LEANING TOWARDS ECOSEXUAL: Greta Gaard’s ‘Critical Ecofeminism’

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.

Greta Gaard, Critical Ecofeminism (Lexington, 2017)

By Caitlin Stobie

It’s 2018 and women are still being asked to get lean, to lean in. But how to work, or work out, if one is seen as a piece of meat? In the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up, terms like “intersectionality” and “praxis” are increasingly entering common usage – yet feminism’s interconnections with environmentalism remain cast as niche in both the academy and the media. Greta Gaard’s latest monograph, Critical Ecofeminism (2017), challenges such omissions of ecological concerns from mainstream discussions of gender, sexuality, and justice. Gaard’s text is both a continuation of and a tribute to the work of feminist thinker Val Plumwood (1939–2008). Born Val Morell, the late philosopher was a literal force of nature: living near Plumwood Mountain in south-east Australia, she chose to change her surname to the common name for Eucryphia moorei (the trees and mountain are now also the namesake of an Australian journal of ecopoetry and ecopoetics). In her landmark text Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993), Plumwood devises the Master Model to explain how Western societies quite literally naturalise the domination of certain groups based on their gender, sex, race, class, nationality, or species. She also coins critical ecofeminism, the term informing Gaard’s project of seeking justice “through the practice of attentive listening”.

The title of the text immediately causes one to wonder what uncritical ecofeminism may be. Furthermore, how do un/critical ecofeminisms differ from ecocriticism? Did one make way for the others, or are they separate entities? It has already been acknowledged on this thread that there is a problem of gender imbalance in ecocriticism. This is an important point to foreground when reading Critical Ecofeminism, not least since Gaard, herself, observes in a 2010 essay that “non-feminist sources” of new approaches in environmental humanities often eclipse contemporaneous interventions written by female-identifying authors.[1] The result is that feminist interest in environmental issues is rendered, at best, as a dated trend from the end of the twentieth century, à la Carol J. Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990). At worst, contemporary ecofeminists are painted as a coven of crystal-hoarding hippies – a far cry from the philosophy of Françoise d’Eaubonne, who coined the term “ecofeminist” in her 1974 text Le féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death).

American philosopher Carolyn Merchant’s four categories of ecofeminism are a useful guide for those who may be unfamiliar with the movement’s history.[2] The first grouping which Merchant identifies, “liberal ecofeminism”, encourages advocating for gender equality without disrupting the economic status quo (the environmentalist version of “cupcake feminism”). Cultural ecofeminism contends that femininity is essentially more “natural” than masculinity: a wholly oversimplified view of nature and gender that leaves no room for trans* or nonbinary persons and has significantly tarnished the reputation of the entire field. Next, “social ecofeminism” envisions a utopian society of non-hierarchical communities that have transcended capitalism (think of the impossibly perfect commune in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time). Merchant finally identifies “socialist ecofeminism” as that which problematises capitalist patriarchy by focusing on the dialectical relationship between “production and reproduction, and between production and ecology”. While the last grouping might sound reasonable to even the most “non-feminist sources” (especially if they are Marxists), there remains an air of the speculative in all four categories. Ecofeminists assert the existence of an uncomfortable reality: the interconnected oppression of human and nonhuman beings, particularly those who hold less power due to imperialist and colonial histories of masculinist violence. Yet many of the solutions which the movement proffers turn to fantasy and escapism, such as an imagined world where cissexual women are treated as equals – if not natural superiors – to men. Put plainly, a “critical” lens appears crucially overdue.

Read analytically, it could be said that Gaard’s text is not without its own figurative embellishments; in her introduction she speaks of chapters “born as joined twins” and describes her mother as “the ground on which I stand”. For readers who are familiar with ecofeminism (and charges levelled against it due to the perceived naturalisation of gender differences) such terminology may sit slightly uneasily. But overall, Critical Ecofeminism is a comprehensive and rigorous piece of work. Gaard moves deftly through a wealth of references to many schools of ecocritical thought and praxis in “Part I: Theory”, a largely introductory section. She is indebted to both new materialists (like Stacy Alaimo, Jane Bennett and Karen Barad) and animal studies scholars (such as Carol J. Adams and Laura Wright), as illustrated by this mission statement:

In this book, I try to do with words what [Kurt] Seaberg does with art: illuminate relationships among social justice, transspecies justice, and ecological justice, all rooted in whether humans conceive and perceive our self-identity as intra-active (Barad 2007) and kincentric (Salmon 2002), or whether we see our identity as separate from the rest of life, superior to earthothers, and thus free to control, remake, manipulate, burden, or destroy.

Contemporary interventions in materialist theory commonly create neologisms to address feminist concerns within science studies, and here Gaard foregrounds one such word which recurs throughout the entire monograph: “earthothers”. The implication of this wording is that the human, nonhuman, inhuman and more should all be included in conversations about ecofeminist justice. Another neologism crucial to the text is “restor(y)ing”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the word is used to refer to not only the creation, but also reception, of stories; the author is invested in a “rich community of indigenous, feminist, and trans-species listening theory [which] is our birthright as earth citizens”. She argues that more fiction, in particular, needs to focus on the material implications of interconnected oppressions.

With the mention of birth in the above quotation, we are brought back to the prickly issue of labour: a word that, when taken literally, is essentially gendered in ecofeminist discourse. Yet Gaard goes on to unveil a refreshing feminist take on environmental justice in “Part II: Illuminations” (a remarkably fitting subtitle, as will be shown below). Chapter 3 is simply titled “Milk” and it opens with the provocative argument that “the mother’s body is the first environment, an insight that links the concerns of feminism, environmental justice, and interspecies justice”. What follows is a display of interdisciplinary research at its finest. Greta Gaard is a literary scholar, but the chapter engages with convincing statistics from milk sales, percentages of hormones in dairy, estimated numbers of women who choose to breastfeed, and more. There is an excellent – but terrifying – analysis of the sexual politics of milk, mostly based in India. As the author moves on to link humans’ reproductive concerns with bovine agencies, her theory is never equivocal. We are not urged to consider human motherhood as animalistic, or any other such “dreaded comparison”.[3] Rather, the ecological injustices in this chapter are rendered as an interconnected web which a critical ecofeminism may unravel.

Similar entanglements are explored in the subsequent chapter, which investigates the debilitating impact of fireworks – not just upon dogs (a well-documented concern for animal welfarists, as anyone with a pet-owning Facebook friend will know), but also on young children, indigenous populations, and refugees. With Hollywood films and first-person shooter games employing pyrotechnic special effects, fireworks figure as symbolic shorthand for American identity. Gaard argues that this is especially true in the southern US, where everything from Independence Day to Christmas may be celebrated with crackers due to lax legal regulations. Is it not curious, we are asked, that people in Trump’s America use pyrotechnics which are made in China to celebrate their country’s supposed independence? Once again, the author references the material features of her argument with data from health sciences and pollution studies. What starts as an ironic point about nationalism takes a sober turn as one reads a list of those affected by toxic heavy metals found in pyrotechnics: laboratory animals, companion animals, wild animals, farmed animals, and human animals. Adolescent boys in westernised nations such as the US are particularly at risk of misusing fireworks and harming themselves or others.

It’s important to stress yet again that ecofeminism’s critics often argue that the field concentrates exclusively on the plight of cissexual women. Gaard’s text, in contrast, charts an approach which has clearly moved past second-wave and dichotomised understandings of gender:

A critical ecofeminist perspective traces the branches of firearms and fireworks down to their shared root: down through the environmental injustices of the death-dealing slow violence inherent in child slavery, workplace injuries, and economic injustice; down through the material facts of environmental toxins, through the human-animal studies’ recognition of multiple species’ injuries and deaths, down to the root of multiple and linked toxic narratives celebrating hyperseperation, colonialism, warfare and dominant masculinities.

Beyond its materially grounded approach to earthly agencies (and fictional treatments thereof), the text’s most original contribution to knowledge is its extended critical navigation of gender and sexuality through ecocriticism. “Part III: Climates” builds upon concerns raised in the previous two sections, such as the “illuminating” examples of pregnant people and young boys at risk, and insists it’s time for those working on ecomasculinities to pick up the theoretical gauntlet. This is a cunning move on Gaard’s part, not least for implying that gender justice is ecocriticism’s natural source. While it is daring for challenging some ecocritics’ treatment of ecofeminism as a distinct sub-branch of the field, the section is not as overtly political as those it follows, and there are moments of playfulness as the author draws on the work and words of Damayanti Banerjee and Michael Bell, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, Beth Stephen, Annie Sprinkle and others. It is easy to be convinced that “masculine gender identity has been constructed as so very antiecological, and thus its interrogation and transformation seem especially crucial”. Some may be challenged, however, at the thought of queering ecofeminism – particularly when the work leans towards ecosexualities and the ecoerotic, two concepts that appear to have spiritualist associations for Gaard. Nevertheless, “ecogender” is a promising term for future interventions in the field, especially if it could come to represent a diverse range of gender and sexual identities.

Greta Gaard unapologetically and consistently defines critical ecofeminism as inherently posthumanist in its ethical scope. Intersectional praxis is the tool which is utilised to justify the project’s use of a variety of terms including “ecocritical postcolonialism”, “posthumanist antispeciesism”, “postcolonial ecofeminism”, “queer feminist antiracist activis[m]”, “a postcolonial, posthumanist framework”, “queer feminist posthumanist climate justice perspectives”, “material and posthumanist approach[es]”, “feminist animal studies”, “reproductive, transspecies, and environmental justice”,  “a queer, feminist, and posthumanist justice perspective”, and “queer ecological perspective[s]”. One of the most striking – and comedic – moments where this becomes manifest is when the author uses instant-messaging as metaphor for a sort of telekinetic, transspecies connection: “‘Over here,’ one tree messaged me with the image that ‘there’s a curve in this trunk that will just fit your back’”. Although she is initially relucant to refer to messaging, a practice with technological connotations, this word and its association with technoscientific developments actually strengthens her argument by deconstructing the supposed nature-culture divide which some earlier iterations of the above movements reinforce. These are the sort of contemporary reimaginations which ecofeminist theory critically needs.

Although there is no mention of Sara Ahmed and the figure of the Killjoy, many colonial and exploitative legacies addressed in the monograph are considered by conservatives and liberals alike as life’s last remaining “guilt-free” joys: dairy consumption, firework displays, space exploration. At several points one is reminded of Stacy Alaimo’s work on challenging the heterosexism and speciesism inherent in humanism, particularly her most recent monograph on posthuman politics and pleasures.[4] Yet Gaard’s voice is distinctly unique, and her project is enriched by confessions of how critical ecofeminism has informed her own movements through a range of shifting identities in the natural world. It is testament to her strength and self-assurance as a scholar that she melds the work of so many thinkers – and, most notably, the life-story of Val Plumwood – to restore the foundations of eco-justice for future studies. There is much to be learnt from Critical Ecofeminism; lay-readers will be interested in titbits from hard science and Gaard’s problematisation of “harmless” narratives and rituals, while students and scholars may be more concerned with anti-feminist trends pervading mainstream environmentalism. But most important for the following generation of ecocritics is the unspoken graciousness of Gaard’s approach: a political praxis of listening, not individualist leaning-in.


[1] Greta Gaard, “New Directions for Ecofeminism: Toward a More Feminist Ecocriticism”, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 17.4 (2010), 643-65.

[2] Carolyn Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World, London: Routledge, 2005.

[3] Here I am referring to Marjorie Spiegel’s controversial 1988 study The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery.

[4] Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

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