THE CLIMATE CRISIS, DRIVEN BY the expansionist logic of capitalism, is intensifying the work involved in social reproduction. This is work done mainly by women to maintain life on both a daily and a generational basis. It involves daily tasks such as cooking and cleaning, as well as generational work such as caring for children and the elderly. It is done in the household and is unpaid.
Marxism & domestic labour
Many of the early Marxists thought this work of domestic labour should be collectivised, with communal laundries and dining rooms. They were building on Marx’s insight that, in the capitalist mode of production, “the most indispensable means of production is the worker and the maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital.”
Marxism recognises that this work benefits capitalism – it externalises the costs of social reproduction. But this work also benefits men. This gendered division of labour is not “natural”. Apart from childbearing, it is not based on the biological differences between men and women. But feminism recognises that this division of labour, which makes the work of social reproduction central to women’s lives, is a key to women’s oppression.
It supports the idea that women’s place is in the home, rather than struggling, with men, for a better world. So, there is a strong connection between Marxism and feminism.
Climate change driven by capitalism
The impacts of climate change, like more droughts and floods and higher temperatures, are also not “natural”. Climate change is driven by capitalism’s drive for profit, and it is making the work of social reproduction much harder. In rural areas, women have to walk further to find water and firewood to cook. They have to grow crops on degraded soil, as food prices have increased. They have to make their small social grants stretch further to take care of the increasing number of people sick from the air pollution which comes from mining and burning coal.
The corporations involved in coal mining and burning do much damage to the environment – polluting air, water and soil. They externalise the costs of this damage by failing to rehabilitate the 6,000 abandoned mines.
Women are the majority of environmental activists fighting against this. In many mining-affected communities, black working-class women are forming new grassroots organisations, building social networks, formal or informal alliances and a collective identity through an emphasis on shared, everyday experiences. Many of these grassroot organisations draw on notions of climate justice, nature as a form of “commons”, food sovereignty and energy democracy. These are building blocks for an eco-feminist society.
These women are challenging social and environmental injustice, the explanation of women’s preponderance in these environmental struggles is not essentialist. It is not based on any “natural affinity” with nature, which some feminists claim. As Merchant wrote in Ecofeminist and Feminist Theory, “any analysis that makes women’s essence and qualities special ties them to a biological destiny that thwarts any possibility of (their) liberation”.
The explanation lies in the gendered division of labour. As eco-feminist Vandana Shiva writes, ‘‘women are most directly involved with subsistence work and are the safeguards of the natural resources needed to sustain the family and community”. “Subsistence” and “provisioning” are important themes in different forms of eco-feminism.
Not only does this work involve protecting nature from the pollution and destruction driven by the expansionist logic of the capitalist system. It also promotes a new narrative about our relationship with nature; a re-valuing of nature as something more than a store of natural resources for economic activity, to be utilised for short–term gain without concern for long-term survival.
Under capitalism, nature is still mainly viewed as external, as “natural capital” – what Oelshinger (2002) has termed “resourcism,” often used by capital instrumentally to externalise production costs. Naomi Klein has decried the “expansionist extractive mindset which has so long governed our relationship to nature…we need a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature, but in respect for natural cycles of renewal and acutely sensitive to natural limits.” I would go further to stress our connections with all life forms in a shared ecological community.
Many black working-class women living in such communities in contemporary South Africa are expressing in their actions and practices an eco-feminism that is a form of resistance to social and environmental degradation. I am not calling the anti-coal women activists “eco-feminists”, because that is not how they describe themselves.
Few women we encountered in the course of our research claim the identity of “feminist”. But the lives of many demonstrate this commitment, through their support for other women. They challenge social and environmental injustice, as well as the “naturalising” of women’s subordination and the individualising elitism of liberal feminism. They are concerned with collective empowerment rather than individual advancement.
What I am claiming is that black working-class women in mining-affected areas are doing important eco-feminist work in their practices, in three respects:
- An ethic of reciprocity and sharing is evident in their daily lives and emerges in their tasks of social reproduction. This is unlike the households of the dominant classes, where this work is often commodified in extremely exploitative social relations. The spirit of solidarity which informs this work involves collective rather than individualised practices. The collective nature of much of this work means women share the onerous task of clearing land for planting or harvesting, saving and sharing seeds, collecting grass for thatching, collecting wild plants for food or medicine, fetching water or firewood, cultivating food gardens and so on.
- Secondly, this hard work to procure food, energy and water means an intimate connection with nature, which generates care and protection.
- Thirdly this ethic extends to many forms of caring such as taking responsibility for the sick (particularly Covid 19 and pollution victims) in their homes, hospitals, and communities. Emotional work is respected as part of social reproduction.
These practices present a strong contrast to the atomised lives and intense individualism of neoliberal capitalism. The practices are not limited to rural areas, but they involve a kind of mindfulness which is often blunted when activities such as cooking or lighting mean clicking a switch.
Eco-feminism in practice
In South Africa, two organisations – Women in Mining (WoMin) and the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA) – are explicit in their understanding of eco-feminism and operate feminist schools in mining-affected areas. They both define the notion of a just transition from neoliberal capitalism in eco-feminist terms.
This is significant, as the notion is being stripped of its original transformative content and reduced to meaning simply a shift to a new (even privatised) renewable energy regime.
Both organisations emphasise an eco-feminist research methodology. This tries to replace what Mazibuko Jara has termed “extractivist research” methods with cooperative and reciprocal processes aimed at mutual empowerment rather than the extraction of local knowledge.
This is understood as part of resisting the extractivist model of development, which extracts profits from non-renewable resources, and which WoMin claims “is deeply patriarchal and racist”
This resonates with Greta Gaard’s argument that “Eco-feminism has become a theory and movement largely articulated by the activities themselves”. While not claiming eco-feminism as an identity, these women are providing a unifying narrative in the form of an African eco-feminism, but at enormous cost to themselves. Violence against anti-coal activists, who are predominantly women, is increasing. The assassination of one of the vice-chairs of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation is one of the most recent tragic instances. Fikile Ntshangase resisted a R350,000 bribe from Tendele mine. She was gunned down in front of her 11-year old grandson on 22nd October last year. There have been no prosecutions to date.
This eco-feminism involves a redefinition of “nature” in several senses: firstly, a rejection of “nature” as the source of gender identities which subordinate women by “naturalising” qualities of submission, deference and exclusion. And secondly, a rejection of the dualistic view of “nature” as an externalised, discrete entity separate from society. The latter is not “new” in that it draws on an indigenous integrated understanding of the nature-society relation, pointing the way to an alternative society based on sharing, simplicity and solidarity.
While encompassing a diversity of approaches eco-feminism is generally not embraced as a label, but as a form of solidarity with other women, a way of life, a way of practising a commitment to collective action for change in two senses: firstly, change which goes beyond the narrow conception of gender equality within the existing social order, which marks liberal feminism. And secondly, change in our understandings of nature.
Marxist feminism gives a special relevance to class in capitalist society, but not in a reductionist way. Class is a relational concept and involves very different material conditions of life. Meg Luxton expresses it as follows: “Marxist feminists assume that, in any society, the ways in which people make their living determine their social relations and significantly shape the ways in which they understand themselves and the world around them”. From my perspective, a feminism that speaks of women’s oppression without challenging capitalism will fail.
The aim of socialism is to replace a society based on the pursuit of profit with one based on the satisfaction of human needs. It involves the social ownership and democratic control of productive resources. The aim of eco-socialism is to link the two principles of social justice and ecological sustainability. The key issue of ecological sustainability is not only to protect limited natural resources but to ensure that they are used for the benefit of all, not only by the privileged few. It also means a new relationship between humans and nature, grounded in the acknowledgement that humans exist as one part of a single ecological community where everything is connected in “the web of life”.
Eco-feminist socialism means different relations between people. It means mutual sharing and support, instead of the possessive, consumerist, competitive individualism of neoliberal capitalism – living simply so others may simply live.
Finally, eco-feminist socialism is rooted in a confidence in human beings, in the capacity of men and women to share, to learn from mistakes, to care for each other and all living creatures, and most importantly, to work together in solidarity to create a more just and sustainable world.
Jacklyn Cock is an activist academic at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) Wits University.