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A Perspective on Ecofeminism

Applying the Analytic Frameworks of Tsing and Kondo

Anthropology 152: Survey of Cultural Anthropological Theory
Prof. L. Rofel
Copyright © 1996, 2000 B. Collie Collier
The links in the reference column to the left are to allow readers to find good sources of information on ecofeminism, so that they may make their own decisions.



In her book In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, Anna L. Tsing discusses the marginality of the Maratus people. She examines their constant personal and societal renegotiation of definitions of self, power, gender, geography, and even their own marginality within the mainstream culture. The resistance and syncretism of the Maratus in regards to the hegemonic mainstream is also observed as she thoughtfully contrasts and compares Maratus and 'mainstream' (in this case Banjar) definitions of self and 'other.'

However, Tsing deliberately avoids making any universal statements about the Maratus, she allows no essentialist dialogues, she deliberately avoids any hint of homogeneity to inform her description of the Maratus. Instead her ethnographic study is fluid, changing and shifting as what she attempts to describe, and she uses individual stories frequently to illustrate her points. She takes an ethnographic view that extends through time and geography. Within these parameters she applies and discards theories and frameworks as useful modes of reference with limited application. Concerning gender, as a single example, she comments that many of the problems that the European model of gender demonstrates simply do not exist within the Maratus -- and thus the European model of gender is of finite use in examining the Maratus understanding of gender. However, it is with a slightly more European view that I wish to examine a particular political movement: ecofeminism.

There were two seminal events that appear to have given rise to ecofeminism. One was the publication of a paper by Sherry B. Ortner titled "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" The other was the actions of the Chipko Indian women to save their indigenous forests from a lumber company; forests that were vital to the Chipko Indians as a food source. Both the paper and the spontaneous actions of the Chipko Indian women were a form of resistance to mainstream society. Women and nature appeared to be associated in the mainstream mind-set... could this attitude or meme be usefully reclaimed? Women were considered less powerful than men; nature was certainly without a voice of its own or a means to regain agency. From this union of theory and action ecofeminism arose, as a means to take a covert, culturally constructed classification and redefine its meanings, thus reinterpreting and diffusing the power of the hegemony. Ecofeminism's beginnings were quite clearly an attempt to renegotiate a position of marginality, to reclaim agency and bound the power of the mainstream. Ecofeminism was a new form of counter-hegemonic speech, one that could potentially extend across any culture in which the European framework of gender applied.

Anna Tsing used frequent individual stories and personal accounts in her ethnographic study. She did so for a variety of reasons: she was renegotiating what an ethnographic study was, she was refusing universal statements about the Maratus, and she was clearly demonstrating her changing views on who and what the Maratus were. By using this analytic framework of Tsing's, as well as her framework regarding marginalities and their renegotiations, I will attempt to show in this paper why I feel ecofeminism has failed. This necessitates my explaining how I became interested in the movement, and defining what exactly ecofeminism is to me.

My first exposure to ecofeminism was very hopeful. I had long believed that action by individuals would be necessary before any truly cross-cultural change could be effected, and that peaceful discussions and actions would be the best for our society in the long run. Furthermore, I felt many of our society's problems were directly attributable to a mode of thought which asserted the greatest good for the society was that the strong should exploit their resources (the weak) as fully as possible. Surely, I thought, if we could change the way people thought, through peaceful discussion and action, even if only one person at a time, then beneficial societal change would occur. We needed to teach ourselves that women are not victims and are not somehow less than men; we needed to realize that nature isn't there just for our personal exploiting, and that 'fouling the nest' will eventually kill us too. Reason should show that it is in our best interests to cease harming what is around us, whether that is our natural environment, or the other people living in the world.

It was in this frame of reference that I was introduced to ecological feminism by a professor handing me a small book titled Ecological Feminism: Environmental Philosophies, which described some of the early days of ecofeminism, when the movement was still finding its metaphorical feet. This philosophy seemed to be everything I was talking about. It appeared to be a rising new tide in the on-going history of both feminism and environmental consciousness -- a new way of looking at some very old concepts. Its very name both revealed its lofty goals and inspired me to believe that here was a group of people that thought as I did. The basic premise was that the historical domination of nature is similar to the historical domination of women. To fix our ecological or feminist problems one must deal first with the issue of 'domination of weaker beings.' Once any culture has come up with a new mode of thinking which removes domination as a viable societal response, all the society's other problems that are based on inequities will as a consequence also be solved.

Unfortunately ecofeminism's new arrangement of old ideas does not quite appear to accomplish its stated goals. In fact, ecofeminism, while starting from very valid points concerning quite real problems, somehow manages to neither solve those problems, nor reveal any helpful new heuristics in how to deal with those same problems. Ecofeminism, to put it bluntly, appears to have sabotaged itself. And yet ecofeminism started with such promise. What went wrong? I will use Kondo's analytic framework of contrast and comparison, using hegemonic and counter-hegemonic texts, to demonstrate this change and to determine what new knowledge, if any, has been and is being constructed about women. Counter-hegemonic speech will be exemplified by the book of essays titled Ecological Feminism: Environmental Philosophies, which was edited by Karen J. Warren. The Ecological Feminism Special Issue of Hypatia will serve as a demonstration of hegemonic speech.

Ecological Feminism: Environmental Philosophies is a slim volume. There are not many articles in it. Nevertheless, it brims with enthusiasm and hope. There are two articles on actions taken by actual people; one is about an American group of mothers defending a natural parkland area in which their children played from developers who wished to make it a toxic waste dump, and the other describes the Chipko Indian incident. The spontaneous nature of both these women's resistances is pointed up, and the power of the unified actions of many individually weak persons is an important theme in both essays. Furthermore, an article by Sue Hendler and Tzeporah Berman is titled "Building Bridges, Tearing Down Walls," and describes how such ecofeminist actions can be accomplished. Sharon Hutcheson, in her "Walking the Line: Facing the Complexities of the Woman-Nature Link," further explores Ortner's original paper. It occupies a more hopeful narrative space; it tries to reconstruct Ortner's original premise, demonstrating a desire to regain agency by reclaiming hegemonic notions concerning nature and woman. Having read both articles (Hutcheson's and Ortner's) I found Hutcheson's more sensitive to the shifting nature of power, and far less universal in its assertions.

These and the other articles in the book are noteworthy in their commitment to socially relevant actions of conscience that are individually important. There is no hint of inter-disciplinary squabbling with those that do not agree with the beliefs of ecofeminism; the book is not about another group's incorrectness, but rather concerns construction of new narratives and definitions. There is no feel that some one is to blame for the current state of the world; instead of a person it is a concept, androcentrism, that is identified as the culprit. There is, as Kondo suggests is necessary for counter-hegemonic speech, a "committed, impassioned linkage between what are conventionally defined as two separate spaces of meaning," between the marginalized, disempowered, and dominated individual and the unified strength of people of conscience choosing to act in unison, to open up the definition of personal to include that which is political (Kondo 1990:29). In sum, the book's essays concern the linkage of the individual with "global politics, nationalism, and imperialism" in such a fashion as to demonstrate the "cross-cutting and mutually constitutive interplay of these forces on all levels" (Kondo 1990:26-27). If one were only to read these essays, ecofeminism would be a perfect example of the "voices of others who have spoken from the borderlands, those whose stories cannot be fully recognized or subsumed by dominant narrative conventions" (Kondo 1990:28).

Let us now look at an example of hegemonic thought. Initially this may seem an odd categorization for the Ecological Feminism Special Issue of the Hypatia magazine. However, I believe perusal of the articles within this forum will support my assertion. For example, two articles argue that the goals of ecofeminism will never be reached until meat-eating is outlawed, since killing anything is a form of domination. This is an interesting assertion, and these people are certainly welcome both to their beliefs and to try to persuade me of their correctness. However, I cannot help but wonder if outlawing meat-eating is not merely another form of imposing one's will on others, of substituting one form of culturally based oppression through domination and conventional concepts of power for another. To put it uncharitably, is this the view of well-fed academics that do not have to worry where their next meal is coming from? Or is this perhaps something espoused by, say, the Chipko Indians?

Furthermore, almost all of the eleven articles contain at least one reference, whether covert or obvious, to the inherent correctness of the ecofeminist analytic framework -- by directly and oppositionally comparing it to 'deep ecology,' another environmental movement. Indeed, several articles are solely on this topic: three of them are Patricia J. Mills' "Feminism and Ecology: On the Domination of Nature," P. Murphy's "Ground, Pivot, Motion: Ecofeminist Theory, Dialogics, and Literary Practice," R. Sessions' "Deep Ecology vs. Ecofeminism: Healthy Differences or Incompatible Philosophies? " Deep ecology is unflatteringly compared to the patriarchal cultural norm; deep ecology is said to be rationalist, that it does not change the Western concept of male possession, control, and domination of the world. This inter-disciplinary argument has apparently been in continuous, unproductive heat for over a decade now. Indeed, in a personally shocking theoretical turn-about, Val Plumwood in her article "Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism" declares that rational thought is a patriarchal tool, and should be discarded in order to more fully understand nature - and since deep ecology depends on rational thought and is run by men it is less inherently correct than ecofeminism! Since when has sloppy thinking demonstrated anything but sloppy thinking? There are enough problems associated with women being considered 'flighty' or 'emotional' without actively seeking to emphasize that particular cultural construct. Adding to the somewhat detached narrative is the complete lack of any articles on real people acting in political forums.

The overall impression this issue of the magazine Hypatia gives is of women as a homogenous, exclusive voice, defining what the new cultural norms will be. Men are specifically and oppositionally defined as somehow less complex or intuitive than women, due to their being less 'connected' to nature; women are somehow considered more correct choices for positions of leadership solely because of their gender, which has been reconstructed as better than men. How is this any different from what patriarchy has done to women? Unfortunately, there is no feeling that androcentrism is the culprit in this socially constructed dilemma; instead one is left with the guilty feeling that androphobia is the only true answer to society's problems -- for if one is not female, or at least an ecofeminist, then one is incorrect, unable to comprehend all the nuances of creative thought.

This is a subtly and pervasively presented trope; at no point are men directly blamed for all of society's ills -- but everything created and associated with men is considered worthless, discardable. Furthermore, by choosing emotionalized words the authors of these articles appear to be attempting to change the concept of gender. If language creates meaning and constructs reality, if humans are defined by language, then one can demonize the oppressors of females by one's choice of words: this is the essence of good propaganda. Thus we find assertions that woman, like nature, is "prey," "enslaved," injustices are committed against and upon her; she is a passive victim of forces she is helpless to withstand. Oppositionally this means man must by definition become the deliberate and unjust aggressor: hunter, killer, enslaver, even rapist, of both woman and nature. As Kondo points out, a direct and explicit link is being set up between "the construction of gendered imagery to the ... imperialist mission to colonize and dominate" -- the academics and philosophers of this magazine seem to have forgotten that "gender is also not understandable without the ... power relations that inscribe it" (Kondo 1990"24-25). Poorly defined, emotional narratives are being fashioned, and I fear this makes an easy mental leap from hatred of everything the 'opposite' gender stands for, to hatred of the gender itself.

Several articles speak of our society as needing a complete change-over, a throwing-out of all that went before in order to produce a female-created, female-run brave new world. The political is no longer personal, and there is a feeling that ecofeminism/ femininity (and oppositionally also patriarchy/ masculinity) are essential, unitary notions, bounded within the matrix of power -- and all one needs to correct the present inequities is to swap which gender is on 'top.' Thus I define this magazine as hegemonic speech. The people involved do not wish to call into question fixed notions of gender identity or nature, nor do they give any credence to the heuristic that nature and/or self is complex and shifting, situationally specific and culturally defined. Instead they appear to struggle only towards transposing a new form of dominant, bounded, essentialist thought over the old, using the same framework but placing the 'other' gender at its head.

The individual is lost in this philosophical struggle; they become almost "'accidents' ancillary to some primary substance of consciousness" which is represented by ecofeminism (Kondo 1990:26). From its beginnings as a movement by and for individuals acting in concert through political choice and in resistance to the hegemony, ecofeminism appears to have 'grown' into merely another forum for hegemonic thought, striving to replace one set of oppressors with another. Indeed, it becomes very difficult to find any articles on individual agency in the later years of the movement -- there is only philosophical debate by mostly Western scholars. By their theoretical squabbling, those who sought to organize ecofeminism into some world-spanning, homogenous entity have instead re-marginalized both themselves and the movement. Organized ecofeminism appears to have failed in its quest for social change through individual political action.

Yet despite the sniping within the environmental movements, the homogenous 'demands' that in order to be feminist one must also be an environmentalist, the individual can still be found. Thus we come full circle, back to Tsing's accounts of individual stories. As an individual, I believe it is here that ecofeminism in its truest form can still be found. There is no constructed, homogenous category of 'woman' who can somehow cure all the world's ills through her essentialist, intuitive knowledge of societally defined 'nature.' There are only individuals, both female and male, who choose to act in personally ethical fashions, to quietly maintain counter-hegemonic narratives and, when they find it personally necessary, to unite to create the power to resist and renegotiate with mainstream beliefs. Organized ecofeminism may indeed be dead, a victim of its own philosophical weight and amalgamation by the hegemony. But ecofeminism itself is still alive; it has reverted back to its original, marginalized roots. Its true practitioners have become personally political again.

Last Updated: Fri Apr 21 2000