Photo by Cynthia Münster
Photo by Cynthia Münster

Topics: Spirituality | Culture

How connecting ecofeminism and faith can change the world

Heather Eaton, author of "Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies" and professor at Ottawa's Saint Paul University, talks about religion and ecology


Q You have written that those “who engage seriously with religion and the ecological crisis soon realize that the Christian tradition has not been able to deal effectively with evolution.” How so?

A Christianity split from science in the 15th century, and in some respects it became very belief-oriented. Now, evolution is the dominant understanding of the process of the natural world. We have an evolutionary history that links us to the biosphere and complex forms of life. We are a process of evolution ourselves. We’re kin with other animals.

Some Christian traditions would say we are not animals. That is just not true. Most of our theologies are about the human. Christians pay very little attention to the fact that dinosaurs reigned for 350 million years and we’ve been around for maybe two million. We think we are the top of the food chain. But that is incorrect from an evolutionary point of view. So if our theology is dependent on the idea that we are completely different from the rest of the natural world, there is no conversation with science and evolution. Christian theology wants to put us in the role of master and commander. That is a theological error. It’s really idolatry.

Q You are critical of the idea of “stewardship,” a word we use a lot in the church.

A Stewardship helps us be responsible. It helps us be better caretakers, but it keeps the human-supremacy idea in place. I think a deep ecology or cosmological ethic that takes evolution seriously is better. It teaches us that God is present in all life. It’s not that God is present in us, and therefore we should care for Creation, or that it’s been given to us to care for; it’s that Creation is a creation of God. All of it. Including us. So stewardship helps us with responsibility but not with world view.

Q What’s wrong with how Christians have understood the world?

A Well, there are a few problematic things. One of them is fall/redemption theology. If we continue to believe that life on Earth is what [16th-century mystic] Teresa of Avila calls “a long stay in a bad hotel” and that our ultimate meaning, purpose and destination are elsewhere, then I think we will not be attentive to the ecological crisis, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. There is something very worrisome in fall/redemption theologies that say we are redeemed from the planet.

Q Is dualistic thinking also part of the problem?

A Christianity has absorbed whole sets of dualisms. One of the dualisms is matter and spirit. But they are interconnected to others: heaven and earth, good and bad, men and women, mind and body, emotion and thought, humans and nature, nature and culture. There’s a whole set of hierarchical dualisms, but they all function together to say that the spiritual realm is superior to the physical realm. This theology got coupled with the science, which said that nature is void of spirit. As a result, Christianity separated itself very dramatically from the natural world. The matter/spirit divide makes no sense to me. It would make no sense to a scientist either. It would make no sense to many theologians who work in ecology, because you can’t distinguish what is matter and what is spirit unless you have all these other dualisms in place that say humans are superior to nature.

Q You once described yourself as “ecologically illiterate.” What changed when you became more scientifically aware? 

A I was writing something on the politics of water that led me to question how water actually works. I was dazzled by the science. You know the phrase, “How does an acorn turn into a tree?” Well, seriously, how does an acorn turn into a tree? I had no idea. I wondered how I could be so trained in ecology and have missed what we call “ecological literacy.” This disconnect became so stark. The more I learned about science, the more wonder and awe I had, and the more religiously awake I became.

Q You self-identify as an eco-feminist theologian. What is the relationship between ecology and feminism?

A The natural world has been seen as feminine. Women have been seen as being more natural. Both have been oppressed together.That’s one eco-feminist connection.

The second is that patriarchy is the social, political, economic structure in most parts of the world, if not all. So women are the first victims of ecological ruin in any part of the impoverished world. When women are held so closely to the domestic sphere in a patriarchal society, when they are responsible for food, fuel and fodder, the immediate impact of ecological ruin on them is greater. For example, when there are water shortages, women have to walk many kilometres for water. Ecological issues are going to impact everyone, but they affect women in a particular way. Also, the environmental movement is carried by women. The leadership is often carried by men, but the workers are often women.

Q The Washington-based Center for Global Development recently rated Canada last of 27 wealthy countries in the area of environmental protection. The Fifth Estate just reported that the federal government has dismissed over 2,000 environmental scientists. Is there a cover-up going on?

A I don’t know if there is a cover-up going on, but there is certainly a lack of interest. Our government has aligned itself with economics. Canada’s economy is based on ecological extraction. We use the natural world for economic purposes. But they are shutting down anyone who is monitoring the ecological costs of their economic program.

I don’t think it’s a wilful cover-up, but it’s a world view that’s based only on economics and is totally short term. I do think they are aware that if you keep the scientists and give them a public voice, the public will know about the level of ecological ruin.

Q You now work in conflict studies. How does ecology relate to conflict?

A Ecological ruin and violence are becoming connected. For example, China is very aware that there are going to be serious food shortages, so it is doing land grabs all over Africa, Russia, Ukraine — even Quebec. Some countries are trying to buy icebergs. Companies are trying to buy the genetic formula for food. There are governments that are acutely aware of ecological ruin. The United States has a huge think-tank on environmental security, but its answer is to protect resources and militarize. The security forces around water and food are growing. The militarization is carried by private security firms. We have to get serious about training for non-violence, for ecological reasons, among others.

What impact has your research had on your lifestyle?

A I’m feeling more guilty. I feel guilty when I get in a car, even though I have to. It’s just this omnipresent guilt, in spite of the fact that our family lives very simply. But as soon as I say that, I think of people I know who live in intense poverty, so they live even more simply.

Some of my colleagues have refused to travel. I have not. I can feel that coming. I’ve done this work for 25 years. It’s very easy to find despair. I did despair for 10 years. There’s lots of data to make you despair, but I think that’s not a valid road.

Q It’s unsettling.

A Always. [The early Christian theologian] Augustine has this beautiful explanation of hope. Hope is not some kind of utopic, optimistic vision. Augustine says hope is a mixture of anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they don’t remain the way they are. I really like that. It’s my antidote to despair. It’s not that the data has changed; it’s that I have to change in the face of that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

This story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of The Observer with the title “Interview with Heather Eaton.”


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