Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in the series, Succession: Queering the Environment, which centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.
The defilement of our planet’s ecosystem is the direct result of humans’ obsession with oil, power, and control. Drilling and extracting resources at the cost of grabbing and exploiting Indigenous lands and colonising and enslaving people has resulted in environmental effects that cross the planet’s environmental boundaries.1 This colonial control of land is accompanied by systems that are designed to control and subdue people and their behaviour, freedoms, and unsurprisingly, sexuality.
Ecofeminism, as both an intersectional movement and critical theory, is useful for analyzing oppressive hierarchical systems and seeing how they are intertwined. Ecofeminism is an activist movement and literary theory that links the oppression of women and minorities to the oppression of nature. It emerged in the 1970s amidst women from different backgrounds and further developed in academia in the 1990s.2 Ecofeminism has been queered by a number of researchers in environmental humanities, including Jessica Ison, Catriona Sandilands, Greta Gaard, Joni Seage and Ariel Salleh. These scholars have merged queer ecology and ecological feminism. They discuss the negative impacts of heterosexism and heteronormativity on society and our understanding of the natural world.
Queer ecofeminism stands against compulsory heterosexuality and acknowledges the diversity of the natural world. It rejects the dualism of natural versus unnatural and sees a strong connection between the oppression of sexuality and the oppression of nature. Queer ecofeminism presents a new lens to look at nature and women within a queer theory framework, questions the reasons behind compulsory heterosexuality, challenges heterosexist notions of nature, and deconstructs the notion of the “unnatural.” By focusing on how far-right politics3 give rise to and support oppression, this article will answer questions related to the interconnection of environmental degradation, fuel extraction, and the oppression of people and their sexuality through the lens of queer ecofeminism.
“Sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are systemic forms of oppression that shape our relationships with each other by designing a hierarchical pyramid…This translates into how natural spaces are accessed and exploited.”
Sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia are systemic forms of oppression that shape our relationships with each other by designing a hierarchical pyramid. If you are a white, cisgender, straight male there is a high chance you are on top of that pyramid. This pyramid defines a person’s rights, freedom of movement, and access to resources. This translates into how natural spaces are accessed and exploited. When lands and what they have to offer are turned into a commodity by the oppressor, this system allows access only to those willing to pay, creating an unequal distribution of the resources that are essential to the survival of the oppressed groups. These groups are usually unable to pay due to their socioeconomic backgrounds. They cannot compete with those coming from the global north and are forced to suffer the impacts of land-grabbing and capitalist exploitation of natural resources and labour.
Those that exploit nature for profit assume nature to be heteronormative. The existence of queer species and queer environments was not explored by science until queer theory questioned it. Queer ecology has redefined scientific perspectives, changing what we perceive as “natural.” It draws from multiple disciplines such as biology, environmental justice, and environmental humanities to contrast the dualisms that have shaped our understanding of nature, dualisms that have been used against queer people. A false heteronormative understanding long linked heterosexism to the “natural,” dismissing, rejecting, and criminalising the existence of queerness. Even though homosexuality is no longer deemed “unnatural” by some sectors of society,4 the hierarchical pyramid is still gendered. Dismissing the existence of same-sex attractions among women is just an example of how misogynist societies perceive the female body: a means to pleasure heterosexual men and a biological machine meant for reproduction. Considering homosexuality and queerness as a heinous act against nature speaks of how strongly heteronormativity has fought to maintain norms that serve reproductivity: hetero-masculinities and hetero-femininities.
How is this relevant to the Anthropocene, or shall we say the “Man”thropocene’s, environmental crisis? Why is the oppression of sexuality enmeshed with the domination of women and nature? A queer, inclusive, feminist, and ecological approach is needed to explore destructive heteronormative forms of masculinity and their relation to the current environmental crisis. This approach is needed as well to link these hierarchical dominations to the rise of right-wing ideologies and to disentangle the complexities of essentialism within ecofeminism.5
Denying the links between oppressive and hierarchical masculinities and patriarchal capitalism means justifying and accepting that women and nature are inherently inferior to men and are therefore resources meant for reproduction. If we look for instance at capitalism and its pauperisation of the working class, it is evident that capitalism, combined with heteropatriarchy, survives on the concept that social inequalities are the default of what a society should be like. This mindset feeds on domination, exploitation, and oppression and is manifested in some political systems, especially ones revolving around conservatism and far-right ideologies.
Deconstructing Natural Attributions to Women and Hierarchical Thinking
According to ecofeminist Karen Warren, both nature and humans can be dominated, but only humans can be oppressed. She defines oppressed groups as “limited, inhibited, coerced, or prevented from mobilizing resources for self-determined goals by limiting their choices and options” (Warren 2000). A gender-conscious environmental perspective sees that women, especially ones living in marginalized areas, are most impacted by global warming and natural disasters. The gender roles that are assigned to them restrict their mobility and impose tasks on them that are associated with food production and caregiving, hence limiting them from taking action.
When ecofeminists examine the roots of this oppression, some of them lean towards the belief that women are closer to nature due to their shared features, including reproduction, nurturing attributes, and motherhood; others reject this idea. Some believe that this association enables women to be more sensitive to the natural environment, meaning that they agree to abide by constructed gender roles. Other ecofeminists developed an intersectional approach. The term intersectionality is regularly attributed to the American lawyer and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw. She coined it around three decades ago by intersecting the issues of race, gender, and class to highlight the experiences of black women as racist and sexist.13 Intersectional ecofeminism thus rejected the aforementioned association of women’s closeness to nature because it reinforces the patriarchal ideology of domination and restricts ecofeminism’s potency. The intersectional perspective liberates women from the essentialization of their bodies, their social roles, and their rights. This essentialization also leads to the exclusion of non-binary and gender-fluid people who were assigned females at birth, transgender women, lesbians and queer women, women who do not want to reproduce, and women who want the right to abortion. In other words, it excludes any individual that does not conform to the expectation of conservative heteronormative societies.
Essentialism: Until When?
Essentialist mindsets have caused people to categorise others based on socially or biologically constructed features. Racial essentialism, for instance, divides people into racial categories based on what is assumed to be biological differences. Gender essentialism believes in maleness and femaleness, dismissing non-binary and gender non-conforming people. The same happens to nature when it is alienated, eroticized, or seen as an accessible hub of infinite resources, rather than existing outside of human utility. Anthropocentrism, the belief that value is human-centred and that all other beings are means to human ends, is thus what is leading us to our own destruction. The term Anthropocentrism refers to “the belief that that value is human-centred and that all other beings are means to human ends” (Kopnina 2018).
Androcentrism is another practice that places humans in the center, except that this one is gendered: it favours masculinity and marginalizes femininity. Anthropocentrism and androcentrism have developed together. As a result, a male-centered, oppressive, misogynist culture that feeds on resource and labour exploitation emerged and kept growing, leading to violence against women and the earth. This essentialisation is re-enforced by right-wing politicians who are obsessed with gender ideologies and the gender binary.
These politicians like Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump have expressed their struggle with accepting climate change as a fact and have spent tremendous amounts of time and energy denying it. Unsurprisingly, their climate skepticism rarely appears on its own. It is sometimes accompanied by fatalism, and also often by xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and misogyny, racism, or a combination of a few or all of them. Religious apocalypticism poses a serious threat to how humans as a species classify the importance of sustainability and climate action.6 This is perhaps why the majority of right-wing political parties include religious conservatism in their politics to meet their political agendas.
As climate change is becoming a concern for voters across the world, right-wing parties are beginning to incorporate green politics into their agendas. If we take a look, for instance, at Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) or the Italian Lega (League), it is evident that they have been forced to change their positions on the climate issue.7 Nevertheless, this far-right environmentalism is sexist, homophobic, racist, and oppressive, and stands against everything that queer ecological feminism brings to the table.8 It resents, dehumanises, and alienates groups that are different because of their religious beliefs, colour, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background. Classifications such as male-white-cisgender-heterosexual versus anything else, like a person of colour-transgender-queer-female, does more harm than one can imagine, especially when it comes to climate action.
Climate change is a man-made problem and it requires feminist solutions, ones that call for the liberation of all, that do not leave anyone behind, and that put social and environmental justice as equal and interdependent goals. The rise of these nativists’ ethno-nationalist oppressive politics is connected to petro-masculinities and Industrial/Bread-winner masculinities. The concept of Petro-masculinity refers to the entanglement of fossil fuels, white patriarchal order, and hegemonic masculinity. Like other masculinities, it sustains a power relationship between men and women, yet the difference is the way it does so: by fueling it with petro-culture and fossil burning.9 On the other hand, Industrial Bread-winner masculinities refers to a category of men involved in industrial extractive activities that are energy-intensive, profit-generating, fossil fuel-dependent, and ecologically destructive.10
Recently, climate skeptics have been emerging even in wealthier countries such as Sweden and Norway. An examination of climate denialism within Swedish and Norwegian parliamentary politics shows that this is not only a problem of deindustrialized countries.11 It all began with the Sweden Democrats, a racist nationalist conservative party that resulted, after its split, in the formation of the Swedish Democrats in 1988. Unsurprisingly, its board was formed of men only, and they have fostered, up to today, anti-feminism, anti-immigration, ethno-nationalism and right-wing populism. Once they made it to the parliament, they expressed their desire to reduce the budget for fighting climate change, declared the Green Party as their main enemy, and accused climate scientists of corruption.
An oppressive masculine mindset that favours a certain group of people over another doesn’t always come from a male-identifying person. One example would be the appointment of climate denier Sylvi Listhaug as Norway’s petroleum and energy minister from the national Progress Party (FrP), which supports the conservative-led government’s pro-oil policies.12 Before replacing Kjell Børge Freiberg as Norwegian Minister of Oil and Energy, Listhaug served as the Minister of Immigration and Integration from 2015 until 2018, during which time she proposed a restrictive policy towards asylum seekers that would have been the strictest in Europe. Regardless of one’s gender identity, any person is capable of adopting an oppressive mindset, especially in a position of power where such a mindset serves one’s personal and professional interests.
“Denying climate change means not only denying the dangers of rising temperatures, but also refusing to acknowledge the unequal impacts of environmental degradation on people.”
Denying climate change means not only denying the dangers of rising temperatures, but also refusing to acknowledge the unequal impacts of environmental degradation on people. It means accepting ongoing profit at the expense of others who are less fortunate. This is why an inclusive intersectional ecological feminist revolution is needed, one that rejects essentialised attributions of “naturalness” to women. An intersectional revolution does not essentialize the notion of femininity, is not exclusionary of any gender, colour, or sexuality, and promotes equality and inclusion.
Yet even the most woke people today may slip into essentialist assumptions and might even have reservations about what they perceive as different and unacceptable. TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, for example, exclude transgender women by not considering them women. This means that they have an essentialised definition of womanhood and that any individual that does not fall into that definition will automatically be excluded. Another example would be white feminism’s inattention to ethnic minorities and women of colour. A focus on the struggles of white women that completely disregards women who lack other privileges essentialises the notion of a woman that is worth the fight. These essentialised slips cannot be excused or allowed as they are exclusionary and will lead to social inequality.
Environmentalists, human rights activists, and feminists need to work together and should opt for an anti-essentialist lens to deconstruct the stigmas that come with people’s social differences. Unfortunately, reality speaks the language of taught racism, taught homophobia, taught misogyny, the normalisation of meat-eating, the justification of oil drilling, and other discriminatory and oppressive attitudes. As a result, exclusion is perpetrated instead of inclusion, and binary oppositions are created to distinguish the wanted from the unwanted, the dominant from the submissive, and the righteous from the wicked.
Human-nature interactions as well as gender relationships must be restructured if we want planetary survival. This requires dismantling the existing set of features that link women to nature by feminizing the status of nature, women, animals, bodies, people of colour, and other groups (Gaard 2011) as well as liberating sexuality from criminalisation, stigmas, and shame. The idea that females, by virtue of their biology and potentially due to the fact that they are either current or future potential child-bearers, are meant to mate with males only is an essentialist argument used against women-identifying people.14
Ecofeminism may have assumed an essentialised gender since its genesis by unconsciously excluding intersex and transgender people. In today’s world, where far-right politics are posing a threat to different vulnerable communities, it is time to re-read ecofeminism by queering it and freeing it from all essentialist approaches. Essentialism in all its forms fosters dangerous ideas such as the idealisation of womanhood, the superiority of heteronormativity, and racial prejudice leading to neo-nationalism. Nevertheless, rejecting it does not mean rejecting differences. We are not the same; we are different; but we are equal because we share the same thing: our humanity and 99.9% of our DNA. Thus, by dismantling essentialist ideologies and politics, we will leave room to welcome equality and to dismiss discrimination, oppression, and exclusion. Far-right politicians reject the politics of difference and reinforce the politics of sameness. They refuse to give up anything that does not support their capitalist-fueled interests or trade these interests for the well-being of the planet or other living beings. This is perhaps to protect not only their financial profits, but also their fragile, fossil-dependent masculinities.
Feature Image: MX AH CONVERSATORIO ECOFEMINISMO, Sábado 14 de marzo de 2020, Secretaría de Cultura Ciudad de México, Flickr Commons.
- See more about the nine planetary boundaries: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/planetary-boundaries/about-the-research/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html.
- For more about ecofeminism, see https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0219/1116323-ecofeminism/.
- According to Cas Mudde, far-right political parties are those that have an ideology of nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. See more in Mudde’s book Populist: Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007).
- In previous civilisations, homosexuality was not regarded as unnatural or deviant. For instance, in ancient Rome, free Roman men almost always had younger male lovers and men frequented male brothels. The same is true of ancient Greece: its literature and art is full of men praising the beauty of the young male form and sex between men. For many other civilisations such as ancient Egypt, ancient China, the Mayans, and the Aztecs, homosexuality was not only natural but was also a vital part of development. It is only when religions (Abrahamic ones) started to dominate that societal perceptions of homosexuality started to change.
- In the past few decades, researchers have been discussing hegemonic masculinity and its enmeshment with homophobia and sexual oppression. In his 1993 paper “What is Hegemonic Masculinity?”, Mike Donaldson says that “heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity and any understanding of its nature and meaning is predicated on the feminist insight that in general the relationship of men to women is oppressive” (Donaldson 1993).
- From Nostradamus all the way to Christianity’s Book of Revelation, people have been predicting the end of the world. Eschatology in religions differs, yet all religions agree on a certain point: the world will come to an end. In Buddhism, the return of the Maitreya Buddha is expected to be the end of the world. In Christianity, Jesus’s apocalyptic teachings are the reason why Christians want salvation and prepare for The Last Judgment. In Islam, the Day of Judgment known as Yawm al-Qiyāmah is expected to happen any time. It is the day all life will be annihilated and all humans will be judged based on their actions. Other religions throughout human history have embraced Doomsday and handed down fatalism from one generation to another. This has allowed people to overcome the fear of death by believing in eternity. The problem is, with this belief, life on earth becomes an unfortunate pit stop in their journey towards eternity in heaven. This religious fatalism gives a free pass to any individual to not participate in the fight against climate change, since everything that is happening to our planet is perceived as a predetermined fate (Costello et al. 2011). Yet if we look at the genesis of religions, we notice that all people who claimed prophecy and divinity are straight men who gave other men permission to use natural resources, women, and power as their god-given right. Power then became linked to oppressing other people, extracting resources, and imposing ideologies to dominate and rule. This combination may have led to an obsession with profit and an infinite need for more power, more money, and a higher status, even if the cost is planetary deterioration. Yet it is only when numbers became alarming regarding anthropogenic actions and how they crossed the boundaries of ecosystems that people started to fight for climate justice.
- Read more about Europe’s far-right environmental turn: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/the-european-far-rights-environmental-turn.
- In their paper “Alliance of antagonism: Counter publics and polarization in online climate change communication,” Jonas Kaiser and Cornelius Puschmann discussed climate skepticism and mainstream representations of climate change. They said that the skeptical counter public is not restricted to voices pertaining to climate change but forms an alliance of antagonism with other extreme factions such as misogynists, racists, and conspiracy theorists: that is, radical positions which are also not represented in mainstream public communication (Kaiser and Puschmann 2017).
- See Cara Daggett’s “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire.” DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0305829818775817.
- See Martin Hultman and Paul Mark Pulé’s “Industrial/breadwinner masculinities.” DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429424861-5.
- In their book chapter “The Far Right and Climate Change Denial,” a contribution to Bernhard Forchtner’s The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication (2019), Martin Hultman, Anna Björk, and Tanya Vünikka discussed the rise of climate denialism in Sweden by looking deeply into the climate politics of that country’s right-wing party.
- As someone whose climate denial ideologies date back to a decade ago, Sylvi Listhaug said in an interview with Verdens Gang, “Det er ikke bevist at menneskelige CO2-utslipp fører til klimaendringer. Det er først og fremst en unnskyldning for å innføre mer skatter og avgifter.” [Translation: It is not proven that human CO2 emissions lead to climate change. It is first and foremost an excuse to introduce more taxes and fees.]
- About Intersectionality: In her 1989 paper ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced intersectionality to black feminism to distinguish the experiences of black women and the racial injustice they have been facing. Although it was initially intended to highlight the experiences of non-white women, intersectionality developed as a theoretical framework used to identify the multiple factors that lead to discrimination such as a person’s sexual orientation, colour, ethnicity, gender, body shape, and other traits. By blending ecofeminism and intersectionality, an ecofeminist is thus no longer concerned with feminist issues within environmentalism only, but is also an ally and advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, BIPOC, climate justice, and social inequality.
- In the 1970s ecofeminism came to prominence as a movement and a theory. Vandana Shiva and Maria Mie’s Ecofeminism (1993) was one of the first books that gathered philosophies across disciplines to review humans’ relationship to nature using a gender-conscious approach. Yet some interpreted it as another wave of feminism that looks at women’s shared experiences of domination and oppression and added essentialised views of nature and ecology to it. Four decades later, ecofeminism rose in popularity. Carol J. Adams, Karen Warren, Ariel Salleh, Douglas Vakoch, Greta Gaard, Susan Buckingham, and other researchers contributed to different ecofeminist scholarships, pushing the area to the forefront of environmental and social justice. Some of them addressed the queerness of the field and some of its essentialist theories. Greta Gaard and Catriona Sandilands explored the ‘queer’ in ecofeminism in their respective papers “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism” (1997) and “The Importance of Reading Queerly: Jewett’s ‘Deephaven’ as Feminist Ecology” (2004).
- Diana Fuss’s book Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference (1989) addressed the nature-versus-culture debate by engaging with arguments of feminist, gay, and Afro-American critics and debating whether femininity, homosexuality, and race have essential natures. She even argued that constructionism is just another “sophisticated form of essentialism” (Fuss 1989). Fuss discussed the “risk of essence,” an idea that many theorists believe to be convenient since essentialism may be inevitable. Whether or not this “risk” should be allowed is of high importance to ecofeminists, especially queer ecofeminists, as it determines the lens and methodologies they would use to build their arguments. Fuss used Peggy Kamuf’s warning about this risk of essentialism. Kamuf argued that allowing room for essentialism as a “risk” will only lead to people “accidentally” falling prey to it by using the term “risk” as an excuse. That gap of possibility and chance of accidents would be the reason why theorists might not consider the consequences of essentialist statements, as they would be protected by the response that “it was an accident.” In her piece “The ‘Risk’ of Essence” (1989), Fuss theorizes that essentialism has the tendency to oppress women due to its “totalizing symbolic system.”
Buckingham, S. (2004) “Ecofeminism in the twenty-first century,” The Geographical Journal, 170(2), available at: http://uaf.edu.pk/faculties/social_sci/courses/gender_and_development/09.pdf.
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Gaard, G. (2011). “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in Material Feminist Environmentalism.” Feminist Formations, 23(2), 26–53. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41301655.
Godfrey, P., & Torres, D. (2016). Systemic Crises of Global Climate Change: Intersections of race, class and gender. Taylor and Francis. https://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=4507491.
Forchtner, B. (Ed.). (2020). The Far Right and the Environment. London: Routledge, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351104043
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Kaiser, J., & Puschmann, C. (2017). “Alliance of antagonism: Counterpublics and polarization in online climate change communication.” Communication and the Public, 2(4), 371–387. https://doi.org/10.1177/2057047317732350.
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Warren, K. (2000). Ecofeminist philosophy: A western perspective on what it is and why it matters. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.