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In Defense of Ecofeminism

Kian is not a fan of either Deep Ecology or ecofeminism, and she cites an earlier post of mine as support for rejecting the former. But I think she's a bit too quick to dismiss the latter.

There are certain elements of ecofeminism that I take exception to, particularly the more cultural, spiritual, and Freudian ones (e.g Charlene Spretnak or Riane Eisler). And I disagree with the commune-based social ideal promoted by many ecofeminists (as well as other philosophies such as bioregionalism). Nevertheless, there are certain valuable insights that come from ecofeminism, and which are preserved in more sociological forms of combining feminism and ecology (e.g. Diane Rocheleau or Val Plumwood).

Kian writes:

The fact of the matter is – if we are to believe that men are the main destroyers of the environment – it is only because men are is the higher places of power in which they drive the capitalistic/consumerist nation… but they are not doing this as a way to oppress women, and they’re not even thinking deep enough into it to believe that what they do to the environment could bug an ecofeminist as much as it apparently does… what they’re doing is looking for money, not looking to place themselves above and beyond women.

I think ecofeminists are right in saying that domination of nature has long been pursued by men as a goal in its own right. The basic ecofeminist idea is that our patriarchal culture says that those characteristics that make humans separate from, and superior to, nature are found more in men than women. Women, like nature, were said to be irrational, parochial, and in need of male/human control. Early feminists recognized this, and responded to it by saying "me too" -- arguing that women are just as human as men. The important step made by ecofeminists was to challenge the dichotomy of good vs bad traits, arguing that the traits traditionally associated with femininity and nature are valuable too. There is a strong temptation (among ecofeminists, and even more so among their critics) to go on to say that the traditionally feminine/natural characteristics are superior, and that they are essentially female. But more sophisticated forms of ecofeminism argue that we should break down the dichotomy, allowing both sexes access to the characteristics on both sides of the traditional line, and developing a relationship to nature that is neither purely "masculine" nor purely "feminine."

Men are driven to cultivate and express those characteristics and to prove through them their superiority over women and nature. There is a strong tradition of conquest of nature for its own sake, as a manly pursuit quite apart from any monetary gain (indeed, one would need to earn money in order to be able to afford hunting trips and so forth). The wolf extermination movement, for example, was driven far beyond the economic needs of the sheep industry by the ideology of manliness-over-nature. Wolves were conceptualized as cowardly and unmanly -- hence they were unworthy of life (or even fair hunting), and it was an expression of masculinity to go kill them.

William James' essay "The Moral Equivalent of War" is a good example of what ecofeminists are thinking of. He points to the conquest and domination of nature as a way to cultivate "manly" virtues of strength and obedience which would otherwise be lost in the effeminate days of world peace. The thinking in James' essay neatly parallels the practice of sexual conquest of women as a way of proving masculinity. While few people today would be quite so explicit, there remains an ideology of the rugged outdoorsman who proves his moral worth by battling the elements. There is also the disdain of environmental protection as a sentimental and effeminate practice, proper to "cat ladies" who treat animals as human, but not appropriate for real, rational men.

Contemporary attitudes toward vegetarianism provide a final example of how masculininty is entwined with environmental destruction (as well as callousness to personal health, a kindred issue to environmentalism). Even if one doesn't buy the animal rights arguments, it's clear that the environment would be better off if we ate less meat (and far less factory farmed meat). But vegetarianism is disparaged as a feminine practice. Male bonding takes place over steaks and burgers, and the man flipping meat on the barbecue is -- despite wearing an apron -- King of his Castle, provider of the most important part of the meal, while his wife merely garnishes it with such veggie dishes as potato salad and cookies. Tofu is the symbol of the man who is effeminate and "whipped." Meat has this significance because killing an animal is the clearest way to demonstrate domination over nature, since animals put up a fight (which explains the added ideological significance of eating steaks that are still bloody, hence allowing the fantasy of having killed the animal yourself, perhaps with your bare hands). The desire to prove masculinity through domination of nature is hence a driving force behind capitalism's destruction of nature. After all, you can only make a profit if people want to buy what you're selling.

Stentor Danielson, 14:39, |


The Terrorist Tee-Shirt

In response to the story of a man forced to change his shirt before boarding a plane because the shirt had Arabic writing on it, Bill Poser asks:

What, exactly, did they think they were protecting against? The slogan was certainly not a weapon. If he were a terrorist, wearing the T-shirt would not have assisted him in his task. ... Assuming that they weren't engaged in simple harassment, which is a possibility, the only sense that I can make of this is that the officials concerned attributed to the words some sort of magical power that could be contained by covering them up.

This was my initial reaction too, but I actually think there's a logical explanation. The airport security people did not think Mr. Jarrar was a terrorist. But they wanted to avoid any trouble caused by, or anxiety on the part of, bigoted passengers. The ability of words to upset people is hardly a "magical power." Given that some passengers would see the shirt, assume he was a terrorist, and get worked up, the security people decided to remove the source of the concern. Indeed, the worried passengers need not even have believed that Jarrar was a terrorist -- they may have known rationally that it was unlikely he was going to bring down their plane, but still be unable to suppress the phobia triggered by seeing the shirt.

This is not to say that asking Jarrar to remove his shirt wasn't still bigoted. It demonstrates greater concern with the comfort of non-Arab than Arab passengers. The correct response would be to tell the worried passengers to suck it up. But at least the decision to eliminate the shirt makes sense from that bigoted perspective.

Stentor Danielson, 10:01, |


The Problem Of Evil And Informed Consent

Albert Haig proposes an interesting answer to the problem of evil*. Evil exists, he says, so that God can get our informed consent to eliminate it:

This paper introduces the ‘informed consent’ theodicy. God desires that all created persons should not only be free, but should also possess essential perfect goodness, and hence by nature be incapable of evil. However, before causing created free agents to take on a nature rendering them essentially perfectly good, God has a moral obligation to obtain their informed consent. This necessitates that every moral agent which God creates must initially be permitted a temporary probationary period, during which their moral character is unfixed and malleable, in order that they may gain knowledge by acquaintance of both good and evil. This knowledge is a necessary precondition to enable them to make a genuinely informed decision regarding their ultimate moral destiny.

Haig's proposal is intriguing, but I think ultimately untenable. The first objection that occurs to me is that his concern for informed consent ignores all beings other than humans and God. There are a lot of other things in the world -- animals, plants, rocks, etc. While some animals may be elevated to moral status alongside people, anyone trying (as Haig is) to remain within the bounds of traditional Christian theology will have to admit that there are a large number of amoral entities with fixed moral character. God didn't get a tree's consent to make it incapable of good, and the fact that it's also incapable of evil doesn't seem to solve the problem. In any event, if it is permissible for God to create permanently amoral entities, why didn't he make humans similarly amoral? On the other hand, if there's some positive good accomplished by the existence of moral entities, why did God make only one species (or a handful) capable of morality?

Furthermore, why does God need to inform us through actual experience, rather than implanting information in our heads? Haig correctly argues that humans must often give other humans actual experience of things in order to obtain informed consent on momentous issues. But that's due to a limitation of humans' abilities -- telling someone about something can't be as vivid as having them live it. But God is not so limited. He could easily implant memories of good and evil in our heads, memories exactly as vivid as those we'd bring with us from our real experience. Thus God would not have to allow any actual evil to exist in order to get our consent.

Another problem is that our world provides either too much or not enough information about good and evil. Taking the naive view (which Haig seems to) that good and evil are each a single quality and immediately apparent in acts, the world provides too much information. There is simply too much suffering in the world. If a cold-hearted robber baron has suffered enough to be adequately acquainted with evil, the additional suffering of the workers in his factory is superfluous. God could easily have created us with more limited powers, such that even someone dedicated to doing evil could not wreak more than a minimum necessary level of harm.

But that view of good and evil is, as I said, naive. There are many competing theories among people about what constitutes good and evil. But God will make us morally perfect in accordance with just one (presumably the correct one) of those theories. So it seems that we ought to have to consent, not just to being made good, but to being made good as described a certain ethical theory (Haig prefers the Kantian one). That more detailed consent requires correspondingly detailed experience -- we have to experience a much wider variety of acts, so that we can consent to God's classification of them as good or evil. But it's hard to maintain that each person does experience this range of acts, especially if that person died in their youth. So (barring reincarnation), we wouldn't be informed enough to give consent upon our deaths.

*My own preferred solution is to deny that God is omnipotent.

Stentor Danielson, 21:51, |


Fewer Women Means More Feminism?

A new paper about the dangers of sex selection leading to too many horny straight men running around contains this bizarre attempt at finding a feminist silver lining:

But as the number of women in a society drops, so their social status should rise and they should benefit from their increased value. This will lead to more balanced sex ratios as more couples choose to have girls.

I don't know much about Chinese culture (the main case study for the paper), but if the Chinese patriarchy is anything like the American one, this conclusion seems unwarranted. A surplus of straight men could certainly lead to an increase in women's value -- but that's value in the way gold is valuable, not value in the way that human beings are valuable. It strikes me as very unlikely that the scarcity of women would mean that women are treated as more fully human, with their desires listened to and respected. Rather, men will put extra effort into controlling the vagina supply. Lesbians and women who are slow to choose a husband will face increased pressure -- after all, do they want to be responsible for turning their erstwhile suitors into terrorists? Resentful myths about women's taste in mates will grow among men who feel deprived of their entitlement to sex. The fear that one's wife or girlfriend has plenty of other options (at least mate-wise) will lead not to men treating their women well, but to increased attempts to control them. The increased value of a girl to her parents -- as a bargaining chip or a way of increasing the family's status -- may well correct the gender balance. But that's unlikely to translate into benefit for the girl herself.

Stentor Danielson, 23:20, |


Enough About Pluto

Pluto is a ball of ice and rock. It doesn't have any feelings. It neither knows nor cares that a bunch of Earthlings came up with a category called "planets" to include the larger and more important objects orbiting the sun. Nothing that you know about Pluto has changed except for which side of one arbitrary dividing line it falls on. And if all you know about Pluto is "it's a planet," you may want to think a bit about why you feel qualified to hold an opinion on this issue.

It's true that simply cropping out Pluto leaves the traditional mnemonic as "My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine." However, this is neither an original observation nor an appropriate subject for existential angst. I'm sure that somehow, someday, the collective creativity of the English-speaking world will be able to come up with a new mnemonic device.

Stentor Danielson, 23:33, |