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Sherilyn MacGregor, Beyond Mothering Earth: Ecological Citizenship and the Politics of Care.

Sherilyn MacGregor, Beyond Mothering Earth: Ecological Citizenship and the Politics of Care (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2006)

BEYOND MOTHERING EARTH is an excellent piece of scholarship that provides a theoretical, empirical, and strategic exploration of the project of feminist ecological citizenship. In setting forth this exploration, MacGregor presents a significant alternative to more familiar ecofeminist analyses. This work consists of a theoretical exploration of the intersection of ecological politics with feminism and a second part based upon interviews conducted with thirty activist women at the turn of the 21st century. A third dimension is apparent throughout the work, for it is the intersection of theory with empirical evidence that enables MacGregor to explore strategies for political action.

The theoretical portion of this work engages a wide-ranging literature, beginning and returning most frequently to ecofeminist writing, but also addressing green political thought and citizenship theory in detail. MacGregor's writing is very effective, her style is clear and comprehensive, and I would strongly recommend Beyond Mothering Earth for its accessible, insightful survey of the intersections between the international literatures of feminism, green scholarship, and political theory.

MacGregor briefly traces the evolution of ecofeminism, and how it has drawn upon changes in feminist theory, to highlight two areas of emphasis which she feels undermine the project as a whole. MacGregor persuasively critiques the "non-strategy" of using maternalism as a means for women to enhance their voice within green politics. Much like first-wave maternal feminists, many prominent ecofeminists such as Carolyn Merchant and Ariel Salleh emphasize how women's maternal caring work grants them a distinct nurturing perspective that shapes their relationships to the natural world and provides the foundation for alternative social relationships to nature. MacGregor is not the first scholar to point out the limitations of this approach; she builds here upon a wider anti-essentialist critique and one which refuses to use women's subordinate roles, past and present, as an avenue to effect radical environmental change. MacGregor's other key criticism takes issue with the importance of lived experience and grassroots activism to ecofeminist alternatives, which she argues "reifies and accepts uncritically the experiences and knowledges of activist and non-academic women."(39) MacGregor is especially concerned that when ecofeminists have appropriated the grassroots they have also dismissed how these activists have themselves engaged with and at times rejected ecofeminist symbols and theory. MacGregor's treatment of ecofeminist writings is a pointed but generally balanced critique of a diverse body of writing.

Beginning in Chapter 4, MacGregor analyzes the possibilities of a more profound relationship between green and feminist citizenship. Broadly, this examination identifies the importance of "democratic politics and the language of citizenship to the project of ecosocial change."(73) The path that these democratic politics should follow does not deny the importance of subsistence perspectives from the global South and the specificity of women's material experiences with labour and nature, but neither does it use these experiences as grounds for future action. Instead, MacGregor articulates the importance of democratic participation and the use of citizenship politics as places for performance, conversation, and tools for socio-ecological change. She sets forth the insights of the small body of writing on green citizen ship and its conflicts over the appropriateness of action at local and global scales. Although MacGregor rejects degendered notions of "care" and "nurture" as means to recreate social relations to nature, she otherwise stops short of setting forth a comprehensive feminist theory of ecological citizenship. MacGregor's strengths in this first part are in bringing diverse literatures and evidence to bear upon particular points and in identifying and reconciling theoretical tensions; at times she sacrifices persuasion and clarity in the interests of analytical acumen and breadth.

In 1999 and 2000, MacGregor interviewed 30 women in the Greater Toronto area engaged in "public caring work" as environmental activists and engaged in "private caring work" as mothers.(14) MacGregor's aim here is to draw upon the insights and experiences of the same kinds of activist women who appear in much ecofeminist writing, not only to buttress her argument for the relative value of feminist ecological citizenship versus ecofeminism, but also as part of the practice of participatory knowledge-making that can inform democratic practice. To these ends, MacGregor gives necessary attention to methodology and presents the perspectives of these women in describing how they negotiate their roles as mothers and environmental activists and in how they theorize their own political participation. Thus MacGregor introduces an original approach to interpreting women's environmental activism by directly engaging the activists themselves in not only reflecting upon what they do but also setting forth their own considerations of the social, political, and gendered obstacles they face. In this part, MacGregor is not only self-reflexive upon her own position as an academic, but she also successfully uses her position to break down the dichotomy between activism and theory.

MacGregor's interviews are one of the great strengths of this work, demonstrating her skills at engaging in resonant conversations with the interviewees, exposing the diversity of women's environmental activism, and achieving her goal of bringing feminist ecological theory and "real life" to bear upon one another. It is nevertheless striking that MacGregor referred to the two parts of her work as "two stories" because a weakness in this work, and in particular in the description of the interview subjects, was the absence of narrative which would have better elucidated these women's experiences as active citizens.

By rooting her analysis in a particular time and place the interviews serve to illuminate how the practice of feminist ecological citizenship would be most effective in Western democracies where women already have greater access (through their rights, labour, and leisure) to the stages upon which the kinds of politics she describes can be practiced and performed. Her strategy is to this extent context-dependent. MacGregor recognizes this tension in her analysis-between the importance of universal citizenship and the success of local struggles in particular. (225-228) Nevertheless the role of scale and context in feminist ecological citizenship each demand greater attention than MacGregor provides.

This omission reflects how Beyond Mothering Earth presents an analysis more closely rooted in feminist theory than in ecology. MacGregor takes issue with the ways in which "women's capacity for abstract and principled thought about moral issues and ethical decision making has been eclipsed by a focus on material practices and lived experiences."(64) This privileges politics over material life and seemingly fails to recognize that it is by emphasizing the profound materiality of human social, economic, and cultural life, and the necessary connections between people and nature, that ecology has served as a radicalizing force pushing people to rethink their allegiances to particular places, to future generations, and ultimately to the earth. With the exception of her analysis of the importance of time as part of the calculus of arriving at "ecologically friendly and socially equitable" (232) social and political arrangements, the theorizing in Beyond Mothering Earth operates independent of environmental constraints. This book is nevertheless an important contribution to green political theory, which, in contrast to environmental justice and ecofeminist literature, has largely neglected feminist insights by privileging the relationships of humans to nature without admitting the social realities of the human experience.


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Author:Piper, Liza
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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