Elizabeth Bakalyar

Book Review

Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Ed. Women Healing Earth. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY. 1996


Women Healing Earth, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, is a collection of essays by female theologians from the developing world. In this book, these theologians discuss the connections between ecology, feminism, and religion. The book is divided into three sections: Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In each section, a variety of perspectives are drawn upon, including those of indigenous women who practice their traditional religion, indigenous women who were brought up in a more wide-spread religion (such as Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism), and white missionaries who have lived outside of the developed world for a significant amount of time. The overwhelming message of this book is that the ecological crisis is intrinsically linked to the social systems that foster inequality.

In Part I: Latin America, there is a theme throughout the essays about the polar relationship between the male and female counterparts of society as well as the need for a well-balanced and reciprocal relationship between humans and the earth, and humans and their creator. Especially in this part, several times the caveat is made that we do not want to fall into a sense of idealism with regard to the old way of doing things, a sort of “Paradise Lost” mentality. However, there is a general consensus among these theologians that the relationship between humans and the rest of earth has been greatly damaged, and that it needs to be reshaped. For this reshaping, the theologians assert, we can turn to the past for guidance.

The domination of women is equated with the domination of nature. Since women are so linked to nature not only by being the bearers of life, but also by being the ones to whom the responsibility of food and fuel-gathering falls, they are the ones who suffer the most when ecosystems are destroyed. Often, women are also the first ones blamed by development agencies for the destruction of the land and for population growth, even though they often have no real control over either (25-26).

One of the largest issues among Latin American poor has been the breakdown of the family, and two of the essays in this book give us insight into that phenomenon and how it relates to ecological attitudes. Gladys Parentelli reminds us that the mestizo race came about “through the violent rape of indigenous women by white men, men to whom it never occurred to contract marriage.” This new man was “conceived in violence, by rape and in ridicule,” and the culture would never be the same (30). Mary Judith Ress explains this further, citing the work of Chilean anthropologist Sonia Montecinos:

“... if the child born of this union is male, he will never know his father as a role model; his progenitor will always be generic, never a specific man. He will never be accepted by his father's people because of his indigenous blood. Thus, his only concrete relationship will be with his mother as a son; his concept of father is one who only performs the act of helping to conceive a child. If the child is female, she will imitate her mother, a sacrificing, hard-working woman who provides for and protects her illegitimate children, but who is also solitary and self-sufficient. Her role will be defined as “mother,” reproducer and sustainer of life. The mestiza girl will learn to relate to men as a mother to her son, rather than to an adult sexual partner (52).”

What is more, this violent beginning of the mestizo race and the havoc it wreaked on family systems also was detrimental to the indigenous culture. Quoting Brazilian novelist Diego Ribeiro, Ress writes that “We are disloyal children who, although we are rejected by our fathers because we are 'impure,' we have never identified with the race of our mothers (52).” And so we see the beginning of the widespread rejection of the indigenous belief that a human is intrinsically linked to the earth in a dance of reciprocity – a rejection that was not only imposed by the white conquistadores from outside of the indigenous society, but also fomented from within the society by the new mestizos who wanted to try to fit in with their white ancestors. Ress speaks of the need to walk with the feet of “our dark grandmothers (51),” remembering the relationship they had with the earth.

In Part II: Asia, there is a more in-depth analysis of the ways in which so-called development projects have actually harmed the countries they were supposed to help. While this analysis is also present in Part I and in Part III, it is in Part II that we get a clearer outline of what all this might mean.

Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist, sees development projects as all too often a new kind of colonialism, subjugating the “recipient” country financially and destroying its ecology as well as any sort of ecological framework the indigenous religion and culture had to offer (61). She argues that “the privatization of land for revenue generation displaced women more critically, eroding their traditional land use rights, [and that] the expansion of cash crops undermined food production (66).” This displacement of populations and reduction of the ability to produce food has only created more hardship for the poorest of India's poor. Shiva also critiques the scientific method as it applies to business models, claiming that “the ideology of science sanctioned the denudation of nature, [and] legitimized the dependency of women and the authority of men (69).” She especially takes issue with biotechnology, writing that nature is not something that should be controlled (69).

Aruna Gnanadason writes specifically of the hardship induced by poor women upon themselves, in that they are “often the agents of their own resource depletion (76).” Because poor women are the ones to whom the responsibility falls of fetching water and fuel, they are the very people who are over-pumping wells and over-collecting wood for the fire.

But it is the interconnectedness of humans with nature that needs to be reexamined (77), and in order to do this, we must look again at the “world as God's body.” This means that if there is a disease in any part of the world, it is a disease of God's body (91). But in order to do this, we must find new ways to relate to the earth. In order to do this, we must ask the question: “How can culture, spirituality and society be reconstructed for life-giving relations in the wake of the current impoverishment and disintegration of traditional systems of survival (63)?”

In Part III: Africa, we are reminded once again of the intrinsic link between social exploitation and environmental degradation. Social exploitation, particularly in the forms of poverty and racial discrimination, is a key element in the cause of the environmental destruction that has taken place throughout Africa (117, 121).

Denise Ackermann, a white middle-class Christian from South Africa, writes that in order to address poverty, it is not enough to create more disposable income for the poor. Rather, the poor must have access to such basic things as clean water, adequate shelter, waste disposal, heat, light, and communication before disposable income becomes truly “disposable.” Not only does need to happen in order to save streams from pollution and stem the tide of disease, but because people have “a human right to enjoy such services (122).” Ackermann also notes the deep suspicion among the Black community in South Africa regarding birth control, given that white mothers have been told to have more children while Black mothers have been told to engage in birth control measures. She rightly states that it is first-world children who will have a much larger impact on the environment because of their excessive consumption, while third-world children will have virtually no impact in comparison (122). She also notes the irony in the South African policy of apartheid: apartheid actually encouraged higher fertility because of the family fragmentation it induced (122).

Tahira Joyner, a white Muslim also from South Africa, writes of the Muslim concept of khalifa – that is to say, that all men and women are the “vice-regents of Allah on earth (Surah 2:30),” the stewards and keepers of the earth (129). The earth is not to be owned, it is to be cared for. This is a “trust balanced by duties (129),” and not a green light to do whatever a person wishes. Joyner also addresses issues of sexist language within Islam, and states that “the earth can be healed when we celebrate our diversity and understand our total interdependence with one another and every aspect of creation (132).”

Sara C. Mvududu argues that it is not merely overconsumption that hurts the earth, but desperate consumption on the poverty-stricken end. She writes that acts on both sides of the spectrum are to blame for environmental degradation, and that there is a need to develop a “user perspective” when organizing development projects regarding environmental amelioration (144). She also notes that there are “strong positive correlations between high levels of indebtedness and environmental degradation, especially deforestation, and... structural adjustment creates further stress on already fragile ecosystems (146).” Because the structural adjustment programs put in place by the IMF and the World Bank are mostly concerned with extraction (mining, lumber, etc.) and exportation, they are not concerned with ecological conservation and sustainability. Mvududu argues that this perspective must change if the ecology of developing countries is to change for the better.

Hopeful news from this section, however, is that the Association of African Earthkeeping Churches in Zimbabwe has developed tree-planting eucharists (118). Communities participating in these services confess their sin of overuse of the land, and forgiveness and communion are followed by a tree-planting. These communities also advocate for water conservation and agricultural sustainability.

In sum, this book admonishes us that we must change our focus of development from that of financial benefits to ecology, worrying more about the well-being of our world and its inhabitants (24). This means that we must embrace the concept of the world as God's body, and see that “evil is the excess or abundance that is held back and hoarded, whether it be food, land, power, knowledge, or pleasure (21).”

I enjoyed and learned a lot from several parts of this book, but was challenged and at times disappointed by others.

My principal challenge was with the rejection of birth control that so many theologians in this book espoused. Many times, it was seen as an attempt by white, rich northerners to tell women how many children they could have (e.g., 25-26, 122) rather than a genuine attempt to control population and ensure resources for all. Mercedes Cañas writes her disgust at policies that advocate for smaller families, quoting Marge Berer's assertion that “it is inacceptable (sic) to tell women who have few other alternatives to choose to have less (sic) children so they can have a better life. For these women children are the only way they have of being valued as persons (26).” Sara Mvududu quotes a 1987 study by Piers Blakie and Harold Brookfield, writing that “high population pressure is not a cause of environmental deterioration in itself, although it may create stress. It is rather the economic and political marginalizing of the people, combined with the marginalization of their natural environment in a downward spiral (145).” While the latter is most certainly true, if a population is simply too large, it will undoubtedly degrade the land; and we know that those who have smaller families have more money to spend on each child. There is no excuse for not trying to change the social system, in Cañas's case, or for making excuses for society's unwillingness to see the writing on the wall. To bear more children and have them starve to death cannot possibly be less painful than using a condom. I was disheartened that not a single voice in this book advocated for the availability of birth control to impoverished women, and felt that these authors might be totally out of touch with the women about whom they were writing. In my experience in the community of Nicaraguan people I worked with, women were more than eager to find ways to ensure they could plan for children, even if it was only after they'd had one or two unplanned pregnancies. The majority of these women did not have ten unplanned children (though they might have two or three).

In fact, only Denise Ackermann, Tahira Joyner, and Janet May deigned to discuss their social location and admit their middle-class status. It can be inferred that anyone writing well enough to be included in a book is automatically educated enough to do so, and therefore has had access to many more advantages than the people about which they are writing. The problem of ivory-tower syndrome has been brought up many times in liberation theology as it continues to evolve, and I think some of the authors in this book need to take a hard look at whether their views are actually espoused by the communities about which they are writing.

My other challenge was with Vendana Shiva, who described science in general as “patriarchy's project (67).” It is true that science has been co-opted by capitalism to ensure, for instance, that Basmati rice can be patented by Monsanto and then forbidden from being grown naturally by the Indian and Thai people who have been growing it for thousands of years, unless they buy their seed from Monsanto. This, to be sure, is an example of a patriarchal system that has co-opted both science and legality. However, she speaks of the scientific method as intentionally manipulative and sexist and in inherent contrast with the natural order of things and blames it for everything that is wrong with the world. She compares the scientific method to “rape and torture,” inflammatory language that had me rolling my eyes. Even though she had many good things to say, this tirade destroyed a significant amount of her credibility.

However, I found this book incredibly helpful for my own edification, and it was wonderful to read the words of wisdom from so many wise, indigenous people whose beliefs lie outside of my own. Perhaps my favorite thinking point was this one, from Macli-ing Dulag, a famous Kalinga leader: “How can you own something which will outlive you (101)?” Indeed.