Webinar 4 Transcript: Where is feminism in the environmental humanities?

Transcript: 4 th EASLCE Webinar: Where is feminism in the environmental humanities?

September 28th, 2013, 4:00 PM Central European Standard Time

Host: Prof. Greta Gaard, University of Wisconsin

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Participants:

Moderator: Hannes Bergthaller, National Chung-Hsing University, Taiwan

Sarah Beckham Hoof, University of Lappland, Finnland

Cathy Fitzgerald, National College of Art and Design, Ireland

Kate Huber, University of Leiden, Netherlands

Serenella Iovino, University of Torino, Italy

Agnes Kneitz, Renmin University, China

Serpil Oppermann, Hacettepe University, Turkey

Kaadri Tüür, University of Tallinn, Estonia

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Audio

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“Apologies for the poor quality of the recording. We had some technical difficulties which are especially apparent in the first couple of minutes, which also contain the self-introductions of the participants. To avoid that section, skip to 5:50.”

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Full Transcript of the Talk by Dr. Greta Gaard, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, USA

“Where is Feminism in the Environmental Humanities?”

September 28, 2013

What do we mean by the term, ‘environmental humanities’?  

Most visible since the 1960s—though rooted in beliefs, practices, and cultures that date much farther back–environmentally-inspired interests in literature and literary criticism, journalism, philosophy, history, communications, theater, arts, politics, pedagogy, and spirituality have grown into interdisciplinary subfields.  In the past decade, scholars in these subfields have drawn on each other’s scholarship and methodologies, producing the broader environmental arts and humanities, inspiring the growth of over 70 research centers and programs around the world, and the launch of new online journals such as Resilience (U.S.) and Environmental Humanities (Australia). In this transitional moment, the environmental humanities function both as “a useful umbrella” facilitating conversations among these environmental subfields, and as a challenge to their disciplinary fields of origin, suggesting a “more interdisciplinary set of interventions directed toward some of the most pressing issues of our time” (Rose et al., 2012, 5).

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Environmental humanities scholars tend to believe that these “pressing issues” emerge from a confluence of (a) dualistic and divisive ways of seeing and knowing the world, and (b) developments in science, economics, and technology that enact these dualistic and divisive epistemologies to the detriment of all life on earth.  The failure of the environmental scientists’ and economists’ strategy of “defending ecosystem services by translating them into monetary terms” was critiqued long ago in Aldo Leopold’s essay on the Land Ethic (1948).  Professor of environmental history in Sweden, Sverker Sörlin  attributes the formation of the environmental humanities to “the current inadequacy of the established science, policy, and economics approaches” and the understanding that “in a world where cultural values, political and religious ideas, and deep-seated human behaviors still rule the way people lead their lives, produce, and consume, the idea of environmentally relevant knowledge must change” (2012, 788). Agreeing that “environmental science and policy [have failed] to provide all the answers or to achieve significant environmental behavioral change” (5), University of Vermont environmental studies professor Stephanie Kaza argues that “the environmental humanities expand our understanding of environmental problems and our capacities to address them” (4). In the premiere issue of the Australian online journal, Environmental Humanities, Deborah Bird Rose and her colleagues explain that “the whole world, at all scales, is a ‘contact zone.” The deepening environmental and social crises of our time are unfolding in this zone where the nature/culture divide collapses and possibilities of life and death for everyone are at stake” (2012, 2).  In Sweden, Gender Studies scholars Cecilia Asberg, Redi Koobak and Ericka Johnson open their essay, “Beyond the Humanist Imagination,” with a litany of eco-political problems with strong material manifestations:  hurricanes, floods, water pollution and garbage that does not go “away” (2011, 218-19).

Acknowledging the shortcomings of the environmental sciences in responding to these crises, environmental science scholars are turning to the environmental humanities for alternative approaches and strategies.  What can the environmental humanities contribute?  Kaza claims that

“we draw on the methods and skills of the humanities disciplines to raise questions often overlooked by scientific and economic approaches to problem-solving”(4). These are “questions of meaning, value, ethics, justice, and the politics of knowledge production,” Rose and her colleagues explain (2).  While humanities fields have commonly focused “on critique and an unsettling of dominant narratives” the environmental humanities is “an effort to inhabit a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action” responding to a “dire need for all peoples to be constructively involved” in addressing these environmental crises (Rose et al., 3).  Thus, the environmental humanities require praxis, performing both critique and action—analogous to  feminism, a movement that “emerged through women who recognized their own lived experiences of marginalization, oppression, and inequality (whether via race, gender, class, sexuality, age, ability—and usually some nexus thereof) not as personal deficits or biological necessities to be accepted and endured, but rather as socially produced political problems to be challenged. ….  From the start, feminism has been a movement for justice:  at its heart is the centrality of praxis, the necessary linkage of intellectual, political, and activist work” (Gaard 2012, 29).  In the year 2013 of the Anthropocene Era, the crises of climate change prompt us to think across the disciplines.  We in the environmental humanities face the challenge of reclaiming science as a tool and method of reconnection and reciprocity (e.g., the Union of Concerned Scientists), not a tool for domination, exploitation, and unrestrained taking from this earth.

From the start, feminist scholarship has addressed this challenge of reclaiming science. In the field of feminist science studies, foundational scholars such as Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding, Lynda Birke, and Ruth Hubbard have challenged the androcentric and anthropocentric construction of knowledge, the separation between researcher and subject, and the invisibly racialized qualities of scientific research. Their scholarship has provided theoretical groundwork for the women’s health movement, and the related movements for public health and environmental justice. Feminist environmentalists have been active in the fields of philosophy, geography, political science, economics, literary studies, gender and women’s studies.  Given the breadth and reach of feminist scholarship, one could expect feminism to be prominently featured within the environmental humanities.  But this is not always the case.

To help us see the distribution of the disciplines mentioned in these three essays introducing the Environmental Humanities, I created a chart that simply lists the various disciplines mentioned by these scholars, bracketing those fields whose concepts were mentioned but not named (see Table 1).  As you can see, scholars consistently cite the fields of environmental philosophy and ethics, environmental history, environmental politics, environmental literature and ecocriticism.  Only Kaza mentions environmental justice directly, though both Kaza and Bird et al. include ecofeminism, and Bird goes on to include the newest developments of posthuman geographies and new materialisms.

Table 1: Where is feminism in the environmental humanities?

Sverker Sörlin (2012)Sweden Stephanie Kaza (2005)Vermont, USA Rose, Environmental Humanities (2012) Australia
Environmental Philosophy Ethics & philosophy Environmental Philosophy
Ecology
Environmental History Environmental History Environmental History
Environmental Politics Political Ecology
Religion & spirituality
Ecocriticism Environmental Literature Ecocriticism
Literary studies Environmental writing
[environmental justice] Environmental Art
Environmental Justice
Ecofeminism Val Plumwood: 2 tasks (p. 3)
  1. Resituate human within the environment;
  2. resituate nonhumans within cultural & ethical domains.

Rose et al. ask, “How are human identities and responsibilities to be articulated when we understand ourselves to be members of multispecies communities that emerge through the entanglements of agential beings?” Environmental Culture   Environmental Anthropology  Posthuman geographies  New Materialisms’ concepts of entanglement w/ others who are agential beings (3)

In most institutions, Women/Gender/Sexuality Studies is categorized with the Social Sciences, but feminist approaches to knowledge offer a perspective that crosses every disciplinary field.  Unless feminism is expressly named in the title of an approach or field, however, one cannot be certain whether or not feminist perspectives are included, marginalized, or entirely omitted from that field.  To assess the presence, absence, or backgrounding of feminism in the environmental humanities, one strategy is to use the definitions of feminism offered by its practitioners.  As with any discipline, one of the hallmarks of feminism is its methodologies.

What are the characteristics of a feminist methodology?

In the essays by Ceclia Åsberg and colleagues (2011), Lynda Birke (2012), and Greta Gaard (2012), one finds seven such methods commonly described.  Most prominent is the approach involving intersectionality: “offering ways to understand complex relations of gender, race, class, and sexuality,” theories of intersectionality “are not unproblematic,” Birke observes, for they “have tended to disregard non-humans, rarely considering how human power is materially constituted” (153).  Potts agrees:  “the ways in which different forms of prejudice, oppression and marginalization are intricately connected and cannot be effectively addressed without reference to their interrelationships” (295).  According to these feminist environmental humanities scholars, if true to its principles, intersectionality does not perpetuate the human-animal dualisms which have characterized both anthropocentric feminisms and psychology.  This inclusion responds to the fact that  “non-human others—of myriad forms and features—have always been part and parcel of who we are and how we live in the world,” writes Birke. “From the bacteria in our guts, to the dogs in our homes, to the cattle supplying bodily parts, human social worlds, our naturecultures, are not imaginable without animal others.  These beings are part and parcel of the social structures that concern any politics, including feminism”(151).  Intersectionality and material feminism’s approach require one another, as Åsberg et al. emphasize “how materialities mingle with meaning, and how the constituency of human as well as non-human populations can coexist” (220), compelling feminism to “consider the agency of the material world” (224).  Here again, the argument for inclusiveness extends the scope of feminist analysis.

Another feature of feminist methodology involves acknowledging the fact of situated perspectives, and a related desire for inclusiveness in theory-building.  “A key insight of feminist theory has been an oppositional consciousness” writes Birke (151).  Among the first feminists to articulate an intersectional perspective, bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984) advanced the now foundational feminist argument that the views from the margins of socioeconomic hierarchies offer insights and information not available to those at the center, and thus the “best” feminism is the one that is most inclusive, and the one that values and gives weight to those views from the margins—whether marginalized by race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, or species.  Moreover, “a specifically feminist research methodology,” Birke explains, “insist[s] on making the research (and the researcher) accountable to the subjects of the study” (151).  This accountability involves listening and considering the implications of the research for the subjects themselves.

It is more than coincidence that both my essay and Birke’s essay conclude with calls to “start listening” to other species—and indeed, to “non-human agency and the forces of nature” in the words of Åsberg et al. (218).  Feminist methodology emphasizes listening as a hallmark of good scholarship—listening to one’s research subjects, to the oppressed, to one’s activist and scholarly community—and creating structures for collaboration whereby the research subjects can themselves set the agenda, express needs, and benefit from the scholarly endeavor.

While recent feminist scholarship in both animal studies and material feminisms has emphasized the importance of thinking with other species and with the agency of matter itself given our transcorporeal embodiments, feminist methodology emphasizes the need for recognizing the power structures shaping our relational materialities.  Here, Birke offers a much-needed animal feminist critique of posthumanism, in noting “posthumanist thinkers seem sometimes preoccupied with transgressing bodily boundaries through biotechnology—and you can guess which individuals will have their bodily boundaries transgressed without their consent” (152).  As Birke states, “it is not enough to uncover how entwined our lives are with (some) other species, if such uncovering remains oblivious to the politics of our relationships with non-humans—essentially, one of exploitation” (152). Thus, taking action that addresses power inequalities and alleviates suffering is the larger aim and outcome of feminist scholarship.

On this point, feminist scholars Birke, Gaard, and Potts each emphasize the goal of feminist research, theory, and scholarship as action.  “A feminist politics embracing intersectionality as a starting point is a fuller and more powerful adversary against social injustice,” writes Potts (299). These six features of feminist methodology—intersectionality, materialist feminisms, situated knowledge and the imperative of inclusiveness, accountability, listening, and recognizing the power structures shaping our relationships—culminate in the seventh feature, the actions and outcomes that are the goal of feminist scholarship.

Conclusion  

Feminism and the environmental humanities seem fundamentally compatible in their professed methods and aims, and feminism’s interdisciplinary perspective fits well with that of environmental humanities.

Both feminism and the environmental humanities have the aim of taking action, responding to eco-social crises, and motivating humans to make behavioral changes to address these crises. But not all definitions of the environmental humanities include feminism, and this exclusion limits the reliability and utility of environmental humanities research and teaching.

To uncover feminism in the environmental humanities, we can look not only at the mere presence of diversity in the embodiment and perspectives of environmental humanities scholars (i.e., a race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, nationality representative of the regional or global human population) and at such diversity reflected in Environmental Humanities course offerings, but even more importantly, we can look at the topics chosen for research and study, considering how the research questions are defined, and the methods for researching those questions. It is not enough to have a “liberal feminist” gender balance among scholars in the environmental humanities and environmental sciences (the latter have yet to achieve even that, I’m afraid); it is the presence and influence of feminist perspectives and methodologies that will make the most meaningful interventions in the environmental crises of our age.

 

Works Cited

Åsberg, Cecilia, Redi Koobak, & Ericka Johnson.  2011.  “Beyond the Humanist Imagination.”  NORA:  Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research.  19:4 (December) 218-30.

Birke, Linda.  2012.  “Unnamed Others:  How Can Thinking about ‘Animals’ Matter to Feminist Theorizing?”  NORA:  Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research.  20:2 (June) 148-57.

Gaard, Greta.  2012. “Feminist Animal Studies in the U.S.: Bodies Matter.”  DEP 20 (2012), 14-21.

Kaza, Stephanie. 2005.  “Why Environmental Humanities?” Bittersweet Vine (Fall) 4-5.

Potts, Annie.  “Introduction: Combating Speciesism in Psychology and Feminism.”  2010.  Feminism & Psychology 20(3), 291-301.

Rose, Deborah Bird, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Stuart Cooke, Matthew Kearnes and Emily O’Gorman.  2012.  “Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.”  Environmental Humanities 1, 1-5.

Sörlin, Sverker.  2012.  “Environmental Humanities:  Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?”  BioScience 62:9 (September) 788-89.[/hide-this-part]

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Responses:

Serpil Oppermann’s response:

“Where is Feminism in the Environmental Humanities?”

Webinar by Dr. Greta Gaard (September 28, 2013)

First of all, many thanks to Hannes for organizing this much appreciated webinar  and to Greta for her excellent assessment of feminist scholarship in environmental humanities.

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Greta, while you have underlined the major points in the way feminist environmentalism has contributed to the field with very useful methodologies, you have also drawn attention to the pressing question of why feminism does not figure prominently in the mainstream debates, and why we witness such a backgrounding of feminism in the fields of environmental humanities and natural sciences.  My question here is a little controversial, because I would like to bring to your attention those feminist scholars whose work has had a considerable influence in shaping the conceptual vocabularies, not only in environmental humanities but also in sciences. Karen Barad and Donna Haraway are two prominent names in this regard who have launched a truly non-anthropocentric paradigm. Just consider how Barad’s “agential realism,” and her proposal of “material-discursive practices” and Haraway’s “naturalcultural” approach and “material-semiotic networks” have changed the way we think about the world. They are the ones initiating a much needed discursive transformation in the humanities and science studies, and giving direction to significant research done in environmental philosophy, sciences, and also environmental literary studies. And they are not the only pioneering feminist scholars.  The work of Vicky Kirby, Rosi Braidotti, Claire Colebrook, Elizabeth Grozs, Stacy Alaimo, and many others, is at the forefront of discussions. These scholars are not only “listening” to the nonhuman others (Haraway’s companion species emerged from such listening), but also speaking with authority, so to speak.  If their effort to “enrich environmental research” is not backgrounded; but, on the contrary, widely acknowledged, then can we say that this recognition is due to the fact that they operate within the realm of high theory while other feminist environmentalists prefer to focus more on praxis and remain more on the activist dimension ? Does this question make sense?

And my second question is about academia in Turkey. Especially in the Humanities women outnumber men, but still one can say that the mindset is pretty much patriarchal, or lets say neutral, in that feminism is not highlighted sufficiently. How would you interpret this situation?

Once again, many thanks to you and Hannes for organizing this excellent webinar.

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Cathy Fitzgerald Response

Contribution to “Where is Feminism in the Environmental Humanities?” 

EASLCE Seminar Fall 2013

with Dr. Greta Gaard

 “Where is feminism in the Environmental Humanities?”

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I do not have a deep background in feminist theory but I have used, and have found (more by accident) ecofeminist theory and writings particularly useful and sensitive (particularly Mary Mellor, Val Plumwood, Vandana Shiva, Derrick Jensen (not a academic yet strongly feminist), along with Deep Ecology and ecocriticism, as one of the ‘lens’ to think about the two contrasting elements of my transdisciplinary eco art inquiry, ecocide and my own concept ‘deep sustainability’.

I am also applying these ideas through actions in my transdisciplinary eco art praxis; transforming a 25 year old monoculture confiner plantation to a permanent forest using a new forest system, contributing to new national forest policy and a political motion against ecocide (for the Irish Green Party) as well as creating audiovisual works and a personal diary of the inquiry and the eco art praxis field (my audiovisual works are not intellectual endeavours and more recently attempt to foreground the forest www.ecoartfilm.com). In regards to science, I believe, not in reductive scientism but in the value of the scientific method and I was particularly interested in Greta’s ideas about ‘reclaiming science as a tool and a method, not for exploitation’ but for new relations to the earth – it is something I very much try to maintain in my eco art work. I also look to both Arne Naess and Felix Guattari’s differing but intersecting ideas of ‘ecosophy’; a deep relation to place and the value of traversal activities to bring about new relational understandings specific for a bioregion/place/community. Recently I have been looking to Hannah Arendt’s ideas of action in regards to forming civic engagement that relies on plural perspectives for developing new politics/policies and her later concerns where she anticipated ecocide as a new form of totalitarianism. 

The webinar was great to really think about the under-acknowledged contribution of feminism to environmental humanities methodologies and recognising, particularly the line of thinking from feminism that valuably identified oppression due to gender, race, sex, to the power and politics of oppression, inherent in normative, exploitative views and hence actions to the non-human. Also to become aware of the many Environmental Humanities centers that a springing up to deal with the troubling distance contemporary industrial growth society has from the non-human.

Cathy Fitzgerald PhD’s inquiry:

Beyond ecocide toward deep sustainability: stories from a small Irish forest

A long term transdisciplinary eco art project

Cathy Fitzgerald is a visual artist filmmaker engaged with ecological concerns. She a New Zealander living since 1996 in Ireland. Cathy is a doctoral candidate in Visual Culture and the National College of Art & Design, Dublin, Ireland. Her practice-thesis transdisciplinary eco art inquiry involves and traverses; new to Ireland, non clearfell Close-to-Nature continuous cover forest methods, experimental film-making, writing, exploring eco-philosophies, contributing to national forest policy development (she succeeded in getting continuous cover forestry as the key point in the new Irish Green Party Forest policy (2012) and the adoption that The Green Party of Ireland and Northern Ireland recognise that a crime of ecocide (the long term destruction of ecosystems by man) be supported in international law (2013). Cathy’s work is centered and informed by the small conifer plantation community in which she lives, in County Carlow, Ireland. Part of her art practice is blogging, to give form to, and share her audiovisual and writing work and foreground the sights and sounds of the forest, see www.ecoartfilm.com, email: cathyart@gmail.com.

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Kadri Tüür Response

Response to the Where is Feminism in the Environmental Humanities? webinar

I found especially useful the set of reading material proposed by Greta Gaard (and not only because one of the authors of the NORA position paper is Estonian 😉

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As the first question leading to the discussion was, where is feminism in the fields each of us is familiar with, I must admit that it is not too well visible in semiotics nor in environmental history  (judging primarily on the basis of the last ESEH conference held this August). Although, having been reminded by Greta Gaard and other discussants that feminism/ecofeminism is rather an approach than a discipline, the scene is not that plain after all. Biosemioticians in University of Tartu are working with post-humanism. The idea that human species is by no means „apart“ from the rest of the nature is a central idea in semiotics of nature in general.  Many research questions posed in environmental history are informed by the concerns common with feminism: which groups have or have not a say in environmental matters; the dialectics of technology and traditional knowledge;  the results of environmental degradation and the ways of overcoming it (resilience).

In order to be able to integrate (eco)feminist perspective into the wider field of environmental humanities, I believe a common meta-language is needed, at least to some degree. By ’meta-language’ I mean common understanding of the core concepts, such as ’ecology’, ’environment’, ’matter’, ’agency’, etc. Qualitative analysis isundoubtedly a worthwhile counterpart to quantitative analysis, but there’s work to be done on developing the common language for transdisciplinary research.

Kadri Tüür, University of Tartu

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Greta Gaard is an educator, writer, scholar and activist working at the intersections of literature, feminism, social and environmental justice. As an ecofeminist, Gaard worked within the U.S. Green movement for a decade, co-founding the Minnesota Green Party in 1993. Developments within the national movement, along with the contradictions between democracy and electoral politics, are described in her 1998 volume, Ecological Politics: Ecofeminists and the Greens. For the past decade, Gaard’s activism has addressed issues of economic globalization, water democracy, maternal profiling, and interspecies justice. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and a Community Faculty in Women’s Studies at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN.

For more information about her work, please visit: http://gretagaard.efoliomn.com/