Humans are nature in embodied form

With Ariel Salleh about life on Earth, care and degrowth

We asked one of the most prominent figures of ecofeminism how her current activism relates to the current fight against climate change. Does it differ in any way from the original form of this movement that arose fifty years ago?

Ecofeminism is a lively movement, but also a system of thought, an ideology with many sprouts and a long history. How did it originate?

Ecological feminism as an everyday grassroots movement began in the late 70s, led by mothers, students, peasant and indigenous women concerned for the future of Life-on-Earth. In fact, this phrase often rang out in public protests over issues like toxic industrial neighbourhoods or nuclear weapons tests on indigenous lands. From the start, ecofeminist politics was 'intersectional', pushing beyond old social boundaries of class, race, age, and gender. A healthy living environment was seen as the 'bottom line' for everyone.

Calling ecofeminism 'an ideology', may be a little misleading, for that word implies a set of ideas that protects ruling class power. Ecofeminism serves to counter ideology, by challenging the global structures of patriarchal-capitalist-coloniality. It is a deconstructive tool rather than an ideology, offering an analysis of how this contemporary complex of oppressions works as a system.


What is the most striking difference between early ecofeminism and ecofeminism nowadays? 

The hybrid term eco/feminism is based on the observation that patriarchal traditions objectify and resource women's bodies under the rationale that 'they are closer to nature than men'. The earliest ecofeminist writers focused on this cultural framing. It was used for example by Rosemary Ruether in her study of Christianity New Woman, New Earth (1975) and in Carolyn Merchant's critique of the European scientific revolution The Death of Nature (1980). Maria Mies' book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1986) introduced a Marxist analysis, and Vandana Shiva's Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (1989) highlighted the economics of colonisation. My own work, Ecofeminism as Politics: nature, Marx, and the postmodern (1987) engaged with the literatures of Green politics, environmental ethics, and eco-socialism. Around the new millennium, ecofeminist ideas became a popular subject for 'poststructuralist' critique in US academia largely from a rather privileged class of women out of touch with most women's labours. Yet the political energies of women activists were undaunted, moving on to tackle ever wider agendas, like genetically engineered seeds, or the crime of rape in war.

In the past decade, growing public awareness of the global climate crisis has brought a new generation of women face to face with the ecofeminist struggle for Life-on-Earth. Young comrades in Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are exploring its intersectional politics. A South African network known as WoMin confronts mining industry projects across the continent. The World Rainforest Movement is organised from Uruguay. Women in South Korea are revitalising traditional farming techniques. Shiva's ecofeminist writing remains cutting edge. In Europe, important academic contributions are coming from Sherilyn McGregor and Stefania Barca.


There is a contemporary call for global degrowth and it looks like the only way for humanity to survive on a planet that is fast being destroyed. Would you say the concept of degrowth has always been part of ecofeminism? What is the connection between these two movements?

It's a good question. Ecofeminist arguments for degrowth began in the 1980s with Mies' and Shiva's decolonial critiques. Mies pointed to African women's loss of self-sufficiency under German colonisation. Shiva's work promoted the unique environmental rationality of Indian forest dwellers. My edited collection EcoSufficiency & Global Justice (2009) also addressed the degrowth principle. In general though, the radical mainstream, communitarian, eco-socialist, rarely consults women's political work. Within the degrowth movement, a collective of young women ecological economists known as FADA is trying to remedy this.

As an aside on the degrowth question, I have been working over the past decade with Czech, Slovak, and Russian scientists on a unique ecological approach to climate change. This uses local restoration of biodiversity to re-integrate global carbon and water cycles. Maybe check this out at the ENKI research institute – borrowing the name of an ecological goddess, I believe.


Feminism has many versions and forms; there are also many ecofeminisms – what is the most important quality of the one you work with?

Yes, the feminist movement may lean towards liberal, postmodern, socialist, anarchist, or decolonial politics. Ecofeminism can draw on one or other aspect of these as well. But for me, ecofeminism is not just anthropo-centric, concerned with human to human questions. Ecofeminism will situate all problems within an eco-centric frame. As I always say – 'humans-are-nature-in-embodied form'. This principle guides all my work and is foundational to my debates with other perspectives – from ecomodernists on the Right to eco-socialists on the Left.


Ecofeminism has always worked with the concept of “care”, but care sometimes implies power over someone – as in nurturing. Would not be the concept of love more helpful here – expressing deep connection in partnership?

That's an interesting point. I myself don't see 'care giving' as patronising, but rather as a very practical form of love. It seems to dovetail also with a renewed interest in the Marxist feminist analysis of how to value 'reproductive labour' – from birthing to daily household chores. If we want to build strong movement alliances for social change, we are going to need a common language for making sense of our historical era. Today, most of my ecofeminist work is directed at 'joining the dots' in order to spell out the common denominator of workers, womens, indegenous, and ecological politics.


What struck me while researching ecofeminism was the claim that patriarchal masculinity is rational” despite the fact that it is clearly shaped by basic emotions such as fear. Why do you think the masculine=rational vs. feminine=emotional dichotomy is so persistent stereotype?

I'm not sure who you are referring to as suggesting that patriarchal masculinity is 'rational', unless it is the conservative Right of politics or pro-development ecomodernist crowd. But as to why the rational/emotional dualism persists – it is an organisational keystone of every Western institution – religion, politics, law, the military. The dualism is a psychological building block engraved into the consciousness of each and every individual onwards from day one.


In November 2013 you wrote: 'We are in the midst of an epic contest ... between the rights of Mother Earth and the rights of corporations and militarized states using obsolete world-views. This is the challenge of our generation'. Sometimes I feel we are totally losing this contest, but at others, I find hope in the paradigm shift that's happening right now. What would you add or change, if you were writing these words now in 2023, ten years later?

On the global situation as it is today, I confess to being even more despairing than I was back then. Global warming has surpassed the official 1.5 degree margin and we see hurricanes, wildfire, and flood randomly destroying communities on every continent. There is massive biodiversity loss, but no end to land clearing, or the mining of fossil fuels and heavy metals. The Pandemic destabilised the economies of nation states and sharpened social inequalities.

International statistics show masculinist violence on the bodies of women has doubled over the past year; while the posturing of Big Powers brings the world to the brink of nuclear war. History gave men privilege yet they squandered it. Surely there's another way...


Ariel Salleh is Distinguised Visiting Scholar in the Centre on Labour, Sustainability and Global Production, Queen Mary University of London in 2023 and Visiting Professor, Faculty of Humanities, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. She is a former Senior Fellow in Post-Growth Societies, Sociology Department, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany and former Honorary Associate Professor in Political Economy, University of Sydney, Australia.