I’ve been reading Ecofeminism, by Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies. Even if you don’t have much time for the idea of feminism – maybe because you think it’s an attack on men, or because you associate with denim dungarees and bra-burning – please bear with me. What I have taken away from the book so far definitely has the emphasis on eco, and less on the feminism. (Of course, this may not be what the authors intended, but that is entirely my fault, not theirs.)
What surprised me with Ecofeminism was that I had expected it to be primarily about ecology and feminism (which was not entirely unreasonable, given the title). But it also talks a lot about the economy, which goes to show how much these systems are interconnected.
The book was first published 25 years ago, but unfortunately is more relevant than ever. It meshes tightly with other books I’ve read this year – The Divide, Walk Out Walk On, Rethinking Money, The Chalice and the Blade, among others. When you’re hearing the same fundamental message coming from multiple different sources, written over the course of several decades, it’s worth paying attention.
The broad conclusions of the book are:
1. Economic activity should be aimed at satisfying basic human needs, NOT the purchase of commodities and luxuries. This implies values of self-sufficiency, decentralisation, and use rather than exploitation.
2. We need to create new relationships to underpin this new kind of economic activity:
a) with nature: the interaction between humans and nature should be based on respect, cooperation, reciprocity, and the recognition that humans are part of nature. (Amen!)
b) among people: our current money/commodity relationships need to be replaced by reciprocity, mutuality, solidarity, reliability, caring and sharing, respect for the individual and responsibility for the whole.
3. Democracy should be grassroots and participatory, and cover all economic, social, and technological discussions (most of which are not participatory at the moment). Political responsibility and action should be assumed by all of us, not just elected representatives (because, heaven help us, not all of them are up to the job).
4. Problem-solving should be synergistic, based on the recognition that systems and problems are interconnected, and so will be their solutions. One of the main insights of ecofeminism is that all life on earth is interconnected, so reductionist approaches don’t work.
5. A new paradigm of science, technology and knowledge will recognise that research is not the value-neutral exercise in objectivity that we pretend it is. There will be a more holistic model that recognises that both the researcher and the researched affect scientific results. The new science will incorporate older survival wisdom alongside modern knowledge, and will promote social justice.
6. Culture and work will be reintegrated, as both burden (we have to work) and pleasure (work gives us meaning). The main aim of work will be happiness and a fulfilled life.
7. The commons will not be further privatised or commercialised. Under the current model, land that is being used by subsistence farmers does not figure in GDP because they consume what they produce. When the land is appropriated by commercial ventures in order to be made “economically productive”, these people are displaced and thrust into poverty. In the future, the commons of water, air, waste, soil and resources will be entrusted to shared responsibility, preserved and regenerated. (See also the work of Elinor Ostrom, the only woman ever to win the Nobel Prize for Economics.)
8. Men and women will share responsibility for the creation and preservation of life, i.e. men will share in unpaid subsistence work in the household, with children, with the old and sick, in ecological work, and in subsistence production. This is still seen primarily as “women’s work”, and the women who do it are designated as “economically inactive”, even though society could not survive without their contribution.
9. Demilitarisation of men and society: society will no longer base its concept of a good life on the exploitation and domination of nature and other people.
My big a-ha moment from the book was the message, oft repeated by the authors, that the high standard of living enjoyed by the Global North is not just at the historical expense of the South, but absolutely depends on the ongoing exploitation of the South, particularly its women and children, but to the detriment of all its inhabitants.
Gandhi put it well, when a journalist asked him if he would like India to have the same standard of living as Britain: “To have its standard of living, a tiny country like Britain had to exploit half the globe. How many globes will India need to exploit to have the same standard of living?”
Maria Mies concludes the book by writing: “even if there were more globes to be exploited, it is not even desirable that this development paradigm and standard of living was generalised, because it has failed to fulfil its promises of happiness, freedom, dignity and peace, even for those who have profited from it.”
Who knows if what Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies are suggesting will work? But we do know for sure that what we have now is not working. According to The Divide, any amelioration in the plight of the world’s poor is an illusion created by massaging the figures to “prove” the success of the capitalist experiment. Hundreds of species go extinct every day. The climate is changing. Inequality is increasing. Mental health issues and over-medication are reaching epidemic proportions.
Something needs to change. This could be at least a part of the solution.
And now for some light relief!
“If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.” – Maurice Baring
“All I ask is a chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” – Spike Milligan
“Wealth is any income that is at least $100 a year more than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” – H. L. Mencken
“There is nothing in the world more reassuring than an unhappy lottery winner.” – Tony Parsons
“To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave as the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and keep absolutely sober.” – Logan Pearsall Smith
“The rich would have to eat money, but luckily the poor provide food.” – Russian proverb