by Mary Turck, July 1989
Alaskan seals die as great globs of oil coat the coastal rocks. An Iowa farm family carries water from town in plastic jugs after they discover poison in their well. Hired thugs drive Brazilian Indians off their land as clouds of smoke signal the destruction of their rainforests and their way of life. Mothers across the U.S. stop buying apple juice, hearing charges and denials about Alar pesticide contamination.
From the greenhouse effect to groundwater pollution, environmental issues are increasingly appearing as matters of life and death for the whole planet.
Ecofeminism offers a way to make connections between environmental issues, feminism, anti-militarism, and work against racism and for social justice. Some call it a philosophy, others find in it a spirituality, and most believe that it calls them to political action.
“Ecofeminism is more a lifestyle for me,” says Audrey Arner of Montevideo. Her lifestyle includes a commitment to justice for people around the world, her work with the Land Stewardship Project, and joining with ‘people who continue to campaign for the sake of the earth in the face of corporate powers that seek to destroy it for the sake of profit.”
Macalester philosophy professor Karen Warren explains it this way: “Ecofeminism shows the conceptual roots of environmental problems — a logic of domination which has sanctioned oppression of women and exploitation of nature.”
Changing our relationship with the earth
by Martha Irvine, April 1992
Ecological feminist Karen Warren, an associate professor of philosophy at Macalester College, defines ecofeminism as, “The position that there are important connections — historical, symbolic, theoretical — between the domination of women and the domination of non-human nature.”
It is a definition, Warren said, that includes not only women and the environment, but children, those in the minority — racial or otherwise — and those with lower incomes. They are those oppressed by a tradition of patriarchy.
“When I first presented the topic (in 1987), people made fun of the work,” said Greta Gaard, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, author of “Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature.”
Gaard like Warren, has given talks throughout the country about ecofeminism. Suggestions she makes include everything from rethinking cleaning products and natural energy sources to bartering and sharing skills. “I would say look at what you are consuming, what you waste,” Gaard offered.
Diadra Decker, an activist, involves her in such organizations as the Women’s Political Alliance, Women Against Military Madness, and the Minnesota Women’s Consortium. Recently she was elected to the board of the Clean Water Action Alliance — an umbrella organization for 26 environmental groups throughout Minnesota. Decker said she was elected after running on a platform that called for “elevating women’s voices” and bringing more gender balance among the leadership in environmental activism.
“Women really comprise the backbone of environmental activism in this state,” she said. “A lot of real grassroots organizations are women powered.”
The same holds true worldwide, Warren said. She gave an example of a group of women in Tanzania who organized when their farming options were depleted. “We have a faulty belief system about who works the land,” Warren said, quoting statistics that say, for example, that 85 to 90 percent of farmers in Africa are women.
Like Warren, Decker hopes to change perceptions of women in Minnesota and their role as environmental caretakers.
Unlike sprawling “agri-business” farms, the Land Stewardship Project, based in Marine-on-the-St. Croix, supports the idea of smaller family-owned farms and a reduction in the use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers.
With about 400 Minnesota farmers among its ranks, the Project has a staff that conducts research, lobbying, and education. The organization has set up “subscription” farms, which connect growers directly with consumers, who set up a contract of sorts to purchase a specified amount.
Subscription farming is a concept that fits in well with ecofeminist beliefs.
“If our soil is poisoned, and our air and water polluted, nothing else in life will matter,” said Marjorie Crosby, a garden designer, who contributes financially to the project. As a teacher of organic gardening, she too, steers people away from pesticides and artificial fertilizers. As a board member for the Wedge Co-Op in Minneapolis, she advocates buying organically grown food products. And as an activist, she advocates keeping legislators on their toes.
“You need to keep your eyes and ears open, and that includes being aware of our choices as consumers,” Crosby said. “For one thing, we can educate ourselves as to which companies are polluting the environment the worst.”
Many believe that, through persistence, ecologically sound sorts of practices will become commonplace. “Ten years ago, no one was recycling, now it’s something you just do,” said Robin Neidorf, who, before moving to Minneapolis, studied the concept of ecofeminism at Williams College in Minneapolis. “Ecofeminism — the way everything is connected — has always made perfect sense to me.”
Warren believes that, in the context of ecofeminism, spirituality is often intertwined with the earth. As an example, she pointed out that, for Indigenous people, spirituality and its connection with nature is not an “add-on way of life.” She believes that ecofeminism also offers spiritual freedom to women, whether it be within organized religion or in some other form. “It’s a way in which people survive every day under patriarchy.”
“A spiritual awakening is essential and empowering, and it will affect others. But don’t stop there,” Gaard said, advocating setting short-term goals rather than tackling overwhelming and far-reaching ideals. Yes, change is slow, Yes, it may take 20 years. But we have to start. We have to do something.”
A new paradigm for saving the earth
by Jane Bruss, July 1992
One could have predicted the differences in approaches and results from the Global Forum and UNCED before even attending any of the meetings, just by looking at the sites where each was held.
The UNCED was held at Riocentro, an air-conditioned, city-owned convention center located approximately 30 miles from downtown Rio on the edge of Tijuca forest. It was guarded by peace-keeping troops replete with tanks, full armed soldiers, and combat-ready military helicopters. Only official delegates and credentialed reporters and observers were allowed past the security checkpoints.
By contrast, the Global Forum took place on the fringe of downtown Rio in various canvas-roofed, temporary structures. There were no peace-keeping troops, and there was no air conditioning to shield the participants from the thick humidity and 97-degree heat. Anyone who had pre-registered could attend.
The 11-day gathering was a continuation, in principle, of the 1991 World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami, where approximately 1500 environmental leaders from 83 countries gathered to discuss problems and to co-create solutions.
This was a gathering of empowered women from around the world demanding the right to voice their frustrations, their needs, and their expectations. And they were stark-raving angry. Angry about the perpetuation of poverty and the marginalization of women, and angry at each other.
“The point of departure for most men (and many women, unfortunately) is power. We need to have a human-centered culture,” said Rosina Wiltshire, a development expert from Barbados.
In many ways, these Planeta Femea discussions mirrored those of the Earth Summit. Both groups were calling for a redistribution of the world’s wealth to alleviate world poverty and to slow environmental degradation. What differed, however, was that the women were demanding decision-making positions in direct correlation to their efforts as creators and maintainers of life.
To women from the rich countries many of the issues were so foreign that they seemed surreal — the killing of wives with impunity (known as the “legitimate defense of honor”), advancing deserts, lack of land ownership, lack of potable water, and mass sterilization.
To my dismay, the deeply ingrained mechanistic paradigm of “winner vs. loser” was evident even at Planeta Femea. One debate turned into a battle between the North and the South concerning who had accumulated the longest list of injustices. Apparently the North’s list of grievances didn’t measure up, and the South “outscored” the North.
The presence of white American women seemed to fuel the concept of the “wealthy North” attempting to dictate or influence Third World policies, which somehow justified the whole game.
As the breeze from Guanabara Bay blew gently one day, clearing out the stagnant air, a new paradigm, characterized by a sense of community and willingness to work toward common goals, took shape.
The treaty also addresses the fact that the industrial nations consume approximately 70 percent of Mother Earth’s resources and “are responsible for most of the global environmental degradation.” It also attributes the creation and “perpetuating of the inequity of the existing world order” to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
The South and the North finally arrived at a consensus. The result is a two-page document. It states, “Women’s empowerment to control their own lives is the foundation for all action linking population, environment, and development.
There were 33 final “treaties” drafted on specific issues, to be used as mission statements for non-governmental organizations worldwide, as well as accountability guidelines for political candidates during election years. These treaties — the real work of Rio — got little attention, if any, from the press.
Across town, at the Earth Summit, the old paradigm was in full force. The 178 official delegations, only 10 of which were headed by women, were toiling over the language of the treaties. The Earth Charter and Agenda 21 — the two main treaties signed at UNCED — were highly watered-down versions of what many NGOs had hoped the Earth Summit would achieve. Yet, they received the most press.
The problem: We are trying to find solutions to our global problems within the left-brained, mechanistic model called “progress,” which is driven by fear, greed and control. It demands that if you’re going to play the game you have to play to “win” by outscoring your opponent. This begets psychological warfare, typified by finger pointing, listing of injustices and polarization of female vs. male, South vs. North, the rest of the world vs. the U.S.
It’s time to take the keys, make a jail break, and run free with a new holistic paradigm that supports sustainable development and cultural integrity.
Jane Bruss was a credentialed observer at the United Nations Earth Summit in Brazil and attended meetings of the Global Forum.