Ecofeminism seeks to challenge the basis of Western knowledge-creation through the critique of pervasive binaries and divisions that structure societal interactions. Ecofeminism regards the ever-present and ingrained subversion of women and marginalised people, and nature, as a result of colonialism and patriarchy, past and present, which utilizes the logic of social categorisation and marginalisation to both oppress and exploit. Additionally, besides criticizing binary thinking, the ecofeminist perspective tries to go further by challenging and overcoming techno-scientific masculinist knowledge, a view that it shares in common with degrowth thinking. Ecofeminism does so by advocating, in theory as in practice, a profoundly alternative, revolutionary perspective; it pushes us to overcome the system that we are usually bound to think in. This entails calling into question the dichotomies of nature and humanity, which continues to perpetuate a hierarchisation of the rational economic male and its dominance over nature. The structuring and perpetuation of knowledge-creation present an ever-relevant and important discussion within degrowth scholarship, seeking to provide new avenues of thinking and action on the global scale.
In this piece, we argue how ecofeminist theory can help understand nuances and draw insights on the Paris Agreement’s dominant narratives. We explore how binary thinking and specific forms of knowledge are presented in the Paris Agreement and how it is, therefore, not possible to see it as a true vehicle for climate, social, and gender justice.
Before analysing the core features of the agreement, we will briefly outline the ecofeminist critique questioning binary thinking and masculinist, techno-scientific knowledge. As a final point, we aim to further cement the argument for a feminist-degrowth alliance, and a degrowth scholarship that seeks to understand and uplift the knowledge and experiences of those most impacted by climate and ecological destruction. A failure to do so will risk the perpetuation of power structures and norms which create the exploitation and inequality that we, as the degrowth movement, seek to overcome.
Overview of Ecofeminist Units of Analysis
The term “ecofeminism” was first used was in 1974 by Françoise d’Eaubonne. She claimed that ecologists’ concerns regarding overpopulation could be blamed on the patriarchal system refusing women the right to decide on their own bodies. Ecofeminism started, thus, by noticing parallels amidst the domination of nature and male dominance over women. This critical approach developed in many different perspectives resulting in different streams. We must thus talk about ecofeminisms, to emphasize its plural nature.
Ecofeminists’ first actions, thoughts and movements started in the late ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s in the United States, England, Latin America, and India. The first demonstrations were from grassroots movements with different activist backgrounds, grounded in everything from Marxist and Anarchist movements to anti-militarist, racial, and feminist, movements.
How ecofeminists organized themselves for demonstrations entirely re-invented activism, choosing a different path compared to the usual militant demonstrations’ strategy. Their demonstrations were moments of celebration and joy, integrating dance, chanting and rituals, using all kinds of artefacts in contrast with aggressive forms of activism. This way of protest shows a fundamental part of the ecofeminist movement: the desire to fight differently, to go against the system in place while refusing to follow the steps of masculinist thinking.
It is important to note ecofeminism has received criticism for some streams of essentialism that positions women as inherently or biologically closer to nature. This thinking has already been dismissed by most ecofeminist discussions; the association of gender and nature is presented in reference to historical oppression and labour division exploitation, which has drawn together these social categorisations. Therefore, instead of seeing women as naturally and inherently tied to nature, several ecofeminists, such as Sherilyn McGregor, have called into question the very existence of women and nature as social categories. To understand the construction of these binary divisions and hierarchies, Ariel Salleh references the categorisation of humanity (men) as opposite and opposing nature as a dominant part of Eurocentric cultural oppression and expansion. The dualisms such as nature/culture, women/men and emotional/rational find their root in the period of the enlightenment, where thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant presented “truths” about life and society which have deeply influenced our perception of the world around us. This expanded thinking away from spirituality, emotions, and nature, was propagated as a justification for Western patriarchal capitalism. Val Plumwood recognises such a system of othering as associating qualities across oppressed groups, and mutually oppressing categories of women and nature, women and the body, women and animals, casting aside these as inferior categories. This enables the repeated exploitation of nature and environment, and women, care work, and other gendered structures which serve Western capital and cultural expansion.
Therefore, ecofeminism should not be overshadowed by a critique that all ecofeminist theory is essentialist. This criticism is often used as an excuse to reject gender analysis in environmental and climate discussions. As scholars and activists, it is our duty to reclaim the term ecofeminism and take on a perspective that precisely overcomes this binary thinking. This is what we do in this analysis of the Paris Agreement: a rejection of essentialism, and an in-depth gender analysis of climate and environment, presenting an approach that overcomes gender and nature boolean structures, and foregrounds the understanding of its deep-seated relationship with the patriarchal-capitalist structures of socio-environmental change.
Short Overview on the Paris Agreement
The 2015 Paris Agreement is considered the first genuinely “global” (i.e. Westphalian) response to the threat of climate change. It brought together states and political and socio-economic actors from across the world, and with 175 party signatories, it has been framed as a landmark moment for climate policy on the world stage. Discussion around the agreement has most commonly fallen into a two-sided debate around effectiveness, political impact, and ability to impart serious commitments. This debate, however, obscures nuances around who this agreement is actually written for, what knowledge and ideas it is supporting, and what challenges this has really presented for climate inequality and injustice on the world stage. From a very first glance at the agreement, it is clear that it is heavily seated in norms and knowledge-creation of Western-centric techno-capitalist thinking, supporting economic growth, unequal trade, technological solutions, and emphasis on adaptation. Moreover, inclusion is often largely symbolic, that while gender inequality and indigenous knowledge are ‘included,’ it is largely for a seat at the table and not a meaningful inclusion of diverse ways of thinking.
This first part discussed various ecofeminisms and presented the importance of overcoming binary thought and practice. It also presented an overview of the Paris Agreement. The second part will link those together by analysing the Paris agreement through an ecofeminist lens. We will finally demonstrate how important this is for the degrowth movement.
Ecofeminist Critique of the Paris Agreement
The basis for ecofeminist critique lies in understanding the intersection of such dominant knowledge-formation and resultant social power structures. Utilising an ecofeminist approach for an analysis of the Paris Agreement enables an identification (and thus amplification) of silenced voices in the agreement, through an understanding and deconstruction of masculinist norms and knowledge-production. Additionally, while most mainstream approaches seek to address the content of the Paris Agreement through an analysis of where gender has been introduced (and to what quantity), an ecofeminist approach seeks to analyse how gender and environmental relations came to be.
The decades of international treaties failures in reducing the overall emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, should have shown clearly that infinite economic growth is not possible within a planet with finite resources. However, by still evoking the need for economic growth and technology in its article 10, the Paris agreement takes a stance against a whole body of scholarship, both by ecofeminist and degrowth scholars, dedicated to showing the oxymoronic relationship between ecological conservation for climate change mitigation and GDP growth. The construction of ‘solutions’ in the agreement is based on existing socio-economic and political norms, and the actions outlined, fail to challenge the root causes of environmental breakdown. How these solutions are both presented and propagated, remains highly based in what knowledge and information is valued, and ultimately then who this agreement will eventually serve— showing the need for an ecofeminist critique.
One of the main consequences of this neoliberal thinking regarding environmental policy is the faith that technologies invented by humans will be able to mitigate and revert the climate crisis. This is what many scholars refer to as technocratic thinking or technomania. On the contrary, ecofeminists believe that this technoscientific knowledge is at the foundation of our environmental crisis. For this reason, the approach is usually sceptical towards ideals of the enlightenment, as it is the knowledge that founded our neoliberal capitalist society, and therefore the gendered environmental exploitation which has plundered the planet.
When looking at the Paris Agreement, it is clear that the knowledge used and produced is in line with the above, locking the door to alternative thinking. To illustrate this, several critical aspects of the Paris Agreement can be highlighted. Firstly, the Paris Agreement has a key focus on technology. A whole article (article 10) is dedicated to it. However, the key issues of justice, equity, biodiversity, food sovereignty, are cited only in the preambles. By coding so little importance to these key issues, the Paris Agreement not only fails to recognise structured social inequalities but also gives little space to truly tackle those issues through law and international political agreements.
A second focus of the Paris Agreement is Climate Finance (article 9), which in part demands a shift in private investments and financial flows (away from polluting industries). The ecofeminist perspective again challenges this. Climate finance still promotes economic growth and the agreement explicitly encourages capitalist measures such as trading emissions or others that lead to the commodification of nature and a shift in accountability/responsibility for climate change. The principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) between developed and developing nations was weakened, and no liability to rich nations to pay for the global pollution their corporations and citizens generate was implemented, thus following a clear neoliberal agenda.
Furthermore, the overarching text presented in the Paris Agreement states that in taking action to address climate change, considerations should be made to ‘gender equality (and) empowerment of women’ (preamble). It considers all women situated in the same position, sharing needs, and requirements for support. This idea of equal and shared vulnerability is situated within categorisations of women as dependent and connected to nature. Structuring these needs as ‘add-ons’ to the primary debate deems it lesser, and almost charitable, obscuring women and rendering them all victims void of agency. Therefore, it is ignorant of ways in which issues of gendered climate inequality play out in contrasting and multifaceted ways across varying space and place.
Gender is also recognised in articles 7 and 11 of the agreement, through ‘gender-responsive’ adaptation and capacity building. Despite, at first glance, appearing a more critical and substantial integration of gender into policy content, consideration is also needed as to why gender is only mentioned concerning programmes of adaptation and capacity; not throughout all articles. The drive to include gender in these specific aspects of local protection and engagement postulated a single entry role for women in climate discussion: one based on the positioning of women as ‘local saviours’ for adaptation and capacity. Superficially, this appears to celebrate contextualised knowledge and understanding. However, on further analysis, this choice of integration can be seen to be based on romanticised understandings of women, particularly in the Global South, as bound to nature, essential and responsible for its care. Furthermore, Sherilyn MacGregor has argued that this conceptualisation of women as ‘nature’s saviors’ reproduces unequal gender roles of care, and social reproduction, at the everyday level.
This analysis of the Paris Agreement follows existing research on climate governance, in which women have predominantly been framed in two forms ‘vulnerable or virtuous’. Through defining women as (weak) victims, their marginalised role has been decided, and further analysis on their position or voice in the discussion is ignored.
The technocratic, masculinist framings of knowledge in the Paris agreement also outlines what is deemed to be insignificant or irrelevant to discussions on climate change; principally the voices and experiences of women and marginalised groups even though it is now widely accepted that the impacts of climate change are worse for these groups based on gendered inequalities and vulnerabilities.
Implications, oppression and outcomes of the agreement
This framing of ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis is not neutral, and the perpetuation of this line of thinking has tangible impacts for those obscured in its perpetuation of Western-patriarchal dominance. The history of Western colonial capitalism is seated in the propagation of hierarchical forms of knowledge around (male, western) superiority and scientific justifications of capital expansion and exploitation globally. The continuation of this knowledge-creation will also mean a continuation of impacts for those most marginalised by this way of thinking, across lines of race, class and gender. The lack of vocalisation of knowledge from indigenous communities, women and marginalised groups, particularly in the global South, presents the continuation of knowledge responsible for the vast oppressions of climate and environmental destruction. This perpetuation of a techno-saviour approach renders climate change a homogenized problem, in which the nature of differentiated responsibility and burden is far removed. This seemingly gender-blind emphasis of finance, security and science, perpetuates a growthism discourse where extraction and exploitation plunder the global South, and techno-optimism silences concerns of justice. Thus, neglecting the lived experiences of those most affected by vast and grave environmental disasters, including the loss of homes and livelihoods, particularly in the global South. The Paris Agreement therefore not only works to silence marginalised voices, but presents a homogenization of impacts to climate change, and the associated responses, neglecting the concerns of subordinate groups, and ultimately failing to address the power dynamics and necessary structural change.
Importance of Ecofeminist thought for degrowth
Ecofeminism, when approached with a critical, non-binary, and decolonial approach, is a powerful tool for the advancement of degrowth thinking and action. The ability to challenge the knowledge produced and perpetuated in society is a crucial force against the dominant and fixated paradigm of capitalism and all associated social injustices. As argued for in the Feminism(s) and Degrowth alliance (FaDA), feminism(s) need to be integral to, not additional, to Degrowth research and practice. The continued and pressing importance of this relationship, and of ecofeminism more broadly, is argued for as follows:
- Incorporating an ecofeminist critique of knowledge formation within western patriarchal capitalism helps understand the knowledge/power relationship as a tool for perpetuating the neoliberal economic growth machine, including for alleged solutions to climate and environmental change
- It presents the need to challenge this dominance of western dualist and inherently patriarchal knowledge creation which characterises the causes and presented solutions to global environmental destruction and inequality.
- The need for degrowth to continuously platform and drive the voices of marginalised peoples globally and the unwavering need to emphasise alternative forms of knowledge-creation for truly just alternatives to colonial and patriarchal solutions to climate change and societal transformation.
How does degrowth wish to tackle knowledge-creation, how does it challenge the dominant forms of knowledge at every stage of thinking, acting and researching? Ecofeminist thought enables the pursuit of justice through consideration of how discussions on climate change have been focused primarily on perspectives of science and technology and the perpetuation of neoliberal capitalism; one which excludes, oppresses, and marginalises, gendered voices. Therefore, the binaries that characterise the societal landscape should hold no place in a degrowth movement. How we wish to challenge these should be a critical and ongoing discussion for everyone involved in its struggle for justice.
Teaser photo credit: Kenya harvest by woman farmer. By CIAT – 2DU Kenya 84, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30331279