Ecofeminism and Globalization
Ecofeminism and Globalization
by Heather Eaton
Ecofeminism, considered by some to be third wave of feminism, continues to expand its conceptual framework and praxis-based movement.
The focus of the Paper is to bring ecofeminism into a discussion with the social, political and ecological consequences of globalization, and to achieve ecofeminism.
One goal is to address the need for adequate responses to the dominant global systems of corporate rule and economic profit and can leave ecological and social ruin in their wake. It is a step in the evolution of ecofeminism perspectives in dialogue with the intent of liberation from the vantage points of liberation theologies, North/South experiences, and radical and political movements.
For some time I have wanted to bring the global economic agenda into the centre of ecological and feminist religious reflections. I sense the urgency of this task, and the need for our ecofeminist reflections to be pertinent to the global economic ghoul that is shaping many levels of current reality. In a desire to evaluate the power and liberatory potential of ecofeminist discourses in light of globalization, and in particular global corporate rule, I began this inquiry. A further desire was to expand the capabilities of ecofeminist liberation theologies to confront globalization. This article is a reflection on the process of attempting these goals. In brief, the results have been a disturbing realization of the power of corporate rule, and the fallibility of ecofeminism.
In an initial approach to the relationship between ecofeminism and globalization, I drafted, what seemed to be, useful categories of reflection: 1) to challenge the theoretical framework of religious ecofeminism to move beyond the cultural, ideological and conceptual connections between women and nature into acknowledging the centrality of the concrete incidents of deforestation, drought, pollution, militarization and socio-economic impoverishment; 2) to support the need for religious critiques of the dominant global systems of economic profit which function through oppression of those who benefit least, and leave ecological and social ruin in its wake; 3) to suggest paths of liberation from the vantage points of ecofeminist liberation theologies, North/South experiences, and radical religious movements.
As I began to examine ecofeminist religious discourses in light of globalization and these categories, I became overwhelmed by the governing reality of global corporate rule. This was followed by a wave of anxiety, and an awareness of vast discrepancies between corporate rule and ecofeminist religious discourses. An appropriate metaphor is that of feeling trapped in a maze - an intricate networks of passages designed to bewilder - with no obvious path leading out to a clear, crisp dialogue between ecofeminism and globalization.
I entered the maze having understood myself to be an ecofeminist liberation theologian with an acute sense of concern for what is happening in and to the world, indeed to all life on earth. I have often criticized theology for its blatant failure to attend to the lived world, and to the pervasive, albeit not uniform, devaluing of women, the marginalized and the natural world. I have been disparaging of theology's disregard for the globalization machine that is transubstantiating much of world into desolation. From my vantage points, this autistic theology continues to be the hegemonic form. However transforming theology has been a connected but lesser goal for myself that trying to respond religiously to the world.
Of possible directions within the maze, I first took the path of informing myself in depth about globalization, only to find its hydra-headed characteristics. Globalization has thousands of expressions. Ideologically it appeals to an ideal of adventure, entrepreneurship and superiority, with inviting expressions about global prospects for business, such as "gateways to the world, go global, track global competition, spread global wings, crossing international borders and becoming master of one’s domain." Any mainstream business magazine is filled with these and similar expressions that create a perception that the world is one, homogenous, reality ripe with economic potential, and can be plucked by the adventuresome. Implicit is that business is the greatest possible model of life; far superior to government, nationalities, cultures, etc. There is no talk of differentiated and diverse cultures of people, of ethnicity or gender, of animals or land, of national or international regulations, or indeed that there is any genuine limitation to this frontier of capital exchange. This "globe" of which they speak is an utter abstraction with no accountability to anything but economics - and economic theory at that.
The consequences of this seductive rhetoric are never mentioned, such as the mining co-operations in Latin America who use cyanide in water to separate minerals so that some can wear gold jewellery. The water table becomes saturated with cyanide which animals, plants and people then drink. Further unacknowledged repercussions are the increasing sexual exploitation of women and children by men as the social fabric weakens; the loss of home, land and livelihood because the land is now owned by a multinational corporation; or the escalation of toxins in air, land, food and most forms of life. The lives of many, and especially poor women, are marked by an increase in work and a decrease in health. In several, if not most, parts of the world there is a deterioration in educational and health systems, rising of infant mortality, declines in democratic pluralism, and, communities and countries are coerced into export dependent economies. Social norms and fabrics shred under the force of anonymous corporate ‘restructuring’.
The growing numbers of poor people bear the direct and immediate cost of this dysfunctional system, yet are stripped of decision-making power as the transfer of regional resources to larger institutions increases. These ‘systems’ are frequently unaccessible to local people and impervious to their needs. Further, many people are held in a state of confusion by corporate media regarding the causes of their distresses. Those who resist are held hostage by layers of a system that is not accountable for the consequences of their actions - not to people, land, or animals - only to the GNP. We know from feminist economist Marilyn Waring that most of life's work, women's work in particular, and ecological disasters are not calculated into the GNP. Even more repulsive is that social and ecological disasters such as the Gulf war or the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez actually register as a gain to the GNP.
I take another path in the maze, and return to the basic need for theology to be attending to the world, reading the signs of the time, and being something of significance in this global reality. What world are theologians attending to? The world that I am attending to is presenting an erosion of democracy as powers shift from governments - who are supposed to act for the common good - to a handful of corporations whose only goal is short-tem economic gain. The systemic forces nurturing the growth and dominance of global corporations are at the heart of the current human-earth dilemma, according to Korten. Since 1994 and the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), governments have been in a permanent hostage situation to the global economic system. We are living in a political era of corporate rule that is determining government policies. Korten, in a 1998 Schumacher lecture said that the world is now ruled by a global financial casino, and that democracy is for sale to the highest bidder.
I look to the (eco) feminist liberation approaches to be the only, even potentially adequate, voice who is attending to this world; of course, this particular interpretation of the world. I measure the religious responses to this globalization reality, and my spirit sinks. I feel the impotence of theology. I look at ecofeminist theology - including my own hard work in ecofeminist liberation theology over a decade - and shake my head. Where is the relationship between theologies of liberation, and the globalization meta-narrative and concrete re-ordering of the world? I know the discourses well. We describe elaborate theories about how to begin with critical analysis of our social relations as the only way to non-dualist, relational and liberatory, and as Beverly Harrison remarked, intrinsically historical and time-bound theologies. The hallmark of liberation theologies is, in principle at least, the dedication to reality, and reality is concrete and historical-bound. Harrison goes on to say that an analysis is theological if, and only if, it unveils or envisions our lives as a concrete part of the inter-connected web of all our social relations, including our relations to God. I would add our relations to the natural world, meaning a need for consciousness of both our eco-social locations as well as a functional cosmology as proposed by Thomas Berry and Rosemary Radford Ruether.
The reformulation of theology that I seek addresses the complex relationship between theory and theology, religion and culture, theory and praxis and with the goal of liberation. Feminist liberation theology has found several interlocutors: social, feminist, political, cultural and post-colonial theories, theories of emancipation, critical theory, and the varieties of postmodern analyses. Ecofeminist theologies take their cues from feminist and ecofeminist theories and well as theological traditions. The dialogues partners are numerous.
Ecofeminist theologies, as do feminist and ecological, call for reinterpretations of the foundations of theology. There is innovative work occurring in the reworking of doctrine, biblical motifs, rituals, and to some extent, theological method. There is a fluidity of images and possibilities and much creativity. Yet when I look at the great best-sellers in feminist and ecological theology of late, I feel a great chasm between theory and transformative praxis. Which voices can address globalization? We have myriad theories and ideals of relationality, respect for diversity and ethics of mutuality. We can stand for empowerment and earth ethics. We can name the changing of the Gods - and call forth ‘She Who Is" - and still, where does all of this intersect with globalization? Are we engaging in the same disconnected theology, in a more subtle consoling form? Marked by a wavering critical spirit of the Enlightenment, carrying a variety of postmodern analytic tools, and perhaps drained from trying to change the world, is there a subtle abdication -resignation - into theoretically sophisticated yet anaemic discourses? Are we drinking father's milk through female authors? In a similar vein to Catherine Keller, the more (eco) feminist theologies are detached from globalization - from knowing the evidence and from the ‘frail global networks of accountability’ - the greater the chance will be that we are promoting liberal, albeit graceful, theologies with little or no political responsibility.
Another turn in the maze, and a different reality is present. The disintegration of the earth accelerates. The militarization of some countries increases to ensure corporate power. Michael Jordan is paid $20 million for promoting NIKE shoes, and that is far greater than the total annual payroll of all of the employees in the Indonesian factories who made the shoes. The twelve and thirteen-year-old girls, with no protection of any kind, are paid 15 cents an hour to make a shoe, bought in Indonesia for $5.60 and sold for between $75 and $135 U.S.
In 1993 Michael Eisner, former chairman of Walt Disney Corporation, was given a personal executive package of $203 million - for the illusions of the wonderworld of Disneyland. A detour into the cultural hegemony, misogyny, ethnocentriism and pathology of Disney world is tempting, but not feasible here. The powerful seduction of an ideology of wonderworld is, in fact, creating a wasteworld, says Thomas Berry. The illusion of wonderworld is weakening, but has sunk deep into Western intelligence and its soul and remains the prototype of virtually every profession. It is a mesmerizing, hypnotizing fantasy which dazzles us, like Siren’s, song, to our demise.
What about the few molecules of PCB released in Big Spring, Texas that travelled though several countries and ended up in seals, polar bears and the breast milk of the Inuktitut peoples in the northern isolated island of Broughton: not a unique case, but an example of the fact that there is no safe uncontaminated place. Or the charming fact that in six months of breast-feeding, a baby in Europe or North America gets the maximum lifetime recommended dose of dioxin and five times the allowable daily level of PCB’s set by international standards for a 150 -pound adult (12 stone?).
Levels of the question become stark. What are the causes of the global crisis? Not globalization according to the corporations. It is the government restraint of markets: ‘give trade not aid ‘ is the advice of the corporate elite to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What actually brings wealth is economic liberty, nestled within a stable, cultural and legal framework: the refrain from the World Trade Magazine (June 1998). Trade restrictions are causing decreases in GDP. They say that we (whoever that is) must create free economic markets, more free trade zones. The results will be greater GNP and GDP. Of course ‘we’ all know that this really means more wealth for the elite. For the majority there is an increase in slavery working conditions, child labour, no environmental regulation, no international law, no union support, ‘encouraged’ sterilization of women, illness, and living amidst the toxic ruins of the earth. This has been documented over and over for all of the free-trade zones - the epitome of freedom. If the Multilateral Agreement on Investments becomes the global charter, then national laws on such matters as economic justice, worker health and safety, social security and ecological regulations can be struck down by the WTO if there are determined to be barriers to trade.
The corporate world tries to control who gets to know what. Countless stories demonstrate that corporate power supported by government - militia, media and/or legal representation - can prevent the underside narrative from becoming public. The tragic execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria -because he exposed the ecological and social devastation cause by Shell and the government - reminds us that the benevolent corporate image is a facade. This is war.
Corporate ‘greenwashing’ is big business. Major corporations are now environmentally friendly, engaging in the great oxymoron of sustainable development and producing green products. Cars, aerosol manufacturers, oil producers, nuclear industry, and the forestry business -some of the worst pollution-producing activities - are all suddenly eco-friendly, or so says their glossy green adds. Corporations in these businesses have changed their images. Some have created green business networks and green fronts organizations to act as their representatives. Some have the audacity to create Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in order to receive funding and be considered legitimate at environmental gatherings of the ‘alternative’ NGO’s. Corporate environmentalism has become the true ecological pioneers, at least according to Bruce Harrison, author of Going Green: How to Communicate your Company’s Environmental Commitment. At least he had the honesty to state that for business ‘getting on the green is not easy’. Welcome to the land of greenbabble, where conventional environmentalism has been replaced by envirocomm - environmental communication.
The corporate world has colonized everywhere: from television to classroom, painting themselves green, supporting women’s initiatives, universalizing the consumer and commercialization youth. Multi-national corporations are involved in energy, agriculture, food-processing, manufacturing and retail, communications, transportation, media, health and education. In Canada, the corporate wold is restructuring education, supporting certain programs and eliminating others - liberal arts for example. They give millions to universities to develop high-tech programs. The education system is capitulating because government funds are limited. The results of the loss of the reflective disciplines is becoming apparent. Students may have acquired some data, but few are skilled in critical thinking and discerning the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom.
Corporations manipulate cultural and religious symbols in which our individual and communal identities and values are anchored. We are promised salvation by this or that gadget, car, clothing, food, house, sports...whatever. They feed on genuine human needs and desires, such as to be known and accepted, comforted and cared for. They also feed on the hegemonic, hierarchical-dualistic interpretations of the world that are based on fleeing the actual conditions of life - vulnerability, finitudes and mortality.
How does, can ecofeminist theology respond? I enter another path in the maze. What theoretical framework is adequate to match the corporate narrative? There is such a great need for thinking at the systemic level - whole systems thinking. Do we engage in the foundational thinking? Or is this another form of hegemonic oppressive discourses? Corporate rule is a meta-narrative. Feminists deconstruct meta-narratives. Postmodern, poststructuralist narratives argue that meta-narratives are archaic. Certainly this emphasis is necessary for the emancipation and appreciation of human/cultural distinctions and the decentring of hegemonic interpretations of reality.
Theology has many dialogue partners, and attends to diverse theories. What theories are adequate for theology these days? Which theology and for whom is the obvious reply. Still, how can the nature of theology be reconceptualized in light of globalization? The goal is not to reflect on the occurrence of globalization from an observational podium, but so that theology can be a confrontational and transformative voice of resistance, with a vision of a viable an alternative future. That is a presupposition that I cannot relinquish: trying to retain the liberatory element of the religious enterprise. Therefore there is a dire need for understanding how theory is used.
The use of critical theory, which is an ally to liberation theologies, needs to be elaborated. This requires decentring notions of epistemology in favour of a critical theory that addresses the operation of knowledge in the deliberation of beliefs, activities, illusions and social constructions of the community. The starting point of critical theory as such is the oppression and suffering of a particular society, and then to expose the structures of relations causal to the distress.
How do we use theory in ecofeminist theology, and what are the limits of theory? Rebecca Chopp addresses several of the intricate pieces of this question in terms of the use of feminist theory in theology. The emphases on methodology, and in particular epistemology, have strengthened feminist discourses, but there are losses, such as a lack of attending to the material world, or to the grand, seemingly utopic, goals of (eco)feminism. Chopp contends that rather than avoiding the global situation and the utopian visions of feminism, feminist theology ‘might think even harder about the use of theory’.
Still lost in the maze of possibilities, further questions emerge. Is it best to go the route of poststructuralism: to attend to the particular, the unique, giving priority to differentiation, to specific contexts and to the subject, subjectivity and the local? Perhaps this methodological and epistemic privilege would be the most effective terrain.
Julia Kristeva, and to some extent Levinas, would suggest that foundational thinking is totalitarian..."all global problematics are archaic...[we] should not formulate global problematics because this is part of the totalitarian and totalizing conception of history." Levinas suggests that the Western intellectual traditions are totalitarian. There is strong feminist work in support of postmodern, poststructuralist versions of theorizing and theologizing.
Yet what are the dangers of this level of particularization and detachment from the whole? That there is no neutral place to do either systemic or ‘particular’ reflection is glaringly obvious. However it seems that there is a camouflaged postmodern aversion to addressing the systemic sufferings of the world, and in fact an inability for poststructuralist thought to engage adequately with a level of systemic analysis oriented towards globalization. Therefore, there are consequences which seem to suggest that postmodern discourses cannot relate to, illuminate, or resist the effects of globalization.
In addition, what has happened to the axiom of Marx, that of moving from interpreting the world to changing it? The theory/praxis dialectic is an essential preoccupation of feminist theories committed to concrete liberatory changes in the situation and lives of women. I am drawn to Rebecca Chopp's notion of pragmatism: strategies of truth through either culturally situated communities or complex traditions that empower human flourishing. Theories are combined for ultimate aims, she suggests, and are resistant to any meta-theoretical framework. The issue is ‘what is contained in "ultimate aims"’? Surely ’aims’ point to another theoretical source. For example, if change is only possible at the local level, or further still, if the globalization system can only be dismantled at the local level, there remains a uncompromising goal to theorizing - the end of corporate rule and globalization. The theories become the strategy for change. Still, the theories functioning within the need for and directions of ‘change’ are clandestine. Perhaps the next best move is to think in terms of the concrete consequences of theorizing and theologizing, albeit a difficult task that requires observation time - an endangered ‘commodity’.
Time to get out of the maze. Globalization continues. From 1990 to 1995 there was $4.5 trillion U.S. corporate profit, and the U.S. government gave out over $125 billion corporate welfare - tax cuts, exemptions, credits - not including the relaxing of environmental regulations, the benefits from the WTO, intellectual property rights, etc. An advertisement in a business magazine reads, "Michigan leads the nation in tax cuts and golf courses." I suppose they forgot to mention that it also leads in urban decline, job losses, social violence, ethnocentrism, or educational cuts. On the meta scale, many corporations have larger economies than countries. Mitsubishi and General Motors have larger economies than Indonesia, Denmark and Thailand. With the addition of Walmart, these and numerous other corporations have larger economies than Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Greece, Iran, Chile and Egypt. Out of the top 100 economies of the world, 48 are countries, 52 are corporations.
Impatient and disturbed, I take a turn in the maze back to the ecofeminist religious voices. What language can we use to address globalization? What language is liberatory?
If, as any edition of Forbes Magazine states, love can refer to a car, purity to a detergent, that gin is of infinite value, that retirement planning is revolutionary, or that one can find paradise on the Internet, then language is governed by consumerism and the ideology of globalization. Religious images have been taken over. Dorothee Sölle says that religious language has been destroyed and is corrupt. In a culture that expects all of us to be informed hourly about cat food and hair spray, life is insignificant. She says that what cannot be sold is worthless, and our ability to perceive has been disturbed and our feeling for reality trivialized. Sölle writes, "And the sacredness of life for which I am here trying to plead is consistently and pitilessly destroyed in the rituals of consumerism,"
How can we say what we want and expect from life? Corporate consumerism is defining who we are, and what it means to be human. Shame is a revolutionary language, says Marx. We need to feel shame at how religious language has been shrivelled and trivialized. It is sad when an advertisement says that liberation is a priority status on aeroplanes, meaning that we can choose between elite, super elite or executive class, all on the same plane a few feet from one another.
One of the advertizing claims of Mitsubishi is that it ‘redefines how you see the world’. What language will allow us to see the world through religious eyes - not utopian, romantic - but with a dedication to reality? The reality that needs some dedication is globalization. There are other realities of resistence simmering beneath, on the margins, in potential. How can the resistance groups be heard more, and have greater voice and power ? Ecofeminism, a voice of resistance and vision, comes from many sources, two of which are activism and theory. There are those like Vandana Shiva whose reference points are, mostly, the lived reality of oppression. For others, such as Karen Warren, the starting point is the Western theoretical/philosophical tradition. Although this is another false dichotomy, these represent streams within ecofeminism. They are both valid and necessary, and are increasingly inter-mingling overtly. Within each there are emancipatory strategies. Here is an example from Warren's book Ecofeminism: Women, Culture Nature. One emancipatory strategy suggests the following:
remything nature as a speaking bodied subject
erasing or blurring the boundaries between inner and outer landscapes, the self- other, human-non-human, I-Thou distinctions
re-eroticising human relationships with a "bodied" landscape
historicizing and politicizing nature and the author as a participant in nature
expressing an ethic of caring friendship or a loving eye as a principle for relationships with nature
attempting to unseat vision or mind knowledge from a privileged position, positing the notion that bodies know.
I am drawn into this beautiful, seductive and soothing possibility. Yet, in front of the globalization ghoul, it feels powerless and irrelevant, even ludicrous. The ecofeminist affirmation of Life - and for religious ecofeminists, the sacred dimensions of Life - seem incommensurable in front of globalization and its manipulation of Life: the hydra-headed forms of genetically altered food, plants, animals and the Human Genome Project. Of the countless patents on genes, there are the at least fifty patents on the DNA of Indigenous peoples. Life is a market commodity.
The above ecofeminist emancipatory vision and strategy sound great, but seem very weak in their reality-check of late. It seems that ecofeminist visions, at times, speak of a reality that exists, but does not really exist: an imagined or dormant reality, a fleeting possibility. Ruether names this as a myopia in Northern ecofeminism, dues to its emphasis on theory while not making concrete connections with women at the bottom of the socio-economic system. She writes, "we must recognize the ways in which the devastation of the earth is an integral part of an appropriation of the goods of the earth whereby a wealthy minority can enjoy strawberries in winter. While those who pick and pack the strawberries lack the money for bread and are dying from pesticide poisonings." Northern ecofeminism can fall prey to cultural escapism, illusions and irresponsibility and are in need of correctives of this myopia. I wonder if the problem is greater than myopia, and is located in a distortion in method and starting points, interlocutors, and a lack of attending to the world. It is disconcerting that the more time that is spent on developing forms of ecofeminist responses as above, the more powerless theology will be in the face of globalization. Worse still, not only powerless, but participating in the destruction of the world while creating beautiful theories about alternative futures.
Perhaps I am frustrated because theology is a marginalized discourse from social powers, and thus theologians come together for warmth and comfort, and indeed company because religious voices - those that make sense to me - have little space in any public forum. Still I question the effectiveness of the current forms of liberation theology methodologies, feminist theories and ecofeminist efforts in front of globalization. Outside of theological boundaries, there is clearly a rise in the numbers and effectiveness of citizen’s groups, environmental and social networks, feminist coalitions, activists, and communities of resistence. There are alternative teaching methods that take students into these realities, and there are signs of religious leadership outside academic clubs that are addressing globalization. There are myriad recent publications pushing the limits of our worldviews and transformative strategies. David Korten’s The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism (dedicated to theologian Thomas Berry!) offers fourteen pages of strategies of withholding resources from the institutions of capitalism and building sustainable community-based alternatives. Although his book is insightful, the universal ‘we’ is omnipresent throughout, and some of the goals of change are stated as follows: "Our task is no longer one of creating countercultures, engaging in political protests and pursuing economic alternatives. To create a just, sustainable and compassionate post-corporate world we must face up to the need that we need a new core culture, a new political centre and a new economic mainstream." I think that a bit of feminist deconstructive postmodernism is needed here to unpack who is this "we", and the seemingly omni-centred, cultural, political and economic power-base. Another hegemony?
Perhaps one of the problems is the limitation of academic discussions. For example, at the American Academy of Religion in 1998, where thousands of academics gather to reflect, of over two thousand, two hundred and sixty (2260) papers given, less than ten talked about economic issues. A similar ratio could be found in terms of courses, publications, and other presentations. Religion is not attending to globalization. To paraphrase Dan McGuire, if we are not addressing the [economic, socio] and ecological crises, religions are an obsolete distraction.
I want out of this bewildering reflection. I have not ended up with any 'how to', tips, useful guidelines, strategies or plans. I am left with a blurred awareness that something is wrong with some theologizing, ecofeminist work, and my ecofeminist work. Even now to write of such enormously complex and terrifying systemic global problems with a fragmented approach weakens the capacity to respond in depth. I know that theology must get in the global game in a real and provocative way. Consciousness is a start: consciousness as knowing together.
I remain in the maze of ecofeminism and globalization. It is my hope that the discourses of ecofeminist analysis and religious insights do not fall prey to fragmentation, and can move from isolated conversations into public arenas, into what Donna Haraway calls the "real-world" patterns of power and authority. The question behind the questions is ‘what constitutes hope for a concretely viable future?’ I welcome companions in the maze.
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