What is the connection between gender inequalities and the exploitation of natural resources? For ecofeminists, the answer to this question is obvious: both nature and women are “left behind” in our development models.
Developed in the 1980s, ecofeminism is currently gaining in popularity worldwide, in large part due to the work of Vandana Shiva, Indian ecologist and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1993. With the COVID-19 crisis providing a rude awakening in terms of the fragility of our economic, social and political models, what can be learned from adopting an ecofeminist perspective?
“Something rotten” about capitalist rule: exposing domination
Ecofeminist thinking is based on the fundamental idea of domination between genders and species. It is founded on the basic principle that our development models are characterized by structural inequalities, symptoms of the underlying and combined domination by the few, over women, the poor, ethnic and racial minorities, people with disabilities, children, and species of fauna and flora.
There is no doubt that these same models have led to rapid economic development in some formerly-impoverished countries, however, they are based on a rationale which often has disastrous and even irreversible long-term consequences. First and foremost, the overexploitation of natural resources is an inherent factor of these models. The blind pursuit of profit and growth that dominates our systems is closely correlated with issues such as climate change, the drastic loss of animal biodiversity and the disappearance of agrobiodiversity.
Secondly, these development models are built on inherited patriarchal structures which ensure that patterns of gender domination are repeated. As researcher Jeanne Burgart Goutal says: “For ecofeminists […], our socio-economic system is based not only on the exploitation of labor for capital gain […], but also on the combined overexploitation of the […] ‘internal colonies’ of women and nature: without their free, unrecognized and hidden labor, the capitalist system could not function.”
Unequal and counterproductive development models
The unbridled growth dictated by our models actively contributes to increasing global inequalities because, in parallel, resources are not equally redistributed, the contributions of both men and women are not recognized, and the services that nature provides are not valued. From an ecofeminist perspective, the global economy is widening the inequality gap between and within countries, and between the dominant and the most vulnerable, invisible or powerless sectors of society.
This hierarchical logic on which the world is founded, where nature is subordinate to trade, women to men and the South to the North, has an overarching effect on all levels of society, even shaping certain views on poverty reduction.
According to Vandana Shiva, promoting the use of hybrid seeds and pesticides during the Green Revolution in India increased peasants’ dependence on major corporations, such as Monsanto, in developed countries. This model deployed intensive farming practices to reduce hunger, while traditional or alternative practices, more respectful of the environment and people, were disregarded. As a result, agri-food industry giants continued to accumulate profits and power, but this wealth was linked to a decline in agrobiodiversity, and no effort was made to lift the most vulnerable out of poverty.
Similar problems have been reported in sub-Saharan Africa, where women produce up to 80% of food. They are thus hit hardest by the long-term consequences of promoting non-inclusive and unsustainable agricultural models.
Revaluing diversity to ensure truly sustainable and inclusive development
Rethinking our development models by adopting an ecofeminist perspective should not be a simple exercise in deconstruction. By examining ecology through the prism of gender, the ecofeminist movement encourages us to refocus our perspective in order to develop truly sustainable and inclusive models which celebrate diverse views and approaches.
For instance, a concrete implementation of this approach would be to capitalize on the links between women’s empowerment and protecting the environment, by prioritizing projects which offer greater autonomy for women farmers. As Margarita Astralaga from the International Fund for Agricultural Development says: “women often act as guardians of crop diversity, protecting sustainable food systems and cultivation practices.”
Vandana Shiva’s direct attacks on what she refers to as “philantrocapitalism,” meaning philanthropy as a matter of self-interest which, in reality, enriches the provider of economic aid, aim to prompt a review of development models and aid, by and for its recipients, to ensure that local people and the environment become the central focus.
This approach of combining ecology and feminism illustrates, in theory, the potential to develop synergies between the Sustainable Development Goals, with many now calling for progress in this area.