Val Plumwood

The logic of domination and the deep structures of dualism create 'blind spots' in the dominant culture's understanding of its relationship to the biosphere, understandings which deny dependency and community to an even greater degree than in the case of human society. The distorted perceptions and mechanisms of denial which arise from the master rationality are an important reason why the dominant culture which embodies this identity in relation to nature cannot respond adequately to the crisis of the biosphere and the growing degradation of the earth's natural systems.1

Val Plumwood began her work on environmental philosophy in collaboration with her then husband Richard Routley (later Sylvan, also an important environmental philosopher) in the early 1970s when the ecological crisis of the modern West was becoming more obvious. Within the framework of analytical philosophy in which they were both trained, the most obvious tools with which to explain the crisis were those of the ethics of value and respect. Routley and Plumwood argued that one reason why the dominant global culture of the West had been able to expand and conquer indigenous cultures as well as nature itself was that it lacked their respect-based constraints on the use of nature—a thought that cast Western triumphalism in a rather different and more dangerous light. This lack of respect had, as one of its main philosophical expressions, the deep-seated Western conviction that only humans could be of any direct ethical significance or value.2

The view that value and moral consideration were confined to humans, for which Plumwood and Routley coined the term 'human chauvinism', was supported by the assumption (too deeply embedded to be thought of as needing explicit statement or defence) that the natural world could have only indirect or instrumental value, as a means to human ends, or as mattering to human beings. They exposed the arrogance of this assumption, and tried to clarify concepts like respect and instrumental value so as to make available alternative modes of valuing and respecting nature as an independent other. They met objections that there was no rational alternative to purely instrumental values by showing that this involved an infinite regress. They argued that, since its supposed 'naturalness' and inevitability were ultimately based on fallacies that closely paralleled those of philosophical egoism, human chauvinism had no more legitimacy than human-group chauvinism.3

For Plumwood, however, value is too narrow a focus for explanation and activism. While she agrees that we must value the natural world more highly, she holds that value and the failure to discern and accord it provides only a very incomplete explanation of environmental failure. This last, she holds, stems equally from what she calls 'the standpoint of mastery': overconfidence, failure to recognize the other's agency and limits, and other kinds of insensitivity that come from the dominant rationalist and colonizing frameworks by which historically we have understood and created human/nature relations.

After Plum wood's collaboration with Routley ended in 1981, she refined their initial, relatively unanalysed concept of 'human chauvinism' by exploring the implications of seeing human-centredness as a parallel concept to androcentrism and eurocentrism.4 From this she came to the conclusion that human-centred stances are subject to similar blind spots and distortions of conception and perception; for example, seeing the other as radically separate and inferior, the background to the self as foreground, as one whose existence is secondary, derivative or peripheral to that of the self or centre, and whose agency is denied or minimized.

A major feature of human-centred frameworks is the denial of human dependency on nature. In Anthrocentrism and Androcentrism' Plumwood draws on many aspects of women's oppression to theorize 'hegemonic otherness', the condition, in androcentric frameworks, in which women appear as appendages to men and in which their agency is treated as lesser or denied altogether. She sees a strong parallel here with the treatment of nature's agency in human-centred frameworks. When nature as agent and collaborative partner is similarly denied, she claims, we get blind spots about human dependence and vulnerability, which help to make such frameworks dangerous and misleading.5

In her book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993), in which many of the main themes of her work are articulated, Plumwood argues the ecofeminist thesis that the West's problems with the non-human world

(now global problems) must be understood in the context of its larger dualist problematic. Traditions excluding non-humans from the spheres of ethics, mind, culture, and reason are matched on the other side by traditions excluding humans from the realm of nature and animality, to form what she calls a 'hyperseparation' between humans and nature which is entrenched in the dominant traditions of the West. She sees the drive to hyperseparation as part of a colonizing conceptual dynamic which places the human colonizer radically apart from, and above, those he conceives as part of the subordinated realm of nature.

Plumwood identifies human/nature dualism as a key part of the system of gendered dualisms that have helped to shape Western world-views. These include reason/nature, human/animal and mind/ body dualisms, which have been historically central to environmental thinking, as well as male/female, reason/emotion and civilized/ primitive, which are associated with other forms of colonization. Thus she links the treatment of non-humans to the treatment of women and other groups, such as indigenous people, who have also been considered part of the inferior realm of nature. The influence of dualistic approaches that separate the truly human from, and inferiorize, the ecologically situated body and the perishable order of biological life is traced in the Greeks, and is especially clear in the work of Plato (a major influence in the development of 'flesh-inferiorising dualisms' in Christianity).6

For Plumwood, dualism has deeply marked both concepts of nature and concepts of reason. The environmental crisis, she argues, should be seen as a crisis of dualistic reason, a form of rationality expressed especially in the contemporary global market, which conceives rationality as self-interest in opposition both to the emotions (including care for others) and to the ecologically situated body. Challenging this form of rationality challenges current social and political systems and means, bringing economic and ecological rationality together. Plumwood argues from an eco-socialist perspective against the treatment of animals and nature as property under capitalism and for the ecological virtues of more egalitarian and democratic social systems.7

Employing this analysis of human-centredness and of human/ nature dualism, Plumwood argues that the dominant problematic of modern environmental ethics is set up in an anthropocentric way, focusing on establishing the qualifications of non-humans for moral consideration (usually through establishing some basis of similarity to the human), rather than on the problems of a human-centred ethical system and epistemology which excludes them. In many current forms of academic environmental philosophy, she says, the question of value seems to be taken to be the only issue. Moreover, valuing itself is too often treated as the stance of someone looking on at nature as a separate and passive entity; evaluating, ranking and assessing its existence, somewhat in the manner of a property appraiser. Such a stance, she claims, assumes that it is our human prerogative to order the world in terms of some generalized species-ranking, to assign or withhold 'value' according to whim or to degrees of rationality or consciousness.8

Equally problematic for Plumwood is the sort of environmental ethic that extends moral consideration only to some 'higher' animals on the basis of their similarity to the human (especially their similarity in consciousness) in the fashion of some animal rights positions.9 This type of environmental ethics is rejected as neo-Cartesian and implicitly human-centred, a minimum-change position that relocates, rather than cancels, the radical break between the human and non-human. Plumwood argues that it is based implicitly on sameness, extending a human model of reason or consciousness, and is therefore both human-centred in a damaging sense and unable to acknowledge that difference does not mean inferiority.

In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature Plumwood delineates a position in environmental ethics that, on the one hand, is distinct from the conventional neo-Cartesianism that would extend moral consideration just to conscious beings ('like us'), and, on the other hand, from deep ecology. She agrees with deep ecology that it is a major problem that the modern West positions itself as 'outside nature'. But Plumwood's analysis seeks to explain the West's misunderstanding of its ecological embedment not as the outcome of a separation from nature that departs from the deep ecological ideal of unity between humanity and nature, but as an aspect of dualistic hyperseparation, in which normative human identity excludes features traditionally associated with nature and the animal sphere.10 Plumwood's underlying metaphysics refuses the demand to base ethical consideration on sameness that underlies both moral extensionism and deep ecology, the two conventional choices. Rejecting also the pure appeal to difference as the source of value which appears in some post-modernist positions, Plumwood insists on both continuity with, and difference from, the human as sources of value and consideration.

According to Plumwood, both sameness and difference are required to counter human/nature dualism. In the Western tradition especially, she admits the need to stress continuity between self and other, human and nature, in response to the gulf created by the hyperseparated and alienated models of nature and of human identity that remain dominant.

These models define the truly human as (normatively) outside of nature and in opposition to the body and the material world, and conceive nature itself in alienated and mechanistic terms as lacking elements of mind. But she contends that we also need to stress the difference and divergent agency of the other in order to defeat that further part of the colonizing dynamic that seeks to assimilate and instrumentalize the other, recognizing and valuing it only as a part of or similar to the self, or as means to the self's ends. Vague concepts of unity and identity of the sort stressed by deep ecology, she argues, provide very imprecise and inadequate correctives to our historical denial of continuity with and dependency on nature. She maintains that ethical theories based on unity cannot provide a good model of mutual adjustment, communication and negotiation between different parties and interests, and are unhelpful in the key areas where we need to construct dialogical, ethical relationships.

Plum wood is not opposed to spirituality and the sacred per se but thinks that dominant forms of Western spirituality have located the sacred in the wrong place—above and beyond a fallen Earth. An ecological spirituality would need to relocate it in the immediate world around us, as in much indigenous spirituality. In this location the sacred can be experienced as in and of the Earth, but need not, and should not, be overly singularized and centralized as it is in some forms of Gaia theory. In her forthcoming book, Environmental Culture, she sees such a 'materialist spirituality' as one component of a strong environmental culture which needs to be developed over a wide range of areas to counter the excesses of the dominant form of rationality.

To defeat human/nature dualism, Plumwood argues that we need to revise conceptions of human virtue which are based on excluding, from the ideal human character, the supposedly oppositional elements to reason, especially emotionality, embodiment and animality. She also emphasizes 'counter-hegemonic virtues', ethical stances which can help to minimize the influence of the oppressive ideologies of domination and self-imposition that have formed our conceptions of both the other and ourselves. She advocates the adoption of philosophical strategies and methodologies that maximize our sensitivity to other members of our ecological communities and openness to them as ethically considerable beings in their own right, rather than strategies that minimize ethical recognition or that adopt a dualistic stance of ethical closure that insists on sharp moral boundaries and denies the continuity of planetary life.

Among such strategies, she stresses the need for communicative virtues of listening and attentiveness to the other to help counter the backgrounding which obscures and denies what the non-human other contributes to our lives and collaborative ventures. Openness and attentiveness involve giving the other's needs and agency more weight, being open to unanticipated possibilities and aspects of the other, and re-conceiving and re-encountering the other as a potentially communicative and agentic being, as well as an independent centre of value and an originator of projects that demand respect. These counter-hegemonic virtues, she claims, help us to resist the reductionism of the dominant mechanistic conceptions of the non-human world, and to revise both our narrow epistemic objectives of prediction and control and our denial of non-human others as active presences and ecological collaborators in our lives.


1 Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, p. 194.

2 See Routley, 'Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?', pp. 20510; Plumwood's 'Critical Notice of Passmore's Man's Responsibility For Nature', pp. 171-85.

3 Routley and Plumwood, 'Human Chauvinism and Environmental Ethics', in D.Mannison, M.McRobbie and R.Routley (eds), Environmental Philosophy, Canberra: Philosophy Department, Australian National University, pp. 96190, 1979; Against the Inevitability of Human Chauvinism', in Goodpaster and Sayre (eds), pp. 36-59.

4 Plumwood, Anthrocentrism and Androcentrism: Parallels and Politics', Ethics and the Environment, pp. 119-52 and 'Paths Beyond Human Centredness: Lessons from Liberation Struggles', in An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy, pp. 69-106.

5 Human vulnerability in the face of non-human agency was brought home to her dramatically in 1985 when she was attacked and nearly killed by a crocodile in Northern Australia. She has written memorably about the experience, now rare for humans, of being hunted for food in 'Being Prey', Terra Nova, pp. 33-44.

6 'Prospecting for Ecological Gold among the Platonic Forms', Ethics and the Environment, pp. 149-68.

7 See 'The Crisis of Reason, the Rationalist Market, and Global Ecology', Millennium. Journal of International Studies, pp. 903-26; 'Has Democracy Failed Ecology? An Ecofeminist Perspective', Environmental Politics, 4, pp. 134-68, 1995; 'Ecojustice, Inequality and Ecological Rationality', Debating the Earth: The Environmental Politics Reader, ed. J.Dryzek and D.Schlosberg, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

8 See 'Self-Realization or Man Apart? The Naess-Reed Debate', in N. Witoszek and A.Brennan (eds), pp. 206-12.

9 See 'Intentional Recognition and Reductive Rationality: A Response to John Andrews', Environmental Values, 17, pp. 397-421, 1998; Feminism and the Mastery of Nature,

10 In addition to Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, see two later essays, 'Self-Realization or Man Apart?' and 'Deep Ecology, Deep Pockets, and Deep Problems: A Feminist Eco-Socialist Analysis', in A.Light, E. Katz and D.Rothenburg (eds).

See also in this book

Lovelock, Passmore

Plumwood's major writings

'Critical Notice of Passmore's Man's Responsibility For Nature', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 53, pp. 171-85, 1975.

'Against the Inevitability of Human Chauvinism', with R.Routley, in Ethics and the Problems of the 21st Century, ed. K.E.Goodpaster and K.M. Sayre, South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 1978.

Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London: Routledge, 1993.

'Anthrocentrism and Androcentrism: Parallels and Politics', Ethics and the Environment, 1, pp. 119-52, 1996.

'Being Prey', Terra Nova, 1, pp. 33-4, 1996; reprinted in Terra Nova: New Environmental Writing, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

'Prospecting for Ecological Gold among the Platonic Forms', Ethics and the Environment, 2, pp. 149-68, 1997.

'The Crisis of Reason, the Rationalist Market, and Global Ecology', Millennium. Journal of International Studies, 27, pp. 903-26, 1998.

'Paths Beyond Human Centredness: Lessons from Liberation Struggles', An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy, ed. A.Weston, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 69-106, 1998.

'Self-Realization or Man Apart? The Naess-Reed Debate', Festschrift for Arne Naess, ed. N.Witoszek and A.Brennan, Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 206-12, 1998.

'Deep Ecology, Deep Pockets, and Deep Problems: A Feminist Eco-Socialist Analysis', Beneath the Surface: Critical Essays on Deep Ecology, ed. A. Light, E.Katz and D.Rothenburg, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Environmental Culture, London: Routledge, forthcoming.

The Eye of the Crocodile, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming.

Further reading

Reviews of Feminism and the Mastery of Nature: by P.Hallen, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 73, pp. 645-6, 1995; by L.M.B Harrington, Journal of Rural Studies, 12, pp. 319-20, 1996; by J.Cook, Environmental Values, 6, pp. 245-6, 1997.

Hawkins, Ronnie, 'Ecofeminism and Nonhumans: Continuity, Difference, Dualism, and Domination', Hypatia, 13, pp. 158-97, 1998. Routley, Richard, 'Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?', Proceedings of the XVth World Congress in Philosophy, Varna, i, pp. 205-10, 1973.

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