Reviewed by Michael Colebrook
The late Val Plumwood’s previous book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (Routledge, 1993) is one of the foundational texts of eco-feminism. In Environmental Culture she has written a worthy successor.
It is not always an easy read but well worth the effort. She argues that in relation to the current environmental crises ‘it is clear that at the technological level we already have the means to accomplish the changes needed to live sustainably on and with the earth. So the problem is not primarily about more knowledge or technology: it is about developing an environmental culture that values and fully acknowledges the non-human sphere and our dependency on it.’
As in her previous book she locates the origins of the main obstacle to achieving this with the mind/body dualism inherent in Platonic idealism. Other dualisms derive from this primary one and inevitably lead to differential valuing of the components – mind over body, male over female, human over nature – leading in turn to the emergence of patterns of reasoning centred on the dominant element. Val Plumwood focuses particularly on the human/nature divide leading to an anthropocentric, human-centred culture. She claims that ‘As the human-centred culture of our modern form of rationalism grows steadily more remote and self-enclosed, it loses the capacity to imagine or detect its danger. But if this form of reason judges that nature is now inessential to its life, ecological catastrophe will deliver the verdict of a higher court, that reason has failed to recognise its ground in nature. Human-centred culture springs from an impoverished and inadequate conceptual and rational world; it is helping to create in its image a real world that is not only ecologically, biologically, and aesthetically damaged, but is also rationally damaged.’
Nearly three-quarters of the book is taken up with an extraordinarily wide ranging analysis of the problems of modern rationality in the fields of science, politics, economics, philosophy and ethics. In each field the problems of anthropocentrism and human self-enclosure, of narrow viewpoints and what she calls monological thinking are emphasised. The remainder of the book looks at ways of breaking out of the enclosed rationality of our anthropocentric culture. The two main chapter headings are enlightening. ‘Towards dialogical interspecies ethics’ and ‘Towards a materialist spirituality of place.’ Val Plumwood suggests that a key to a successful dialogue with Earth-others is to recognise their intentionality. ‘The intentional recognition stance allows us to re-animate nature both as agent in our joint undertakings and as potentially communicative other: we can join scientists like Humbolt in hearing basalt cones and pumice speak of their past to the well-versed observer who stops to listen.’