An Embodied Materialist Perspective for Economic Analysis
Ariel Salleh, ed., Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice: Women Write Political Ecology (London: Pluto Press, 2009).
This collection of essays combines the work of preeminent feminist scholars and global justice activists to argue for an eco-sufficient society that fulfills humans’ material and cultural needs without producing social, ecological, or embodied debt. The book’s objectives are to provide a common organizing principle for global justice struggles and to expand the analysis of political economy, ecological economics, and feminist economics to account for women’s reproductive labor and the environment. To fulfill these objectives, Salleh offers an embodied materialist perspective that asserts humans’ embeddedness in nature and argues that reproducing the human-nature metabolism through meta-industrial labor – the non-monetary, regenerative activities of women, peasants, the indigenous, and nature – is more important for economics than the sphere of production and exchange (300). Through insightful case studies and the development of key theoretical concepts, the authors provide an effective epistemological and ontological critique of Eurocentric, androcentric, and anthropocentric approaches to the human-nature relationship. Moreover, the book provides useful starting points for activists and scholars to discuss the potential for social and ecological change.
The book moves between five inter-related themes (Histories, Matter, Governance, Energy, Movements) to show how capitalist production processes (a) extract surplus value from workers (social debt), (b) extract natural resources from the South (ecological debt), and (c) extract use value from reproductive workers who regenerate the conditions of production (embodied debt). The chapters alternate between, on the one hand, “deconstructive critiques” of the gendered and environmental inequalities of capitalist production processes and, on the other, “reconstructive remedies” based in women’s daily experiences and working knowledge.
The book successfully fulfills its objective to expand political economy approaches by exploding false dichotomies between production/reproduction, society/nature, mind/body, etc., that devalue women and nature in economic analysis. The book’s focus on context and interconnection highlights the inadequacies of abstract market-based solutions to gender and environmental inequality that overlook the unique social, cultural, economic, or ecological circumstances of women’s daily lives.
The chapters by Silvia Federici and by Ewa Charkiewicz dispel the myth that domestic work is “naturally” women’s work by tracing the historical separation of male “productive” work from female “unproductive” work. Both authors demonstrate how state control of fertility, the subjugation of women as political actors through the discourse of sovereignty, and the construction of women as housewives has facilitated capital accumulation at the expense of women and nature. Nalini Nayak’s chapter on India illustrates how state policies to compete in the global marketplace have brought about the mechanization of fisheries, which benefits village men while eliminating women’s resource sovereignty and degrading local fish stocks. Zohl de´ Ishtar demonstrates how the US military-industrial complex has contaminated ancestral lands in the Marshall Islands, eliminating their traditional food sources, and increasing women’s meta-industrial labor, as they care for those with radiation poisoning and cancer without access to the resources necessary to biologically and culturally reproduce the Island’s population.
The book also demonstrates how global governance policies focused on market-based initiatives and monetized measures of development create the appearance of gender and environmental equality while failing to challenge existing power structures. Gigi Francisco and Peggy Antrobus show how the UN Millennium Development Goals expand trade liberalization and capital accumulation by incorporating women into low-wage labor, without taking more substantial measures, such as securing women’s reproductive and sexual rights, which would challenge the gender hierarchy. Similarly, Ana Isla’s critique of the Kyoto Protocol shows how mainstream energy policies perpetuate environmental exploitation and generate ecological debt by enclosing land in Costa Rica as oxygen sinks for the North, while eliminating local resource access and destroying traditional livelihoods. Consequently, the North maintains its environmental habits, while local populations, particularly women, are forced into low-wage labor, including the state sanctioned sex-tourism industry.
The chapters on alternatives suggest possibilities for reducing social, ecological, and embodied debt. Susan Hawthorne proposes a “wild economics” to challenge the “rational economic man” of neoclassical economics. “Wild economics” recognize the embeddedness of economic life in time, place, and imperfect localized knowledge and incorporates diverse perspectives to ensure democratic participation and to account for the myriad ways people engage their environments. Andrea Moraes and Patricia Perkins, through an analysis of Brazilian water management, show how local, democratically inclusive movements for new forms of governance provide greater possibilities for women’s participation in decision-making than formal mechanisms, such as quota systems, that do not take into account poor women’s lack of time, childcare, or the education necessary to navigate complex bureaucracies and effectively participate in resource management. Leo Podlashuc’s chapter argues that savings collectives in the global South, particularly the Slum Dwellers Initiative (SDI), reduce the stigma of poverty, build community, and fuel people’s transformative imaginations.
Through the concepts of meta-industrial labor and embodied debt, the book addresses common critiques against eco-feminist assertions about women’s closeness to nature and advances eco-feminist debates along these same lines. The concept of meta-industrial labor shows how women’s socially designated care work puts them at the crux of the human-nature interface. Women’s meta-industrial labor and embodied debt grounds women’s connection to nature in material practices (e.g., securing water supplies to care for sick children) and material consequences (e.g., increased rates of breast cancer from exposure to nuclear fallout).
Salleh’s embodied materialist perspective shows how social and material processes come together to produce women’s connection to nature, as opposed to a spiritual or essentialist connection, as argued by some eco-feminists. The book also demonstrates how social reproduction affects the natural environment, thereby illustrating the value of this concept for understanding social life beyond the household. Salleh has produced a cohesive and impeccably organized volume. The book’s layout emphasizes the analytical and material connections between production and reproduction and between society and nature, thereby highlighting the epistemological benefits of an embodied materialist perspective. Despite Salleh’s mention of taking a “dialectical tact” through the five inter-related themes (Histories, Matter, Governance, Energy, Movements), the book could benefit from a fuller explanation of what is meant by this and why it is an important point. Further explanation would demonstrate how these forces (e.g., Histories – Governance) intertwine to produce social and environmental inequality, as well as how meta-industrial labor has worked (Movements) to transform these processes to produce more favorable outcomes.
One of the difficulties with edited volumes is the decision to include or exclude certain material. However, given the emphasis on complexity and interconnection, the book could benefit from a chapter discussing the interdependence between North and South. Including a chapter on the North would further demonstrate how the capitalist economy functions as a global system with connections between people’s lives in the North and in the South. While Spitzer’s chapter on climate change makes reference to the consequences of neoliberal policies for the North, there is no detailed examination of the impacts of capitalist production processes for meta-industrial labor or the environment in the North, nor is there an examination of the way people’s daily decisions in the North impact the South. How do meta-industrial laborers in the North shoulder social, ecological, and embodied debt? How do capitalist patriarchal social relations compel women of the North (or elites in the South) to participate in processes that have negative ecological and social consequences for women and oppressed groups throughout the world? Are meta-industrial laborers in the North challenging capitalist patriarchal social relations, and are they establishing connections with activists in the South?
Despite the strong theorization of meta-industrial labor and embodied debt for understanding economic life, it remains unclear what an eco-sufficient society might look like or how we might leverage reproductive labor to achieve such a society. The case studies suggest the importance of diversity, local initiatives, and resource sovereignty for metabolic fit, but there is no explicit theorization of how this change might be replicated in other contexts. Would trade and markets be eliminated or re-oriented towards social and ecological goals? Would there be local revolutions or worldwide protest movements? Or both? Should global governance be improved or abandoned all together? Would an eco-sufficient society necessarily be rural or is there room for urban areas? How will leveraging reproductive labor avert military campaigns to secure resources and capital accumulation?
Overall, the book furthers our understanding of the social relations of production that cause social, ecological, and embodied debt, and challenges our understanding of “need,” “satisfaction,” and “sufficiency.” It makes key theoretical contributions to political economy, ecological economics, and feminist economics by capturing the complexity of the human-nature relation and exploding binary views of economic life that perpetuate decontexualized, market-based solutions to gender and environmental inequality. Advanced undergraduate or graduate students and academics in fields that explore the human-nature relation or gender inequality should read this book. Despite any omissions, it provides fruitful starting points for activists and scholars to debate the potential for social and ecological change.
Kristen Van Hooreweghe
Graduate Center, City University of New York