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What is Ecofeminism?

Rosemary Radford Ruether and Ivone Gebara provide two examples of ecofeminist thought. I’ve summarized Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1992) by Ruether and Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (1999) by Gebara. Please note that what follows are summaries and not my original thoughts. – Trisha Famisaran

Summary of Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1992) by Rosemary Radford Ruether
In her book Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (1992), Rosemary Radford Ruether critiques the classical Christian theological tradition for what she understands as a parallel subjugation of women and nature. She begins by defining a few important terms.

The word ecology refers to a biological science that examines natural environmental communities. Ecologists investigate how these natural communities function to sustain a healthy web of life and how they become disrupted, causing death to plant and animal life. Human intervention is understood as the major cause of such disruption. Ecology is hence an examination of how human misuse of “nature” is causing pollution of soils, water, and air; the destruction of plant and animal communities; and thereby threatening the base of life upon which the human species itself depends.

Deep ecology examines the symbolic, psychological, and ethical patterns of destructive relations of humans with nature. Many deep ecologists particularly regard Western culture, sanctified in Christianity, as a major cause of destructive patterns. It explores ways to create a new, more holistic consciousness and culture.

Finally, ecofeminism brings together ecology, deep ecology, and feminism. Feminism seeks equality of women with men, encourages a transformation of social relations such as ownership of the means of production and reproduction, and changing cultural patterns of violence and male domination. Ruether specifically seeks to assess cultural and social roots that have promoted destructive relations between men and women, between ruling and subjugated human groups, and the destruction of the rest of the biotic community of which humans are an interdependent part. She sifts through the legacy of the Christian and Western cultural heritage to find usable ideas that might nourish a healed relation to each other and to the earth.

Ruether believes that if dominating and destructive relations to the earth are inter-related with gender, class, and racial domination, then a healed relation to the earth cannot be realized simply through technological “fixes.” She is anxious to expose what she considers to be the parallels in subjugation of both women and nature. This effort demands a social critique and reordering to bring about just and loving interrelationships between men and women, between races and nations, between groups currently stratified into social classes, which is manifested in great disparities of access to basic resources for flourishing. In short, it demands that humans speak of eco-justice and not simply of domination of the earth as though these things happen apart from social domination.

Ruether is sensitive to particular theological categories dominant in Western culture, such as a form of dualism in the themes of creation and redemption. She tries to keep different aspects of the Christian story intact, even while reinterpreting such concepts in a radical way. The traditional concept of God becomes transformed within the context of covenant, as when the ancient Jubilee laws provided a corrective to exploitative practices, either between humans or against the earth. The special task of humans becomes that of caretakers for the whole community of creation. Nonetheless, humans are ultimately accountable to God for their actions.

Ruether’s eco-feminist theology reinforces the idea of divine immanence, so that any notion of transcendence understood as immortality disappears completely from view. She insists that mortality itself is not sin, but needs to be embraced as part of life. Further, humanity needs to see itself as part of an organic community, one that accepts that, following death, it will rise up again in new forms. She suggests that human bodies are composed of substances that once were part of rocks, plants and animals. These substances stretch back to prehistoric ferns and reptiles, and before that to ancient biota that floated on the first seas of the earth. The substances stretch even further back to the stardust of exploding galaxies. Accepting our material, earthly nature and our ability to be taken up into the processes of the cosmos is all that we can hope for in the future. It is as if the death of Christ on the cross is acceptance of mortality, so that we surrender to the “Great Matrix of Being” that is renewing life through re-growth following death.

Such a view parallels aspects of process theology in the form of a new spiritualized naturalism. One critique of Ruether’s theology argues that redemption seems to collapse into creation in a way that seems unable to live with the tension between God and Gaia. While the strong dualism that Ruether is keen to rebut is not an option, the collapse of distinctions that her cyclical view seems to imply could lead to resignation rather than hope.

Summary of Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (1999) by Ivone Gebara
In her book Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (1999), Ivone Gebara draws a connection between Western thought, Christianity, and environmental destruction. She argues that earth healing requires that humans become converted to a new relationship with the cosmos by recognizing God’s sacred and immanent presence among creation.

Gebara grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and continues to live there. She appreciates and finds beauty in urban environments. Gebara explains that living in Sao Paulo gave her a new perception of things, a physical and bodily awareness of the interdependence and unity of all living things. Gebara notes that this changed perception is a combination of social feminism and holistic ecology. She encourages abandoning an exclusively anthropocentric worldview, as well as dissent from an androcentric worldview. She notes that unemployment, economic hardship, and the systematic and harmful effects of industrial exploitation impact the human body. Gebara argues that exploiting the poor is connected to the destruction of land, racist economic systems, and a growing militarization of many countries. She understands these forms of oppression as the inherent logic of patriarchy, especially through economic globalization.

Nature is understood as separate from the human sphere, yet women are also identified with nature through their reproductive function. These issues have led Gebara to seek different forms of relationships, theology, and culture in order to challenge the antithesis and hierarchies that humans are accustomed to. She understands ecofeminism as growing out of day-to-day sharing between people and a common endurance through hardship. Gebara notes that even though men are expected to function in public domains and women to function in the private sphere, women are expected to clean up in both domains. She includes nuclear waste and pollution as examples of dirtiness. Social class also complicates things. Poor people live in spaces that are ignored and neglected, though wealthier areas are better cared for. The destruction of forests goes hand-in-hand with industrialization and the creation of waste.

Gebara asks, what contributions can women make to deal with these problems? She notes developments and positive contributions for dealing with patriarchy and ecological issues. One is that women are finding their voices and becoming involved with grassroots politics. Ecological movements are becoming popular in political circles. Indigenous movements are also gaining momentum as they fight for land reform.

Gebara examines ecology from a philosophical perspective and as it relates to Christian religious experiences. She sees a connection between religious doctrines and the destruction of the ecosystem, seeking to reinterpret key elements within the Christian tradition for the purpose of reconstructing Earth’s body, the human body, and the human relationship to all living bodies. She writes that patriarchal religions are marked by a paradoxical duality of perspective, such as preaching domination over the earth along with loathing and overcoming the material body. She notes that Christianity preaches love of one’s neighbor and hatred and violence towards one’s enemies. Another duality is the perception of a purer transcendent realm versus an earth destined for destruction and suffering. The view that Gebara incorporates attempts to present the crisis affecting these transcendent models of religion in the light of the environmental crisis and of the current crisis in relations within the human community. Her analysis aims at pointing out the urgency of acquiring new understandings of the role of religions, and consequently of theologies as discourses that articulate our deepest beliefs.

Ecofeminism has not yet gained public recognition in Latin America, either as a theoretical construct or as a social movement that deals with the relationship between the exploitation of nature and that of women. The following demonstrates why it is important speak of multiple ecofeminisms. Some Latin American ecofeminist circles are developing critiques similar to those that have appeared in the European countries and in North America that emphasize an “essentialist” position. Some women writers want to emphasize and incorporate “natural” differences between men and women as though they have revolutionary potential. Gebara emphasizes that there are no immutable qualities and distinctions in race and gender. Rather, they are constructed and defined by the pre-existing powers.

Another conception to underline and clarify has to do with the understanding of “nature,” whether one is speaking of a nontemporal essence or the physical world. There is often a tendency to appreciate the role of women to the degree that it resembles the feminine in nature, emphasizing an essentialist position and singularity of experience. This defines women as a social group whose necessary role is to assure continuity in daily, material life.

Finally, theoretical approaches run the risk of remaining isolated in a world of privilege and luxury to discuss ideas–one in which the exchange of ideas takes place among groups that have a very weak commitment to dealing with the real situation of the great masses disposed and of marginalized people. The theoretical perspective that Gebara aligns herself with is neither an essentialist point of view nor one the values the supremacy of “difference”; rather, it seeks to do Christian theology in the light of a wider perspective that is very different from one that characterizes the patriarchal world. The basic issue has nothing to do with sacralizing either the world of nature or the world of women. Human beings, animals, and nature in general can be a source of either destruction or creation; in all of them, death and life are intertwined in a way that attests to the inseparability of these two poles.


One Response

  1. i am a student at a seminary in philadelphia working to develop a program that liberates
    urban communities with the love of Jesus!
    thank you for showing me God’s love for all people,
    all cultures and all races celebrating our diversity!

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