Kate Lewis Hood is a PhD candidate in English and Geography at Queen Mary University of London. Her research focuses on contemporary poetry and the Anthropocene, with a particular emphasis on dialogue between new materialist, black feminist, and indigenous thinking. She co-edits amberflora, an online magazine for eco and world poetry, and CUMULUS, a small print journal of experimental poetry.
In her acceptance speech for the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Lenca activist Berta Cáceres stated powerfully that ‘Our Mother Earth – militarised, fenced in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action.’ Such action is urgently needed: ‘we’re out of time’.1 After founding the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and protesting with great stamina and energy against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project on the Gualcarque river (ancestral Lenca territory), Cáceres herself was out of time. On 3 March 2016, she was murdered in her home by armed assassins. She was one of 201 environmental defenders to be killed that year.2 Cáceres was considered a dangerous woman by state officials and international corporations with interests in the dam-building project, and her death – but also, more importantly, her life and work – highlight the dangerous nature of the challenges that women environmental activists are taking up around the globe.
Cáceres’ reference to Mother Earth (Madre Tierra) points to one among many ideas of a feminised nature across a wide range of cultures and traditions, each differing according to the specific contexts from which it emerges. In ongoing struggles against settler colonialism, indigenous peoples across the world note a crucial relation between being and land that differs fundamentally from Euro-Western notions of land as property and nonhuman natures as resources. After the Idle No More movement (founded by four women) erupted in Canada in 2012, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes:
Our nationhood is based on the idea that the earth is our first mother, that ‘natural resources’ are not ‘natural resources’ at all, but gifts from our mother. Our nationhood is based on the foundational concept that we should give up what we can to support the integrity of our homelands for the coming generations. We should give more than we take.3
In Euro-Western frameworks, the gendering of nature has evolved differently. In Western philosophy, myth, and literature, a female Nature is often represented as mediating between divine powers and the material world. Responsible both for maintaining order and for overturning it, this Nature is at once nurturing and dangerous. Early ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant claimed that such an understanding of nature was lost during the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This ‘death of nature’ – a shift from nature as living being to inert machine in scientific and humanistic accounts – led to the intensification of ecological exploitation as part of a male-dominated, capitalist narrative of progress. Significantly, Merchant made connections between the feminist and environmentalist movements growing rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. She advocated new social structures and practices able to resist and overcome ‘the domination of women and nature as resources’.4 Faced with the conceptual and material violence of a patriarchal system of ecological damage, it might seem tempting to try to reclaim nature as a dangerous woman, capable of fighting back.
However, as Val Plumwood, another ecofeminist philosopher, has shown, to do so is to risk perpetuating the damaging associations and implications of the gendering of nature in the Western ‘rationalist’ accounts mentioned above. These accounts essentialise both women and the environment, allowing misogynistic stereotypes to be upheld, while using ideas of the ‘natural’ to justify structural inequality. Against these essentialising practices, Plumwood argues:
Not all women are empathic, nurturant and co-operative. . .Women do not necessarily treat other women as sisters or the earth as a mother; women are capable of conflict, of domination and even, in the right circumstances, of violence. Western women may not have been in the forefront of the attack on nature, driving the bulldozers and operating the chainsaws, but many of them have been support troops, or have been participants, often unwitting but still enthusiastic, in a modern consumer culture of which they are the main symbols, and which assaults nature in myriad direct and indirect ways daily.5
Plumwood’s approach is firmly intersectional, and her notion of the dangerous woman in relation to environmental feminism is ambivalent and complex. Such an approach resonates in the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch in which humans have impacted massively – and perhaps irreversibly – on the Earth’s systems and processes. The anthropos part of the word Anthropocene means ‘human’, and yet, as critics of the term have pointed out, the Anthropocene neither was caused by nor affects all humans equally. In order to counter the ‘rational’ dualistic thinking that subordinates nature to human, woman to man, indigenous to settler, Plumwood resists simply reversing the terms; rather, she seeks different models of continuity and difference, with the emphasis on actions rather than essential characteristics. She reminds us that ‘women have also played a major role, largely unacknowledged, in a male-led and male-dominated environment movement, in resisting and organising against the assault on nature’.
Since the Anthropocene’s proposed beginning in the postwar period, women’s environmental activism has been diverse and influential. A whole set of dangerous women, including Cáceres, have worked globally and locally both to fight against ecological degradation, and to contest the terms in which it has been framed. One of the most well known examples is marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose seminal work Silent Spring (1962) charted the effects of pesticide use on human and nonhuman species. Written in an engaging style for a non-specialist audience, the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the US and further afield, and contributed to a growing environmental consciousness. Nevertheless, when the book was first published, Carson was repeatedly vilified as ‘hysterical’, ‘inaccurate’, and a ‘communist’, a highly dangerous accusation in Cold War America.6 In 1977, on the other side of the globe, the activist Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement. This was a response to the increasing problems that rural Kenyan women were having sourcing food, water, and firewood as a result of intense deforestation and soil erosion. Through climate change and environmental exploitation, good soil was being washed away, leaving only arid land behind. In order to combat this, the Green Belt Movement advocated planting trees, which would work to bind and sustain the soil so that it could support vegetation.7 In this context, planting trees was not only ecologically beneficial and economically necessary, but it was also a political act; as Rob Nixon argues in his account of the ‘slow violence’ of (neo)colonial environmental degradation in the global South, planting became an ‘iconic act of civil disobedience’ that has grown far beyond its humble beginnings.8 The Green Belt Movement highlights the ways that practical responses to environmental change developed by ordinary women have subversive potential.
As the science journalist Gaia Vince points out in Adventures in the Anthropocene (2014), women’s labour, education, and activism are crucial to the Earth’s future. However, where women activists are viewed as dangerous by governments and corporations who seek to exploit the environment in order to benefit certain individuals and groups at the expense of others, they are also repeatedly put in danger. One of the people Vince spends time with is Rosa Maria Ruiz, who founded the organisation Eco Bolivia and was instrumental in setting up Madidi National Park in opposition to increasing attacks on the Amazon Rainforest by loggers and animal traffickers. While National Park projects elsewhere have been criticised for their treatment of indigenous people, Ruiz worked with the land’s 1,700 indigenous inhabitants in an attempt to conserve human livelihoods as well as the lives of the thousands of nonhuman species making up the rainforest. In 2003, Ruiz received multiple death threats, and in 2004, military forces burnt down the forest cabins and workshops she had built, forcing her to flee from the site.9
The cases of Ruiz and Cáceres are not isolated examples, and the danger involved in women’s environmental activism is only increasing. In 2017, the Guardian started a collaboration with Global Witness to keep record of the people killed over the defence of land and environment.10 In their report At What Cost? on violence to environmental defenders in 2017, Global Witness note that although 90% of those killed in 2017 were men, women faced gender-specific threats such as smear campaigns, threats to their children, and sexual violence. In addition, indigenous peoples were massively overrepresented among those killed.11 These dangerous times suggest an urgent need for more intersectional, ecological, feminist work.
In 2016, it was a Lakota woman, LaDonna BraveBull Allard, who set up the resistance camp at the Dakota Access Pipeline. Faced with the threat of an underground oil pipeline, she explained her reasons for founding the camp: ‘Water is life. Water is the centre of everything. Water is female. As females, we must stand up for the water. We have no choice. Without water, we all die. It’s common sense to me. We must save the water.’12 As feminist-indigenous scholar Kim TallBear shows, this is one of many women-led movements for ‘caretaking kin’, where kin is understood beyond the narrow terms of settler colonial familial relations. TallBear reminds us that caretaking is not the ‘sole domain’ of women, neither is it exclusive to women: ‘[m]en and gender-nonconforming people…also help caretake our peoples, make relations, and add to our collective strength’. But, she adds, ‘the women-led condition of these movements is striking’.13 And these movements continue to be necessary. In early 2017, the newly-elected US President Donald Trump approved the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline. Nevertheless, women environmental activists around the globe continue to fight on. This ongoing response to a danger that is at once collective and unequal reveals what is at stake for the dangerous women of the Anthropocene. As Berta Cáceres said in her acceptance speech, in order to sustain but also to live in and with our environments, ‘we must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.’ I dedicate this – with gratitude, solidarity, and anger – to all the dangerous women who are fighting to do so.
- Berta Cáceres. ‘Berta Caceres Acceptance Speech, 2015 Goldman Prize Ceremony.’ YouTube, uploaded by Goldman Environmental Prize, 22 Apr. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AR1kwx8b0ms. Accessed 17 Dec. 2016.
- ‘Environmental and Land Defenders Killed in 2016: The Full List.’ The Guardian, 13 Jul. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/13/environmental-and-land-defenders-killed-in-2016-the-full-list. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. ‘I am Not a Nation-State.’ https://www.leannesimpson.ca/writings/i-am-not-a-nation-state. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
- Carolyn Merchant. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Wildwood House, 1981, p. xv.
- Val Plumwood. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1993, p. 9.
- Mark Stoll. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: A Book That Changed the World. Environment and Society Portal, http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/silent-spring/personal-attacks-rachel-carson. Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
- Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement, http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are/our-history. Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
- Rob Nixon. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 129.
- Gaia Vince. Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made. Chatto & Windus, 2014, pp. 266-78.
- ‘The Defenders.’ The Guardian, 17 Jul. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2018/feb/27/the-defenders-recording-the-deaths-of-environmental-defenders-around-the-world. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
- Global Witness. At What Cost?, 2018, https://www.globalwitness.org/en-gb/campaigns/environmental-activists/at-what-cost/, p. 10. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
- Jenni Monet. ‘The Crucial Roles Women are Playing at Standing Rock – In Photos.’ Refinery29, 13 Dec. 2016, http://www.refinery29.uk/2016/12/132989/standing-rock-protest-womens-photos#slide-7. Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
- Kim TallBear. ‘Badass (Indigenous) Women Caretake Relations: #NoDAPL, #IdleNoMore, #BlackLivesMatter.’ Cultural Anthropology, 22 Dec. 2016, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/1019-badass-indigenous-women-caretake-relations-nodapl-idlenomore-blacklivesmatter. Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.
The feature image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC by 4.0). Photographer: Daniel Cima, Organisation: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos