Chapter 6: Spiritual Anthropologies II: Ecofeminism, Iris Murdoch, and Other Reflections on the Human Situation

6.1 Feminist Views and Nature

As we discussed in the last chapter, Reinhold Niebuhr argued that human anxiety, the precursor to sin, is due to the human condition of being simultaneously finite and free. While this theory offers important commentary on overall basic societal tendencies, it fails to recognize that the human condition is not homogenous among all social groups, as some have always been more finite, and less free. For instance, for most of human history, women [1] have not been entirely free, and in most of the world, are still subject to limitations that can be attributed to discrimination,[2] rather than simply being caused by the overall human condition of existential anxiety (chapter 13 will expand on these concerns by taking up the topic of environmental justice and environmental racism). In addition, David Loy’s argument that the solution to the environmental crisis is the abandonment of “the self,” fails to recognize the ways that women have historically been socialized to abandon the self. So, while a mindful enlightenment to free oneself from the delusion of the self is one thing, being told to forget the self by others (who might then expect you to serve theirselves?) could be more an example of domination, exploitation, and manipulation than of enlightenment. So, while Niebuhr and Loy highlighted some important human spiritual challenges, to the extent that they ignore issues of gender, their analyses may be limited as we attempt to apply these ideas to humans, the environment, and spirituality.

What might feminist perspectives add to our discussion, and in what ways do concerns about the domination and abuse of nature connect to issues of the domination and abuse of women? What spiritual and social perspectives can shed more light on the role of power and exploitation as contrasted with love, relationship, and community solidarity? [3] We’ll start by thinking about nature itself as having feminine qualities.

The concept of “Mother Earth” and feminine personification of nature has been echoed for thousands of years, transcending cultural boundaries. The connection makes sense: every living thing is given life through a mother—born from a biological mother, and sustained through a metaphorical mother known as Earth. Humans are given life and nurtured by their mothers, just as the planet bestows them with abundant resources that provide sustenance. Yet, cultural expectations can lead to an insatiable desire for wealth, power and security, creating social systems in which the sources of human life, women and the earth, are often dominated. The injustice of a culture of domination is that those who give the most, are taken from the most and often given little in return.

Image obtained from the public domain.

The tragedy of a domination-driven culture is exemplified by one of the most beloved children’s books of the last century: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. This story has widely been perceived as a cautionary tale of society’s interaction with natural resources, yet it can also be viewed as an allegory for maternal love. In The Giving Tree, a tree interacts with a boy throughout his life. In an effort to help the boy at each stage in his life, the tree gives him parts of herself, which he can transform into material items. With every stage of giving, the tree happily gives, and the boy continues to take, until the tree has nothing left to give. Still, the tree remains happy through it all, as selflessness is in her nature, and giving brings her joy. As humans, we repeatedly take resources from the natural world, until there is simply nothing left to take. Similarly, mothers sacrifice themselves in physical and emotional ways for their children, often expecting nothing in return. The gift of life, coming directly from a mother, is unconditional. The Earth does not charge a farmer for tilling its soil just as a woman does not expect anything from her newborn child. Yet, while humans are not in debt to their mothers, should they not honor them, as well as all women, with respect for their sacrifices?

  1. Much the same could be said for indigenous people and minority groups, and at the same time, undoubtedly the fear and anxiety of dominant social groups has been one of the underlying causes of discrimination.
  2. Implicit bias, particularly in how it underlies pervasive racial discrimination, has been highlighted by a great deal of recent scholarship (you can test your own implicit biases here, and read how those biases affect the hiring process here), and is another striking example. A good deal of important scholarship has highlighted the similar links between race, discrimination, and the environment (including this paper by Chris Carter and this paper by Melanie Harris), some of which is discussed in the forthcoming sub-chapter on Ecowomanism in this book.
  3. Chapter 11’s discussion of virtue theory will ask us to think differently about how to reason about environmental ethics. Rather than splice logic to arrive at the best environmental choices as other modern ethical theories might lead us to do (as we’ll discuss in chapter 10), virtue re-orients us to approach human problems from a different direction. Chapter 5 asked us to consider theological anthropologies as the point of orientation, an approach that focuses on the larger story and understanding a religion might have about how life works, rather than just looking at how its “rules” or ethical imperatives might add weaponry to existing political or ethical arguments about the need to care for the environment. Eco-feminism asks us to stop just focusing on how men say we should fix things… and consider for a moment that men’s dominance over women and over land seem related, and might be a big part of “what’s going on” overall that we need to attend to if we’re going to understand and respond well to eco-crisis and other environmental concerns. So rather than remain stuck in the way we think and argue about things, we are attempting to step back and notice other major factors like this that we should be thinking more about.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.