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.
[Image description: Greta helping to clean up Guan-Yin mountain in Taiwan. The clean-up was part of her teaching a
month-long graduate seminar on Ecofeminist Literary Criticism in summer 2009 at Tamkang University in Tamsui, Taiwan.]
Q: A large body of your work covers women and the climate crisis. Can you explain why climate change is a feminist issue?
Issues that women traditionally organize around—environmental health, habitats, livelihoods—have been marginalized in debates that treat climate change as a scientific problem requiring technological and scientific solutions without substantially transforming ideologies and economies of domination, exploitation and colonialism. Issues that GLBTQ people organize around—bullying in the schools, hate crimes, marriage equality, fair housing and health care—aren’t even noted in climate change discussions. Ecofeminist analyses are well positioned to address these and other structural inequalities in climate crises, and to unmask the gendered character of first-world overconsumption. Bringing together a wealth of intersectional perspectives, a queer feminist and posthumanist approach to climate change analyses and solution strategies will be most inclusive and thus effective in tackling the antifeminist threads companioning the scientific response to climate change: the linked rhetorics of population control, erotophobia and ecophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, and increased militarism.
Q: Speaking in less academic terms, how are gender inequalities linked to the climate crisis? Are there any particular examples for how women are affected more than men?
Women are indeed the ones most severely affected by climate change and natural disasters, but their vulnerability is not innate; rather vulnerability is a result of inequities produced through gendered social roles, discrimination, and poverty. According to CARE, an international NGO, women work 2/3 of the world’s working hours, produce half the world’s food, and earn 10% of the world’s income; of the world’s one billion poorest people, women and girls make up 70%. If there were an unimpeded correlation between hard work and earnings, women would be the world’s highest earners. Instead, structural barriers of gender put women—and children—among the world’s poorest people, situated on the front lines of climate change. Around the world, gender roles restrict women’s mobility, impose tasks associated with food production and caregiving, and simultaneously obstruct women from participating in decision-making about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and decisions about adaptation and mitigation.
In developing countries, women living in poverty bear the burden of climate change consequences, as these create more work to fetch water, or to collect fuel and fodder—duties traditionally assigned to women. When households experience food shortages, which occur regularly and may become more frequent due to climate change, women are the first to go without food so that children and men may eat. As rural areas experience desertification, decreased food production, and other economic and ecological hardships, these factors prompt increased male out-migration to urban centers with the promise of economic gain and wages returned to the family; these promises are not always fulfilled. In the short-term, and possibly long-term as well, male out-migration means more women are left behind with additional agricultural and household duties, such as caregiving. These women have even fewer resources to cope with seasonal and episodic weather and natural disasters.
Gender inequalities also mean that women and children are 14 times more likely to die in ecological disasters than men. For example, in the 1991 cyclone and flood in Bangladesh, 90% of the victims were women (IUCN based on Ikeda, 1995). The causes are multiple: warning information was not sent to women, who were largely confined in their homes; women are not trained swimmers; women’s caregiving responsibilities meant that women trying to escape the floods were often holding infants and towing elder family members, while husbands escaped alone; moreover, the increased risk of sexual assaults outside the home made women wait longer to leave, hoping that male relatives would return for them. Similarly in the 2004 Tsunami in Aceh, Sumatra, more than 75% of those who died were women (Oxfam). In May 2008, after Cyclone Nargis came ashore in the Ayeyarwady Division of Myanmar, women and girls were 61% of the 130, 000 people dead or missing in the aftermath (Post-Nargis Joint Assessment, 2014, p.61).
The deaths of so many mothers leads to increased infant mortality, early marriage of girls, increased neglect of girls' education, sexual assaults, trafficking in women and child prostitution. Even in industrialized countries, more women than men died during the 2003 European heat wave, and during Hurricane Katrina in the US, African-American women - the poorest population in that part of the country - faced the greatest obstacles to survival. Women who survive climate change disasters are then faced with the likelihood of sexual assault: for example, after Hurricane Katrina, rapes were “reported by dozens of survivors” and mentioned in news stories, but there was no discussion of rape support teams being included with the rescue teams, and no mention of reproductive health services that should have been made available to women who had been raped. Moreover, the likely assaults on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered queer (GLBTQ) persons went unreported.
In 2018, Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown described the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming, but the book doesn’t present the solutions in order of effectiveness, but rather in ways that Hawken expects his readers will be able to be persuaded! So when you look at the back of the book for the listing of most potent solutions, here’s what you find: out of 100 ranked solutions, a plant-rich diet is #4, educating girls is #6, and family planning is #7. These top rankings for vegan diets that reduce animal suffering, and for girls‘ and women’s self-determination through education and bodily reproductive control confirm ecofeminism’s analysis: gender and species liberation is fundamental to our planetary survival and socioeconomic well-being.
Q: Which ecofeminist projects, activists and scholars inspire you and give you hope for a positive change?
I’m inspired by global feminisms such as the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) focusing on international governance and climate justice; the Women’s Earth Alliance protecting land rights, seed-saving, and sustainable farms; Women’s Voices for the Earth, addressing environmental health and justice via hair and nail salon environments, cleaning and sanitary products, pregnancy and chemicals of concern; and the Women’s Environmental Institute, teaching food justice and organic farming.
Certainly, indigenous women’s leadership in the Standing Rock Pipeline resistance and water protection actions has inspired many young women’s eco-justice actions, as has the activism of Berta Cáceres, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and now the activist behind the “Green New Deal,” Rhiana Gunn-Wright of Chicago.
I truly believe the culmination of women’s activism over the centuries is coming to fruition, and not a moment too soon for our planet, and for the survival and well-being of so many species and marginalized humans.I would urge any feminist who despairs to turn to progressive media like Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center, or London’s The Guardian. Despair is often connection to a sense of isolation, and a belief that we are acting alone - far from it! Feminism, ecofeminism, indigenous feminisms, posthumanist and anti-speciesist feminisms are all taking action for life on earth.
Finally, the intersectional ecofeminist praxis -- linking the liberation of species, gender, class, ecology, sexuality -- articulated through the activism and education provided by pattrice jones and the VINE Sanctuary activists give me great inspiration too! It’s the accumulation of these local acts and organizations of resistance and of justice that will create the tipping point we need to bring about a more ecologically just society.
Articles and books that were referenced in this interview (sorted by author's name):
Adams, Carol J. 1990. The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory.
Alaimo, Stacy, Hekman, Susan. 2008. Material feminisms.
Cantor, Aviva. 1983. The club, the yoke, and the leash: What we can learn from the way a culture treats animals. Ms. Magazine (August), 27-29. (Link to full article)
Gaard, Greta. 1993. Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature.
Gaard, Greta. 2011. Ecofeminism revisited: Rejecting essentialism and re-placing species in a material feminist environmentalism. Feminist Formations, 23(2), 26-53.
Gaard, Greta. 2015. Ecofeminism and climate change. In Women's Studies International Forum (Vol. 49, pp. 20-33). Pergamon.
Huggan, Graham & Tiffin, Helen. 2015. Postcolonial ecocriticism: Literature, animals, environment.
Ikeda, Keiko. 1995. Gender differences in human loss and vulnerability in natural disasters: A case study from Bangladesh. Bulletin (Centre for Women's Development Studies), 2(2), 171-193.
Hawken, Paul. 2017. Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.
MacGregor, Sherilyn. 2017. Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment.
Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona, & Erickson, Bruce. 2010. Queer ecologies: Sex, nature, politics, desire. Indiana University Press.
Shiva, Vandana & Mies, Maria. 2014. Ecofeminism.
Stephens & Sprinkle. 2013. Goodbye Gauley mountain: An ecosexual love story.
Selected publications by Greta Gaard:
Gaard, G. 2015. Ecofeminism and Climate Change. Women's Studies International Forum 19, 20-33.
Gaard, G. 2014. Indigenous Women, Feminism, and the Environmental Humanities. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, 1(3) (Fall).
Gaard, G. 2014. What's the Story? Competing Narratives of Climate Change and Climate Justice. Forum for World Literature Studies 6(2), 272-291 (Tsinghua University, China).
Gaard, G. 2013. Toward a Postcolonial Feminist Milk Studies. American Quarterly: Special Issue on Race, Gender, Species, 65(3), 595-618.
Gaard, G. (2012) Speaking of Animal Bodies." Hypatia, 27(3), 29-35. Available at: http://thephilosopherseye.com/2012/07/09/hypatia-symposium-greta-gaard/
Gaard, G. 2011. Ecofeminism' Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in a Material Feminist Environmentalism." Feminist Formations. 23(2), 26-53.
Gaard, G. 2010. Reproductive Technology, or Reproductive Justice? An Ecofeminist, Environmental Justice Perspective on the Rhetoric of Choice. Ethics & the Environment, 15(2), 103-129.
Gaard, G. 2010. New Directions for Ecofeminism: Toward a More Feminist Ecocriticism." ISLE:Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, 17(4), 1-23.
Gaard, G. 2002. Vegetarian ecofeminism: A review essay. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 23(3), 117-146.
Gaard, G. 2001. Women, water, energy: An ecofeminist approach. Organization & Environment, 14(2), 157-172.
Gaard, G. 1997. Toward a queer ecofeminism. Hypatia, 12(1), 114-137.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are prepared to the interviewee’s and the interviewer’s best capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Vegan Rainbow Project itself. Please also not that people change and so do their opinions. We kindly ask you to be mindful of that when reading past articles and/ or statements that are referenced in this interview.
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