Ecofeminism by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies; some International Women’s Day reflections

The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change.” In Ecofeminism, first published in 1993, then republished with a foreword and additional preface in 2014, Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies demonstrate that the premises underlying such a motto conflict with women’s liberation and the movement for ecological preservation.

The notion that we could think equality into being is spurious and elides the hegemonic power structures that systematically produce harmful socio-economic disparity. Conceptually, this approach places harm-reduction in an intellectual realm, rather than in the material, bodily, natural world. Neither the methods nor the means for societal restructuring will emerge from the intellectual bastions of academe, think-tank, or other elite institution. Further, when considering equality we have to ask: equal to what and by what standard? Capitalism requires inequality and under its auspices the burden of inequality—i.e. impoverishment—can only be shifted to an elsewhere Otherized population. In her 2014 preface Shiva writes,

‘[A] model of capitalist patriarchy which excludes women’s work and wealth creation in the mind deepens the violence by displacing women from their livelihoods and alienating them from the natural resources on which their lives depend — their land, their forests, their water, their seeds and biodiversity. Economic reforms based on the idea of limitless growth in a limited world can only be maintained if the powerful grab the resources of the vulnerable. The resource-grab that is essential for “growth” creates a culture of rape — rape of the Earth, of local self-reliant economies, of women. The only way in which this “growth” is “inclusive” is by its inclusion of ever larger numbers in its ever growing circle of violence.’

Women’s work—unpaid care, emotional labor, subsistence production—is necessary work for our social existence; to exhort, force, or coerce women to leave this work (or “balance” this work) to enter the workforce of the paid employment market under the guise of equalizing women to men tacitly takes the capitalist-patriarchal world of men’s work as the standard to which all should aspire to attain. The costs of this are little acknowledged, yet they are numerous, with many of these exposed in Shiva’s and Mies’ activist writing.

“Build smart” is vague enough to seem innocuous, yet when we look at its connotations the phrase can be seen to belie the real needs of the people. Namely, it masks the need for redistribution of resources and sustenance as a foundation of social construction, not increased technological “advancement” through “smart” technologies, not increased progression in building up the capitalist-colonial infrastructures, but a deconstruction of them so as to bring our lives into alignment with the natural world on which we depend. Interviewing grassroots organizers protesting against the building of a mine that was destroying the ecology of their village, Shiva asks, “What are the three most important things you want to conserve?” The answer,

‘Our freedom and forests and food. Without these, we are nothing, we are impoverished. With our own food production we are prosperous — we do not need jobs from businessmen and governments — we make our own livelihood… Gujral’s mine is destroying our work and our prosperity while they talk of mining and “creating” work and prosperity.’

Innovation is not a requirement for the change such women need. Rather, an attentiveness to the knowledges that have been systematically undermined by capitalist-colonial-patriarchal force. The knowledge of our ancestors whose ways of living sustained them for millennia, of our foremothers whose knowledges were such threat to burgeoning patriarchy, increasing privatization, and emergent capitalism that they were—and are—suppressed through ritualistic dehumanization. For change to be sustainable we need to uncover buried ways of being, we need not flights of fancy, but roots.

It’s especially pertinent in Women’s History Month to reflect on the origins of an international day for women, which are rooted in early 20th century women’s socialist and communist organizing (the Women’s Day of 1917 in Russia precipitated the Russian Revolution and the overthrow of czarism) and only became recognized by the UN in 1975—after the second wave of women’s liberationist grassroots organizing reverberated through the capitalist nations of the Global North. I suggest this top-down method deployed by the UN of neat sloganeering and implicit acceptance of hegemonic principles serves more to disconnect us and impose upon us than to approach women’s liberation in a manner consonant with women’s real needs and desires.

By contrast, Shiva and Mies approach writing from a perspective of grassroots organizing in the anti-nuclear power and anti-colonial movements. In Ecofeminism they bring together this experience and demonstrate how not only are the anti-nuclear power and anti-neocolonialist aims interconnected, but also how these movements are deeply intertwined with anti-capitalist, environmentalist, and women’s liberatory movements. As Ariel Salleh writes in her foreword:

‘Only connect — this sums up what the [ecofeminist] perspective is about. Ecofeminism is the only political framework I know of that can spell out the historical links between neoliberal capital, militarism, corporate science, worker alienation, domestic violence, reproductive technologies, sex tourism, child molestation, neocolonialism, Islamophobia, extractivism, nuclear weapons, industrial toxics, land and water grabs, deforestation, genetic engineering, climate change and the myth of modern progress. Ecofeminist solutions are also synergistic; the organization of daily life around subsistence fosters food sovereignty, participatory democracy and reciprocity with natural ecosystems.’

This International Women’s Day, I urge you to remember our foresisters in struggle, not piecemeal, but whole. To make the connection between our continued survival and a renewal of respect for our first mother, Earth. To recognize that the struggle for women’s liberation is collective and interdependent. Our sisters need us, and we need them. In solidarity. 

The 20th anniversary edition of Ecofeminism by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies with a forward by Ariel Salleh is published by Zed Books as part of their critique influence change series.

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Filed under: Essays


Cara Belle Scott is a womanist, a single mother of one and a lifelong avid reader. She posts about books on Instagram, Goodreads, and Litsy @womanistbibliophile


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