Ecowomanist Wisdom: Encountering Earth and Spirit (@theTable: Planetary Solidarity)
By Melanie L Harris.
Ecowomanism is a growing area within the discipline of environmental ethics that promotes earth-justice and combines theo-ethical and environmental ethical analysis with traditional womanist intersectional race, class, gender analysis. In addition to examining how racism, classism, and sexism shape the moral realities and theo-ethical perspectives of women of color, and especially women of African descent, ecowomanist analysis highlights intersectional lines of oppression suffered by women of color and the earth. These “shared oppressions” are important to examine in light of the historical pattern of white supremacist racist and sexist violence against Black women and the realities of climate violence. Similar to the ways in which African and Black enslaved women’s bodies have been raped, devalued, bought, sold, used, and abused so too has the body of the earth suffered for the sake of economic profit. The abuse of Black women is is not just historical fact. In the present day many women of African descent suffer in abusive contexts, relationships and societies and are made to feel stuck or limited – due to the fact that they are unable to find true freedom and liberation due to a variety of societal pressures, economic constraints and systematic realities. The abuse of the earth is also not just a historical fact. We are living in an era when the negative effects of climate change are impossible to ignore.
A subversive stance of resistance lies at the heart of Ecowomanism. Echoing the spirit of the ancestral and ecological knowledge embodied by Harriet Tubman, ecowomanism as an approach simultaneously points to the realities of Black and African women’s experiences navigating oppression while also problematizing the theological epistemologies that frame traditional environmental thought that are arguably shaped by euro-centric, western theories including colonialism that lay dormant until one examines them closely. In this way ecowomanism is an interdisciplinary approach bridging the discourses of environmental ethics and womanist ethics.
At its core, womanist ethics focuses on uncovering the voices of women of color and especially women of African descent who experience, survive, and even thrive in spite of multilayered oppressions. Womanist ethics can also be defined as an approach to social religious ethics that centers the religious, theological, and theo-ethical reflections of women of color and especially women of African descent.
Emerging from traditional race-class-gender analysis, womanist ethical analysis attempts to undo the complicated ways that intersecting oppressions function in the lives of women of African descent. Womanist analysis is deconstructive and multilayered. It uses race, class, gender, analysis to deconstruct hierarchal systems of power and patriarchy. It carefully examines normative ethical codes based on the logic of domination and white supremacy. This kind of womanist analysis helps to debunk untrue myths and false theories regarding the lives, theories, and experiences of women of African descent. Womanist analysis is also constructive in that it seeks to glean wisdom, values, and ethical mores from the stories, lives, writings, and theo-ethical reflections of women of African descent in order to inform new epistemologies. This work helps develop strategies of resistance and survival for the whole of humanity and all of creation.
An ecowomanist perspective acknowledges African, Native American, and Indigenous cosmological perspectives as valid spiritual and religious worldviews with earth honoring ethical systems. For many of these cosmologies the earth is understood as sacred and divine. The words of Pulitzer prize winning author Alice Walker accurately describe this perspective when she writes that she believes in, “Earth as God—representing everything—and Nature as its spirit.” More commonly known as ecowomanism, a womanist spiritual ecological perspective can be described as an approach to environmental ethics that centers the perspectives, theo-ethical analysis, and life experiences of woman of color and specifically women of African descent. These voices contribute new attitudes, theories, and ideas about how to face ecological crises. In addition to investigating cases of environmental racism, ecowomanism embodies a religious perspective that highlights the sacred ties women of color have with the earth and how this relationship informs moral action.
More specifically, ecowomanism helps to uncover patterns and parallels between acts of violence against the earth and systemic patterns of violence faced by women of color. From a religious perspective, this reveals the need for a fresh sense of theological justice, examination of inter-relationality, and a rearticulation of the idea of womanist wholeness that forms a base for an ecowomanist ethic including a value of interconnectedness.
African Cosmology and Interconnectedness
The meaning of interconnectedness is described well in the first principle of the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. It states, “ Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.” Interconnectedness is also reflected in many African religious cosmologies and as such serves as an important base for ecowomanist thought. While it is imperative to be mindful of how ecological colonial assumptions, such as the equation of Africanness to nature must be examined, African cosmology generally presents a holistic perspective. That is, it regards the realms of nature, humanity, divinity, and spirit as interconnected. This ethical worldview adheres to a belief in the interconnectedness of the realms in African cosmology present this ethical imperative for harmony between all realms in the universe as a sacred aspect of everyday ethical life.
Ecowomanism is an approach to environmental ethics that promotes the perspectives of women of African descent and makes a connection between social justice and environmental justice. Contrary to traditional forms of environmental ethics, it takes care to recognize the importance of an environmental justice paradigm, and the significance of strategies of living in an era of climate change from women of color, especially women of African descent and their communities across the globe. Building upon the ethical analysis of womanist ethics, ecowomanism is considered an approach shaped by the third wave of womanism, inclusive of interdisciplinary and interreligious approaches. Finally, ecowomanism is unapologetic in its stance of resistance and it breaks open traditional environmental ethical approaches by focusing on the voices of women of African descent. Previously silenced, these voices, theories and strategies of environmental justice contribute much to the wider discourse of environmental ethics.
 While traditional race, class, gender analysis serves as a traditional frame for womanist ethical analysis, contemporary forms of womanist analysis includes critical examination of heterosexist norms, capitalistic norms, and colonial assumptions.
 Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave McMillian, 2006).
 It is important to note that there is a spectrum of theistic, pantheist, and panentheistic perspectives that coexist in ecowomanism. This will be discussed later in the essay, but for the sake of clarity, panentheistic understands that God is a part of the universe and also transcends it. Pantheist understands God is everything and everything is God. A traditional theistic view understands God to be creator of Earth and nature. Again, the spectrum of these beliefs (and more) is acknowledged in ecowomanism.
 See Alice Walker, “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O’Connor,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), 42–59. See also interpretations of the theme of wholeness written by womanist scholars including Melanie L. Harris, Gifts of Virtue, Alice Walker, and Womanist Ethics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
 D. E. Taylor, “The Rise of the Environmental Justice Paradigm,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 4 (2000): 508–80.
 Ibid., 566–67.
Rev. Dr. Melanie L. Harris is American Council of Education Fellow at the University of Denver and the Founding Director of African American and Africana Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. She is the first African American woman to earn the rank of Full Professor at TCU. Dr. Harris is the author of several books and numerous scholarly articles, including Gifts of Virtue: Alice Walker and Womanist Ethics (Palgrave), Ecowomanism: Earth Honoring Faiths (Orbis) and co-editor of Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation (Palgrave) and teaches in the areas of Christian Social Ethics, Womanist Theology, Inclusive Excellence, and Environmental Justice. Dr. Harris is a graduate of the Harvard Professional Academic Leadership program and has been awarded several prestigious fellowships including the AddRan College of Liberal Arts Administration Fellow and the GreenFaith Black Church Studies and Environmental Justice Fellow. A community leader whose passion for education is linked to a commitment to social and environmental justice, Dr. Harris has also served on as an educational consultant with the Ford Foundation and on the Board of Directors of KERA-TV/Radio in Dallas, Texas, as well as on the boards for several academic guilds including the American Academy of Religion, The Society of Christian Ethics. Currently, she serves on the executive board of the Society for the Study of Black Religion and a consultant for The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning and Learning in Theology and Religion, The Forum for Theological Exploration as well as various theological schools, colleges and universities. Dr. Harris is a trained singer in the Spirituals Tradition and is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Next: Hilda P. Koster, “Trafficked Lands/Fractured Bodies: Sexual Violence, Oil, and Structural Evil in the Dakotas” (Part 5)