In Search of a Feminist Environmentalism

What Would Environmentalism Look Like If It Took Women's Realities Seriously?

“Not so long ago,” Jennifer Bernstein begins her important new essay in the Breakthrough Journal, “technologies like microwaves and frozen foods were understood to be liberatory.” Along with other modern conveniences, those devices dramatically reduced domestic demands upon women’s labor, opening theretofore unheard-of possibilities for women to enter the workforce, get educated, and achieve personal and economic autonomy.

The proximate target of Bernstein’s opening stanzas are lifestyle gurus like Michael Pollan, who urge women back into the kitchen in search of social connection, domestic harmony, and healthy families. But her broader beef is with an environmental ethic that continues to feminize nature, masculinize technology, and romanticize the home, the kitchen, and the small farm as places untainted by technology, industry, and commerce.

Reading Bernstein reminds us that those places were also historically the sites of patriarchy and ritual violence against women. When the self-styled ecofeminist Vandana Shiva valorizes subsistence agriculture because it places women closer to nature, the source, she claims, of all wealth, she is in reality condemning them to lives of hard physical labor and often brutal oppression.

A similar claim was, not incidentally, precisely the argument that was used to justify American slavery. And yet for this, along with her rejection of genetically modified seeds, Shiva has become a hero to many environmentalists who style themselves progressive.

These sorts of sentiments were once antithetical to leftists and progressives. “At least since Virginia Woolf identified ‘a room of her own and five hundred a year’ as the necessary preconditions for a woman to achieve personal and professional empowerment,” Bernstein observes, “feminists have advocated for those fruits of modernization—individuation, privacy, education, and civil rights—that have enabled the relative gender equality the majority of the developed world experiences today.” Marx, meanwhile, famously described rural life as a form of idiocy.

But whether born of nostalgia for rural idylls that never existed or dogmatic insistence that peasant life must be virtuous precisely because it sits outside “hegemonic neoliberalism,” progressives today too often end up defending the indefensible.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with spending an afternoon shopping at a farmers’ market and preparing an elaborate meal for one’s family if one has the time, money, and inclination to do so. But that must be understood as a privilege, not a virtue, one built upon several centuries of agricultural modernization, technological progress, and economic growth that have allowed most of us in the wealthy, developed world to garden, search out ingredients for meals, and cook for our families because we want to, not because we have to.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 7
Democracy in the Anthropocene
Featuring pieces by Erle Ellis, Emma Marris, Calestous
Juma, Jennifer Bernstein, and Siddhartha Shome