In Search of a New Ethic to Live by

If one looks at the expansive sweep of over four billions years of existence of our alive, animate, miracle Earth, the entry of our species is a very recent phenomenon. However, even in this small time frame we have managed to alter the biosphere like never before. There are obviously a multitude of reasons which has led to where we are today.  And it is not a simple cause effect equation either. There is complexity involved. There are also many myths that humanity has lived with which has brought us to where we are. We probably need new stories, new lenses, new ethics to live by if we are to flourish and thrive as one of the many diverse species in Earth.

Eco – feminism offers an alternative way of being. The central principle of “ecofeminism is that social and environmental issues are not separate, that the causes for the mistreatment of women, people of color and the environment stem from the same place.” Ecofeminism, “a new term,” developed out of various social movements: the feminist, peace and ecology movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s. According to many adherents to ecofeminist philosophy, French writer Francoise d’Eaubonne coined the term ecofeminism in 1974 to demonstrate the potential for women to make significant contributions to an ecological revolution.” Though a new term, it is embedded in ancient wisdom. Archeological evidence suggest that there were many ancient societies where women were not considered subordinate to men; where Earth was treated with respect and reverence and not as an object to exploit and dominate.

Ecofeminism emerged from the intersections of feminist research and the various movements for social justice and environmental health, explorations that uncovered the linked oppressions of gender, ecology, race, species, and nation. Ecofeminists are anchored in belief that, “there is interconnectedness of all beings and wholeness in theory and practice. It asserts the special strength and integrity of each living being.” Thus there is no dualistic splitting of man/woman, body/mind, nature/culture and so on.

This approach sought to question and replaces the dominant mechanist reductionist science paradigm and world view. Wherein there is no space for diversity only hierarchy; man is seen as a measure of all value; nature’s diversity is seen not as intrinsically valuable in itself but through economic exploitation. It also drew/created an artificial barrier between knowledge and wisdom, empirical science and observational science, specialists and non-specialists. This worldview resulted in the subjugation of nature, women and marginalized communities. Thus disconnect and alienation from nature was but an expected consequence. Thus the central fault is an attitude, logic and practice of domination of nature.

It follows therefore that legal/institutional fixes to take care of resource depletion and environmental degradation or laws/policies aimed at bringing in equality for women or increasing participation of women in public sphere alone will not help .These are mandatory and need to be worked with but by themselves they remain end of the branch solutions. What is of greater importance is deeper root level attitudinal shifts and fundamental changes in human relations with each other and human relations with non human nature. We need to see ourselves as in Nature rather than above Nature; in and of Earth rather than on Earth.

So myths of human dominance, a species at the pinnacle of evolution and in particular the separation-from-Earth myth need to be examined to carve out new ethics to live by. A deeper understanding of nature and nature’s cycles needs to be honored and fostered to pave way for a saner, ecologically sensitive society. Ecofeminists argue that women are in a better position to do this since from time immemorial women have lived finely tuned in with nature’s cycles and rhythms. They have been in closer relationships with their context and have been dependent on it. As Ariel Saleh states, “To make a better world”, men have to, “ brave enough to rediscover and to love the woman inside themselves,” while women simply have to “be allowed to love what we are. This conclusion follows from the fact that according to Salleh women already “flow with the system of nature by virtue of their essential nature.”

There are critics of ecofeminism who contest this special bond with nature that women are professed to have, either through their specific biology or closeness to nature or through their historical oppression in a patriarchal system.  Another argument against them is that this approach is built and revolves around the concept of the female ideal and hence is not free form generalizations.

The Importance of the First-Person Narrative

We can go beyond these arguments and look at what this approach has to offer in terms of ethics to live by, there is a direction and way forward which is suggested. As Karen J Warren states in ‘Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism’

“Many feminists and some environmental ethicists have begun to explore the use of first-person narrative as a way of raising philosophically germane issues in ethics often lost or under-played in mainstream philosophical ethic. There are at least four reasons why use of such a first-person narrative is important to feminism and environmental ethics.”

  • Firstly because it voices a felt/experienced sensitivity which looks at seeing oneself in relationship with others and the context one is in. This is often missing in traditional analytical ethical discourse.
  • Secondly, it gives expression to a variety of ethical attitudes and behaviors often not even seen as valid in mainstream  discourse on ethics., e.g., the difference in attitudes and behaviors toward a rock when one is rock climbing- does one think of oneself as “friends with” or “caring about” the rock one climbs or is it something to be conquered?
  • Thirdly, it provides a way of conceiving of ethics and ethical meaning as contextual, as emerging out of particular situations that people find themselves in, which is in contrast to ethics being imposed from the outside on those situations.
  • Lastly, “Narrative has argumentative force by suggesting what counts as an appropriate conclusion to an ethical situation.” So one ethical conclusion suggested by the climbing narrative is one of respect and care rather than conquest or domination.

Two beautiful stories powerfully reflect the spirit of the environmental ethics we need to live by;

A story narrated by a Sioux elder who had sent his seven-year-old son to live with the child’s grandparents on a Sioux reservation so that he could “learn the Indian ways.” Part of what the grandparents taught the son was how to hunt the four legged creatures of the forest. As I heard the story, the boy was taught “to shoot your four-legged brother in his hind area, slowing it down but not killing it. Then, take the four legged’s head in your hands, and look into his eyes. The eyes are where all the suffering is. Look into your brother’s eyes and feel his pain. Then, take your knife and cut the four-legged under his chin, here, on his neck, so that he dies quickly. And as you do, ask your brother, the four-legged, for forgiveness for what you do. Offer also a prayer of thanks to your four-legged kin for offering his body to you just now, when you need food to eat and clothing to wear. And promise the four-legged that you will put yourself back into the earth when you die, to become nourishment for the earth, and for the sister flowers, and for the brother deer. It is appropriate that you should offer this blessing for the four-legged and, in due time, reciprocate in turn with your body in this way, as the four-legged gives life to you for your survival.”

Another story is from Niyamgiri. “ The Niyamgiri hills or the ‘the hills of law’ and their foothills and plains are part of an important biodiverse landscape in Odisha, and constitute the habitat of Dongria and Kutia Kondh adivasi communities which have developed a close association with the forests and the fertile soil accumulated at the foothills. The Dongria identify themselves as Jharnia, the ones living near and protecting the numerous streams of the Niyamgiri ranges. They believe that the hills are the abode of Niyamraja (the King of Law), their supreme deity and ancestral spirit who rules the hills along with other deities associated closely with nature. The way of life practiced by the Dongria is therefore the law as prescribed by Niyamraja. It does not allow unsustainable exploitation of the forest and the land at the behest of greed.  Every Dongria elder reiterated that everything within their habitat belonged to Niyamraja and Niyamraja was everything.

Thus the values to live by are values of care, appropriate trust, kinship, friendship and reciprocity. Like Tagore so eloquently stated in the following lines we need an inclusive love.

“The world needs a mystic’s universal and inclusive love, not the exclusive love of a faithful.”

Rema Kumar


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