Feminist Next System Literature Review


"Why is ecofeminism still needed to address the environmental emergencies and challenges of our times? Ecofeminism has a chequered history in terms of its popularity and its perceived value in conceptualizing the relationship between gender and nature as well as feeding forms of activism that aim to confront the environmental challenges of the moment."  - From Contemporary Perspectives on Ecofeminism by Mary Phillips 

While ecofeminism contains a number of divergent thinkers, practices and concepts, at its simplest, it sees the oppression of women and the destruction of the planet as resulting from male domination of society. 

In their 1993 book, Ecofeminism: Critique, Influence, Change Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva define it as follows:

"Ecofeminism, a 'new term for an ancient wisdom' grew out of various social movements - the feminist, peace and ecology movements - in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though the term was first used by Francoise D'Eaubonne it became popular only in the context of numerous protests and activities against environmental destruction, sparked-off initially by recurring ecological disasters. The meltdown at Three Mile Island prompted large numbers of women in the USA to come together in the first ecofeminist conference - 'Women and Life on Earth: A Conference on Eco-Feminism in the Eighties' - in March 1980, at Amherst. At this conference the connections between feminism and militarization, healing and ecology were explored. As Ynestra King, one of the Conference organizers, wrote:

'Ecofeminism is about connectedness and wholeness of theory and practice. It asserts the special strength and integrity of every living thing. For us the snail darter is to be considered side by side with a community's need for water, the porpoise side by side with appetite for tuna, and the creatures it may fall on with Skylab. We are a woman-identified movement and we believe we have a special work to do in these imperilled times. We see the devastation of the earth and her beings by the corporate warriors, and the threat of nuclear annihilation by the military warriors, as feminist concerns. It is the masculinist mentality which would deny us our right to our own bodies and our own sexuality, and which depends on multiple systems of dominance and state power to have its way.'"

Shiva and Mies argue that women have a special connection to the environment, and that, specifically, women in subsistence economies who produce "wealth in partnership with nature, have been experts in their own right of holistic and ecological knowledge of nature's processes." However she makes the point that "these alternative modes of knowing, which are oriented to the social benefits and sustenance needs are not recognized by capitalism. Shiva, Mies, and other ecofeminists have developed various critiques, embedded within which are next system models. Some of them are related to environmentally oriented next system models, such as David Korten’s Living Earth System; however, ecofeminists would likely be more explicit about the particular design elements that are needed to allow women, particularly those living in the global south and in marginalized communities to lead the design of the next system while countering the “masculist mentality.”

Mies and Shiva, as well as other ecofeminists, have elements of next system design embedded in their critiques, as well as specific ideas for change. For instance, Mies and Shiva’s approach to ecofeminism (and particularly their proposal for “subsistence” living) answers a number of key model questions. 

From the introduction to Ecofeminism: 

"Some women, however, particularly urban, middle-class women, find it difficult to perceive commonality both between their own liberation and the liberation of nature, and between themselves and ‘different’ women in the world. This is because capitalist patriarchy or ‘modern’ civilization is based on a cosmology and anthropology that structurally dichotomizes reality, and hierarchically opposes the two parts to each other: the one always considered superior, always thriving, and progressing at the expense of the other. Thus, nature is subordinated to man; woman to man; consumption to production; and the local to the global, and so on. Feminists have long criticized this dichotomy, particularly the structural division of man and nature, which is seen as analogous to that of man and woman. (592)

Because this world-view sees the ‘other’, the ‘object’, not just as different, but as the ‘enemy’; as Sartre put it in Huis Clos: Hell is other people! In the resultant struggle one part will eventually survive by subordinating, and appropriating the ‘other’. This is also the core of Hegelian and Marxian dialectics, of their concept of history and progress. Evolutionary theory too, is based on the concept of a constant struggle for survival, on an antagonistic principle of life. These concepts are integral to what, since the Enlightenment, constitutes the European project of so-called modernity or progress.

An ecofeminist perspective propounds the need for a new cosmology and a new anthropology which recognizes that life in nature (which includes human beings) is maintained by means of co-operation, and mutual care and love. Only in this way can we be enabled to respect and preserve the diversity of all life forms, including their cultural expressions, as true sources of our well-being and happiness. To this end ecofeminists use metaphors like ‘reweaving the world’, ‘healing the wounds’, and re-connecting and interconnecting the ‘web’. This effort to create a holistic, all-life embracing cosmology and anthropology, must necessarily imply a concept of freedom different from that used since the Enlightenment.

This involves rejecting the notion that Man’s freedom and happiness depend on an ongoing process of emancipation from nature, on independence from, and dominance over natural processes by the power of reason and rationality. Socialist utopias were also informed by a concept of freedom that saw man’s destiny in his historic march from the ‘realm of necessity’ (the realm of nature), to the ‘realm of freedom’ — the ‘real’ human realm — which entailed transforming nature and natural forces into what was called a ‘second nature’, or culture.

Most feminists also shared this concept of freedom and emancipation, until the beginning of the ecology movement. But the more people began to reflect upon and question why the application of modern science and technology, which has been celebrated as humanity’s great liberators, had succeeded only in procuring increasing ecological degradation, the more acutely aware they became of the contradiction between the enlightenment logic of emancipation and the eco-logic of preserving and nurturing natural cycles of regeneration.

The women’s movement which, like many other movements inspired by the Enlightenment ideas, had fastened its hopes on the progress of science and technology, particularly in the area of reproduction, but also of house- and other work. Irene Stoehr pointed out that this concept of emancipation necessarily implied dominance over nature, including human, female nature; and, that ultimately, this dominance relationship was responsible for the ecological destruction we now face. How, then, could women hope to reach both their own and nature’s ‘emancipation’ by way of the same logic?

This, indeed, has to a large extent happened in Western society: modern chemistry, household technology, and pharmacy were proclaimed as women’s saviours, because they would ‘emancipate’ them from household drudgery. Today we realize that much environmental pollution and destruction is causally linked to modern household technology. But our critique of the Enlightenment emancipation-logic was impelled not only by an insight into its consequences for women, but also a concern for those victims, who, since the White Man’s march towards ‘the realm of freedom’ had paid for this freedom by the denial of their own subjectivity, freedom and, often, their survival base. As well as women, these include nature and other peoples — the colonized and ‘naturized’ — ‘opened up’ for free exploitation and subordination, transformed into the ‘others’, the ‘objects’, in the process of European (male) ‘subject’s’ emancipation from the ‘realm of necessity’.

We call this vision the subsistence perspective, because to ‘transcend’ nature can no longer be justified, instead, nature’s subsistence potential in all its dimensions and manifestations must be nurtured and conserved. Freedom within the realm of necessity can be universalized to all; freedom from necessity can be available to only a few.

In the dominant discourse the ‘global’ is the political space in which the dominant local seeks global control, and frees itself of any local and national control. But, contrary to what it suggests, the global does not represent universal human interest but a particular local and parochial interest which has been globalized through its reach and control. The G-7, the group of the world’s seven most powerful countries, dictate global affairs, but the interests that guide them remain parochial. The World Bank does not really serve the interests of all the world’s communities, but is an institution in which decisions are based on voting, weighted by the economic and political power of the donors. In this decision-making, the communities who pay the real price, the real donors (such as the tribals of Narmada Valley), have no voice.

We share much of the criticism directed to the West’s paradigm of development; we reject the homogenization processes resulting from the world market and of capitalist production processes. We also criticize the dualistic division between superstructure or culture and the economy or base. In our view, the preservation of the earth’s diversity of life forms and of human societies’ cultures is a precondition for the maintenance of life on this planet. But it is essential to beware of simply up-ending the dualistic structure by discounting the economy altogether and considering only culture or cultures. Furthermore, not all cultural traditions can be seen as of equal value; such a stance would simply replace eurocentric and androcentric and dogmatic ideological and ethical universalism with cultural relativism. This cultural relativism implies that we must accept even violence, and such patriarchal and exploitative institutions and customs as dowry, female genital mutilation, India’s caste system and so on, because they are the cultural expressions and creations of particular people. For cultural relativists, traditions, expressed in language, religion, custom, food habits, man-woman relations are always considered as particular, and beyond criticism. Obviously, cultural relativism, amounting to a suspension of value judgement, can be neither the solution nor the alternative to totalitarian and dogmatic ideological universalism. It is, in fact, the old coin reversed. It takes a liberal stance, but it should be remembered that European liberalism and individualism are rooted in colonialism, destruction of the commons, on wholesale privatization and on commodity production for profit. What must also be realized is that this new emphasis on the cultural, the local, and the difference, this cultural relativism, accords with MNCs’ interests. Only when food becomes ‘ethnic food’, music ‘ethnic music’, and traditional tales ‘folklore’ and when skills are harnessed to the production of ‘ethnic’ objects for the tourist industry, can the capital accumulation process benefit from these local cultures.

Cultural relativism is not only unaware of these processes but rather legitimizes them; and the feminist theory of difference ignores the working of the capitalist world system and its power to transform life into saleable commodities and cash.

The common ground for women’s liberation and the preservation of life on earth is to be found in the activities of those women who have become the victims of the development process and who struggle to conserve their subsistence base: for example, the Chipko women in India, women and men who actively oppose mega dam construction, women who fight against nuclear power plants and against the irresponsible dumping of toxic wastes around the world, and many more worldwide. The new developments in biotechnology, genetic engineering and reproductive technology have made women acutely conscious of the gender bias of science and technology and that science’s whole paradigm is characteristically patriarchal, anti-nature and colonial and aims to dispossess women of their generative capacity as it does the productive capacities of nature.

Feminists also began to realize the significance of the ‘witch hunts’ at the beginning of our modern era in so far as patriachal science and technology was developed only after these women (the witches) had been murdered and, concomitantly, their knowledge, wisdom and close relationship with nature had been destroyed. This interpretation of spirituality is also spelt out in the writings of Starhawk, for whom spirituality is largely identical to women’s sensuality, their sexual energy, their most precious life force, which links them to each other, to other life forms and the elements. It is the energy that enables women to love and to celebrate life.

Ecofeminists in the USA seemingly put greater emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ than do those in Europe. For example, in Germany, particularly since the early 1980s this tendency has often been criticized as escapism, as signifying a withdrawal from the political sphere into some kind of dream world, divorced from reality and thus leaving power in the hands of men. But the ‘spiritual’ feminists argue that theirs is the politics of everyday life, the transformation of fundamental relationships, even if that takes place only in small communities. They consider that this politics is much more effective than countering the power games of men with similar games. In Germany, too this debate has to be seen against the background of the emergence of the Greens, who participated in parliamentary politics since 1978. Many feminists joined the Green Party, less out of ecological, than feminist concerns. The Greens, however, were keen to integrate these concerns too into their progammes and politics. The critique of the ‘spiritual’ stand within the ecofeminist movement is voiced mainly by men and women from the left. Many women, particularly those who combine their critique of capitalism with a critique of patriarchy and still cling to some kind of ‘materialist’ concept of history, do not easily accept spiritual ecofeminism, because it is obvious that capitalism can also co-opt the ‘spiritual’ feminists’ critique of ‘materialism’.

This interest in things spiritual is a manifestation of Western patriarchal capitalist civilization’s deep crisis. While in the West the spiritual aspects of life (always segregated from the ‘material’ world), have more and more been eroded, people now look towards the ‘East’, towards pre-industrial traditions in the search for what has been destroyed in their own culture."

In their conclusion, Mies and Shiva explain, in detail their model based on the "subsistence perspective." 

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