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Ecofeminism and the climate crisis

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

A world where women are not valued is a world where nothing considered feminine is valued. Ecofeminism is a branch of feminism that explains how both women and nature are linked in their oppression in a patriarchal society because of nature’s association with femininity.

To understand ecofeminism, you need to understand the origins of the patriarchy as a deliberate system of oppression. While its exact origins are unknown, it is thought to have begun when humans started living in larger permanent settlements with enforced social hierarchies.

In prehistoric nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies, men and women had distinct roles in society that were equally valued, which meant the cultures were egalitarian. Some were even matriarchal societies, meaning that women held positions of power and authority. However, matriarchy does not mean female dominance — matriarchal societies were generally egalitarian and focused on more feminine values and the female lineage. Matriarchal societies are often seen in nature, and some researchers argue that matriarchal societies are a more natural societal structure. (If you’re still confused on what a matriarchy looks like, the Barbie movie explains it perfectly.)

The origins of the patriarchy are complex and still being studied, but one theory is that the shift to agriculture-based economies led to a surplus of resources. A surplus of resources meant both time for leisure and the development of social hierarchies, and a focus on growing the population. This combination of factors meant that women slowly lost positions of power and were relegated to the home to raise children. Men were also needed to defend these growing societies, which further pushed men into roles of power and alienated women, who didn’t serve in armies and couldn’t rise in ranks to power. When women were relegated to the home they couldn’t earn money, making them vulnerable to exploitation and unable to support themselves. The oppression of women was not caused by biological differences, but the deliberate systematic actions of powerful men to maintain and grow these powerful organized societies.

Nature has long been considered feminine, and thus the status of women dictated how nature was treated. Charles Darwin, a pioneer in western science, claimed that women’s brains were less developed and spread the idea that women's brains were “analogous to those of animals.” Women and nature were both seen as inferior to men. Especially in Western culture, “to not be a man is to be a piece of nature ripe for the taking,” writes Assad Abderemane for the science magazine "Lady Science."

Capitalism is based on the idea of infinite growth and infinite resources. For centuries, nature has been considered an infinite and inexhaustible resource. This way of thinking was pioneered by philosophers like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Their work thinking about science and nature changed the narrative about nature from a humanist one to a mechanistic one. They were born into the time of alchemy and the study of how humans could magically control nature. Bacon believed nature should be studied through interrogation, and he pioneered the movement to explore nature through dissecting, extracting and destroying.

Similarly to Darwin, Bacon and Descartes both believed in two types of beings: the thinking and the serving. Humans (by which they meant men) were the "thinking," and everything else was the "serving." Through this, they developed the desire for man’s dominance over nature. As Carolyn Merchant, author of “The Death of Nature,” states, “Bacon’s treatment of nature as female legitimated the control of nature through science and technology".

To simplify the long history of female oppression, it is the act of labeling nature as female that allowed for the continuous exploitation and destruction of it.

There are boundless parallels between women and nature. The language used to refer to nature and the climate crisis is extremely gendered; Earth is called "mother" nature, and "she" is dying.

In the U.S., like many Western societies, you can see parallels between the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s and expansion of women’s rights, most notably the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Then a few decades later, you have the joint rollback of both environmental and feminist progress as the U.S. left the Paris Accord in 2017 and then overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

The general disregard for female intelligence in Western culture parallels the disregard of the intrinsic benefits of nature. Forests are only useful when they provide lumber, not when they give us oxygen and serve as habitats. Similarly, the slow erasure of midwives shows the disregard for gained female knowledge, and the transition to Western gynecology (founded on horrible, often deadly surgeries) shows the disregard for female life and safety. Obviously I am not against Western medicine, I am simply noting the exploitative and deadly history of gynecology.

While we are heading to a more egalitarian- and environmentally-focused society, the hundred-year-old effects are prevalent. A study in Sweden, a very liberal country with one of the smallest wage differences between men and women, showed that men considered it too feminine to use reusable totes or mugs. They also found that the turn to green energy, a circular economy, and a reversal from the traditional economic mindset of infinite growth was an attack on their masculinity and the male-dominated domains of industry and economics.

As we continue to navigate the climate crisis, it is important to focus on this relationship between women and nature for guidance. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change, especially in the Global South. Healing the Earth means returning to a more humanistic approach and limiting or stopping the destructive exploitation of the Earth, which can only be done with the guidance of women and historically oppressed groups.