Aholocaust goes on among us: tomorrow at dawn, another ancient plant or bird will be extinct; nine-hundred million people starve;footnote1 dammed-up rivers run sour and parched soils crack open; continents swarm with environmental refugees; man-made viruses are unleashed; silently, an ozone hole and electro-magnetic radiation cull new cancer victims; oil spills suffocate sea life and melting seas threaten island communities; body parts and dna are carved up and traded; city people breathe sulphurous air, their food laced with wartime pesticides; and mothers bear limbless jelly babies from nuclear fallout that rings the globe. Will you too, close your eyes to these crimes, the linear model of ‘progress’ exported by an enlightened West?

Certainly, our humanist ‘social science’ has failed to grasp such happenings, numb to the palpable materiality of nature’s decimation. And writing as if ‘ecology’ were merely an irritating new world view, many left intellectuals argue that the ‘central issue’ in ecopolitical thought should be the status of ‘human rights’ versus those of non-human species. Cecile Jackson takes this line in her essay, ‘Radical Environmental Myths: A Gender Perspective’.footnote2 As a feminist, Jackson is rightly concerned about how radical ecology’s post-humanist bio-ethic will affect the lot of women and other disadvantaged people. Accordingly, she urges us to engender environmental debate without delay. For, in the ongoing ‘struggle for recognition of women’s full humanity’, Jackson suspects women are now losing political ground to non-human species.

Gender studies look at how masculine and feminine behaviours are historically shaped and culturally specific. Jackson writes as if no Green theory had yet integrated such analysis, but gender-focused contributions to environmental philosophy have been ongoing for at least two decades, as well as hearty debates between women and the ecopolitical establishment.footnote3 In contrast to Jackson’s opposing movements approach, ecological feminists integrate the two struggles, observing that: ‘The marginalization of women and the destruction of biodiversity go hand in hand. Loss of diversity is the price paid in the [Eurocentric] patriarchal model of progress which pushes inexorably toward monocultures, uniformity and homogeneity.’footnote4 The international ecofeminist literature is substantial, consisting of newsletters, articles, anthologies, and some two dozen classic texts. Scholarly works include activist D’Eaubonne’s Feminism or Death (1974), leftist theologian Ruether’s New Woman, New Earth (1975), historian of science Merchant’s The Death of Nature (1981), sociologist Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation (1986), physicist Shiva’s Staying Alive (1989), and philosopher Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993).

By sidelining gender analysis in ecofeminist writing, Jackson misrepresents its politics as a form of naturalistic reductionism. Ecofeminist theorists may indeed discuss the significance of biological and sexed activities such as birthing, but not without understanding that feminine and masculine gender identities are historically, culturally and discursively mediated. Jackson’s recent self-positioning as an advocate for gender analysis thus seems oddly uninformed. Her demand for a ‘historical political economy to make sense of linkages’ between culture and nature and, her statement that ‘gendered studies of local knowledges are conspicuously absent’, ignores Pietila’s work on Finnish housewives and gnp; Mies’ study of piece workers in Narsapur; or for that matter, my account of women’s ecological consciousness-raising in Australia’s steel city.footnote5

If Jackson’s claim about the lack of gender analysis in ecofeminism is inadequately researched, equally her critique mistranslates several basic propositions. To take an example or two: she quotes Mies and Shiva’s Ecofeminism (1993) as saying: ‘In grassroots movements. . .it is women more than men who understand that a subsistence perspective is the only guarantee of survival for all.’footnote6 Reading with essentialist eyes, Jackson finds here a claim that a priori, regardless of gender socialization, women are somehow innately better able to understand daily survival needs. In fact, Mies and Shiva see women’s practical ecopolitical sensibility as a learned outcome of gender-ascribed labours and responsibilities. Moreover, as ecofeminists, they want to move beyond the oppressive division of labour that loads so much on women’s shoulders with so few resources or supports. Their analysis is not only thoroughly gendered, but socialist, calling for grassroots resistance to a transnational economic system based on privatization of commons. Mies and Shiva strive for a socially de-gendered non-division of labour; regional self-reliance; and minimum production designed for satisfaction of vital needs, leaving time over for loving, and creative play.

In parallel vein, when Banuri and Apffel Marglin in Who Will Save the Forest? say that ‘women’s ways of knowing. . .often have a non-instrumental core’, Jackson condemns the observation as pre-gendered and thus essentializing.footnote7 Clearly, men can be non-instrumental, but the point is that under ‘actually existing’ social arrangements they are rewarded for being operators. As Shiva tells us, in the forests of northern India, local men are readily drawn into the cash economy based on logging for export; Mathai has observed the same in Kenya, and Lechte in Papua New Guinea. Ruddick’s philosophical thesis too, in Maternal Thinking, gets an essentializing read from Jackson.footnote8

Yet it is Jackson herself, who expounds Ruddick as if ‘mothering’ described a sex or gender-specific set of attributes. In fact, Ruddick points out that men too, can do this caring work, and she is at pains to disconnect the skills and knowledges of mothering from either sex or gender. Looking more closely into Jackson’s text, it becomes plain that her focus on apparently essentialized attributes is a by-product of her own emphasis on individuality. This stops her from seeing that ecofeminist politics is interested in relational change—the lines that join individual points being more important than the points themselves. Epistemologically speaking, people experienced in mothering know just how delicate the line between self and other identity is, a perceptual maturation that is readily transferred to an ecological context.