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Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (review)

From: Ethics & the Environment
Volume 7, Number 2, Autumn 2002
pp. 181-184 | 10.1353/een.2002.0018

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Ethics & the Environment 7.2 (2002) 181-184

Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason by Val Plumwood. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. 240. Hardback $75; paperback $21.95. ISBN 0-415-17878-9.
" . . . ALL THINGS EXCELLENT ARE AS DIFFICULT AS THEY ARE RARE."

Benedict De Spinoza, The Ethics Prop. XLII

Environmental Culture is a rare blend of fierceness and tenderness. It boldly unmasks the institutional and systemic violence of our culture and simultaneously offers enchanting tributes to the communicativity and intentionality of "earth others." This exceptional combination of political acumen and radical vulnerability marks Val Plumwood as one of the most brilliant environmental thinkers of our time.

Plumwood shows us how the distortions of reason and culture have resulted in life-threatening forms of ecological denial. In a compelling and multi-dimensional account of the crisis of reason, the author reveals how our culture's life-destroying practices and ethical and spiritual bankruptcy are closely linked to our failure to situate ourselves as ecological beings. Informed by feminist thought, post-colonial theory, indigenous philosophy, and a rich tapestry of research, Plumwood provides a provocative diagnosis of the cultural illusions that fuel the contemporary environmental crisis.

Environmental culture demonstrates how an anthropocentric logic of human self-enclosure has been masquerading as rationality, and how this perverted rationality has captured many spheres of culture. A disembedded economic system, for instance, works hand-in-hand with an instrumentalist, productivist science aimed at prediction for profit and control. This reductionist form of science impoverishes, passifies, and deadens the natural world to become what Plumwood calls a "sado-dispassionate" science. It fosters cultural illusions of power over and remoteness from nature. And these conceptual blindspots encourage deceptions of invincibility and feed unprecedentedly high levels of dislocation and disassociation between production and consumption, costs and benefits. Our political and economic systems profit from and normalize massive processes of biospheric degradation and disable corrective forces by discounting, suppressing, or co-opting critically reflexive and communicative feedback. Plumwood cogently argues that the roots of the ecological crisis are in inadequate knowledge (ignorance), unjust political structures (interest), and malformed humancentered ethical, philosophical, and spiritual worldviews (illusion), all three of which are actively inter-linked and mutually reinforcing.

This analysis is not new: the seeds of it were in Plumwood's 1993 book, Feminism andthe Mastery of Nature. What is new, however, is the richly researched, sustained and detailed interpellations of economics, politics, and governance. Challenges to the current structures of power, as Plumwood points out, will be ineffective unless they change the basis of democracy. But environmental philosophers often avoid sustained scrutiny of the radically unequal distribution of power and resources. So that ominous lacuna makes Val Plumwood's contribution all the more valuable.

What is also new and enormously worthwhile is the material devoted to developing an environmental culture, where Plumwood offers creative, counterhegemonic strategies and oppositional practices. Thus, she inspires social, political, and cultural change from the roots of our humanity.

Plumwood subverts the divisive dualisms of culture and nature, reason and emotion, mind and body by revealing, in stunning prose, humans as ecologically embedded and nonhumans as ethical subjects. She replaces sado-dispassionate forms of rationality with caring and life-affirming ones which foster inter-species dialogue and mutual flourishing. She reminds us how a materialist and place-based spirituality can contribute to a critical political ecology. She offers an integrated, democratic, ethically responsive vision of science that is nonreductionist, self-reflective, dialogical, and respectful of the intentionality and agency of the more-than-human world. She outlines ways to reduce remoteness which cocoons the privileged from the terrible costs of their excesses, and posits remoteness reduction as a political goal for ecological rationality. Plumwood does not succumb to the temptation of eco-authoritian answers, but provides us with a procedural and participatory democracy which encourages social equity, respects cultural differences, and nourishes solidarity. She cuts through the prudence versus ethics debate that has side-railed environmental philosophy by showing how both prudential and ethical considerations are valuable for a better partnership with nature. Plumwood even challenges the hallowed institution of private property, arguing that respect for nature requires a mutualistic or guardianship...



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