertwined and mutually reinforcing, rather than competing or incompatible, is also a refutation of the either/or thinking that characterizes the mindset of Western, white-supremacist, patriarchal colonialism and capitalism.

Rachel Carson set the foundation for nascent ecofeminism with her landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring. She unapologetically writes with both emotion and scientific precision, demonstrating their complementarity and subverting unexamined ideas about scientific objectivity. The actual term “ecofeminism” was first used by author and activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her 1974 book Le Féminisme ou la Mort. She sees the destruction of nature and the subjugation of women, people of color, children, and the poor as interwoven oppressions which arise from patriarchal values. d’Eaubonne believes that all social injustice must be eradicated to eradicate any of it; it is all interrelated. Therefore, ecofeminism is fundamentally intersectional, concerned with the intertwining ideologies of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, imperialism, naturism, and speciesism. It critiques “not only androcentric but anthropocentric bias.” 

Central to ecofeminism, is the idea that it is not possible to address environmental change without addressing social change, and that the human and nonhuman worlds, as obvious as their interconnection may seem, suffer from a deep rupture in mainstream culture. From environmental degradation to human rights crises across the globe, the domination of nature and our fellow humans is not and has not been “considered to be unethical, but rather a judicious use of resources.” Greta Gaard and Lori Gruen name four interrelated factors underpinning this sense of separation: 

1. The reductionist, mechanistic materialist model of the universe, from the birth of modern medicine and science, which characterizes matter as an inert resource to be studied “objectively” and used. 

2. Gender hierarchies established in the patriarchal religions, and their exchange of immanent, distributed, earth- and goddess-centered divinity for hierarchical male sky gods with centralized creative power.

3. Dualisms which create power imbalances: either/or, self/other, order/chaos, male/female, culture/nature, White/Black, human/animal, monoculture/diversity, native/invasive, etc.

4. Capitalism’s cruel logic, rooted in exploitation and destruction, which places wealth creation above all else, fiscally elevating a few at the expense of many in its intertwining of economics and rationalism.

Under patriarchy, heteromasculinity dominates the realm of culture. “Women, animals, nature, children, people of color, farmers, [enslaved people], as well as the body itself, emotions, and sexuality,” are conflated and treated as separate and inferior “in order to legitimate their subordination under an elite and often violent and militarized male-dominant social order.” They are all considered resources to be exploited, over which men, and particularly wealthy white men, hold exclusive power, agency, and subjecthood.  

In the global economy, the majority of work performed is excluded, due to an artificial construction called the “production boundary,” a sexualized and otherized division of labor. As Vandana Shiva puts succinctly, in the inverted logic of the production boundary, “if you produce what you consume, you do not produce.” This includes so-called women’s work (regenerative, renewable production cycles such as managing households, caregiving, child-bearing and -rearing), and subsistence farming, fishing, and foraging (self-sufficiency rather than the enforced poverty of globalized monocropping and neocolonial debt), which aren’t factored into GDP calculations and are controlled through economic appropriation and cultural imperialism. Work on the wrong side of the production boundary is sometimes also called the “free economy.” Earth’s finite natural resources are also externalized; they are considered outside of the accumulation of capital like the free economy, essentially passive and available for appropriation at no cost. In fact, the free economy and the earth’s natural resources are the invisible and exploited foundation of capitalism. The burden of these hidden costs falls most heavily on otherized and colonized people, including women, indigenous folks, and people of color. Therefore, movements that are holistic and inclusive of the diversity of those most negatively affected by the accumulation of global capital are the only ways to begin to unravel these interlocking oppressions.

The intersectional ecofeminist call for coalition, awakening, and action that respects difference and diversity is evident in the nondual ethical consideration of the bodhisattva, sometimes called the Bodhisattva Vow. As defined in the glossary of Radical Dharma, a bodhisattva, or “awake being” in Sanskrit (बोिधसत्व​) “is like a saint who vows to achieve enlightenment only to free others. Many Buddhists take the Bodhisattva Vow in which they commit to spiritual enlightenment in this life, and all lives to come, in order to liberate others.” It is not that I forsake my own liberation until all beings may be liberated, but that my liberation can’t actually happen any other way than in a cocreation of liberation for all, by all. If others are not liberated, neither am I. Individual liberation is bound up in collective liberation. The Bodhisattva Vow is a potent reminder of how intertwined we are with everyone and everything. In the ecofeminist context, it is a potential future wave for feminist theory, racial and structural justice, and environmentalism, with an appropriately expansive nondual ethics. Perhaps more urgently, it is a call to action for interwoven individual and collective awakening. 

Ecofeminism is rigorously interdisciplinary and profoundly nondual. “No other political perspective,” writes Ariel Salleh, “can integrate what ecofeminism does.” It is a framework that “reconciles diversity, difference, and commonality, while honoring individuality, autonomy, and respect” for those who haven’t been afforded it. Ecofeminism complexifies and contextualizes ethical considerations, “making a central place for values often lost or overlooked in mainstream ethics (e.g., values of care, love, friendship, diversity, appropriate reciprocity) in the context of human-nonhuman relationships.” It offers a relational view of all organisms and the environment in which they are situated, in contrast to abstract notions of individualism, so that as a global community we may forge new and timely coalitions of both commonality and difference. It is so encompassing, intersectional, and structurally pluralistic that it undermines dualism, demanding a reconsideration of “the living metabolism of human bodies embedded in ecological processes” in the co-creation of “a future horizontalist politics of spontaneity and mutuality — a commons.” Ecofeminism invites us into relationship with the world around us, revisioning the world as an agent with whom we must learn to converse, trading mastery for fidelity. Our appropriate stance “toward the more-than-human world is not one of identification or unity, but of solidarity in the political sense.” This approach requires the alignment of theory and practice in an acknowledgement of their interdependence, which at its heart may be a realignment of the political with the spiritual.