By Elin Berg
As the awareness of climate change’s environmental impact is increasing internationally, its gendered effects are still paid little attention. However, the very construction of our planet as a “mother” suggests that gender is important when wanting to understand environmental degradation. This is why ecofeminists from all over the world united for a parallel conference, the “Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network”, during the United Nations COP21 high-level climate negotiations in 2015. The intention was to highlight the global community’s inability to address the systemic links between the climate crisis, the capitalist economic model and the disempowerment of women. Many speakers emphasized how Mother Earth was disrespected because of “Western” understandings of nature as property and that this permeates international climate action. Using motherhood as a symbol to promote environmental action can also serve as a critique of the unequal distribution of power in the international system.
The battle for female empowerment and sustainable development often go hand in hand, and grassroots movements all over the world strive to combine these missions. To convey their message many make use of essentialism, the idea that everything on earth inherently has certain characteristics that shape the very essence of that thing. For example, when it comes to women, their bodies are expected to have certain bodily functions in order to be coded as “female”. We understand women through their reproductive capacity and we judge and position them into social hierarchies accordingly. Queer theory scholars such as Judith Butler have criticized essentialism for rendering many gender narratives and sexualities invisible. If not up to par with reproductive expectations due to for instance infertility, one may fail to fit deeply rooted cultural assumptions of what it means to be a woman and to fulfill one’s reproductive “destiny”.
Linking together the subordination of women with the mistreatment of Mother Earth could nevertheless be a tactical way to allow voices of “oppressed” women to be heard, in addition to conserving the environment. Strategic use of essentialism or the politicization of femininity and/or motherhood can legitimize social movements’ aspirations and overall status. In ecofeminist movements the indivisibility between feminism and environmental conservation is particularly explicit. Since motherhood as an identity is difficult to contest, even for authoritarian regimes, a movement of mothers will be allowed to voice more critical concerns regarding top-down initiatives that could be environmentally harmful – as they would not be considered as political opposition.
Ecofeminism thus examines the relationship between nature and women and argues that both suffer from patriarchy and capitalism. The gendered effects of environmental degradation subject women to a disproportionate risk of bearing the burden. In Kenya, the ecofeminist Green Belt Movement has established programs that provide monetary compensation for rural Kenyan women when planting trees. Natural resources such as trees provide women in rural areas with necessary goods required to sustain their families (e.g. food, shelter, fuel which all generate income). Resource scarcity directly affects these women’s livelihoods and their quality of life, as well as that of their families, as these are directly undermined by environmental degradation. Even though the primary focus might be to provide immediate action relief for rural Kenyan women, the Green Belt Movement also educates citizens regarding environmental degradation and its effect on local populations. This incentivizes involvement and empowers women financially while simultaneously making an effort for the environment. Projects of this sort challenge conditioned assumptions that skills have to come from the outside and the women are seen as agents of change.
Ecofeminism can furthermore be divided into factions with different approaches to using essentialism to serve their causes. One of the more established factions, “radical ecofeminism”, primarily focuses on the capitalist structures, which commodify natural resources as well as women’s bodies. The abuse of the environment is mainly conducted through an over-extraction of natural resources, whereas women are used as cheap labor.
In contrast to the radical faction, “cultural ecofeminism” claims that women have a more intimate relationship with nature because of pregnancy. Women understand, through their reproductive capacity, the process of life and consequently of Mother Earth. Women are therefore more sensitive to environmental degradation. The overexploitation of natural resources is, therefore, also an attack on women symbolically. Within this branch, the linkage between motherhood and the environment is not necessarily strategic but is constructed and understood as an important part of female identity.
Social movements of cultural ecofeminism often face critique from Global North scholars and practitioners, claiming that they lock women into their reproductive role, accepting female subjugation. The idea of female empowerment is however often relative and can be a sensitive topic. Striving to empower women may be very difficult and often incompatible with development rhetoric of social and political institutions that keep women subservient. Yet, by adopting a maternalist role, ecofeminist movements can transform a “restrictive label” into a positive force and into strategic activism, since motherhood, as part of female identity, is difficult to contest. However, using this collective strategy could also be closely related to women’s actual experiences of motherhood and their individual understandings should not be dismissed.
When discussing essentialism one should therefore take into account the relativity of concepts such as “empowerment” and “progressivity”, since we otherwise are in danger of understanding women who primarily identify as mothers as backwards striving and inferior to the ideal “developed” woman. Whether essentialism is used for strategic reasons or whether it is actually representative for women’s identities is impossible to determine, as there can be no objective answer.
Elin Berg recently graduated from the bachelor’s program in peace and development studies at Uppsala University and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in development studies at the Graduate institute of Geneva. She is particularly interested in the intersection between conflict and development, specifically its implications on sexual and reproductive health. When she is not reading Judith Butler or watching Rupaul’s Drag Race, she likes to discuss politics and eat parmesan (preferably while hanging out in Paris).
Illustration: Melinda Nilsson