Materialist Ecofeminism: An Interview with Ariel Salleh

14/04/2023 |


A materialist ecofeminism combines a feminist, a decolonial, and a socialist response to the 21st century ecological breakdown.

Ariel Salleh first got involved with ecofeminism in the struggles against uranium mining developments on Indigenous people’s land in Australia, in the 1970s. Since then she became a reference in the construction of materialistic ecofeminism, in alignment with other fighters and theorists from different parts of the world. The relation between thinking and movement is clear in her statements and defines her position in the theoretical and political ecofeminist discussions.

From the theoretical view on patriarchal-colonial-capitalism to this system’s current offensive against life on the planet, such as financialization of nature, and to the alternatives in progress; from the first ideas that gave rise to ecofeminism to the contemporary developments of the movement, passing by the clashes and disputes with the Eurocentric views that operate patriarchal dichotomies and with the academicism that dissociates concepts from the actual experiences of struggles for reproduction conditions, Ariel Salleh addresses these and other topics in this interview she gave to Capire. The audio of the interview is available in English.

Let’s begin with how you see ecofeminism today

OK, well since you are in China, there is an impressive network of women around the Global University for Sustainability based in Hong Kong and at Chongqing University on the mainland. They have been working actively with local village women to encourage the preservation of traditional agricultural methods. Such women grow their own produce, without chemicals and deliver directly to local household customers. It is an alternative non-capitalist economy. There is also a growing academic interest in China in the idea of ecological feminism and women’s traditional technologies. When I say ecological feminism, it is pretty much the same as your word “communitarian feminism” in South America, or the old term grassroots “radical feminism”. These grow out of women’s everyday struggles to meet life needs and to protect “the conditions of reproduction” – to parody socialist phrase.

The materialist ecofeminist writers that I’ve been involved with – Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva, Mary Mellor, Ana Isla, were cross-cultural and decolonial from the start. This contrasts with academic feminisms, which get their stuff from books, and spend a lot of time critiquing philosophical constructs that don’t have much to do with everyday life. A materialist ecofeminism is coming into its own because of climate change and the multiple social crises impacting on the world today. I think there are elements of ecofeminism, although not named as such, among the young people in Extinction Rebellion and definitely in Fridays for Future in Europe. There has been an amazing implosion of ecofeminist energies among women in Australia too, like the Knitting Nanna’s, struggling to save the Murray-Darling River system. A group of elderly women in Japan has emerged in opposition to a new military base – and they emphasize their experience as caregivers. Not to forget WoMin in Africa – a continent-wide grassroots network of women opposing mining developments and concerned with climate change. They have written their own ecofeminist manifesto.

All those examples are embedded in concrete situations, dealing with economic issues, facing the system we live in, opposing the development model and militarization, as you mention in the case of Japan.

Japanese women have been amazing. I remember decades ago when Fukushima melted down creating a nuclear disaster, they took the initiative and they have been consistent leaders in the anti-nuclear movement. Anti-nukes was actually my own ecofeminist beginning too in Australia, 1976, when we formed a Movement Against Uranium Mining on Indigenous people’s land.

As an aside, when you look back on the five decade long history of ecological feminism, there was a period where academic feminists were attacking ecofeminist radicals as ‘essentialist’. But you only see women’s politics of care giving as essentialist if your thinking follows given patriarchal labels like ‘femininity’ etc.

Materialist ecofeminists are talking about hardcore economic-biological-biophysical conditions of life.

Perhaps it was the dominance of American academia that led to those early ecofeminist debates, because socialism is not so well understood in that country. Any joined-up common denominator between workers, women, indigenous and ecological politics has to be a materialist politics.

You participated in the International Meeting of the World March of Women, in Brazil, back in 2013. That was a key moment for our political analysis on the reinforcement of capitalism offensive against life and nature, our bodies, the violence and militarization. 10 years later, how do you analyze current capitalist strategies, and the role of technological development in it?

The last couple of years capitalism has intensified its penetration of every aspect of daily life, like the prominence of big banks or the trend to digitalization. The banks are buying up enormous amounts of farmland around the world, for use in experimental agricultural technologies like genetically engineered hybrid seeds. But food-growing land is the bottom line of people’s livelihoods. Of course look underneath capitalism and you find patriarchy. In the patriarchal-colonial-capitalist system the originary and most ancient form of power is men’s domination over women. Then comes colonization invading the land and taking the resources of other peoples. Finally, the capitalist economic form emerges from colonization and is relatively modern, only a few hundred years old. It is important to see these three systems as concurrent, entangled and mutually reinforcing systems. Capitalism itself would not work without patriarchal energies driving it. These energies are learned and embodied in men and acted out in social and economic practices. Looking at the three systems, each has several levels – from the unconscious to everyday actions, to political structures, to ideology.

Our indigenous sisters from Latin America organize resistance mobilizing the notion of body-territory. It is an anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist and decolonial way of viewing and organizing life and our interdependence with nature. What is your view on this notion from your context and thinking?

Until you raised it, I had not encountered the phrase, so I looked it up and I absolutely love it. It resonates with the original ecofeminist thesis from the 1980s, that saw patriarchal ideology achieving its domination over Women and Nature together, by insisting that we are “closer to nature” than men. This rigid dualism is still a key assumption of 21st thinking and even shapes legal and economic constructs. On academic campuses the Humanities are conventionally separated from the Sciences. I call this dualism and the others that come with it the 1/0 imaginary – Man/Woman, White/Black, Economics/Ecology, Value/Non-value – see the book Ecofeminism as Politics (1997/2017). We have to educate our communities to leave behind this split reality – the fundamental dissociation that set eurocentric patriarchy in motion.

All humans, men included, are “nature-in-embodied-form”.

Nature passes through bodies, which once they die, return to fertilize the Earth. So yes, it was a joy to learn about Latin American women’s relational sense of “body-territory”.

Green economy is being normalized as the solution for climate change, climate crisis and so on. When green economy tools arrive especially in rural areas, where there are indigenous women and, in Brazil also quilombolas too, it is very difficult to confront them. We sense that there’s not enough criticism of those kinds of instruments, even in some left sector. Your thinking on ecological debt could possibly help us to address this ongoing process of financialization of nature and the instruments of the green economy.

When the Green Economy idea began in the early 2000s, we thought it was going to be a solution, but capital soon turned it into reformist ideology. Then it was followed by the Green New Deal. The problem is that each relies on economics, and the trouble with economics is that it is part of the dissociated patriarchal belief system, based on splitting nature into measurable units. Nature cannot be reduced to a metric, it operates by flows of energy between living forms.

In the book Eco-Sufficiency & Global Justice (2009) when I used the term “embodied debt”, I had in mind an alternative notion of debt, not strictly economic, but one that speaks to nature’s life-giving “metabolic value”. True, under global capitalism, workers are not paid adequately in money terms for time worked, but women are not paid at all for the long hours of domestic reproductive labor they do. Beyond that, their bodies are depleted in childbirth as they yield up a massive thermodynamic and material contribution to society. Likewise, colonized indigenous peoples are never recompensed for the theft of their livelihood resources, nor their “meta-industrial labors” that provision while protecting the natural infrastructure which capitalism relies on to function. A further debt is generational, as capitalism defers its problems like global warming as costs to be borne by future generations. The life-world of non-human species is also cut down by the eurocentric development model. I call this “the debt matrix”.

Nowadays, do you think that more people are recognizing that capital production depends on reproduction?

Not significantly: “reproduction” is invisible to the patriarchal mindset because of its systematic separation of humanity and nature. Even Marxists and eco-socialists find difficulty acknowledging it. During the Covid pandemic, the critical role of caregiving labor became very clear to everyone – maybe there has been a little shift of consciousness. But in Australia, as the cost of living rises sharply now, nurses and teachers are leaving their jobs en mass because wages and conditions are so very low.

We have a lot of diagnostic analysis on how patriarchal-colonial-capitalism functions, and on the other hand, we have the challenge of pushing forward an alternative vision and practices on how to organize society. So, how can we advance and articulate the analysis with the change of perspectives, recentering social reproduction of life in the organization of society?

A materialist ecofeminism combines a feminist, a decolonial, and a socialist response to the 21st century ecological breakdown.

We are looking for a Pluriverse – as the Zapatista movement says, a world where many autonomous cultures exist alongside each other. I already mentioned the Chinese women’s community agriculture, and there are similar moves from Rojava to Ecuador. The Pluriverse outlines a variety of templates for living sustainability – and at the back of the book there is an invitation to become active and join the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, which is something that Ashish Kothari and colleagues in India are coordinating. Good things are happening – it’s just that the world-system of patriarchal-colonial-capitalism is so aggressive and so noisy that we have our time cut out!

Interview conducted by Tica Moreno
Introduction translated from Portuguese by Rosana Felício dos Santos

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