- Gaia, Gender, and Sovereignty in the Anthropocene
In a 2011 lecture addressing ecological crisis, sociologist Bruno Latour advanced James Lovelock’s Gaia model as a way of re-conceptualizing nature in an Anthropocene or “postnatural” (Latour 2011, 9) world.1 For Latour, Gaia, a mythological goddess reinvented by Lovelock as a scientific metaphor, embodies the collision between discourses, “this mix up of science and politics” (Latour 2011, 8), which the Anthropocene represents. In its deviation from benevolent images of Mother Nature, Gaia provides an alternative account of the human relationship with the natural world, one that implies that our response to the Anthropocene crisis should not derive from a solely scientific framework. Latour seizes upon the image of Gaia with fervor, celebrating “her” not only as an assemblage of different discourses, but, in “her” disunity and non-sovereignty, as an alternative political paradigm. Of less political interest for Latour is the gendering of Gaia; like Lovelock before him, Latour regards the feminizing of Gaia as an affective metaphorical device and not a political issue.2
It is hard not to view Latour’s “Gaia politics” (Latour 2004, 5) as part of a broader tendency to revivify conservative frameworks in the face of crisis, here a crisis of a hitherto unknown scale.3 As Claire Colebrook wryly notes of post-apocalyptic narratives: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world […] than it is to think outside the structuring fantasies of gender.” Where Latour stops short—just—of endorsing what Colebrook calls “an active male heroism driven by a female fragility that appears to hold the promise of the future” [End Page 287] (Colebrook 2014 v.2, 150), his restraint does not extend to all advocates of Gaia-led theories. Witness, for example, Eileen Crist’s feverish call to arms: “[T]his is our moment. It is the moment to face the root of the terrible trouble we have unleashed for the biosphere and for ourselves: our expansionism, arrogance, and domination within the biosphere. In acts of beauty, and without fear, this is our moment to put Gaia first” (Crist 2010, 330). In Crist’s hands, Gaia—and the Anthropocene framework that is presupposed but here disavowed—not only offers an alibi for apocalyptic language and discredited narratives, but more importantly, unwittingly endorses the very worldview—uncritical, narcissistic, and heavily gendered—that it purports to replace.4
The Anthropocene compels us to question the literal and metaphorical place of the human. In projecting human maternity onto the earth, the figure of Gaia and that of Mother Earth before her restrict thought to an immobile narcissism. In this article, I shall first address the way in which a purportedly progressive feminized figure of Gaia actually absents woman, denying female agency in favor of male sovereignty. I shall frame this discussion both within ecofeminist debates and in light of recent Anthropocene rhetoric. Secondly, I shall contextualize Gaia within the broader problem of figuring the female, asking whether an Anthropocene framework necessarily inclines us toward the replication of gender stereotypes.
Gendering Gaia and the Woman-Nature Connection
A clear aim of James Lovelock’s adoption of the name Gaia as a metaphor for “the living planet” earth (Lovelock 1988, 19) was to stimulate humans to accept their previously neglected environmental responsibilities. By according Gaia an identity, one that chimed both with ancient narratives and 1970s sensibilities, Lovelock invited humans to acknowledge that there was a living victim of their environmental misdemeanors. For Lovelock, speaking of the earth as Gaia counters proprietorial conceptions stemming from the damaging notion of human stewardship and undermines the notion of earth as a passive or inert object upon which human agents act. Assessing Lovelock’s approach, Mary Midgley asks: “Was it necessary to use language that apparently personified the earth?” (Midgley 2007, 8) and concludes affirmatively, asserting that the concept of a mechanistic universe is so deeply ingrained in human thought that Lovelock needed to name the earth in order to facilitate such an imaginative leap.
By framing the earth as female, Lovelock capitalized on age-old tensions in the concept of the female: Gaia is nurturing but ruthless, fragile...