Alicia H. Puleo

Tanja Vujinović. Carboflora (2019)

Setting Out the Eco-feminist Map for Hope

The ecological, social and economic crisis we are going through has been brewing for decades, but it is now manifesting itself in a darker way. Not only are we facing a world that is increasingly polluted by all kinds of toxic chemicals, but scientists are informing us that the sixth vertebrate extinction is underway and we are certain of suicidal anthropogenic climate disruption that no country seems to have the determination to stop. On the contrary, the timid measures announced at the Climate Summits have been postponed indefinitely in order to devote all possible resources to a war that threatens to escalate into a global nuclear conflict. We have returned to a Cold War situation in which the ultimate irrationality of total mutual destruction between powers emerges as a possibility for the immediate future. In this distressing context, I cannot help but be reminded of the words of the German pacifist and ecofeminist Petra Kelly: “The ultimate result of unbridled and terminal patriarchy will be ecological catastrophe or nuclear holocaust”1Petra Kelly, Por un futuro alternativo, Paidós, Barcelona, 1997, p.28..

Ecofeminism first appeared on the scene of the wartime tension of the 1970s as an attempt to correct the path of humanity. He was and is guided by the suspicion that behind the current destructive development model lies the old patriarchal will to power. Money, said Françoise d’Eaubonne, the creator of the term “écoféminisme”, is the ultimate mask of power. Ecofeminism brought together ecological data on the interdependence of ecosystems with ecological activism in defence of nature, with the critique of neo-colonialism and the feminist demand for women’s right to decide whether or not they wanted to be mothers.

On a planet with limited resources, the industrial productivism that developed as dogma in both communism and capitalism is a modern version of the ancient Greek philosophy’s critique of hubris. Hubris is the madness that leads us to disregard limits and to believe that we are invincible. If wisdom rests on the virtue of prudence, the excess of hubris is a terrible defect that leads us to an inevitable tragic destiny. Today, the capitalist paradigm based on infinite growth on a finite planet is proving unworkable. One of the signs is the increase in the number of so-called “natural disasters”. Despite the continued silencing and the self-serving trivialisation of the facts, there is an underlying unease in societies around the world.

Just a glance at the most popular series and film platforms is enough to see that today’s fiction offers us countless dystopian stories. Those that go beyond commercial amusement aim to unsettle, to generate fear in order to produce a healthy reaction that serves to stop bad practices2Such is the case, for example, in the French mini-series Collapse (2019).. However, alongside the attraction of the cathartic experience of fear, the interest in ecofeminism shows that there is also a strong yearning for a hopeful utopia that offers solutions. In its common usage, the term utopia is marked by very strong scepticism. It implies discreditation, considering something as impossible to achieve. “That’s utopia”. But in its original and etymological meaning, “utopia” alludes to what has not yet taken place in reality (based on the Greek ou “not” + topos “place”) but which, it is hoped, may come to fruition in the future. Utopian thinking draws an alternative map that is absolutely indispensable for guiding our steps along an emancipatory path. It opens our minds to a regulative horizon that calls for action. By contrasting the “is” _ the reality of what is _ with the “ought” _ a fairer, more compassionate, more egalitarian, more luminous reality _, it makes visible the defects of a present to which we have mistakenly become accustomed and suggests its correction. On the ecofeminist map that I have drawn up, two symbolic places stand out: the town garden and the labyrinth of the Minotaur. As a refuge and a place for meeting and active reflection, I have proposed the image of the Epicurean town garden3Alicia H.Puleo, Claves ecofeministas. Para rebeldes que aman a la Tierra y a los animales, Madrid, 2019. Fourth edition, updated, 2022.. Epicurus’ school of philosophy was called The Garden and consisted of a simple garden that welcomed anyone who wished to walk through it and reflect on how to achieve happiness. It was open to women in an age that excluded them from the exercise of reason, it admitted barbarian slaves into a society that regarded only the Greek, i.e. the free man, as capable of philosophising. This modest town garden provided the Epicureans with fruit and vegetables with which to sustain themselves and it was, like today’s urban gardens, a space of cultivated friendship. The ecofeminist town garden is a spatial-time that is removed from the maelstrom of neoliberal globalisation and invites multicultural dialogue with forms of the good life that, like the sumak kausay of Abya Yala, offer paradigms that liberate us from the insatiable and unsatisfactory consumerist vortex. It is a space for equality and care.

I have defined ecofeminism as an emerging thought and practice against patriarchal andro-anthropocentric and neoliberal domination. Ecofeminism is philosophy and praxis (process). It goes beyond an environmental feminism that prudently chooses to take care of the environment simply because we need it to survive. In authentically ecofeminist thought, the non-human world is not a simple “resource” nor is nature a stage for the greater glory of the human being. Overcoming androcentrism implies getting rid of the cultural bias that has led to the devaluation of empathy, compassion and tasks that involve caring, i.e. all those skills and virtues that have been attributed to women. To abandon anthropocentrism is to combat the species’ prejudice that makes us believe that only human beings deserve our moral consideration and that other animals are mere instruments to satisfy our desires.

From my proposal of enlightened critical ecofeminism, I believe that we must claim the equality of an already long-standing feminist tradition, but that this fair integration into the sphere of culture should not be limited to uncritically reproducing patriarchal attitudes and values. The warrior and the hunter are concepts of the past. They are no longer adaptive in a 21st century that requires care for a nature that is on the brink of collapse. There is an urgent need to universalise an ecological, post-anthropocentric and post-generic ethic of care. All human beings are capable of caring and we must learn to care beyond our species. An ecofeminist environmental education aims to integrate and revalue traditionally feminine attitudes of empathy and care, overcoming the hierarchical rational/emotional dualism that has excluded women from what is considered relevant education for everyone.

Ecofeminism is committed to solidarity-based resilience, a generous and energetic attitude that contrasts with the dominant narcissistic and commercialising discourse. Today, in the midst of the ecological crisis, we need to ask ourselves about the value assigned to nature and caring for life, not to lock women back into the domestic sphere with laudatory speeches that are often a poisoned chalice, but to demand the participation of men and prevent an androcentric, anthropocentric, arrogant and destructive culture from wiping out the Earth. The modern model of development as the conquest of nature through instrumental reason is marked not only by a historical time of colonial, scientific and technological expansion, but also by gender mandates for the andros, for the male.

With the labyrinth of the Minotaur, an ecofeminist re-reading of the myth of Ariadne and Theseus and the terrifying half-man half-bull monster that devoured human flesh, I have depicted the intricate path towards reconciliation with the “other” 4Alicia H. Puleo, Ecofeminismo para otro mundo posible, Colección Feminismos, Cátedra, 1st edition 2011. Tenth edition, 2021.. In the original myth, the brave Theseus entered the labyrinth and, aided by a ball of yarn given to him by Ariadne, found his way out after slaying the Minotaur. In the ecofeminist re-reading I have proposed, Ariadne enters the labyrinth of the world with Theseus and both emerge victorious with the Minotaur still alive. They do not kill him because they discover, guided through the labyrinth by the ball of yarn that symbolises the historical experience of women, that the “other” is not a dangerous monster, but a hapless creature that they must liberate. The non-human animal, the quintessential “other” in our tradition, is the philosophical and existential key to a more realistic vision of our own species. We are part of the web of life in which we are all interdependent. Even today, few people realise that it is not just a question of ethics: wild species contribute to maintaining ecosystems and the balance of the climate, all the more reason to be amazed at the absurdly suicidal animosity that humans show towards the “other”, that they persecute it and wipe it out5See Marta Tafalla, Filosofía ante la crisis ecológica. Una propuesta de convivencia con las demás especies: decrecimiento, veganismo y rewilding, Plaza y Valdes, Madrid, 2022..

The feeling of sisterhood with non-human animals is not exclusive to women, nor is it found in all women. But it remains true that women are in the overwhelming majority when it comes to their defence and protection all over the world. Attitudes of empathy and pity for the vulnerability of the non-human have traditionally been devalued as feminine weakness. This partly explains the emphasis placed by philosophers in favour of the extension of the moral community beyond humanity, on disassociating themselves from any argument based on feelings. In doing so, they seek to give philosophical relevance to the consideration of non-human moral questions by means of a rational argumentation that cannot be attacked as subjective impulse, whim or a simple matter of taste (female) without ethical rank (male). Having inherited a culture from which women have historically been excluded is not something that can be overlooked and is not a detail without consequences. Much work remains to be done to determine which aspects of this culture are worthy of preservation and which need to be transformed.

Diderot states the following in the Encyclopédie: “if we wipe man or the thinking, observing being off the face of the earth, the pathetic and sublime spectacle of nature is merely a sad and mute scene. The universe falls quiet, overcome by night and silence. Everything is transformed into a vast solitude in which unobserved phenomena pass in an obscure and muffled manner. The presence of man makes the existence of beings interesting”6Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie (Philosoph.) , Encyclopédie, Vol. V, 1755, 641ra. My translation.. As an eighteenth-century materialist, this philosopher, whom I appreciated for his avant-garde positions in so many respects, had abandoned the Cartesian dualism and mechanistic rationalism of the previous century, had embraced panenergetism and condemned European colonialism. He maintained that Nature was a long chain of beings of infinite and subtle variations. For him there was no ontological abyss, but a continuity of increasing complexity. However, as we can see in this passage, the anthropocentric bias persists in his view of the world.

In the nocturnal silence of the garden I observe two tiny snails, and next to them three glistening slugs, slowly absorbing the vegetable fluids from the moss, lichens and mushrooms that have sprung up in the rain. Slugs, those fragile, despised creatures, snails with the same antennae, but without a home! And suddenly I feel that this scene, hidden in the shadows, in its humility contains an immense peace that shelters me from the noise of a loud, aggressive world on the brink of destruction. It is not a sad and silent scene, it is calm and full of meaning regardless of my presence. Without denying the value of the legacy of the Enlightenment, I see clearly that its extreme anthropocentrism no longer corresponds to my vision of the world. I know that there are already many of us who have left this bias behind in their gaze. And this evolution in the field of ontology, this cartographic shift, also implies new ethical convictions.

The next morning, the wind rustles the branches of the trees in the garden. Everything shines a brilliant green after the rain. A flock of sparrows takes flight with great fanfare. In the background, the leaves of the plum tree sparkle a thousand times in the sun. They form a reddish mane of hair that waves, joyful and alive, like that ecofeminist torch that today invites us to travel unexplored paths towards another possible future, a future of peace with nature.

Alicia H. Puleo – Biography

Alicia H. Puleo is a philosopher, teacher and writer. Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the University of Valladolid, she runs the online course Ecofeminism: Thought, Culture and Praxis together with Dina Garzón. Her publications in different languages (Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese and Italian) number more than one hundred. Some of her books are La Ilustración olvidada, Filosofía, Género y Pensamiento crítico, Cómo leer a Schopenhauer, El reto de la igualdad de género, Ecofeminismo para otro mundo posible, Claves ecofeministas. Para rebeldes que aman a la Tierra y a los animales y Ser Feministas. Pensamiento y acción. She is a guest lecturer invited to numerous universities in Europe and America including the Universities of the Sorbonne, U. California-Los Angeles (UCLA), U. Ca Foscari de Venecia, U. Nacional de Costa Rica, U. Nacional de Buenos Aires, U. Aberta de Lisboa, U. Nacional de Chile, U. Autónoma de México and U. Roehampton (UK). Since 2014, she has been the director of the Feminismos collection at the Cátedra publishing house. In 2020, the Senate of the Republic of Argentina, at the proposal of the Network of Women Defenders of the Environment and Good Living, awarded her the “Berta Cáceres” distinction for her contributions to ecofeminist philosophy.

  • 1
    Petra Kelly, Por un futuro alternativo, Paidós, Barcelona, 1997, p.28.
  • 2
    Such is the case, for example, in the French mini-series Collapse (2019).
  • 3
    Alicia H.Puleo, Claves ecofeministas. Para rebeldes que aman a la Tierra y a los animales, Madrid, 2019. Fourth edition, updated, 2022.
  • 4
    Alicia H. Puleo, Ecofeminismo para otro mundo posible, Colección Feminismos, Cátedra, 1st edition 2011. Tenth edition, 2021.
  • 5
    See Marta Tafalla, Filosofía ante la crisis ecológica. Una propuesta de convivencia con las demás especies: decrecimiento, veganismo y rewilding, Plaza y Valdes, Madrid, 2022.
  • 6
    Denis Diderot, Encyclopédie (Philosoph.) , Encyclopédie, Vol. V, 1755, 641ra. My translation.
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