11 March 2011

Ecofeminists, Anglo-Saxons, and the Sea

What my desk looks like after several days straight of working on an article:
That cup of coffee looks like it's awfully close to the edge, and I'm surprised the sheet of paper at the near edge (a conference registration form) hasn't already slipped to the floor.

A friend I had lunch with yesterday laughed for quite a while when I told her what I was writing about, and then called the subject "outlandish." So today I'm going to try to articulate why I think it's important to write about this subject.

As I write, tsunami waves are racing across the Pacific ocean after engulfing Japan. We live on land, and we don't often think about our relationship with the world's seas, but they cover around two-thirds of the earth's surface, and from them we get millions of tons of food every year. Interestingly enough, about two-thirds of the human body is also water.

The need to think about the sea from the point of view of human environmental impact is exemplified by the BP oil spill, the Pacific Garbage Patch, and declines in fish populations worldwide, among many other things.

Ecofeminist ethicists point out that philosophers have thought about human selfhood in terms of oppositions between human and nature, reason and emotion, for millennia, going back to Plato and re-articulated by Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Descartes, among others. In this view, ethical relationships with others are based upon rights -- to things like life, freedom, the pursuit of individual well-being.

The problem with this is that things in the natural world, being non-human, are not presumed entitled to any rights. This, in turn, leads to the assumption that the non-human world exists for humans to use in their pursuit of individual freedoms.

There's another problem: women are, in this oppositional world-view, identified with emotion and with nature, and are viewed as less rational and thus less fully human than men.

Ecologically-minded feminist ethicists, then, argue that in order to rethink our relationship with the planet, what's needed is a dismantling of the dualist conception of human/nature, male/female, reason/emotion, and so on.

Instead of defining our selves in opposition to others who are different, we need to define our selves -- and our ethical behaviors -- in relationship to others. Instead of beginning with universals and seeing particular situations as tests of those universals, we need to begin with local, individual relationships -- between people, between people and animals, between people and places -- and work out ways of making those relationships reflect mutual respect rather than the assertion of individual rights.

But why do we need the Anglo-Saxons? I'm referring to the people of England between about 600 and 1100, when Beowulf was composed, and before the arrival of the French-speaking Normans.

We need history, because it helps us to understand our current position in the world. The ideas articulated by the English in the year 1000 or thereabouts lie behind the ideas we have today, and can help us understand them both through continuities and through contrasts.

Contemplating the Anglo-Saxon familiarity with the sea as articulated through literature of the time can help us think about our own relationship to the world's oceans today. Thinking about the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons filtered and disseminated the dualisms of Augustine can help us to understand the ways in which our own society still bases legal and social structures on them.

So the study begins with the local, and hopes to encourage a reader or two to think through to the present, to think historically and globally about the fact that humans, too, are a part of nature.