BY ROCHELLE BLAKEMAN
It didn’t matter whether you were intrigued, indifferent or making a conscious effort to avoid it at all costs, last month’s Veganuary campaign was impossible to miss. Resistance is futile; the idea of a vegan diet has wormed its way into the national consciousness. No longer the preserve of the hippy and the boho chic, the vegan flavour in 2022 is distinctly middle class, stable, decently employed and family orientated. The advertising imagery borders on genius: vegan diets are for sensible, hard-working people who care about their children’s future. Ditching meat, dairy, eggs, fish and even honey is as benign as recycling or switching to energy efficient light bulbs.
Alas, it was not all plain sailing for vegan products. Oatly, to the smug glee of omnivores everywhere, received quite a slap from the advertising regulator, ASA, when many of its claims to being the ‘greener’ product, and its criticisms of the dairy industry as one of the world’s chief emitters, were deemed unsubstantiated and misleading enough for its Twitter ads to be banned. Writers and readers of CSM have been pointing out these truths for some time, and it is refreshing to see that independent observers are starting to notice and to challenge the contradictory claims of the ‘green vegan’.
But something else struck me about the Oatly ad. It said:
What are they implying?
At first, it appears to be a swipe at men and their blunt masculinity. Stubborn Dad ranting about the BBC, totally out of touch with the young people and the kinder, ‘correct’ way of doing things, squirming in his insecurity and emotional ineptitude.
I suspect some male observers are tempted to perceive the slight as aimed solely at them. But hang on a minute: what are Oatly saying, and assuming, about women? The kind, caring, flexible mum who is not stuck in her ways. She worries about the planet and her health, poor damsel. She is smiley, amenable, empathetic and altruistic. She feels and intuits deep down in her heart that oat milk is right, cow’s milk is wrong. She doesn’t come up with questions or excuses like Dad, but nicely, kindly and with her higher, angelic morality, she agreeably adapts to the times, graciously bypassing the dairy aisle and heading instead to her Demeter goddess roots in the oat section, the kind nurturer and gatherer that she is. There we go, fellow carnivorous ladies. We’ve been doing it all wrong, unlike her. Our bloodthirsty ways practically make us men.
This may sound like exaggeration, but there really is thought in green and vegan philosophy which centres women and femininity as key to a greener future, the end of climate change and a more equal, less oppressive world in which humans live in harmony with nature. Like veganism, what began as obscure thought in vaguely academic circles has now become a mainstream idea, whether in the subtle messaging of Oatly’s ad or in black and white recommendations by the U.N. On the surface, it appears wholly pro-female. But dig a little deeper, and this attitude unwittingly reveals a more reductive, backward view of women and, crucially, a thoroughly flawed understanding of ‘nature’, and what living ‘with’ it actually means.
‘Ecofeminism’, a term coined by French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974, is a philosophy and political activism that “examines connections between women and nature” to “re-evaluate” the patriarchal way. A quick google search flags up numerous articles, all of which describe women in the same way:
According to authors in Science Direct (yes, really!), ecofeminism observes that women, nature and animals suffer as a consequence of the ‘masculine’ capitalist social order, including industrialism, modernisation and even science itself. Apparently, science is a ‘masculine’ discipline that has been imposed on women and nature to the detriment of those kind, collaborative, ‘feminine’ qualities of intuition and as much respect for “a snail darter…as a community’s need for water”.
Ecofeminism has at least two schools of thought; one of which purports women and nature to be mystically akin, another of which claims women are ‘closer to nature’ as a result of social conditioning. Either way, both justify these claims in the same crude terms: it is not just because of our kind, intuitive, Snow-White souls twirling through the woods. We also give birth, lactate and menstruate. This makes us ‘closer to nature’, from mother bears to the phases of the moon.
Aside from observations which would likely be deemed highly misogynistic if made by a man, ecofeminism’s core conceptualisation of nature as a natural order that is harmonious, one that men have ‘oppressed’ out of a need to ‘subordinate’, ‘exploit’ and ‘control’, is an urban myth. As many writers have succinctly argued in the pages of this magazine: Sarah Greenwood, John Nash and myself included: those who actually work closely with the wilderness are aware that it is far from sweet. Nature is red in tooth and claw. Humanity’s relationship to nature is not characterised by peace and ease in a Garden of Eden, but in struggle, hardships and a fight to survive. If we share anything with wild creatures, it is not a mystical interconnectedness but the burden of securing food, defending territory, avoiding disease and, sometimes, the need to kill, flee and fight.
Indeed, many of the structures which ecofeminists rail against – hierarchy, subordination and exploitation – are found in nature in abundance. All social animals have some form of ‘pecking order’; beta wolves lower their tails to the alphas; Japanese macaque monkeys are notoriously nepotistic and, whilst lionesses hunt, male lions eat the kill first. The ‘masculinist’ want, as ecofeminists would put it, to destroy, annihilate and utterly dominate is far from uniquely human. Many species see that the strongest few males will father many offspring by brutally dominating and eliminating their competition. From the stags of Richmond Park to the menacing control-freaks that are male Hamadryas baboons, there is no testosterone drought in the animal kingdom.
If you think female-lead species might be natural forces for pleasantries, think again. Matriarchal hyena societies have a strict social order, frequent inter-pack fights and lowly immigrant males must wait years to gain respect. Whilst many female animals have instincts to nurture their young, they also fight, hunt and bite. Not everything is a vulnerable infant. If feminism is to take any inspiration from nature, this should be it. Instead, ecofeminism presents to women a disappointingly naïve conception of nature as the harmless, kind natural order of things which intrinsically befits we lovely, sweet ladies.
But even more grating than D’Eaubonne’s rose-tinted binoculars is her characterisation of women as a single homogenous tribe with the same thoughts, the same feelings, the same outlook, the same life experiences, the same temperament, the same attitude, the same strengths, the same interests, the same left-wing politics and so on and on. Granted: the sexes are not symmetrical and, I say, vive la difference! But the idea that the ultimate female prerogative is to ‘uproot’ all competitive, ‘masculine’ hierarchy and put ‘nurture’ at the centre of everything reduces us almost to parody. This, surely, is the root of all misogyny: the skewed perception of a woman as the sum of her feminine attributes and mothering potential only; not a complex, flawed individual with her own desires, ambition, personality and mind.
The women which ecofeminism claims to be most supportive of – the indigenous and the working rural – are the ones it patronises the most. What do such women, who may be shepherding, farming, hunting and living off the land from Siberia to Kenya, have in common with a life-long Parisian? D’Eaubonne did seem to have a difficult early life. But this does not mean that, in her urban environment, she necessarily had sufficient sense of how savage, restrictive and difficult nature itself can be, and this carries through in her philosophy. Tell a woman in remote Africa who has had her crops utterly decimated by a plague of locusts that nature is ‘kind’: she might look at you askance.
Women in such communities may possess generations worth of knowledge about the seasons, the flora and fauna and how to work with it. They may also welcome economic growth, the use of fertiliser or concrete infrastructure. The “respect for organic processes” is perhaps the most nauseating trope in ecofeminism, seeing women as inherently subservient to natural systems, with no will to influence their surroundings. It tries to convince women that it is turning old chauvinism into a compliment, that a world ruled by us would be a beautiful Shangri-La. What it really implies is that men are the more innovative and capable sex, more predisposed to transcending their situation. It does nothing to shed the prejudice of old and much to reinforce it.
Ecofeminists admit that they look to the ‘ancient wisdom’ of a more innocent past for inspiration. But if they were to time-travel to pre-historic days, long before ‘aggressive’, ‘masculine’ civilisation came along, they might discover that the original feminine was not the passive, essentially vegan gatherer they wish to channel. Archaeological evidence increasingly suggests that female huntresses were a normal occurrence in the ancient Americas. Of course these bad-asses were! It follows that those truly ‘close to nature’, facing the ever-present elements without respite, would have no qualms about securing enough protein and resources to survive.
It is a significant drawback that the narrative surrounding ‘nature’ today frequently paints it as the harmonious, original good which humans (or, in ecofeminist circles, specifically men) have ruined to our detriment. They forget that our relatively comfortable, modern lives would not be possible without scientific discoveries and manipulation of natural processes to our advantage; that a life truly ‘close to nature’ is not a walk in the park but a struggle through a dangerous jungle.
More problematic still is that ecofeminism no longer belongs to outlier enthusiasts. It has been adopted, whether by osmosis or conscious engagement, as an arm of environmental activism, specifically targeting a female audience. BBC Future, The Natural History Museum, Vogue magazine, the U.N: wherever you look, the internet is awash with articles proclaiming women simply to be greener, more vegan, more ‘natural’ than men. They may be well-intentioned, but the dark-age ancestors of these thoughts – superstitions about animalistic, witchy womankind – largely go unchallenged.
Women and girls are thus receiving a strong message: that essential female qualities are always kind, nurturing, altruistic and self-sacrificing. With advertisements and social media pressure, young women especially are being steered from rational debate about climate change, animal welfare and what it really means to be ‘green’. Despite there being no consensus that veganism is the greener choice (indeed, much evidence indicates the opposite), despite it being impossible for a vegan diet to naturally provide sufficient iron and calcium without artificial supplements and despite many climate change policies arguably having adverse effects on the poorest, women are increasingly told that there is no debate, that being ‘environmentally friendly’ is simply the female thing to be.
If eating meat promotes ‘toxic masculinity’; if women are more likely to be vegan because they are more “connected to their emotions” (so a vegan man told a game hunting woman in this clip), it is no wonder that young women might start to think that in order to realise their femininity, to be ‘good’ women, they must, by nature, be ‘green’. Of course, not all women think like this. Equally, not all women will be vegan because of social pressure, but because they have come to their own conclusion that it is right for them. But for the young who are still developing their sense of self, I am not surprised that there is a huge gender divide among teenagers on attitude to meat and dairy: whilst 11% of teenage boys consume below the minimum recommended amount of iron, this jumps to 54% for teenage girls according to the National Diet and Nutrition survey. With women more at risk of iron-deficiency related problems thanks to our biology, this is a concerning figure. But what does an individual’s strength and health matter when animal lives and the planet’s needs are at stake? Don’t be so selfish and cold!
The coercive undertones of the ecofeminist message do not sound so different, to me, from confines of yesteryear which women often found themselves trapped in:
If perchance any disillusioned teenage girls are reading this, I hope it gives you the courage to realise that, no; you do not have to swallow this ever-altruistic woman rhetoric. Your interest in science or competitive streak does not make you masculine. You have all the natural meanness, independence and scepticism necessary to do your own research and come to your own conclusions.
Rochelle Blakeman studied Classical Studies at King’s College London and recently finished a masters in International Public and Political Communication at the University of Sheffield.