Val Plumwood (right), 2007
11 August 1939
nr. Sydney, Australia
|Died||29 February 2008
nr. Braidwood, Australia
|Cause of death||Stroke|
|Resting place||Plumwood Mountain, Braidwood|
|Other names||Val Routley|
|Education||B.A. (Hons), first class, philosophy (1965), University of Sydney;
MA, logic, University of New England
PhD (1991), Australian National University
|Notable work||Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993)|
|Movement||Ecological humanities, ecosophy|
|Spouse(s)||John Macrae, Richard Sylvan (formerly Routley)|
|Website||valplumwood.com (archived 9 January 2014)|
Val Plumwood (11 August 1939 – 29 February 2008) was an Australian ecofeminist philosopher and activist known for her work on anthropocentrism. From the 1970s she played a central role in the development of radical ecosophy, along with her second husband, the philosopher Richard Sylvan. Working mostly as an independent scholar, she held posts at universities in Australia and the United States, and at the time of her death was Australian Research Council Fellow at the Australian National University. She is included in Routledge's Fifty Key Thinkers on the Environment (2001).
Plumwood spent her academic life arguing against the "hyperseparation" of humans from the rest of nature, and what she called the "standpoint of mastery": a reason/nature dualism in which the natural world (including women, indigenous people and non-humans) is subordinated to anything associated with reason.
Plumwood was the author or co-author of five books and over 100 papers on logic, metaphysics, the environment and ecofeminism. The Fight for the Forests (1973), co-authored with Sylvan, was described in 2014 as the most comprehensive analysis of Australian forestry to date. Her Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) is regarded as a classic, and her Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (2002) was said to have marked her as "one of the most brilliant environmental thinkers of our time."
Her posthumously published The Eye of the Crocodile (2012), emerged from her survival of a crocodile attack in 1985, first described in her essay "Being Prey" (1996). The experience offered her a glimpse of the world "from the outside," a "Heraclitiean universe" in which she was food like any other creature. It was a world that was indifferent to her and would continue without her, where "being in your body is ... like having a volume out from the library, a volume subject to more or less instant recall by other borrowers—who rewrite the whole story when they get it."
Plumwood was born Val Morell to parents whose home was a shack with walls made of hessian sacks dipped in cement. The parents had set up home in the Terrey Hills, near the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, south of Sydney, as a result of a land grant. Her father worked at first as a hod carrier, then started a small poultry farm. Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill write that the natural beauty of the area made up for Plumwood's lack of toys.
The poultry farm failed, and when she was ten the family moved to Collaroy, another northern Sydney suburb, where her father found work in the civil service, then to Kogarah in southern Sydney. She attended St George Girls High School in Kogarah, where she was dux of the school. She received a scholarship to study philosophy at the University of Sydney, but her studies were interrupted when she married a fellow student, John Macrae, when she was 18. They were divorced by the time she was 21. The marriage produced two children, both of whom died young. Their son, John Macrae, was born in 1958 when Plumwood was 19, and died in 1988 after an illness; their daughter, Caitlin Macrae, born in 1960 and given up for adoption, was murdered in her teens.
Plumwood resumed her studies and graduated with first-class honours in 1965. Toward the end of her undergraduate studies she married the philosopher Richard Routley, another fellow student, and changed her name to Val Routley. They spent time travelling, living in the Middle East and UK, including Scotland for a year. Returning to Australia, they became active in movements to preserve biodiversity and halt deforestation, and helped establish the trans-discipline known as ecological humanities. Referred to as Routley and Routley, from 1973 to 1982 they co-authored several notable papers on logic and the environment, becoming central figures in the debate about anthropocentrism and "human chauvinism." They also wrote the influential book The Fight for the Forests (1973), which analysed the damaging policies of the forestry industry in Australia; the demand for the book saw three editions published in three years. Plumwood held positions at the University of Tasmania, North Carolina State University, the University of Montana, the University of Sydney and the Australian National University.
In 1975 the couple built their home near Plumwood Mountain on the coast, 75 km from Canberra, an octagonal stone house on a 120-hectare clearing in a rainforest. They divorced in 1981. Plumwood continued living in the house and changed her name again after the divorce, this time naming herself after the mountain, which in turn is named after the Eucryphia moorei tree. Routley changed his to Richard Sylvan (sylvan for "of the forest") when he remarried in 1983; he died in 1996.
At the time of her death, Plumwood was Australian Research Council Fellow at the Australian National University. She was found dead on 1 March 2008 in the house she had built with Routley; she is believed to have died the previous day, after suffering a stroke.
Plumwood's major theoretical works are her Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1992) and her Environmental Culture: the Ecological Crisis of Reason (2002). She critiques what she calls "the standpoint of mastery," a set of views of the self and its relationship to the other associated with sexism, racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the domination of nature. She draws on feminist theory, which she argues involves "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 center, and whose agency is denied or minimized."
She identifies human/nature dualism as one of a series of gendered dualisms, including "human/animal, mind/body ... male/female, reason/emotion, [and] civilized/primitive." She argues for their abandonment, as well as that of the Western notion of a rational, unitary, Cartesian self, in favour of an ecological ethic based on empathy for the other. In doing so, she rejects not only the "hyperseparation" between self and other, and between humanity and nature, but also postmodern alternatives based on a respect for absolute difference and deep ecological alternatives based on a merging of the self and the world, in favor of a view that recognizes and grounds ethical responsibility in the continuities and divisions between subject and object, and between people and the environment.
Plumwood was a vegetarian, her affirmation of the ecological significance of predation notwithstanding, on account of her objection to factory farming. She advocated a semi-vegetarian position she labelled Ecological Animalism, in opposition to the animal rights platform of Carol J. Adams, which Plumwood called ontological veganism and which she criticised for its endorsement of human/nature dualism.
In "Human vulnerability and the experience of being prey" (1995), Plumwood describes how she survived an attack by a crocodile on 19 February 1985, and her experience of a paradigm shift from what she called the "individual justice universe," where humans are always the predators, and the "Heraclitean universe," where we are just another part of the food chain. During a visit to Kakadu National Park, Plumwood had camped at the East Alligator ranger station and borrowed a four-metre-long, fibreglass canoe from Greg Miles, the park ranger, to explore the East Alligator Lagoon.
When I pulled my canoe over in driving rain to a rock outcrop rising out of the swamp for a hasty, sodden lunch, I experienced the unfamiliar sensation of being watched. Having never been one for timidity, in philosophy or in life, I decided, rather than return defeated to my sticky caravan, to explore a clear, deep channel closer to the river I had travelled along the previous day. ... I had not gone more than five or ten minutes back down the channel when, rounding a bend, I saw ahead of me in midstream what looked like a floating stick – one I did not recall passing on my way up. As the current moved me toward it, the stick appeared to develop eyes.
Crocodiles do not often attack canoes, but this one started lashing at it with his tail. Plumwood grabbed some overhanging branches, but before she could pull herself up the crocodile seized her between the legs and dragged her under the water, a "centrifuge of whirling, boiling blackness, which seemed about to tear my limbs from my body, driving waters into my bursting lungs."
The crocodile briefly let her go, then seized her again, subjecting her to three such "death rolls" before she managed to escape up a steep mud bank. Despite severe injuries – her left leg was exposed to the bone, and she found later that she had contracted melioidosis – she began walking, then crawling, the three kilometres to the ranger station. The park ranger had gone searching for her when she failed to return by nightfall and heard her shout for help. She underwent a 13-hour trip to hospital in Darwin, where she spent a month in intensive care followed by extensive skin grafts. The canoe is now in the National Museum of Australia.
The experience gave Plumwood a glimpse of the world "from the outside," a world that was indifferent to her and would continue without her: "an unrecognisably bleak order" – "As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, This can't be happening to me, I'm a human being. I am more than just food! was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible."[n 1] She argued that our anthropocentric view, the "individual justice universe," is disconnected from reality:
[I]n the individual justice universe the individual subject's universe is like the person-as-the-walled-moated-castle-town. It is under constant siege and desperately, obsessively seeking to keep the body—this body made out of food—away from others and retain it for ourselves alone. Of course we know the walled-moated castle will fall in the end but we try to hold off the siege as long as possible while seeking always more and better siege-resisting technology that will enable us to remain self-enclosed.In the individual/justice universe you own the energy volume of your body absolutely and spend much of that energy defending it frantically against all comers. Any attempt by others at sharing is regarded as an outrage, an injustice, that must be resisted to the hilt (consider our reaction to the overfamiliar gatecrashers at our high-class feast—mosquitoes, leeches, ticks. These outrage our proprietary sensibilities). In the other, Heraclitean universe, being in your body is more like having a volume out from the library, a volume subject to more or less instant recall by other borrowers—who rewrite the whole story when they get it.
- (2012) The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon. Canberra: Australian National University E Press.
- (2002) Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
- (1993) Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London: Routledge.
- (1982) with Richard Routley, Robert K. Meyer, Ross T. Brady. Relevant Logics and Their Rivals, Atascadero, CA: Ridgewood Publications.
- (1973) with Richard Routley, The Fight for the Forests: The Takeover of Australian Forests for Pines, Wood Chips and Intensive Forestry, Research School of Social Sciences, Canberra: Australian National University.
- Val Plumwood, 2012: "This was a strong sense, at the moment of being grabbed by those powerful jaws, that there was something profoundly and incredibly wrong in what was happening, some sort of mistaken identity. My disbelief was not just existential but ethical—this wasn’t happening, couldn’t be happening. The world was not like that! The creature was breaking the rules, was totally mistaken, utterly wrong to think I could be reduced to food. As a human being, I was so much more than food. It was a denial of, an insult to all I was to reduce me to food. Were all the other facets of my being to be sacrificed to this utterly undiscriminating use, was my complex organisation to be destroyed so I could be reassembled as part of this other being? With indignation as well as disbelief, I rejected this event. It was an illusion! It was not only unjust but unreal! It couldn’t be happening.
"After much later reflection, I came to see that there was another way to look at it. There was illusion alright, but it was the other way around. It was the world of ‘normal experience’ that was the illusion, and the newly disclosed brute world in which I was prey was, in fact, the unsuspected reality, or at least a crucial part of it."
- "Snake blamed as academic found dead", Australian Associated Press, 3 March 2008.
"Val Plumwood died of natural causes: friend", Australian Associated Press, 6 March 2008.
James Woodford, "Philosopher as prey, a life of survival", Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 2008.
- Freya Mathews, Kate Rigby, Deborah Rose, "Introduction," in Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2012, p. 4.
- Dominic Hyde, Eco-Logical Lives. The Philosophical Lives of Richard Routley/Sylvan and Val Routley /Plumwood, Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2014, pp. 39–40.
- Freya Mathews, "Val Plumwood", The Guardian, 26 March 2008.
- "Val Plumwood (11 August 1939 – 29 February 2008)", International Society for Environmental Ethics.
- Nicholas Griffin, "Val Plumwood, 1939–", in Joy Palmer (ed.), Fifty Key Thinkers on the Environment, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 283–288.
- Martin Mulligan, Stuart Hill, Ecological Pioneers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 274–300.
- Victoria Davion, "Introduction," Ethics and the Environment,, 14(2), Special Issue on Ecofeminism in Honor of Val Plumwood, Fall 2009. JSTOR 10.2979/ete.2009.14.2.1
- "Val Plumwood", Social and Political Theory Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, archived 21 November 2008.
- Joe Gelonesi, "Two lives, green and logical", "The Philosophers Zone," ABC, 20 April 2014; audio, from c. 3:00 mins for the book.
- Patsy Hallen, "Review: Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason by Val Plumwood," Ethics and the Environment, 7(2), Autumn 2002, pp. 181–184. JSTOR 40339041
- Val Plumwood, "Human vulnerability and the experience of being prey," Quadrant, 29(3), March 1995, pp. 29–34; reprinted here, here and here, also as "Being Prey," Terra Nova, 1(3), Summer 1996, pp. 32–44, and in James O'Reilly, Sean O'Reilly, Richard Sterling (eds.), The Ultimate Journey, 2000, Travelers' Tales, p. 128ff.
- Val Plumwood, The Eye of the Crocodile, edited by Lorraine Shannon, Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2012, p. 35.
- Mulligan and Hill 2001, p. 282.
- Alan Saunders, "Philosophy and the Natural World - Val Plumwood", "The Philosophers Zone," ABC, 15 March 2008 (audio, c. 2:40 mins.
- Mulligan and Hill 2001, p. 283.
- For the children's names, Rod McGuirk, "Val Plumwood, 68, feminist, activist for the environment", Associated Press, 8 March 2008.
- For the son dying in 1988 and Plumwood tending his grave, Val Plumwood, "The Cemetery Wars: Cemeteries, Biodiversity and the Sacred," in Martin Mulligan and Yaso Nadarajah (eds.), Local-Global: identity, security and community, Vol. 3. Special issue: Exploring the legacy of Judith Wright, 2007 (pp. 54–71), pp. 58–59.
- Deborah Bird Rose, "Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: attentive interactions in the sentient world", Environmental Humanities, 3, 2013 (pp. 93–109), p. 94; Mulligan and Hill 2001, pp. 281–283.
- Hyde 2014, pp. 85–87.
- Plumwood 2012, p. 78.
- Hyde 2014, p. 7.
- "Val Plumwood canoe", National Museum of Australia.
- Val Plumwood. "Taken by a crocodile", as told to Michelle Hamer, The Age, 12 January 2004.
- Hyde 2014, p. 12.
- Plumwood 2012, pp. 11–12.
- Plumwood 2012, p. 35.
- External links
- Val Plumwood & Friends: blog site set up for friends to share thoughts and information.
- "'Part of the feast': The life and work of Val Plumwood", National Museum of Australia, 7 May 2013.
- "Your Worst Animal Nightmares: Crocs 2", part of a reconstruction of the crocodile attack, Your Worst Animal Nightmares, Animal Planet, 2009.
- Saunders, Alan. "Philosophy and the Natural World - Val Plumwood", "The Philosophers Zone," ABC, 15 March 2008 (audio).
- Gelonesi, Joe; Hyde, Dominic. "Two lives, green and logical", "The Philosophers Zone," ABC, 20 April 2014 (audio).
- Alaimo, Stacy. "Feminism, Nature, and Discursive Ecologies", Electronic Book Review, 1 September 1996 (review of Feminism and the Mastery of Nature).
- Cuomo, Chris. "Review: Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason", Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 3 November 2002.
- Hyde, Dominic. "Two In the Bush: The Environmental Philosophy of Val Routley/Plumwood and Richard Routley/Sylvan," Southerly, 69, 2009, pp. 57–78.
- Plumwood, Val. "Environmental Ethics and the Master Subject: A Reply to Janis Birkeland", The Trumpeter, 13(4), 1996, pp. 193–196 (Plumwood defends her credentials as an ecofeminist).
- Prest, James. "Protecting Plumwood Mountain," National Parks Journal, 41(6) 1997, p. 17.