What is Ecofeminism? The five elements are one way to explain.
By Dido Dunlop
I think ecofeminism lays out most clearly what the trouble is with our present world, and how to fix it. Ecofeminism is a complete system based on mother nature’s interdependent ecosystems, that has the potential to save our world from our climate emergency and create a regenerative future. Permaculture does it physically; ecofeminism is close to social permaculture. It adds a few dimensions that make it clear how we got into the present mess, and how to rebalance after the ravages of a one-sided patriarchal system.
I’m realistic: it may be too late for anything at all to save humans and other life on earth from extinction. Nevertheless, I still want to work to create the best possible outcome. If it’s already too late, at least we could create a healthier world while we still live.
The five elements can provide a clear and simple way to explain. I’ll give it a go. Many cultures use the system of five elements to lay out a map of the world, often in terms of the Four directions, even if the same elements appear in different directions. The four round the outside, earth, water, fire and air, are the working material of mother nature; the fifth, space, void or spirit in the centre lies innate within them all, and infuses them with life and spirit. In this Tibetan version, dancing dakinis represent the elements. East is the blue one, water.
In nature, the four elements work in harmony; they’re never found on their own. We are made of earth, water, fire and air; all creatures are made of the same elements in different combinations. Even rocks which are pretty solid earth show the mark of fire or water in their metamorphic, volcanic or sedimentary origins. Fire is always present as either warm or cold. When the elements get out of balance things go wrong. Too much water and too little fire, we get a flood — or a stagnant pool if there’s too much earth as well.
I was very lucky to learn about these elements in great detail in my first Buddhist school. It was training in compassion: we learned how humans operate through the elements: in body: earth; emotions: water; activity: fire; mind: air. We sought union with space, void or consciousness, through meditation. This was a highly effective way to understand how we are interdependent creatures, not separate and isolated ‘egos’. It was a huge relief to me. I always felt so strongly that I was inseparable from Nature; with this system I could feel that even in a big city.
So along comes patriarchy, rule of the fathers, and divides up the goodies. Fire and air are masculine, it says, they’re the good ones, they’re for men. Water and earth are feminine. They’re not so valuable. Half each: real men aren’t allowed to be ‘emotional’; women can just get on with the cooking and we won’t bother to educate them, they don’t have good intellect anyway. There are relatively small hormonal differences between the genders, that vary from person to person; patriarchy exaggerates those out of all proportion by dividing up the elements.
This is a recipe for dysfunction. Our culture is built on too much fire and air, not enough earth and water. The result? Burning up the planet with oil, causing fires and hurricanes. Aggression and war. Patriarchy doesn’t listen to the voices of women, so it can’t source the wisdom gained through mothering and emotional intelligence, that women specialised in, as those were the fields open to them.
Indigenous peoples who still maintain connection with mother nature also get relegated to the earth and water category, so they don’t count either in this patriarchal value system.
Women tried to balance things up by getting educated and going out to work in the male world. To do that, we had to develop ‘male’ capacities, the ones valued in the public realm and workplace: driving ambition, hyperactivity, being too busy all the time to attend to relationships, children or community connections. So women, in the effort to find more balance, ended up also casting aside the wisdom of earth and water: things like slowing down, stability, sensitivity and emotional care, peace; valuing the life of nature more than money.
All of us are made of all the elements. It’s a fantasy that each gender only has two. We need to restore all of them to all of us, then we’ll get them functioning more healthily. Right now we have no idea what that might look like, things are so out of balance.
So ecofeminism says, we must reconnect with mother nature, and notice that she operates by interweaving all four elements. Life cannot continue without that. The dominance of fire and air is literally killing us off.
Then we must recognise that women have become associated with nature: both have been seen as the no-value earth and water. In order to value both we need to see that the taint of gender bias has caused that lack of valuing, and lift that veil.
People say to me, do you have to have the F-word feminism in there? Isn’t there a way to talk about this that doesn’t involve the problems of mentioning gender? Perhaps you can now see why it doesn’t fully work to do that. Permaculture for example gets close without gender issues. It mirrors nature’s ecosystem principles to grow food and build community. However, in my experience, it still doesn’t fully get to the bottom of how we devalued the half of life associated with women, and what we need to do emotionally to build interconnected community. As long as those unseen values lurk beneath our conscious awareness, they eat away at our chances for health, in heart, mind and spirit as well as body. The word value comes from valeo: strong, healthy, worthy. We need all our strengths out there for the emergency at hand.
Women may naturally have more affinity with earth and water, in that we give birth and feed children; mothering involves emotional engagement. Food production and childcare involve community. In a crisis we do tend-befriend, rather than fight-flight. Women have been pushed into an unhealthy extreme, only allowed earth and water, and ended up feeling weak and useless, and weeping in the kitchen.
Between those two factors it’s women now who hold more clearly at least the wisdom of earth and water, that we desperately need to keep all of us and our four-legged, many-legged and no-legged sisters and brothers alive. Women have a responsibility to share the inklings we have, and move into the realm of fire and air too: become publicly active and articulate, to act and communicate what’s needed. Men also have the responsibility to develop capacity in the emotional and earthy realms, which men’s groups are beginning to do. Indigenous peoples too are standing up for their knowledge. The more they share that with all of us, the better. Many are keen to hear it; it’s exactly the sort of wisdom ecofeminism and the like are trying to restore.
The result would be that as we bring the four elements back into balance, all the elements can function more healthily together. For example fire. Right now fire is burning us all up faster and faster, it’s out of control. We need fire, living creatures need a narrow range of temperature, not too warm not too cold, to survive. Fire’s warmth when it’s not too hot is comforting, beautiful, heart-warming, inspiring. It’s our creativity, our inspiration, our active energy.
Ecofeminism also points out that the sacred, the spirit of magic and mystery, life force, Great Mother, whatever we call it, is innate in all things that manifest. All the elements, all life’s activities, equally contain her sacred presence. Patriarchy divided off spirit and said, it’s separate from mundane earth, to find it we need to be ascetic, reject pleasure and the flesh. Eat bread and water, no sex, flagellate yourself. Ecofeminism says, we can find spiritual union through food, sex, digging, anything at all. All activities, all moments, are equally a doorway to the sacred.
My dearest wish is to see this vision widely understood and built on. I want a future for our world, and this looks like the way through our present muddle. I’m not much of a gardener: others have a good handle on that. I work for community building: building interconnectedness through communication and relationship; also the air element of vision, seeing the patterns, making the paradigm shift, Culture shift. I teach meditation, to find union with Great Mother void. Tibetan Buddhism seems to me a great way to do that. It teaches all the values we need, interdependence and compassion, and the wisdom of the elements: and its gods and goddesses are role models of what the healthy balanced elements could look like.
If everyone contributes our own strengths, with this sort of vision in mind, perhaps we could make it through, and create a healthy more connected world both physical and emotional for future generations.