Ecofeminism and Climate Justice. Interview with Greta Gaard.

Greta Gaard is an ecofeminist writer, scholar, and activist. Her work has been one of the first to integrate queer theory, queer ecology, veganism and animal liberation in ecofeminist studies. She is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she teaches human-animal studies, environmental justice and LGBT literature.

In this interview she talks about how she got involved in ecofeminist activism, her academic work on ecofeminism, the early backlash against the study of ecofeminism, and why the climate crisis is also a feminist issue.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about your activism journey - for example, where you started and where you are now?

The foundation of my feminism, environmentalism, and social justice work began in my childhood, through my sense of connection with other species. Like many children, at 11 years old I was horrified to learn that the food served to me by my mother was the dead bodies of other animals, and I immediately faced down my parents. They were not receptive to my trans-species empathy and I tried reasoning with my father, explaining, “I wouldn’t tear off your arm and eat it, and I won’t do that to a bird, or to our dog Pookie!” My mind included all these species in the category of personhood, recognizing their care for their young, their exuberance and joy, their angry battles with their peers, and their own ways of living.

At the same time, I was an ardent lover of plants and wild environments, seeking out these as playmates preferable to some humans. I simply enjoyed the company of trees, their steadfast energies and smells. Like any heartfelt ethics, it took education and study to help me find the words to articulate these values of interbeing. Along the way I encountered sexism, and my feminism grew in graduate school. When I found Aviva Cantor’s short article, “The Club, The Yoke, The Leash” describing the intersections of sexism, racism, and speciesism, I was thrilled! Here was a clear and concise articulation of what I had suspected: these oppressive structures were conceptually linked. So I made copies for everyone in my Feminist Studies program, using my meager graduate student salary to do so, and waiting joyously… then with sorrow, as no one replied. Ever. That silence introduced me to the realization that simply articulating these intersections would not be enough: reaching the hearts and minds of others might take a lifetime of effort.

Q: As scholar and now professor of English, how did you become interested in and involved in the study of ecofeminism?

Given the intersections I had discovered among sexism/racism/speciesism, I wrote a conference paper titled “Feminists, Animals, and the Environment: Toward an Ecofeminist Approach” for the National Women’s Studies Association 1989 conference, I actually thought I had made up the term myself, as it’s simply logical: “eco” for the animals and nature, and “feminism” to address sexism and racism. I was placed on a panel with Marti Kheel (co-ounder of Feminists for Animal Rights) and Ariel Salleh (a socialist ecofeminist from Australia) and when I walked to our session the room was jammed with people crowded in the hallways. Evidently this was a convergence moment—other women thought they too had invented the word “ecofeminism”!

After the session, about 50 of us launched the NWSA Ecofeminist Task Force with Noel Sturgeon as the newsletter editor. Afterward, the acquisitions editor at Temple who had attended our session approached me and asked me to write a book on ecofeminism, but I insisted that it would have to be an edited volume, as this was a *movement*, not a single-author stardom. She agreed, and I began collecting proposals and chapter drafts for what became my first book, Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (Temple University Press, 1993).

Photo credit: Greta Gaard.

[Image description: Head shot of Greta in fron of a river with green trees in the background.

Picture taken by her daughter, Flora, during a hike on the North Shore of Lake Superior in late summer 2018.]

Q: How would you define 'ecofeminism'?

Ecofeminism is variously seen as a branch of feminist theory, a subset of environmental ethics, and a manifestation of environmental politics. Ecofeminist activisms are manifested through movements linking gender, species, and environmental justice, water and food democracy, and local self-sufficiency. Based on a self-identity that is fundamentally interconnected with earthothers—diverse humans, other animal species and individuals, plants, waterbodies, earth and air, rock and fire—ecofeminists have diverse interests and ecopolitical commitments, but share the insight that these many paths are inextricably intertwined.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the subjects you are currently teaching at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls? Which are the main areas that you focus on and what are student’s reactions and responses to integrating literature and environmental justice?

This topic is huge, and I cannot do it justice here, but give only one example. I have offered a Human-Animal Studies course on this Agricultural campus for several years until the MultiDiscipinary requirement was removed and the course eliminated.

During the years I offered the course, I used Mindfulness as a strategy to help students recognize their own embodied empathy for other species. The students consistently dropped empathy once we studied the issue of animals used for food, and their responses were similar to those deflective responses that white people use to block empathy for others across race. The resonances were so strong that I decided to explore Mindfulness as an Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy, and that is my research area presently.

Last fall, I was awarded a grant to host a Think Tank on this topic, bringing together faculty across the upper Midwest, New York and California to discuss how to use mindfulness as an anti-oppressive pedagogy. All the information about animal suffering is available, but what will it take to reconnect students with their own embodied experiences of empathy? This question is the most urgent question I have considered in my teaching career.

Photo credit: Greta Gaard.

[Image description: Greta in front of a whiteboard talking to her students.

Picture taken at her LGBTQI Literatures course in Spring 2018.]

Q: In your essay “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in a Material Feminist Environmentalism” you describe how ecofeminism has been discredited in the past and how a wide array of knowledge has been lost as a result. Which do you feel were the main factors contributing to this backlash?

As I discuss in that essay, two kinds of critiques were advanced against ecofeminism in the 1990s: one against conflating categories of sex and gender, and homogenizing women’s experiences, and another, against the inclusion of species and nature as analytical categories crucial for feminist thought. Only the first critique was legitimately grounded.

Criticisms of ecofeminism came from both mainstream feminisms and formerly-ecofeminist philosophers. Few scholars point out the feminist resistance to acknowledging that feminists can still be oppressors of other women (via race and class privilege) or of other female animals, which was the uncomfortable point animal ecofeminists made: women’s socially reproductive labor is analogous (not identical) to the female reproductive capacities and lives that are exploited in the production of cows’ milk, and the female egg-laying capacity that is exploited in chickens. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and into the new millenium, vegetarian ecofeminists foregrounded species as they addressed the intersections of feminism, ecology, race, class, gender, and nation, through a variety of issues: animal experimentation and the myth of the animal’s willing sacrifice, industrialized animal food production and its reliance on undocumented immigrant workers (who risk deportation if they report their hazardous workplace conditions), vegan and vegetarian diets in relation to social and environmental justice as well as human and animal health, contextual moral vegetarianism, hunting and the social construction of masculinity, the sexism and racism of PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign, mad cow disease in terms of social/ecological/interspecies ethics, rBGH and its effects on female humans/cows/calves as well as small farmers and the environment, the essentialism of the gendered “Mother Earth” metaphor, and the uses of restoring truncated narratives and contextualizing ethical decisions in analyzing what might appear to be competing issues among various oppressed groups (women, indigenous communities, nonhuman animals, workers, immigrants, the environment).

In the course of developing these arguments, ecofeminism was developing in convergence with the environmental health/justice movement. Ecofeminists foregrounded issues such as Black ghetto ecology, colonialism and third world development, the UFW Grape Boycott, and environmental justice theory in ecofeminist anthologies, and some later renamed their transformed ecofeminism as a hybrid ‘global feminist environmental justice’. But as with postmodern feminisms, environmental justice theory did not as readily listen to or embrace ecofeminist insights, and the focus on race, class, and environment backgrounded issues of gender, sexuality, and species for roughly fifteen years, from the mid-1990s through the first decade of the new millenium. During that period, the anti-essentialist backlash succeeded in denouncing ecofeminism, largely via arguments over speciesism.

In retrospect, it’s clear that mainstream feminism advanced critiques of ecofeminism under the cover of “anti-essentialism,” but effectively couldn’t handle the inclusion of speciesism as a form of oppression: instead, these critiques insisted that consideration of nonhuman animals within feminism was essentialist and ethnocentric.

Q: In your perception, is this ‘backlash against ecofeminism’ still ongoing?

I think ecofeminism and ecofeminist perspectives are regaining ground, simply because the analyses they offer provide the kind of intersectional and posthumanist analyses most relevant to addressing “wicked problems” such as climate justice.

If you look at the updated reissue of Mies and Shiva’s Ecofeminism (1993, 2014) and Adams’ Sexual Politics of Meat (1990, 2010), along with applications of Plumwood’s theory in Critical Ecofeminism (Gaard 2017) and in Sherilyn MacGregor’s Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment (2017), you’ll see ecofeminism has provided both foundation and impetus for these new projects.

Ecofeminist work on species justice inspired the fields of human-animal studies, critical animal studies, and posthumanism. Australian philosopher and critical ecofeminist, Val Plumwood’s scholarship grounds postcolonial ecocriticism (Huggan & Tiffin 2010), and queer ecofeminisms inspired both Queer Ecologies (2010) and the eco-erotic defense of earth-others shown in “Goodbye Gauley Mountain” (Stephens and Sprinkle 2013). Material Feminisms (Alaimo & Hekman 2008) also rests on groundwork laid by the feminist environmental health movement, and ecopsychology’s insights into ecological grief and human-place identity also rearticulate ecofeminist and environmental justice foundations. So, ecofeminism may be a feminist theory that has grown with the times, and continues to offer incisive critiques and solutions for pressing eco-justice problems.

Q: In the foreword to the landmark book ‘Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature’ (1993) you point out that you and other ecofeminist activists and scholars wrote these texts as a response to a lack of work that connected environmentalism, animal liberation and feminism. Why must ecofeminism include the study of speciesism and the oppression of non-human animals?

Speciesist thinking lies at the root of our environmental problems, and it doesn’t stem from traditional indigenous perspectives: it is a Eurocentric and western view that human animals are separate from and superior to other animal species and nature, and that humans are the best (or only) beings to have a “mind” and agency. The human-animal dualism is simply another reworked manifestation of the culture/nature dualism that preserves human-centered thinking, and this thinking will never solve our climate crises because humans do not exist apart from nature.

Reconceiving humans as animals, as one animal among many, has the potential to introduce some humility and a more ecological perspective. More important, however, is the simple truth that oppression is like cancer and cannot be removed or “cured” if one takes only a part of the disease: speciesism is integral to racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism; it is part of western culture’s “erotophobia,” or hatred of nature and our animal bodies, desires, and capacities. Finally, the human loneliness of species extinction is becoming more pronounced: as one animal species among many, we are losing our animal and ecological family via the overconsumptive and polluting practices of industrial capitalist patriarchy. We need other species to flourish, to be respected and cherished, and their habitats safeguarded.

Photo credit: Greta Gaard.