Feminism and the Mastery of Nature

Val Plumwood saw the danger of the western attitude towards nature decades before eco-consciousness went mainstream.


At Val Plumwood's funeral last March, the pallbearers had a difficult time fitting the ecofeminist's casket into the ground. Mourners smiled and said she would have preferred to be buried standing up anyway. She had, after all, spent her entire life on her feet, voice raised, for the issues she believed in so deeply – gender equality and environmental awareness. In the end, the casket fit, but just barely. It was no surprise that she didn’t lie down to rest so easily.

Decades before the dangers of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases entered the public and political consciousness, Plumwood saw the warning signs all too clearly. Many consider her a pioneer of the environmental movement – she called for the preservation of biodiversity in the 1960s and led a vocal campaign to halt logging in the forests of her native Australia.

In the 1970s, she joined a group of philosophers at the Australian National University lobbying to bring environmental issues to the forefront of policy debate. And she launched a radical critique against the traditional western concept of nature. Western beliefs, she argued, discount nature and render it insignificant; in the western framework, only humans matter. Plumwood feared the results of such human-centrist attitudes would be catastrophic.

An ardent writer and philosopher, Plumwood expressed her views in numerous articles and books. Her most famous, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993), called for the end of dualism in western thought. Dualism, she argued, is a mental and moral separation of two living entities, such as man and woman or human and nature, and constructing this difference creates “an inferior or alien realm.” The inferior group is consequently subject to exploitation at the hands of the more powerful one. Plumwood argued that although humanity and nature were indeed diverse entities, neither would survive if they were continually subjected to dualism’s hierarchical structure. It would end in the destruction of both groups, she warned.

She was right, of course. And, alongside other environmental pioneers such as Rachel Carson and Arne Naess, she set the groundwork for a profound shift in how we think about the environment. Her ideas were years ahead of their time, if the abundance of plastic bags still being tossed into the Earth’s landfills is any indication of how little has changed.

Plumwood did not just preach, she lived the life she advocated. Together with her first husband, she built a stone house deep in the rainforest of Southern Australia. When the two divorced in 1981, she continued to live there and took the last name “Plumwood,” after Plumwood Mountain where her home was. She lived life on her own terms and with dignity, always forgoing the paved road in order to forge a new path and a new way of thinking.

Ironically, Plumwood’s most courageous battle was not with western capitalism or hierarchical attitudes, but with nature itself. In 1985, a crocodile attacked her while she was kayaking in Australia’s Northern Territory. She escaped from the crocodile’s jaws and crawled for hours until she was rescued. She then took the blame for encroaching on the crocodile’s habitat.

It’s hard to say whether Plumwood would have been amused or frustrated by the coverage of her death, which originally reported she had succumbed to a snakebite. It later said she died of “natural” causes. She would have been the first to accept the idea that humans can be prey as often as they are predators.

18 comments on the article “Feminism and the Mastery of Nature”

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Hann Chiu

Thanks for the article. I will strive to be more like her.

Duality is for Descartes. Progressives should learn about it, but realize it's foolishness.

XVX for life, R.A.S.H. 'til death.

Hann Chiu

Thanks for the article. I will strive to be more like her.

Duality is for Descartes. Progressives should learn about it, but realize it's foolishness.

XVX for life, R.A.S.H. 'til death.

themysterion@gm...

Biodiversity is, even on a strictly pragmatic level, extremely important for the longterm survival of humans. Anyone who has done work to push this scientifically backed point into popular consciousness definitely deserves heaps of gratitude.

BUT, that doesn't mean I subscribe to the philosophy piggy backing on the environmental conclusions. The value of biodiversity does not require the abandonment of hierarchical values to realise.

In traditional Western thought women have been associated with nature and both have been characterized as being inherently less intelligent and more emotional in contrast to the supposed rational men. Deconstructing this ideological and oppressive dualism is incredibly important, but that does not mean we should ignore actually existing differences and hierarchies.

For instance, it is important to assert that women are at least as capable as men at various societal roles that men have traditionally dominated. At the same time, to ignore the various economic and social disadvantages that women continue to struggle with would hinder the actual work that needs to be done. To both acknowledge the ideal and the reality is so important.

So when this Woman-Nature/Man-Mind dualism is deconstructed for the purpose of showing the equality between men and women that does not mean we should also elevate nature itself to a level of equality. Men and women as well as humans of different ethnic groups, thought not all the same, vary to such a minor degree that anything except total political equality is unnacceptable and will one day I think be unanimously held throughout the world. (However, the contrasts and conflicts between children and adults may remain controversial indefinitely.) On the other hand, though I am entirely supportive of a bill of rights for animals, even the language users of the animal kingdom have not organized on their own behalf and therefore our relationship to them in actuality has and will probably remain paternal. When people in the mainstream see all the talk of BIODIVERSITY linked with very ROMANTIC notions about the equality of all living things, it becomes easier to dismiss the need for ecological stewardship as "tree hugging" rather than self-interested scientifically proven neccesity. Because the reality is, we NEED nature, it doesn't need us.

Human beings are not neccesary to the functioning of the ecosystem compared to say, marine algae, without which the majority of animal life would die of lack of oxygen. If on the other hand, people dissapeared, it has been widely speculated that earth would become a bit more bountiful and non-toxic.

The idea that human mechanitions can replace nature rather than occasionally tweek it or add something could definitely be partially blamed for the mess we are in today. BUT this idea is not the only conclusion of a hierarchical classification of humans with nature. Humans are in comparison to all other products of nature incredibly unique, curious, creative and rational in exercizing their powers. After all, most forces that have caused mass extinctions on the planet were brainless diseases or unliving meteorites from space.

HUMANS are on the TOP of the PYRAMID. We are in a privileged position, but we are using that position to undermine the foundations of the structure. Since the HIERARCHY is part of the REALITY, it makes no sense to philosophically try and cover up these distinctions.

themysterion@gm...

Biodiversity is, even on a strictly pragmatic level, extremely important for the longterm survival of humans. Anyone who has done work to push this scientifically backed point into popular consciousness definitely deserves heaps of gratitude.

BUT, that doesn't mean I subscribe to the philosophy piggy backing on the environmental conclusions. The value of biodiversity does not require the abandonment of hierarchical values to realise.

In traditional Western thought women have been associated with nature and both have been characterized as being inherently less intelligent and more emotional in contrast to the supposed rational men. Deconstructing this ideological and oppressive dualism is incredibly important, but that does not mean we should ignore actually existing differences and hierarchies.

For instance, it is important to assert that women are at least as capable as men at various societal roles that men have traditionally dominated. At the same time, to ignore the various economic and social disadvantages that women continue to struggle with would hinder the actual work that needs to be done. To both acknowledge the ideal and the reality is so important.

So when this Woman-Nature/Man-Mind dualism is deconstructed for the purpose of showing the equality between men and women that does not mean we should also elevate nature itself to a level of equality. Men and women as well as humans of different ethnic groups, thought not all the same, vary to such a minor degree that anything except total political equality is unnacceptable and will one day I think be unanimously held throughout the world. (However, the contrasts and conflicts between children and adults may remain controversial indefinitely.) On the other hand, though I am entirely supportive of a bill of rights for animals, even the language users of the animal kingdom have not organized on their own behalf and therefore our relationship to them in actuality has and will probably remain paternal. When people in the mainstream see all the talk of BIODIVERSITY linked with very ROMANTIC notions about the equality of all living things, it becomes easier to dismiss the need for ecological stewardship as "tree hugging" rather than self-interested scientifically proven neccesity. Because the reality is, we NEED nature, it doesn't need us.

Human beings are not neccesary to the functioning of the ecosystem compared to say, marine algae, without which the majority of animal life would die of lack of oxygen. If on the other hand, people dissapeared, it has been widely speculated that earth would become a bit more bountiful and non-toxic.

The idea that human mechanitions can replace nature rather than occasionally tweek it or add something could definitely be partially blamed for the mess we are in today. BUT this idea is not the only conclusion of a hierarchical classification of humans with nature. Humans are in comparison to all other products of nature incredibly unique, curious, creative and rational in exercizing their powers. After all, most forces that have caused mass extinctions on the planet were brainless diseases or unliving meteorites from space.

HUMANS are on the TOP of the PYRAMID. We are in a privileged position, but we are using that position to undermine the foundations of the structure. Since the HIERARCHY is part of the REALITY, it makes no sense to philosophically try and cover up these distinctions.

Anonymous

Well actually, the notion of women as equals is relatively recent, as far as human history goes, and for the most part, it only caught on with the advent of man-made machines that made daily living easier for men and women, such as electricity, plumbing, automated heating systems, etc. When you have a society that exists the way nature intended for human beings to live, physical strength plays a much larger role than we realize nowadays, and in almost all societies, this has led to men being viewed as superior to women. (Although it's true that women do have their share of advantages over men, it's still a scientific fact that men are generally stronger than women, and that when a man and a woman live under the same conditions, share the same diet, and exercise the same amount, the man will be the stronger of the two.)

In other words, the irony of Ms. Plumwood's philosophy is that it's nature which causes the human race to view men and women dualistically, with men as superiors.

Anonymous

Well actually, the notion of women as equals is relatively recent, as far as human history goes, and for the most part, it only caught on with the advent of man-made machines that made daily living easier for men and women, such as electricity, plumbing, automated heating systems, etc. When you have a society that exists the way nature intended for human beings to live, physical strength plays a much larger role than we realize nowadays, and in almost all societies, this has led to men being viewed as superior to women. (Although it's true that women do have their share of advantages over men, it's still a scientific fact that men are generally stronger than women, and that when a man and a woman live under the same conditions, share the same diet, and exercise the same amount, the man will be the stronger of the two.)

In other words, the irony of Ms. Plumwood's philosophy is that it's nature which causes the human race to view men and women dualistically, with men as superiors.

Anonymous

Actually the inequality concept between men and women is a modern human construct. Who is to say that the labor of a woman is any less strenuous. It was actually intelligence that formed our human social system, the choice to subjugate women due to physical strength was an incredibly moronic decision.

Anonymous

Actually the inequality concept between men and women is a modern human construct. Who is to say that the labor of a woman is any less strenuous. It was actually intelligence that formed our human social system, the choice to subjugate women due to physical strength was an incredibly moronic decision.

Ben

If you only go back to a certain point in human history, and only stay within certain cultures, this is true, but there have definitely been female-dominant cultures and, before the invention of the plow, most cultures were more centric in the relative value of men and women's roles. They were differentiated for sure (maybe the men hunt and the women raise crops and maintain the settlement), but they were both valued. Then someone goes and invents the plow and gardening becomes pretty damn hard.

I'm going to take issue that a society can work in "the way nature intended" (besides the fact that nature's intent probably did not include the plow by your definition). Doing things "naturally" can have benefit in a lot of areas. Eating whole foods for example has nutritional benefit that we don't totally understand and can't recreate in manufacturing. We, as societies and cultures, however, need to work out our own social structure. We need to find a way to value what both men and women bring to the table. We have this capacity.

Ben

If you only go back to a certain point in human history, and only stay within certain cultures, this is true, but there have definitely been female-dominant cultures and, before the invention of the plow, most cultures were more centric in the relative value of men and women's roles. They were differentiated for sure (maybe the men hunt and the women raise crops and maintain the settlement), but they were both valued. Then someone goes and invents the plow and gardening becomes pretty damn hard.

I'm going to take issue that a society can work in "the way nature intended" (besides the fact that nature's intent probably did not include the plow by your definition). Doing things "naturally" can have benefit in a lot of areas. Eating whole foods for example has nutritional benefit that we don't totally understand and can't recreate in manufacturing. We, as societies and cultures, however, need to work out our own social structure. We need to find a way to value what both men and women bring to the table. We have this capacity.

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