The 1970s saw the simultaneous emergence of environmentalism and feminism as important social forces. At the time, it was obvious to many observers that the two movements were related. A number of artists and historians made explicit connections between them, noting that both rejected social and scientific models based on domination and hierarchy in favor of an approach to society and nature that emphasized relatedness, co-dependence, and interconnection. Both sounded alarms about the continuation of the status quo. Both called for a radical reordering of human priorities.
Reaching back to the Renaissance, when commercial and technological innovations overturned earlier, more organic conceptions of nature, historians like Carolyn Merchant suggested that the modern paradigm of domination and exploitation that had replaced it now threatened the future of the earth. Artists approached the subject from a different perspective. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, for instance, was lured into environmentalism by way of her role as an artist and mother. She suggested that the practice of “maintenance” more commonly associated with domesticity and “women’s work” might serve as a constructive model for the larger social, economic, and political systems that sustain contemporary life.
Both figures were part of an emerging ecological consciousness dubbed “eco-feminism.” As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, Ronald Reagan took the solar panels off the White House, the environmental movement was stalled by the combination of neo-liberal economic theory and cheap gas, and a rift appeared in the feminist movement over the relationship between women and nature. The latter development had implications for environmental consciousness because many of the ideas espoused by eco-feminists were now seen has fatally infected with a retrograde essentialism that merely reinforced the age-old duality of feminine nature and masculine culture. Instead, post-structural-oriented feminists and theorists embraced the idea that both nature and culture are social constructs. In some of the sillier manifestations of this perspective, nature was dismissed as a valid category altogether, as when Peter Halley opined, “The jungle ride at Disney World may in fact be more real to most people than the real jungle.”
By the ’90s, climate change had ceased to be a Hollywood fantasy and begun to appear disturbingly imminent. Suddenly a belief in nature and its uncontrollable forces seemed less reactionary. Theorists like Timothy Morton (Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics) have declared the arrival of the Anthropocene era, in which human activity has become the central driver of the planet’s geologic changes. With the restoration of the traditional balance between nature and human society apparently now out of the question, artists and environmentalists have turned to the question of how we may best address a world in which climate change is a reality.
From the perspective of the 21st century, the value of many of the founding insights of eco-feminism are ever more clear. By pairing the liberation of women with the restoration of the balance of nature, eco-feminism points the way toward a more egalitarian, less nakedly competitive world. Today, of course, any survey of environmental activists and artists makes it clear that neither gender has a lock on this way of thinking. Even Pope Francis has drawn a connection between climate change and the rapacious pursuit of capitalism. But the search for an alternative philosophy leads back to feminism and the spirit of interconnectivity and reciprocity that inspired its early practitioners. Rejecting the dualistic and mechanistic vision of nature that has dominated western culture since the Renaissance, a feminist-inflected view proposes metaphors that stress the interrelationship between humanity and nature, and regards nature as an organism whose health depends on the well being of all its various parts, human and nonhuman alike. When humanity is seen as part of nature, environmental solutions can emerge from the creative rethinking of all our systems of economic, social, and political organization.
Recent assessments by climate scientists reveal that we are at a critical juncture in our response to global climate change. Much depends on the model of nature we choose to follow and the solutions that follow from that model. The feminist tradition points toward a holistic approach that inspires and continues to motivate the most significant practitioners of contemporary environmental art.
Eleanor Heartney is a New York-based art critic and the author of numerous books about contemporary art. Eleanor Heartney’s Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art has just been reissued by Silver Hollow Press.