Ecofeminism: Historical Perspectives and Revolutionary Potential

by Milina Jovanović

Navdanya Women Seed Course - see http://www.navdanya.orgEcofeminism as a modern concept dates back to 1974, yet most Women and Gender Studies programs in the U.S. do not offer courses on it.  Some even fail to mention this important revolutionary perspective. We have generations of feminists and Women’s Studies graduates who are unfamiliar with ecofeminist world views.

Facing the many global challenges and grave dangers of our times--including climate change and its disasters--we might return to ancient views and practices that acknowledged the unbreakable links between women, men  and nature. As our life on earth may be in danger, the need to recapture ancient and develop modern ecofeminist theories is more important than ever.

Defining and Importance of Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism is a world view that connects women and the planet, feminism and environmentalism.  Ecofeminists see a strong connection between the oppression and subordination of women and the degradation of nature.

Françoise d'Eaubonne was a French feminist, who first introduced the term and defined it in 1974. Since then, the work of several important writers—among them Vandana Shiva, Janet Biehl, Carol Adams, Greta Gaard, Maria Miles, Charlene Spretnak, Irene Diamond and Caroline Merchant, have fully developed the viewpoint.

Ecofeminists explore the intersections between sexism, racism, speciesism and other forms of social inequality, and the ever-present attempts by humans, especially in the Western-dominated civilizations, to dominate nature. These authors also argue that the intertwined capitalist and patriarchal systems dominate in three ways:  over the Global South, over women, and over nature.1

The domination and exploitation of women, of poorly resourced peoples, and of nature sits at the core of the ecofeminist analysis. The most radical analysis includes class and looks at the long legacy of colonization that left the subjected people with poisoned lands and stolen resources, while advancing the agendas of the corporate global empire.

Although many consider ecofeminism misandrist, as it sees patriarchy as the root cause of many world problems, these views rarely criticize male gender exclusively. In fact, ecofeminists emphasize the oppression of minorities and global inequalities, recognizing that both genders, including most men, are oppressed.

It would be safe to say that ecofeminism takes a whole view of the world and concludes that society must fundamentally change.  Feminism can be a primary entry point into a version of ecofeminism. However, women and feminist men also embrace ecofeminist views through environmentalism, so called “alternative spirituality,” animal rights movements, local organic food production movements, and through many other avenues.

The kaleidoscopic lenses of ecofeminism include a pre-patriarchal historical analysis, women’s spirituality, and a commitment to radical change.  Ecofeminism is a revolutionary theory guiding a very unique practice that includes direct action aimed at abolishing both patriarchy and global capitalism, which are endangering our survival.  Dismantling patriarchy and healing the planet are critical goals often absent in most current uprisings happening around the world, even those directed towards global capitalism.

Our Globalized Capitalist Patriarchal World: Challenges and Dangers

We live in a world characterized by many great challenges and grave dangers.2 The globalized capitalist and patriarchal structures are based on hierarchies and the pursuit of greater profits, power and control. The planet’s natural resources and Mother Earth herself are perceived as “dead properties,” places where humans can dump toxic chemicals and nuclear waste, where they can drill deep into the core of our Mother’s Earthbody. Our planet is also seen as a source of vital supplies that need to be guarded with military might and perpetual wars for the ruling elites to produce more commodities and achieve greater profits. The result is global climate change, frequent environmental and industrial disasters, hydraulic fracking, tar sand oil extraction, poisoned rivers and oceans, toxic chemicals in the air, genetically modified food (GMOs) endangering human and environmental health, nuclear power, deadly electronic waste, high-tech wars waged with bombs and drones, depleted uranium and other toxic chemicals that have life spans of billions of years …

Slavic Fertility RitualConsequently, human, animal and plants’ heath and very existence are more endangered than ever. This global empire has been so destructive that it is wiping out ecosystems and some human societies. While using the myth of “social and economic development”3 global capitalism has attempted to break the indivisible links between women and nature. This is a long process that especially intensified since the industrialization of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The other critically important myth is the one about human superiority. Based on these harmful ideologies, all life-giving forces (including women) are stripped of their power. It is a great desire of powerful white men who rule the global empire to harness life-giving power: control seeds4, human fertility, women’s childbirth practices, genetically modify plants and animals, clone animals and, potentially, human beings. Advancing their political agendas, global elites have constructed a world separated from the natural environment with societies based on domination and destruction, and the neo-colonization of nations and entire regions. They have argued for liberalization of trade, domination of giant multi-national corporations over local markets, all in the pursuit of ever increasing profits.

Women and the Earth are routinely devalued. Patriarchal domination over women, children and youth exist simultaneously with the oppression of all working people. For the ruling class—represented by global elites--nothing is sacred5, even their own children; nothing is more important than profit and the illusion that they control the universe. It seems members of the global ruling class, backed by their globalized military and police forces, believe they could find life on other planets and escape horrific natural disasters if our planet, or some parts of it, become inhabitable. The destruction itself doesn’t concern them much, nor the destiny of future generations.

Going Back in History to Reclaim Power of All Life-Giving Forces

To reestablish the harmony and balance in nature, it is important to reclaim the original myths which were falsified to serve class society and patriarchy. In all pre-class societies, women had special power. They were seen as life-giving forces. Women and the Earth were seen as one, connected to all life. Ecofeminists have brought these perspectives for decades in many countries, turning our attention to the reemergence of 25,000-year old Goddess spirituality.  Through the ritual arts of the Earthbody, and the wisdom and justice of the Earth community, ecofeminists and supporters of similar views celebrate the connectedness and harmony of all life, including female power.

In her book, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Charlene Spretnak recreated the pre-Hellenic myths of Gaia, Pandora, Themis, Aphrodite, Artemis, Selene, Hecate, Hera, Athena, Demeter and Persephone. Spretnak shows how all of these myths were altered with the emergence of patriarchy and class-divided societies. The Goddesses’ roles were redefined. They became perceived as companions and pleasing lovers of male gods. Some of them were even made evil in the process. Themes of deceit, alienation, treachery and brutality were not initially part of pre-Hellenic sacred stories. They were added later. The original sacred stories had instead focused on harmonious bonds among humans, plants, animals and all nature.6 The most striking example of such revision is Pandora, who was originally the inspirer, the giver of all-gifts, and the one who made all things, both gods and mortals alike. Instead Pandora was turned into the figure who released evil into the world.

I will highlight only a few other examples of pre-Hellenic myths that will show how power was stripped from the early Greek Goddesses. Long before she was regarded as mother of the powerful deities, Gaia was the powerful deity herself. Additionally, she was the earliest possessor of the Delphic oracle.7

In another story of revision, the independent Aphrodite’s role was minimized. Originally, she was the primal mother of all continuing creation, who possessed herbal magic and was regarded as the Goddess of the Sea.  Patriarchal tradition revised the myth of Aphrodite’s birth. She was now created from sea foam produced by the remains of Ouranos' severed male genitals.8

Reclaiming pre-Hellenic myths can become a human liberation strategy.

It is important to remember that all Greek Goddesses were originally seen as Earth herself, a life-giving source, and therefore, the source of all power. Engaging in rituals to reclaim our power as women has wide implications. Spretnak says: “Engagement with the Goddess in symbol, myth, and ritual as participatory fields of relation encourages the expression of one’s unique gifts while evoking a sense of one’s larger self, the fullness of our being.” She adds: “The telling of myth is a ritual creation of sacred space. Reading a myth to oneself or hearing it spoken in a ritual setting draws one’s consciousness into a field of relationship that places all participants—the engaged witness, the narrator, the principals of the sacred story—in deep accord with the life processes of the unfolding universe.”9

In almost every society we still have pockets of indigenous communities and cultures that continue celebrating Earth-based spirituality. In addition, most cultures include some version of eco-goddess’ altars, evocation of mother-ocean or mother-sea, other water aligned goddesses, and tree spirits. All of these practices stayed alive for centuries or longer.

Even in Europe there are numerous examples of Earth-based spirituality and paganism. In the Balkans, for example, many pagan rituals remain present even in the official practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Dodole”—women’s groups who dance and sing for rain, are a good illustration of continuing Earth-based spiritual practice.

Inanna, a female deity from ancient Mesopotamia is still celebrated in some parts of southern Iraq.  She is similar to the Greco-Roman Aphrodite and Selena. Inanna embodies the traits of independence, self-determination, and strength in an otherwise patriarchal Sumerian pantheon. Today, she is also represented in popular culture and feminist theory.

Vandana Shiva - photo by authorWhite Buffalo Calf Woman's legend is ancient, probably 2,000 years old. It is still central to many spiritual practices of numerous Native American nations. They see the birth of a white buffalo calf as the most significant of prophetic signs. It brings purity of mind, body, and spirit, unifying all nations—black, red, yellow, and white. Spending four days with people, White Buffalo Calf Woman taught them sacred songs, dances, and ceremonies. She instructed them to be responsible caretakers of the land and to be always mindful of the legacy they leave to future generations. She also prophesied that the birth of a white buffalo calf would be a sign that it was near the time of her return.

Native Americans have numerous practices that are Earth-based and Earth-centered. They still use purifying sage smoke in female circles before starting rituals. According to Lakota Sioux tradition, seven ceremonies were taught to tribal elders by the Buffalo Calf Woman, who appeared to two members of the Sioux tribe in a vision. She explained that the sacred pipe was to be used in seven rites. The Buffalo woman also taught the seven ceremonies to the tribe, the first in person and the other six in visions granted after she departed. At her departure, she left her sacred bundle behind. It is still kept on some of the Sioux reservations so they remember that they are protected and ready for the Buffalo Calf Woman’s return.

Meanwhile, in India, there are different but similar Earth-based and female-centered practices. The Navdanya women’s network aims to recreate and reinforce some philosophies that have existed in India from ancient times. Navdanya means “nine seeds.” Nine seeds symbolize protection of biological and cultural diversity, the “new gift.” Seeds are seen as common property. Based on the right to save and share seeds in today’s context of biological and ecological destruction, seed savers are the true givers of life. This gift or “dana” of Navadhanyas is the ultimate gift – it is a gift of life, of heritage and continuity. Conserving seed is conserving biodiversity, knowledge of the seed and its use, knowledge of culture, and sustainability. Navdanya is a network of seed keepers and organic food producers that spread across seventeen states in India. Navdanya is a women-centered movement. The Earth or Grandmothers’ University promotes holistic solutions rooted in deep ecology as an alternative to the current world order characterized by blind policies guided by greed, destruction and war. In the process of the preservation of grandmothers’ practices (direct contact with rejuvenated soil--once left barren by years of eucalyptus monocultural production) participants learn and take part in cooking, gardening, composting, yoga and the arts.10

Subsistence vs. “Development:” Who Made Nature Our Enemy?

The myth of “development” and “underdeveloped countries catching up” is prevalent today. It is based on a linear understanding of history, very common in the Western world. In this view, the few have reached the peak. Men, and that means white men, industrialized countries, and urbanization are seen as “development.” “Others” can reach that goal by obtaining more education, more industrialization, more urbanization, superior technology; in short, more “development…”11

Colonial domination and super-exploitation of the so-called “periphery” in Africa, South America and Asia are not included in this paradigm. None of the questions related to environmental degradation, divide-and-rule politics, causes of poverty, critical analysis of class-divided societies, oppression of women, children and people of color have a place in it. Centuries have shown, especially in the last decades, that there is no “development” in colonized lands devastated by wars, corporate takeovers, and environmental degradation. They will never “catch-up” with the “First World”12 because the “First World” has never intended to let the colonized countries and dominated regions to have their own authentic development and control of their own resources.  It is now clear in every European country that becoming a member of the European Union only brings more trouble, more austerity, and less control over local spaces and resources by local people. Millions of people around the world are waking up and realizing that the whole ideology of corporate capitalism has been imposed on them as a way to control them and cause further alienation.

Imperialism transformed lands and soil from a source of life and commons-- from which people drew sustenance-- into private property to be bought, sold and conquered. In a sacred space, one can be only a guest, one cannot own it. This attitude towards the Earth as our home and the sacred space is still characteristic of so called “underdeveloped” societies and indigenous cultures. Global capitalist elites attempt to own the planet and outer space. Rigid boundaries between nature and people are imposed by these ruling corporate and government representatives. Women and nature are seen as targets, commodities, and wombs.

Nature is approached as our enemy.  Our alienation from everything natural is almost complete. In the U.S., we often sit in air-conditioned rooms around the clock, fear insects, plants, and other animals, while worshipping toxic cleaning and personal care supplies, fertilizers, and pesticide-polluted foods. Industrialized and GMO food production are subsidized, while organic food production and small farmers struggle both financially and politically. Herbal remedies and other supplements are marginalized by the incredibly powerful pharmaceutical and medical industries. We are led to believe that our bodies don’t have self-healing properties, and that we are separate from and “above nature.”

Replacing the “development” paradigm with concepts of subsistence and sustainability is already an imperative in many parts of the world. Subsistence work is life-producing, life-preserving, life-renewing and necessary for our survival. The bulk of subsistence work is done by women. Local communities around the world are turning back their clocks and re-learning how to value subsistence work, ensure their own sustainability and get their independence back. The Chipko movement in India is just one example. It is built around preserving control and connection with land, water, forests, and clean air. In existence since 1986, it includes a no money economy, and no division between manual and mental labor.13

Local Contexts: From Individual to Communal, Decolonizing the North

The prevailing ideology of individualism affects every aspect of social life in the United States. Some aspects of the dominant ideology highlight personal freedoms and privacy issues more than the need to build communities. Uncritical faith in “technological development” and glorified consumerism have great impact on human health, health of the environment, and on social life. Many experience serious challenges in their efforts to build cohesive communities and develop a communal approach to resolving conflicts and showing solidarity with other marginalized groups.  Growing social inequalities, austerity measures, reduction of social spaces, increased surveillance and application of force in the public arena make sustaining social movements very difficult.  Yet, there is a rebellion against the world view that creates isolated individuals, glorifies global markets and commodity-producing activities. People around the world are voicing concern and engaging in direct action. They are standing up and advocating for a replacement of this approach with a worldview that promotes communities.  This new world view reaches back into our ancient wisdom to restore awareness of the importance of organic soil, the power of seeds, equality of all species, harmony in nature and the very power of Mother Earth. Mothers are rebelling against commodification of birthing practices and choosing natural birth, or using midwives at home, because Western medical institutions and doctors take this life giving power away from women. Many are deciding to nurse their babies and reject industrially produced, often GMO, formula. These efforts start in local communities and arise from the need of local people to control their local resources, honor their own natural abilities and natural environments.

In some ways, many of these movements become concerned about decolonizing the North: the oppressors are also victims of ideologies that dehumanize them and everyone else. Oppressors don’t accept responsibilities for what has been done in our names not only to peoples of the global South but to all people around the world to endanger our existence on the planet. Decolonizing the North entails revolutionary changes by the people to break free from the dominant ideology and reorganize human societies around non-hierarchical groupings, participatory economies, and self management. Revolutionary movements redefine dominant economic concepts that hide the causes of the enormous gap between wealth and poverty and challenge the view of science as value-neutral and above society. They stand for collective rights of people and for ending treatment of nature and people as commodities or mere intellectual properties.

Some of these movements specifically address the most extreme patent rights to seeds, and genetic modification of vegetables and animals. Others focus on preservation of local clean water resources and resist powerful corporate giants privatizing their water springs. The non-GMO movement had great success in India, and is also growing in California. In the South San Francisco Bay Area, the local Occupy movement has organized teach-ins around participatory economy and environmental and food production issues. We have strong organic farming and local food movements. These movements created organic farming communities that are living examples of sustainability, volunteerism, and communal spirit. They exist in urban settings and radically transform the way our cities look, the way food is produced and consumed, the way children learn and participate in growing their own food and interact with nature. These movements also transform eating habits, physical exercise and the overall health of people and environment. Many immigrant networks also provide hope for reliance on communal support, as they bring their experiences and beliefs from other parts of the world and redefine them here. They all embrace some aspects of ecofeminist views.

One of the most radical examples of our local seeds of change is the San Francisco Time Bank. This is a Bay Area community exchange effort in which for every hour an individual spends doing something for someone else in the community, she earns one hour to have someone else do something for her. It is an alternative way to give and receive resources and to satisfy everyone’s needs with no money involved. In this way, local residents become partly free from large financial institutions Randall-prevailing consumerism. Participants exchange services such as childcare, transportation, yard work, household projects and repairs, professional services, tutoring, locally produced organic food, and much more.14 Women have taken very significant roles in the establishment and preservation of this network, making it about local subsistence, communal spirit and environmental centeredness.

Conclusion

Ecofeminism has a revolutionary potential waiting to be embraced. No revolution is possible without abolishing patriarchy and changing our predominant social attitude towards the Mother Earth. If we radically change our attitude to planetary resources and our place in the Earth's community, we might have a chance to survive.

To embrace revolutionary ecofeminist views and engage in direct action we need to reaffirm the unbreakable connections between all life-giving forces. Women and nature are one. By reclaiming powerful ancient views of women and nature as one, we can move closer to redefining the world. In pre-class, pre-patriarchal, societies all people were seen as one and indivisible from nature. We want to stand for equality of peoples and their oneness with other living creatures. Celebrating the power and the importance of Mother Earth, universal connectedness and oneness with harmony and balance as most important goals, we can aim for the best life for ourselves and the return of hope for future generations.

By challenging all myths of  global capitalism—the system that has brought so much misery, has destroyed so many eco-systems, and has endangered our survival with climate chaos—we can also redefine the idea of urgently needed revolutionary change to save our whole world, not only change the current socio-economic system.

 

1. Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. Irene Diamond & Gloria Feman Eds. 1990. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. Pp. 3-14, Charlene Spretnak’s contribution.

2. Christian Parenti. 2011. Tropic of Chaos. New York: Nation Books. P.226; also Dianne Dumanoski. 2010. The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth. New York: Broadway

3. Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva. 1993. Ecofeminism. New Jersey: Zed Books & Fernwood Publications. Pp. 55-70, 251-264

4. Ibid, p. 165

5. Ecofeminism and the Sacred. Ed. By Carol Adams. 1993. New York: Continuum, pp. 207-281

6. Ibid, p. 25

7. Ibid, p. 45

8. Ibid., p.70

9. Ibid, p. xiii

11. Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism., p. 59

12. Ibid, p. 61-65

13. Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism., p. 246-250

14. http://insteading.com/2011/03/09/time-bank/-

Milina Jovanovic

Milina Jovanović came to the U.S. in 1994 from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where she completed her college education and received a J.D. and M.A. in Sociology of Law and Women’s Studies. Between 1991 and 1994 she worked as a sociologist at the Sociological and Criminological Institute in Belgrade researching changes in the Yugoslav family, youth, gender relations, and Sociology of Love. Upon coming to the San Francisco Bay Area, Ms. Jovanović received another M.A. in Social Sciences and Women’s Studies from San Jose State University. As a graduate researcher she compared women’s education and employment in California and Yugoslavia and published the results of her study.Between 1999 and 2001, as a member of a small team, she conducted research on immigrant contributions and integration practices in Santa Clara County, CA. She contributed to a nationally recognized study Bridging Borders in Silicon Valley and co-edited KIN: Knowledge of Immigrant Nationalities. This research was funded by the Santa Clara County’s Office of Human Relations. Milina is still working at the same office, designing and monitoring programs for immigrants and providing mediation services.Her interests and publications include the following areas: Women and Gender Studies, Ecofeminism, history of immigration, history of Yugoslavs in the U.S., foreign policy, political history of Yugoslavia, Global Studies and Sociology of Love (Erich Fromm’s and bell hooks’ theories).In addition to her regular work, she advocates for immigrants, human rights, peace, rights of the Mother Earth, environmentally responsible policies, and social justice. Milina has written poetry since 1975, and her first collection of poems entitled A Dog Violet in My Hair was published in 2007.

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