Searching for Common Ground: Ecofeminism and Bioregionalism

by Judith Plant

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

It is no accident that the concept of ecofeminism has emerged from the many tendencies within the movement for social change. Women and nature have had a long association throughout history and it is only now that the deepest meanings of this association are being understood. Just as ecologists have paid critical attention to the attitudes, social structures and rationalizations that have allowed the rape of the earth, so have feminists dug deeply to understand why society has rendered them second class citizens, at best.

Both schools of thought are now converging with similar analyses. The difference is that ecologists are scientists, basing their views of the interconnectedness of all things on the intellect, whereas feminists cannot help but come from the school of experience and have sought intellectual frameworks in order to try to make sense of their experience of subjugation. The coming together of the two gives us hope for an understanding of the world that has the potential to be rooted in “thinking feelingly.”

Ecology and Women

Ecology is the study of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living systems. As ecologists look at the consequences of changes in the environment, they are compelled to be critical of society. Because the natural world has been thought of as a resource, it has been exploited without regard for the life that it supports. Social ecology seeks ways to harmonize human and non-human nature, exploring how humans can meet their requirements for life and still live in harmony with their environments.

Ecology teaches us that life is in a constant state of change, as species seek ways to fit in particular environments which are, in turn, being shaped by the diversity of life within and around them. Adaptation is a process. Ecology helps develop an awareness of the need to incorporate these organic facts into our most general views of the world—those views that shape the way humans will be in the world.

Within human society, the idea of hierarchy has been used to justify social domination, and has been projected on to nature, thereby establishing an attitude of controlling the natural world. The convergence of feminism with ecology is occurring because of an increasing awareness that there are, in fact, no hierarchies in nature. A belief in the virtues of diversity and non-hierarchical organization is shared by both views.

Women have long been associated with nature: metaphorically, as in “Mother Earth,” as well as with the naming of hurricanes and other natural disasters! Our language says it all: a “virgin” forest is one awaiting exploitation, as yet untouched by man [sic]. In society, too, women have been associated with the physical side of life. Our role has been “closer to nature,” our “natural” work centered around human physical requirements: eating, sex, cleaning, the care of children and sick people. We have taken care of day-to- day life so that men have been able to go “out in the world,” to create and enact methods of exploiting nature, including other human beings.

Historically, women have had no real power in the outside world, no place in decision-making and intellectual life. Today, however, ecology speaks for the earth, for the “other” in human/environmental relationships; and feminism speaks for the “other” in female/male relations. And ecofeminism, by speaking for both the original others, seeks to understand the interconnected roots of all domination, as well as ways to resist and change. The ecofeminist’s task is one of developing the ability to take the place of the other when considering the consequences of possible actions, and ensuring that we do not forget that we are all part of one another.

Ecofeminism: Its Values and Dimensions

Why does patriarchal society want to forget its biological connections with nature? And why does it seek to gain control over life in the form of women, other peoples, or nature? And what, on earth, can we do about dismantling this process of domination? What kind of society could live in harmony with its environment? These questions form the basis of the ecofeminist perspective.

Before the world was mechanized and industrialized, the metaphor that explained self, society and the cosmos was the image of organism. This is not surprising, since most people were connected with the earth in their daily lives, living a subsistence existence. The earth was seen as female. And with two faces: one, the passive, nurturing mother; the other, wild and uncontrollable.

These images served as cultural constraints. The earth was seen to be alive, sensitive; it was considered unethical to do violence toward her. Who could conceive of killing a mother, or digging into her body for gold, or of mutilating her? But, as society began to shift from a subsistence economy to a market economy; as European cities grew and forested areas shrank; and as the people moved away from the immediate, daily organic relationships which had once been their basis for survival, peoples’ cultural values—and thus their stories—had to change. The image of earth as passive and gentle receded. The “wrath and fury” of nature, as woman, was the quality that now justified the new idea of “power over nature.” With the new technology, man [sic] would be able to subdue her.

The organic metaphor that once explained everything was replaced by mechanical images. By the mid-seventeenth century, society had rationalized the separation of itself from nature. With nature “dead” in this view, exploitation was purely a mechanical function and it proceeded apace. The new images were of controlling and dominating: having power over nature. Where the nurturing image had once been a cultural restraint, the new image of mastery allowed the clearing of forests and the damming and poisoning of rivers. And human culture which, in organic terms, should reflect the wide diversity in nature, has now been reduced to mono-culture, a simplification solely for the benefit of marketing.

Since the subjugation of women and nature is a social construction, not a biologically determined fact, our position of inferiority can be changed. At the same time as we’re creating the female as an independent individual, we can be healing the mind/body split.

Life struggles in nature—such as the fight to protect B.C.’s Stein River Valley and the many less-publicized ones—become feminist issues within the ecofeminist perspective. Once we understand the historical connections between women and nature and their subsequent oppression, we cannot help but take a stand on the war against nature. By participating in these environmental standoffs against those who are assuming the right to control the natural world, we are helping to create an awareness of domination at all levels.

Ecofeminism gives women and men common ground. While women may have been associated with nature, they have been socialized to think in the same dualities as men have and we feel just as alienated as do our brothers. The social system isn’t good for either of us! Yet, we are the social system. We need some common ground from which to be critically self-conscious, to enable us to recognize and affect the deep structure of our relations, with each other and with our environment.

In addition to participating in forms of resistance, such as non- violent civil disobedience in support of environmental issues, we can also encourage, support and develop—within our communities—a cultural life which celebrates the many differences in nature, and encourages thought on the consequences of our actions, in all our relations.

Bioregionalism, with its emphasis on distinct regional cultures and identities strongly attached to their natural environments, may well be the kind of framework within which the philosophy of ecofeminism could realize its full potential as part of a practical social movement.

Bioregionalism: An Integrating Idea

Bioregionalism means learning to become native to place, fitting ourselves to a particular place, not fitting a place to our predetermined tastes. It is living within the limits and the gifts provided by a place, creating a way of life that can be passed on to future generations. As Peter Berg and Raymond
Dasmann have so eloquently stated, it “involves becoming native to a place through becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated, it involves becoming fully alive in and with a place. It involves applying for membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter.”

Understanding the limitations of political change—revolution—bioregionalists are taking a broader view, considering change in evolutionary terms. Rather than winning or losing, or taking sides, as being the ultimate objective, process has come to be seen as key to our survival. How we go about making decisions and how we act them out are as important as what we are trying to decide or do.

In evolutionary terms, a species’ adaptation must be sustainable if the species is to survive. How can humans meet their requirements and live healthy lives? What would an ecologically sustainable human culture be like? It is in dealing with these questions that the bioregional movement and the philosophy of ecofeminism are very much interconnected.

Human adaptation has to do with culture. What has happened with the rise of civilization, and most recently with the notion of mass culture, is that what could be called bioregionally adapted human groups, no longer can exist. It’s difficult to imagine how society could be structured other than through centralized institutions that service the many. In our culture almost every city exists beyond its carrying capacity; diverse regions are being exhausted and ecologically devastated.

Becoming native to a place—learning to live in it on a sustainable basis over time—is not just a matter of appropriate technology, home-grown food, or even “reinhabiting” the city. It has very much to do with a shift in morality, in the attitudes and behaviors of human beings. With the help of feminism, women especially have learned an intimate lesson about the way power works. We have painfully seen that it is the same attitude which allows violence toward us that justifies the rape of the earth. Literally, the images are the same. We also know that we are just as capable, generally speaking, of enacting the same kind of behavior.

The ideas of bioregionalism are being practiced all over the world—just rarely referred to as such. The name gives us common ground, however, like ecofeminism. But bioregionalism gives us something to practice and together they could be seen to offer a praxis—that is, a way of living what we’re thinking. Here we can begin to develop an effective method of sharing with our male friends the lessons we have learned about power, as well as our hopes and aspirations for an egalitarian society—a society which would be based on the full participation and involvement of women and men in the process of adaptation and thus in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.

Homing in on a New Image

One of the key ideas of bioregionalism is the decentralization of power: moving further and further toward self-governing forms of social organization. The further we move in this direction, the closer we get to what has traditionally been thought of as “woman’s sphere”—that is, home and its close surroundings. Ideally, the bioregional view values home above all else, because it is here where new values and behaviors are actually created. Here, alternatives can root and flourish and become deeply embedded in our way of being.

This is not the same notion of home as the bungalow in the suburbs of western industrialized society! Rather, it is the place where we can learn the values of caring for and nurturing each other and our environments, and of paying attention to immediate human needs and feelings. It is a much broader term, reflecting the reality of human cultural requirements and our need to be sustainably adaptive within our non-human environments. The word ecology, in its very name, points us in this direction: oikos, the Greek root of “eco” means home.

The catch is that, in practice, home, with all its attendant roles, will not be anything different from what it has been throughout recent history without the enlightened perspective offered by feminism. Women’s values, centered around life-giving, must be revalued, elevated from their once subordinate role. What women know from experience needs recognition and respect. We have had generations of experience in conciliation, dealing with interpersonal conflicts in daily domestic life. We know how to feel for others because we have practiced it.

At the same time, our work—tending to human physical requirements—has been undervalued. What has been considered material and physical has been thought to be “less than” the intellectual, the “outside” (of home) world. Women have been very much affected by this devaluation and this is reflected in our images of ourselves and our attitudes toward our work. Men, too, have been alienated from childcare and all the rest of daily domestic life which has a very nurturing effect on all who participate. Our society has devalued the source of its human-ness.

Home is the theater of our human ecology, and it is where we can effectively “think feelingly.” Bioregionalism, essentially, is attempting to rebuild human and natural community. We know that it is non-adaptive to repeat the social organization which left women and children alone, at home, and men out in the world doing the “important” work. The real work is at home. It is not simply a question of fairness or equality, it is because, as a species, we have to actually work things out—just as it is in the so-called natural world—with all our relations. As part of this process, women and nature, indeed humans and nature, need a new image, as we mend our relations with each other and with the earth. Such an image will surely reflect what we are learning through the study of ecology, what we are coming to understand through feminism, and what we are experiencing by participating in the bioregional project.

First published in The New Catalyst, No.10, Winter 1987/1988.

Judith Plant and her husband Christopher founded The New Catalyst newspaper and New Society Publishers, for which she still serves as publisher emeritus. In 2003 Judith and Christopher received the Jim Douglas Award for outstanding publishing in British Columbia. She lives in Gabriola, BC.

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