My Past, My Present and My Feminism

Today’s Blogtember prompt: Describe where or what you come from. The people, the places, and/or the factors that make up who you are

A while back I presented a paper at the University of Sheffield Law School’s Post-Graduate Research Day. I did the usual thing and panic near the day about what to talk about. I didn’t have a chapter that I felt near enough to completion to be presented, and I like using this opportunity to do something a bit quirky.

While hiking into a boulder area in Font, the idea came to me: why did I choose ecofeminism as my theory of choice? Why did it appeal to me, and, taking that further, what does my past tell me about my present self? (Jackson 1998). I decided to present on that, using photographs from my past to try and explain why ecofeminism informs my research and how it affects my own stories. So, this post originates from that presentation.

My Past

I grew up in Vancouver. It’s an idyllic place (well, I remember it that way) to be a kid. I did all the kid things: ballet, gymnastics, acting, Arts Umbrella, the Emily Carr institute during the summer break, circus school, choir and school. But, I also did things that lot of kids won’t have done.

We had land on one of the gulf islands where I used to spend most of my summers. We stayed in a caravan on the island, usually in a cooperative where my parents good friends lived and spent the days swimming, canoeing, fishing and playing. Of course, I remember the good bits when it was sunny and hot and care free. I specifically remember learning to swim in a lake. Ever since, I find pools really unpleasant.

However, I think the island and its people were so influential on my interest in the environment. Val Plumwood in her last book (2002) used a concept she explains as nested stories -i.e. – a small story is nested within medium and large stories. Using this approach, I can now see three different stories emerging from being there:-

Photo: CanadianKate

Photo: CanadianKate

  1. Me as a small child, playing in what looks like idyllic water and countryside and probably this experience has led to my interest and enjoyment of the outdoors.
  2. This photo was taken in a provincial park, established to protect the cultural heritage of local Indian tribes. There are defensive (we think) works built by the native Indian tribes on the island. They’re built out of oyster shells. Also, following from this, just outside of the picture are two sets of industries which use the natural resources around the island
    1. Small, artisan oyster farmers and local fisherman. Thus, there is an interest to keep this place as pristine as it looks for economic and cultural reasons which had competing interests with
    2. The massive pulp mill which used timber clear-cut from the surrounding islands to make paper.
  3. At this period in time the Canadian Government issued an indefinite moratorium on cod fishing off the Newfoundland coast. I remember, albeit dimly listening to the different voices and perspectives which were in the media at the time over this approach. This moratorium ‘put about 30,000 people in the province out of work and ended a way of life that had endured for generations in many outport communities. It also made evident the vulnerability of marine resources to overexploitation and that existing regulatory regimes were insufficient to protect cod stocks.’

So here, the small story is of me, playing in beautiful sunshine with my dog, while the medium story is one of mitigating ecosystem destruction and livelihoods within the provincial/national and international context. The large story still ongoing. Thus as a child I was immersed in the ongoing debates concerning fisheries and competing interests that I’m now grappling with in my PhD.

As a family, we canoed a lot. My mother loved being on the water and immersed in an environment. There is nothing closer to the sea than being in a small boat like a canoe or kayak (apart from swimming, obviously). We used to canoe to a pair islets near the island and spend the day on the rocks. They were made of granite and housed immense tidal rock pools. I would swim and play in these, exploring for small little animals and what grew in them. I would swim in the water around the islets, and often, we would surprise a family of seals who were basking on the warm granite rock to the other side of the islet from us.

Photo: CanadianKate

Photo: CanadianKate

To get to the islets, we would have to canoe through a gorge. And anyone who has canoed will know that it can take a long time to get anywhere, especially if you time it wrong and are battling against the tides. This meant that I would spend a lot of time looking at the cliffs at the side of the Gorge and wondering what was up there. Actually, there were Pteroglyphs on the cliff that I used to look out for.  At the same time, because I was very close to the water I could see the coastal ecosystem quite clearly, particularly that just submerged and on the edge of the Gorge.

Looking at these images now, and reflecting on how they may have influenced my approach or understanding of both ecofeminism and IEL, I think this period of time was profoundly important for me.

I spent ages looking at the intersection between coastal and marine ecology. I canoed past artisan oyster farmers in the gorge and due to my proximity and precariousness in a canoe, I got a very up close experience of the sea. Even now, when I’m reading fisheries conventions and other multilateral environmental agreements, the imagery that I have in my mind is often that of the west coast ocean environment.

The last time I went back to the Islets, we passed 2 dead seals on the way there. I don’t remember seeing a dead seal when I was a kid growing up there. I think this is because the Island is becoming so popular with motorboats and tourists rather than its original community of hippies, and similar.

Ecofeminism articulates a situated understanding, or contextual understanding of socio/economic/political and other areas in order to understand and suggest ways to move forward.

So these photos, I think represent the start of my interest in being and tied with the surrounding discussions I outlined in the previous slide – my belief that objective, subject/knower approach doesn’t necessarily reflect all the subtleties and interconnections. Drawing on Code, she suggests that ‘in its epistemological mode, socio-moral-political analysis of the geographical, institutional, and material circumstances, historical events, and climatologically shifts that foster or constrain scientific/epistemic practices are integral to ecological thinking.’ (Code L, Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location (Oxford University Press 2006)

Furthermore, I was growing up in Vancouver during a period when there was immense environmental activism happening both in British Columbia and around the world. David Suzuki’s daughter opened up the UN Convention on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, and who’s speech is still so powerful now.

While I was very young, I listened to CBC all the time (as my parents did) and absorbed some of the debates. I also saw the effects of environmental damage (granted, from a more privileged position than many).

As I mentioned in the earlier slide, there is a pulp mill in Campbell River which was about an hour away  away by ferry. This was one of the big industries in this region of Vancouver Island, along with salmon fishing for the area and also provided beautiful sunsets from the factory. However, what you can’t see in this picture is the vast swathes of clear-cutting which fed into this pulp mill. In the wider context, there was significant campaigning and debates going on, particularly over  in Clayoquot Sound in BC, which was near (in Canadian terms) to the Island. While driving to there, I would pass huge swathes of clear cutting and see the scars on the mountain. While living in Vancouver we would see the houses creep up the mountains and the discussion/debate about where/what to do with encroaching wildlife.

Interestingly, many of the ecofeminists who I read and have integrated into my critical framework from have informed or developed their critical analysis and theory through the activism of what Niamh Moore labelled ‘eco/feminist’ peace movements on the Island. In terms of my current research, her analysis and discussion of how the Clayoquot Sound Peace camp was structured and its ‘celebration’ of grass roots action is particularly relevant due to the international approach of my own research and the corresponding interest of the UN in gender mainstreaming and participation.

Niamh Moore argues that ecofeminism influenced the use of consensus decision-making, and the identification of the group themselves to a place. This too, is similar to my identification with the island that I grew up on, as it too,  was organised through committees and a consensus approach.

My Present

I grew up surrounded by mountains – in BC they were always there. I used to go running with my dad in them. We got lost in them once, which was not fun. In fact, we nearly (but didn’t) come across a bear and cougar when stumbling around. Now, I always bring emergency stuff with me. Although, not so much for bears in the UK! Now, I have a tendency to throw myself down them, cycle up them and enjoy being in that environment.

Ellmau Mountains. Photo: CanadianKate

Ellmau Mountains. Photo: CanadianKate

This picture is of Ellmau in Austria and taken in around 2011. I had started my PhD by this point and like most PhD researches, couldn’t turn off my research brain. This meant that at this time, I now looked around me in two ways, both in the present enjoyable (or terrifying moment) and through the eyes of my research.

I went on a road trip to Ellmau to go all mountain-biking and downhill mountain biking  – both of which were super scary and a helluva lot bigger than in the UK. This meant I was really scared for a lot of it, but the sense of achievement if I only fell off a couple of times was great. This picture at the start of an epic day on the bike. The clouds were still thick in the valley. I think we covered a couple of mountains with big descents in one day.

My Feminism

Looking back, I see the mountains through different eyes. I see the reminder of a really challenging holiday where I had to face my fears of going downhill, fast. And also re-examine what I enjoyed in holidays, but I also see a framework and mesh of different environmental agreements, assumptions and basis for protection.

  • I see the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) agreed at the UNCED (1992) where the eco/feminist movement was ‘celebrated’ but still marginalised – I see this sky which extends in a transboundary way and thus needs to recognise different perspectives/needs and contexts; and also fragmentation by sovereignty.
  • I see mountains and their ‘special ecological’ conditions which have been the subject of a number of provisions in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (1994) , the UNFCCC, and  general documents such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002) Plan of Implementation – but I also see the discourse of ‘sustainable development’ in here – through tourism and the importance of economy/diversity of situation

So through this photo, I can see my past and love of mountains, wilderness and experiences within, and how these inform my academic interest now, and theoretical basis for my research.

I think that many of the experiences that I had when growing up quite probably established the basis of my interest in environmental law. I grew up in a melting pot of ecological/environmental activism – Vancouver during the 90s was particularly an alternative environment.  Clearly the time/place/situation that I grew up in has informed my approach in research. similarly, during the 1990s, Canada was addressing a number of different issues to do with conservation/environmental protection and environmental management – as well as the impact of appropriating the territory of different native American lands.