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Environmental philosophy

Environmental Philosophy gained prominence as a sub-discipline of philosophy in the 1970s, primarily in response to emerging environmental challenges.

A range of different approaches to considering human environmental relations emerged in the sub-discipline, such as Ecofeminism (Val Plumwood), Animal Liberation (Peter Singer), the Land Ethic (Aldo Leopold) and Deep Ecology (Arne Naess). Within these approaches there was a marked shift away from anthropocentric — or human-centred — environmental ethics. In particular, these approaches advocated greater consideration of the moral status and intrinsic value of non-humans, rather than determining the value of non-human entities based on human needs and desires.

The influential Australian Feminist Philosopher, Val Plumwood, writing on the legacy of environmental philosophy, states:

First appearing in academia in the area of value theory in the early 1970s, environmental philosophy has now made itself felt across the whole discipline of philosophy, taking in core areas such as political philosophy, justice ethics, history of philosophy, moral epistemology and metaphysics. In all these areas philosophers have exposed the dangerous logic of current frameworks that devalue and background the non-human world. Some have argued that our human-centredness weaves a dangerous set of illusions about the human condition right into the logic of our basic conceptual structures.[1]

A key component of Plumwood’s environmental philosophy that has been widely adopted by environmental humanities scholars is her call to articulate human “embeddedness in and dependency on nature” through two “tasks”, which she sums up as “the tasks of (re) situating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms”. [1]

For Plumwood these two tasks have both ethical and justice dimensions:

The inability or refusal to recognise the way non-humans contribute to or support our lives encourages us to starve them of resources. It has justice aspects because we refuse to give other species their share of the earth, and it has ethical aspects because we fail them in care, consideration and attention. [1]

Questions of ethics and justice are central to Environmental Humanities, prompting us to consider our human responsibilities when we understand ourselves as embedded with and dependent upon non-human others.

We look more closely at anthropocentrism and human value systems in Week 3.


  1. Val Plumwood, “Nature in the Active Voice,” Ecological Humanities (Issue 46, May 2009).

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This article is from the free online course:

Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature

UNSW Sydney

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