The myths that Cecile Jackson identifies in her article in nlr 210 are that self-determination and freedom are better achieved through identification with ‘nature’ rather than separation from it; the utopian assertion of the superiority of subsistence economies and communal life; the rejection of scientific knowledge in favour of local, indigenous and women’s knowledges, with the latter based on an essentialized view of women.footnote1 The core of her concern is that these myths are leading to rationality becoming a ‘dirty word’ which, in turn, undermines the potential for historical and materialist analysis: ‘We need to reassert the value of a historical and materialist analysis, informed by a deconstruction of some unexamined key terms in ecofeminist positions such as love, nature, indigenous knowledge, Third World women.’footnote2 While I have sympathy with many of Jackson’s concerns about both radical environmentalism and ecofeminism, and have expressed similar reservations elsewhere,footnote3 I think that her arguments ignore the radical potential of both movements for a historical, materialist analysis. Further, I would argue that such an analysis that is not green and feminist is incomplete.
Part of Jackson’s difficulty is that she focuses mainly on Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva’s Ecofeminism.footnote4 This book, which I find both insightful and inspiring, is a collection of essays that, as Jackson herself points out, combines materialist and radical-cultural feminist analyses. Like many ecofeminist texts, it is part thesis and part treatise, and is therefore easily criticized for hyperbole and unwarranted generalizations. The same might be said of the Communist Manifesto, but movements and ideas have to start somewhere and both radical environmentalism and ecofeminism are still fairly young. They are, however, maturing into sophisticated analyses of our current social and ecological ills. Mies and Shiva’s Ecofeminism builds on Mies’s earlier materialist—feminist analysis of
A problem for ecofeminism and green politics generally, is that radical environmentalism is a very diverse movement, encompassing positions that have been criticized as ecofascist to ecoanarchism and ecosocialism. Ecofeminism embraces feminist spiritualists, radical cultural feminists, social ecofeminists—influenced by the work of ecoanarchist Murray Bookchin—socialist ecofeminists and postmodern ecofeminists.footnote6 Within this spectrum, there is much to justify Jackson’s criticisms, but also much to be built upon. As I have argued elsewhere, socialist-materialist eco-feminism, together with a South perspective, can provide a much firmer foundation for historical materialism than white, male, productivistworkerist versions of Marxism.footnote7 Jackson’s critique is also somewhat unfair in that it runs together animal rights, elements of deep ecology (ecocentrism) and ecofeminism. There are divisions within and between all these movements. Ecofeminism, for instance, has been criticized for ignoring animal-rights issuesfootnote8 and for being humanist rather than eco-centric.footnote9
Jackson argues that ecofeminism makes unwarranted assumptions about women’s natures and the potential for women’s solidarity while ignoring inter- and intra- gender relations. She also takes issue with ecofeminism’s rejection of modernity which, in this context, embraces individual autonomy, scientism and rationalism. I would certainly agree with Jackson that a lot of ecofeminist literature, particularly that influenced by West Coast spiritual-cultural feminism, falls into the 1970s radical feminist trap of biological essentialism and false universalism. A great deal of the difficulty here lies in the style of writing which is often poetic and declamatory rather than academic. Again, the same could be said of socialist pamphleteering which, while politically inspirational, proved to be empirically and theoretically somewhat problematic. Although a great deal of ecofeminist rhetoric implies a universal and essential separation of women—nature and men—culture, in practice it is a critique directed at a specific historical relation, the dualist structures of Western patriarchy.footnote10 The ecofeminist aim is to reclaim the despised halves of those dualisms: nature, woman, emotion and the vernacular as against society, man, rationality and the scientific.
Jackson is concerned that ecofeminism and ecocentrism will undermine
The dynamics of Western society are based on the assumption that the human being is fit and ‘free’ to labour, mobile, neither too old nor too young, unencumbered by emotional or physical obligations—elderly parents, children who do not want to move schools. It is this that is the myth: real people are not like that. They have bodily and emotional needs, a life cycle and occasional bouts of physical or mental trauma. They have obligations, and get tired. Women have suffered by being associated with human embodiment, both their own and in their responsibility for the needs of others. They are seen as physically weaker, more governed by bodily functions and limited by childbirth, nurturing and domestic obligations. For women en masse to become self-determining, free individuals, would require a revolution in the whole notion of what it means to be human. Some indication of the impact of women’s refusal to engage in their traditional roles can be seen in the crisis of reproduction in countries such as Italy where the fertility rate is now 1.26.footnote14 Equally, the assumption that human activity as represented by Western industrial-capitalist models of growth can continue indefinitely or be generalized to the whole of humanity is also a myth. The West–North, representing about 20 per cent of the global population, consumes 80 per cent of world output. The reality of the human condition is that we are all biologically embodied in a temporally limited life-cycle and embedded in a physically limited ecosystem. ‘Equality’ feminists as exemplified by Jackson—and quintessentially de Beauvoir—see women’s liberation as following the Western patriarchal model of transcendence. Ecofeminists would argue that transcendence is an illusion: when some groups claim transcendence others have to bear the burden of their embodiment and embeddedness. Immanence, not transcendence, is the natural condition of humanity, since we are always embodied and embedded in an interconnected ecosystem.footnote15 We can buck biological and ecological forces to a certain extent, but only for a time: there is no ‘free lunch’.
If Jackson wants to argue for self-determination and autonomy, she needs