Dr. Gwen Hunnicutt: Ecofeminism and ethics of care

Posted on April 21, 2020

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Dr. Gwen Hunnicutt is a longtime advocate for animals and the environment. At UNC Greensboro, the associate professor of sociology teaches a course on ecofeminism and another on green criminology, where students learn about harms and crimes against the environment and how inequalities are reproduced through earth injustices.

She has also been involved in the animal emancipation movement for many years, volunteering at farm animal sanctuaries and doing educational outreach. For her, advocating for the environment involves a commitment to nonviolence.

“To generate a shared sense of well-being among all Earth’s inhabitants, to appreciate the inherent dignity of all life in the biosphere, and to recognize the land as a benevolent host, will require caring and respect,” she says.

This past fall, Hunnicutt published the book “Gender Violence in Ecofeminist Perspective: Intersections of Animal Oppression, Patriarchy and Domination of the Earth” through the Routledge Research in Gender and Society series. (Available as an e-book through UNCG’s Jackson Library.)

The book not only builds on her interest in the environment but also her rich background in the study of gender violence. The result is an eco-centered, ecofeminist discussion of humans’ relationship with nature and how it is tied to gender, patriarchy, and human violence.

It is meant to be a resource for scholars, activists, and students in sociology, gender violence and interdisciplinary violence studies, critical animal studies, environmental studies, and feminist and ecofeminist studies. She has spoken about her research internationally, including for the Department for Security, Strategy & Leadership at Försvarshögskolan / Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, Sweden.

Read more about Hunnicutt’s perspective and work in the interview below.

Could you define “ecofeminism”?

“Ecofeminism is a branch of scholarship that explores the interconnections of dominance between humans and between humans and the earth. It foregrounds all sorts of social problems within a larger field of domination toward nature.

In the 1960s and 70s, there were feminists who pointed out that the way in which we inhabit the earth is very gendered, and this system of mastery over nature is closely bound to patriarchal structures. This is also a gendered master discourse which justifies how we dominate the earth: with subjugation, with control, with superiority, and with entitlement. Notice how we think of the Earth as female, reflecting a familiar gender hierarchy. We conflate violent metaphors of harming the earth with women’s bodies when we say ‘rape of the earth’ or the ‘Mother Nature is conquered.’ We have all these common discursive constructions that reveal the joint subjugation of women and the environment.

Ecofeminists began to point out that our neutral way of interpreting our domination of the Earth doesn’t get at some of these very powerful gender ideologies. And this includes tackling the patriarchal underpinnings of this whole hierarchical order. They look at human-nature links behind the scenes in exploring all sorts of social problems. They look at global politics, cultural discourse, poverty, and water issues and violence – it’s a framework you can use to examine all sorts of aspects of social life.”

Could you explain a phrase mentioned in your book: “logic of domination?”

“I study gender violence and have been studying it for my entire career and have done a lot of empirical studies of various kinds – ranging from the global to the local, mostly looking at marginal groups. And in my research, I ended up running into theoretical walls. The existing theoretical explanations – the story lines that help us understand and interpret gender violence – are sort of lacking, or not as satisfying as a researcher might like. So, over time, I started thinking about how we might come up with other helpful narratives to help explain gender violence.

My own nonprofessional work in the animal emancipation movement and my professional work studying gender violence got me thinking about the ways in which these two worlds are connected. This is a key piece of my argument. What I try to do in the book is unearth these ‘logics of domination’ or we might call them ‘blueprints of oppression’. If we look at our hierarchical relationship with the earth – the way that humans subjugate the environment to the disastrous consequences as we are living through right now – it’s a relationship of domination that really involves exploitation: taking what we please, doing what we like, with a real profound disrespect for the natural world, which is often violently rendered into something that we desire.

Ultimately I conclude that there is no nonviolent future without work towards a green future, that there is no social justice without eco justice – that these two fates are intertwined. And the antiviolence movement and the environmental movement – you know, they really have similar aims and objectives. And they’re also looking to dismantle similar ideologies and structures to get to a more just social world.”

What counts as gender violence or how is that defined?

“Yes, that’s a great question. So, it’s articulated differently in the literature. There’s not one agreed upon, coherent definition. But for my purposes in my work, I’m really interested in the gender dynamics of violent scenarios. I’m less interested in gender violence in terms of difference, like the perpetration of one gender against another, such as, say, a man committing violence against a woman. I’m most interested in how gendered social processes shape violent outcomes. All violence is gendered. For instance, two men in a violent confrontation is gendered because there is a whole set of ideologically-infused performances and gendered expectations that influence this scenario. It shows the extent to which we believe that a particular masculine performance includes aggression. We know that in many cases with violence, there’s some deep-seated notions about aggressive masculinities – towards animals, in the case of hunting, or towards other men in the case of, say, football. And all of these violent rituals are deeply embedded in our gender ideologies, and they come to the fore when we are interacting with other humans and nonhumans. Of course, gender is not the only dimension of social life that impacts our experience, which is why intersectionality must be taken up as an indispensable tool. Moreover, there is no singular ‘masculinity’ and it is not possible to make any universal claims about masculinity in a singular way. But we can detect themes of virility and prowess in various expressions of violent masculinity and even the construction of a violent masculinity through killing.”

Tell us more about your book and how it relates to recent and current events?

“The first half of the book, I spend establishing my argument and exploring the ways in which patriarchy is foregrounded by another hierarchy – human domination over ‘nature’. I argue that gender violence stems from a logic of domination that is built on the domination of nature and the domination of the Other ‘as nature.’ I ultimately connect these oppressions by showing the inextricable bind of violence against humans and the more-than-human-life-world.

In chapter four, I look at the back end of this, considering what sort of gender violence results from our domination of the natural world, and in particular, the fallout from climate change and how that’s affecting particular vulnerable populations. There is a body of literature that looks at intimate partner violence that occurs in the wake of climate-related disasters. During and after ecological catastrophe you see a surge in intimate partner violence. And there’s such a thing as climate-related conflict. Climate change has resulted in an advance of the Saharan desert and subsequently violence in Darfur. Darfur was considered the first climate-related conflict and sparked a whole body of literature that looks at this phenomenon. The war in Syria is a complicated political situation, but one of the key elements involved in that conflict was an extensive climate-related drought. What you tend to see is that women suffer the worst effects of climate change, in different ways, depending on their social location and context, not because of any innate qualities, but because of their social status, discrimination, and poverty – inequalities manufactured through gendered social roles. Existing gender inequalities are then aggravated in the wake of disaster.”

How does the book relate to various disciplines?

“It draws on feminist studies and within feminist studies, a lot of subdisciplines, including international relations and ecofeminism. And then it also draws on interdisciplinary violence studies, which spans a wide range of disciplines, such as economics and ‘green criminology,’ which looks at harms and crimes against the environment as on par with harms or crimes against your person or your property.

Whether you study math, or sociology or economics or business, the climate crisis is something that will affect every area of scholarship – if not now, in the very near future. For a long time, this was sort of one feature of life that we could sort of just ignore. And it’s clear that this is no longer the case. Everything we do will be affected by ecological impacts: extreme weather, the increased frequency of disasters, disappearing green spaces, and overpopulation. Everything we study is ultimately impacted and disrupted, so I think that scholars in the future will all have to be environmental scholars to some extent. They will really be forced to include this other previously ignored part of how our relationship with the Earth impacts, really, everything.”

What kind of perspective do you feel is helpful to try to pass on to readers and students about these issues?

“I try to discourage, in my scholarship, an attitude of hopelessness, but it’s obviously something that’s on everybody’s mind – a sense of doom and apocalyptic sentiment. The United Nations published a report on climate change in October of 2018 that included dire warnings and communicated that it is absolutely essential that we act now. Nothing happened after that 2018 report, which was really discouraging. Subsequently, the United Nations published another report in 2019 saying that the window to intervene in climate change is closing really quickly. And again, there was no meaningful response from world leaders. So, it’s certainly discouraging, but I think it’s important to guard against hopelessness and to continue to open dialogues and work on whatever change we can in our own backyard in our own classrooms.

In the conclusion in my book I consider certain things we might do. I don’t have all the answers, but I try to open a dialogue about some ways we might proceed. And one of them is to embrace an ethic of care. And, you know, this is also very gendered. We don’t typically talk about ‘care’ in academic or professional circles of any kind, because we associate care with femininity. In hierarchical spaces where individuals are trying to achieve dominance or superiority, they won’t want to be perceived as weak. And care is often associated with weakness rather than being regarded as a meaningful trait that humans should embrace. But proceeding with an ethic of care, in all of our relations is one kind of ideological switch that can help us be more sensitive, nonviolent, and kind. And we can also apply that towards the Earth, to the land, to the rivers, to animals. And it’s possible anywhere, but it takes courage to use the word ‘care.’”

Finally, what does it mean to celebrate Earth Day during COVID-19?

“I’m concerned that the consciousness-raising about Earth politics that usually happens on Earth Day will be eclipsed by the coronavirus, but this Earth Day is also an opportunity to remind us what is at stake for our planet and future. The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that humans are connected to animal health and to the environment, and if we don’t take this seriously, we will continue to live in a world where pandemics and extreme weather events reoccur.

On this Earth Day, we need to draw attention to the need to urgently halt deforestation and demand a shift in cultural norms toward respect and protection toward nonhuman animals. If we don’t, we will continue to face deadly diseases, as well as the harmful effects of climate change. Deforestation creates opportunities for animal microbes to transform into deadly human pathogens. The cruel practice of factory farming also provides a thriving environment for deadly pathogens where hundreds of thousands of animals are packed closely together awaiting their deaths.

But on a positive note, we might also take note of how coronavirus has encouraged pro-climate behaviors. This is also a chance for us to learn about digital activism. Environmental groups and climate activists around the world have shifted protests and activism from the streets to online because of the pandemic.

Since we have more time on our hands, we can become citizen scientists. Learn about the science behind climate change, take it seriously, and demand that our political leaders are advised by the scientific community because our current pandemic demonstrates that governments absolutely must be attentive to science.”

Interview by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Gwen Hunnicutt


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