Global warming. Pollution. Deforestation. Species extinction. We are in environmental crisis right now. But how is this a women’s issue?
Well, for starters, women and nature share the same historical origins of oppression. The Great Chain of Being—the hierarchical ordering of beings from greater to lesser value—has always placed man at the top, and women, animals and nature at the bottom. This belief has been integral in the development of Western philosophy. There is a logic of domination at work here: men are associated with reason and women are associated with emotion. Reason is thought to be greater then emotion. Therefore men are thought better then women. Animals are subordinated according to the same logic. They are thought to be incapable of rational thought, and are therefore of little value.
Val Plumwood writes that she sees more and more people stepping outside the influences of this philosophy and recognizing the logic of domination. In “Women, Humanity and Nature” she observes “a growing awareness that the Western philosophical tradition which has identified, on the one hand, maleness with the sphere of rationality, and on the other hand, femaleness with the sphere of nature, has provided one of the main intellectual bases for the domination of women in Western culture.” (qtd. in Warren)
The ecofeminist has many objections to this hierarchical ordering of beings. Why is there are hierarchy at all? Why can’t there just be a diversity of beings? Are women emotional? Do animals have a strictly physical existence? If this is all true, why do we look down upon the emotional and the physical? Why the historical subordination of the physical to the intellectual, the emotional to the logical in the first place?
Ecofeminism is a highly relevant theoretical answer to our culture’s tendency to subordinate the other- both woman and nature. The Great Chain of Being is the philosophy that underlies much of what we do. It is at work in the way we value nature only as “resources.” It is at work in the way that we care not about the preservation of nature as an end in and of itself—but only for the sustained provision of resources for culture. It is at work in the way we treat our women. In our slang we equate women to animals while simultaneously subordinating both: Bitch. Pussy. Beaver. Cow. Yes, these words are artefacts of the Great Chain of Being. So are the words wo-man, and fe-male: through these words we regard woman literally as subsets of the male, in keeping with the hierarchy. Our culture is ripe with artefacts of the Great Chain of Being.
So ecofeminists object to this conceptual, philosophical subordination of women and nature. But ecofeminism is also grounded on the very real way that women and the cultural other are affected by irresponsible development. In “The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism,” Karen J Warren talks about how the domination of Aboriginal land in the Americas has destroyed the mode of living for Aboriginal people. In “Development, Ecology and Women”. Vandana Shiva talks about how Western development in third world countries “destroys wholesome and sustainable lifestyles and creates real material poverty, or misery” with the colonial domination of, or the resource exploitation of their environments. “The needs of the Amazonian tribes are more than satisfied by the rich rainforest; their poverty begins with its destruction” (qtd. in Warren). The key here is that feminists, who deny the logic of domination behind sexism, cannot deny the logic of domination that is ripe beneath naturism. The feminist who premises her ideology on a criticism of oppressive logic and systems cannot be indifferent to the exploitation and subordination of ecosystems and the societies that depend on them.
In “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love,” Feminist Marilyn Frye writes: “the loving eye is a contrary of the arrogant eye. The loving eye knows the independence of the other.” This view proposes that there are two ways to perceive—to see—the other. First, there is the arrogant eye, which is quick to subordinate and dominate the other. Alternatively, there is the loving eye, which recognises and appreciates the other’s differences and does not seek to control the other. The loving eye is the ecofeminist alternative to the Great Chain of Being.
Ecocritic Don MacKay defines ethics as “the calling-into-question of our freedom to control, process, or reduce the other.” Ecofeminism employs this ethic in matters of culture, the environment, and gender relations.