Ecofeminist Perspectives on Social Sustainability: An Assessment

Ecofeminist Perspectives on Social Sustainability: An Assessment

Nikila Lakshmanan


In environmental philosophy, the concepts of social sustainability, ecofeminism, environmental justice, and intersectional identities have gained much theoretical and practical momentum. Social sustainability is an ideal that stands for equal rights, systematic community participation, and strong civil societies. Ecofeminism and environmental justice are two strains of environmental thought that place an emphasis on social sustainability. Both attempt to make connections between environmental problems and social oppression, but tend to prioritize different social issues. Ecofeminism underscores sexism, and environmental justice highlights the global manifestations of white supremacy. Environmental justice movements can be susceptible to sexism, and the tendency to draw false dichotomies between social and environmental sustainability that depict the former as more pressing than the latter. Ecofeminism can help environmental justice to avoid these pitfalls. Ecofeminist perspectives on social sustainability analyze the ways that social variables—including environmental problems—intersect and shape the identities of women. These perspectives are not homogenous. Cultural, radical, postmodern, social, liberal, and socialist ecofeminism have distinct analyses of women’s intersectional identities. This paper argues that of these positions, socialist ecofeminism holds the most promise to enrich the environmental justice discourse. This paper uses data from two case studies in India to support this argument. The first case study explores the intersections between sexism, environmental problems, and caste-based oppression in the lives of Dalit and Adivasi women. The second case study examines the intersections of sexism, environmental problems, and religion in the lives of women from the Garhwali ethno-linguistic group. The data from both case studies reveal the advantages of socialist ecofeminism, relative to the other strands of ecofeminist thought.


In the field of environmental philosophy, the concept of sustainability has gained much theoretical and practical momentum. As philosopher Sherilyn MacGregor argues, however, the sustainability discourse falls short in crucial areas. Contention brews among philosophers over basic issues such as sustainability’s precise definition (MacGregor 2; Vucetich and Nelson 539). Philosophers also disagree about whether the concept of sustainability should prioritize environmental, economic or social issues. Hence, they often place the proposed definitions of sustainability in three categories: environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Environmental sustainability prioritizes the conservation of the biophysical environment, and economic sustainability emphasizes the consumption of an amount of capital during a period that still leaves one as well off at the end of that period. Social sustainability underscores equal rights, systematic community participation, and a strong civil society (Goodland 3). MacGregor suggests that the discourse on social sustainability often lacks substantive analyses of gender (MacGregor 2). Namely, it focuses on the long-range viability of human institutions without fully considering the role of gendered power disparities (MacGregor 7). It overlooks the influence of gender not only on society, but also the environment and the economy.

In response to the neglect of gendered power disparities in the social sustainability discourse, MacGregor turns to ecofeminism as a source of possible solutions. As philosopher Chaone Mallory observes, ecofeminism is a theoretical stance and political movement that maintains that sexist ideologies are closely connected to doctrines that sanction the degradation of the environment (Mallory 253-254). Ecofeminism is distinct from but overlaps with another school of environmental thought—the global quest for environmental justice—that has made seminal contributions to the discourse on social sustainability (Mallory 256). Ecofeminism and environmental justice are intersectional concepts, in many ways. Both identify and resist the “conceptual and material linkages between the degradation of natural places and the marginalization and oppression of human communities” (Mallory 253). However, they have historically focused on different social issues. Ecofeminism centers sexism; environmental justice concentrates on global manifestations of white supremacy. Environmental justice challenges environmental racism (i.e. the disproportionate impact of environmental disasters on oppressed racial groups) and “ecologically-exploitative” histories of colonialism, as well as forms of neocolonialism and economic imperialism (Mallory 253, 256). Environmental justice activists may not place as much emphasis on sexism, and in fact may be susceptible to it. Men often dominate the environmental justice movement, despite the fact that women created the concept itself (Gaard 116). Mallory suggests that environmental justice activists sometimes subscribe to a “bio-culturally destructive” normative dualism; they insinuate that social sustainability is more important than the environmental variety (Mallory 255-256). Ecofeminism can help them avoid these pitfalls. Environmental justice movements must include an explicitly ecofeminist analysis, in order to better understand the ways in which systems of social oppression (including but not limited to white supremacy, ecological problems, and sexism) “intersect and mutually reinforce one another” (Mallory 251).

However, ecofeminism is not a homogeneous category. Ecofeminists disagree on what connects environmental problems with sexism, and how to overcome them. Ecofeminist positions on social sustainability diverge in their analyses of intersectional identities, especially those of women. MacGregor identifies seven positions as worthy of examination—these are those of cultural, radical, postmodern, social, liberal, and socialist ecofeminism (MacGregor 3). Each perspective has something distinct to offer to the discourse on environmental justice.

The Purpose of this Paper

The purpose of this paper is to assess the cultural, radical, postmodern, social, liberal, and socialist ecofeminist positions on social sustainability. The purpose of this assessment is to understand which position has the strongest analysis of women’s intersectional identities—and holds the most promise for the discourse on environmental justice. To this end, this paper uses the data from two case studies in the book Gender and Sustainability by cultural anthropologist María Luz Cruz-Torres and ecologist Pamela McElwee. Gender and Sustainability is a compilation of ethnographies from Asia and Latin America emphasizing the importance of women’s voices for cultivating sustainable societies. The case studies that this paper uses are “Democratic Spaces across Scales: Women’s Inclusion in Community Forestry in Orissa, India” by Neera Singh and “Meaningful Waters: Women, Development, and Sustainability along the Bhagirathi Ganges” by Georgina Drew.

The first case study examines the ways that Indian women protect community forests in the Indian state of Orissa; it underscores the intersection between caste-based oppression, sexism, and ecological problems in the women’s lives. The second case study researches the role of impoverished Indian women in the sustainable management of the Ganges River. It highlights their intersectional experiences of religion, sexism, and environmental problems (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 51, 143). Caste and religion are under-analyzed in environmental philosophy. The studies engage with two distinct, marginalized groups of Indian women, and address different environmental issues. The salience of these case studies also resides in their Indian contexts. Data from India can help sift the claims of ecofeminism that are applicable outside Western societies from those that are not. It can help the environmental justice movement in its quest against Eurocentrism and white supremacy. A careful assessment of cultural, radical, postmodern, social, liberal, and socialist ecofeminist perspectives on social sustainability using these case studies suggests that socialist ecofeminism offers the strongest analysis of the women’s intersectional identities. The case studies show that socialist ecofeminism has the greatest potential to enrich the discourse on environmental justice.

The Ecofeminist Perspectives on Social Sustainability

According to philosopher Carolyn Merchant’s book Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, the concept of ecofeminism emerged in the 1970s, when feminists began to make connections between women and nature. The French feminist author Francoise d’Eaubonne coined the term “ecofeminisme” in 1974, calling upon women to lead an ecological revolution to save the planet. For d’Eaubonne, such an ecological revolution would entail new gender relations between men and women, and between humans and nature. The feminist theorist Ynestra King developed the concept of ecofeminism at the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont in 1976 (Merchant 184). Ecofeminism became a movement in 1980 through a major conference called “Women and Life on Earth: Ecofeminism in the ‘80s” and the protests of nuclear war and weapons in the United States by women (Merchant 184).

As ecofeminism gained momentum, it quickly split into separate strains with very different ideas about the connections between women and nature, and how to emancipate them both from exploitation. Cultural ecofeminism developed in the late 1960s and 1970s with the second wave of feminism, and radical ecofeminism split from it in the 1980s (Merchant 190; Miles, “Ecofeminism”). Postmodern ecofeminism and social ecofeminism developed in the 1990s (McDonald 88). Liberal ecofeminism incorporated liberal feminist thought from the 17th century to the 1960s, and socialist ecofeminism drew upon Marxist analyses of labor (Merchant 188-190; 198-200). These strains of ecofeminism take positions on social sustainability that offer very different analyses of women’s intersectional identities.

The cultural ecofeminist position on social sustainability uses a contested, essentialist definition of womanhood. Cultural ecofeminists claim that women are “socially gendered” and “biologically sexed” (Merchant 191). Cultural ecofeminists tacitly assume that womanhood involves possession of a so-called female sexual and reproductive system. Cultural ecofeminists suggest that due to this reproductive system, women are closer than men to nature. Women’s menstrual cycles correspond to the waxing and waning of the moon. Women bring forth life through pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing (Merchant 190-194). Women’s traditional “life-giving” and conserving roles as mothers lend them a “privileged epistemological approach to nature” (Littig 133). Cultural ecofeminists reason that a Western patriarchal devaluation of women and nature is the root of socially (and ecologically) unsustainable practices. Many critique mainstream Western philosophy on the grounds that it engages in dualistic thinking. Western philosophers often see the Christian God and men as separate from nature and women. Cultural ecofeminists argue that this kind of dualistic thinking promotes men’s domination and control and equates women with nature. The result is a “shared oppression” of women and the earth (Littig 133). Cultural ecofeminists attempt to subvert Western patriarchy by revaluing supposedly innate connections between women and nature, prizing them as a source of social sustainability (Merchant 190-194).

Cultural ecofeminists hold that colonialism and Western science are both responsible for women’s oppression and environmental problems for oppressed racial groups and “Third World” regions (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 8; Merchant 193; Salman 857). For cultural ecofeminists, social sustainability requires opposing male-developed and male-controlled science, industry, and technology. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century fostered unsustainable practices by replacing the notion of a nurturing Mother Earth with the metaphor of a machine to be controlled (Merchant 190-194). Cultural ecofeminists embrace “female spirituality” or traditions that they see as woman-centric (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 8). Indigenous cultural ecofeminists sometimes perceive the earth as a mother-figure, a source of “physical nourishment and spiritual strength” (Merchant 193). Cultural ecofeminists laud rituals centering on goddess worship, the female reproductive system, the moon, and animals. Many feel nostalgias for supposedly pre-patriarchal eras when women were lauded as bringers forth of life, and when pregnant female figures symbolized both women and nature. They suggest that patriarchal Western religions dethroned mother goddesses, replacing them with male gods, to whom they became subservient. Cultural ecofeminists often seek to meet their goals for social sustainability through ritualistic worship of the earth and other aspects of nature as goddesses, as well as lectures, concerts, art exhibitions, street and theater productions, and direct political action (Merchant 190-194)

Another strain of ecofeminism with an essentialist concept of womanhood is the radical variety. Radical ecofeminists hold that biological sex categories are innate, while gender is a social construction (Berman 15). Radical ecofeminists believe that dualistic assumptions create mutable gender categories that oppress women and nature. They claim that social sustainability entails sustaining life in all its forms through the promotion of work women traditionally perform in maintaining life, such as caring for families, the sick, and the elderly (Diamond and Orenstein, ix). However—unlike cultural ecofeminists—radical ecofeminists do not prize the links that see between women and nature. By revaluing women’s traditional work and the natural world, radical feminists aspire for a sustainable society without special associations between women and nature (Miles, “Ecofeminism”).

Radical ecofeminists examine ways that societies portray women and nature negatively and as commodities, depicting men as establishers of order. They postulate that these representations of women, nature, and men encourage unsustainable practices that exploit the former two for cheap labor and resources (Berman 16). They point to the large-scale, centralized and technological basis of contemporary society as an example of unsustainable practices. Radical ecofeminists have expressed concern about the “sexist and racist impacts of reproductive technologies on women’s bodies: eugenics and population control are patriarchal and imperialist tools for populating or un-populating the Earth” (Casselot 81). Radical ecofeminists endorse cooperative, decentralized, and organic forms of social organization. They also promote as socially-sustainable women’s management of consumer and production units such as food co-operatives, organic farms and businesses. They believe that social sustainability involves women having greater control in purchasing and producing items with an eye to environmental sensitivity (Bernam 16-17; Diamond and Orenstein ix).

One form of ecofeminism that departs widely from the cultural and radical strains is postmodern ecofeminism. It downplays all forms of biological and material essentialism and determinism (McDonald 89). Postmodern ecofeminists reject the notion of innate gender and sexual differences. In fact, they often question the validity of womanhood and the environment as categories, seeing them as essentially contested, and representative of historical and social conditioning (MacGregor 7). Postmodern ecofeminists embrace the concept of intersectionality. Women can approach environmental questions with “situated knowledges” that are shaped by many layers of identity and difference (McDonald 89). Women’s multi-layered social locations shape the bodies of knowledge that they accumulate as they navigate the power dynamics of the world. Many intersecting variables—such as race and class—determine these locations. Postmodern ecofeminism shuns any single organizing concept or meta-theory on social sustainability, instead embracing complexity and diversity (McDonald 89). It lacks any unified political agenda, encompassing an eclectic array of movements.

Social ecofeminism resembles its postmodern cousin in its broad rejection of essentialism (Merchant 194-195). Social ecofeminists assign a little more importance to the role of reproductive biology in shaping women’s identities. However, they maintain that biological differences that may exist across gender cannot justify patriarchy. Biology, society, and individual interests interact in all people, giving them the capacity to construct the societies in which they wish to live. Social ecofeminists endorse women’s reproductive, sexual, intellectual, and moral freedom for the cultivation of social sustainability (Merchant 194-195).

Inspired by political theorist Murray Bookchin’s anarchist social ecology, social ecofeminism postulates that the degradation of nature stems from the domination of human by human. Unjust power disparities directly generate unsustainable societies. These unjust power disparities include sexism, racism, and existing social institutions, like the capitalist economy and the state. Nonetheless, social ecofeminism has a Eurocentric bent. Bookchin admitted that his theories were limited in their applicability outside the United States: “I am more knowledgeable about this country [the United States] than I am about other parts of the world” (Venturini 2). Social ecofeminism also opposes marriage, the nuclear family, conventional romantic love, and most religions as sexist. It envisions an anarchist society of decentralized communities that transcends the public/private dichotomy necessary for capitalist production and the bureaucratic state. In them, women emerge as free participants in public life and local municipal workplaces. Childrearing is communal. Due to the absence of unjust power disparities, rape and other forms of violence against women are non-existent. For social ecofeminists, social sustainability requires ending all forms of domination, freeing all aspects of human nature from passionate sexuality to rationality (Merchant 194-195).

Liberal ecofeminism views women and men as fundamentally similar, in that they are individual rational agents who maximize their own self-interest. However, liberal ecofeminists distinguish themselves by supporting women’s participation in mainstream institutions for the cultivation of social sustainability. Liberal ecofeminists predict that many women can transcend the stigma of having so-called female biology by participating in traditionally-masculine institutions (Merchant 199). Liberal ecofeminists endorse capitalism and the democratic state as optimal structures for social sustainability. They believe they can achieve social sustainability through the promotion of gender equity within these institutions. Liberal ecofeminists therefore seek to help women access education, wage-earning opportunities, control over their reproduction, and positions in the government. They lobby politicians, pressure corporations, and alert the media to their concerns (Merchant 188-190).

Liberal ecofeminists reason that unsustainability results from overly rapid development of natural resources, and failure to regulate pesticides and other environmental pollutants. They claim that they can meliorate such social orders by making social reproduction environmentally-sound. Therefore, they endorse better science, conservation, and laws as proper approaches to resolving resource problems. Given equal educational opportunities to become scientists, natural resource managers, regulators, lawyers, and legislators, women can work with men to improve the environment, conserve natural resources, and increase the quality of human life. Women have the right to join men in the project of social sustainability (Merchant 189-190; 200).

Socialist ecofeminism’s account of social sustainability balances elements of social ecofeminism’s anti-establishment ideas with some of liberal ecofeminism’s more conventional positions. Like social ecofeminism, the socialist variety suggests that sex and gender stem from a combination of biology and “praxis” (their intersections with race, class, and other variables) (Merchant 187). It also holds that social sustainability requires alternatives to many standard institutions. Such alternatives range from women’s health care agencies, food and housing cooperatives, and educational and political organizations that foster environmental sustainability (Hessing 9). Socialist ecofeminism’s objective is to change institutional structures, especially industrial capitalism, toward more environmentally-compatible systems (Merchant 197-201). Socialist ecofeminists align with their liberal counterparts in their opposition to corporate irresponsibility via public education, research, and lobbying (Hessing 9).

Central to socialist ecofeminism’s position on social sustainability is a critique of conventional development. Socialist ecofeminists reason that conventional development directly causes environmental problems. As productivity has transformed with technology, so has the growth of cash markets and economies of scale, the consumption and pollution of resources. For socialist ecofeminists, women’s subordination in the home and paid labor force are by-products of conventional development. Women are trapped by the continuing primacy of familial roles, and their exclusion from or subordination within wage-earning jobs. Women’s position is not due to insufficient development efforts, but the inadequacy of the development models themselves. These models orient toward commodity production, the introduction of unnecessary capital-intensive technology, and the concept of production for profit rather than for social needs (Hessing 8; Merchant 197-201). Socialist ecofeminists argue that the transition to a socially-sustainable global environment and economy is based on two relationships—that between production and ecology and that between production and reproduction. In existing theories of capitalist development, ecology and reproduction are subordinate to production. Social sustainability requires reversing the priorities of capitalism, making production subordinate to ecology and reproduction (Merchant 198).

Case Study One: “Democratic Spaces across Scales: Women’s Inclusion in Community Forestry in Orissa, India” by Neera Singh

This study focuses on the role that Dalit and Adivasi women play in protecting community forests in the Indian state of Orissa. Impoverished women from Orissa—especially Dalit and Adivasi women—heavily depend on forests for their livelihood. The term Dalit refers to a caste traditionally regarded as “untouchables”, and Adivasi people are considered the aboriginal population of India (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 68). Both communities face caste discrimination. Caste-based oppression and sexism are inextricably linked, and manifest in similar ways. In many villages, religion sanctions both caste-based oppression and sexism. Dalits and menstruating women are often denied the right to enter temples (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 68). Caste-based oppression and sexism also have secular dimensions, which intersect with environmental issues like forestry. This case study focuses on the secular aspects of these injustices.

In the case study, the so-called upper caste people—and men—bar Dalit and Adivasi women from decision-making regarding the forests (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 51). The villages poorly deploy the ecological knowledge that these women derive from their interaction with local forests (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 53). The data on the women shows that socialist ecofeminism’s position on social sustainability offers the best account of the intersection between caste, gender, and ecological problems in the women’s lives. Socialist ecofeminism holds the most potential to enrich the discourse on environmental justice.

Singh’s methodology centers a federation of forest-protecting villagers called Maa Maninag Jungle Surakhya Parishad (MMJSP). In Orissa, MMJSP has paid an unprecedented amount of attention to Dalit and Adivasi women’s forest-related concerns. Singh’s study includes conversational interviews with village men and women, as well as leaders of MMJSP. It compiles records of the meetings at MMJSP and women’s groups, participant observations of the meetings, focus group discussions, and interviews with NGO staff. Singh analyzes the records of MMJSP meetings from 1997-2007. To understand the inclusion of women (across caste) at the community level, she examines the forest-related decision-making process in six villages and two village clusters. To understand the constraints to women’s participation (across caste), she creates three focus groups with women in village settings (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 55).

Singh finds that while Dalit and Adivasi women’s participation in forest protection has expanded, challenges persist. According to a survey conducted in 2005, 111 villages in Orissa are involved in forest protection. Only 23 of these 111 villages had women representatives on the forest protection committees. Only 7% of the officeholders were women. Another 7% were Dalits, and 16% were Adivasis. There was no data on people with one or more of these identities (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 56-57). In 1999, women of different castes in MMJSP formed a Central Women’s Committee (CWC) with regular meetings. These meetings help women discuss their problems, encounter other women, and learn from each other (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 59). Through them, the women of MMJSP raise awareness of their hitherto invisible forest-related livelihood challenges. For impoverished Dalit and Adivasi women, such challenges include their incomes from kendu and siali leaves. Many Dalit and Adivasi women survive on the trade in kendu leaves, which is nationalized in Orissa. The leaves can only be sold at government-administered collection centers called phadies. As there had been no phadies in the Ranpur town of Orissa, women gathering kendu leaves were forced to sell them to private traders. These traders operated illicitly, offering the women a fraction of the state-fixed prices. In 2000, women raised this problem at one of the women’s meetings, and by 2001 they decided to organize a rally about the issue. About 2,000 women from 95 villages sent a petition to the Chief Minister of Orissa. The government responded by opening two new phadies; it promised more but did not deliver. The women’s activism transformed their position for the better within MMJSP, and they continued to rally and organize sit-ins around this issue (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 60-61). As a result, Adivasi women improved their income from siali leaves, which are used as food plates. The women bought machines to stich siali leaf-plates and collectively market them. The women’s trades in kendu and siali leaves helped them gain more confidence and economic independence (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61-62). These non-timber trades also strengthened non-destructive forest-based economies. Dalit and Adivasi women’s representation has since increased in MMJSP, to their collective benefit. MMJSP has also gained more visibility and popular support among people (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 63-64).

Challenges the women still face include social and cultural restrictions, barriers to participation within federations, and continued neglect of their concerns. Women—especially those oppressed by caste—face strong social and cultural taboos in the public sphere (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 57). Men first resisted the participation of women and oppressed castes in MMJSP, due to the notion that their traditional roles as fuel and fodder-gatherers make them destroyers of the forest. One of the male leaders stated: “How can we include them? No forest will remain if we involve women and Dalits” (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 58). District federations typically nominate men privileged by caste to be their state-level representatives. Women representatives (of unspecified caste backgrounds) can also show apathy to the concerns of Dalit and Adivasi women. Many women felt hurt by one such representative, who had invoked sisterhood and claimed to understand their problems. However, she changed after getting elected, and one woman said: “Now she does not recognize us. We are still the jungle-people, while she has become an urban dweller” (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61). Another woman added: “She is not a woman. She has become a man,” (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61-62). Dalit women were among the representative’s strongest critics. One Dalit woman named Kuntala Nahak met with and demanded accountability from her. Following this meeting, the representative invited MMJSP to further discuss their concerns. The government also promised to open another phadie (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 63-64).

State-level policy forums, conferences, and workshops typically exclude women (across caste). Policy forums are usually attended by leaders and those seen as experts—positions that women find difficult to obtain. Women’s participation in state-level policy events is further restricted by constraints while traveling. Women find it challenging to obtain familial permission to travel, unless they have a woman traveling-partner. The few women who can travel to these meetings often cannot comprehend the technical and managerial discourse. They also do not understand discussions about issues that seem removed from their immediate concerns. Men often do not deign to inform women about the details of past discussion (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 65). These gender-based challenges continue to restrict Dalit and Adivasi women’s participation in forest-related decision-making processes.

The case study’s findings challenge cultural and radical ecofeminist positions on social sustainability. The women’s stated priorities do not emphasize indigenous practices of nature worship, but their material concerns about their standing within MMJSP, and their forest-related incomes. The dominant spiritual traditions of the culture they operate in often exclude them, by barring them from temples (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 68). The women’s political tactics do not mirror cultural ecofeminism’s emphasis on goddess-centered rituals (Merchant 190-194). Adivasi women actively use machines to improve their income from siali leaves, simultaneously improving their social standing and boosting a non-timber forest-based trade. Their actions challenge the cultural and radical ecofeminist critiques of technology as male-controlled and inherently unsustainable. The women’s experiences at the intersections of caste and gender contradict the claims that women’s traditional roles bring them closer to nature than men. The men resist Dalit and Adivasi women’s participation in forest management because their caste and gender-based occupations as fuel and fodder-gatherers gives them the label of destroyers—not sustainers—of nature (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61-62; Merchant 190-194). The social sustainability perspectives of cultural and radical ecofeminism do not account for the women’s intersectional experiences of caste-based oppression, sexism, and ecological problems. The environmental justice movement will not obtain the cultural specificity it needs from ecofeminist analysis to resist manifestations of white supremacy in India.

The women also underline some limitations of postmodern and social ecofeminist accounts of social sustainability. Although postmodern ecofeminism’s disruption of conventional ideas of womanhood (and the environment) challenges assumptions of their inferiority to men, its lack of a cohesive agenda limits its potential as a source of solutions for these women. The Dalit and Adivasi women in this study share collective identities as people oppressed by caste and gender. However, they do not seem to have internalized a notion of their inferiority (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61-62). Their advocacy around their incomes suggests that they know they deserve to be more active participants in forest-related decision-making than their society allows (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61-62). Postmodern ecofeminism offers few coherent strategies for the women to hone their already robust history of resistance. Hence, its current potential for the environmental justice movement is severely limited.

The data on the women challenges social ecofeminist critiques of the state and capitalism. The lack of phadies (the government-administered collection centers) is a major barrier the women face in the kendu leaf trade. In the absence of government protection, the women face exploitation by private traders (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 60-61). The benefits of state regulation of the kendu leaf trade raises the question of whether the social ecofeminist critique of the state is sufficient to justify its abolition. It raises many questions on how social ecofeminists would prevent the economic and caste-based exploitation of the women in their decentralized anarchist communities, and how they would hold perpetrators accountable. The material benefits the women receive from raising their income calls into question whether the social ecofeminist critique of wage labor is enough to abolish it. It is unclear how social ecofeminists would guide a transition from the culturally-specific situation of these women to an anarchist society. Social ecofeminism’s Eurocentric origins do not prepare its analysis well for these questions. It lacks a robust understanding of caste-based oppression, sexism, and environmental injustice in its position on social sustainability. The environmental justice movement cannot rely on its Eurocentric position to understand women’s intersectional identities, and successfully resist the global phenomenon of white supremacy.

The case study reveals a crucial pitfall of liberal ecofeminism on social sustainability It problematizes the liberal ecofeminist assumption that women’s individual participation in traditionally-masculine institutions will secure gender equity. Women state-representatives of federations are often apathetic to Dalit and Adivasi women’s collective concerns (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 61-62). This data point suggests that women’s presence in these institutions would not fully unravel the prioritization of so-called upper-caste people and men’s concerns over those of Dalit and Adivasi women. Certainly, it is unlikely that so-called upper-caste women in these institutions would be free of caste bias. In order to empower the Dalit and Adivasi women in this study, more substantive changes must accompany the reforms that liberal ecofeminists propose (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 142-159). The women are colonized by caste. Environmental justice requires an ecofeminist position with a more transformative vision of society, in order to realize its goals against colonization, economic imperialism, and white supremacy.

The case study aligns best with socialist ecofeminism’s position on social sustainability. The women’s activism around their forest-based incomes supports the socialist ecofeminist critique of conventional development. The trades in kendu and siali leaves are part of the women’s traditional caste occupations. Neglect of their livelihood concerns stems from an assumption that they are “destroyers of the forest” and cannot raise legitimate issues about forest protection. Singh suggests that the forest faces a problem of destructive, timber-based industries, which fits with the socialist position that many developmental models prioritize commodity production for profit over ecology and social needs (Hessing 8; Merchant 197-201). The inattention to Dalit and Adivasi women’s livelihood concerns has hindered the creation of development models that benefit them. The women’s motivation to increase their forest-related income is also compatible with socialist ecofeminism. Unlike social ecofeminism’s anarchist proponents, socialist ecofeminists do not vocally endorse abolishing wage labor. Their stated goal is to change capitalism toward more sustainable systems. Socialist ecofeminists also indicate that their opposition to unnecessary capital-intensive technology does not extend to technology in general (Hessing 8). The women’s use of machines does not contradict its agenda. Moreover, the women’s activism around their forest-based incomes within the CWC aligns with many socialist ecofeminist tactics. The CWC’s prioritization of women’s concerns helped the women learn from each other and demand policy change regarding the kendu and siali leaf trades. These strategies align with the socialist ecofeminist tactics of public education and lobbying. Their progress, in light of their continued challenges, highlights the potential of these tactics to assist them (Merchant 197-201).

Socialist ecofeminism’s position on social sustainability has a lot to offer the environmental justice movement. The socialist ecofeminist critique of conventional development provides environmental justice with an important tool to resist forms of economic imperialism (that are often connected to white supremacy on a global scale). Socialist ecofeminism provides the strongest analysis of the Dalit and Adivasi women’s intersectional identities. It disrupts the ways that Eurocentrism—along with caste and gender-based oppression—have erased the women from the global stage. Environmental justice activists have argued that the ecological knowledge of local communities is necessary to compile data to show that a local land use is harmful to a community’s human and nonhuman residents (Mallory 258). However, the notion that local communities are good stewards of environmental resources can idealize communities, assuming them to be homogenous and stable (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 51). Socialist ecofeminism can help the environmental justice movement avoid homogenizing Indian communities in its global stance against racism. It can also help it evade charges of sexism (Gaard 116). Socialist ecofeminism also underscores the intersections of Dalit and Adivasi women’s identities with ecological problems, validating the women’s traditional dependence on kendu and siali leaves and offering ways that they can improve their incomes from these trades. Through its analysis, the environmental justice movement could sidestep charges that it prioritizes social sustainability over the environmental kind and overlooks ways that they intersect (Mallory 256). Thus, the socialist ecofeminist position on social sustainability holds the most potential to enrich the environmental justice discourse.

Case Study Two: “Meaningful Waters: Women, Development, and Sustainability along the Bhagirathi Ganges” by Georgina Drew

In Gender and Sustainability, Cruz-Torres and McElwee include another important case study that highlights the promise of socialist ecofeminism on social sustainability for environmental justice. The importance of this study stems from the fact that it is an ethnography of Indian women from the Garhwali ethno-linguistic group. Many Garhwali women are part of India’s rural and semi-urban poor (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 143). They live near the Bhagirathi River, the primary tributary of the holy Ganges River in the Himalayas. The health of the Bhagirathi River—which the women depend on for survival—is in jeopardy. Scientific reports show that the Himalayan glaciers that contribute to its surface flows are receding significantly. Environmental shifts, such as glacial melt will probably contribute to long-term water stress. Moreover, great gender inequalities persist between those that have access to adequate, potable water supplies and those that do not. Current approaches to water management, including the proliferation of hydroelectric dams, exacerbate gender vulnerabilities to shifting water availability. Like the Dalit and Adivasi women in the previous study, Garhwali women are frequently overlooked on the global stage (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 143-144). Their intersectional identities are salient for the discourses on ecofeminism, social sustainability, and environmental justice.

Drew’s methodology contains nearly one hundred semi-structured interviews of Garhwali women, ten life-history interviews, and ten focus-group sessions. It involves twenty-five movement events, and fifteen cultural ceremonies centering devotion to the river. The field sites for these aspects of Drew’s work span from the river’s glacial source to the city of Uttarkashi some eighty miles below. Drew’s project also entails four months of organizational research in places such as New Delhi. She conducted this field work between 2008 and 2009 (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 147).

For Drew, this ethnography reveals an important point (among others) about gender, sustainability, and religion (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 155). The Garhwali women’s belief in the Goddess Ganga—the Hindu deity of the Ganges River—informs their opposition to development projects like the hydroelectric dams along it. They hold that the dams not only block their access to the river water but rupture their religious connections to it. Garhwali women revere the Goddess Ganga as a mother and a source of cosmological guidance. As traditional Hindu wives, many fast regularly on the banks of the Ganges to pray for their husbands’ welfare. In addition to jeopardizing gendered codes of conduct, the dam’s blockage of the river also impacts their observance of cultural rites of passage in the Hindu life cycle, known as sanskar (or samskara). They believe that the Ganges water sustains people from the moment of birth by washing away physical and spiritual impurities (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 152). The women also oppose the dams because as caretakers of children, they believe that the temporary income men receive for construction labor does not compensate its impact on their posterity (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 157). For Drew, this data shows that Western anthropologists should “move beyond” negating “Third World” beliefs in gods and spirits as superstitions or “respecting” them as mere cultural artifacts (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 155). Namely, they should examine the possibility that such beings are literally real. She highlights a necessity of accepting “multiple truths” in order to take seriously the perspectives of marginal women on sustainability. Only then, she contends, is a sustainable society possible (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 153).

The findings of Drew’s study—and one problem with her conclusions—disrupt the cultural and radical ecofeminist positions on social sustainability. Neither ecofeminist position capture the women’s ambivalent religious connection to the Ganges. The women’s fasting ritual by the Ganges for their husband’s welfare plays an important role in their subordination, glorifying their self-sacrifice and reinforcing their domesticity (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 152). This Garhwali tradition is ambivalent, rather than unambiguously empowering. In light of it, the cultural ecofeminist idealization of the often non-Western, goddess-centered traditions seems simplistic. The radical ecofeminist inclination to revalue women’s care labor seems sweeping: it raises the question of whether some kinds of traditionally feminine labor are so alienating that they should be abandoned. After all, this tradition reinforces the subordinate status of women in ways more explicit than tending to the sick or elderly (Merchant 190-194). These issues problematize Drew’s suggestion that Western anthropologists should regard all “Third World” religious beliefs as equally valid. Cultural and radical ecofeminism cannot accurately pinpoint the intersection of religion, sexism, and ecological problems in the Garhwali women’s lives. Their analyses of social sustainability are too simplistic to aid the environmental justice movement in its quest against Western hegemony.

Drew’s findings also highlight important limitations of postmodern and social ecofeminist accounts of social sustainability. The women’s fasting ritual is part of the gendered expectations of their conduct. However, their devotion to the Goddess Ganga also inspires their vocal opposition to the hydroelectric dams. Both these dimensions of the women’s spirituality disrupt parts of postmodern and social ecofeminism. Postmodern ecofeminism’s position that gender and the environment are “essentially contested” could be interpreted to suggest that contradictory accounts of both are equally valid. Critics might reasonably interpret postmodern ecofeminism to suggest that the patriarchal womanhood that the fasting ritual endorses is as valid as more subversive conceptions of womanhood. The social ecofeminist critique of religion as patriarchal avoids this trap. However, it does not validate the empowering aspects of the women’s devotion to the river goddess, such as their opposition to the water dams and articulation of their needs. Moreover, as in the previous case study it is unclear how social ecofeminists believe that the religious, patriarchal Garhwali society should transition to the irreligious, anarchist society they envision. Their unwittingly Eurocentric utopia may not amount to an environmentally-just society that meets the women’s intertwined social and spiritual needs. Postmodern and social ecofeminism do not grapple with the complexity of the women’s religious identities. Their views on social sustainability cannot give the environmental justice movement what it needs to challenge Eurocentrism and understand the interplay of religion, gender, and ecological problems in the Garhwali women’s lives.

This study’s findings also problematize the liberal ecofeminist account of social sustainability. Despite the patriarchy in the women’s fasting ritual, it inspires them to voice their concerns about the dams as wives. The ritual is a way in which they care for their husbands. Just as the women regard the Goddess Ganga as their mother that cares for them, they feel an affirmative sense of duty to their own children. The women’s roles as children’s caretakers also motivate them to oppose the dams. It is their traditionally feminine care labor that inspires the women to vocalize their views (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 157). These results disrupt the liberal ecofeminist implication that funneling women into male-dominated occupations is sufficient for their empowerment. While they neither reduce the problems with the fasting ritual nor imply that women should not enter male-dominated occupations, they do imply a need for women-centric alternatives to conventional development. Liberal ecofeminism runs the implicit risk of reinforcing sexism; it can unilaterally overvalue traditionally masculine labor and undervalue work which is traditionally feminine—including the work that the Garhwali women perform. Its social sustainability views are not feminist enough to serve as a gender lens for the anti-racist but occasionally sexist environmental justice movement.

The subtle aspects of this case study corroborate the socialist ecofeminist position on social sustainability. Socialist ecofeminism—unlike social ecofeminism—does not vocally oppose religion as patriarchal. It is more compatible with some of the women’s spiritual connections to the Ganges (though not necessarily the fasting ritual). The understated material aspects of this work support the socialist critique of conventional development. As Drew specifies, current water management approaches like the dams disproportionately block women’s spiritual and material access to river water (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 152). This point is consistent with the socialist ecofeminist identification of inadequate development models as a root of women’s subordination. It supports their critique of unnecessary, capital-intensive technology (Hessing 8). The fact that the dominant development model prioritizes men’s income from construction work of the dams over women’s insights as religious care-laborers suggests that it values profit more than social needs. This finding fits with the socialist critiques of production for profit rather than for social needs, and of development emphasizing commodity production (Hessing 8). Socialist ecofeminism best accounts for the interplay of religion, sexism, and ecological problems for the women. Socialist ecofeminist insights on social sustainability can help the environmental justice movement combat Eurocentrism, economic imperialism, and other forms of global white supremacy, which have helped erase Garhwali women from the global stage (Mallory 256). It underscores the fact that social and ecological issues are interrelated in the Garhwali women’s lives, and that one does not take precedence over the others. Of the ecofeminist perspectives on social sustainability discussed in this paper, socialist ecofeminism holds the most promise for environmental justice.

Conclusion: Why the Socialist Ecofeminist Perspective on Social Sustainability Matters

This paper shows that a careful assessment of the cultural, radical, postmodern, social, liberal, and socialist ecofeminist positions on social sustainability through the case studies “Democratic Spaces across Scales” and “Meaningful Waters” suggests that the latter view offers the most promise for the environmental justice movement. The case studies highlight some weaknesses in cultural, radical, postmodern, social, and liberal ecofeminism, and some advantages of socialist ecofeminism’s account of women’s intersectional identities. This conclusion underscores why socialist ecofeminism on social sustainability matters, and why it has some limitations.

The socialist ecofeminist perspective on social sustainability offers a potential solution to philosopher Sherilyn MacGregor’s critique of the inattention to gender within the social sustainability discourse. It provides the environmental justice movement with a comprehensive critique of conventional development, shrewdly tracing the way it causes women’s subordination in the labor force. It offers a concrete agenda to address this problem, including the formation of women’s educational and political organizations that foster environmental sustainability (Hessing 7-9).

Gender—among all power disparities—is uniquely important. Centering women reveals key features of most other interconnected systems of human domination. Women’s general subordination across the world leaves them with fewer resources and support against environmental problems. As both “Democratic Spaces across Scales” and “Meaningful Waters” indicate, women disproportionately suffer environmental degradation among “Third World” people like those in India (Cruz-Torres and McElwee 231-233). Indian women suffer more (on average) from the problems that environmental justice advocates identify than their male counterparts. The ecological challenges that women face underscore that social and environmental issues are intertwined, and that the environmental justice movement cannot claim that one is more important than another (Mallory 256). The socialist ecofeminist position on social sustainability offers timely lessons for the environmental justice discourse.

The fact that the Indian women’s intersectional identities in both cases align best with its agenda underscores the promise it holds for environmental justice. Socialist ecofeminism’s analysis of intersectional identities can enhance the contributions that the environmental justice movement makes to the broader social sustainability discourse. The history of environmental justice is steeped in protest against the disproportionate impact of ecological problems on oppressed racial groups throughout the world. Undergirding these protests are complex, culturally-specific formulations of environmental injustice, and proposed policy solutions for them (Mallory 255-256). Contrary to popular perception, environmental justice activists do not protest the reach of white supremacy in the West alone. In Ecuador, concheras are women of African descent who traditionally collect shrimp and shellfish. The concheras have noted that that they face racial and gender oppression, as well as the depletion of the shrimp-based ecosystem that they depend on by multinational corporations. Their activism is a notable strain of the environmental justice movement (Mallory 256). The concheras underscore the global reach of systems like white supremacy. Socialist ecofeminism can help environmental justice activists better understand the cultural landscape of India, and how local ecological problems intersect with caste, religion, and gender identity. The white supremacy of Eurocentrism has rendered these cultural specificities invisible within the social sustainability discourse. Knowledge of these specificities—and the activism of Dalit, Adivasi, and Garhwali women around them—can help the environmental justice movement formulate better strategies to protest the global phenomenon of white supremacy. It would allow them to understand the environmental concerns of Dalit, Adivasi, and Garhwali women and learn from the details of their protest strategies. It could help the environmental justice movement live out its anti-racist promise of decentralizing the West in the social sustainability discourse.

Despite the value of socialist ecofeminism, the conclusion of this paper has some notable limitations. One is its focus on social sustainability. This paper shows that social and environmental sustainability are linked, but it does not delve into the discourse on the environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability. This paper only features two case studies, and both take place in India. Case studies about women’s intersectional identities and the environment in other countries might not support socialist ecofeminism’s account of social sustainability. This paper’s engagement with the literature on environmental justice is also limited. The environmental justice discourse is wide-ranging and complex; it is not homogenous and encompasses many regions across the world. Along with its implications, this paper’s limitations reinforce the necessity of further research on socialist ecofeminism on social sustainability within the movement for environmental justice.

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Nikila Lakshmanan is a citizen of the United States. She is a recent graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Nikila received a double major in the Study of Women and Gender and Philosophy, and her main research interest is feminist philosophy. Nikila is currently a paralegal in Washington, D.C.

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