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Hilkka Pietilä, M



Hilkka Pietilä, M. Sc.

Independent Author and Researcher

(Institute of Development Studies,

University of Helsinki)


Integrating ecophilosophy and feminism makes

a recipe for sustainable development


At the edge of a new era


Time-honoured images


How do women feel?


What does history prove?


Man forged his own shackles


Feminist ethics - ecological ethics


Scientific and ethical revolution


The sex roles reversed to a new dualism


The relationships of men and women to Life, Death and Nature


Male self-criticism


"The warp and the weft"


Matching eco-philosophy with feminism


Sisterhood embraces brothers too!


Masculine-feminine liberation




This was originally a lecture held in 1986 in Helsinki University, then written as article for a book edited by J.R.Engel & J.Gibb Engel: Ethics of Environment and Development, Belhaven Press in association with the IUCN, London 1990. Later published as various versions also in books in Finland, Greece, India and Norway.


Integrating ecophilosophy and feminism makes

a recipe for sustainable development

"I shall sing of Gaia, universal Mother,

firmly founded, the oldest of divinities."


At the edge of a new eratc "At the edge of a new era"

It is not by chance these days that we speak so often of world crisis. Although each one of us may see the situation somewhat differently, anyone familiar with the global situation and ongoing trends in world economics will agree that there are reasons enough to speak about crises. There is a human crisis, there is an environmental crisis, not to mention an economic and political crisis.

Development of a major part of the world has not only stagnated, but in great regions, like Africa, declined. In the recent decades, the quality of people's lives has deteriorated rather than improved. Environmental deterioration has also continued and become widespread. Many countries in the Global South have fallen into endless debt, which does not allow them choices in action and policies.

But the issues today are no longer only drought, decertification, and erosion in the Third World. It is now a question of rapidly spreading disasters in the rich world as well: the creeping death of the forests; increasing pollution and acidity of the lakes and rivers; cities, highways, and airports confiscating more and more fertile land in the North; and the greenhouse-effect and damage to the ozone layer frightening us all.

Our mother Gaia seems to be at the edge of an unforeseen dilemma, of either totally shaking us off her surface, or forcing us to adjust ourselves to the ancient rules of her household. It seems to be difficult for us, humans, to believe that we could be one of the extinct species fairly soon - in Gaian time.

The United Nations Programme of Action: Agenda 21 was adopted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio 1992. It is the latest internationally adopted programme for sound environmental policies and future perspectives for development and survival.(1) The title "Agenda 21" means a programme for the 21st century. The paramount thrust is the concept of "sustainable development", meaning that unless we learn to and want to make development in all countries ecologically sustainable, there will not be much chance for the future.

In spite of women's breakthrough as an internationally organized caucus at UNCED, Agenda 21 still seems to omit to quite an extent the potentialities of women's culture to provide practical and philosophical recipes for reconstructing sustainable development. It is therefore all the more important to highlight here the possible alternative philosophy hidden in the midst of us.

This paper is an effort to illustrate, from women's point of view, the historical path which has led us here, and the potential of traditions, skills and values to be found in women's culture, which could be an untapped source of fresh ideas for the sustainable future.

Time-honoured imagestc "Time-honoured images"

The mythology of humankind is full of parables and expressions combining woman and nature, mother and earth, the fertility of women and nature. The goddesses of fertility are always women. There are many names for the goddesses of Earth, Nature, and Fertility; the Universal Mother: Gaia, Astarte, Isis, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Ilmatar, Lilith, Maria etc.

The native American cultures held the earth as highly sacred Universal Mother. The Squamish Chief Seattle from the west coast of North America once said to the white man:

Teach your children what we have

taught our children, that the Earth

is our Mother. Whatever befalls the Earth

befalls the sons of the Earth.

If men spit on the ground,

they spit on themselves. (2)

In 1979, Winona La Duke, a native American woman brought a message to the people of Europe concerning the hazards of uranium mining. This message of the International Traditional Elders ended like this:

They tell us to farm the land - how dare you ask us to cut our mother's hair,

They tell us to mine the land - how dare you ask us to level our mother's breast,

They tell us to plough the land - how dare you ask us to cut out mother's side. (3)

A modern Finnish theatre director (male!) recently said in a television interview: "Woman holds the mystery of life. She has the keys to the secrets of life." The ancient beliefs still prevail!

An American writer, Riane Eisler, gives in her book "The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future" a lot of new information and totally new interpretations concerning the ancient high cultures of Europe, which were mothercentric, ecologically sustainable, egalitarian, peaceful, and had mostly female divinities.(4)

How do women feel?tc "How do women feel?"

What is the experience of women themselves? How would they define their relationship with the nature? Do women associate themselves with these ancient myths? References to the relationship of women with the nature can be found in the folklore of many nations and in their traditions, as well as in their indigenous poetry, where women have expressed themselves.

It is said that women invented agriculture at the dawn of history when their men were out hunting, and thus acquired a dominant position in the community. They also tamed the cubs of wild animals by breast feeding them. This was the beginning of animal husbandry. These discoveries helped women provide food for their families even when their men did not bring in a catch from fishing and hunting. Women discovered a more reliable means for sustaining life.

Already we see a relationship between women and nature which is co-operative, not only exploitative or plundering. It easily develops into a relationship of caring and nurturing, mutually giving and receiving. Women have also collected wood and water, gathered berries and flowers, herbs and plants for use as medicine and dyes. At the same time, nature - trees, animals, plants and flowers - has given women solace, experiences of beauty and harmony, and taught them the skills to use the products of nature for healing and magic.

Women's own bodies provide an excellent and ever-present bridge to Nature. The menstrual cycle follows the stages of the moon; even fertility follows the rhythm of the seasons to some extent. Women's life is a part of the eternal cycle of birth, growth, maturation, and death - they are in the midst of the stream of life, not at the edge of it. In this way, women experience nature - the process of life - within themselves.

It was probably women who discovered healing skills; they learned from the realities of life around and within themselves. They studied the effects of plants, herbs, and whatever other extracts they had available. But these skills also made them so powerful and uncontrollable that their knowledge and tradition of healing was cruelly uprooted in the Middle Ages in Europe when the most advanced women were burned as witches and heretics. This interrupted the development of natural healing in Europe and reduced medicine to merely biological and technological methods of treatment for centuries.

What does history prove?tc "What does history prove?"

Western contemporary science and philosophy has long roots of dualism, from Plato and the early fathers of the church to the late authorities of the 19th and 20th centuries. It implies the dichotomy between:


- spiritual


- mind


- culture


- rational


- objectivity


- public


- economics

It is commonly "understood" that women and femininity are linked with the left side, and man and masculinity with the right side of this chart. According to this philosophy, woman is viewed as part of nature, associated with the physical world, and thus submitted to the rule of man, since the physical, the material, is subjugated to the spiritual and intellectual. A deep dichotomy is thus created between men and women. In this way, the suppression of women and nature are hi