To Care as we Would Like to: Socio-ecological crisis and our impasse of care
By Manuela Zechner
The influential definition of care drafted in Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring (1990) by Joan C. Tronto and Berenice Fisher – “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining “web” seems prescient in our climate of widespread concern over the entangled fates of both human and non-human worlds. Tronto and Fisher, along with others such as Carol Gilligan, Silvia Federici and Donna J. Haraway, were part of a shift away from then-prevalent readings of Kantian moral theories, which had framed care ethics as based on ideas of autonomy and rationality, towards notions of interdependence and inter-woven relatedness. Today, signs of ecological crisis, the failures of neo-liberal care systems and indeed the language of care itself, are all around us. But this sheer scale leads to a vertiginous blurring of perspective: it’s no easy matter to engage with what philosopher Timothy Morton labels “hyperobjects” (Hyperobjects, 2013) – things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. The problem is further amplified by technological networks and corporate capitalism’s co-opting the language of care to offer easy “solutions”. In the following text, care activist and researcher Manuela Zechner examines Tronto’s model of care as a means to find praxis-based ways out of today’s “care impasse”, pointing to popular movements that might serve as models for the future.
The notion of care is widely used across the art world, and its sibling domains of academia, activism and advertising. Sometimes describing moral attitudes, sometimes practices or forms of labour, “care” calls for our attention. In times of intertwined ecological crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, claims for care circulate far and wide – across politicians’ speeches, corporate responsibility statements, social protests, product marketing and labels and climate action networks. “Care! Care!” – we call in response to deepening crises. Millions of COVID-19 deaths worldwide, hospitals that are overwhelmed, underpaid and overworked nurses who are facing burnout, cleaners and other precarious workers who are informally disposed of by employers, women juggling full-time work, childcare and even their childrens’ homeschooling at the same time. There’s lots of outward applause, yet little action for those who are being sacrificed for the sake of “the system”. Being deemed “relevant to the system” apparently implies being disposable, rather than being highly valued in real terms. And then there’s the natural world: emissions on the rise again after a brief pandemic pause, global heating, ecosystem collapse, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, natural disasters, food insecurity, pollution, migrations, illness, deaths. Everyone affirms they care whilst repeating the mantra of “business as usual”. Yet very few of us care as we would like to.
In 1993, Joan Tronto published the book Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care, which examines the ethical and political dimensions of care and remains a key touchstone of feminist theory today (1). She analyses what she calls different phases of care, as different moments of caring processes that are – as the word ‘process’ suggests – ideally interconnected and lead into one another. The four phases are “caring about”, “taking care of”, “care giving” and “care receiving”; she later added a fifth, “caring with”. Akin to the three interlinked realms – mental, social and environmental – outlined in Félix Guattari’s 1989 text The Three Ecologies (2), these modes of care are always interconnected, allowing us to think across subjectivity, relationality, organisation and materiality. Translated to our current stage of ecological crisis, particularly in relation to climate change, these phases manifest in a series of ways, which I will delineate below. By doing so, I want to piece together a broader picture of care impasse: a blockage of our capacities to care through all five phases; to care transversally, freely and dynamically. A bit like a dance.
“Caring About” as Attention, Awareness and Concern
“Caring about” is when we become aware of a need or a problem. It’s a key moment, for without consciousness there is little potential for change. And yet, any politics relying solely on raising awareness – on wilfulness – is flawed if it assumes that just by understanding a problem, people or situations can easily change. People don’t just change because of their minds. They negotiate with a whole plethora of factors including their bodies, environmental contexts, positions, relationships, interests, subjective and affective capacities, material and systemic conditions, and so on. This is why “caring about” does not necessarily imply a situation of actively doing something. So, while it would be cynical to say “caring about” is never enough as a phase on its own, it’s important to note that there is an entire psychosocial industry built on harvesting such a phase of care. Caring about only becomes transformative when it allows us to connect with action, practice, vulnerability and solidarity.
“Caring about” is arguably the most dominant way in which we relate to ecological crisis. It is a means through which we can express worry and concern. Social media has perhaps become one of our most widespread and democratic outlets for “caring about” (3). It allows us to express our concerns and attention via likes, reposts, comments, messages and stories – in one click. However, this method of care does not necessarily extend beyond our social bubbles, is configured by algorithms inaccessible to us, and often belies our powerlessness or alienation from concrete acts of care.
“Taking Care Of” as Acting
This brings us to the second phase of care, which Tronto describes as “taking care of”. This is when we take action to address a perceived need. “Taking care of” is the arguably the most visible modality of care traditionally and is long attributed to men. So-called breadwinners – a role historically enacted by men – are still said to take care of their families. Such a position is much lauded, while more domestic roles receive less credit and visibility: Reproductive labour is side-lined, while wage labour and the purchasing power associated with it are put on a pedestal. Another example of the hierarchical structures associated with taking care of is that doctors receive applause and credit for their “responsibility”, while care workers go unmentioned. Care has a link with power, and a closer look at taking care of can tell us a lot about how privilege and visibility can play out in acts of care.
For people who economically fall into the bracket of being middle class, taking care of is perhaps the second most dominant modality of care that is engaged in relation to capitalist ecological destruction. This modality encompasses the world of green consumerism and technological promise, based in gestures and fixes (4). Often consumer and technological “solutions” are articulated: technoscience will save us via so-called green energies; geoengineering, new materials, technologies and techniques – all apt for the free market and available for us to buy soon. Underpinning this is the belief that markets and governments will sort it all out for us, we just have to adjust to minor changes and follow new trends.
Taking-care-of also encompasses signing petitions and other gestures such as declarations of climate emergency or signing agreements that signal action. Maybe you’ve made it onto the listserve of one of those campaigning organisations that send you an email where they describe a major social/ecological problem and then ask you to sign their petition with the words ‘take action now’. Not that petitions are unimportant. However, such individualised, transactional modes of caring often leave us with a feeling of insufficiency.
Yet, taking-care-of can also mean doing things with others, for instance, bringing the cardboard for the placards to a demonstration; getting the vegetables for the soup kitchen; buying the medicine for our ill friend or relative; contributing our presence, skills, resources for a concrete shared purpose. Taking-care-of is, indeed, an important step towards addressing a perceived need, letting us move on from mere worry and doubt, through connecting with others and testing what works. It can be daunting to enact some form of action in relation to a problem, but this is the starting point of our experimental and collective strength. Films like 120 BPM, about the organising and mutual care work of Act Up! In Paris – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international, grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic ¬ directed by Robin Campillo, capture some of the complexity and collective intelligence involved in intertwining different levels of care. Taking-care-of can trigger processes of learning that change our affective possibilities, as well as who we are and what our relations and bodies can do, building collective power.
“Caregiving” as Sustaining
Accordingly, we get to “caregiving” as a third phase and a key dimension for resolving our impasse. Caregiving is a practice, extending everywhere in time and space, yet often rendered invisible in public life and private enterprise. Caregiving takes us from the halls and offices of politics and economics – domains of men (white, independent, privileged) – towards zones where life is reproduced: the kitchens, backyards, hospitals, fields, farms, nurseries, care homes, and, indeed, also the slaughterhouses, waste depots and morgues. Caregiving – as labour often ambivalently featuring both love and exploitation – happens in worlds of social reproduction, where individual and communal lives are sustained in myriad ways. Yet the association of people with bodily care lowers their value. Those who are thought of as “others” in society are often thought of in bodily terms: they are described by their physical conditions, are considered “dirty” or more “natural.” (5)
The association of caregiving with women and nature has not been an emancipatory one in History, with capital “H”. To politicise the association of caregiving with nature and womens’ bodies is to make radical demands on the basis of this link.Ecofeminism and queer ecology, for example, empower people and communities to both reclaim and transcend the association between women and nature. In spite of its destruction through capitalist modes of economy and relation (6), care sustains and subverts communities in positive ways (7), allowing us to reclaim the powers of witches, midwives and nurses (8). Allowing us to reclaim our vulnerabilities, transform our bodies and relations. Our bodies’ needs, vulnerabilities, capacities to sense and feel, to move and express, to affectively resonate with others, to nourish each other, to suffer, age, grow and transform are the sources of our power. Territorio Doméstico, the Madrid-based collective of migrant domestic workers is one example of building such modes of power, joyfully and in complicity with different movements, from feminism to precarity and labour organising to migrants’ rights and global justice.
This strong association with the body also indicates that caregiving is not necessarily a wilful, sovereign act. Understanding caregiving allows us to escape projections of agency that are based on notions of autonomy as wilfulness and independence, and as centred on the subject of politics being white, male, privileged, adult. We may thus also come to see caregiving as a matter of not just intra-human care work, but also of earthcare labour (9), which connects us with the seasons, soils, forests, rivers, deserts, animals, bacteria and, inevitably, also forces us to see acid rain, mines, sacrifice zones, factory farms, viruses and so forth. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded this realization into new directions for us, again showing the interdependencies of our bodies with native forests, remote people, mass farms, pigs, bats and so on. Our dependency on human and more-than-human others is very real and needn’t spell trouble to us: it’s our strength. We need to stay with the trouble, embrace the ways in which our interdependence troubles us (10).
“Care Receiving” as Embodying Interdependence
This brings us to the fourth level of care: “care receiving”. With Tronto and recent feminist uptakes of care theory (11), we come to see care-receiving as a relational, embodied and grounded practice and art, entailing a crucial insight: being vulnerable and dependent on others is not exceptional, having needs is not exceptional. Reinventing, subverting and reshaping political subjectivity means not just valorising care as work, but also engaging deeply with care receiving as the acknowledgement of our needs and vulnerability (12). This also implies moving from frameworks of citizenship to forms of “caretizenship”, linking rights to ways of caring rather than to legal status. Today we bear witness to a politicisation of needs and care, driven by movements of people, some with disabilities or chronic illness, often linked to struggles around social rights, as well as environmental issues or health (cancer, endocrine disorders, developmental problems, mental health, etc.) (13). Social media is becoming a place where people increasingly share and politicise needs and vulnerabilities, denouncing toxic forces that affect them and their communities directly – a counterpoint to the individualising function of those networks.
We can find hope in the work of movements that bear an enormous potential for effectively undoing (neo)liberal subjectivity and probing us to relate differently to our interdependency. An inspiring exploration that took up this challenge was the collaboration between organised feminist precarious and care workers and people organising around disability and the right to autonomy, around 2010 in Madrid. (14) Their different positioning across the care spectrum – as caregivers and care receivers, each with their own precarity and vulnerability; both mutually interdependent in care arrangements where some are care workers and others are patients or clients – brings forth a lot of insights, contradictions and questions. Their cooperation is a powerful and challenging example of caring-with as solidarity.
The handling of the pandemic today, marked by neoliberal logics, has reinforced how so-called “special needs” or “vulnerable groups” are portrayed as “apart” or as objects of sacrifice. Care-receivers are lucky if they can stay alive: they do not get to choose or have a voice. Yet care receiving being taken seriously can allow us to learn how needs can be appropriately understood and met – since not all care is helpful. On the contrary, care can be extremely patronising and disempowering if it fails to take care receivers seriously. Charity, for one, is a form of care that maintains dependency rather than establishing equality and addressing needs at their (systemic) root cause. Neoliberal social handouts and workfare policies on the other hand exploit and humiliate those entitled to social support. In a system based on social darwinism, care is often about a form of “power-over”, and the production of docile subjects. The kind of care we need to reclaim is, using the words of Starhawk the radical witch, that of “power-with” and “power-from-within”. (15)
“Caring with” as Solidarity
This brings us to Tronto’s fifth phase of care: “caring with” (16). Last, but certainly not least, this phase of care points towards global feminist and decolonial responses to our impasse (17) Against the grain of neoliberalism and individualisation, we must reclaim care as solidarity, around the world. Fighting with others for mutual systems of welfare, healthcare, education, housing and so forth, can go hand in hand with building alternative infrastructures of social reproduction and care, like solidarity clinics, neighbourhood networks, solidarity agriculture, cooperatives, collective childcare. These build care as solidarity and invest in collective ways of reproducing our lives, allowing us to bridge the different phases of care at a social and planetary level. Care is never something we can do alone.
Struggles for Care; Struggles to Care
Capitalism has removed us – supposedly a blessing – from processes of the reproduction of life as well as from our own vulnerability. This alienation happens at the expense of others, who find themselves in less privileged positions. It relegates some of us to “caring about” and “taking care of”, while limiting others to “caregiving” and “care receiving”. The mind and the body separated. Modernity is yet another tale where these two are never to meet, where progress is defined by strict divisions of care – eco-modernism being a greenwashed variant of the same, providing technological teleology with no common horizon for social reproduction and care.
So how can we move beyond this impasse?
1. Connect vividly across the different phases of care in our lives, practices and struggles; see our struggles to care (to overcome alienation) in close connection to our struggles for care (defending and strengthening practices and infrastructures of care).
2. Try to make these connections across the human and more-than-human worlds, struggling for local and planetary co-existence while learning to listen and position ourselves in new ways.
3. Ask ourselves: are we dealing with a blockage at the level of seeing and recognising needs, of taking meaningful action, of building sustainable practices and infrastructures, and of reaching out to others? Whose needs, what needs are at stake? Then we can think strategically about how different phases of care can help us to organise, to build strength and power, to liaise and reach out in solidarity. (18)
4. Look at where systemic power lies, where it is concentrated and whose interests structure our lives and decisions at a material, economic, political, legal and spatial level.
5. Find joy (19) in imagining what it would mean to care as we would like to (20).
We have seen how some different phases of care can flow into one another and yet this is not a linear story. There is no direct route or recipe with which to move beyond the impasse, but myriad pathways and desire lines that traverse the diagram of care. (21)
Manuela Zechner is a researcher and facilitator working across social movements, academia and the arts. Her work deals with care, feminism, micropolitics, ecological crisis and translocal movements, in an attempt to provide stories, imaginaries and tools for transformation and struggles. Since 2005 she coordinates the Future Archive project, works with video/film (Remembering Europe, 2016) and free radio and facilitates workshops as well as collective research processes. Books co-edited by her include the Nanopolitics Handbook (2013), Situating Ourselves in Displacement (2017) and Una Ciudad Muchos Mundos: Artistic Research and Situated Practices (2018). She is currently finalising a monograph on care, commons and micropolitics in Barcelona‘s childcare and municipality movements, forthcoming with Transversal Texts. She finished her PhD in 2013 at Queen Mary University London and is currently postdoctoral researcher at University of Jena.
1. Joan C. Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethics of Care (London: Routlege, 1993). See also: Joan c. Tronto, “An Ethic of Care”, Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging 22, no. 3 (1998): 15–20 (accessed 8 March, 2021).
2. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005 [originally 1989]).
3. For a deeper exploration of this topic, see Manuela Zechner and Bue Rübner Hansen, Careless Networks? Social media, care and reproduction in the web of life (Spheres Journal No.6, 2020) (accessed 22 March 2021).
4. A “fix” meaning a quick solution that displaces a problem without addressing it at the root. See also Emma Dowling, “Confronting Capital’s Care Fix: Care Through the Lens of Democracy,” in: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 37 No. 4, 332–46.
5. Joan Tronto, Moral Boundaries, 114. Op. cit.
6. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Oakland: PM Press, 1998).
7. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community, pamphlet (1972).
8. Barbara Ehrenreich, Witches, Midwives and Nurses (New York: CUNY Feminist Press, 1972).
9. Stefania Barca, Forces of Reproduction: Notes for a Counter-Hegemonic Anthropocene (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
10. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016).
11. From feminist economics to the environmental humanities, feminist science studies and political ecology, to name but a few domains of such thinking. See, for instance: Maria Puig della Bellacasa, Matters of Care (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
12. Starting from interdependence, vulnerability has deep reaching consequences for how we think about pretty much everything, like politics, economics, law, cities, etc. caring labor: an archive (accessed on 22 March 2021).
13. The work of feminist endocrinologist Carmé Valls Llobet is an important reference here (sadly her work is only available in Spanish to date): Carmé Valls Lobet, Mujeres, salud y poder (Feminismos) (Valéncia: Universitat de Valéncia, 2009) (accessed on 22 March 2021).
14. Foro de Vida Independiente y Agencia Todas a Zien, “Cojos y Precarias Haciendo Vidas Que Importan”, Traficantes de Sueños, Madrid (2011)
15. Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery (New York: Harper Collins, 1989).
16. “Interview with Joan Tronto”, Ethics of Care: Sharing Views on Good Care, 4 August 2009 (accessed 12 March 2021).
17. The Feminist Monitoring & Advocacy Toolkit proposes an overview of possible responses in the current COVID-19 pandemic (accessed 12 March 2021).
18. With Bue Rübner Hansen and Julie Wieger we have documented some inspiring examples of addressing theses questions in our project Radical Collective Care Practices (accessed on 22 March 2021).
19. See also Silvia Federici, Clara Bergman, Nick Montgomery, Feeling Powers Growing: An Interview with Silvia Federici (2018) (accessed 22 March 2021).
20. In many ways, the Future Archive Project, which invites people and groups to imagine desirable and sustainable futures together, is about performatively and playfully embracing such imaginaries. (accessed on 22 March 2021).
21. I have been working with a “care network mapping” methodology for many years now, that allows people and groups to visualise different levels and relations of care and inter/dependency they are implicated in. I have developed this more in the direction of visualising ecological relations recently. For an example and instructions for such a mapping, see my forthcoming text in Jesko Fezer, Claudia Banz and Studio Experimentelles Design: (How) do we (want to) work (together) (as (socially engaged) designers (students and neighbours)) in neoliberal times)? (Berlin: Sternberg Press, forthcoming)