Feminism and Environmental Ethics

Feminism and Environmental Ethics

Ethics and the Environment, 5(1):107–123 ISSN: 1085-6633 Mary Mellor Copyright © 2000 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form r...

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Ethics and the Environment, 5(1):107–123 ISSN: 1085-6633

Mary Mellor

Copyright © 2000 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

Feminism and Environmental Ethics: A Materialist Perspective1 ABSTRACT: There is a long-standing claim within feminist literature that women speak with a ‘different voice’ (Gilligan 1982), that it is both possible and desirable to have an ethics from the standpoint of women (Noddings 1990), that the standpoint of women is a better starting point for adequate knowledge of the world (Harding 1993). This claim is central to ecofeminist politics, that women have a particular perspective on the relationship between humanity and nature and have a moral/political calling to reweave the world (Diamond and Orenstein 1990) or heal the wounds of an ecologically destructive social order (Plant 1989). In this essay I will not be making the claim that women per se have a superior vision or a higher moral authority, but that an ethics that does not take account of the gendered nature of society is doomed to failure as it will confront neither the material structure of human society or the way in which that structure impacts on the materiality of the relationship between humanity and nature.

FEMINISM AND ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS An important starting point for the development of an environmental ethics must perforce lie in the experience and situation of women (Gruen 1994). This is, however, not the only starting point. Human society has many other divisions besides gender, but this paper is specifically concerned with a feminist perspective on ethics. The core of my argument, one that has been made many times by feminists, is that women’s lives in a gendered society are grounded in the materiality of existence, in the cycles of birth and death and bodily needs (Ruddick 1990). HowDirect all correspondence to: M. Mellor, University of Northumbria at Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.; E-mail: [email protected]




ever, in stressing the importance of a feminist analysis to environmental ethics, I would not want women to be seen as the solution to environmental damage and injustice and thereby deflect attention from the problem of male domination and exploitation of women and the natural world (Mellor 1992a, 81). I wish to argue that a solution to the questions of environmental justice and environmental ethics needs to start from an understanding of the social relations underpinning current patterns of unsustainability together with an understanding of the material relations between humanity and nature. This involves a three-fold relationship between human and human and nature and a double dialectic, between human and human (patriarchy, capitalism, racism), and between humanity and nature. This complex relationship requires a breadth and depth of analysis that can integrate an analysis of social relations with ecological relations. In such a context all parts contain active elements. The relationship between humanity and nature is heavily circumscribed by relations between human and human. In turn, the dynamic between humanity and its natural context limits or constrains choices or brings unwelcome consequences. For this reason I would argue that a ‘deep’ analysis is needed, which I have called deep materialism. This analysis has three starting points, the ecofeminist insight that there is a relationship between the subordination of women and the exploitation of nature, the deep ecologists’ argument for a nonanthropocentric ontology and cosmology and the Marxist analysis of the dialectical relations of human material life. The concept of deep materialism combines the adjective adopted by deep ecology and the analytical framework associated with Marx. I would argue that the insights of both are important and there is no necessary conflict between a radical approach to human-human relations and a ‘deeper’ approach to human-nature relations, although there are tensions between them in practice. The source of these tensions is the priority in different perspectives given to human-nature relations as against human-human relations. A radical approach to ecology such as that of Bookchin (1989) would see a fundamental reorganization of human-human relations as essential to resolving human-nature relations. Deep ecology, on the other hand, would see human-nature relations as the critical element. I would argue that the one is inseparable from the other, human-nature relations require reformulation of human-human relations and vice versa. Ecofeminists would agree with deep ecologists that humanity needs to completely rethink its orientation to the natural world, but like historical materialists would point to the socioeconomic context of such a relation. I would argue that Marx had at the heart of his work the double dialectical framework that I am advocating, but that his later analysis and, more importantly, later interpreters, took a humanist turn that lost the dialectic between humanity and nature. Marx’s inability to develop his ideas in a more ecological direction was largely due to his acceptance of the sexual division of labor (Mellor 1992b). Ecofeminists have also criticised deep ecology’s tendency to concentrate on the relationship between humanity and nature to the exclusion of the dynamics of intra-human, and particularly gender, relations (Salleh 1992). This leads to a tendency to adopt a de-politicized and even anti-human stance which

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


places the blame for the ecological crisis on an undifferentiated ‘humanity.’ Ignoring social difference and inequality puts equal responsibility for ecological damage on the North and the South, rich and poor, Black and White, men and women. This is not to imply that deep ecologists do not recognize the existence of what Naess called the relationship between ‘man and man’ (sic) but that this tends to remain theoretically unexplored. For ecofeminists the question of sex/gender difference/inequality is vitally important given the gendered nature of the relationship between humanity and nature. Discussions of humanity, man, woman, and nature are conceptually problematic. Humanity is divided in countless ways, as are men and women. I would not go along the postmodernist road that claims that there is no extra-discursive category of ‘woman’ (Riley 1988), but it is easy to slip into universalizing and essentializing frameworks of thought when the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are used. Equally nature is a deeply problematic concept (Soper 1995). I hope in the course of this paper to make clear the way in which I am using these words. However, to indicate the problematic and divided nature of humanity I will write this word in a broken form, hu(man)ity, in the rest of this essay.

ECOFEMINISM AND THE WOMAN/NATURE RELATION Ecofeminism has been identified as part of a ‘deeper’ or more radical approach to the ecological crisis (Merchant 1992, Eckersley 1992, Dobson 1995). What is contentious in ecofeminism is the way in which the relationship between women and nature has been represented. Elsewhere I have made the distinction between affinity and socialist/social contructionist ecofeminism (Mellor 1992a, 1996), that is between those who see women as having a bodily or cultural affinity with the natural world through their woman-ness as mothers, life-givers, nurturers, carers, and those who identify similar activities associated with women but see these as imposed upon women by male-dominated societies. Affinity ecofeminists such as Andree Collard (1988) adopt a radical difference perspective seeing men/patriarchy as the source of eco-destruction and women as the contemporary representatives of an “ancient gynocentric way of life” (14) that exhibited “nurturance-based values which women experienced and projected not only on their goddesses but on to every creature among them” (8). The distinction between men and patriarchy implies that men are not necessarily bad, although Collard appears to wish to assert that all women are good. The source of women’s affinity with nature is their common identity as mothers “whether or not she personally experiences biological mothering” (102). Men will be redeemed if they abandon patriarchy and embrace the values associated with women. What will motivate men to do so is less clear and as with much feminist writing that describes the patriarchal destruction of original matriarchal/egalitarian society the origin and nature of patriarchy is prob-



lematic. Collard suggests that male envy of women’s ability to create life may be a psychological underpinning of patriarchy. Affinity ecofeminism does not necessarily see masculine-feminine dualism as destructive. Instead they can be seen as complementary (Henderson 1983). Cosmologically the masculine and the feminine are seen as the two complementary sides of a common hu(man)ity that have become disaggregated in ways that are socially and ecologically dangerous. Destructive behavior occurs because masculine values are currently too dominant, more emphasis on feminine values are needed to restore the balance. I have described this as an ecofeminine rather than an ecofeminist perspective (Mellor 1992c). In contrast to asserting the affinity of women and nature, ecofeminists who come from an anarchist or socialist background tend to see sex/gender inequality as resting on other social inequalities. Women’s association with nature is not explained by women’s ‘natural’ affinity, but is socially constructed. Ynestra King (1990), from an anarchist perspective, sees sex/gender inequality as part of the wider question of hierarchy in society. She sees women as being “historically positioned” at the “biological dividing line where the organic emerges into the social” (116–117). Carolyn Merchant (1990), from a socialist feminist perspective, sees environmental problems as “rooted in the rise of capitalist patriarchy and the ideology that the Earth and nature can be exploited for human progress” (103). However, neither King nor Merchant seeks to radically dissociate themselves from cultural ecofeminism and the importance of valuing women and women’s work. Merchant sees all the many strands of ecofeminism as being concerned with “reproduction construed in its broadest sense to include the continued biological and social reproduction of human life and the continuance of life on earth” (209). Although ecofeminists often make generalized statements that seem to refer to all men and all women, their specific focus is the pattern of dominance that arose in European society associated with the historical development of science, technology, industrialism, and capitalism. This is not to ignore the fact that earlier societies have been ecologically destructive (Ponting 1991) or that ecologically benign societies can be patriarchal. It could be argued that male domination and women’s oppression have been more ubiquitous in history than ecological destruction. The interesting question for ecofeminists is the way in which the two have come together in the present era. Ecofeminists see the origins of the present ecological crisis as lying in the specific material and cultural developments of the North/West as reflected in its socioeconomic structures, science and technology, philosophy and religion. For many ecofeminists, particularly those with a theological or a philosophical background, this destructiveness results from the forms of knowledge and belief that justify and sustain western patriarchy. In particular, the Christian and rationalist rejection of the body and the prioritization of mind or soul (Ruether 1975, Plumwood 1993). Women are essentialized, naturalized, and condemned by their association with the body. This association I would argue is the basis of the materialist analysis that can be derived from ecofeminism.

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


MATERIALIST ECOFEMINISM Materialist ecofeminism is based on the assertion that sex/ gender inequality is not a byproduct of other inequalities, but represents a material relation of inequality between dominant men and subordinate women. In terms of the double dialectic, the human-human relation is gendered in such a way that it interacts with the human-nature dialectic. Women are materially placed between ‘Man’ and ‘Nature.’ In a very real sense gender mediates human-nature relations, and mediation is a concept central to materialist ecofeminism. An environmental ethic between hu(man)ity and nature cannot be developed if this gendered relationship is not acknowledged. The second important element is the position of women as embodying nature both materially and symbolically in gendered societies. Unlike dominant men who claim to be above nature (transcendent), women are seen as steeped in the natural world of the body (immanent). The concept of immanence is therefore another central concept for materialist ecofeminism. Affinity and social constructionist ecofeminism both see masculine/patriarchal values as inherently damaging and destructive, but even affinity ecofeminists do not see men and women as in fundamental conflict. Despite the initial impression given by their rhetorical language and condemnation of man/male and praise for women/the female, most do not see men as a lost cause. The problem arises with patriarchal structures which ‘emerge’ as cultural forms. When these structures are confronted and defeated, men and women can adopt a suitably earth-centered approach. For social constructionist ecofeminists, the most important structures that have created and/or sustained the hierarchical dualism of male-female are western cultural and/or socioeconomic structures. This hierarchical dualism is symbolised by the emergence of a dominant public world based on a conception of rationality that seems to exclude women as participants (Lloyd 1993) and the natural world as an entity worthy of moral concern (Plumwood 1993, Warren 1994). Although Plumwood and Warren would tend to see the cultural/philosophical framework of western society as fundamental, from a materialist ecofeminist perspective I would argue for an approach starting from sex/gender dualism as a relation of (re) production. This reflects a material necessity rather than a cultural/philosophical construction. In all human societies the need exists to construct the social within the constraints of the agency of the natural. This is exacerbated by the dualist and sexist structures of western society, The dilemma of human embodiment exists as a fundamental feature of the human condition but it becomes most destructive in the divided societies of capitalist patriarchy where domination and transcendence of the natural world is central. With Ariel Salleh (1994) and Ynestra King (1990), I would argue that the sex/gender division of labor around human embodiment is the crucial factor. Women are materially associated with, and largely responsible for, human embodiment whether as paid or unpaid work. Although feminists have traditionally opposed women’s association with the ‘natural’ work of mothering, nurturing, and caring, ecofeminists have followed cultural feminists in revaluing women’s work. Materialist ecofeminism analyzes the ma-



terial relations of sex/gender in terms of the demands of human physical embodiment and ecological embeddedness. Unlike earlier traditions in feminism which sought to join male-dominated society in its seeming transcendence of natural conditions and the constraints of domestic life, ecofeminists have embraced immanence rather than transcendence. Immanence has been described by an ecofeminist exponent of the pagan tradition of witchcraft as the embracement of hu(man)ity within the alive-ness of the natural world (Starhawk 1990). I would agree but would prefer to express these ideas in physical rather than magical terms. Alive nature may be, but it is not supernatural. The dilemma for ecofeminism is that its two elements are in contradiction to each other. Although feminism has historically sought to explain and overcome women’s association with the natural, ecology is attempting to re-embed hu(man)ity in its natural framework. Ecofeminism generally is incompatible with ‘equal opportunities,’ liberal /equality/ humanist feminism, and there are obvious dangers for the equalities that (some) women have achieved in going back to an association of women with nature whether it is on an affinity, social constructionist, or materialist basis. From a deep materialist analysis it is not possible to see sex/gender relations as entirely socially constructed. It is no accident that women were associated with nature, it was not a mistake or some historical legacy as Ulrich Beck (1992) has argued. As I will argue here, and have argued elsewhere, the association of women with nature represents hu(man)ity’s need to confront its own materiality, its existence in ecological and biological time (Mellor 1992a). The relationship is not a contingent one, an accident of historical association, it is a structural relation (Mellor 1996). Hu(man)ity as a natural species is embodied in its physical being and embedded in its natural context. Ecological time is the time framework of ecological renewal and of ecological change and evolution. Hu(man)ity can interfere with this to a large extent, but rarely without consequences in the long term, for even the most privileged, while in the short term it is the least privileged and other species who suffer most. Biological time is the life-cycle and rest/renewal time-scale of the human being. The centrality of women’s socioeconomic position in this relationship is her responsibility for biological time. The basic argument of materialist ecofeminism is that western society has created itself against nature using the sex/gender division of labor as (one) of its vehicles. That is, power is defined by the ability of certain individuals and groups to (temporarily) free themselves from embodiedness and embeddedness, from ecological time and biological time. Ecological time as representing the pace of ecological sustainability for nonhuman nature. Biological time representing the life-cycle and pace of bodily replenishment for human beings. It appears that throughout history women have carried the burden of biological time, and as Shiva (1989) has argued, in subsistence economies operated within ecological time. As Sanday’s (1981) survey of anthropological data has shown, this left social space and time largely in the hands of men. Although men may have exploited their ‘free’ time in traditional society to make war, trade, and politics, the position is much more dangerous in modern indus-

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


trialized and militarized societies. The hallmark of modern capitalist patriarchy is its ‘autonomy’ in biological and ecological terms. The sex/gender and ecological consequences of economic activities are cast aside as “externalities” (Mellor 1997a). Western social and economic structures are based upon an idealized image of individuality. Western ‘economic man’ is young, fit, ambitious, mobile, and unencumbered by obligations. This is not the world that most women know. Their world is circumscribed by obligated labor performed on the basis of duty, love, violence, or fear of loss of economic support. To take their place in the western public world, women have to present themselves as autonomous individuals, ‘honorary men,’ avoiding domestic obligations, undertaking them in their ‘free’ time, or paying someone else to carry out that work.

MEDIATION IN HUMAN-NATURE RELATIONS A materialist ecofeminist identification of women and nature is not based on an essential affinity, but reflects women’s role as mediators of humannature relations. It is not women’s identity with ‘nature,’ either as biology or ecology, that should form the basis of ecofeminism, but a material analysis of the way in which male domination is created and sustained. As Mies et al. (1988) have argued, women are one of the ‘colonies’ of capitalist patriarchy. They are “paying the price” (Dalla Costa and Dalla Costa 1995). Women’s identification with the ‘natural’ is not evidence of some timeless unchanging essence, but of the material exploitation of women’s work, often without reward (Waring 1989). It is not even always just the work that women do, but their availability. Someone has got to live in biological time, to be available for the crisis, the unexpected as well as the routine. Although materialist ecofeminism points to the particular dynamic represented in the sex/gender dualism, this is only one pattern of mediation. I see materialist ecofeminism as contributing to a wider debate about the material relations into which humans enter when confronting their embodiment and embeddedness. Marx’s historical materialism addressed the social relations of class in this context. Later analyses have seen racism and imperialism/colonialism as equally, if not more, important. These dimensions are not in a hierarchy of oppressions, but rather a matrix that cut across each other (Collins 1990). Mediation involves both exploitation and exclusion. Mediation is making time, space, or resources for someone else. Even so, the world is not clearly divided into mediators and the mediated. Many people stand in complex networks of mediation. Mediation is not only carried out by women, in fact, many women are themselves the beneficiaries of mediation. White western women may mediate biological time for their family, but exploit the labor of others, the resources of the South, and the sustainability of the Earth. Many people live in complex networks of mediation on the basis of ‘race,’ class, gender, or ethnicity. The most destructive, however, are the industrialized societies of capitalist patriarchy that rest on a huge network of mediation through exploitation and exclusion: of women, of workers exploited or excluded on



the basis of class, ‘race,’ or gender, through the expropriation of colonized lands and the exclusion of colonized peoples. Environmental justice is about the social and ecological consequences of that ‘freedom’ exercised by the minority at the expense of the many (Hofrichter 1993). The insight of ecofeminism that is common to both affinity and social constructionist ecofeminism is that the needs of human embodiment are shared by all hu(man)ity but are disproportionately borne in the bodies and lives of women. Ecofeminism, in bringing together the domination of women with the domination of nature, brought into sharp focus the central dilemma of feminism: how could women’s association with nature be asserted without falling into an essentialist and naturalist trap? The answer lies in not seeing women’s oppression as representing their ‘natural’ affiliation with the natural world, but the connectedness of all hu(man)ity with nature. Women do have particular bodies which do particular things, but what matters is how society takes account of sexual differences and the whole question of the materiality of human existence. That is why I have linked the concepts sex/gender, to represent the interconnections of the biological and the social. Women are not closer to nature because of some elemental physiological or spiritual affinity, but because of the social circumstances in which they find themselves, that is, their material conditions in relation to the materiality of human existence. In order to explore materialist ecofeminism as a perspective, it is necessary to bring together the green perspective on human-nature relations and a materialist feminist perspective on sex/gender relations. In this sense materialist ecofeminism is more sympathetic to deep ecology than other radical ecological perspectives such as social ecology or ecosocialism (Pepper 1993). Getting the relations between humans right will not resolve the ecological imbalance because the source of much of the conflict between humans is the unacknowledged problem of immanence. Although both Bookchin and Marx explored the dialectical nature of the relationship between hu(man)ity and the natural world, other aspects of their work have prioritized hu(man)ity at the expense of nonhuman nature. Bookchin (1995) has called for the ‘re-enchanting’ of hu(man)ity as the focus of social and natural agency, and the later Marx and Marxism have focused upon the social construction of nature. More recently, however, Marx’s green credentials have been reclaimed or asserted (Benton 1996). From the following it is clear that Marx saw hu(man)ity as both embodied and embedded within its natural ‘body’: Species-life, both for man and for animals, consists physically in the fact that man, like animals lives from inorganic nature. . . . Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die . . . for man is part of nature. . . . Communism as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism: it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature. (Marx 1844/1975, 327, 348, italics in the original)

As I have argued more fully elsewhere (Mellor 1992b, 1997b), Marx’s theory does contain the basis for a deep materialist analysis, but for ecofeminism the more imme-

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


diate and contemporary statement of hu(man)ity’s relationship with the natural world has been developed by deep ecology.

DEEP MATERIALISM AND DEEP ECOLOGY Deep ecology contributes to deep materialism through its aim of re-evaluating the relationship between hu(man)ity and nonhuman nature. The problem is how is this to be achieved? What would motivate hu(man)ity (or those parts of it with the power to make fundamental decisions) to change its stance towards nonhuman nature? Obviously a changed ethic would achieve this aim, but I see this as the goal rather than the means. The weakness of ethical approaches is the question of political agency. Ethical approaches are by their nature idealist (and idealistic) and require a metatheory of the motor of social change, which Marx provides in his materialist challenge to idealism. Do ideas change social structures and relations or do changing structures produce new ideas? Obviously it is a bit of both, and the economic determinism that dogged Marxist theory underestimated the role of ideas in changing human consciousness/awareness. However, I would argue that a deep materialist analysis provides a firmer basis upon which to establish grounds for political agency than an idealist philosophical/ethical stance. Deep materialism shares with deep ecology a view of nature as embracing hu(man)ity. As Eckersley expresses it (following Naess) the world is “an intrinsically, dynamic, interconnected web of relations in which there are no absolutely discrete entities and no absolute dividing lines between the living and the nonliving, the animate and the inanimate, or the human and the nonhuman” (1992, 49). The insight of deep, green thinkers has been the conception of the natural world as having its own ontological status. Nonhuman nature is not a social construction or a dead nature that transcendent humans can manipulate at will and without consequences. It is an alive nature that enfolds human beings. The radical ecological (and ecofeminist) criticism of western culture is that its dualistic social structures and forms of knowledge ignore the fact that hu(man)ity is part of the natural world (Plumwood 1993). Hu(man)ity is always immanent. Transcendence is socially constructed against ‘nature.’ The natural world is not dead or dumb or a product of the human mind, it is “fundamentally material and subjective” (Lahar 1991, 37, italics in the original). It is real, dynamic, and always beyond human knowing in that imbedded hu(man)ity has no Archimedes point from which to assess the complex interrelations of all the forces of the natural world. Ecologically hu(man)ity exists in a condition of radical uncertainty. The concept used by deep ecologists to express a nature-centered approach is ecocentrism as opposed to human-centeredness or anthropocentrism. Despite the claims of deep ecologists to a holistic framework, nature-centeredness (ecocentricity) in rejecting human-centeredness (anthropocentrism) tends to see human society as out of step with ‘nature.’ This implies a dualist distinction between ‘humanity’ and ‘nature,’ where nature is ‘right’ and hu(man)ity is ‘wrong.’ Ecocentrism is often expressed in a way that sees hu(man)ity as outside of ‘nature,’ particularly in the empha-



sis on wilderness. ‘Untouched’ nature is more ‘natural’ than when peopled by human beings. From a deep materialist perspective I would argue that human beings are inside, not outside of the processes of life. They have evolved out of the physical materials of this planet and their intelligence and destructiveness is part of that natural process. Nature does not have moral position on hu(man)ity. Hu(man)ity just is, as it is. It is for hu(man)ity itself to judge the ecological impact of its own existence. In this sense we cannot escape human-centeredness. Nature is how we see it now. However, where the deep ecologists are right is to accuse modern humanism of arrogance in its attitude to the natural world. Human beings, no matter how powerful, cannot determine the ultimate conditions of their own existence. Nature will go on with or without hu(man)ity. The concept I would use to express the immanence of the human condition and the need to embrace a more nature-aware ontology is ecological holism. Ecological holism sees hu(man)ity as part of a dynamic interactive ecological process where the whole is always more than the sum of its parts (Mellor 1997b, 185).

ECOLOGICAL HOLISM AND THE LIMITS OF DEEP ECOLOGY In denying the moral worth of human agency, deep ecologists have a problem in making the jump from an ontological assertion of human interconnectedness with the natural world to the philosophical grounds for political action that goes beyond moral extensionism (Devall and Sessions 1985, Devall 1990, Fox 1990, Eckersley 1992). Where a deep materialist analysis would look at the material relations of hu(man)ity’s (mal) connectedness with its encompassing environment, deep ecology tends to adopt an idealist framework as in Devall’s and Sessions’s (1985) concept of “ecological consciousness” : Deep ecology goes beyond the so-called factual level to the level of self and earth wisdom . . . to articulate a comprehensive religious and philosophical worldview . . . the basic intuitions and experiencing of ourselves and Nature which comprise ecological consciousness (65).

A similar idea is expressed in Fox’s (1989) transpersonal ecology with its notion of a transpersonal Self that represents the cosmos: deep ecologists emphasise identification within a cosmological context—that is, within the context of an awareness that all entities in the universe are part of a single, unfolding process (11).

Following Naess, Fox (1990) argues that humans will understand nature’s cosmology through an expanded sense of the Self. This is not the ‘egoic, biographical sense of self,’ nor one that humans attain individually or collectively through ethical or political development, rather it is a Self that comes in from the outside: a transpersonal approach to ecology is concerned precisely with opening to ecological awareness: with realising one’s ecological, wider, or big Self (199, italics in the original).

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


Transpersonal ecology’s cosmology requires a new way of looking at the world. For Fox this is the image of the cosmos as an unfolding ‘tree of life.’ We are all leaves on that tree. Adopting this new worldview through Self-realization and attaining ecological awareness, links hu(man)ity with the spontaneous unfolding of the cosmos. This is both teleological and idealist, reaching for the ‘cosmic mind’ of nature, a timeless essence revealing itself. The Naess/Fox/Devall/Eckersley approach to deep ecology claims that if true ecological consciousness were achieved, then moral injunctions would not be necessary: The cultivation of this expansive sense of self means that compassion and empathy naturally flow as part of an individual’s way of being in the world rather than as a duty or obligation that must be performed regardless of one’s personal inclination (Fox quoted in Eckersley 1992, 62).

The idealism of this perspective means that human-nature relations are not realized through the materiality of human connectedness to the natural world per se but by an individual appreciation of the Idea of connectedness. If such a cosmology is ‘naturally’ available, why does hu(man)ity not exhibit ecological awareness already? Ecofeminists argue that deep ecology fails because its concept of the self /Self is androcentric and therefore does not recognize the importance of the gendered nature of human-nature relations (Salleh 1992, Plumwood 1994, Mellor 1997b).

ECOLOGICAL HOLISM AND IMMANENT REALISM In contrast to the idealist approach taken by most deep ecologists, I would see human envelopment in ‘nature’ as a material relation, an immanent materialism, that is the historical unfolding of the material reality of human embodiment and embeddedness within its ecological and biological context. However, I would not see this as having any particular direction in the sense of a determined outcome (which is implicit in both deep ecology and Marxism although in very different terms), although plainly some constructions of human-nature relations are more sustainable for hu(man)ity and current ecological conditions than others. Establishing a sustainable relationship for itself within its natural framework requires hu(man)ity to make political and moral choices. Human-centeredness and the need for human appraisal of the social and ecological situation cannot be avoided. Nature has agency and history, but no mind or goal. Throughout my work I have argued for a politics of social and environmental justice based on feminist, green socialism (Mellor 1992a, 1992b, 1993, 1997b). This inevitably means a struggle around ideas, but those ideas are grounded in a material analysis of the social and ecological context. Materialist ecofeminism has strong links with critical realism (Plumwood 1993, Hayward 1994, Dickens 1996) and feminist epistemology (Haraway 1991, Harding 1993, Rose 1994). Critical realism challenges western culture’s attachment to positivist, scientific knowledge in terms of the social relations that are contained within



them. As Hayward argues, ‘sound critical social theory is as important as natural knowledge and ecological goodwill’ (1994 p. 86). To this I would add the need for an immanent critical realism that would check the tendency towards assumptions of human supremacy in some critical social theorists. Bookchin (1995), for example, in his argument for the re-enchantment of hu(man)ity tips the balance of his dialectical naturalism towards human rationality and creativity. His approach is also teleological in that he sees hu(man)ity as at the apex of an evolutionary process. Hu(man)ity’s job now is to rationally redirect the natural world. I would agree, but without the assumption of human supremacy. From the perspective of ecological holism and radical uncertainty hu(man)ity is an accidental outcome of nature, a momentary, flicker in planetary history. If it is to remain for more than a brief moment rational direction of its own history in relation to its natural context is essential for hu(man)ity. For this reason critical realism, based on a purely social critical theory, will not provide a solution. A deep materialist analysis would want to give more agency to the ecological whole and emphasize the radical uncertainty of human existence. Hu(man)ity’s immanence will always mean that any knowledge about the natural world is always partial. Even if a knowledge of all the components of the natural world was assembled this would never reveal the dynamics of the whole. The interconnectedness of all existence means that the ultimate consequences of any particular act can never be known. Immanent realism demands first of all a profound awareness of the ecological whole. There are many ways in which immanence could be ‘realized.’ It may be possible to achieve this through a scientific understanding, but it could also be achieved through the ‘spiritual’ awareness that many people feel when confronted by natural forces. Equally, the physiological experience of embodiment, embracing the realities of life, love, and death, could be another channel of awareness. In this sense there is a material basis for the claim that an ethic based on women’s lives and experience is likely to be more relevant to ecological sustainability. Spiritual ecofeminists are also perfectly logical in saying that it is possible to think through the body or experience holism as a spiritual force. It may be that ecological holism can only be experienced as a ‘revelation,’ which could be described as wisdom. However, I would argue against seeing spirit as a metaphysical or supernatural concept, but rather as a particular property of human consciousness (Mellor 1997b, 187). Awareness of the radical uncertainty of human immanence should be the starting point of all other knowledge. This requires recognition of the essentially dialectical nature of the relation between hu(man)ity and the dynamic ecological whole. It would also recognize the independent agency of the interconnected whole. This does not deny human agency, but human agency would always need to show ecological reflexivity and humility. Such an approach does not take moral or political agency or even scientific knowledge from hu(man)ity, in fact it makes them all more vital. The loss of the positivist scientific assumptions that the machinery of nature will be revealed cannot be replaced by an equivalent assumption of a revelation of the holistic ‘meaning’ of nature. If the dynamic whole is unknowable by traditional scientific methods, why should it be any more ‘knowable’ through an ecological metaphysics?

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


ECOFEMINISM AND THE POLITICS OF DEEP MATERIALISM As I have implied earlier, I see no reason why hu(man)ity should be in harmony with a holistic nature. What is special about hu(man)ity is that it can grasp the tenacious nature of its existence. However, a transcendent dominant elite mediated by sex/gender and other relations of exploitation are unlikely to be motivated to ‘see’ the vulnerability of human immanence. Even when this vulnerability is grasped, this does not mean that hu(man)ity can reclaim an original harmony that has been lost or a teleological harmony to come as many green thinkers imply. If anything, hu(man)ity is essentially in conflict with nonhuman nature in using human consciousness and reflexivity to create a special and privileged niche. In doing this hu(man)ity is neither natural or unnatural. Therefore, deep ecologists cannot say ‘nature’ would be better off without hu(man)ity. However hu(man)ity cannot exist without ‘nature’ and as there is no ‘natural’ way for hu(man)ity to relate to it, human existence in nature becomes a political and moral question. How can we live? How ought we to live? This is human-centered in orientation and motivation but the political conclusions would need at least to recognize the ecological framework of human activity. This would not satisfy deep ecologists but it would go much further towards balancing human-nature relations than most current political theory and practice. If, as I have argued, there is no natural balance in ‘nature’ and as hu(man)ity cannot transcend its ecological connectedness, a sustainable connectedness for hu(man)ity would need to be created through human reason and political action. In short, a politics of human-nature relations (Mellor 1997b, 188). Such a politics would start from an analysis of the structures that have created the present pattern of malconnectedness between the dominant structures within hu(man)ity and nonhuman nature. For ecofeminism, the subordination of women, particularly as represented in western dualist social structures and patterns of thought, is central to understanding the destructiveness of current human-nature relations. In bringing together ecology and feminism, ecofeminists see women and nature as subject to the destructive socioeconomic and technological systems of modern maledominated society. Sex/gender is put at the heart of this analysis, but this is not to exclude other crosscutting dimensions of oppression and exploitation. To start with one oppression is not to claim that it has precedence, but to see if elements of the analysis may be useful in looking at other oppressions. The focus of materialist ecofeminism on sex/gender inequality in the construction of human-nature relations does not collapse the social into the biological/ecological, but it does not seek to radically separate them. Materialist ecofeminism sees all hu(man)ity as embodied and those bodies are sexed. Gender does not map directly on to sex and sex itself is heavily socially circumscribed. ‘Man’ and ‘woman’ are the product of the interaction of biological and social factors. There is no essential or universal type of man or woman, but ‘men’ and ‘women’ do exist with enough commonality to make such concepts practically and theoretically useful. For materialist



ecofeminism, there are aspects of women’s bodies and social experience that can usefully be explored to help understand the current imbalance in human-nature relations. This imbalance has occurred within the context of a global system that is male-dominated, specifically by men from economically dominant societies with a history of war, militarism and imperialism, nationalism, racism, and colonialism. The problem for such a society is how political change can occur. Certainly, there is the case for a struggle around ideas and ethical frameworks, but this has to be combined with struggle around material relations. The dualism at the heart of western patriarchy is both material and cultural/ideological. Capitalist patriarchy justifies its transcendence through the promise of (eventually) extending transcendence to all, including those who are now locked into the hierarchical mechanisms of mediation. Universal transcendence is a promise that in ecological terms capitalist patriarchy cannot achieve. If it attempts to extend the patterns of consumption already achieved in the most successful economies, capitalist patriarchy will at some point run up against ecological limits. If capitalist patriarchy does not continue to extend its economic reach, it will fall victim to the classic Marxian problem of failure to realize profits and the inability to ideologically control those it exploits, excludes, and oppresses. The limitation of Marxist theory is that it only takes account of one form of mediation, class exploitation. Materialist ecofeminism would extend historical materialist analysis to all mechanisms of mediation. Political agency would rest with any peoples or groups who are exploited, marginalized, or excluded by transcendent structures of social and ecological exploitation: people who have lost their land, economic migrants, bonded laborers, underpaid or unemployed workers, those suffering from biological and ecological hazards, floods, drought, pollution, industrial injury, ill health, people subordinated, oppressed, and exploited on the basis of ethnicity, ‘race,’ or gender. I would not want to make the case that all or any of these groups hold the answer to ecological sustainability or that they are likely to be more ecologically benign given the chance. The point is that their chances are limited socially or ecologically to a greater or lesser extent and this unites all these struggles. This is why building coalitions and coordinated political action are essential. Collective power will come from networks of people and groups all over the world making these connections, building coalitions of struggle not just around ideas but material conditions. The rather comfortable green concerns of the middle class in Europe, the United States, or Australia are not so indulgent if they are connected and identify with the campaigns of indigenous peoples for their land and cultural heritage, the position of the landless and the workless, ecologically and economically threatened communities, as well as campaigns around species and habitat (Mellor 1997b, 192). An ethics for social and environmental justice will not be ‘given’ to hu(man)ity by nature, it will always be a construct of human reason, informed by a critical awareness of the dynamics of socio-economic power. However, developing such an ethic must take place against the background of a nonanthropocentric ontology. Hu(man)ity is essentially limited and framed by the unknowable and uncertain agency of the natural world. Immanent and alive nature embraces hu(man)ity. Failure to com-

Feminism and Environmental Ethics


prehend the materiality and material consequences of the human condition occurs where dominant social groups use the labor and resources of others (human and nonhuman) to mediate between themselves and their biological/ecological conditions. This is the three-way relationship of the double-dialectic of human-human-nature relations. The constraints of human existence as natural beings are mediated through unequal human-human relations. The development of an environmental ethics and the claim for environmental justice must be based on an analysis of these relations. Materialist ecofeminism argues that the gendered nature of the relation between hu(man)ity and nature means that dominant males (and the females who associate with them) can live in conditions of unsustainable transcendence. Appeal to an environmental ethic may undermine these dominant groups, but it is important to recognize that all human beings are to a greater or lesser degree caught up in the web of mediation. Within that web three points of agency can be identified that may enable change to occur. The most obvious is the planet’s own response to human action. The ecological effects of human action such as ozone depletion and global warming, unlike desertification and localized pollution, affect the dominant as well as the subordinate. Another locus of struggle are the campaigns by those who are subject to social and environmental injustice. Desertification, commercialization of land, destruction of local habitat, all produce economic and social dislocation and political responses such as land claims which the so-called ‘developed’ world is finding increasingly difficult to ignore. Finally, I would not want to underestimate the power of ideas and the growth of personal awareness. We are all embodied, and even the richest person can feel the limits of biological time. The centrality of women’s experience is that the work associated with subordinated women can mask the demands of biological time and its connectedness to ecological time for dominant men (and women) who claim transcendence over natural boundaries and limits. Thus an ethics from the standpoint of women makes political sense. It is not an essential statement about the nature of women or something universally attributable to women. Not all women do women’s work and much is done by subordinated men. Women’s work represents the immanence of human existence, the non-negotiable needs of the body. Failure to recognize this can lead to the destructive arrogance of claims to transcendence. These dangers are well expressed by Patricia Gunn Allen (1990): Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings and bloomings and respecting them . . . Walking in balance requires knowing that living and dying are twin beings, gifts of our mother, the Earth . . . In the end you can’t cheat her successfully, but in the attempt to do so you can do great harm to the delicate and subtle balance of the vital process of planetary being (52–53).


This essay builds on arguments initially made in my book. Feminism and Ecology. See Mellor 1997b.



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