Post by Jenny Seifert
Changing a paradigm is no easy task—an understatement, no doubt. It probably seems just as easy as solving the world’s environmental problems. And shifting the paradigms that underlie those problems may seem like a doubly impossible task. Yet, the fate of humanity might hang on our ability to accomplish the impossible.
So, where do we even begin? I would argue the first step is to change the conversation—that is, how we even talk about and thus view our relationship with nature. We need to rid ourselves of the cultural narratives that have enabled environmental abuse and adopt an alternative storyline.
One movement that is attempting to drastically change the conversation but, in my opinion, has been too confined to academic circles is ecofeminism.
While its discourse has several side conversations, the overarching ecofeminist battle cry is this: ecological problems are social and cultural problems arising from a patriarchal society that supports the domination of nature.
In other words, just as patriarchy oppresses and “others” groups of people (namely, women, minorities, and the poor), so too it oppresses and “others” nature. The resulting dualism—humans versus nature—enables people to alienate themselves from nature, weakening their empathy for it and, thus, creating space for the fear that fuels the urge to dominate all that is “wild.”
To illustrate, let’s connect ecofeminism with a real life example: wildlife management. When we talk about human-wildlife interactions, the notions of conflict and coexistence are prevalent. Theoretically, wildlife management is concerned with mitigating and minimizing conflicts between humans and wildlife and finding that happy (if still-elusive) medium of coexistence.
However, ecofeminists would argue that in its pursuit of coexistence, wildlife management is hindered by patriarchy’s tyranny. Under the patriarchal thumb, wildlife management is stuck in a paradigm that supports inequality between human and nonhuman species, as well as between the (human) genders.
Looking first at species inequality, as long as wildlife management functions in a patriarchal world, in which our cultural narrative gives humans supremacy over nonhumans, coexistence cannot truly happen. This form of oppression even has its own “-ism”: speciesism.
In the words of prominent ecofeminist Greta Gaard, “From an ecofeminist perspective, speciesism is a form of oppression that parallels and reinforces other forms of oppression.”
Ecofeminists explain these parallels with Iris Marion Young’s five faces of social oppression: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Humans exploit wildlife—their bodies, habitat, and labor—for their consumption. Humans marginalize wildlife from their native habitats in the name of “progress.” Humans often hold the fate of wildlife in their hands, rendering them powerless. Humans impose their dominant symbolic meanings (e.g., myths, rituals, and stereotypes) on animals through cultural imperialism, thus suppressing their true being and rights. Humans inflict violence on wildlife in the form of hunting, fishing, and other acts that cause the death of individual animals or the extinctions of species.
For a poster-child example, let’s take a brief look at the gray wolf in North America. Throughout American history, the gray wolf has been a symbol of the feared wilderness that must be tamed or destroyed. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dominant masculine construction of society was predicated on the mastery and control of nature, which fueled a “war on wolves,” causing a near annihilation of the species.
More recently, in the 2000s, Alaskan sportsmen pushed to reinstate lethal “control” of wolf populations. Hunters were blaming wolves for the declining ungulate (elk, moose, etc.) populations and, thus, sought to eliminate the competition. As it turned out, the real culprits were human-driven: economic changes, climate change, and overhunting.
One could further speculate on the role patriarchy has played in the recent return of a wolf hunting season in a few US states.
Peering through the ecofeminist lens, we could say that the long-troubled relationship between humans and wolves symbolizes patriarchy’s stubborn attempt to reestablish and reaffirm its dominance when threatened—a struggle that only perpetuates discordance between humans and wildlife.
Patriarchy has controlled not only how we view our relationships with wildlife, but also how we manage those relationships, which brings us to gender inequality. Historically, wildlife management has been a male-dominated profession with male-dominated constituencies—hunters and anglers, mostly. Even though not all men are patriarchal, this gender imbalance renders wildlife management incapable of meeting the needs of both humans and wildlife in an equal and just manner.
For example, women’s voices have been suppressed in wildlife management. One study showed that women have been underrepresented in wildlife attitude surveys. It found that surveys are typically either addressed to or completed by the man of the house, thus limiting opportunities for women to weigh in. Since wildlife managers often use stakeholder surveys to determine their policies, this exclusion of women’s perspectives certainly implies inequality in the citizen participation process.
The significance of this gender imbalance lies in the evidence that women are often the wildlife-friendlier half of our species. As prominent wildlife attitudes expert Stephen Kellert has shown in his research, women are more likely to express greater concern for animal welfare and less support for the exploitation of animals. Men, on the other hand, are more willing to exploit animals and their habitats, especially for human benefit.
Therefore, it would seem that making an improved effort to integrate women’s perspectives into wildlife management practices could lower the patriarchal upper hand in decision-making between humans.
But even if both genders’ voices were equally heard, coexistence would remain elusive without the basis of a species-equal ethic, which brings us back to narratives. By shifting our dominant cultural narrative to one that positions animals as our equals and their oppression as behavior that must end, we just might begin to achieve the impossible: a paradigm that enables true coexistence.
Disclaimer: I do not pretend to be an ecofeminist scholar; I am quite an amateur. Ecofeminism drew my interest several years ago, and I was fortunate to explore it a bit more deeply in graduate school. This post is intended to merely spark discussion and interest in further exploration.
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Jenny Seifert is an environmental communications professional, and was formerly an editor at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.