It’s not all about us: the philosopher trio who changed the debate

As we face an era of monumental challenges around declining biodiversity and climate change, meet the scholars who first proposed a new environmental ethics for the Western world.

Three cows with tags in ears

A new kind of ethics

Richard Sylvan and Val Plumwood – formerly the married couple Richard and Val Routley – were leading proponents of a new environmental ethics which emphasised the intrinsic value of the natural world.

Plumwood and Peter Singer both featured in Routledge’s 2001 Fifty Key Thinkers on the Environment, alongside Darwin, Buddha, Gandhi, Rousseau and Spinoza. Singer’s 1975 Animal Liberation amounted to a “philosophical bombshell”, according to Newkirk.

The book, which highlighted the suffering of animals in factory farming, medical research and product testing, galvanised an incipient animal advocacy movement and changed the eating habits of millions of people worldwide.

Singer denounced “speciesism”, the elevation of human interests above those of other animals. Likening it to racism and sexism, he declared it equally morally indefensible, since it denied animals’ complex needs and desires and disregarded their capacity for pain and pleasure.

His ideas, which continue to inspire animal rights campaigns and animal welfare law reform, formed the basis for interdisciplinary animal studies and still provoke academic and political debate.

Rejecting ‘human chauvinism’

Like Singer, Sylvan and Plumwood disputed an anthropocentric (human-centred) ethics which propounded that, morally, only humans matter. Brilliant thinkers, the pair were also environmental activists who, in the 1970s, fought plans to clear vast tracts of ancient hardwood forests for commercial purposes.

Rejecting “human chauvinism”, they advocated a radical rethinking of our ethical relationship with nature to recognise its independent moral status.

In his trailblazing 1973 essay “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?”, Sylvan set out his destructive “last man” theory. He argues that if we agree that the last person is wrong to destroy the environment, then we will have to acknowledge that nature has a value that cannot be explained by its usefulness to humans.

That same year, the couple co-published a seminal book, Fight for The Forests. An economic, socio-political and philosophical critique of the forestry industry, it became a conservationists’ bible and spurred the creation of a new academic field: environmental philosophy.

Urgent questions for a changing world

For Freya Mathews, the environmental philosopher, Sylvan and Plumwood helped to articulate “questions that would define the agenda for environmental philosophy for decades to come” in the Anglophone world.

Plumwood’s theories on nature developed into a philosophy about the subjugation of social groups, including the working class, women and Indigenous peoples.

Her two major books – Feminism and the Mastery of Nature and Environmental Culture – became classic texts of environmental philosophy and eco-feminism.

In an era facing the monumental challenges of biodiversity loss and global warming, the repudiation of anthropocentrism by these three philosophers seems more relevant than ever.

Further reading & resources

Discovering Humanities series

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This series is a celebration of humanities research and discovery. Born out of our 50th anniversary in 2019, it covers just a small fraction of the many advances within the humanities since the Academy was first founded.

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