In this chapter, the authors reflect on meanings of care through a conversation with Khayaat Fakier and Wendy Harcourt recorded in March 2022. The cross generational conversation weaves around the issue of care in relation to ethics, intersectional justice, feminism and environmental activism. We ask Khayaat and Wendy to share their perspectives on care, reflecting on the feminist roots of their activism, teaching and research.
This wide-ranging conversation circles around meanings of care from different academic disciplines as well as feminist activist practices in order to sketch out some of the diverse understandings of care in feminist political ecology (FPE). The intergenerational conversation is based on questions posed by Marlene, Anna and Eoin, all early career scholars, to Khayaat and Wendy, two teachers and writers who have long been engaged in FPE, one in the Global South and the other in the Global North. Both Khayaat and Wendy have been involved in feminist activism as well as academic institutions and come from different academic entry points to care. The conversation touches on how care has different meanings according to disciplines and experience. It looks at meanings of care from diverse scholarly positions—from feminist economics, sociology, critical development studies, queer ecology and decolonial approaches—in order to consider how FPE research and teaching can be done with care. The responses of the two scholars to the questions posed suggest the ways in which different meanings of care across generations filter into FPE from both a personal and political perspective—including Khayaat and Wendy’s unique way of practising a feminist ethics of care in the classroom. While the conversation is only able to partially cover the importance of care to FPE, it sets out some of the basic questions that FPE scholars continue to ask about the politics and ethics of care towards the human and the more-than-human. We have tried to signpost the different threads in the conversation through sub-titles to help the reader follow how the conversation moved.
Positioning the Conversation
Marlene: As feminist political ecology (FPE) scholars, how do you relate to the different meanings and practices of care?
Khayaat: I relate to care at different levels, from my position as a scholar but also as an engaged human being in society and social movements. As an FPE scholar, I relate to care as a concept developed in feminist literature which raises the questions: How do we value care? Who conducts care? Who should be responsible for care? How do we look at care in public and private institutions? How does care play out in communal activities and as a public good? FPE values care as a fundamental need of humans and societies since we cannot flourish without care. Thus, care encompasses diverse activities including the values that support our mental and political health for social development and the responsibility we have to care for human and more-than-human others so that we may stop thinking of the planet merely as a container of resources. We need to look at what we consume and how we interact with each other and understand care as an ethical practice.
The big question is: what is sufficient for us to live? People experience wide disparities in access to resources and in their experience of sufficiency and replenishment. The relations we have with resources need to be transformed and rebuilt from an ethical practice of care, where care is understood as a fundamental need, value, and activity. I relate to care not only as a concept to study but also as a practice. A care-full practice means that we need to pay close attention to the needs of others and the impact of our actions in our everyday life as well as in our research methodologies. Another important aspect is to avoid extractivism of epistemologies and ontologies. Doing research from an ethics of care involves thinking of research as a process of collaboration with the research participants as well as one’s interaction with peers and negotiation with people in power, inside and outside the academy.
Wendy: As a feminist political ecologist I relate to care, like Khayaat, in various ways. Here I would like to highlight five. First, I relate to care as a principle of how I live my life, thinking through how I care for and with others, retrieving Tronto’s (1993) debate on “caring with others”. This is still an ongoing process through which I am learning individually and with others. I seek to be always aware of my positionality, specifically my race, age and educated class privileges.
Second, we need to discuss the politics of care, which determine who is able to care for whom. In this regard, I edited a book with Christine Bauhardt that built both on feminist political ecology and feminist political economy, examining the politics of care from these two similar but different viewpoints. In the book we look at how the concept of care is not just related to social reproduction but also to caring with more-than-human others and for the planet. There were several interesting tensions around how feminist economists understand care (how to measure the importance of care work) in contrast to feminist ecologists (how to understand relations of care with humans and more than human others)—this is an important debate within feminist theory and practice.
A third important area where I have learnt about care is in conversations around degrowth, where care is seen as a value that can displace economic growth and greed. Engaging with degrowth reflects my lifelong personal, political, and academic struggle with economists and traditional views on economics, since care as a value requires a very different understanding of the economy, labour and intersectional determinants—care is relational and complex.
Fourth, I see care as needing to embrace the more-than-human. Personally, that is difficult as I live in an urban context, embedded in Western-centric, Eurocentric, and human-centric dynamics. So, while I am fascinated by the theory of the more-than-human and how we are entangled in multispecies interactions, in practice I need to be more hands on how to care for more-than-human others. I love to be in nature, but at the same time, I feel at a loss when faced with the harshness of what is happening to our environment with climate change and ecological destruction. When we talk about care for the more-than-human, I know we need to go beyond the image of nature somewhere out there and admit how enmeshed we are in our environment. But in the end what I feel is an unease at caring with and for nature. What does it really mean, personally and collectively, to resist climate change and other socio-natural disasters and crises, particularly as someone living in urban environments? What kind of socionatures do I inhabit and shape?
Finally, coming from Australia as a white settler feminist, I am trying to understand the meaning of caring for Country (a term from Indigenous Australia). Living in Italy and working in The Netherlands since my late 20s, I have lived far away from Australia, but I am shaped by that history. Every visit, I see changes to non-Indigenous Australian politics as more people (mostly on the left) become aware of what Indigenous knowledges can teach them about their environment and the damage white settler life has done. I feel there is much more learning needed if there is to be a meaningful dialogue across race, class and gender around Country. As an ally to Indigenous Australians, I want to learn more about care with Country, even if I am mostly only able to engage virtually and via translation.
Different Understandings of Care in Academic Debates
Marlene: What are the different understandings of care in feminist and environmental justice literature and what are the contradictions?
Khayaat: It is important to understand how sociologists, feminist economists, development scholars, and others look at care, including in terms of the differences among literatures. The difference sometimes lies in how and where we place the emphasis when analysing a problem. If one looks at the sociological literature, the attempt to understand care mostly comes from questioning who and what needs care and who and what conducts care, a perspective found mostly in a sociohistorical and economic approach.
Feminists working on care, such as Jody Heymann (2007), Bridget Anderson (2021), and others look at care as a human concern through the study of maternity. Their work disrupts the idea of a “universal need for care” through looking at class differences and how they shape global care chains. Through looking at care from a social class perspective, feminist economists and development scholars, such as Nancy Folbre (1995, 2014) and Shahra Razavi (2011a), look at the institutions of care; that is who cares and who benefits from care. Other scholars look at care from an interdisciplinary perspective, looking mostly at how care relations are found among people and the environment in everyday life. Wendy’s work comes to mind (2009, 2017), and also Jacklyn Cock’s (2021) and Nora Rathzel’s (Räthzel & Uzzell, 2019), scholars I have worked with that develop an approach to care for the environment. Although these scholars work on the topic of care, there are many contradictions and tensions in their literature that are visible in how they include intersectional issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation as well as the roles that the environment and social justice movements play. In my own work, I try to be more eclectic and therefore more pragmatic. If we're talking about, for instance, the survival of humans and more-than-humans, we need an interdisciplinary approach. We need to work with the contradictions and broaden the dialogue across academic literatures as well as listen to ways of understanding the world outside the canon of academia. We identify these tensions in those who focus on state-centric approaches versus those who take a bottom-up approach and are critical of the state, instead looking to social movements. It is not that one is right and the other wrong; they both have something important to say about the politics of care. We need to bring those perspectives together and work through the contradictions.
Wendy: I am thinking on similar lines to Khayaat about the need to see what different disciplines offer, and how FPE offers a transdisciplinary approach to care. Feminists, whether working in sociology, economics or development studies, examine who is doing the care, for whom and where. What is important is that their studies make care visible and underline how care is crucial to keep our lifeworld going. Economists like Folbre (1994) have asked who cares for the kids and shows how economies need to recognise that reproductive work underscores all productive activity. Razavi's work in gender and development has produced her model of the care diamond (2007) which conceptualises how the provision of care includes the family/household, markets, the public sector and the not-for-profit sector (including voluntary and community provision). Both argue that care (whether paid or unpaid) is crucial to human well-being and to social and economic development, as part of the fabric of society. Feminist economists underline it is important not only to count and measure care but to change economic thinking to revalue care work as crucial to the economy. In another important theoretical move, they also invite us to go beyond household chores to see love and emotions as crucial to everyday life and survival.
Feminist ecologists, on the other hand, speak about care for nature and environmental justice. They critique environmentalists’ focus on conserving biodiversity as more important than peoples’ habitats. As ecofeminists have stated, the question is not are we too many but why are we too greedy? The relationship between population and environment is a complex and passionate debate among ecologists and economists. Haraway’s rallying cry “make kin not babies” proposes that we consider the population question in a different way—not about numbers and scarcity of resources but about the importance of care for more-than-human relations (see the chapter on population in this book). Studies on gender relations and biodiversity by Joni Seager (1993) for example also show the importance of gender, environment and gender relations. She points to the gendered division of knowledge and labour demonstrated through women in different cultures knowing and caring for particular plants and animals. FPE scholars Christa Wichterich and Giovanna Di Chiro have also looked at care in relation to global care chains, environmental concerns around the green economy, and in relation to degrowth (see Chapter 8 on degrowth in this book).
One way to do care-full research is to open up academia to different forms of knowledge through storytelling. Telling stories about how we live with more-than-human others builds on oral traditions. Powerful origin stories remove the dominant western narrative of rational “economic” man and ask us to listen to the more-than-human, paying attention to how humanity is embedded in nature, entangled with the land, water, forests. Post-development scholars like Arturo Escobar (2020) speak of the pluriverse (rather than universe) to recognise the many ways of knowing, and thinking-feeling or sentipensar, as key to knowledge production. Telling stories about the history of place, how place evolves and how we feel and sense those changes, help us to envisage a pluriversal rather than a single, hegemonic story of progress, modernity and development. The historical and ongoing stories of violence in colonial and post-colonial societies in white settler countries and the Global South illustrate how colonial rule and global neoliberal capitalism have not only led to human suffering and exploitation but also planetary suffering. We have created life-worlds that fail to care for people or for the planet: climate crisis, flooding, fires, that make life unliveable. Indeed, sometimes it seems like a form of revenge by the Earth. That might sound extreme and emotional, but I think we do need to add to rational, scientific, and measured analysis the deeper reasons for what is causing our collective fear in order to learn how to care in a more holistic way. If we stay with our emotions and fears and begin to tell other, more meaningful stories about care we might learn to position care at the centre of our lives and move away from the violence of extractivist Eurocentric technoscience.
Learning About Care in Different Social Contexts
Anna: Thank you both for taking our readers on such a nuanced journey through the complexity of understandings of care, and in pointing out how FPE and kindred social sciences are asking uncomfortable questions and unpacking our individual and societal conditioning. Challenging our anthropocentric worldviews can be unsettling and requires humility. But the curiosity to (re)learn other ways of inhabiting the planet also opens up fascinating paths to a more embodied awareness of our more-than-human interdependence. The slogan “We are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself”, endorsed by Indigenous environmental activists comes to my mind here.
Khayaat: When I was thinking about this discussion, I was thinking about embodiment and a very visceral experience of care when we become disconnected from our relation to the more-than-human. I agree with Wendy, we are experiencing a very violent embodiment of a disconnection among the human and more-than-human. If one looks at nutrition levels in South Africa, there is violence due to malnutrition, with people slowly starving. That has a very real embodied impact. The latest research, influenced by COVID-19, is that nearly 30% of children under the age of five in South Africa are malnourished. Not caring for the environment has a physical impact on bodies, as well as mental, social and emotional development. In South Africa a disregard for the impact of extractivism (such as mining and industrial agriculture) on the soil, climate and ecology of food production breaks the caring connections between humans and non-human-others. Not only does this affect the diversity and availability of food and result in under-or malnutrition, but care for the environment is also displaced, and humans become alienated from their more-than-human others.
This is quite significant in South Africa, which is seen as the most developed country on the African continent. South Africa used to be the food basket of the world, but now it holds out begging bowls. One of the important reasons is the influence of industrial agriculture on the country’s ability to feed its own people. We need to talk about a care crisis in relation to industrial agriculture, civil war, the displacement of people and the development of crops which are grown for export rather than feeding people. In our economic growth-driven world, commodities are more important than the sustenance of people. A lack of care by governments leads to a lack of focus on inequality and equal access to nutrition, and to the poor physical health and growth of children, as well as rise of obesity, which goes hand-in-hand with under-nutrition and malnutrition. We need to understand how industrial development processes lead to industrial enclosures, as well as what Wendy mentions: how conservation practices forcibly remove people from their land and stop them from growing their own food or producing food for their country.
These processes of modern enclosure, led by massive industrial forms of production, have also led to an urban bias in policymaking. The creation of a modernised, urban, city dweller,—the industrial labourer or a professionalised worker—is reflected in a rural-urban imbalance. Through the modern development process, citizens are increasingly divorced from an embodied sensory engagement with nature. The modern citizen is removed and remote from nature, an individual whose aspirations, work and sensory experience no longer relate to the more-than-human. We need to regain those relations if we are to find sufficiency.
Marlene: I agree with Wendy that storytelling is important. Her questions around which stories we want to hear, what we want to tell, and who is able to tell these stories are crucial. Storytelling is at the core of a feminist practice, and we need to consider this when thinking about our responses to government policies and responsibilities. We have to be mindful that practices of care take place beyond households and are found in our everyday life and at other scales. The question is, how can we translate practices of care into public policies? What are the core points we should need to tackle if we want to ensure policies of care at local, regional, worldwide levels?
Khayaat: When we talk about social policy, we need to think about different aspects: industrial policy, labour policy and environmental policy. Care in South Africa depends on women’s volunteer work: women perform vital work in caring for the environment, in caring for orphans, for the disabled and for others. Even if paid, they receive an amount which they can hardly survive on, nor can they afford to train themselves to adequately care for the ill, for example, people living with HIV/AIDS, never mind finding out how to practise self-care.
Policy in the Global South looks very different from social policy in the Global North. Reflecting on what Wendy said about Razavi’s care diamond, feminist policy must be about recognising the value that care has for society as a public good, and as a commons. Razavi (2011b) makes a distinction between what happens in the Global South compared to the Global North. Women in the Global North, especially in social democratic welfare states, have been able to develop careers in care, be paid and become emancipated both socially and economically, because the work that they were doing was recognised. This is very different from having care conducted by (women) volunteers. Care work is seen as a side line, even a form of charity. What I would argue is that care should be at the centre of industrial policy and labour policy. When we make social policy about industrial relations and labour conditions, we need to include an understanding of how care for human others and for the environment fit into such policies.
In the Global South, volunteers who are in public works programs are rarely being paid a liveable wage for the very valuable work that they do. What kind of policy could evolve that takes into account better pay and conditions for them? UN Women and the Commission on the Status of Women do take up these concerns in the multilateral space, but it is not a space which is easily accessible to most Global South women, activists or social movements. The value and recognition of care need to emerge from national contexts, where feminist movements put pressure on states by bringing building policy change from the bottom up.
Politicising Our Understandings of Care
Eoin: If care is conceptualised at the global level or scale, what political challenges do you anticipate? How do you suggest they would be navigated and overcome? As we conduct this interview, the international community is preoccupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine—this is just one example of changing priorities shifting the international agenda away from other global concerns. How could this impact interventions that move towards environmental justice?
Wendy: It is probably rather early to reflect on the impact of the Russian war in Ukraine on global politics. But in terms of the everyday responses to the war in Europe, like in the first wave of COVID, people want to do something to show they care. Many European cities have seen demonstrations, collections of clothes and food and money. Many individuals have invited refugees into their home. Even racialized students who did not get the same official support felt students acted in solidarity with them. I think there is a strong sense of caring and solidarity expressed. It comes down to the interesting question of how transnational you can be and whether acting in place is the way to show real care.
On the other hand, at least for those who have access to media and social media in the West, we see how our fears are individualised as people speak of the rise in mental illness. Even the energy crisis (due to war or climate change) is put in terms of the energy bills individuals will pay and the impacts of inflation on European lives. Caring about keeping European consumer rights without a sense of what larger environmental justice concerns are determining the price rises is not the care we are talking about. We need to shift from conceptualising just ourselves to care with responsibility and with others and feeling that, collectively, we have the agency to do something about it. This type of mental shift will be important if care is really to become central to global approaches to the economy, politics, health and the environment.
Anna: I agree, the question of how to make this shift of values happen is deeply urgent. And as Wendy just mentioned, we need to take into account the role of the media. What makes it to the headlines—whether it is war, or social and economic violence in general, the ongoing environmental collapse or the impact of the pandemic—reflects the absence of care for our planetary well-being. I often feel the tension between falling into despair about the present and what-is-yet-to-come, and at the same time keeping hope that changes are happening at institutional levels and in small, everyday actions of care and solidarity.
Khayaat: I think Wendy is correct in saying that it is a bit early to reflect on what is happening now in Ukraine because of the invasion of Russia. But it is interesting to reflect on what happened during COVID; a situation which was so new to all of us. It cut us off from our normal forms of organising, protesting and engaging with the world because of lockdown restrictions. Especially in South Africa, we couldn’t even go outside to exercise, you were limited to your house, in whatever form that took, for several months. Those circumstances amplified the need for care. People wanted to provide care generously even at the cost of their own health. Some women’s movements of community-based carers continued to look after other people in their communities, despite the restrictions on their movements. They battled to be defined as essential workers. Even if they weren’t paid, they didn’t forget the struggle to be recognised and to be valued. They still protested and marched, despite the regulations that people couldn’t gather and people couldn’t be outside in public.
What I learnt from them was how important it was that they stuck to their values, remembering for whom and why they are organising. That is a very small example, and I certainly don’t want to extrapolate it to other contexts, but I think it has a strong message about not losing sight of the value of what movements are doing.
Queer Ecology and Care Otherwise…
Marlene: Talking about the way we engage with the world and also the diverse imaginaries and knowledges we have, I want to raise the topic of queer ecologies. We know that both academic and activist spaces develop diverse proposals to mitigate and tackle the ecological crisis, but these proposals often are heteronormative or they overlook sexual or gender diversities. In this regard, and thinking from a queer ecology perspective, what role should sexual gender diversities play in building a practice of care to contest the ecological crisis we are currently living in?
Wendy: Queer ecology challenges heteronormativity on different levels, it is not just about heterosexual expression and marriage as the norm, it is also about diverse bodies and understanding of different forms of love. Queer ecologists such as Catriona Sandliands (2010) and Greta Gaard (2011) and queer theorist Jack Halberstam (2020) are asking us to recognize that in different species there are many ways of loving and caring. Sex is not just about the male mating a female to produce offspring. It is about fun, play and care with different partners. Queering sexuality is not only about saying same sex is OK but also about multiple patterns of relations and diverse forms of pleasure in communities. Western science and economics have taught us that heterosexuality is the dominant form, reducing love, desire and forms of care for others into narrow heterosexual norms, fenced in by cultural and legal restrictions. In addition, Indigenous writers, such as Kim TallBear (2021) and Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2021), show how heteronormativity has been imposed through colonisation, suppressing the traditional connections between the productive and reproductive sphere of land use. Indigenous women have mobilised politically to protect and care for the land, resisting colonial logics which disassociate people’s connectedness to the earth. There are multiple genders and multiple ways of caring for others in communities which are intergenerational and interspecies.
Queer ecology, then, offers us the possibility to consider different ways of organising and thinking about how to care which go beyond heterosexual relationships and nuclear families to embrace more-than-human relations. However, in terms of the politics of care, challenging restrictive dominant western norms is difficult. Engaging in non-binary ways of thinking means not othering bodies because they don’t have a particular physical mobility, or sight, or hearing. Crip and queer studies recognise there are many forms of bodies. They challenge us to consider the norms and ensure that knowledge is produced in ways that recognize bodily diversities.
It is difficult politics even within feminism. There are some feminists who do not recognise trans women as women. So, in terms of care, it is important to build culturally safe, secure spaces, where we can learn and listen and build awareness of what it means to “other”. People are going to make lots of mistakes because we’re brought up in a certain way of understanding, but we need to hear and learn from diversity. This also requires that we allow space for self-determination and demands for autonomy. It is important to have spaces where people who have been marginalised or othered come in and create trust with each other; spaces where allies are invited in—or not.
Marlene: I totally agree, we all need to go deep in this discussion and learn from diversity and the contestation of our privileges trying to relate carefully with otherwise meanings (outside dominant racialised Eurocentric norms and cis-hetero, able-bodied norms).
Eoin: I was thinking of how the concept of “otherwise” is one of the central tenets of feminist political ecology, and how, as a network, WEGO has been practising care and otherwise knowledges, whether we are thinking otherwise, doing otherwise and imagining futures otherwise. This strikes me as very compatible with the works of theorists such as Sara Ahmed in her thoughts on queer phenomenology. Ahmed (2006) argues that queerness disrupts and reorders social relations by not following accepted paths. This queering or disorientation can put other objects within reach that might not have at first glance seemed possible. I was wondering what strikes you as an exciting challenge for feminist political ecology and practices of care when engaging queer theory, or queer ecology, in your own work?
Wendy: Thank you for bringing in the question of the otherwise, which I have learnt from reading and listening to decolonial feminism, as well as in the ideas of transgression or disruption central to queer theory. It is exciting to consider how otherwise acknowledges the analytical importance of emotions and love, two concepts which have been traditionally placed outside of academic study. I consider that the emotions of grief and loss are at the centre of responses to climate crises, the COVID pandemic and wars. The person who introduced me to queer ecology was Giovanna Di Chiro (a member of WEGO and long-time friend). Di Chiro’s essay on queering environmental discourse on toxic waters and Catriona Sandiland’s understanding of death and loss around AIDS were eye opening to me about how to analyse emotions otherwise because their work allows us to look at the validity of feeling grief and fear (Di Chiro, 2010; Sandilands, 2010). The notion of otherwise also goes back to the importance of storytelling. The power of poetry, visual arts, theatre and film are all just as valid as academic texts in understanding how we care in the world. Queer ecologies invite us to see the validity of imaginative and speculative forms of knowledge (Haraway, 2016).
COVID has also disrupted our sense of the world, both in terms of its embodied impact and how the pandemic changed our way of relating to each other. The pandemic forced us to recognise how important care for humans and more-than-humans is for our overall well-being, as well as how we have come to exist and relate through a global digital world. We’ve learned from that painful time that there is something possible that can emerge in all those online conversations. To me that’s also queering, disrupting the normal hierarchy of the academic text over other forms of learning via experience. All of these video calls we've been involved in have become part of the way we relate to the world too. While that definitely needs more unpacking in terms of who profited from our digital connectivity and who was included or excluded, global virtual technology allowed us to connect and relate during Covid. Lastly, through otherwise conversations, through feminist and queer intervention, we now bring our passions, loves and fears into the academic world. When I was a student, my sexuality, emotions and fears could not be brought into my work. Now there is space to do so, even if it can be painful, and that to me is an important step towards queering knowledge and creating different forms of ecologies.
Practices of Care in Academe
Eoin: That was a really lovely intervention. I especially like what you said at the end-that for something to be exciting it doesn’t have to be this kind of joyful kind of engagement from the very start, it can germinate through painful experiences. I'm wondering what role you think academia can play in opening up space for nurturing practices of care. There seems to be an obvious paradox. On the one hand, the assumption is that the academy is a force for good; on the other hand, it is also part of the problem, given the impact of the neoliberal university, the current mental health crisis among graduate students and the challenges faced by first-generation scholars, who are disproportionately Black students.
Khayaat: I think those are very important considerations, especially if we are to meet the needs of first-generation students and students with different abilities. And I want to pick up on what Wendy was saying about queer ecology. She raises the notion of disruption as a way in which we understand the world, the way in which we engage with the world. I would point to the disruption of hierarchies which is necessary for a care-full university or higher education system. One of the hierarchies is that of age and the assumption that the person who enters the higher education system is a blank slate with no previous knowledge or culture. The kind of university I would like to see would open up and invert hierarchies in order to disrupt the boundaries or the constraints of who belongs in the university and who does not. In the context of the South, universities are for a very select group of people who make it through a not very supportive secondary education system and then find themselves at a university.
We need to bring the university closer to those who cannot access it through traditional meritocracy. Coming back to Wendy’s point about stories and about recognition of the valuable caring activities which already occur in the world, we need to learn from such otherwise visions and aspirations of communities and social movements. We need to bring those aspirations and stories about care much more into the university. I would like to see the university as much more accessible. In our South African context, just hosting a workshop with a social movement at a university venue is quite significant for those movements. It is a recognition by the tertiary education system that the work of the movement is relevant. But the neoliberal university demands financial gain for every activity, so it can be difficult to do such events, important as they are, because movements cannot afford the venue hire.
At a personal level it is empowering for me to be in a classroom and say, “I don’t know everything, but let's come together and let’s talk about what we can all contribute to this space”, because it is scary to be up there as the all-knowing lecturer. So, for me, those disruptions to hierarchy are exciting, and it is tremendously enriching as a so-called scholar or academic to also be learning all the time. We need to think about our pedagogies, how we value and recognize otherwise activities, in order to develop a system of higher education which is more respectful and protective of human dignity, the dignity of its academic members, the dignity of project, administrative and cleaning staff, and students.
If we recognise the cultural differences between first-generation students, the differences of people from different racial backgrounds, we could construct the architecture of our learning spaces as more inclusive. I was shocked to see that people with disabilities cannot access the ISS in the front entrance. There is a system of asking for the front desk to help with a moveable ramp or to go to the back of the building. This is stigmatising differently abled bodies. We also need to think about the people that do the provisioning and cleaning in a university. They are often racialised people. I see that also in my hotel in The Hague. For universities to be caring places we need to reflect where our students are from in the architecture, the food, the accommodation, as well as in our pedagogy and in our learning materials. Similarly, curricula need to reference many different kinds of writing and resources. A question we could ask ourselves is, how much does what we teach link with the experiences of our students? Is there a proper representation of women writers, of Black women writers from different places in the world?
Wendy: To follow on from Khayaat’s important observations of how care should be expressed in universities, I would like to refer to my experience of teaching in ISS, a postgraduate school with people from all over the world. Students are mostly people of privilege: even those who access scholarships from rural institutions in the Global South. However, coming to a European institution is unsettling and difficult, especially for students who are newly or differently racialised in the Dutch context. Over the 10 years I have been at ISS, I see how hard it is to be open and create a safe space for people from very different contexts to learn together. There is a major challenge to move beyond hierarchies both by students and colleagues. I was very happy to disrupt hierarchies including my own position as a white female professor.
I would like to mention three strategies which I think make universities more mindful of care. The first is mentoring. I've been mentored by people of all ages when I joined academia as an older person at 52. These are people who have really helped me work through the difficulties of the university. Secondly is safety. My battle as a student was about sexual harassment when the issue of rape was taboo. I continue to be deeply shocked and concerned that universities still overlook instances of sexual harassment and bullying of all sorts with very little systemic response. How can you be learning when you’re not safe? Lastly, the role of reframing leadership as really allyship. It is important that older (white) “experts” step aside and become allies. I know that's a different way of looking at leadership, to allow for younger people or for people from the margins to come in and change the system. That is a constructive otherwise disruption. Professors should not always be at the front but should step back to give other people space. That sort of allyship means working together collectively. Some of it is happening. I was just listening to a law seminar at the University of Sydney which has changed their curriculum to bring in Indigenous law systems. I want to keep positive about these changes; I don’t want to be all gloom. So even if ISS is embedded in the neoliberal structure, it is still a small place which is trying to do things differently. I am glad to be part of that collaboration.
Generational Differences in Spaces for Co-learning
Anna: You both beautifully expressed how you position yourself within academia and how you see universities as spaces for co-learning. I was wondering if you feel a generational difference in how your students care for themselves, with others, with the world, in this context of multiple crises?
Khaayat: I think that there is a generational difference. The younger generation is keen on disruptions. We talk about “doom scrolling” for instance, but among students of a younger generation it is a way of homing in on issues which are discussed through social media and can be very progressive. What I especially enjoy about the younger generation is how they are transforming politics around the body. For example, the discussion about deciding not to procreate, not to have children; that is much more open now. The whole notion of body shaming, or slut shaming, is also recognised. Students and the younger generation in general are much more eloquent and articulate. I feel that I learn from them. I agree with Wendy that we need to focus on what we can build. It is hopeful that younger people are willing to take on boomer-millennial debates, pushing back on what has come before and disentangling it. Why is it that people of a certain age, of 25–30 years old, cannot afford homes in the same way as people could 30 years ago? This issue has implications for care, since giving quality care is made more difficult without appropriate shelter and housing.
I want to comment on allyship. I think it’s very important in terms of our political activism and our political existence. We have people with very different experiences and whether we're talking about sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, race, class and so on, I think we need to take seriously what Wendy has said about allyship. Being an ally sometimes means just listening, and not trying to conceptualise or reframe what the person is saying and to understand that sometimes we have nothing to say, we have nothing to contribute, but we can listen.
Wendy: There are generational differences, and I am always learning from young people. It is not just because you have more years that you are by default wiser. For example, younger people deal with body politics and with leadership differently than I did when I was young. I feel that progressive people in my generation opted out of mainstream politics, and we left the system to the people that have then made it even more of a mess. I regret that choice. I realise now we are the system, and we do need to be part of it and be responsible for it. I am sad personally when students don’t challenge me when I give lectures, and I hear later that people were too afraid to ask me because I was the professor. And I always think oh, but how could someone be scared of me? Then I recognize that it is about hierarchies- in universities they are difficult to disrupt and I need to be creative and find other ways to be available.
Returning to the Word “Care”
Anna: Our last question is about the word care itself. Care certainly has become more and more prominent both in academic discussions and activist circles, and more recently so in the context of COVID-19, when people were clapping for caregivers and there was a moment of hope that maybe the world would give much more value to caring practices. However, people—and institutions—care in many different and even conflicting ways. I find the word care quite fascinating because it embraces so many connotations. And it can even have meanings that conflict totally with what we would call a feminist ethics of care, if we consider for example how anti-abortionists care deeply about the foetus or white supremacists care deeply about the white race. We also had very interesting discussions within WEGO with some people in our network feeling much more comfortable with care as a concept than others. Probably there is no one single definition or set of values attached to care, and I think it became very clear during this conversation that there are so many ways to approach it both theoretically and conceptually but also in daily caring practices. Do you sometimes wonder if ‘care’ is too broad a word that might hold many contentious meanings and runs the risk of being mainstreamed and “softwashed” or co-opted by agendas opposed to what we might consider a feminist ethic and practice of care? Or do you rather say this is precisely why we take a stance to claim a feminist understanding of care—holding its inherent contradictions and difficult questions, such as how our caring might create unequal power relations and exclusions on its own?
Wendy: We’re susceptible to social media and what the media says is important to care about, whether it is to consume, or to protest or to opt out and binge watch (I am thinking here how Netflix became such a fixture in my friends and family during COVID confinements—it felt as much a part of self-care as doing indoor exercise). I think there is an evolving understanding of care by feminists particularly around the ethics of care which has expanded from counting care work in the economy to including relations of care with more-than-human others. In her work Matters of Care (2017), María Puig de la Bellacasa goes deeply into how care impacts the world on all levels. But there are many and various discussions as we have shown in this conversation. In WEGO, we’ve managed to collectively consider different meanings of care in a feminist network. We have had (mostly on-line due to COVID) discussions where people had different responses. Some felt awkward about the word care, thinking it is fluffy. But others saw it as a core value to our way of working together in terms of supporting others and doing ethical research otherwise. So, I see feminists as exploring the politics of care in diverse and interesting ways academically and in practice.
Khayaat: There are contradictions in how feminists think about care, and we work with those contradictions in terms of care exactly so that it doesn’t get soft-washed just because care is often seen as a very feminised activity. Care can be seen as demeaning by dominant systems because it is mostly done by women who are essentialised as having the “natural” ability to care. It is exciting to work with the contradictions by putting them on the table, rather than trying to get a unified or unifying understanding of what care is. And that’s exciting for me, because as we debate the content of care, we can be more inclusive and push theoretical boundaries.
Marlene: Talking about contradictions and going back to the question of age, I agree that care is generational, but it is also intersectional and relational. Care is fluid, it changes all the time, and it is related to the porosity of our bodies that are influenced by imaginaries, experiences and affections we live in our everyday life. Care practices change over time- we might be careless in one period and careful in another. I have seen it with my grandfather and my grandmother who have taught me so many things about caring for the environment, taking care of water, nature and recycling as much as possible. And then I see my mom caring now for the environment more rigorously when before she was a bit careless. So, we care in different ways related to the concerns we live and experience in our everyday life. Thank you for the discussion, what we have shown is how care is a very complex activity embedded in contradictions that we need to continue to question in our research contributions, activism, and everyday lives.
In our intergenerational conversation we discussed the different ways we relate to care for humans and more-than-humans by decentring anthropocentric hierarchies and recovering diverse feelings such as grief and fear from which caring practices emerge. We also highlighted how care becomes a powerful political practice to transform our realities when we ask who can care, with whom or what do we care and how do we care. We explore how the practices of care are intergenerational and political, and how valuing care remains an ongoing feminist struggle that requires continual interventions in public and private institutions. Our focus was on how care is understood in the academe, in teaching as well as theory across the generations in order to underline how care is practised in different ways and at different levels; in ethical and moral systems, social development strategies and public policies. Within these practices, we recovered storytelling and doing things otherwise as ways to recognize the untold histories and colonial legacies embedded in our passions, loves, and fears that shape our everyday life.
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This chapter was funded by the Wellbeing Ecology Gender and cOmmunities Innovation Training Network (WEGO-ITN) funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764908-WEGO 2018-2021.
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Gómez, M., Voss, A.K., Farrelly, E. (2023). Meanings and Practices of Care in Feminist Political Ecology: An Intergenerational Conversation with Khayaat Fakier and Wendy Harcourt. In: Harcourt, W., Agostino, A., Elmhirst, R., Gómez, M., Kotsila, P. (eds) Contours of Feminist Political Ecology. Gender, Development and Social Change. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-20928-4_7
Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham
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