Ecofeminism and Radical Ecological Democracy

A conversation between Ariel Salleh and Ashish Kothari

 AK: How does feminism come together with ecological thinking to question ‘development fundamentalism’ in the global South?

 AS: In North and South, ecofeminist politics is based on women’s daily efforts to survive with their communities in an increasingly death-risking, profit-driven masculinist culture. From the start, ecological feminists rejected the model of economic globalization and stood apart from western liberal individualist feminism. Women and children are always the people most affected by development projects and war.

A Palestinian woman farmer, defiantly surviving the Israeli land occupation.

In the 70s and 80s, women’s opposition to the nuclear industry was a catalyst for this consciousness, and many ecofeminist activists focused on the state and military industrial complex. Emblematic protests were held at the US Pentagon, at Greenham Common missile base UK, and in Australian cities over uranium mining on indigenous lands. ‘Women-for-life-on-earth’ would take both direct action and reflect critically on the poverty of patriarchal knowledge making.

AK: Is there a literature of ecofeminism?

AS: Yes, and it is still very much in process. Basically ecofeminists see deep cultural links between the eurocentric exploitation of ‘Mother Nature’ so called, the domination of women, and by extension, domination of the racialized and species ‘others’. Although the word ‘eco-feminism’ first appeared in print with Francoise D’Eaubonne’s Feminism or Death (1974), grassroots women on every continent were coining the same hybrid term to describe their own movement resistance.

Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature (1980) deepened this critique of patriarchal entitlement by analyzing ‘the scientific revolution’ from Bacon to Descartes. In England, a state organized witch-hunt of women herbalists and midwives enabled the establishment of a Royal Society for men. Soon modern professional medicine would be treating the body not as an organism but as a machine manipulated by the measurement of indicators.

The ecological costs of this reductionist and mechanistic science were spelled out by Vandana Shiva in Staying Alive (1989). Thus in 20th century India, ‘development’ technologies like petro-farming and genetically engineered seeds introduced as a ‘green revolution’ have had disastrous impacts on soils, water, forests, and people’s livelihoods. I would say that the authors mentioned here offer foundational ecofeminist statements, while a younger generation of women creatively carried this politics forward.

AK: Does ecofeminism fit into a wider socialist formulation?

 AS: Socialism is actually a narrower framework than ecofeminism! Women were not recognized by Marx as a ‘class’ or ‘agents of history’. But women’s free domestic labor is appropriated by husbands and subsidizes capital by reproducing society in both biological and cultural senses of that word. According to Mariarosa Dalla Costa in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1972), women birth each generation of workers unpaid and service the waged working men who produce surplus value for capitalism.

Maria Mies’ book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) built on Rosa Luxemburg’s idea of the colonies providing indispensible labor, resources, and markets for accumulation. Moreover, colonial trade destroyed West African women’s economic independence while furthering German women’s subjection as ‘consumer housewives’ in the domestic enclosure. There is no doubt that ecofeminism is a materialist politics, although given the problematic sex-gender dimension, I like to describe it as ‘an embodied materialism’.

Historically, masculinist institutions constitute ‘the world’s first political order’ going back thousands of years – whereas capitalism is a mere 500 years old. Socialist explanations still prioritize capitalism, treating sex-gender as an add-on. My book, Ecofeminism as Politics (1997) examines the effect of this error on the potential unity of political movements – worker’s, women’s, indigenous’, and ecological. And the book calls for ‘sex-gender reflexivity’ among men comrades – just as women at a certain point, discovered that ‘the personal is political’.

AK: In what ways does ecofeminism inform and support the struggle for social and ecological justice globally? And what about climate change?

AS: Women, whether identifying themselves with the label ‘ecofeminist’ or not, form the bulk of voluntary workers in environmental NGOs. They drive neighborhood initiatives opposing deforestation or toxic soil and water contamination. On the international political scene, women readily speak out – as the World Rainforest Movement in Uruguay; as Wo-Min against mining in Africa; or as GenderCC at UN climate negotiations.

Women activists protesting the building of the Narmada Hydroelectric Project. Women have been in the forefront of the movement against big dams in India.

Ecofeminists argue that given a global political economy geared to men’s competitive search for wealth and status, as well as masculinist decision-making institutions, climate crisis is inevitably a sex-gendered problem. Further, the use of reductionist scientific models combined with neoliberal market logic in policy has prioritized carbon counting to the neglect of an holistic hands-on ecological understanding of industrial impacts on the climate.

 AK: Have ecofeminists faced resistance? What would be some successful interventions?

AS: The all but universal oppression of women influences ecofeminist politics in various ways. Successful women-led campaigns are often taken over by men moving in to up-front public spokesman roles. Marxists have dismissed ecofeminists as lacking ‘a class analysis’. Postmodern and technocratic feminists reject any argument from women’s reproductive labor as a reinforcement of traditional sex-gender roles. But feminist ecological economists are now coming to acknowledge the centrality of care work in the global economy.

In Australia, a woman led Movement Against Uranium Mining achieved a moratorium on the industry by successful lobbying of the Labor Party although this was rolled-back by a later government. One high profile ecofeminist mobilized parties to win a WTO Court action annulling corporate patenting of the Indian Neem tree.

The now influential US Environmental Justice movement actually began with mothers whose families were affected by industrial pollution of the Mississippi River.

Ecofeminists pioneered the degrowth idea with a ‘subsistence perspective’ based on the principle of eco-sufficiency. Ecofeminist thinkers and writers continue to challenge the masculinist blind spots of neoliberalism, ecological economics, socialism, environmental ethics, decolonial and degrowth movements. Since women make up half of humanity, there can be no global social justice if their/our experiences and skills are not heard respectfully and integrated into the worldwide struggle for an Earth Democracy.

Ariel Salleh is a scholar and activist, currently affiliated with Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Her books include Ecofeminism as Politics: nature, Marx and the postmodern (2017) and Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice (2009). Her articles and chapters on social ecological thought, globalisation, people’s science, water and climate politics and can be found at – Her ’embodied materialism’ is seminal to political ecology as an emerging study of humanity-nature relations. 

Latest book – “Ecofeminism As Politics”.  Available to RED readers with 40% off from with promo code ECOFEMINISM

Ashish Kothari is a co-founder of Kalpavrish Environmental Action Group

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