Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 9, September 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Is Ecology Haunted? An Ecocritic Reads Laudato Si'

Doug Sikkema

This article was originally published in Cardus, 23 July 2015

The meaning of “ecology” that ecologists forgot.

The Reluctant Ecologist

I'm not a vocal environmentalist. I've always been turned off by the way environmentalists want “their kind” to toe all the proper party lines. Of course, I want clean water, soil, and air. Who doesn't? But I also love sprawling, noisy cities and interstates. I think oil and computer technologies have done lots of good and can coexist with a robust environmentalism. I think free markets are less a problem than the corrupt hearts of producers and consumers. I'm actually (dare I admit it?) undecided about anthropogenic climate change. All this to say: the more environmentalists depend on the power of identification—of the consensus of their inner ring—the more I find myself retreating towards a quiet scepticism and questioning reserve.

So two years into my doctorate, I'm sure I shouldn't still be asking: How did I end up researching this? This being ecocriticism, a critical method focused on the intersections of ecology and literature. I'm usually leery of such trendy “critical methods,” and the (mis)readings they tend to spawn.

But despite my eco-reticence, I'm hooked. Why?

I blame Dante. A few years ago, I noticed that the more literature I read from the early to mid-twentieth century, the more I found Dante lurking between the lines. Why this fascination with the Florentine poet—this paragon of Christian thought—at the dawn of a post-Christian, secular age? As Christianity waned, writers throughout the century sought alternatives to Dante's transcendently charged cosmos: fascism, socialism, Buddhism, atheism, even the occult; many left Christianity; some went mad, others committed suicide. Yet they were all haunted by Dante's voice echoing through the centuries, demanding a response.

So I read Dante. I journeyed with him to the icy bottom of the Inferno, wound my way up Mount Purgatory, and soared upwards into Paradise, to the still point of the turning world. And it struck me: where premoderns believed God and the heavens were transcendent realities, the moderns believed them to be mere projections of the mind, a quirk of our psychology, some evolutional tic that had once enabled our survival. So after emerging from The Divine Comedy, the cosmology of much twentieth-century literature felt flat and two-dimensional.

But not all of it. When I entered the worlds of the Inklings like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams; the Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot; or (later) the prose and poetry of Wendell Berry, I was given a small glimpse into what it might be like if Dante's cosmology had survived, if we hadn't simply done away with the transcendent, cut the great chain of being.

But to bring this conception of the world into modern ecology is to think outside the consensus of the ecological inner ring. I realized you can't pursue an interest in the understanding of the world in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature without bumping into the environmental movement and, by extension, ecocriticism. This was their turf. Yet the more I read from leading thinkers in the field like Bron Taylor, Timothy Morton, Carolyn Merchant, Dana Phillips, and Greg Garrard (to name just a few), the more I felt claustrophobic within a discourse that wouldn't—almost couldn't—even entertain the possibility that there might be more to the world than, well, the world.

In my reading, I've started to call this “ecology on the x-axis.” It looks outward, never upward. It's cut the y-axis, the transcendent, out of the picture. And I'm convinced that if ecologists are going to teach us how to live well—as they propose—then they need writers (and there are many!) who will help it recover this y-axis. Because such writers are not, as some critics suggest, escapists from the real world; in fact, they might be the only hope we have for properly returning to it—and each other—with charity.

The Meaning of “Ecology” That Ecologists Forgot

To start, it helps to see that ecology without the transcendent doesn't really work as a concept; it tears itself apart at the seams.

Consider Dana Phillips's influential book The Truth of Ecology. This book made waves among ecologists by obliterating beloved and commonly held ecological assumptions that the world is a place of harmony, order, and balance. With iconoclastic verve, Phillips dispels the misguided naïveté surrounding these popular associations—the presumed truths of ecology—and argues that ecology and ecocriticism won't advance until they are purged of such unobservable, unscientific deadwood.

Watch Planet Earth and Phillips's main argument appears to be self-evident. There's enough destruction and carnage from predators, viruses, and tsunamis to suggest that the only unifying principle or pattern underlying this ever-fluctuating world suggest a "fearful symmetry" of some malevolent, invisible "design of darkness."

Yet many ecologists—especially popularizing lay ecologists like Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, John Muir, Jim Dodge, and, we might now add, Pope Francis in Laudato Si'—still cling to the “naïve” view that nature exists in harmonious balance. These writers see patterns and principles that elude the senses. Why? Are they delusional? Misguided? Uninformed? Maybe. Or maybe they remember something carried, but forgotten, in the very word “ecology.”

Do some archaeological digging and you'll find that ecology is an old coin indeed. Its original picture has been worn away, but most still exchange the base metal.

In Nature's Economy, Donald Worster unearths some intriguing truths about this word. First, he notes that “ecology” was only first used in 1866, but the earlier notion of nature's economy (or oeconomy) dates back to 1530 (nearing the time the premodern world would give way to modernity). He goes on: “The study of ‘ecology' . . . was in its very origins imbued with a political and economic as well as a Christian view of nature.” In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, ecology included three axioms: (1) “the Creator had designed an integrated order in nature which functions like a single, universal well-oiled machine”; (2) “Nature is an order expressive of God's kindness toward his creatures, and especially toward man, for whom the creation primarily exists”; and (3) “Each species has been assigned a fixed place in a social hierarchy or scale of being.” The mechanistic metaphor—“the well-oiled machine”—already indicates a certain shift towards Deism, one that would eventually establish a rift between the immanent world of matter and its transcendent Creator. No wonder the idea of an ordered, balanced world seems so odd, if not downright problematic, in our secular, disenchanted age.Yet the harmonious interplay of part and whole is an idea that has survived in the ecological imagination today.

Ecology in the Disenchanted World

Phillips's argument, then, points to how the earth has been “disenchanted.” In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor traces the long and winding and far-from-inevitable history that led to modern disenchantment. While we used to imagine a God involved in the clocklike workings of the world, we began to imagine him merely as the one who wound up the clock. But once this separation between God and his world has begun, it's not hard to cut God out completely until all that's left is this clocklike world. Except now that we've given the clock a fairly thorough going over, we realize that it's much—much—more mysterious and inexplicable than we ever might have imagined. And it takes a certain outmoded innocence to actually see the world as a well-ordered, harmonious mechanism, and not just a wild, chaotic tangle of moving parts with no real pattern the human mind can discern.

So today we live within what Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” a world reduced to naturalist explanations, increasingly closed off to the transcendent. And whether we're aware of it or not (and whether we're religious or not), this frame has shaped much ecological thought in our secular age. This means environmentalists, especially Christian environmentalists, don't get to hop on to the subtraction-narrative bandwagon, lamenting everything we've lost since the fifteenth century—as if dysentery were something to get nostalgic over. We have to admit that disenchanting the world allowed for the possibility of major breakthroughs in applied science (particularly modern medicine) that have improved life. We also have to recognize that the flattening of the world allowed for a really robust look at life on the x-axis.

Yet while we might be grateful for the growing body of scientific knowledge accumulated within the scope of the immanent frame, there are still troubling consequences when we lose sight of the y-axis. As we become increasingly buffered from even the possibility that “something” might transcend our sensible world, we have a much more difficult time really believing that humans are not just another type of animal and the world is not just a place of inert, material resources for us to use up in any way we can.

Laudato Si': Recovering Ecology's Y-Axis

In Laudato Si', Pope Francis attempts something Wendell Berry in his fiction, Annie Dillard in her essays, and even Christian Wiman in his poetry have all attempted in the past decades: to recover the y-axis within ecological thought.

Over a month out from the encyclical's publication it's clear that it was not the progressive eco-manifesto that some had feared and for which others had hoped. Certainly Pope Francis demands—with an unmistakable urgency—that we take anthropogenic global warming seriously, and he minces no words about the looming ecological crisis should we refuse to change our ways. But these warnings are embedded in the much more ambitious project of making some elbow room for Christian thought at the environmentalists' table.

Before we can appreciate—or rail against—Pope Francis's ecological vision, we need to hear the radically countercultural refrain echoing throughout Laudato Si': that our love for the earth needs to be deeply connected to our love for others and, ultimately, to our love for the Creator. In one of my favourite passages from the encyclical, Pope Francis brings this refrain to a crescendo: “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.” In other words, care for the earth is only part of the much broader call to shalom, the recovery of true harmony among God, humanity, and the earth. It is the call to move in rhythm with the intended music of the spheres that sin disrupted.

For Pope Francis, shalom (though he doesn't use the word) is the interdependence and interconnection of natural ecosystems, the built world, social relations, and God. He calls this integral ecology, a move that drastically expands—actually, recovers—the full, premodern scope of “nature's oeconomy.” While there are questionable elements within Laudato Si'—for example, reductionist depictions of free markets, Luddite views of technology—the encyclical's biggest (and often overlooked) success is right here, in nudging us toward a social imaginary—the one that has cut God from the picture—to consider how the transcendent releases us from our “stifling immanence.”

Because what animates Pope Francis's environmental vision is not merely saving the world—non-Christians already do this quite well. He doesn't counteract the problematic otherworldly tendencies of dualist, gnostic versions of Christianity only to subscribe to the (equally) problematic tendencies of monist, naturalizing versions. Rather, his vision of a world in harmony in all its dimensions rests on recovering the paradox that God is both immanent and transcendent. He is at work in the impossible complexity of this-worldly relationships, yet also exists outside them, wholly other.

In a way, the intensified flattening of ecology in the secular age has been helpful. It's helped us understand our deep connections to the earth and our interdependence with all life forms. It's also helped us recover a humbling sense that we are mere dust, embodied creatures who were made to depend on the material world. So we pollute rivers and soil and air at our own peril. We develop technologies and consume material without considering future implications at our own risk. We forget that in a free universe, we don't necessarily have to, but we very well could self-destruct.

Again: one doesn't need to believe in God in order to care for the world. But if saving the world is only a matter of clean air and good food and reduced carbon emissions—that is, if it's only about human survival—it can quickly be untethered from a deeper wisdom that teaches us how to live and be fully human. Pope Francis helps us remember this wisdom. He calls us to meditate on the world in order that we might find out more about the one who made it and us; to be humbled and awed by the mysteries we have yet to grasp; to care for nature as we'd care for the least among us; to restrain our desires and insatiable appetites that are capable of consuming the whole world; to realize that true possession is often in giving, not taking; to think about how our acts reverberate to others in different places and future times. In other words, we need to mute the dominant cultural refrain that we are autonomous, and to listen to what the creation tells us from birth to death: we are creatures made for dependence and relation.

In other words, we are ecological creatures meant to look out on the world around us on the x-axis in ways in ways we've perhaps forgotten. But in the process, Pope Francis encourages, we also can't forget to look up, like Dante looking at the stars, and strain to hear the harmonious music—the creative logos—of the heavens by which and for which the whole ecological order hangs together, and attune ourselves to this music in small individual acts and larger institutional acts that bring the health—a word connected to healing, wholeness, and holiness—of shalom into this world, our common home.


Doug Sikkema is a Senior Researcher for Cardus. After receiving a B.A. from Redeemer University College, Doug Sikkema completed his M.A. in English literature at the University of Ottawa and a Bachelor of Education at the University of Toronto. Doug has taught literature at the secondary level for several years while also teaching introductory courses to the short story, the novel, poetry, and academic writing at Redeemer University College. Doug is working toward a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Waterloo, building his previous work on Wendell Berry and notions of Christian stewardship.

Peace and the Ideology of Greed and Division

Graham Peebles

This article was originally published in
MWC News, 14 August 2015
under a Creative Commons License

War comes about when the conditions that create conflict are present. Ideologies of all kinds, together with the divisive, selfish values that Neoliberalism promotes, encourage such conditions.

We all want peace, don’t we? Peaceful relationships and communities; an absence of violence and conflict: a World at Peace. This is surely everyone’s heartfelt desire. Without peace nothing can be achieved, none of the subtler essential needs of our time, such as feeding everyone and providing good quality health care and education to all – let alone the urgent need to save our planet (S.O.P.), beautify the cities and develop sustainable alternative energy sources.

Despite the fact that we all hanker after peace, there are currently around thirty armed conflicts taking place across the globe – wars in which many hundreds or many thousands of innocent people are being killed. They are not on the whole conflicts between one country and another, not directly anyway, although some may be. Ideology fuels much of the fighting, as well as popular armed resistance to corporate state power, state terrorism and repression. It’s worth saying at this point, that in addition to armed conflict the ‘war’ on independent ‘free’ thinking, true democracy and the freedom of the individual is a constant one. Brutal and unrelenting, it is fought by the ‘Masters of Mankind’ (Adam Smith’s famous term for the ruling elite) against the rest of us, the 99%.

War and armed conflict more broadly, comes about when the conditions for such are present. Remove the causes of conflict – which, we accept, may be intricate – and, logic dictates, peace will come about. Alternatively, manipulate the conditions, distort and pervert information, create fear and suspicion and engineer conflict. Does the current socio-economic paradigm (let’s call it market fundamentalism) encourage the conditions for violent conflict and social tensions, or negate the causes of such conflict?

The Business of War

In order to engage in wars that supposedly nobody wants, weapons are developed, manufactured, energetically sold (often by heads of state on corporate trade missions) and eagerly bought. The jets and tanks, guns and drones are used to destroy and kill - – ‘the enemy’, ‘terrorists’ and those who dissent and agitate – increasingly regarded by governments as the same thing. They are used to create an atmosphere of fear in which control of the people becomes easier. These murderous gadgets add prestige and status to those states that can afford them, and show the world that they are growing’, – ‘developing’, and should be taken seriously.

In democracies the state can no longer use weapons to suppress the people and curtail independence. Here thinking is controlled using the bodies of mass propaganda – advertising, the media, consumerism, and education amongst other national armaments.

Making weapons and associated paraphernalia is big business, perhaps the biggest. In 2014 worldwide expenditure on arms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), was US $1.7 something Trillions (about 3% of global GDP). America is responsible for around 70% of worldwide arms sales and spends as much on the machinery of war as the rest of the developed world combined – US $610 billion (SIPRI 2014).

Why would a government spend 16% of the total US federal budget, on killing machines and supporting technology if it were working for, and wanted peace, or was concerned about addressing social injustice and poverty? After all there are estimated to be around 50 million (15%) Americans living in poverty, people, who, one would imagine, would benefit from some of these funds being pushed their way.

It is a country run by an Oligarchy dominated by Neoliberalism: it has the highest level of Income and wealth inequality of all the industrialised nations (which feeds all manner of social ills from mistrust to homicide); and; whilst its leaders self-righteously talk of peace, democracy and human rights on the world stage, it is said that since the end of World War II, America has launched the overwhelming majority of military operations in the world. In fact according to Scientists Citizens (referring to an article in the American Journal of Public Health), it is responsible for a staggering 201, of the 248, armed conflicts that occurred up to 2001. The renowned American documentary film-maker, Michael Moore, whose latest project ‘Where to Invade Next’ focuses on America’s warring obsession, says, there’s “this constant need it seems to always have an enemy – where’s the next enemy so we can keep this whole military industrial complex alive, and keep the companies that make a lot of money from this in business.”

The desire for peace, that we all supposedly want, runs contrary to the drive for arms sales, and the primary imperative of neo-liberalism - profit and the constant increase of a nation’s GDP figures. Nation states build armies and develop weapons in order to fight wars – to achieve what? Peace, or the extension and domination of an ideology, the raping and pillaging of another country, the justification and growth of an industry? In Capitalism A Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy asks, “do we need weapons to fight wars? Or do we need wars to create markets for weapons? ”

Ambition versus Peace

The current socio-economic system of ‘market fundamentalism’ as Indian writer P. Sainath describes it, is the suffocating paradigm of contemporary civilisation under which all of us live. It has infiltrated every area of living, has caused worldwide inequality on unprecedented levels, reduced everything and everyone to a commodity, sees all people as consumers, all places as markets and is the poisonous hand behind the global environmental catastrophe.

Is it a model for peace? Does it facilitate peaceful co-existence and social harmony? Indeed, are such ideals even relevant within a system that is content to allow men, women and children to die of hunger in their thousands simply because they are desperately poor; where the quality of health care and education someone receives is dependent on the size of their bank balance. Financial profit is the motive driving all action flowing from its pernicious core, and all means are justified by this greedy, short sighted, short term, end.

It is the shiny, noisy face of a materialistic ideology, which dominates all areas of life, and promotes a particular set of values. False values, many of us believe, that are causing a range of destructive unhealthy, social and environmental effects.

The crudest most basic aspects of human nature are emphasised: selfishness, nationalism, individual success and personal fulfilment are all fiercely encouraged, excess championed. Divisive goals tightly knitted together and relentlessly fed by desire, which sits at the agitated centre of the whole structure; a house of cards that would collapse without the constant itch of insatiability and perpetual discontent. And can peace exist where there is discontent?

Ambition (personal and national) together with the competitive spirit is almost mandatory within the confines of such a conditioned space, and as the Indian thinker J. Krishnamurti said, an ambitious man (or woman) “is not a peaceful man, though he may talk of peace and brotherhood”. He was equally damning of competition, saying, “there can be no peace, no enduring happiness for man as long as we – the individual, the group and the nation - accept this competitive existence as inevitable. Competitiveness, ambition, implies conflict within and without”. Ideas shared by Albert Einstein, who maintained that the competitive spirit destroys “all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation”.

Injustice is inherent in the system – of income, wealth, influence and opportunity. It strengthens social divisions, causing tensions, both seen and suppressed and conflict within and without; facilitates concentrations of power and control and its opposite – marginalisation, exclusion and vulnerability, leading to exploitation and abuse. Is peace possible along such perverted lines of living?

Calculated Intentions

War comes about when the conditions that create conflict are present. Ideologies of all kinds, together with the divisive, selfish values that Neoliberalism promotes, encourage such conditions. Given the nature of these ideas and the range of self-interests that support them, it is hard to see how the current system can do anything other than facilitate social conflict and perpetuate war – ‘infinite war’, which Michael Moore maintains is the calculated intention, certainly of the American government.

A range of inherent tendencies exist within us all, many good, some not so positive – violence is one, tribalism and anger others. And yes, there is violence and conflict in our communities because human beings are themselves violent. But the environment in which we live can either facilitate the good, or agitate the destructive elements in human nature. With its inherent injustice, and values encouraging materiality, selfishness, nationalism and desire, the current system feeds and strengthens the negative.

Peace will come about when there is social justice, contentment and trust. All of which are the enemies of the ruling elite. All of which must be repeatedly and relentlessly called for.

Cooperation, tolerance and, crucially, sharing the worlds resources equitably amongst the people of the world, these would go a long way towards establishing social justice and trust, which in turn would help facilitate peace. Such perennial principles of goodness need to sit at the heart of a radically reformed socio-economic model, and in place of the existing divisive ideals, true values inculcated that unite people and evoke the good.


Graham Peebles is a freelance writer and director of The Create Trust a UK registered charity he founded in 2006.  He has run education projects & teacher training programs in Palestine, India and Ethiopia where he spent two years working with acutely disadvantaged children, young people and women in Addis Ababa. His political essays are widely published in leading political journals. He is currently working on a book project about Ethiopia.

The New Ecofeminism:
Fulfilling our sacred responsibilities to future generations

Kaitlin Butler and Carolyn Raffensperger

This article was originally published in
On the Commons, 7 August 2015
under a Creative Commons License

Like toxic waste, injustice accumulates over time – especially when we try to bury it.

(By Herald Post under a Creative Commons License)

The environmental movement is a microcosm of other realms of society in one troubling way: women are missing. In journalism, academia, politics – on climate change, agriculture, and the economy – men are the visible decision-makers and spokespeople.

We’ve been running a political experiment that excludes women. The result is a politics dominated by abstract notions of the economy that neglect the home and the commons. Governments assume their primary responsibility is to grow the economy and protect private property. They interpret the facts using old legal frames, which permit exploitation of people and places. The onus of proof is on communities to prove that an activity is harmful, not on polluting companies to demonstrate it is safe. The ‘free market’ almost always wins.

The experience of communities’ worldwide is that their water, air, soil, and children’s health are disposable for profit. Oil spills, childhood cancers, polluted water systems are not accidents. They are expected outcomes.

Like toxic waste, injustice accumulates over time – especially when we try to bury it. The irrevocable damage is hidden in the futures of our children.

And so we are stuck; aware of the urgency and complexity of the issues we face, and paralyzed or too disillusioned to act. We are stuck because we have been looking for solutions without all of the stakeholders at the table, including women. This affects how we perceive and define the problems, and limits the kinds of solutions that are available.

Our own complicity in the unfolding environmental tragedy can haunt us, leading to what some have called “moral wounds”. These moral wounds, where we know that our transportation, energy, agriculture and medical systems are environmentally bankrupt, and also that we are integrally involved in those same systems, lead to what some call pre-traumatic stress disorder: we see what is coming, we are part of the problem and we have no way to make more ethical choices.

Women know they have been excluded. Exclusion makes it more difficult to take meaningful action, compounding the moral wound. The underlying message to women about helping solve any environmental problem has been to shop responsibly. Use your dollars. Change to energy saving light bulbs. Be the de facto gatekeeper of every purchase for toxic chemicals. But shopping doesn’t work as the sole solution. We tried it. There were too many warning signs, too much evidence of decline and danger.

Women can see the mounting costs to their communities from climate change and environmental degradation. In caring for the aged and sick, women become keenly aware of the increase in disease and disability in children. Women, who gather the water and are responsible for their family’s nutrition, can see the damage to the water and to the land that we share. They see the environmental threats to their children wherever they turn. The evidence is overwhelming: future generations are in danger.

At the same time, women are recognizing that they have unique wisdom to offer; their roles as caretakers bring them close to natural cycles – to birth, death, and resilience, they have stories of survival and different visions for the future. Women’s bodies are the first environments for future generations; our bodies reflect and transmit the toxic state of our collective environment. Women’s bodies bring life into the world and so we have a responsibility to make sure the environment is healthy and whole.

Women also share a collective history – as property, second-class citizens, underpaid employees, and as bearers of age-old violence. And so women have always been disproportionately burdened by structural injustice and environmental degradation. The first phases of feminism were a response to these realities.

Borne out of this history, and given what we now know about the complex environmental issues we face, a new wave of feminism is emerging, predicated not just on claiming rights but on claiming responsibility. This is the crucial difference in this new phase of feminism: a responsibility to act. This responsibility is larger than shopping choices and making small changes in our homes and families. The fierce responsibility is to create the paths to a habitable and healthy Earth. This sacred obligation can only be fully met by making systemic changes, which compels us to do two things: block threatening, damaging policies and technologies, and create new commons-based solutions

A community that unites and stands together to block an oil pipeline or fracking is far more likely to succeed than an individual working alone.  The same goes for creating the commons infrastructure needed for a healthy world—the parks, sidewalks, public transit, clean energy systems. We can’t create a public transit system that reduces greenhouse gas emissions alone, but we can do so together. 

And so, women are coming together—around kitchen tables, on porches, in women-led organizing campaigns, in large gatherings—and withdrawing their consent to a toxic legacy, an unstable climate, the loss of birds, fish, pollinators. They are naming the moral wounds and stepping up to address them. Governance of the people and by the people is dependent on the consent of the governed. Women are no longer consenting to being excluded.  They are no longer consenting to decisions that amount to a theft of the future from generations to come.  In these gatherings they are saying that band-aids on the wounds of the Earth and the body politic are insufficient.  The wounds need to be healed.  They are asking how can we live in ways that restore the commons and allow us to hand them to future generations in better shape than we got them?

Together, women are sourcing new definitions of problems and seeking smart solutions. Women are recognizing that their participation (or lack thereof) is more than a personal demand for individual justice. Our inequality affects not just our lives but those of children and our great grandchildren of all species. And so women are rising up to claim their responsibility and act on behalf of the earth, the commons, and future generations. 

Since 2012 there have been three large gatherings of women that have met to forge new tools and open new paths for this work on behalf of Mother Earth and future generations. 

In 2012 the first Women’s Congress for Future Generations met in Moab Utah and drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Future Generations and the Responsibilities of Present Generations. In 2013, the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit met in New York and released a Declaration that announced that the women of the world were calling for urgent action on climate change. Then in 2014 we convened the second Women’s Congress for Future Generations in Minneapolis Minnesota where we issued the Declaration of the Rights of All Waters. There is more evidence of this movement: numerous women’s environmental organizations such as the Women’s Earth AllianceWomen’s Voices for the Earth and the Women’s Environmental Institute are doing remarkable work on behalf of the Earth and future generations.

Men have a role in this too. In this new phase of feminism everyone shares responsibility for the commons: the moral wound is not women’s alone. We’ve tried some new experiments and new roles for women and men. At the 2012 Women’s Congress for Future Generations, men participated as Sacred Witnesses both to the damage of the Earth and then witnessing the work of the women present. At the second Women’s Congress in 2014, men did not have differentiated roles, but women organized the event, ran the panels, and were the keynote speakers. We are experimenting not only with how to work together but how to take care of what we share in new and creative ways. This is not exclusionary work; this is allowing those who have been excluded for a long time to fulfill their rightful role and to claim responsibility.

Indeed, we know there are cycles and times of change. A woman’s unique authority to be at the decision-making table is not sourced simply by the ability to give birth. Women who are taking care of children will have a unique role in protecting the commons for future generations of all species, which will be different from those who are young and untethered, which will be different from those who are wise elders. There is a place for each of us. And that place may change. But the common thread that ties us is our responsibility.

We honor our foremothers who are the backbone of the feminist movement. Feminist leaders have shown us how to claim our place at the table. This new phase of feminism focused on ensuring a healthy commons for future generations can only come from a new understanding of essential rights. Recognizing the rights of both present and future generations confers on us this responsibility to pass on clean water, clean air, biodiversity, and a stable climate.  

Fulfilling our responsibilities to future generations is hard work. We cannot do the work alone; the moral injury of watching in isolation as the devastation grows is too great. There is power in joining together and withdrawing our consent to the things that threaten life on this planet. There is power in women’s unique skills, vision, and responsibility. There is power and healing in communion.


Kaitlin Butler is project director at the Science and Environmental Health Network and an organizer of the 2014 Women’s Congress.

Carolyn Raffensperger is an environmental lawyer and the executive director of the Science & Environmental Health Network, as well as being a leading expert on the Precautionary Principle.

On the Commons (OTC) is a commons movement strategy center founded in 2001. Through our efforts, we help:

  • Build and bring visibility to the commons movement;
  • Initiate and catalyze commons work; and,
  • Develop and encourage commons leadership.

We believe it is possible to foster a commons-based society, which refers to a shift away from our market-based system, through new, collaborative ways of working.

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