Ecofeminist Theory in Sustainable Development

Ecofeminist Theory in Sustainable Development: Moving Toward
a New Environmental Paradigm
"People have to be able to work together if they are to realize the shared destiny and to
preserve a habitable environment for generations to come." Albert Bandura, 1995
Bandura's words epitomize the spirit of environmental education and its
challenges of community cooperation, trans-generational communication and sustainable
development. The success of these challenges depends on the ability to pass on
knowledge about the environment to future generations in order for them to better
understand how to maintain a sustainable relationship with nature. In this era of
globalization and neo-liberalist policies, maintaining a sustainable relationship with the
environment needs to be examined not just from an ecological perspective, but also from
political and social angles. Since environmental issues are often connected to social and
political concerns, a theoretical framework that encompasses a wider ideology may
facilitate an understanding of the interconnectedness of ecological issues. Deep ecology,
institutional environmentalism, green political theory, and possibly other schools of
thought forge connections between environmental, political and social concerns.
Ecofeminism emerges as an alternative theory for framing the issues and
answers of sustainable development. An ecofeminist perspective more fully
describes the connections between environmental degradation and the social
inequalities that plague the poverty-stricken victims of pollution, urbanization,
deforestation, and other by-products of over-development. Finally, it is important to
include ecofeminist theory in a discussion of sustainable development, because "in a
patriarchal society, failure to recognize the interests, experience and needs of women
must mean that the value and experience of men will determine the direction of green
politics by default" (Mellor, 1997 cited by English, 2002).
Karen Warren received her B.A. in philosophy from the University of
Minnesota (1970) and her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1978.
Before her long tenure at Macalester College, which began in 1985, Warren was
Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College in the early 1980s. Warren was the
Ecofeminist-Scholar-in-Residence at Murdoch University in Australia.
In 2003, she
served as an Oxford University Round Table Scholar and as Women's Chair in
Humanistic Studies at Marquette University in 2004. She has spoken widely on
environmental issues, feminism, critical thinking skills and peace studies in many
international locations including Buenos Aires, Gothenburg, Helsinki, Oslo, Manitoba,
Melbourne, Moscow, Perth, the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1972), and San
Warren is a believer in allowing public access into the academic field of
philosophy and describes herself as a "street philosopher". "I believe philosophy is
relevant to people of all ages, in all cultural, geographical, and socioeconomic contexts,
she said. Warren has taught philosophy in the Berkshire County House of Correction
(MA), The Wilderness Society, Eco-Education, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Naturalists
Association and other organizations. As part of her commitment to public philosophy she
has spoken for lay audiences and served as critical thinking consultant to the Science
Museum of Minnesota and facilitator of a Women's Issues Book Group at Barnes &
Noble Booksellers.
Warren has written extensively in the fields of critical thinking, environmental
ethics and ecofeminism. She has written more than 40 articles and edited or co-edited
five anthologies, authored Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is
and Why It Matters (2000). She is the author of a groundbreaking anthology, An
Unconventional History of Western Philosophy: Conversations between Men and
Women Philosophers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). The anthology explores 2600 of
Western philosophy, juxtaposing leading men and women philosophers' writing on
ethics, metaphysics and other topics. Her work has been translated into Spanish,
Mandarin, French, Japanese and Persian (
Ecofeminism is a liberationist philosophy that combines emancipatory elements
of feminism with the environmental concerns of ecology. It has become a movement
"that sees the connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world
and the subordination and oppression of women" (Mellor, 1997). Ecofeminists view
women as victims of the same patriarchal tyranny that dominates nature (Castells, 1997).
Karen Warren (1996) identifies eight connections between feminism and the
environment. Although it is not necessary to discuss all eight connections, understanding
several of Warren's connections is essential in relating non-formal education at a local
level to the fostering of environmentally proactive behaviour (English, 2002).
1) Historical connections between feminism and ecology. The first essential
connection draws causal links from a historical perspective. The argument is that at some
point in human history a change occurred that lead to the concurrent male domination of
females and nature. Some scholars argue the change happened with the onset of the
scientific revolution (Merchant, 1980), while others (Spretnak, Reisler as cited in Warren,
1996) might argue it occurred much earlier. Salleh (1988) stresses the relevance of
including the historical connection between feminism and ecology in a discussion of
sustainable development: "Ecofeminism is a recent development in feminist thought
which argues that the current global environmental crisis is a predictable outcome of
patriarchal culture".
If this is true, then it logically follows that dismantling domineering patriarchal
behaviors will allow development to take new directions that considers the health and
welfare of the environment in the future. The magnitude of this challenge becomes
apparent if domineering patriarchal behaviors are tied to capitalism.
In discussing
feminism and ecology from a socialist perspective, Mellor (1997) uses the term
"capitalist patriarchy" to explain productive and reproductive labor. Gonzalez (1997)
implies the current global environmental problem may be the result of the free market
notions of capitalism. Gonzalez suggests that capitalism may be an obstacle to global
sustainable development. Therefore, the dismantling of domineering patriarchal
behaviors may include rethinking liberal approaches to development based on freemarket capitalism (English, 2002).
2) Empirical and experiential connections between feminism and ecology. The
next essential connection that Warren includes is the empirical and experiential tie
between women and nature. She claims documentation of this tie describes "the very real,
felt, lived connections between the dominations of women and nature." Documentation of
such connections should "motivate the need for feminist critical analysis of
environmental concerns". Although there is ample evidence of how environmental issues
directly affect women, a specific example from the fisher folk in the Philippines
conceptualizes the cause and effect relationships of social and political factors that tend
to single-out those that are already the most marginalized. Pomeroy (1987) investigated
the roles of women and children in a small, typical Philippine fishing community. He
found that in Matalom, Leyte, Philippines, women and children participated in both nonincome generating activities and income generating activities. The majority of
fishermen's wives' income-generating activities were related to the fishing industry.
These activities included marketing and processing of fish. Although Pomeroy does not
discuss the effects of environmental degradation specifically, he reasons that because
women play a major role in the production and marketing activities, they should be
involved in the decision-making process for sustainable development of the local fishing
industry (English, 2002).
3) Political connections between feminism and ecology.
The last essential
connection that Warren discusses is the political connection between the environmentalist
movement and the women's movement. Warren reasons, "ecofeminist and other feminist
concerns for women and the environment have always grown out of pressing political
and practical concerns" (Warren, 1996). Warren's idea that ecological and feminist
movements have related political concerns emphasizes the need for women to participate
in the decision-making process of environmental resource management. Political activism
and political decisions about the environment should be based on accurate and adequate
knowledge about the environment. Many women bring valuable knowledge to share in
the non-formal education arena (English, 2002).
There are at least eight sorts of connections that ecofeminists have identified.
These alleged connections provide sometimes competing, sometimes mutually
complementary or supportive, analyses of the nature of the twin dominations of women
and nature. A casual, albeit philosophically uncritical, perusal of these eight alleged
connections helps to identify the range and variety of ecofeminist positions on womannature connections (Warren).
Historical, Typically Causal, Connections. One alleged connection between women
and nature is historical. When historical data are used to generate theories concerning
the sources of the dominations of women and nature, it is also causal. So pervasive is
the historical-causal theme in ecofeminist writing that Ariel Salleh practically defines
ecofeminism in terms of it: "Eco-feminism is a recent development in feminist
thought which argues that the current global environmental crisis is a predictable
outcome of patriarchal culture" (Salleh 1988 cited by Warren).
Conceptual Connections. Many authors have argued that, ultimately, historical
and causal links between the dominations of women and nature are located in
conceptual structures of domination that construct women and nature in malebiased ways.
Empirical and Experiential Connections. Many ecofeminists have focused on
uncovering empirical evidence linking women (and children, people of color, the
underclass) with environmental destruction. Some point to various health and risk
factors borne disproportionately by women children, racial minorities and the
poor caused by the presence of low-level radiation, pesticides, toxics, and other
pollutants (e.g., Caldecott and Leland 1983; Salleh 1990, this section; Shiva 1988;
cited by Warren). Others provide data to show that First World development
policies result in policies and practices regarding food, forest, and water, which
directly contribute to the inability of women to provide adequately for themselves
and their families (e.g., Mies 1986; Shiva 1988; Warren 1988, cited by Warren).
Symbolic Connections. Some ecofeminists have explored the symbolic association
and devaluation of women and nature that appears in religion, theology, art, and
literature. Documenting such connections and making them integral to the project
of ecofeminism is often heralded as ecofeminism's most promising contribution to
the creation of liberating, life-affirming, and postpatriarchal worldviews and
earth-based spiritualities or theologies. Ecofeminism is then presented as offering
alternative spiritual symbols (e.g., Gaia and goddess symbols), spiritualities or
theologies, and even utopian societies. Appreciating such symbolic woman-nature
connections involves understanding "the politics of women's spirituality".
Epistemological Connections. The various alleged historical, causal conceptual,
empirical, and symbolic woman-nature connections (discussed above) have also
motivated the need for new, ecofeminist epistemologies. Typically these
emerging epistemologies build on scholarship currently under way in feminist
philosophy, which challenges mainstream views of reason, rationality,
knowledge, and the nature of the knower if one mistakenly construes
environmental philosophy as only or primarily concerned with ethics, one will
neglect "a key aspect of the overall problem, which is concerned with the
definition of the human self as separate from nature, the connection between this
and the instrumental view of nature, and broader political aspects of the critique
of instrumentalism" .
Political (Praxis) Connections. Francoise d'Eaubonne cited by Warren introduced
the term "ecofeminisme" in 1974 to bring attention to women's potential for
ecological revolution. Ecofeminism has always been a grassroots political
movement motivated by pressing pragmatic concerns (Lahar 1991, cited by
Warren). These range from issues of women's and environmental health, to
science, development and technology, the treatment of animals, and peace,
antinuclear, antimilitarist activism.
Ethical Connections. To date, most of the philosophical literature on womannature connections has appeared in the area of environmental philosophy known
as "environmental ethics." The claim is that the interconnections among the
conceptualizations and treatment of women, animals, and (the rest of) nature
require a feminist ethical analysis and response. Minimally, the goal of
ecofeminist environmental ethics is to develop theories and practices concerning
humans and the natural environment that are not male-biased and provide a guide
to action in the prefeminist present (Warren 1996).
Theoretical Connections. The varieties of alleged woman-nature connections
discussed above have generated different, sometimes competing, theoretical
positions in all areas of feminist and environmental philosophy. Nowhere is this
more evident than in the field of environmental ethics. Primarily because of space
limitations, the discussion of "theoretical connections" offered here is restricted to
environmental ethics.
A New Environmental Paradigm
Environmental education is emancipatory if it leads to the creation of new values,
especially new environmental values that become the corner stone’s of a communitywide environmental ethic. The passing on of environmental values from one generation
to another begins the process of structuring a new social paradigm. Within the theoretical
framework of ecofeminism, environmentally based, non-formal education can change the
way people think about their relationship with nature. Lester Milbrath (1989) aptly argues
for the need to promote new social paradigms that focus on sustainability and to
reconsider the way society dominates the environment. Some of Milbrath's ideas are
radical in that they require a massive restructuring of political institutions and
For a discussion on non-formal education and environmental resource
management, it is not necessary to debate the feasibility or plausibility of radical change.
Still, some of Milbrath's other points are relevant and can be addressed by
environmentally based, non-formal education programs. These points include a shift
toward placing a higher valuation on nature, carefully planning action to avoid risks and
limiting growth (English, 2002).
It is important to realize the role of women and children in the fishing industry
and in any other industry when analyzing causal relationships between environmental
degradation and women's issues. In this paper a small-scale fishing industry was well
thought-out. A strong causal relationship begins with human impact on coral reefs,
degradation of coral reefs results in smaller bio-diversity in the marine environment
consequently narrowing the food chain. As certain prey becomes scarce; so do predators.
An unhealthy coral reef is not able to attract and sustain plentiful populations of fish and
other sea life. This translates into fewer fish to catch, fewer to process and fewer to
market. Although lowered incomes and unemployment affect both men and women, it
would seem that such sociological problems harm women more. As jobs become scarce,
women and children are the first to be pushed out of the market. Some may leave rural
communities for jobs in already overcrowded cities. The lack of skills, inadequate
education or limitations of only speaking a provincial language are all likely to make it
difficult for some to find jobs in the cities; thus, young women and even children are
forced into prostitution. Less money often means less food in developing countries.
Women and children are the most likely to suffer from lack of nutrition, which is often
linked to high infant mortality, disease and problems during pregnancy. Since these are
issues linked to any women's movement, the connection between environmental
degradation in general and feminist concerns is well-spoken.
The historical, political and experiential connections realized in ecofeminist
thought justify its use as a lens for viewing the challenges of effectively managing
environmental resources to maintain sustainable development. The historical aspect of
ecofeminism postulates that a history of class domination has reproduced values and
behaviors responsible for human degradation of environmental resources. The empirical
and experiential connections emphasize the advantages of using a feminist perspective to
analyze environmental issues and to plan proactive approaches to environmental resource
management. The establishment of political connections recognizes that the power of
collective effort is essential to minimize differences of class representation in the
decision-making process. This "flattening out" of the hierarchy fuels the empowerment
As Plumwood and Warren claim that the, mainstream environmental ethics are
inadequate to the extent that they are problematically anthropocentric or hopelessly
For Plumwood (1991) ecofeminist epistemologies must critique
rationalism in the Western philosophical tradition and develop views of the ethical,
knowing self that do not maintain and perpetuate harmful value dualisms and hierarchies,
particularly human-nature ones.
Application to Rural Development
Warren's empirical and experiential connection between the domination of
women and nature deem women's participation necessary for the success of communitybased environmental education or resource management programs. The United Nations
Chronicle supports this position by declaring that "women are among those who suffer
most from environmental degradation and also among the most significant actors in the
conservation and safeguarding of natural resources". Because the conditions under which
impoverished women must live are so contingent on healthy marine eco-systems, it is
important that women play a decisive role in community environmental education. This
type of participation is a step closer to empowerment.
The benefits of women's participation in the non-formal education process may
best be realized in qualifying the knowledge they can share with the community.
Pomeroy (1987) reasons that since the active roles of women and children are a
fundamental element for the success of agriculture and rural development programs, they
should also be a fundamental element in the success of development programs in fishing
communities. The inference here can easily be extrapolated to include the necessity for
women and children's active participation in community-based environmental programs.
This inclusion is the next step toward empowerment. However, for the ecofeminist,
empowerment should not exclusively refer to the empowerment of women. On the
contrary, it should refer to the empowerment of the community to effectively manage
common resources and accept the responsibility of stewardship for the non-human world.
Ecofeminism can also be a philosophical lens to view community-based
environmental education as a vehicle for developing more ecologically appropriate
attitudes and behaviors. Ecofeminism is a lens to correct the myopic view of development
so prevalent in this era of globalization and neo-liberalism. From this perspective,
ecofeminism envisions community empowerment as an ethical approach to sustainable
development. The varieties of ecofeminist perspectives on the environment are properly
seen as an attempt to take seriously such grassroots activism and political concerns by
developing analyses of domination that explain, clarify, and guide that praxis.
Through education and consciousness raising, non-formal education can help
citizens realize the dependence humans have on the environment. This could create a
more holistic perspective that tightens the relationship between humans and nature. The
ultimate goal here, however, is to encourage behaviour that favours environmental
protection over economic growth. Economic growth is not necessarily harmful, but
environmental protection should be a priority. To maintain a balance, careful planning is
needed which should consider all short-term and long-term risks.
Education is an
important element in the planning process because knowledge allows communities to
make informed decisions about their lives. A crucial element of informed planning is the
ability to realize the limits of growth. Thus, one major goal of community-based
environmental programs is to determine what types of growth result in environmental
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Brian J. English Ph.D., 2002. Ecofeminist Theory in Sustainable Development: Moving
Toward a New Environmental Paradigm. University of Southern California,
Rossier School of Education. Copyright © Academic Exchange – EXTRA Arthur
Kingsland - Web Editor, 8 August 2010 / Created: 29 November 2002 / Updated.
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Kamieniecki, George A Gonzalez and Robert O. Vos (Eds.), Flashpoints in
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Merchant, Carolyn. (1980). The Death of Nature. Harper and Row.
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Albany: SUNY Press.
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the critique of rationalism, Hypatia.
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Households: A Case Study in Matalom, Leyte, Philippines." Philippine Quarterly
of Culture and Society. v.15, 1987, pp.353-360.
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Indiana University Press.
Warren Karen J. (Undated) Introduction to Ecofeminism
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