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'Street-Fighters and Philosophers': Ecofeminism in the Anthropocene

Lecturer: Lara Stevens

Originally Taught: Summer School 2018

Ecofeminism emerges at the intersection of two progressive twentieth-century political movements: one concerned with the fight for women’s rights and the other with the ecological sustainability of the environment. The battle between the rights of the nonhuman world and the rights of corporations poses the greatest ethical challenge of our generation. This course maps the history of ecofeminism globally but offers an in-depth exploration of the ideas of key Australian ecofeminist philosophers – Val Plumwood, Freya Mathews, Ariel Salleh – who have been leaders in the international movement.

For many ecofeminists, ecofeminism is not an abstract theoretical project or scholarly exercise, rather, it has been fully integrated into their ways of living. Ariel Salleh writes that: ‘[e]cological feminists are both street-fighters and philosophers’. As such, each session, the course will also consider the activist advocacy of ecofeminists as it traces the movement’s alignment with recent social, cultural and artistic developments. It looks to some major examples where this conceptual shift was put into action such as at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, Pine Gap Women’s Peace Camp, in the work of the Climate Guardians, in the Knitting Nannas Against Gas, in the performance art of Jill Orr and r e a, to name a few.

In the struggle for women’s liberation and environmental protection, the historical philosophical tension between idealism and materialism plays out in a new context. Ecofeminism shows that the way in which we think, speak about and engage with the natural world also has a bearing on how we conceptualise and treat the bodies of women and the labours they perform. Ecofeminists have long shown that the resourcing of women and the natural world are structurally interconnected to the long-term ideological conditions of patriarchy and exacerbated by the more recent developments of capitalism and neoliberalism and the way these have altered, for example, old agricultural practices and replaced them with factory farming or seed patenting. The effects of such practices have been shown to most acutely increase the precarity of the lives and livelihoods of women, children, the poor, the colonised and racial minorities.

Ecofeminism is a vital area of study for our contemporary moment as we face deepening environmental crises and the ongoing violence against women in all its forms.

Course Schedule

1. Ecofeminism v. deep ecology

Session 1 covers the rise of the ecofeminist movement in Europe, North America, Australia and India and its response to environmental philosophy. In particular it looks at the ecofeminist critique of the philosophies of deep ecology led by Arne Naess and Warwick Fox.

This session will situate the ecofeminist movement within what has become known as the Anthropocene – the recognition that human actions are responsible for massive environmental change to the point that it might be considered a discrete geological age.

2. Dismantling the dualisms: Ecofeminists v. Plato, Descartes and Bacon

Session 2 looks at ecofeminist responses to the work of Plato, Descartes and Bacon, pointing out the links between the ways in which these thinkers understood elements of the natural world and their tendency to align them with women or assign ‘mother nature’ feminine attributes. Key to the ecofeminist contribution is their critique of the hierarchised dualisms through which these Ancient Greek and Enlightenment philosophers characterised the world and its ‘progress’.

3. Panpsychism and the Spizonists

Session 3 considers the influence of Spinoza on the ecofeminist movement, particularly in the work of Freya Mathews and her theories on panpsychism which also engaged with and borrowed from Aboriginal Australian philosophies of care for ‘country’.

4. Embodied debt and Marxism

Session 4 explores the strong influence of Marxism and socialism on ecofeminist philosophical and activist movements. It looks particularly to women-led collective environmental struggles in parts of the developing world. It will consider how the balance of power and responsibility and the question of ecological debt and embodied debt are influencing the climate and gender politics of the twenty-first century in global negotiations such as those at United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in 2015.

5. Is ecofeminism feminist?

Session 5 reflects on the question of whether ecofeminism is feminist. It will cover what became known as the ‘essentialism debates’ of the 1980s and the ways in which concerns about the actions of women as the housekeepers to the oikos at large -- cleaning up the mess of industrial capitalism -- continue to trouble ecofeminist activism today. The final session will also contemplate the implications of the so-called ‘new materialisms’ for ecofeminism.