Linnea Dunne sat down with V’cenza Cirefice and Oana Marian from the Dublin Ecofeminists to find out…
It’s perhaps indicative of a lot of things that I spend the day rushing and realise in a panic, only a few hours before our scheduled chat, that I don’t have everything I need to set up the call – back-to-school madness being one of those things, and a late-pandemic society fraught with burnout another.
I make the call on time in the end, and I ask what they’d say if I told them I’m busy enough with women’s rights work, and I simply don’t have time to also worry about the environment right now. “That’s fine, really. Take care of yourself. That’s legitimate – that’s the state of anxiety we live in,” says Oana. I’ve expected her to proclaim that you can’t fight one without the other, that the struggles are inextricably linked, or something to that effect – something to make the term ‘ecofeminism’ make sense. But there’s no urgency in Oana’s voice, none of that fist-in-the-air energy I’ve come to recognise at rallies and protests.
“We need to move away from the individual level, because people can only do so much. Not everyone can be an activist,” V’cenza agrees, but quickly adds: “But if you’re looking at it from a structural point of view, we need to see them as deeply interconnected. That’s what ecofeminism is about – drawing dots between different struggles. There’s a way of looking at the world where the environment is separate from us, a dualism between society and nature. Ecofeminism is trying to move away from that, to try to not put the environment out there as something we need to fix and control and dominate.”
I ask what that means for the struggle, what it looks like. We read a lot about recycling, organic food and fair trade coffee, but it’s increasingly obvious that baby steps are not going to be enough to turn this beast around.
“Individual lifestyle changes are important, but they’re classed and gendered, and you don’t want to put extra care work onto women in households by saying that you need to buy all this organic food and recycle toilet paper and all that,” V’cenza suggests. I’ve spent a week researching beeswax sandwich wraps and other plastic-free ways to send my kids to school with reasonably healthy lunches, and I feel seen. “It’s about collective organising. Holding corporations and the government accountable for what’s happening is super important.”
So what’s actually happening? They talk about oppressive systems: patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism. These structures are at the root of the crisis we’re in. “We’re pushing for system change. It’s intersectional and deeply to do with social justice, not just carbon in the air,” says V’cenza.
It makes a lot of sense, but are there any more tangible examples? “Think about fuel poverty, which is a really big issue in Northern Ireland – worse than anywhere else in Western Europe,” V’cenza continues. “It’s an environmental and a social issue. If you look at it through a gendered lens, this is an issue that’s mostly affecting lone-parent households, and they’re predominately female headed.”
Ecofeminism as an ideology is not far off 50 years old and is, at its core, all about the connection between the oppression and controlling of women and nature respectively. There are different strands, though V’cenza and Oana suggest that not everyone subscribes fully to one strand or another.
Cultural, or spiritual, ecofeminists tend to argue that women have a closer connection to nature than men, either by virtue of their reproductive abilities or as a result of social and psychological structures. Social ecofeminists criticise this stance as essentialist and insist that there’s no natural, innate nature of womanhood, while materialist ecofeminists – sometimes dubbed the middle ground – agree that women’s biology has played a key role in women’s oppression, yet argue that the social, material and political relationships between women and nature are more important.
The Dublin Ecofeminists came about off the back of a conversation at an activist gathering in 2015. As the group’s name suggests, it started in the capital, but the network quickly expanded and now covers all of the island of Ireland, hosting community events and protests and mobilising around issues including housing, reproductive justice, Fridays For Future and more.
“It’s also a collaborative resource, and we share stuff like where to find a good gynaecologist,” laughs Oana, who labels herself a late-comer to the group and mostly works with creative practices and grief work, adding that it’s all very much a collaborative effort: “Everybody in the group doesn’t have the same experience and expertise. This feeling that each person individually needs to be informed about everything to feel like they’re doing something, that’s part of the structure that’s putting everything on the individual.”
In working with a non-hierarchical structure, they’re very much trying to get away from that – and trying to live and breathe the alternative. Indeed, when I first contacted one of their activist pals about a chat, she declined and said that there’d been too much focus on her recently and she would ask the group instead to see who might be up for doing an interview. When V’cenza contacted me, she was quick to say that another ecofeminist would join the call too.
It’s a case of practising what you preach, which comes across as very important. “We don’t want to reproduce the oppressive systems in how we relate to each other,” V’cenza explains. “We take decisions collectively and are very open to collaborations, to sharing and learning from each other. By living that, it’s like a political act in itself; we’re creating the relationships and structures that we’d like to see in the wider world.”
Oana echoes this point. “For me, there’s something about localisation and really understanding these issues in the context of Ireland,” she says. “If you consider your body as the most intimate environment and then the rest of nature extends from that, the vision of the group is to be this abiding support system and for it to continue to regenerate itself, to be not only reactive, but also envision, if we want rid of these oppressive systems, what do we want to put in their place?”
Having grown up in the US, Oana expresses gratitude over living in Ireland and talks about a capacity for tenderness, even where you’d least expect it. “I find it hard to say what it is about society here, but it’s still not fully absorbed into the neoliberal imagination. This idea that everything can be quantified and made into a commodity, there’s a stubborn resistance to that in Ireland that I really value and hope we can embolden in different ways.”
Asked about the fundamental problems they’d like to see challenged, they both come back to that neoliberal imagination. “It’s the root of so many issues,” says V’cenza. “Extractivism, the wearing down of communities, issues around women’s rights – individualising and separating everything. We need to move away from the economy we have at the minute with its constant need for growth, and move towards a wellbeing community, one that values care work.”
It’s hard not to feel exhausted by the sheer thought of it – this mammoth of a mountain we’re supposedly trying to move. But the solution to that feeling of powerlessness is in the collective, says Oana. “Because our education isn’t founded in structural analysis, it can be hard to understand ourselves as part of structures, both oppressive and healing systems,” she says. “But when you feel like there’s nothing you can do, come together with people of similar values. If organising seems scary, join a community garden even. When you start working with a group, the issues that are affecting everyone will arise.”
It doesn’t need to be deep political chats and dense books, V’cenza agrees, adding a sentiment most of us will have come to associate with decluttering in the home: “Find what brings you joy.”
I end up having to interrupt what turns into a fascinating chat about spirituality and the kind of rooted community work that might fill the void, should the religion of consumerism, which perhaps replaced the religion of Cathedrals and mother-and-baby institutions, dissipate. I’m going to be late for collecting my children – which is a case in point, in a way. Finding the language to make sense of burnout, and the things that are keeping us burnt out, will be central to change – it’s part of the work, says Oana. “I’ve found that with the winter swimming groups. Whatever brings you to life is going to help you commit to whatever is important to you. If you’re burnt out, you’re not going to have capacity for anything else. You need to find what brings you joy, whatever makes you feel part of the fabric.”