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Is This Why We Call it 'Mother Nature?'

By Maria Rogers · December 19th, 2002 · Burning Questions
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What do women and trees have in common? The answer, eco-feminists would say, is a lot.

Environmental feminism, which focuses on the relationship between the oppression of women and the destruction of the environment, tries to understand why people feel the need to dominate nature, women or anything else defined as "other."

"What are the sociocultural attitudes that we have towards nature -- and usually those attitudes parallel our attitudes toward women," says Nancy Hancock, a philosophy professor at Northern Kentucky University.

In her book New Woman, New Earth, Rosemary Radford Ruether summed up the idea of eco-feminism.

"Women must see that there can be no liberation for them and no solution to the ecological crisis within a society whose fundamental model of relationships continues to be one of domination," she wrote. "They must unite the demands of the women's movement with those of the ecological movement to envision a radical reshaping of the basic socioeconomic relations and the underlying values of this society."

Through class projects, Hancock and her students have examined how environmental feminism can be applied to Northern Kentucky. Part of their study involved looking at violence against animals and its parallels to violence against people.

Many of the teens involved in high school shootings have a history of abusing animals, according to Hancock. Her students developed action plans as part of their class project.

One suggested working with young people to help them develop positive attitudes about animals.

"Animals are not objects that we play with and dispose of," Hancock says.

Animals are only one notion of "other" -- groups that we don't consider "us."

"We define ourselves in opposition to groups that are not us," Hancock says.

People use this notion to justify why those who are different don't have to be treated as well. Eco-feminists examine the need to dominate nature and try to change our tendency to see ourselves as separate from it. Smokey Bear, who reminded us for years that we could prevent forest fires, is an example of our belief that we can dominate nature.

Recent forest fires that swept across the western United States reminded us that controlling nature isn't always possible -- or even desirable.

"We cannot control at least that aspect of nature any more than we can control hurricanes," Hancock says.

Instead, if we choose to build our homes in forested areas, we have to be ready when fires happen.

"Eco-feminism is trying to encourage that shift in attitudes," Hancock says.

Today, Reddy Squirrel is the mascot in public service announcements by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Reddy Squirrel reminds us that forest fires are a part of nature and gives suggestions on how to protect our homes.

In Northern Kentucky, rapid development has taxed the resources in areas that until recently were simple farmland but are now home to large numbers of commuters. For example, Mount Zion Road crosses Gunpowder Creek in Boone County, Hancock explains. At the intersection of Gunpowder Road and Mount Zion, flooding is becoming worse and worse.

Run-off created by development of the area has led to the flooding, Hancock says, causing problems for those who rely on that road to travel to work. As a solution, the bridge over the road was raised higher and the road itself was widened.

It's a solution that has had a negative impact on the creek bed in that area, Hancock says.

"We don't think about the consequences of our actions on the environment until we start experiencing the negatives," she says.

An eco-feminist looks at the root causes that lead to the problem, Hancock says.

"Rather than just patching it and make nature fit into our needs, how do we fit in with nature?" she says. "It's our development out there that caused the flooding in the first place."



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