Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective by Marti Kheel, Forward by Rosemary Radford Ruether

nature ethicsThis volume on an ecofeminist perspective on nature ethics represents a more than twenty-five year commitment by environmental philosopher Marti Kheel to bridge the semmingly disparate movements of feminism, environmental ethics, and animal liberation…

In this book, she studies the defects an limitations of mainline environmental practice and thought. Kheel focuses on four major founders of the environmental movement: Theodore Roosevelt, whose concern for conservation helped set up the national parks system; environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold, author of the classic work in the field, A Sand County Almanac; leading ecophilosopher Holmes Rolston III, author of such volumes as Conserving Natural Value (1994); and deep ecology thinker Warwick Fox, author of such works as Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism (1990).

Kheel does not totally discount the contributions of these four environmental leaders. She expresses her appreciation for their significant contributions. She credits Roosevelt as “an early harbinger of the message of limits, the notion that abundance should not be taken for granted.” Leopold’s work contributed to a “perceptual shift, based on the ecological notion of interdependence.” Rolston’s work suggested “the importance of lived experience and local stories,” while Fox’s idea that “humans, like other ‘species’, are merely individual leaves on a metaphorical tree is also a beneficial antidote to the presumption of human superiority.”

But Kheel finds all these thinkers wanting primarily because of their inability to value animals as distinct individuals in their own right. Each has marked preferences for thinking of “nature” in terms of large abstractions – species, ecosystems, even the cosmos – rather than rooting their concern in real empathy for living and often suffering fellow “other-than-human animals,” as Kheel calls them. There is also a strong tendency to value “nature” in the abstract primarily for its beneficial effect on the human psyche, rather than really being concerned with the quality of life of particular “nonhumans” in their own right.

For Roosevelt and Leopold in particular, “roughing it” in “nature” is also linked to sport hunting. Nonhuman animals are to be “preserved” so they can be killed by sportsmen-hunters, thereby enhancing intergenerational manliness and virility of men and boys. Although hunting and its value for “manliness” is not as central for Rolston, it is also not disavowed. Warwick does not promote hunting, but his concept of ecological consciousness as a transpersonal expansion of the ego to include the cosmos suggests a kind of transcendental inclusivism of all reality within the human (male) self.

Kheel sees these defects of abstractionism – the quest for transcendence, alienation from nature and body, the need to prove oneself through killing animals – as deeply linked with the social construction of masculinity in Western societies, and patriarchal societies in general. She calls for a deep revision of such patriarchal thinking in environmental thought by a real inclusion of concrete empathy with “other-than-human animals” as individuals in their own right. She sees ecofeminism as a movement that recognizes the interconnection of sexism and abuse of both women and animals as an important corrective to these myopias.

The extent to which the dominate theories in contemporary environmental ethics are linked to male bias has not been generally appreciated, and Kheel makes the case more clearly and convincingly than anyone else has done to date. For Kheel, these concerns are deeply linked to veganism, the eschewing of abuse or killing animals for food, clothing, or laboratory experiments. Vegan ecofeminism is, for Kheel, not so much an ethic as an ethos – a way of life that one is called to adopt if one becomes really serious about overcoming these interlinked abuses of women, animals, and the natural world. Kheel’s book is a groundbreaking contribution to the literature and a must read for anyone concerned with the links among environmental ethics, animal liberation, and feminist critique of male cultural bias.

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