Green fingers, red stockings

Green leaves, pic by Camilla Skriung

Exploitation of the earth must be seen in the context of the exploitation of women. However, this does not mean that one should view a mine as the earth's vagina. 

Text: Ingeborg Husbyn Aarsand, M.A. North American studies, specializing in ecocriticism
Translation: Anna Young

You might remember Julia Roberts as the unemployed mother of three with 74 dollars in the bank in the environmental drama «Erin Brockovich» from 2000. Brockovich marches into a law firm and demands that they hire her. A short time later, she uncovers major league environmental crimes and receives a bonus of 2 million dollars. The film was based on a true story of an eager legal secretary's struggle against a large corporation that was polluting the groundwater, thereby making residents in the poor town in California ill. Brockovich's story is ecofeminism in practice. This is because ecofeminists see feminism and ecology as two sides of the same coin. In order to liberate women, we must therefore change our views on the relationship between humans and nature.  

Why is the earth a mother?

According to ecofeminists, nature has an intrinsic value, and must be seen as more than a resource for human beings. This kind of biocentrism gives moral status to both animals and nature, and with this perspective one can discuss the biological, social and cultural aspects of environmentalism. Humanists call this a non-anthropocentric approach to environmental questions. Many anthropologists, economists and scientists have begun to use the term «Anthropocene» to describe a new geologic era in which human activity has led to comprehensive changes in the earth's landscape. Ecofeminism requires familiarity with issues linked to ecology and biocentrism, and sees this as being connected to the women's movement. The term ecofeminism was first used by the French writer Françoise d’Eaubonne in the book Le Feminisme et la Mort (Feminism and Death) from 1974. Ecofeminism is both an academic method of analysis and a form of activism. Ecofeminists pose questions such as «Why is nature gendered as Mother Earth?» and «What effect does this have on our relationship to nature?»

Men are responsible for a larger amount of climate gas emissions than women, and this is true all over the world. This is partly because men drive more and buy more products that require large amounts of energy. Women in poor countries have the lowest emissions per capita, but they are those most severely affected by climate change. During the UN climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, participants discussed the effects that climate change was having on vulnerable groups, and women were particularly mentioned several times. This was the first time a UN climate report had focused on the vulnerable situation of women. In Kenya, women in villages have been planting trees to avoid deforestation and drought. Nobel peace prize winner and biologist Wangari Mathaii was the first woman in East Africa to get a PhD, and through the Green Belt Movement she organized tree planting projects carried out by thousands of women. 


The Indian activist and writer Vandana Shiva believes that since women are more at risk from the consequences of environmental destruction, they are also better equipped to handle them, both practically and intellectually. Shiva has also challenged ecofeminists to examine the ways in which factors such as colonization and economic globalization have been destructive to women and the environment. In the book Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, the authors Robbins, Hintz and Moore write that women make up 60 to 80 percent of the members of regular environmental organizations, and even more in organizations that work with threats to health and wellbeing such as environmental criminality and pollution. 

Internationally, the American biologist and author Rachel Carson is regarded as the first ecofeminist. It is however unlikely that Carson would have seen herself as such, given that she died in 1964, before the environmental movement and the feminist movement took off. Carson argued against the use of poison in agriculture with the bestseller Silent Spring (1962), but was ridiculed for being «too emotional». Here in Norway self-described ecofeminists have been few and far between, but the greenstocking Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen (1873–1943) might have been our first female environmental activist. She was working to build waterways and talking about biodiversity long before words like ecology and environmentalism were in the dictionary. Another Norwegian woman who has played an important role in environmental history is Gro Harlem Brundtland, who together with the Brundtland Commission released the report «Our Common Future» in 1987. This report emphasized the connection between poverty and environmental issues and popularized the concept of sustainable development, which has been important to ecofeminists. 

Ecofeminism mainly deals with questions relating to the rights and situations of women. Some, such as Vandana Shiva, argue that there is a mystic or spiritual link between women and nature. Several have taken the view that women are object and nature, while men are subject and culture. In 1974, the cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner used Simone de Beauvoir to argue that women have been described as closer to nature, both through their social roles and their work. Liberal feminists have come to criticize these types of generalizations, due to their essentialist interpretations of gender. They argue that women are as rational and logical as men, but that we are socialized to be closer to nature. Cultural feminists, on the other hand, wish to celebrate this as a special female power.

The death of nature?

The leading American ecofeminist and historian Carolyn Merchant differentiates between liberal feminists, Marxist feminists, cultural feminists and socialist feminists when evaluating the state of ecofeminism. What the various groups can agree on is that mentalities and power structures (man over woman, culture over nature) in which humans see themselves as distinct from and above nature create oppression of both women and nature. What ecofeminists have in common with other parts of the environmental movement is that they see environmental issues as more than a technological problem. Environmental issues are also social and cultural problems, and therefore stronger forces than science and technology are needed in order to solve them. Ecofeminism critiques ways of thinking in science, and is often critical of the patriarchy and capitalism. There is also a cyberfeminist perspective, in which science historian and biologist Donna Haraway asks: Who are the experts? What is expert knowledge? Who speaks on behalf of ks:nature? 

In Betatt av viten, bruksanvisninger til Donna Haraway (A user's guide to Donna Haraway), the Norwegian researcher Kristin Asdal writes that «women are often seen as closer to nature, or more natural, than men. On the one hand, woman is put on a pedestal as Mother Nature. On the other, women have been reduced to their sex, their biology.» (170) In the same way that nature has been exploited and pushed to its limit, so too have women. Ecofeminists have historically criticized other fractions of the environmental movement for being too male-dominated and too preoccupied with traditional conservation. Deep ecology in particular has been harshly criticized, as some ecofeminists believe that this approach neglects social issues. 

The earth's vagina 

Gaia, the goddess from Greek mythology, is one way of personifying the earth. Gaia is the mother of everything. This personification had a renaissance when environmental activist and author James Lovelock launched the Gaia hypothesis in 1979, in which he argued that the earth is a self-regulating system and one large living organism. Our language reflects our culture, and shows us how cultural values change. Therefore, it is useful to examine how descriptions of nature change. Goddess worship in Greek mythology created an image of the earth as female. In Genesis, Eve represents untouched nature. In the book Death of Nature from 1980, Carolyn Merchant shows how traditional cultures saw mines as the vaginas of the earth. Extracting minerals from mines was seen as interfering with a natural process, and was an affront to «Mother Nature». These types of metaphors and images in the culture create a normative effect. One can see why mining would be kept to a minimum. Merchant discusses how the industrial revolution brought with it a new way of viewing nature. Instead of seeing the earth as a life-giving mother, an organism in which everything is dependent on each other, the earth is viewed as a controllable machine. The nurturing, life-giving mother must make way for the image of nature as violent, chaotic and malleable. The idea of taming nature can be traced back in art, science, philosophy and literature from the 16th century onwards, according to Merchant. As the industrial revolution gripped Europe, this view became increasingly dominant. Philosophers such as René Descartes and Francis Bacon must be held responsible for some of this mechanistic way of thinking, according to Merchant. Bacon used brutal rape metaphors when discussing scientific examinations of nature, and has for many conservationists become a kind of anti-ecological arch villain, the genesis of the exploitation and destruction of nature. 

Carolyn Merchant wants us to see nature as our partner, and neither put it on a pedestal, get nostalgic, see nature as vindictive or a doting mother, ready with a mop and bucket to clean up our mess. This point was reiterated in 2004, when the environmental consultants Schellenberger and Nordhaus published a controversial essay with an important message for the American environmental movement. The essay was called «The Death of Environmentalism», and argued that activists must think twice before using the term «environment». What is this «environment» that we are supposed to protect? The two presented the «environment» as something that humans are a part of, not something we are separated from. Hyping nature up to be a goddess or viewing it as a machine is not beneficial to the environmental movement. They also warn against selecting single factors that might explain the environmental crisis. Wearing one's ecofeminist goggles and seeing the patriarchy as the cause of environmental destruction is thereby one of many ways of viewing the issue. With regular intervals, prophets of doom appear, claiming to have found the main reason behind the environmental crisis that we have not yet managed to solve. 1968 saw the publication of the book The Population Bomb by Paul Erlich (and his wife Anne Erlich, who was not credited). They argued that overpopulation would kill the earth. Ecofeminists have helped to show that unfair distribution, overexploitation of natural resources, militarization and economic globalization are just as important as population growth when trying to explain the causes behind the crisis. In this way, ecofeminists have made the picture more nuanced, and have made an important contribution to the debate. Blaming the climate crisis, food shortages and ecological collapse on women in poor countries having too many babies is discriminatory, sexist and racist, according to many ecofeminists. Rather than talking about reducing the population, we should be focusing on industrial capitalism, excessive consumption, unfair distribution, poverty and education. This might be the future of ecofeminism.  

Editorial Comment

The article was originally published in Fett number 2, 2014. 
Thanks for allowing us to republish