Fresh Air by Emily McVey

Does Feminism have anything to say about the Environment? 

Air pollution is not just an environmental issue but “a crime against humanity” (Irigaray & Marder 2014). The world is currently facing catastrophic global implications that is resulting in the lack of clean air. This has been caused by deforestation, the burning of fossil fuels, the exploitation of agriculture and the emptying of the seas. Through these profit chasing activities humans have lost sight of what it means to be human, to live a spiritual life and develop conjointly with the other. We have rather entered into an economic master-slave relationship, where we are merely means of a working conveyor belt committing acts of environmental crime, all for the value of money. But at what cost? It is clear that we need to quickly rethink our way of life. Luce Irigaray (2013) illustrates that the world’s environmental struggle is not solely economic but rather a struggle we face through life itself; in relation to our relationship with the environment. As such she argues that we need to return to the most important element of our existence, air, breath and our natural origin. When we breathe we become embodied by the air around us. Irigaray states, “The breath is a medium, a mediator, which is essential for a becoming of the relations to ourselves, to the world, to the other” (2013, p. 218). However, what has become of our breath? It is polluted, poisoned and dirty. This lack of cultivation and consideration has resulted in the destruction of nature, the silencing of the maternal body and the immanence and objectification of the woman-mother and the maternal world. Consequently, this essay will examine the role of feminism through the global issue of environmental pollution, and will prove that we need to alter our way of life in order cultivate our breath. This is since, “without a cultivation of our breathing, we do not really exist as humans” (Irigaray, 2013, p. 222).

Luce Irigaray’s notion of the maternal world within the symbolic and Western society reflects humanity’s relationship with nature. To begin with Irigaray illustrates the time before female repression, the relation to the maternal body, the pre-Oedipal phase that is during infancy when “the infant is in the symbiotic relationship with her mother” and for females this is “the point at which […] women have not yet become man-made” (Whitford, 1991, p. 75). Therefore, Irigaray makes clear that within western society, women are silenced and must conform in order to appropriate within the symbolic order. For women to “become man-made” means to repress and deprive women from having their say within western thought (Whitford, 1991, p. 75). Irigaray discusses this in regards to the “murder of the mother”, claiming that patriarchal western society depends upon this notion (Whitford, 1991, p.77). This is since the mother is considered a “threat to the patriarchal symbolic order” (Whitford, 1991, p.77). She states that “The social order, our culture, psychoanalysis itself, want it this way: the mother must remain forbidden, excluded” (Irigaray, 1992, p. 39). As such, women, with respect to the maternal world, are reduced to immanence and to nature. The once whole self within the womb of the mother is overlooked, not celebrated within the symbolic, but rather shunned from this patriarchy. Irigaray reinforces this through an understanding of man’s place within society with the concept of the phallic male, stating that he “becomes the organizer of the world of and through the man-father, in the place where the umbilical cord, the first bond with the mother, gave birth to the body of both man and woman. That took place in a primal womb, our first nourishing earth, first waters, first envelops, where the child was whole, the mother whole through the mediation of her blood” (1992, p. 39). This exemplifies the significance of the mother as essential to life, but she engenders more than children, such as art, language and politics to name but a few, yet she is deprived of satisfying her desires within the symbolic (Irigaray, 1992, p. 43). This is further reflected through the significance of breath, as the means of dependency from the mother when entering into the symbolic, “Only cultivating our breathing can bring us independence from our natural origin. The passage from our dependence on the maternal world to that on the discourse of the father, acting as a law” (Irigaray, 2013, p. 218). This is critical in that through the separation of the mother we are no longer whole, we then become “dependent on nature but also on culture, on others” (Irigaray, 2013, p. 218). Consequently, we have neglected the mother as we have neglected air.

Within western thought women and nature are reduced to object and degraded to immanence. Irigaray articulates this by stating that they are “objects of exchange” (Whitford, 1991, p. 77). Through this repression and degradation women and nature have (not by choice) entered into the master-slave dialectic between their spirituality and the socio-cultural unconscious Western thought of the silenced mother, as well as the industrial, agricultural, money-driven, destructive corporations. Karen Warren describes the universal human logic of domination through the statement, “Whatever has the capacity to…change the community in which it lives is morally superior to whatever lacks this capacity” (2000, p. 51). This demonstrates the universal mind-set of the patriarchal symbolic, the thought of domination caused by a lack of appreciation towards the maternal world and the environment. Lori Gruen illustrates that this exclusion from the symbolic has derived from man’s fear and uncertainty of women and nature. This is since nature can destroy food sources through natural conditions such as hurricanes, and women – associated with the earth – have the ability to reproduce. Consequently, men felt threatened and feared such forces of nature. This caused them to dominate these forces through their sacrifice of women and animals as unpredictable “others” (1993, p. 193). This makes clear where this mind-set of silencing and immanence of women and nature stemmed. Wendy Lynne Lee emphasises this through the statement, “[t]he categories “women” and “animal” serve the same symbolic function in patriarchal society[…]The role of women and animals in post-industrial society is to serve/be served up; women and animals are the used” (2010, p. 200). There is an abhorrent link between the treatment of women and that of nature within global capitalism. Everyday women are exploited, forced to reproduce, enter into the international sex trade, and suffer from domestic abuse along with the expectation of conforming to a woman’s duty. This domination and treatment is reflected through nature and the mass exploitation of animals as agriculture; for means of consumption, which causes a high increase of pollution. Furthermore, there is the kidnapping of animals from their natural environment to be incarcerated within zoos and aquatic abusement parks, here they are forced to reproduce, perform tricks for the pleasure of humans and as such restrained from any natural means of expression (Psihoyos & O’Barry, 2009). Additionally there is the destruction of the environment through the burning of fossil fuels, and deforestation that is causing the lack of clean air. Irigaray signifies the importance of the lack of conservation, sustainability and appreciation when she highlights that we become through nature. This consequently reflects that by destroying nature and the maternal mother we destroy ourselves (2013, p. 223). She further states that “We must come to view the air, the plants and ourselves as the contributors to the preservation of life and growth, rather than a mesh of quantifiable objects or productive potentialities at our disposal” (Irigaray & Marder, 2014, n.p). Ultimately, it can be recognised that there is a clear link between the pollution of the environment, the treatment of animals and the destructive domination over women as positioned outside of the symbolic, and that nature and women are simultaneously objectified.

In order to alter the devastating effects of human impact and lack of clean air there needs to be a change, and such strategies are reflected through feminine critiques of patriarchy. Within the text “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother” Irigaray expresses that there needs to be a disruption of the symbolic in order to challenge the imaginary – the unconscious, both the masculine imaginary and the feminine imaginary (1992). For only that way will women be able to emerge from their excluded state and truly express their values, desires and politics without the repression of the father as law. Also then will nature be able to flourish and grow through the cultivation of air (Irigaray, 2013, p. 218). Irigaray illustrates that this will be achieved if the masculine imaginary acknowledges its relationship with the mother and Mother Nature by symbolising it rather than abandoning it outside western patriarchal thought, through the “the murder of the mother” (Whitford, 1991, p. 77). Irigaray states, “We have to be careful about one other thing: we must not once more kill the mother who was sacrificed to the origins of our culture” (1992, p. 43). This illustrates that through the unconscious notion of the “the murder of the mother”, women are reduced to immanence, and to acknowledge this state of mind is vital in understanding that there is repression and there is need for change in our culture. She also asserts that the feminine imaginary needs to be amended as well to create feminine transcendence. Women need to express their voices, to no longer remain silenced and objectified by men. Irigaray further argues that men and women should both be equally considered as subjects within the symbolic (1992, p. 43). Furthermore, Irigaray believes that we need to cultivate our air as it is central for all that we do. She reinforces this by highlighting that our breath is polluted through the production of carbon gases and chemicals, as means of materialistic ideologies for the value of money; which has become more important than our health and life (Irigaray & Marder, 2014). Irigaray illustrates that in order to change “We must discover a blossoming of life that suits our humanity, a means to grow and to become that does not divide the natural world from the cultural world but links them together. This requires us to turn back our path in order to undertake another way towards our development” (2013, 222). Furthermore, along with women, nature must also enter into the symbolic. Western patriarchal thought must consider the “[…] inclusion of nonhuman animals and nature in its analyses of social and economic injustice […] (Lee, 2010, p. 219). The exploitation of agriculture and the emptying of the seas needs to end. We need to challenge the economy by investing in environmentally certified products and consider our power and water usage (Hajkowicz, 2002). There needs to be a new evaluation of western patriarchal thought for there to be transcendence of nature that will consequently adhere to the transcendence of ourselves.

Overall, it is clear that there is a strong link between feminist critiques of patriarchy, the environmental pollution through our lack of air cultivation and the exploitation of nature. Through an analysis of Luce Irigaray’s thought on the maternal world, the repression of women and the ‘murder of the mother’ within patriarchal society it can be understood that these unconscious mind-sets are further reflected within the cultivation of breath. Irigaray demonstrates the sheer importance of nature and the destructive implications of its abandonment outside of the symbolic through the representation of the degradation of the mother. She reinforces the notion that air cultivation is greatly important for the sustainability of nature and ultimately our own life. Through Irigaray’s thought, this essay has presented ways of altering the symbolic through disruption and the many environmental choices we can make as individuals. Through this, the pivotal message made by Irigaray is to cultivate our breath, in order to grow and live freely.


By Emily McVey

Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Philosophy




Gruen, Lori. 1993. “Dismantling Oppression: An Analysis of the Connection Between Women and Animals”. In Wendy Lynne Lee, “Contemporary Feminist Theory and Activism: Sx Global Issues”. Toronto: Broadview press.

Hajkowicz, Stefan, interview by Robyn Williams. 2002. Greening the Economy (May 19).

Irigaray, Luce. 2013. Breathing with Luce Irigaray . London: Bloomsbury.

. 1992. The Bodily Encounter with the Mother in The Irigaray Reader, Margaret Whitford, ed . New York: Columbia University Press.

Irigaray, Luce, and Michael Marder. 2014. “Without clean air, we have nothing.” The Guardian.

Lee, Wendy Lynee. 2010. Contemporary Feminist Theory. Toronto: Broadview press.

2009. The Cove. Directed by Louie Psihoyos. Performed by Ric O’Barry.

Warren, Karen. 2000. Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on what it is and why it Matters. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield .

Whitford, Margaret. 1991. “Maternal genealogy and the Symbolic” in Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine . London: Routledge.


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