Val Plumwood (11 August 1939 – 29 February 2008)

Portrait of ecofeminist Val PlumwoodThe environmental philosophy community mourns the loss of Val Plumwood, 68, who died from a stroke on February 29, 2008 on her property near Braidwood outside Canberra, Australia. She was buried at home on Plumwood Mountain on March 30th in a ceremony conducted and attended by many friends.

She was born Val Morrell on August 11, 1939 into a poor family that ran a poultry farm near Sydney. She studied philosophy at the University of Sydney in the 1960s. In the 1970s she was a prominent member of a group of philosophers at the Australian National University who formed the first wave of Australian environmental philosophy, arguing that environmental problems stemmed not merely from faulty policies, practices, and technologies but from underlying human attitudes toward the natural world that were built into western thought, including the anthropocentric idea that only humans mattered morally and that people had no obligation to protect nonhuman nature for nonhuman nature’s sake. When she married her second husband, philosopher Richard Routley, she became Val Routley. Together they wrote a number of important treatises in environmental ethics, including: (1) The Fight for Forests, 3rd edition (Canberra: Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1975), (2) “Nuclear Energy and Obligations to the Future,” Inquiry Vol. 21 (1978): 133-79, and (3) “Against the Inevitability of Human Chauvinism,” Ethics and Problems of the 21st Century, edited by Kenneth E. Goodpaster and Kenneth M. Sayre, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979).

The Routleys divorced in 1981, and Val became the sole inhabitant of a stone house she had built with Richard in a temperate rainforest in southern Australia. Through her experiences in living here as a member of a congenial, more-than-human community, she acquired a deep knowledge of nature that became legendary. She changed her name to Val Plumwood from Plumwood Mountain—the location of her home—that in turn was named after the plumwood tree.

Plumwood was an independent scholar and took intermittent teaching positions at a number of places, including Macquarie University, University of Sydney, Murdoch University, the University of Tasmania, North Carolina State University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Montana. The Australian National University awarded her a Ph.D. in 1991. She was also an important environmental activist, and in the 1970s and 1980s had been instrumental in an environmental campaign to save rainforests in eastern Australia.

Plumwood famously was attacked by a crocodile while she was canoeing alone through Kakuda National Park (Australia) in 1985. After three crocodile death rolls in the water, she escaped with horrific injuries and crawled for hours through tropical swamps before she was rescued. In the article “Being Prey,” she wrote about this experience. “Being Prey” has been reprinted in The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova, edited by David Rothenberg andMarta Ulvaeus (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999).

Much of Plumwood’s environmental philosophy was focused on analyzing, critiquing, and providing alternatives to dualisms that she believed lie at the heart of the domination of women, nature, and others. The division between mind and matter that supposedly set humans apart from nature became refined into an opposition between reason and nature in the western tradition. This in turn informed many categories of thought and created an ideology of dualisms that rendered that which came to be associated with nature as inferior to that which came to be associated with reason. This ideology was used to legitimize the domination of many subjugated social groups, including women, people of color, the working class and the poor, colonized peoples, indigenous peoples, and nonhuman nature. This led to the central ecofeminist insight that struggles for social justice and environmentalism cannot be separated.

In her book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993), she developed a feminist critique to argue that the master form of western culture’s rationality was unable to acknowledge its dependence on nature, women, and other dominated groups of people that were constructed as inferior; this rational distortion shaped the basic categories of western thought and threatened the survival of people and nonhuman nature. In her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (London: Routledge, 2002), she argued that distortions of reason and culture created dangerous forms of ecological denial that—through economics, ethics, politics, science, and spirituality—gave us an illusory sense of our independence from nature that made us insensitive to dependencies, ecological limits, and interconnections; she drew from democracy, feminism, globalization, and postcolonialism to develop an alternative dialogical interspecies ethics and materialist spirituality of place. In addition to these two books, a sample of her many articles includes: (1) “Ecofeminism: An Overview and Discussion of Positions and Arguments,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy Supplement to Vol. 64 (1986): 120-38, (2) “Women, Humanity and Nature,” Radical Philosophy Vol. 48, no. 1 (1988): 16-24, (3) “Do We Need a Sex/Gender Distinction?,” Radical Philosophy Vol. 51, no. 1 (1989): 2-11, (4) “Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism,” Hypatia Vol. 6, no. 1 (1991): 3-27, (5) “Ethics and Instrumentalism: A Reply to Janna Thompson,” Environmental Ethics Vol. 13, no. 2 (1991): 139-49, (6) “Plato and the Bush: Philosophy and the Environment in Australia,” Thinking Vol. 9 (1991): 39-46, (7) “The Politics of Reason: Towards a Feminist Logic,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 71, no. 4 (1993): 436-62, (8) “The Ecopolitics Debate and the Politics of Nature,” Ecological Feminisms, edited by Karen J. Warren (London: Routledge, 1994), (9) “Androcentrism and Anthropocentrism: Parallels and Politics,” Ethics and the Environment Vol. 1, no. 2 (1996): 119- 52, (10) “Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dualism,” The Great New Wilderness Debate, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), (11) “The Environment,” A Companion to Feminist Philosophy, edited by Alison M. Jaggar and Iris Marion Young (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), (12) “Intentional Recognition and Reductive Rationality: A Response to John Andrews,” Environmental Values Vol. 7, no. 4 (1998): 397-421, (13) “Paths Beyond Human-Centeredness: Lessons from Liberation Struggles,” An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy, edited by Anthony Weston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), (14) “Integrating Ethical Frameworks for Animals, Humans, and Nature: A Critical Feminist Eco-Socialist Analysis,” Ethics and the Environment Vol. 5, no. 2 (2000): 285-322, (15) “Animals and Ecology: Toward a Better Integration,” Food for Thought: The Debate over Eating Meat, edited by Steve F. Sapontzis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004, (16) “Toward a Progressive Naturalism,” Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice, edited by Thomas Heyd (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), (17) “The Concept of a Cultural Landscape: Nature, Culture and Agency in the Land” Ethics and the Environment Vol. 11, no. 2 (2006): 115-50, and (18) “Journey to the Heart of Stone,” Culture, Creativity and Environment: New Environmentalist Criticism, edited by Fiona Becket and Terry Gifford (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007).

At the time of her death, Plumwood was a visiting fellow in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. She was working on some publications regarding death at the time, including “Tasteless: Towards a Food-based Approach to Death” from the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University’s Center for the Environment (October 2007) that can be found at:

A son and a daughter from Plumwood’s first marriage predeceased her. “Remembering Val Plumwood: A memorial site to honor the life and work of Val Plumwood” can be found at:

J. Baird Callicott, University of Northern Texas
I confess that I was a little afraid of Val Plumwood. She was formidable and not just in regard to her personality. She was a formidable intellectual. I did not know her personally well at all. I often call Holmes Rolston “the dean of environmental philosophy,” and he certainly deserves that accolade. Long before Val’s death, however, I also often said that she was the best philosopher in the community of environmental philosophers—the best among us in the twentieth century and so far the best in the twenty-first. She was a master of what I think of as the Australian philosophical style: conceptual clarity, conceptual creativity, and a leave-nostone- unturned, leave-no-inference-unarticulated approach to exposition and argument. The initial news of her death indicated that she wanted to be remembered less as the intrepid outdoor adventurer who was attacked and nearly killed by a saltwater crocodile, or the eccentric recluse whose best friend was a wombat, but most of all simply as a philosopher. That’s certainly how I will remember her.

Yang Tongjin, Vice-President of the Chinese Society for Environmental Ethics
My colleagues in the field of environmental ethics and I are very sorry to hear that Professor Val Plumwood, the leading ecofeminist and an active environmentalist, has died because of a massive and sudden stroke. I, on behalf of the Chinese Society for Environmental Ethics and my colleagues, would like to express our deepest condolences for the death of Professor Val Plumwood and our heartfelt sympathies to her relatives.

Val Plumwood is well-known in China for her profound criticism of the dualisms and rationalism in cotemporary environmental ethics. Her analysis of the dualisms of western philosophy is particularly inspiring for Chinese scholars. Her classic book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, through my efforts was translated into Chinese, and she had been very satisfied with this Chinese version of her book. Two of her papers were also translated into Chinese: “Against the Inevitability of Human Chauvinism” and “Wilderness Skepticism and Wilderness Dualism.” Professor Plumwood’s writings have and will continue to be a positive influence on environmental ethics studies in China.

Before her death, I discussed with her the possibility of translating her book Environmental Culture into Chinese, and she had expressed her intention to visit China this year when she finished her academic activities in South Korea. There is a good chance that Environmental Culture will be translated into Chinese, but now it becomes a forever unrealized dream for Chinese scholars to meet her.

Robert Melchior Figueroa, University of North Texas: “A Day on Plumwood Mountain”
Upon first hearing of Val Plumwood’s death, I was absolutely shocked, emotionally paralyzed, and then angry at the possibility that this was an urban myth spread by internet hooligans. The spectacle that the “crocodile woman” had been taken by a spider bite was the justification for my anger, not because a spider bite was so out of tune with her famous croc escape, but because the day I spent on Plumwood Mountain in the (Australian) late spring of 2005 involved countless encounters with spiders strewn across the rainforest. Val and I hiked her mountain for hours like we were crossing properties of the English countryside. Nearly every few feet we came across a web of a poisonous spider in our path and like the gates of country fences, she would simply detach two leading spars of the web, spider unbothered, and swing the web out of the way, reattaching it gently to the next available branches. She must have done this a hundred times during our philosophical hike, so the thought that a spider of all things had done her in, was unimaginable in my brief experience with her.

She taught me a few other tricks to get around the critter-healthy world of “her” mountain. How to remove the leeches from my legs after the hike; pull them off, ball them up by rubbing your hands together, and flick ‘em. Wish I knew that a month before when the suckers ruined my hike with my family (partner, two-year old, and infant). How to collect bright blue items, flowers, feathers, pieces of plastic from groceries, and give them to the bower bird who decorates her nest with these items. First time I saw one of those bowers on a college campus, I thought it was an art student’s installation. How to make a pact with the wombat to trim the lawn surrounding the house, “It’s a fair contract,” she said, “and it saves on petrol and noise pollution.” She also taught me how one would converse with the many animals all around the place, how to respect the rocks and trees in their own agency, and how to keep the ants from ransacking the house and food stuff by simply placing a bowl of sugar in one of the cabinets. Before that, I was convinced Australia was a big ant hill that humans mistakenly took for dry land. The ant feeding was clean and fair, and echoed David Abram’s opening chapter of The Spell of the Sensuous. I remarked this to her, and we shared our deep admiration for that book in lengthy conversation.

Of course, Val had the last word on it, “I love it, but you know he’s wrong.” “I know, Val, I know!”

Our agreement wasn’t in thinking he was really wrong, but we knew that both of us would put oppression of the Other as the origins of the West’s separation with nature before we would locate the cause on the origins of the technological determinism of the written alphabet. I doubt Abram would disagree, since he admits it’s a series of causes, actually.

I went to Plumwood Mountain for two key reasons: 1) I’d avidly read her work and taught her two masterpiece books in my classes; most recently Environmental Culture in a seminar on Political Ecology and Environmental Justice at the University of Wollongong (UOW). 2) I needed insights on the agency of rocks, since I had been writing a lot on environmental justice and moral terrains with a geographer at UOW, Gordon Waitt. We were centering on the normative conflicts of Anangu values and ecotourism at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Plumwood regarded me with warm appreciation as “a reader,” though I felt like she treated me like a good friend and a comrade in philosophy. And, I think she was slightly suspicious of my authenticity regarding alternative forms of agency. Initially, I couldn’t help feeling she was also putting me through a few initiations before she could trust me.

First, when we met at her gate, she stopped her car a few meters in and said she had to remove some Scottish thistle (musk thistle), and since it was in a swampy region of the rainforest I was welcomed to stay in the car. As if! After all, I’d wrestled with these creatures working for Boulder Open Space a season on the Integrated Pest Management crew. Musk thistle, I knew. Swamps, I knew from growing up in the New Jersey swamps and pine barrens. She didn’t have her gloves, so I showed her how to remove these invaders from their roots, where thorns give way to smooth shoots. And, then we both traipsed through the swamp with clear knowledge of where solid ground lay. Then I told her about my experience discovering the expanded range of the rare and endangered orchid, Spiranthes diluvialis, among the wetlands of Colorado’s Front Range.

“Orchids! You favor orchids do you?”

And, further into the swamp we sloshed as she showed me the beautiful, majestic, and extremely miniature “flying duck orchid” (Caleana major). There it was, a perfect image of a mallard landing in water like some old Disney documentary, on the head of a very small stem, waiting for us to admire. We must have spent the next twenty-minutes figuring out what this would really be named by the aboriginals who inhabited this place, and what it could have meant in their “Dreamtime.” We much doubted it would have been named “flying duck,” but I’m not quite sure why we were that certain.

And regarding the intentionality of rocks, the agency of rocks and trees, that was worth serious exploration. Rocks. She (and Richard, I presume) built that incredible octagonal rock house of hers from the boulders that littered the mountain. (Maybe “littering” is always bad?) After our lunch and the house tour, she showed me her other rocks: The broken heart rock, the  eological transformations that lead to the different vegetation and animal speciation, and the rock-lore of Dreamtime stories. Finally, we went down the escarpment to the plumwood grove, down by the stream that she somehow piped uphill with only the stream’s pressure to feed her house-water. The plumwoods thrive on the life of the palms, they seed about five feet up on the palms, and then they grow. Not unlike the giant strangling fig trees that choke victims until they grow with the wildest of spirals. Figs and Plumwoods, I liked the sound of that. Plumwood trees can grow at right angles just to give room for the other plumwoods in their community.

“Tell me that doesn’t give us cause to rethink intentionality,” she pointed.

We were standing in a grove of plumwoods no younger than 10,000 years old, no thicker than the palms they absorbed, and I wasn’t sure how exactly to cognate her sense of “intentionality,” nor how to disagree. You have to see it to accept it, I suppose. And, you need to get over consciousness and sentience as the basis for intentionality. We agreed on that.

We talked until the light dimmed and the road to down the mountain would have become fatal. We discussed at length the analytical meanings of “intentionality” and “agency,” and we agreed on the viability of those meanings. She as a trained logician, me as a trained analytic, not as a means to legitimate our philosophical savvy, but to recognize the multiplicity of meanings that “intentionality” and “agency” could take. And, how much further we could philosophically  understand the world if we did not restrict agency from those who speak in a different voice.

Among the trees, spiders, wombats, bullfrogs, bower birds, and rainforest, we agreed, we were right, and they were right.

Chaone Mallory, Villanova University
I am very saddened over the news of Val Plumwood’s death. Reading her article “Nature, Self, and Gender: Environmental Philosophy, Feminism and the Critique of Rationalism” early in my graduate career gave me that “aha” moment that led to the main argument of my M.A. thesis, ideas I continued to work through in my dissertation, and that are still ongoing for me in the form of articulating a field that many, especially Plumwood, contribute to, that I think could be termed “ecofeminist political philosophy.” Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) was a pivotal ecofeminist text that showed many skeptics the depth and scholarly acumen of ecological feminist philosophy. While I was doing my M.A. work, and beginning to explore philosophical ecofeminism, Baird Callicott told me that he considered Val Plumwood to be the most rigorous environmental philosopher of the time. The rethinking of our philosophical heritage and traditions she calls for in her work, as well as Plumwood’s own positive contributions to philosophical inquiry, have absolutely altered how we understand the relation between gender and the history of philosophy, have changed our ideas about how to do philosophy and what it is for, and of course have spurred us to re-think our relation with the more-than-human world. Needless to say, her work has been an inspiration to me, and many, many others.

I never had the privilege of meeting Val Plumwood personally, although I had heard from those who knew her that she had incredible stamina as a hiker, was deeply loyal to her friends, and took no guff. She was scheduled to appear in North America at the Canadian meeting of the Society for Women in Philosophy (C-SWIP) this coming October; I had hoped to have a paper accepted so that I would have the chance to meet her, or at least hear her, in person. I deeply regret that I will now never have that chance. Instead there will be the inadequate (but fitting) substitute of a panel on Plumwood’s work held there, which I am honored to be a part of, but certainly will be no match for hearing what she herself would have said, no match for hearing a living legend.

Her works always appear on my syllabi regardless of the class, because she was so prolific, and the range of her work is so broad: Plumwood is an environmental philosopher, political theorist, feminist philosopher, and cultural theorist. If you want to hook students into thinking seriously about our ethical relations with non-human animals, show them compelling ways to perform feminist analysis on cultural narratives, as well as just plain read a riveting piece, just assign “Being Prey,” the story of her famous crocodile attack, and subsequent re-affirmation of her vegetarianism! Strangely, it so happens that when news of her death was announced, her last book, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason was the very next text I had assigned in my graduate seminar, “Gender, Nature, and the Political.” Of course our reading was very poignant, especially the last chapter on a materialist spirituality of place.

Perhaps those of us so admiring of Plumwood’s work and life can take comfort in these words she wrote there: “Since these communities of nature live on after an individual’s death, a satisfying form of continuity for the fully embedded person may be found in the mutual lifegiving flow of the self upon death back into the larger life-giving other that is nature, the earth and its communities of life. Some may feel they need more: for me, this recycling is enough.”

Michael Paul Nelson, Michigan State University
Like all of us I greatly admired Val’s work. I was also fortunate enough to meet her a few times at conferences and share the stage with her. Through those meetings my admiration for her work extended to her as a person. She was playful and raucous, hard nosed and sharp witted. A few years back she and I were both on a panel at an environmental history conference in North Carolina. I walked into the big room where our session was to be held and up to the front where she was sitting looking over her notes. I sat down next to her and said hi, she looked over at me with a big smile and said, “Oh hi Michael, are you here to apologize for your book,” I roared and responded “not for the whole book, just for the last essay.” She roared in response. She was referring to The Great New Wilderness Debate––the last essay was hers, one she wrote especially for the book.