“…shake my future challenge our first world’s
capitalist consumerist criminal one
of perpetual purchasing
shake my future past the edges of the known…”

             Dorothea Smartt 

I first heard about ecofeminism at a wisdom-sharing conference I went to last October in New Mexico with Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and Dr. Hyung Kyung Chung.

Dr. Chung, a Christian liberation theologian and Buddhist Dharma teacher from Korea, described herself, in one of her talks, as an “ecofeminist.”

Ecofeminism, I’ve since learned, was first coined by the French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974. It has taken many forms, but all ecofeminists make a critical connection between the way we dominate and exploit the earth, and the way we dominate women.

“To heal the wounded earth,” Dr. Chung said, “we need to heal the women.”

As I listened to Dr. Chung’ and Gloria Steinem talk that week, I heard the echoes of Native American Indian writers I’d read over the years who regard the earth not as a resource to be exploited, but as a relative to be honored.

Beate Tsosie, a Tewa Indian poet and environmental justice activist from whom I took several poetry writing classes that week at Ghost Ranch, told me that Indian people still refer to the earth as their mother, and strive to live with the earth sensitively, respectfully, and harmoniously.

Native American Indians and ecofeminists alike are critical of patriarchal and hierarchical systems which have left those at the bottom broken, marginalized, and struggling for their very lives.

Both stress the importance of replacing those hierarchical systems with circles where dialogue and healing can take place, and decisions can be made democratically and collectively.

For the Native American Indians, it should be noted, healing is not only about the curing of disease, but the restoration of relationship — first with ourselves, then with the earth and with others.

At our last poetry class, Beate asked us all to go outside, listen to the earth for five minutes, and then write about it.

As I stood on the ground with the fall leaves under my feet in the vast space of Ghost Ranch with the beautiful friends I made there  — women with whom I shared many laughs and much joy — I listened.

I heard the earth’s gratitude for the witness of the women who were there that week.

I became aware, in a new way, of the earth’s life-giving abundance, and extraordinary and selfless grace.

I heard in the tall and stately cottonwood trees that grow there — trees more beautiful than any cathedral could be —  the healing music made by the wind and the leaves.

A balanced returned; and I felt restored.

You don’t have to be a feminist or a womanist (as Alice Walker calls herself), to understand the connection between our human well-being and the well-being of the earth, or to see how patriarchal/hierarchical systems of domination have harmed us, the earth, and our relationship with one another.

Endless wars, oppression, unspeakable suffering, and now the ecological crisis we are facing, have turned us toward healthier ways of living.

Some feminists, including Gloria Steinem, see the ecological crisis as the wake-up call we need to find new ways of living and relating to one another and the earth.

She wrote in A Revolution Within twenty years ago:

“Disasters like pollution, a new species extinction every few hours, biospheric degradation, and the threat of nuclear annihilation are all powerful reasons to overturn the centuries of the either/or, Man-against-Nature paradigm that got us here. To think about taking our place in nature instead of conquering it is a deep change in the way we see ourselves and the world. It means changing from binary and linear thinking to a cyclical paradigm that is a new declaration of interdependence.” 

Recently I listened to a talk about climate change by the scientist Jeremy Rifkin. He said the solution to the crisis is the expansion of our human empathy.

Empathy isn’t something we need to manufacture; scientific studies have shown we are wired for it. Without it, we would not have survived.

He said we need empathy not only for those in our religion, tribe, or nation, but for the human species as a whole.

Alice Walker said something similar in a talk she gave at the “Earth at Risk” conference in San Francisco in November of 2013.

“Friendship is the way we resist,” she said,

“for it is friendship, not only in one’s community, but especially with the people of other places in the world, that I believe must be the bedrock of our resistance to tyranny, brutalization, militarization, incarceration, as well as any other madness dreamed up by the sociopaths who would humiliate, eliminate or control us.”

The South African ecofeminist poet, Malika Ndlovu, wrote,

“ that howling wind
that crashing sea
that breaking earth
that starward tree
all revelations of where the treasures be.”

In nature and empathy is our survival.

26 thoughts on “ECOFEMINISM AND THE EXPANSION OF HUMAN EMPATHY: 1,000 Voices Speak for Compassion

  1. Shelah

    Hi Carolyn! So you’ve introduced me to an entirely new connection: the subjugation of women = the exploitation of the earth. I’ve never heard of ecofeminism before this post, but I have to say it resounds. Thanks for the informative post! 🙂 Shelah

    1. Post author

      You’re welcome, Shelah. It’s a new connection to me, too. Thanks so much for reading and responding.

    1. Post author

      She’s amazing. The beginning of that quote was, “The Quakers are right…they call themselves friends….” Thanks for reading and commenting, dear friend.

  2. Antonia Malvino

    Mmmm, I love this, but my favorite part is about going outside and listening to the earth. It’s one of my favorite things to do. So interesting too as I am reading about Empathy Erosion and have been wondering, “What can we do?” Your post gives me an idea of a fundamental starting point. Beautifully written too.

    1. Post author

      Thanks, Devi. Empathy erosion — that’s intriguing. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

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