We are all familiar with the degradation of the environment due to our neoliberal economic policies that allow us to plunder the Earth’s resources for maximisation of growth and profits. This is happening largely in the industrialised western countries but the process can also be seen to a lesser extent in the so called developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa. In fact due to the impact of IMF, the World Bank and the Washington consensus, the process of development has largely followed the economic ideology and pattern of the West.
Development involves setting up of big infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, construction of railways, dams, hospitals etc. and setting up of mining activities for extraction of coal, bauxite, Uranium and other minerals. This results apart from the degradation of the earth, in the displacement of indigenous peoples (Adivasis of India), who been surviving since prehistoric times by living peacefully in the remote areas without destroying or degradation of the forests, rivers and hills. Their approach has been that ‘we are part of Nature and we must protect it and sustain it if we ourselves want to live peacefully and harmoniously’.
In the process, the air, the rivers and ponds were clean; the forests were healthy and provided the basic necessities such as fruit, timber and even some medicinal herbs.
This was possible since the basic approach was to live in harmony with nature, not to over exploit its resources that lead to degradation that we see in most urban areas today. This approach was also conditioned by the feeling that the Earth is our Mother that sustains all life — human, animal and plant. In this sense the approach is a feminine one which is often called eco feminism– that protects and sustains both the ecology and human life.
This approach is in opposition to the patriarchal one that uses brute force whether against so called enemy nations as well as against the environment for boosting economic growth and maximisation of profits.
According to some women scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir of France, Yayo Herroro of Spain and Vandana Shiva of India, the attitude of protection of Nature comes naturally to women as being inherent to women’s gender identity and their capacity to give birth. This inherent capacity has been criticised by a patriarchal mindset that treats women as second rate humans since they are largely confined to childbearing and domestic chores like cooking. This attitude is also responsible for the violence that women face in society.
Worldwide, there are many examples of ecofeminism or in other words, of women working for the protection of nature and the environment, and going against the patriarchal approach. It is not that ecofeminists are against men but they are opposed to the attitude of being treated as second class humans confined to childbearing and their homes.
A French activist Francoise d’Eaubonne (contemporary of Beauvoir) had stated, ” By liberating women, feminism liberates all of humanity– it is closest to universalism.. ” She had also written that “the capitalist system is the engine that gives patriarchy devastating power ..”
One of the earliest ecofeminists in the West is Rachel Carson who in her book The Silent Spring had denounced the use of pesticides in WWII, that were subsequently utilised in boosting agricultural growth and thereby in contamination of the soil and nature. Another woman, Donella Meadows had in her Meadows Report pointed out the unsustainability of unlimited economic growth for our ecosystem and the Earth.
In India there have been a few movements in which women have participated actively or have written about the problems of sustaining our Earth.
One of the earliest women who wrote about the problem of degradation was Madeleine Slade who is better known as Mira Behn after she joined Mahatma Gandhi in his Ashram in 1925. She wrote,
‘The tragedy today is that educated and moneyed classes are altogether out of touch with the vital fundamentals of existence of our Mother Earth and the vegetable and animal population which it sustains …’
The name of Vandana Shiva is also well known in the overall objective of sustaining life of all living beings as well as our Earth. The two are not distinct but are intimately intertwined. If the Earth remains clean and healthy, the people and flora and fauna will also benefit and life on the Earth will sustain itself. The reverse is also true and the efforts of ecofeminists and others are directed towards promotion of life and Harmony.
A well known woman historian of India, Romila Thapar has described the significance of forests and trees right from the earliest times in the Indus Valley Civilisation , the Vedas and Buddhist texts and the veneration of trees both for their varied produce, their ability to keep the air clean, and as a fertility cult.
Recognising the importance of trees, a strong movement called the Chipko Andolan (hugging the trees) emerged in North India in the 1970s against the large scale felling of trees by land mafia. The movement was initiated by two eminent men — Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt but it was carried forward by women — Bahuguna’s wife and other village women who kept on their vigil against the cutting of trees both during the daytime and at nights. They succeeded and ultimately the cutting of trees was stopped for the benefit and relief of all the people of the region.
Another Indian woman who is vehemently opposed to the construction of big dams that lead to displacement of people and submergence of farmlands and villages is Medha Patkar. She has faced many challenges — political, legal, but she continues to remain steadfast in her opposition to these huge dams that are causing untold misery and displacement. Dams are required for providing water to those areas that do not get enough rain but they should not lead to the suffering of poor people and farmers.
An organisation called Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was started several years ago by a scientist Anil Agarwal but after his death the organisation is headed by a woman scientist and activist named Sunita Narain. She brings out a fortnightly journal named ‘Down to Earth’ and other books highlighting the degradation of our environment and its adverse effects including pollution of air, rivers and soil and the extinction of several species of birds and plants and the resulting global warming and climate change.
As mentioned above, several movements to protect our Earth and the people and other living beings from ill health and extinction are been carried out by scientists, activists as well as by a spirit of ecofeminism. The interaction between the latter spirit and ecology is producing a new dynamism for the overall objective of a healthy life and harmony.
Let us salute and encourage these efforts and the dynamism of ecofeminism.