Feminism and Ecology: An Introduction.
One of the unresolved and nagging dichotomies in the pursuit of feminist studies in academia has been an association made early on, in the second wave of feminism, between women and nature and men and culture. In my discipline, sociocultural anthropology, feminists strongly criticized the reductionism of Levi-Strauss and other French structuralists who propounded this equation with charges of essentialism. The carefully worded proposal of Sherry Ortner, developed on a constructivist base, that this type of an association could constitute a universal was met with the indeterminacy of cultural relativism or the further equation of men and culture with the colonizer and women and nature with the colonized. The implications of such reductionism for women in academia were doubly damning as female academics struggled to claim en masse a place on male dominated turf. Although the struggle for claim to academic authority has evolved and continues, the problem of the association of gender with the culture/nature dich otomy, as having explanatory or even descriptive value in my discipline, has long ceased to command attention. Other problems have gained recognition and feminist researchers currently shy away from the dichotomies of the Enlightenment.
Ecofeminism, as a theory and as social action, constitutes the recent resurfacing of this problematic equation, and the work of Vandana Shiva, and others, has instigated the same sort of criticisms and charges of essentialism precipitated some twenty years ago. The dilemma for feminists concerned with ecological issues and sympathetic to movements that describe themselves as both feminist and green, has been the irreconcilability of a rejection of women's special affinity with nature and environmental concerns, and the commitment to the goals of movements that espouse such a stance.
Mary Mellor's book looking at the link between feminism and ecology develops an analysis that successfully avoids the pitfalls of reductionism and essentialism. She posits that the struggle facing both men and women wherever they are positioned in the global social order is to come to terms with the materiality of human existence. In the introductory chapter she reopens the discussion of women's special relationship to nature and identifies much of the criticism of the ecofeminist stance as reacting to radical/cultural feminist and spiritual feminist positions. She outlines how the realist language of the ecofeminist discourse is incompatible with any social or cultural constructivist understanding of gender and proposes to explore the contribution that the perspective has made to humanity's understanding of its positioning in the material world. She identifies two major themes; that of embeddedness in the environment and that of embodiment, whose various treatments serve to distinguish radical/cultural femi nists, from spiritual feminists, from socialist feminists, from greens both light and deep and so on. For Mellor, environmental concerns are feminist concerns simply because, as the states in the preface, "...it is not possible to understand the ecologically destructive consequences of dominant trends in human development without understanding their gendered nature" (p. vii).
In the following chapter, Mellor historically links feminist concerns with environmental concerns. She reviews the contribution that the pioneering work of Ellen Swallow in "domestic science" could be seen to have made to the development of the study of ecology. She highlights the work of Rachel Carson and Barbara Ward in bringing ecological issues to global attention. Similarly, she traces the evolution of a number of grassroots movements like the Chipko Movement and the crisis at Love Canal in New York State. Finally, she focuses on the complex issues raised by critiques of women in international development and devotes some time to a discussion of the DAWN document and the series of national and international conferences precipitated by a combination of grass roots struggles and published works.
Chapters three to seven are concerned with the unravelling of the complex strands of thought that link various positions in the discourse together but which also distinguish them one from another. Mellor accomplishes this with some skill and clarity. She sets out an analytic framework defined by the concepts of immanence and transcendence. Immanence is a consequence of human embodiment, it is a consequence transcended by some at the expense of others who bear the burden of human materiality. Building on her previous works she develops the notion of mediation and borrows the term, parasitism. In her model, those that transcend their immanence at the expense of others are parasites dependent upon others' mediation which "involves both exploitation and exclusion; it means making time, space or resources for someone else" (p. 189). But, it is not just women who act as mediators; it may also be men with women acting as the beneficiaries. She writes that many people stand in complex networks of mediation based on race, class, gender and ethnicity. Clearly, white, western women may act as mediators within their own households but as parasites in relation to other women whose labour they exploit. Her argument is compelling especially as it grows out of an approach that sees the very problem posed for feminists in the culture/nature opposition and in the sex/gender dualism as resting on the dilemma of human embodiment (p. 182).
Less satisfying is Mellor's use of the concepts of time and space, identifying a dichotomy between biological time and ecological time, and social time and space. She allies women with living in biological and ecological time more frequently than men. She identifies men as having control over social time and space. These are old battle cries come back to haunt us. One has to ask: What of the voluminous literature on the public/domestic divide? What of the conscious effort Mellor herself makes to avoid the false comfort of essentialist dichotomies? This dichotimization is not critical to Mellor's final argument and can be seen as providing a language to name various social activities.
Feminism and Ecology is a rich and rewarding discussion of the complex phenomenon that has taken on the name of ecofeminism. It provides a history of the complex linkage between feminist thought and action and concerns for the environment. It confronts the classic dichotomy between women and men and nature and culture in its latest intellectual and social manifestation. In doing so it deals with a series of critical issues ranging from moral commitment to epistemological indeterminacy. The discussion proceeds at an energetic pace, and Mellor's tone is often light, even humorous. This book would be of interest to a wide audience of feminists, ecologists, social scientists, and committed social activists of all types.
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|Author:||ROHATYNSKYJ, MARTA A.|
|Publication:||International Journal of Comparative Sociology|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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