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

6.5 Cultural Transformation Toward More Balanced Power Dynamics

Emphasis on the importance of psychological awareness as a solution to the ecological crisis has been repeated by numerous scholars of environmental ethics. However, many of these theories do not address gender norms and expectations as a potential source of emotional detachment, and the need to control. David Loy describes this cultural tendency as a “compulsive project of endless growth and never-enough control” (Loy, 2010). Richard Niebuhr views the compulsion as a result of anxiety over the human condition of being “both finite and free” (Niebuhr, 1964). This claim has been echoed by many social critics, yet many of them do not emphasize the role masculinity plays in the compulsive need to attain wealth, power and control in Western societies, and instead frame it as a general characteristic of the human condition.

Environmental ethicist Richard Baer discussed the importance of fully understanding the basis for these aggressive tendencies, stating “rather than asking how strip mining affects the environment,” sociologists must ask “what psychological needs in us are being met this way?” (Baer, 1976).  While there is merit in the argument that all humans have a psychological need to control, and this need to control is a source of environmental crises, social critiques must also address the cultural norm that those who aggressively seek power and control are overwhelmingly men, as evident by the disproportional statistics showing that men are more likely to hold positions of power and more likely to commit violent crimes, both means of establishing dominance (Warner, 2014). If the social tendency that is to blame for environmental problems is disproportionately prevalent in one gender over another, should social scientists not ask themselves why?

While dismantling gender roles is not the sole solution to environmental crisis, asking if the cultural expectations of masculinity also reinforce the social behaviors that harm ecosystems is a question social theorists can explore further. If increased levels of empathy and decreased compulsions to attain power and control in society are keys to better treatment of the environment, we must remember that a culture of domination has taught men that they must repress their emotions, view themselves as separate from a collective whole, and tie their identity to the amount of wealth and influence they attain.

What can be done? Many ecofeminists have argued that the answer lies in more representation of women in positions of power. While this solution would likely mitigate imbalances, it does not address the underlying problems that caused these imbalances in the first place: the prioritization of accumulating power over restraining one’s power. The importance of self-restraint is emphasized in many basic tenets of the world’s most influential religions and scholarly works. Translating these messages into collective actions could be crucial to dismantling the traditional ideals of power, domination and masculinity responsible for the oppression of both women and the environment in today’s society.

Reframing traditional female weaknesses as human strengths could play a role in dismantling the dominating aspects of American culture and replacing these value structures with ones based on ‘unselfing’ and self-restraint. While many feminists seek to destroy the notion that there are differences between men and women, perhaps these differences should be strengthened rather than diminished. After all, if the stereotypical female is compassionate, nurturing, sensitive, vulnerable, and emotional: are those not the key traits society needs to display more of to address the ecological crisis, as well as other issues of injustice that plague the globe?

Integrating an ethic of empathy, collective interest and self-restraint into a complex culture is not something that happens overnight, or through one approach. Transforming the world view of society happens on the individual and collective level, and occurs in a myriad of different ways. To suggest a simple solution to a problem that is as old as Western society would be hopelessly unrealistic. Nonetheless, elements of these ideals can be found in the work of prominent scholars and in the tenets of every major world religion.

In terms of self-restraint and limiting toxic individualism, these ideas are manifested in religious traditions in a variety of ways. The Buddhist tradition of meditation is a method of mitigating emotional turmoil, rather than simply resorting to emotional repression. Furthermore, Buddhist ethics of compassion and anti-consumerism can help counter the practices of a consumeristic and dominating society. In Jewish and Christian tradition, the idea of resting on the Sabbath contradicts the premise that rest is for the weak, and instead views self-restraint as a form of efficiency and strength. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis identifies the Sabbath as a day “which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world” (Francis, 2013, P. 237). Emphasizing the importance of self-restraint and rest further, the Pope defined it as necessary to “give us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others…and motivate us to greater concern for nature and the poor” (Francis, 2013, P. 237). Furthermore, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice is one of the greatest examples of restraining one’s power in human history. Obedience to God—an ideal emphasized in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions—is wed to the idea that humans must deconstruct preoccupation and praise of both the self and material items.

Finally, religious emphasis on the importance of community is another method of disengaging preoccupation with the self, and the relationships formed help foster feelings of empathy within these communities. In a study of four communities historically rooted in Western religious culture (the Amish, the Hutterites, the Fransiscan Order, and the Benedictine Order), Martine Vonk found that a level of emotional  reflectiveness of whether specific behaviors matched community values allowed these communities to preserve their way of life while maintaining a viable economic system (Vonk, 2011). Many social theorists argue that these communities are “the missing link on the relation between world views, values, and behaviors” (Vonk, 2011,P. 25). In addition, a Pew Research Survey found that nearly nine in ten of U.S. adults believe religious institutions bring people together, strengthen community bonds, and help the poor and needy (“Views of Religious Institutions,” 2015). Communities that value all members of society, regardless of gender, can help honor our differences as strengths rather than weaknesses. The spiritual ideals that transcend religious affiliation are strengthened by communities, and all challenge a dominating society driven by the urge to prioritize individual interests over collective ones, and accumulate wealth and power at all costs. The values of self-restraint and community can be found cross-culturally in religious beliefs, and emphasizing their importance can play a key role in healing the schism between ‘the self’ and ‘the other,’ and helping close the gap between nature and culture.

The argument that emotion and spirituality are key components to resolving the environmental crisis is highlighted in the idea that American education must be revived by rebalancing ratio and intellectus (Baer, 1976). Ratio is a logical way of thinking that relies on factual information that can be proven, while intellectus is a less black-and-white way of knowing that relies on effortless awareness that often comes through contemplation (Baer, 1976). In short, a society that relies only on ratio to pursue knowledge lacks emotional sensitivity and empathy, and is perpetuated by a culture of masculinity. While it is certainly a stretch to argue that women represent intellectus and men represent ratio, perhaps biological and sociological research on this idea could serve American culture well. The female intuition to nurture, place others before themselves, and identify with the pain and suffering of others can play a key role in restructuring the norms of domination.

When it to comes to addressing the environmental crisis, women, as well as men, have a key role to play in replacing current cultural norms with an ethic that is inclusive over individualistic, and eco- or other-centric over egocentric. While Western society has integrated damaging gender stereotypes and social expectations among cultures in the past, acknowledging this reality is the first step towards challenging its foundation. On the individual and collective levels, people must question their own biases and ideas of gender norms, and strive to form a set of moral beliefs that align with environmental and social wellbeing over profits. Whether this renewal is achieved through religion, art, education, or a combination of all, is less important than the ultimate goal—a new understanding of women, men, and their place on this planet.

The development of a system of ethics that honors empathy, collectivism, and self-restraint is crucial to the fight against environmental and social injustice in America, and across the globe. A cultural value system that honors and strengthens women and the environment could potentially drive a social transformation seeking to dismantle systemic domination and exploitation—saving people and the planet in the process. If society adopted an ethic more synonymous with The Giving Tree’s, and less like the never-satisfied boy, perhaps this could be achieved. Multiple religious views can point a direction.


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