Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 109-111
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Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing
Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory and Political Action.
Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing. By Chris J. Cuomo. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory and Political Action. By Noël Sturgeon. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Two books, one review--a procedural dilemma for the reviewer. Consider each separately or integrate rather than differentiate? Both books feature ecofeminism from different perspectives, so the contents of each book and the perspective of each author are important and should be considered independently. However, both books also bring into question the relationship between theory and activism, a site of tension for both feminists and environmentalists, and in this way, they are common and part of a broader discussion.
Chris Cuomo assumes a philosophical approach in Feminism and Ecological Communities: An Ethic of Flourishing (1998) as she designs a theoretical framework for ecological feminism that emphasizes the feminist over the environmental orientation. This is important because, until relatively recently, environmental ethics has not been informed by feminist politics. Cuomo proposes a re-evaluation of the intersection of ethics, feminism, and nature to produce ecological feminism, a particular subset of ecofeminism which itself has been both embraced and misrepresented by environmentalists, ethicists, and feminists alike. A key principle in Cuomo's concept of ecological feminism is that it advances the notion of flourishing, a condition that "pays attention to the interests of the thing apart from the interests of the valuer" (Cuomo 1998, 64). From the perspective of flourishing, we see hopes and possibilities for changing human/nature and human/human relationships in ways that are often absent in ecofeminist literature, where there has been a tendency to focus on dual objects of oppression, "women" and "nature."
Cuomo's book contains seven chapters. The first two chapters situate ecofeminism within the more traditional disciplines of environmental ethics and feminist ethics. The arguments presented in these chapters are familiar, centering on how the oppression of animals and nature mirrors and reinforces women's oppression. This historical perspective is helpful in understanding the position of many environmentalists and feminists alike who adhere to the "objective view from nowhere" modeled through much of Western philosophy. Cuomo rightly points to the many ways that this model has created a framework within which humans operate outside the realm of nature (it is always about how we treat it) and that obscures the agency of the natural world and our responsibility for recognizing "nature" as both subject and object. The unavoidably anthropocentric focus of environmental ethicists (to our knowledge, "only humans use ethics as we know them" [Cuomo 1998, 49]) has allowed too much [End Page 109] of the conversation to be focused "lovingly on nature" (11). These naive and often essentialist interpretations reduce nature to something edenic and pure and do nothing to examine how all objects and subjects are in a constant state of definition and redefinition. Similarly, biocentrism allowed early environmental ethicists such as Aldo Leopold to raise consciousness by further extending the "moral community" to include the biotic community and then equating the biotic community with the ecosystem (a natural system whose well-being depends on non-living processes) (Cuomo 1998, 42). The remaining chapters of the book serve to develop a conception of human flourishing, a cornerstone for Cuomo's notion of ecological feminism; to offer a critical assessment of traditional approaches in environmental ethics and environmental philosophy; to provide a defense against anti-essentialist critiques; to critique other ecofeminist approaches; and to offer links to ecofeminist activism.
Noël Sturgeon approaches ecofeminism as a political activist, considering both the promise and perils of women-centered politics. In Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory and Political Action (1997), she illustrates how feminism and environmentalism are movements that have experienced difficulties organizing joint campaigns around issues relevant to both. Sturgeon defines ecofeminism as a site where feminism and environmentalism converge, and she recognizes...