Eco-Sin: A Feminist View from the Pandemic
Section 1. Introduction
I stared in horror at the dirty grey scars from strip coal mines stretching for hundreds of miles across the Appalachian Mountains. From the aerial view of the documentary film I was watching it was clear that the ruined mountaintops extended across several states. Beautiful gold and scarlet leaves on the trees below the gashes contrasted ludicrously with the ugly, machinery-filled, stair-step granite craters looming above them. As if the missing peaks weren’t obscene enough, brown detritus, discarded soil, and dead trees filled the crevices where valleys and streams once wound their way between the peaks. I heard myself murmur, “This is a sin if ever there was one.”
I was surprised I had uttered that word. I wondered what a feminist—especially one not raised in a strict sin tradition—was doing evoking such a contentious concept. Flashes of Hester Prynne, the vilified unwed mother impregnated by her Puritan minister in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, crossed my mind. Condemned to public humiliation and emblazoned with a flame-red “A” sewn to her dress, Prynne exemplifies the flagrant and hypocritical misuse of sin to promote patriarchal injustice in the name of piety. Although the “sin” of unmarried sex in the novel was shared, only the friendless woman was condemned, while the minister, who both seduced her and served the religion that condemned her, stood silently by.
Feminist theologians’ critiques of the Christian concept of sin also sprang to mind. Among them was Mary Daly’s condemnation of so-called original sin as the “‘cosmic false blaming’ of women in the Christian myth of the fall.” That myth makes a woman responsible for unleashing sin upon the earth through her disobedience and weak character, an act for which all womankind has been punished ever since (Baard 2019, 115). Even worse, based on that premise, patriarchal religions have fashioned a model of God’s earthly order that mandates male control of women’s bodies and behavior and perpetuates the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women in societies around the world. Other feminist theologians, including Valerie Saiving, Judith Plaskow, and Susan Nelson, have objected to prioritizing pride as the most egregious sin of all, as theologians from St. Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr have done (Jun 2001, 60-63). Condemning pride may make sense for quelling the hubristic behaviors typical of patriarchy, including acts of domination and revenge. But condemning pride has a different consequence for women, as it promotes increased humility and submissiveness for an already-disempowered group (Baard 2019, 73).
Finally, I thought, sin seems designed to promote paralyzing guilt. After years of exploring and witnessing the negative impact of guilt on women’s mental health, self-actualization, and social agency—as mothers, as dutiful daughters and members of oppressive religious groups, as victims of abusive relationships, as so-called “sexual deviants” who violate social norms—I wondered again what my mind was doing in this swamp called sin. Rather than internalizing oppressive restrictions, as Mona Eltahawy argues, feminists should be committing “necessary sins” by “disrupting, disobeying, and defying” rules designed to disempower and oppress women in misogynist, patriarchal societies (Eltahawy 2019, 11).
But there I was, confronted with what I could not help but see as a cascade of intertwined environmental and social sins that constitute what I think of as eco-sins, if not against God (for non-believers), at least against humanity, nature, and our species’ posterity. I wanted those eco-sins to be accounted for and the harms repaired. I railed against the deep immorality and reprehensible motives written all over the heartbreaking scene of environmental destruction, from the corporate greed, pride, and slothful negligence that enabled energy extractors to ignore their transgressive wrongdoing, as well as their inexcusable disregard for future generations, to the evil complicity of people who thoughtlessly and negligently use the electricity generated from the forcibly extracted coal. That I am among the eco-sinners implicated in this scenario became clear as a local resident in the documentary remarked, “Every time you turn on your lights, remember this.”
I could not get the wrecked Appalachian vista and the bone-chilling feelings it evoked out of my mind. Indeed, my pronouncement about sin as a fitting descriptor for the environmental hazards that vista signified seemed increasingly apt as I understood how intertwined ecological threats are with other crises—including the failed dream of racial justice in the U.S. and persistent sexism and misogyny that reflect the hierarchical thinking and sense of entitlement that have also allowed powerful people to exploit the Earth. I noted that scholars were using sin—especially original sin—to characterize and condemn those offenses. Historians and cultural analysts often identified white supremacy and slavery as original sins—evils baked into the hypocritical foundations of American democracy. They demonstrated that the U.S. was built on fabricated human binaries, forced labor, and the extra-legal practices and legacies of slavery and Jim Crow (Wallace 2007; Lee 2019). Feminist theologians, too, evoked sin to emphasize the evil power of sexism and misogyny. Rosemary Radford Ruether, for example, asserted years ago that, “we are all the products of the original sin of sexism” (Ruether 1993, 182).
During the current coronavirus pandemic, those sins have been laid bare by COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on essential workers who are predominantly women and people of color. Although the pandemic and the eco-hazards of human encroachment on previously wild habitats that likely produced it, did not create “the circumstances that have brought about health inequities,” it has “severely exacerbate[d] existing and alarming social inequities” (American Medical Association, quoted in Villarosa 2020). Women are at greater risk of persistent unemployment, for example, because of a historically sex-segregated labor force that relegates them to the lowest rungs and most expendable and (in a pandemic) riskiest occupations. African Americans’ disproportionate death rate from COVID-19 is an even more heartbreaking reminder of structural racism in the U.S. (Blow 2020; Eligon 2020; Gebeloff 2020; Gupta 2020).
Why do theorists and historians employ the term sin for these social offenses? Even in common usage, apart from any religious system, sin evokes the direst and most reprehensible of all immoral acts and attitudes. Sin conveys a principled emotional jolt to a person’s vague awareness or willful ignorance, shocking her and requiring both attention and accountability. Sin also connotes the harm that offending acts and attitudes inflict. Sexism and misogyny, for example, have produced what scholars now call an epidemic of violence against women and girls around the world. And the harms of racism range from social discrimination to state sanctioned murder of unarmed black men and boys. Sin declares that such acts and attitudes have horrendous consequences, requiring accountability and reparation.
I suggest that, even beyond religious systems, the idea of eco-sin can provide a moral compass that offers a path forward for pro-ecological thought and action. Sin introduces moral reflectiveness and emotional pain into encounters with or visions of eco-destruction. It invites us to make moral judgments when we witness horrific wildfires engulf majestic redwoods—formerly symbols of natural longevity and stability—or watch ferocious hurricanes batter coastal communities and destroy vulnerable lives. Thinking about eco-sin requires introspection at species, community, and individual levels in order to identify and assume responsibility for the harms environmental catastrophe inflicts on those—humans and non-humans—least responsible for committing it. Reflecting on eco-sin also necessitates understanding the interconnection between committing or colluding with environmental destruction and with the sexist, racist, and misogynistic acts and attitudes that are inextricably intertwined with it. The concept of eco-sin assigns value to the planet and its inhabitants. It cries out for collective moral accountability from those of us who have benefitted from the suffering of other humans and the Earth—and bespeaks a commitment to reparation. If all of this induces some guilt, that could be a good thing. Healthy guilt accompanied by moral reflectiveness and accountability often spurs moral action (Tam 2019).
Feminists have been laying the groundwork for this conception of eco-sin for decades. They have even foreseen the possibility of environmental crisis by moving away from or rejecting conventional theological notions of sin, which they consider androcentric and too likely to isolate the individual from Creation. Instead, they emphasize the interdependence of all existence in the biotic community, as well as humans’ responsibility for guarding and maintaining nature’s balance. Marjorie Suchocki, for example, reinterprets mandates to avoid sin (especially pride) in order to transcend human finitude and approach the infinitude of God by explaining that true transcendence comes “not through isolation from all others, but through relation to all others.” “We do not need to go beyond the realm of nature to search for infinity,” writes Ruether. “This human capacity to find infinity in nature does not simply see creation as an other to transcend . . . overcome or negate, in search for eternity.” Moreover, these theologians argue, every single violation of another’s well-being, including violations of the non-human world, affects all of nature and the well-being of Creation itself (Jun 2001, 3, 64, 66-67, 73).
Secular feminist eco-theorists have also presaged eco-sin’s conceptual foundations by defining human relationships with nature as interdependent, even transcendent. Some have emphasized the importance of honoring and protecting the natural and cultural systems that make life possible, as women’s generous bodies and spirits do. Carol Maso’s speculative novel, Mother and Child, for example, describes a future world that honors and supports birth-givers by honoring the Earth, and vice versa. This new world is epitomized by a future pope who decrees seven new deadly sins; polluting the environment is sin number four (Maso 2012, 211).
Stacey Alaimo admonishes all humans to recognize that our “bodily existence is caught up in material agencies that are difficult to discern, and often impossible to escape.” Alaimo defines this interdependence as “transcorporeality”—a “posthumanist sense of the human as perpetually interconnected with the flows of substances and the agencies of environments” (Alaimo 174, 112, 175). Alaimo’s concept does much to undermine the many binaries, including nature vs. culture, that have masked the interconnections necessary to protect a balanced biosphere on a fragile planet.
The antithesis of these feminist messages about interconnection and interdependence in the biosphere is entitlement, as defined by Sallie McFague: “The natural world with its lifeforms has not been seen as having its health and integrity in itself, for itself, but rather in and for us” (McFague 1997, 33). A sense of entitlement also underpins the interlocking original sins of racism, sexism, and misogyny and ties them to eco-sin. Kathryn Yusoff argues that the Anthropocene—the era of a new geochemical Earth transformed by human activity—began with the extractive values and practices of imperialism that date back to the 15th century. Imperialist economies extracted more than minerals and fuels from the Earth; they also engaged in extractive labor practices, via the “indigenous genocide and erasure, slavery and carceral labor,” of settler colonialism. That imperialist sense of entitlement to the human and natural resources of conquered lands was based on the “division of matter into nonlife and life, [which pertained] not only to matter but [also] to the racial organization of life as foundational to New World geographies” (Yusoff 2018, 5, 106). Similarly, extractive cultures and economies divided life into male and female. European males had a model for their treatment of conquered lands and peoples in their imperious treatment of women, whose material resources, labor, and reproductive capacities they appropriated for their own benefit for centuries.
Overcoming the eco-sin of entitlement requires dismantling such binaries as male vs. female, nature vs. culture, white vs. black, and life vs. non-life that have dehumanized women and people of color and exploited the Earth by commodifying everything. In their place must be a new ontological politics that simultaneously embraces contrasts and differences in interpersonal, social, and ecological relationships. Recognizing that human-imposed hierarchies and relegation of people and resources to the status of commodities impedes human survival, platforms in that new politics could include de-commodifying the commons—health care, education, housing, clean air, and water—and acknowledging that the exploitative ethos of business as usual, based on “cheapened nature and devalued people” (where everything has a price but little has value), is becoming increasingly expensive (Moore 2019).
Reparations: The View from a Pandemic
A feminist and racially just path to reparation for eco-sins should combine historic perspectives on the destructive acts and attitudes that have created contemporary eco-crises with newly evolving perspectives from the coronavirus pandemic. True eco-reparations require prioritizing the interconnectedness of all humans, respecting natural agency, and recognizing the moral worth of all peoples and the value of the non-human biosphere. Eco-reparations require the cessation of eco-destruction, as well as new strategies that facilitate the integration of natural and cultural systems and enhance the well-being of the Earth’s human and non-human inhabitants. Some reparations require new investments to overcome the effects of historic human oppressions, such as slavery, and to restore damaged habitats. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that eco-crises do not respect the social boundaries and hierarchies that humans have established. Our task now is to dismantle those structures and reassess the role of humans on a planet that has as much power to destroy our species as our species has to destroy it, or to make it uninhabitable for future generations.
If the pandemic inspires such a reassessment, then the stage may be set to take responsibility for the environmental changes that enabled the current virus to spread among humans (and could do so again, as “higher temperatures . . . facilitate the introduction of new pathogens, vectors, or hosts,” and increased agricultural irrigation and pesticide use on a warming planet create new “contaminant transport pathways” toward humans, among other biohazards) (Boxall et al. 2009). As a result of the social injustices exposed by the pandemic, perhaps eco-sinning societies can also finally admit that social stratification and discrimination—racism and sexism in particular—have not only endangered the most vulnerable populations but also humanity itself. Even those who have long benefitted from the injustices of the status quo may come to a painful realization: civilizations have historically collapsed one by one, but a continued culture of extraction might take down the whole planet at once.
Eco-sin’s moral valence and implicit demand for reparation gesture toward the importance of a new structure of feeling and acting: recognizing, becoming accountable for, and mitigating or reversing the planetary consequences of extraction—for humans and the biosphere. Perhaps people who once looked like heroes for their wealth and fame will fade in importance as those with the skills, compassion, and willingness to preserve life and promote human and planetary well-being—nurses, caretakers for children and the elderly, sanitation workers, and teachers—gain in stature. Best of all, these new structures of feeling may make people humbler about who or what is really in charge of human survival on the Earth.
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