Literature Review

Literature Review

Finding its foundations in ecofeminist theory, and then applying that theoretical basis to contemporary issues of health and responsibility, both human and planetary, and connecting those issues with research, data, and policy, this review seeks to explore how the chronic disconnection of humans from nature has cemented the sense of self in an externalised arena, where the destruction of all for the apparent gains of capitalism has become an accepted norm. While there has been a push back against some of these ideologies, many of these concepts have become psychologically embedded as rights-based issues within patriarchal “power over” systems. The “right” to endlessly consume at the expense of non-human animals, health, and the environment has become associated with happiness and life satisfaction, to the extent that individuals feel personally responsible for environmental and health concerns, yet have little power to affect change. This review also seeks to establish a cognitive connection between human health and environmental health both ideologically and physically, by considering the parallels between biomedicine’s relationship with “alternative” or natural medicine, and capitalism’s relationship with environmentalism, or indeed the environment at large. Examining this subject through the lens of data journalism and data visualisation, to explore how data can be used to express these issues in a vibrant and palatable way which may bring to light that which is often obscured politically and in the mainstream media narrative, both of which are driven by patriarchal structures of power.


Uncovering the root causes of the twin dominations of women and nature is an important discussion for ecofeminist philosophy. These dominations become justified in “power over” belief systems which encourage subordination in language, practice, and in resultant behaviours which utilise and put it into the service of science an industrialised nature which lacks any intrinsic value. Industrialised factory farming, animal experimentation, and meat eating are tied to patriarchal concepts and practices which, by their nature, represent capitalistic utilisation and subordination of living organisms to the goal of achieving economic ends. Ecologically and ethically responsible worldviews therefore become essential to the promotion of the health and wellbeing of all life (“Warren’s Introduction to EcoFeminism,” 2014). The undercurrent of ecofeminist argument posits that the societal framework of patriarchy, through its endorsement of the dualistic self/other distinction, both allows and encourages all kinds of oppression, including that of nature. This political (and indeed psychological) model of widespread oppression is based on difference and division, entrenched by the patriarchal power structure which supports and perpetuates a disconnected sense of self. The disconnected self exists in an individualised society of scarce resources, where state protection is needed due to competition for mere survival. This belief is that which underlines and is intrinsic to these power structures. The interconnected sense of self, conversely, naturally encourages empathy, equality and community, through an understanding of the reciprocal existence of all life (Gaard, 1993).


A paradigm shift to make possible a more equal model of existence for all life requires deep and far-reaching change. Action is needed to this affect change; ecofeminist theory encourages a living, active philosophy where “Ideally, theorists must also be activists” (Gaard, 1993), and emotions and integrity are of more value than material possessions. “The way in which women and nature have been conceptualised historically in the western intellectual tradition has resulted in devaluing whatever is associated with women, emotion, animals, nature, and the body, while simultaneously elevating in value those things associated with men, reason, humans, culture and the mind.” (Gaard, 1993). Ecofeminism rejects this idea of nature/culture dualism through its challenge to the anthropocentric worldview. Disconnection from nature becomes natural within this paradigm, which has led to environmental degradation and the suffering of non-human animals alongside all life on earth. The call for true equality connects the wellbeing of humans, animals and all of nature within ecofeminist thought. The inextricable mutual impacts of these connections are reflected in contemporary research. The interconnections between human, animal and environmental health are clear, particularly when considering the use of pharmaceutical products which are used in a specific environment for a specific purpose, but cannot be contained at their original place of use. Diverse antibiotics, used in substantial amounts in aquaculture for economic reasons, some of which are non-biodegradable and often used in human medicine, remain in the aquatic environment, and have long and lasting consequences for health. The usage of these products has resulted in the emergence of antibiotic resistance in aquaculture environments, and in turn in the bacteria of land animals and humans. Bacterial flora in water has been altered by use of these antibiotics in fish food, resulting in residual antibiotics in fish consumed by both humans and animals. Evidence strongly suggests that antibiotic use in aquaculture use is damaging to fish, land animals, human health and the environment (Cabello, 2006).


(Bloodhart and Swim, 2010) find more generally that systems of hegemonic power and oppression correlate with dominion over and degradation of ecosystems; these cultural systems influence policies to reflect social constructs where self-interest is promoted over the interests of others, and often take the form of hidden behaviours which harm those in subordinate positions rather than overt actions of dominion (Bloodhart and Swim, 2010).  Although male power is maintained by domination, it is the social construct of masculinity which supports and requires this; belief systems that group women and nature together support male supremacy due to hierarchical ideals (Bloodhart and Swim, 2010). An important distinction here is between the male and female (gender) and the “masculine” and “feminine” (social construct/conditioning). These constructs are merely acted out in the psychology of men and women in patriarchal society, they are not (and should not be assumed to be) necessarily the natural state of humanity.


Parallels can be drawn between the mechanistic conceptualisation of nature traced back to the industrial revolution, when nature became the conceptual slave of science (“Warren’s Introduction to EcoFeminism,” 2014), and the biomedical objectification of the body (Ehrenreich and English, 2010), where both systems of power and privilege fail to recognise the holism and interconnectedness of the vibrant living organisms they seek to subordinate, dominate and oppress. The cognitive divide between men and women paralleled with “reason” or science, and nature can be seen in the loss of connection to the perceived “feminine” aspect of healthcare beginning during the 15th century (Ehrenreich and English, 2010). The suppression and subordination of women alongside the intentional destruction of female lay healers documented in ‘Witches, Midwives and Nurses’, was a divide representative of a deeper social, political and economic power struggle for control of health in society. Medicine, the “cure” and science became the privilege and practice of the rich and the elite, while nature, women, “care” and natural medicine was suppressed, undermined and discredited. Female power was feared by the church, which filtered through to “rational” medicine, and institutionalised the sexism still present in healthcare (Ehrenreich and English, 2010). These issues are reflected similarly in environmental terms, particularly if nature is presented as a subordinate to capitalism. The commodification and utilisation of nature for economic gains places nature in a devalued position, with little intrinsic value.


There is therefore a need for the adoption of ‘relational’ values, as a novel approach to thinking about how humans and nature interact with each other. Relational values involving the human collective as a part of nature, rather than as individuals seeing ‘instrumental’ value in nature (being in nature produces feelings of pleasure or fulfilment alongside a belief that nature holds its own intrinsic value) without necessarily acting as if they are an integral part of that thing, or understanding the concept of the stewardship of nature prevalent in traditional or indigenous nature-focused cultures (Chan et al., 2016). Most important is the relationships which give rise to responsibilities for nature, in going beyond management merely for human benefit, but into a more reciprocal relationship with an awareness of the symbolic or spiritual significance of aspects of nature, or of nature as a giver of life, sustenance, and shelter. The relationship that humans have with nature in return for these things is cyclical, interconnected, and mutual; not involving dominance or mere utilisation. Viewing nature in a relational way changes the human relationship with things through our material relationships with degradation. All humans have these relationships with degradation through consumption of natural resources delivered through global supply chains (Chan et al., 2016). The adoption of relational values could extend into humans acting as if all life were interconnected, and subsequently create a much more holistic, responsible, and healthy human-nature relationship. There is a need for “responsible relationships to the products that are increasingly fixtures of “modern” life. Planned obsolescence of many products fosters ephemeral and purely utilitarian relationships.” (Chan et al., 2016). Therefore, investment in relational human-nature relationships and broadly shared values should ensure that environmental decisions will be made with consideration for the reciprocal needs of all life.


The divide between orthodox, modern medicine (biomedicine) and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in a contemporary medical setting has become both polarised and ideological, and reflects the relationship between capitalism and environmentalism, science and nature, and biomedicine and the body. These relationships are dualistic in nature, and seek to dominate and control that which is considered the subordinate of the pair. Anything that is not of the “scientific” model is labelled as “irrational” or “superstitious”, by the biomedical narrative. CAM users are assumed to be stupid, senseless and gullible which is not only unhelpful, it prevents needed dialogue (MacArtney and Wahlberg, 2014). This is not simply a case of one model versus the other, the biomedical model can be accused of being uncaring, with ineffective treatments, negative reactions, and disempowered patients. CAM is misunderstood by the biomedical model, which attempts to permit it only if it can pass incompatible biomedical testing, which is considered “too limited to encapsulate the many aspects of human existence and experiences.” (MacArtney and Wahlberg, 2014). The active CAM participant contrasts with the passive biomedical recipient, (MacArtney and Wahlberg, 2014) which is why many turn to alternatives, there is a sense of self awareness and empowerment in CAM, where “people’s stories of their life figure prominently in the ways they seek to understand experiences of illness.” (MacArtney and Wahlberg, 2014). The lack of this individualised treatment in biomedicine has led to the assumption that a patient who deviates from the specified structure is considered irrational and irresponsible in an “evidence based” model where the patient must be a rational decision maker for the model to effectively function. The highly gendered perception of CAM users (MacArtney and Wahlberg, 2014) ties into the association of the “masculine” with rationality and science, and the “feminine” with superstition and irrationality, which in turn justifies systems of patriarchal dominion by subordinating emotions and the body as things which must be controlled.


Neo-liberalist policies embody a patriarchal ideology by contributing to the demise of nature through the promotion of mastery and individualism, which move away from the relational values previously discussed. “Government policies are promoting economic conservatism, individualism and personal responsibility for one’s own life and health. This neoliberal ideology is attractive to politicians because it (falsely) promises easily quantifiable and achievable results within a short time-frame, is relatively simple, and offers powerful financial incentives for savings in health-care services, especially for people with chronic diseases.” (Laverack, 2012). Laverack discusses the impact of neo-liberal politics and their personalisation of health, which shifts responsibility to the individual while not providing the structures needed to enable personal control over health. Neo-liberal individualism ignores this dichotomy, making collective action psychologically problematic in this environment, which has negative implications for the success of activist movements, particularly considering that a free media, social democratic politics and a strong civil society are needed for health activism to flourish (Laverack, 2012). Neo-liberalist promotion of personal responsibility creates an oppressive political environment for individuals while producing savings for government, prioritising commercial and corporate interests. “Governments are further reducing their responsibility by increasing market choice, transforming national health services into insurance based health-care systems, privatizing medical care and promoting a biomedical model of health as individual behaviour change” (Laverack, 2012). The power and influence of lobby groups, whose investment in counter-activist tactics increases alongside levels of controversy, creates a distinct imbalance of power within a neo-liberal ideology. This imbalance of power is indicative of an entrenched patriarchal environment, where corporate and commercial lobbyists hold far more influence than ordinary citizens (Laverack, 2012).


While there has been a push back against Big Pharma, and a revealing of ethical issues with “illegal marketing by recommending drugs for non-approved (off-label) uses, misrepresentation of research results, hiding data on harms” (Gotzsche, 2012), the pharmaceutical sector still holds huge influence in a system where industry holds unequal power over governments, and governments hold unequal power over communities, individuals, and nature. “The disconnect between the drug industry’s proclamations of the “highest ethical standards,” of “following . . . all legal requirements,” and providing “most accurate information available regarding prescription medicines” and the reality of the conduct of big pharma is vast.” Pharmaceutical companies are a large part of the biomedical model, inextricable from it in fact. “The consequences of these crimes are huge, including the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people and many billions in losses for our national economies every year. As doctors have access only to selected and manipulated information, they believe that drugs are far more effective and safe than they really are. Thus, both legal and illegal marketing leads to massive overtreatment of the population.” (Gotzsche, 2012).  This medical model as a part of a neo-liberal, patriarchal, capitalist ideology is far from promoting true vibrant health. There are clear parallels between the capitalist model of medicine and the degradation of human health, and the capitalist model of growth above all at the expense of the environment.


The intention of this project is to investigate the structures of power and how they impact on the factors above through examination of relevant data. In terms of a means of investigation and exploration of these topics, data journalism encompassing data visualisation will be used, in the interests of using quantitative methods to open certain datasets to the public in a more digestible form, and in comparing relevant datasets to observe patterns and correlations between human and earth health, degradation of the environment and of human rights, oppression of humans (of diverse groups) with oppression of nature. Underpinning the use of this method of digital investigation is the idea of information-liberation (Coddington, 2014), and it could be argued that under patriarchal power, even information is oppressed, in terms of bias, media reporting to serve the business of those funding certain practices, biased research, hiding data if results don’t fit with economic growth or the needs of the funder. Data journalism can therefore be viewed as a means to liberate data, and underlines the ethos of the universal right to access unbiased, raw information and knowledge (Coddington, 2014). Data driven journalism is rooted in a democratic ideal, bringing with it the possibility of making institutions more “responsive and legible” (Coddington, 2014) to the public, and setting free the blandness and inaccessibility of numerical data, thereby allowing it to be presented in a far more realistic, transparent, compelling, and politically unbiased light. Data journalism is built around the idea of bringing issues into the public consciousness, with the journalist accessing, presenting, and providing the data on behalf of the public (Coddington, 2014).