Critical ecofeminism as a panacea for our ecological identity crisis

October 2, 2020

The runaway ecological breakdown that we find ourselves in our current times in is a reflection of the rapid spiritual distancing of ourselves from the natural world; from a fundamentally interlinked and interdependent existence for more than 99.9 percent of human history within the humble confines and fabric of nature, to an overtly dominant collective across the planet that’s pushing the boundaries ever so strikingly to disrupt the larger ecosystem health while extracting every hedonistic ounce possible.

We need to be able to acknowledge and understand this accelerated disenfranchisement of our beings from gaia through various lenses and prisms, of race, class, culture, language, history, regions and gender among more other such aspects.

A gendered canvas to the climate crisis reveals how there is disproportionate disruption to the lives of women (as well as LGBTQIA) around the globe, especially those of colour and who live in the Global South (also now termed MAPA). As often primary food growers and water collectors in these geographies, women are hardest hit by floods and droughts. They’re shown to also be less financially equipped to handle disaster strikes as well as are vulnerable to gender-based violence. A number of grassroots movements, that have been majority women-led and represented (like the Chipko movement), have identified with protecting nature to not only safeguard our wider ecosystems, but also their rights and community interests, that are often under the onslaught of the oppressive patriarchal system which sees nature as commodity and women as collateral damage. Using empirical data, there is enough to say how the systemic oppression of nature and our ecology is interrelated to the oppression and injustice towards women.

Ecofeminist thinkers, like Val Plumwood, have agreed that the domination of women and the domination of nature are fundamentally connected and that environmental efforts are therefore integral with work to overcome the oppression of women. Here, Plumwood further goes on and presents that actually it is the idea of dualism that lies at the heart of the domination of nature and women.

In Western society and culture, which is now dominant or prevalent globally, women are treated as inferior to men, ‘nature’ is treated as inferior to ‘culture’, and humans are understood as being separate from, and often superior to, the natural environment. Dualism’s logical structure of otherism and negation lies at the root of propelling and exacerbating the problem.

So, Plumwood goes beyond and resists the idea that all problems will cease when the powerless take over power, or the idea of gynocentric essentialism to harken back a non-oppressive just world; she moves instead to strike at the root causes of how the dualisms of culture/nature, reason/emotions, male/female, mind/body, master/slave, rationality/animality, civilized/primitive, self/other and the like manifest, are why we ostensibly seem to assign higher value to one side over the other. In short, she argues for an antidualist ecological feminism, and more technically called as Critical Ecofeminism.

Plumwood argues against the assumptions that have put forth these dualistic distortions, such as the woman-nature equivalence where assumed inferiority of the sphere of women and of nature proves them subordinate, while on the other end is the man-reason/culture equivalence where superiority of this sphere surfaces as the narrative.

These she terms as ‘logics of colonisation’, i.e., just as masters have colonised and dominated slaves, men have colonized and dominated women, and humans have colonized and dominated nature. This mantra sees the other as radically separate and inferior whose agency is denied or minimized; the other is to be defined as a terra nullius , a resource empty of its own purposes or meanings, and hence available to be annexed for the purposes of those supposedly identified with reason or intellect, those as superior. Between two groups of people, this potentially heralds an endless tussle of being the dominator or subordinate, and thus seeking control to deny the other.

Instead, these dualisms need to be replaced with nonhierarchical concepts of difference.

To simultaneously combat the oppression of nature and women, it is imperative that we break the hegemony of these structures of dualism in thought, narrative and presentation. Each subject on the opposing sides of these scales needs to be restored with their agency and autonomy to function equitably.

The considered-inferior side should be recognized as having its own needs, value and striving, whose needs can be independent of what is on the considered-superior side of dualism. For example, both nature and women have a sense of ownership over their existence and do not come hinged to the existence of humans and men.

The language and stories of what is considered-inferior needs to be rediscovered with their own identity that is not a mere lack of absence of what is on the other side of dualism.

And any reductionist homogenisation and stereotyping attributed to these interdependent living elements, in the same vein like all women love makeup or all black men are criminals, should be rejected and replaced with notions of complexity and diversity.

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

Ultimately, the goal is the liberation of every oppressed entity from nature, to women, to our bodies, to space for emotions, to the respect for the ancient and primitive, and more. To overcome the structures in western patriarchal culture that continue to dominate and oppress women, nondominant groups of humans as well the nonhuman nature, Plumwood argues that the fundamental theme of dualism needs to be abandoned and replaced by the belief that humans are both individual selves that are distinct from nature and ecological selves that are continuous with nature, and do away with the ontological divide.

The resolution of dualism requires, not just recognition of difference, but recognition of a complex, interacting pattern of both continuity and difference.

Just as I hold responsibility towards a son or a daughter, I hold it towards a tree under whose shade they grew up in, and even though I see the stark physical difference between these two entities I see them as a continual flow of life worth protecting and nurturing together. And just as I find value in the decisiveness of a masculine being, I find safety and beauty in the care of a feminine being, thus, seeing these parts in various selves or within oneself too as complementary and equitable parts in our shared humanity.

Perhaps this slight turn of the switch might prove to be the thunder in the sky announcing the return of collective solidarity and humanity on our planet, and if not that, at least we microseed as fractals to dismantle the hierarchies of oppression that besiege us, and liberate us.

Author’s note: Today is the International Day of Non-Violence, also observed as Gandhi Jayanti in India, and it comes at a time when we find ourselves amidst unprecedented times of strife and despair globally as the fault lines in our society begin to cave open. The patriarchal industrial complex is on its final legs as it attempts to bring down our ancient living ecology while also tearing communities apart; for far too long the vested interests of the oligarchy have threaded through public life via the protection of the govt, media and judiciary at different points, and the clock strikes midnight now.

Gandhi’s nation, the world’s largest democracy, currently rots and burns from one crisis to another while the fascist government carries out an insidious onslaught on its people, and there are similar stories right now in about a dozen nations simultaneously if not more.

There hasn’t been a greater time to walk the path of non-violence and resist in the spirit of Gandhi, while also recognising our crisis of Identity. It is time the vast middle class rises together from the ashes of ignorance and denial, speaks truth to power, and acts now in solidarity with the most oppressed and underprivileged to forge a new Identity for these times for humanity – one that is connected, nurturing, restorative and regenerative for all species on our planet.

Ecology and progress screaming

Teaser photo credit: Uncovering a new path away from our old ways of dualism and towards a more holistic identity for ecological restoration. Source: Pixy.org 

Ishal Aggarwal

Ishan Aggarwal

I am an activist researcher, who's been independently working (i.e. mostly resting) for a little over a year. As an autodidact, I dabble at the intersection of climate communications, systems thinking and political economics. Formerly, a mathematics graduate turned startup founder turned capital markets trader turned zero waste advocate turned Extinction Rebellion organizer, I spend countless hours now peering into the infinity of skies and nothingness of ceilings trying to imagine a regenerative future. I am an aspiring gardener who wishes to cook more, manage an animal sanctuary and write a book one day.

Tags: building resilient societies, cultural stories, ecofeminism