National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

Environmental work is women's work


In early July I had the unique privilege of participating in an intensive consultation at the World Council of Churches on ecofeminist theology. In the late ’80s the World Council expanded its traditional concerns for peace and justice to include the “integrity of creation.”

This formula suggests two things. First, justice, peace and integrity of creation are not separate themes that can be dealt with in isolation from each other, but are interconnected. The impoverishment and oppression of people and of nature are two aspects of one pattern of oppression. People are impoverished because they lose their land; their soil, water and air are polluted. The same colonizing forces that degrade people degrade the earth that sustains people.

The second assumption is that non-human “creation” is not simply a passive adjunct to human beings, but has “integrity” in its own right. It is not “dead mechanical matter,” but is organic, alive, has its own relation to God and its ecosystems independent of a relation to humans. Some in the WCC see this as an “epistemological” break from the modern Christian patterns of seeing non-human nature as merely auxiliary to human needs, as well as the modern scientific patterns that regard non-human nature as “dead” matter, pushed and pulled by outside forces. Nature is understood as a subject in its own right, and not merely an object of human control and ownership.

The WCC has also acknowledged in its recent documents that within the patterns of human impoverishment, women and children are the poorest of the poor. Women and children, of course, are members of different class and race hierarchies, but generally dependent within those hierarchies. So women and children within more affluent classes can be more vulnerable than the adult men on whom they are dependent. Within impoverished classes and races, women and children often suffer added poverty, violence and abuse. Women among the poor are often pressed into redoubled labor under intensified vulnerability to abuse when the men on whom they depend lose wealth and status. Women and children are not equal to adult men within their own families. In analyzing injustice one has to be aware of gender dimensions that go beyond social class.

But what is the connection of this to the “integrity of creation?” How is the added poverty of women connected to the impoverishment of creation? How is women’s poverty and redoubled labor intensified by the impoverishment of the non-human world? When water is scarce or polluted, poor women walk twice or more as far to fetch water for their families. When the environment turns toxic, women often bear the brunt of the toxicity in their own bodies, including their reproductive functions. Environmental work, such as recycling, is often defined as women’s work.

This recognition of the interactive position of women between human and non-human impoverishment is called ecofeminism. In the consultation held in July, the World Council of Churches’ “desks” on women and on peace, justice and integrity of creation came together to focus on the theme of ecofeminism, specifically ecofeminist theology.

The council’s desks on women and on peace, justice and creation brought together 10 women from around the world, from Kenya and South Africa, India, Thailand, Hong Kong and Korea, Brazil and Chile, the United States and Canada to brainstorm about ecofeminist theology. Half of these women were Roman Catholics, not because the WCC was trying to be “ecumenical” at this point, but because much of the pioneering work on ecofeminist theology is being done by Catholic women such as myself, Heather Eaton from Canada, Judy Ress of the Conspirando collective in Chile and Sr. Ivone Gebara from Brazil. If Mary Grey from England had been able to come, it would have added not only an English ecofeminist, but one who also happens to be Catholic.

Why are Catholics so prominent in the work in this area? Is the Catholic tradition especially open to a more cosmological perspective that integrates the human in society and creation? I do not speculate about this, but I simply note here that it was the World Council of Churches, not the Vatican, that chose to value our expertise. For three days we had a wonderful discussion, although for a while we were perplexed about what the WCC wanted from us. It gradually became evident that WCC circles are torn between two emphases in their global justice work: between those who want to reform global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization to make them more friendly to the poor and the environment, and those who are convinced that these institutions are too much an integral part of the world system of economic domination, and those who wish to make change need to focus on alternatives to corporate globalization. The two WCC leaders who brought us together belong more to the second focus.

How do grass-roots groups pull out of this system of dominance and form craft co-ops, marketing co-ops or farmers’ co-ops that promote sustainable agriculture, production and trade? Not accidentally it is on this local level that one finds a predominance of women, as well as indigenous people, seeking alternatives to the systems that are impoverishing them and their families.

Thus the project of WCC on ecofeminism appeared at the end of our consultation with the following outline: First there would be case studies on alternative communities to corporate globalization that would also examine the visions, the alternative cosmologies out of which these groups are working. There would also be a historical analysis of the role of Christianity in promoting colonialism and corporate global dominance, drawing on feminist analysis to “name the empire.”

Those involved in the project would then reread the Bible and the Christian theological tradition to find the themes for alternative ecofeminist approaches. Finally, they would move toward ecumenical engagement and networking in the churches to deal with the “disintegration of the Earth” and to propose practical grass-roots alternatives and biblical/theological perspectives that support these alternatives. This is where a part of the World Council of Churches wants to go. I am delighted if I have made some contribution to this direction of their work.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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