Kate Lewis Hood is currently undertaking a masters by research at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on contemporary women’s poetry and the Anthropocene. She is also a poetry editor at The Missing Slate, an online journal for international arts and literature. Her Twitter handle is @katyslh
In her acceptance speech for the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, Honduran 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’, she said.[i] Devastatingly, after setting up the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and protesting against the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River, Cáceres herself really was out of time; on 3 March 2016, she was murdered in her home by armed assassins. Cáceres was considered a dangerous woman by state officials and international corporations with interests in the dam-building projects, and her death – but also, more importantly, her life and work – highlighted the dangerous nature of the tasks that women environmental activists are undertaking around the globe. The work of these women is dangerous in multiple senses, positive as well as negative. By challenging forces that threaten and exploit human and nonhuman lives and environments, they also challenge certain ways of thinking about ‘nature’ and its inextricable links to social and political factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, class, and species.
In this context, the gendering of nature across a range of cultural traditions is important. Cáceres’ reference to ‘Mother Earth (madre tierra)’ points to one amongst many ideas of a personified, feminised nature, each differing according to the specific cultural and conceptual frameworks from which it emerges. In Western philosophy, myth, and literature, for example, 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. However, such ideas are not confined to the premodern era, or to literature or myth. Earth scientist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis’, developed in the 1970s, for instance, draws upon ideas of a female Nature; the name Gaia refers to the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth, but is now also associated with scientific understandings of the planet’s workings. Importantly, Gaia is not a single figure, but an organic body or living system, comprised of multiple elements. It, or she, is ‘a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet’.[ii]
It is such an organicist understanding that ecofeminist philosopher Carolyn Merchant claimed was lost during the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Arguing that the ‘death of nature’ – its shift from 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, Merchant made connections between the feminist and environmentalist movements growing rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. In doing so, she advocated new social structures and practices able to resist and overcome ‘the domination of women and nature as resources’.[iii] Faced with such conceptual and material violence, 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, especially in the Western ‘rationalist’ accounts mentioned above. These accounts, Plumwood suggests, essentialise both women and the environment, allowing misogynistic stereotypes to be upheld, while using ideas of the ‘natural’ to justify inequalities along social and political lines. Against these essentialising practices, she writes:
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.[iv]
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 does not simply attempt to reverse the terms; rather, she seeks to examine continuities and differences in less hierarchical terms. In doing so, she shifts emphasis from essential characteristics to actions: a shift with important political implications. 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. Here we find a whole set of real dangerous women, including Cáceres, who 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 obvious examples is Rachel Carson, whose seminal work Silent Spring was published in 1962. Charting the effects of pesticide use on human and nonhuman species in an engaging style for a non-specialist audience, the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies not only in America but also 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’.[v]
In 1977, on the other side of the globe, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement. This was a response to the increasing problems that rural Kenyan women were having with sourcing food, water, and firewood, as a result of intense deforestation and soil erosion. With climate change and 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.[vi] In this situation, planting trees was not only ecologically beneficial and economically necessary, but it was also political; as Rob Nixon has written, the planting became an ‘iconic act of civil disobedience’ that has grown far beyond its humble beginnings.[vii] In this sense, the Green Belt Movement calls attention to the ways that practical responses to environmental change developed by ordinary women have subversive potential. (Editor’s note: You can find a post on Wangari Maathai here)
As the perhaps aptly-named Gaia Vince points out in her recent book Adventures in the Anthropocene, women’s labour, education, and activism are crucial to the Earth’s future. However, as we have seen, 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 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.[viii]
Worryingly, the cases of Ruiz and Cáceres are not isolated examples, and the danger involved in women’s environmental activism is only increasing. Earlier last year, Global Witness reported that 185 people across 16 countries were killed in 2015 over the defence of land and environment, an increase of 59% on the 2014 total. Of this number, 40% were indigenous people, a highly disproportionate amount.[ix] These dangerous times suggest an urgent need for more intersectional, ecological, feminist work. Such work is happening; it was LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Lakota Sioux woman, who set up the first resistance camp at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests earlier last year. In a comment for Refinery29, 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.'[x] This response to a danger that is at once collective and unequal highlights what is at stake for the dangerous women of the Anthropocene. In order to sustain but also to live amongst our environments, Berta Cáceres said in her acceptance speech, ‘we must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction.’
[i] 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.
[ii] James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 10.
[iii] Carolyn Merchant. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Wildwood House, 1981, p. xv.
[iv] Val Plumwood. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1993, p. 9.
[v] 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.
[vi] Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement, http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are/our-history. Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
[vii] Rob Nixon. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011, p. 129.
[viii] Gaia Vince. Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made. Chatto & Windus, 2014, pp. 266-78.
[ix] Global Witness. On Dangerous Ground, 20 Jun. 2016, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/reports/dangerous-ground. Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
[x] 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.
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