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.