Earth Day, Ecofeminism and Racial Injustice in the Year of the Plague, COVID-19

This has to be the strangest Earth Day week, ever. I live in New York. Here, in the center of the pandemic, life is far from normal. 

As an ecofeminist writer, filmmaker and professor, this is usually a “peak week” for me and my students.  Under normal circumstances, we would be preparing for our campus “Earthstock” festival at Stony Brook University, where I teach. We would be creating art and environmental activist installations, showing our short student-made environmental films, volunteering at a local organic farm or marching for the climate in New York City or Washington, D.C.  

My work has been prompted by the efforts of the many women environmental activists and ecofeminists whose stories and writing I teach—Rachel Carson, Wangari Maathi, Winona LaDuke, Wahleah Johns, Greta Thunberg, Jane Goodall, Helen Caldicott, Katherine Hayhoe, Berta Cáceres, Vandana Shiva, Petra Kelly, Lois Gibbs, Sandra Steingraber, Terry Tempest Williams, Octavia Butler and many more. These heroes, writers, activists, scientists, inspire our actions and projects in this historic Earth Day week and beyond.

Earth Day, Ecofeminism and Racial Injustice in the Year of the Plague, COVID-19
Vandana Shiva (left) and Jane Goodall. (@OliviaSydneyFine)

This year, we are on lockdown. I cannot go out and celebrate our earth with my students.

Instead, I meet with my students on Zoom. I open our bi-weekly meetings with, “How are you?” The news is often grim. They fear losing their homes, not having enough food, not having adequate medical care. They fear losing their parents. Grandparents and relatives have died. The single moms struggle alone. One student spends class shrouded in a blanket. Many are sick. The students’ grief and fear are palpable. 

But despite the lockdown, we continue reading, watching films, writing and talking. 

Ecofeminism—a central theme in my work and teaching, as I discuss in my Tedx, “Eco-Grief and Ecofeminism”—helps us make sense of the chaos we are living with now. This feminist eco-philosophy asks us to consider what right humans have to sit on top of nature, to dominate and exploit the land, animals and women and people of color.


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Ecofeminism helps us see that we are all connected, that divisions such as human and nonhuman, are false binaries—and that by harming nonhuman forms of life, we harm ourselves. Ecofeminism asks that we eliminate all forms of “power over,” and that we live in equity with all biotic life.

Poison the earth, we poison ourselves. Harm others, we harm ourselves. Continuing to live in our present system of patriarchal domination and exploitation will ultimately result in our complete self-destruction and ecocide. 

We have not learned this lesson—despite massive evidence showing us the madness of our hubris. We pollute and pollute and continue on a path of eco destruction that is sheer madness, as if we humans are disconnected from where we live.  

What about COVID-19? How does this fit in to ecofeminism?

Animals species are rapidly vanishing, as Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction. Species extinction has to do with human behavior—pollution, habitat loss, poaching, trophy hunting, over-consumption, and (drum roll…) climate change. The ocean is dying, too, as a result of human hubris, and so with it, animals of the sea. 

As Kate Brown notes, COVID-19 probably began in animal “wet markets” in China. The virus is most likely the result of humans and animals living in dense conditions. Brown points out that hundreds of infectious diseases have broken out several thousands of times over the past thirty years, including Ebola, Swine Flu, Zika—all the result of the crossing of species barriers. We also know that factory farms, locations of profound animal cruelty, are breeding grounds for pandemics

Mistreat animals, we harm ourselves.

But it’s not so simple. These high numbers speak to the harmful impacts of factory farming and animal exploitation. They also speak to human poverty. The poor must eat, and when necessary, they will search out wild animals as food or as poaching game, in order to survive.

As Jane Goodall has said, if we are to protect wild animals and their natural habitats, we must also make sure the poor have a means to live. Goodall’s antidote in Africa has been to help build thriving human communities, as this lowers wild-animal poaching rates.  

In other words, an ecofeminist ethic of care, as environmental historian Carolyn Merchant explains, includes caring for people too—all people. Women, people of color, the indigenous, the poor.

Now, with COVID-19, we see the ravages of the intersection of pollution, disease, and poverty, as Native American communities and poor communities of color across the U.S. are the hardest hit.

In a small town of Chi Chil Tah, in the Navajo Nation, near Gallup, New Mexico, Krystal Curley works to help her community through the COVID-19 crisis. She raises funds for and brings food to the needy. She educates her people about the disease and about environmental pollution and the health impacts of uranium contamination. The Navajo reservation is the site of thousands of abandoned uranium mines and pits, many of which remain open and un-remediated. 

Earth Day, Ecofeminism and Racial Injustice in the Year of the Plague, COVID-19
Krystal Curley.

The U.S. government and the nuclear industry have left these poisoned sites with a willful disregard for the health and safety of the indigenous people who worked in the mines and live on these polluted lands. Drinking water sources are also heavily polluted. With COVID-19, there is now an added burden: community centers, which offer drinking and bathing water to those who do not have running water, have been shut down.                      

Curley notes that the town of Gallup—made up predominantly of indigenous people—holds the only hospital for a large area of the population, but this hospital has only six beds in their ICU and very limited services. For serious health issues, folks will need to be flown out to larger hospitals. Only in the past week or so have efforts been made to help and prepare for the inevitable onslaught of disease—and the national guard was just sent in to set up hospital beds in a local school. 

Earth Day, Ecofeminism and Racial Injustice in the Year of the Plague, COVID-19
The 40th anniversary of march for the worst uranium spill in U.S. history, Navajo Nation 2019.  (Heidi Hutner)

Additionally, communication and education of the local people about the virus has been minimal—putting the Native people at great risk. 

Curley says the way her community is being treated is “blatant racism.”

“We already have vast underlying health issues from the uranium contamination and poisoned water and soil, climate change impacts, drilling for fossil fuels,” Curley said. “Nobody cares about the Native people. This never ends. First they try to kill us with colonialism, then they poison us with uranium. Now with COVID-19, we don’t matter. They just want us to die.” 

Earth Day, Ecofeminism and Racial Injustice in the Year of the Plague, COVID-19
The 40th anniversary march for the worst uranium spill in U.S. history, Navajo Nation 2019. (Heidi Hutner)

We see COVID-19 racism in prisons, in immigrant communities and poor neighborhoods of folks of color throughout the nation. 

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as the COVID-19 virus spreads and kills, the elderly, the poor and nonwhite folks suffer the greatest harm. Bodies pile up. The virus ravages black communities, Latinx communities and Native communities—many of which cannot afford adequate medical help or proper distancing, shelter or food. Communities without access to information about the virus and how to take proper precautions. Those with the wrong skin color do not get a fair shake. 

“The fissures of inequality, racism, environmental destruction and suffering are deepening and widening with this virus,” Curley said.  

In Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower—a tale of warning about a world torn asunder from climate change, sexism, racism, poverty and disease—the protagonist’s antidote for the crisis is community building and the planting of seeds. 

This spring, while I social distance, I will plant seeds. After, when it is safe to go out, I will work to build a just world through community. 

Change comes through action. 

What will you do?

To learn about and support Krystal Curley’s COVID-19 work and more, go here


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About

Dr. Heidi Hutner is an ecofeminist writer, filmmaker, and professor at Stony Brook University. To learn more about Heidi’s writing and film projects, go to: Accidents Can Happen: The Women of Three Mile Island, find her on Twitter @HeidiHutner or head to heidihutner.com.