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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]


Eco-feminism is both a social and political theory that posits that the patriarchal, masculine thinking and behaviour that has oppressed women throughout history has also led to the oppression and degradation of the environment.

The term was coined in the 1970s and takes the form of both essentialist and non- or anti-essentialist thinking. Essentialist eco-feminism more strongly links the movement to a mystical connection between women and the environment, based on belief in a female Mother Earth or Gaia. The non- or anti-essentialist approach views this connection more metaphorically, and focuses instead on social or political issues involving women and the environment, noting in particular that environmental issues tend to impact more negatively upon women than men and are caused by the same systems that discriminate against women.

Eco-feminism also often posits that relationships and connectivity, such as between people and the Earth, or between men and women, need to be strengthened in order to address inequalities and degradation of women and nature.

It also critiques the practice of land ownership—and the ownership of resources on which modernisation and globalisation are based—as being patriarchal systems that lead to the exploitation and oppression of women, the environment and poor people, as well as eroding the inter-relationships ecofeminism promotes.

One well-known eco-feminist is Vandana Shiva, who received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the alternative Nobel prize) in 1993 for her work in establishing women and ecology at the centre of modern development discourse.

One example Shiva uses of how women and the environment are both disempowered by globalisation is the battle women in the Punjab are fighting against seed company giants such as Monsanto.

In 1995, India signed a trade deal that gave multinational corporations permission to patent, own and sell seeds. This means that seeds are now the property of companies such as Monsanto, where they used to belong to no-one and everyone. The paradox being, according to Shiva, that it was the now customers of these corporations, Indian farming women, who developed the seeds in the first place. As Shiva states: “The women of India have evolved two hundred thousand rice varieties, work done over millennia by hundreds of thousands of unknown grandmothers.” But in stark contrast to the multinationals: “At no point did any one of those women turn around and tell her sister, ‘Now I have bred this new rice. Now onwards, it is my property; now onwards you will pay me royalties.’”

And the ‘royalties’ the companies are charging are far from cheap. Many farmers are becoming highly indebted in order to pay for them, to the extent that suicide rates of farmers in the area have escalated, with many farmers reaching such a point of indebtedness that they can see no way out.Furthermore, farmers are encouraged to grow these seeds as monoculture crops.

Consequently, hundreds of traditional crops (the crops that female farmers, as opposed to multinationals, were the knowledge-holders of) are disappearing, resulting in significant biodiversity loss. What is more, the new monoculture crops require significant use of pesticide and insecticide, which in turn are causing desertification in the area. All this despite the fact that the type of farming traditionally used by women was far more productive, and better for the environment—“300 units of inputs produce 100 units of output in industrial agriculture, while ecological systems in which women participate use only 5 units of input to produce 100 units of output.”—Shiva.

In sum, this situation is viewed by eco-feminists such as Shiva as one where patriarchal systems, in this case resource ownership and globalisation, are simultaneously degrading the environment and the value of women—rendering both pawns in the game of international business, which benefits, for the most part, rich white men.

In response, Shiva is supporting Punjabi women to establish their own seed banks (breaking laws that prohibit this), in order to maintain control of both their knowledge about their seeds and their value in the community, and farm in a way that is much better for the environment.

Eco-feminism, like any theory, faces criticism, including arguments that it ignores the concern many men have for the state of the environment, and sets up an antagonistic relationship between men and women rather than a co-operative one.

Yet if feeling they have an intrinsic connection to the Earth, and a result a responsibility to nurture and protect it, inspires women to engage with ecological issues, it can only be a good thing in my eyes, particularly considering the scale of the issues facing us.

However you choose to interpret eco-feminism, it does offer an opportunity to look more widely at the values of our society, and where protecting and valuing our environment fits within these (a theme to be further explored another week).

And the eco-tips for this column are:

1. Use an eco-friendly dishwashing detergent—Next Generation is good. This not only means you don’t wash your dishes with nasty chemicals, but also means that you are not putting harmful chemicals into the waste water system, which often goes straight into the ocean or rivers.

2. Save your pennies and find some beautiful/handsome bargains at second-hand clothing shops. Cuba Street is full of them, and so are the ‘burbs—Savemarts and Salvation Armies all full of treasures just waiting to be discovered by you.


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