“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” -Gloria Steinem
A classic ethical dilemma:
You are standing at a bridge, watching a train below you come down the tracks. It is headed straight for a group of five people who are totally unaware of its approach. You cannot get their attention to warn them; however, you have beside you a lever that will switch the train onto a different set of tracks where only one person is standing. Do you do nothing and let the five people die? Or do you take action, in effect causing the death of the single person but saving the five others?
A doozy, I know. Ethical dilemmas are highly frustrating: many people have to seriously consider what their action would be in this scenario. Some may know their answer right away. Grappling with hypothetical moral scenarios in a class or with friends can be fun, even; but in real life? Not so entertaining.
Under the broad umbrella of ethics falls environmental ethics, a niche sector that looks at human interactions with the natural world, considering things such as inherent worth of plants and animals, the definition of ‘nature’, and whether people can be placed in a role of greatest import within greater global ecosystems. Environmental ethics is “predicated on the claim that humans have moral responsibilities (or obligations) to nonhuman animals and/or nature” (Warren).
And nested within the realm of environmental ethics and philosophy? Ecofeminism. The other day I was trying to explain the link between environmentalism and feminism, and to be honest, I couldn’t verbalize the connection very well. So I read up a bit.
In her piece “Feminist Environmental Philosophy”, Dr. Karen J. Warren looks at the evolution of ecofeminist theory. The term was coined in 1974, and “referred generically to a wide variety of “women-nature” connections, often based in different disciplinary perspectives”, but did not become a philosophical position until the 1990s (Warren).
So.... what's the tie between women and the environment? A lot of it revolves around health.
“Data show that women—especially poor, rural women in less developed countries (LDCs) who are heads of households—suffer disproportionate harms caused by such environmental problems as deforestation, water pollution, and environmental toxins” (Warren).
Today’s environmental issues are very much feminist issues by nature of the inexplicable link between female susceptibility to environmental health hazards. My personal view of feminism is that is truly just humanism, and desiring equitable treatment and rights for all regardless of sex, race, economic status, religion, etc. One reason I think feminism has been successful in gaining attention as a movement--if not always positive attention--is that it is supported by strong personal anecdotes. One recent example of this was the outpouring of first-hand accounts of late-term abortion following the presidential debates. Women opened up about an extremely traumatic event in their lives to speak to the importance of keeping the right to choose legal, and how that choice is very often a necessity rather than a desired outcome.
Warren writes that a theme ecofeminist ethics is to be “both inclusive and contextual: it views ethical discourse and practice as emerging from a diversity of “narratives” or “voices” (especially women's voices) of beings located in different historical and cultural circumstances”. And this is where I think ecofeminism is a compelling vehicle for spurring environmental action. Building a framework of thought based on “a diversity of ‘narratives’ or ‘voices’”: that’s something almost every major political party, corporation, publication and educational system seeks to do.
Ecofeminism leverages the power of personal anecdotes to influence and inspire change in others. By looking at specific health impacts of women in developing nations, for instance, helps conceptualize the broader issue of sustainable energy and climate change mitigation. According to the International Energy Agency, “2.5 billion people rely on biomass, such as fuelwood, charcoal, agricultural waste and animal dung, to meet their energy needs for cooking” (p. 419). In many nations biomass makes up 90% of resource use in households.
Biomass itself? Not the worst thing, actually. But often these resources are collected unsustainably (for instance, tree cutting without replanting), and labor-intensive harvesting can come at the cost of attending school. Further, energy conversion is not very efficient in LDCs. Overall, “there are serious adverse consequences for health, the environment and economic development” (IEA p. 419).
And it is very serious: “About 1.3 million people – mostly women and children – die prematurely every year because of exposure to indoor air pollution from biomass” (IEA p. 19). Providing access to cleaner energy for cooking impacts more than the environment: it also directly impacts millions of people who might otherwise pay the price with a shorter lifespan. In nations where women stay at home, have restricted access to education, birth control and employment opportunities, they become susceptible not only to social inequities but also to environmental injustices.
Yes, feminism is at times a touchy issue. So is environmentalism. So was the fight for Civil Rights, and Women’s Suffrage, and regulation against child labor. Ecofeminism isn’t that big of a stretch. It's kind of like choosing to pull the lever and send the train down the track of less casualties. There will never be an ethical framework that makes everyone happy: I'm sure there are some that would argue ecofeminism dilutes the goals of two larger campaigns. But I think working to protect the environment and improve the lives of women around the world is a pretty good compromise.
Warren, Karen J., "Feminist Environmental Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/feminism-environmental/>.
“Energy for Cooking in Developing Countries”, World Energy Outlook (2006). International Energy Agency. URL = <https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/weo-2006---excerpt---energy-for-cooking-in-developing-countries.html>
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