Buddhism and Ecofeminism: Untangling the Threads of Buddhist Ecology and Western Thought

By Gross, Rita M. | Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Buddhism and Ecofeminism: Untangling the Threads of Buddhist Ecology and Western Thought


Gross, Rita M., Journal for the Study of Religion : JSR


The First Thread: A Preliminary Definition of Ecofeminism

"Ecofeminism" is obviously a combination of the words "ecology" and "feminism." For proponents of ecofeminism, neither ecology nor feminism, by themselves, are adequate. They would claim that feminism is in danger of ignoring the environmental crisis, but that ecologiste often ignore gender analyses in their work, thus making both incomplete and inadequate. The deeper claim of ecofeminism is that the root of the entire ecological problem lies with Western systems of dualism and hierarchy, which are not dualisms between interdependent elements in a whole system, but dualisms of higher and lower, better and worse. In ecofeminist thinking the planet is so polluted and overcrowded because nature is viewed as something to be dominated and used by human beings, without regard for its intrinsic worth or its limits; women are so oppressed because they are viewed as beings who should be dominated by men, whose primary purpose is to care for men and children. "Ecofeminism sees a connection between the domination of nature and the domination of women" (Ruether 2005: 91). These dualisms are deeply rooted in, if not derivative from, basic assumptions of Western religious thinking. Since Lynn White published his famous article in 1967, many, including ecofeminists, have come to agree that because religion is part of the problem causing the ecological crisis, religion will have to be part of the solution.

The term ecofeminism was coined by Françoise d'Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort [Feminism or Death] published in 1974. She and her colleagues argued that "the destruction of the planet is due to the profit motive inherent in male power" (quoted in Ruether 2005: 91). They also argued that only women could bring about a revolution which would make the planet "green again for all," and create a society that would treat women and men primarily as people rather than first marking them by their sex (Adams 1994: xi). From a Buddhist point of view these are very strong words. Because of Buddhist views about egolessness and emptiness, Buddhists are very careful about attributing "inherent" characteristics to anything. To claim that the "profit motive" is "inherent in male power" is to claim it is unchangeably and unalterably so and comes close to claiming moral deficiency in men and moral superiority for women. Such a claim is not unknown, especially in earlier feminist writings. In any case, the claim that there is a connection between the domination of women and the domination of nature, making it impossible to solve the ecological crisis without attending to more equitable gender relationships, is ecofeminism's central claim.

The Second Thread: Feminism Before Ecofeminism

Ecological concerns were not a dominant theme in the 1970s, nor well into the 1980s, among prominent thinkers of the feminist theological movement. Instead, theologians explored the religious roots of male domination and women's subordination in society, especially in religion, finding the same dualisms upon which ecofeminists would also dwell. Major issues were overcoming the male monopoly on all important religious roles and the exclusively male images of a personal deity.

More important for the prehistory of ecofeminism than tracing the themes of earlier feminist theology is recounting some of the felt experiences of early second wave feminists. It is difficult for younger people who often are wary of "feminism" and think that gender inequity is a thing of the past (it isn't) to imagine the stifling, mind-numbing experience of growing up female in the 1950s. By the middle 1960s many of us felt intensely what Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), which many would credit with initiating the second wave of feminism, called "the problem that has no name." We had been told that filling a certain prescribed and very limited female gender role was all that we could do with our lives and that doing so would make us happy. …

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