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Environmental Values

Contents of Volume 17

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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.17 No.3
Without Finality

Val Plumwood died earlier this year on 29 February. This issue contains an obituary essay for Val Plumwood by Freya Matthews and a recent paper by Val Plumwood herself reflecting on the limitations of two dominant perspectives on death offered by transcendental spiritual perspectives on the one hand, and reductive materialist perspectives on the other. She claims that both are premised on human exceptionalism. The first offers a narrative of 'alienated continuity' of the self in a spiritual domain. The second offers a narrative of 'reductive-materialist discontinuity - the supposed finality of material death, or the narrative of no narratives'.1 The reductive materialist perspective is encapsulated in what she calls the 'Finality Thesis', that is 'the claim that death is the final end of the story'.2 Against this 'narrative of no narratives' she offers an ecological animistic materialism, which conceives of life after death 'not as the end of a narrative, but another continuing narrative'. Specifically, it acknowledges that the body belongs to a cycle of life processes, that it decomposes and decays as the condition of further life: 'By understanding life as in circulation, as a gift from a community of ancestors, we can see death as recycling, a flowing on into an ecological and ancestral community of origins.' 3

Val Plumwood's reflections on death will undoubtedly be the occasion for further reflection and debate. Always robust in debate, I know that she would want this to be the opening of a conversation and not itself the final word. I had two immediate thoughts on reading her paper. The first is that while she may be right that the two perspectives she outlines are important themes in many Western philosophical theories and mortuary practices, there are also positions within the classical philosophical tradition which are not so distant from the view of life in circulation she outlines. Consider, for example, the materialist position of Lucretius:

There is need of matter for the growth of later generations, all of which, nevertheless, shall follow you when they have lived their lives; and in like matter generations before you have died, and others shall die hereafter. Thus without end one springs from another, and life is granted to no one as possession but as a loan.4

The second is that while Val Plumwood's argument focuses on the bodily narratives that continue after a person's death, there is a social and cultural dimension to the narratives of a life that is also important. The narratives of people's lives are embodied in the projects and the relationships in which they engaged and these also continue beyond their deaths. This fact gives us grounds for a particular kind of concern about the future: 'once we recognise that the narrative shape of a life matters, then we have concerns for the future that are grounded in our own current projects and relationships rather than a purely impartial ethical commitment'.5 This narrative dimension to human lives grounds not just obligations to the future, but also obligations to the past. One immediate expression of that obligation is the practice of writing obituary itself.

One of the difficulties of writing an obituary lies in the recognition of the need to do justice to the narrative of a person's life in its fullness. Freya Matthews's finely crafted and thoughtful obituary essay succeeds in doing just this. In particular, it captures the way that Val's philosophical work was integrated into her life and not something apart from it. It also acknowledges those aspects of her character which were admirable even though they might not fit into the traditional list of virtues. In a message that accompanied her obituary essay Freya wrote: 'I included a bit about Val's famous fierceness, as I didn't want the piece to be hagiographic, as Val was quite consciously and unapologetically, as she often put it, "too much"'. Personally I found it was just those robust sides of her character which made her such a delight in conversation. The last conversations I had with her were during her period as Visiting Professor at Lancaster University. After a typically lively interchange at a seminar on feminism and logic6 we went for a walk on Clougha, the local fell above Lancaster which is a personal favourite of mine. The walk was not an occasion for the debates to cease. Rather, the landscape itself proved the occasion for another debate about the virtues or vices of the open, sheep-grazed, treeless moorland that we crossed.7

Obituary involves a recognition that we have obligations to those who have died. They are the first words in a conversation that is not just about honouring and doing justice to a person in words, but continuing the story of her life. The problem with what Val Plumwood describes as the Finality Thesis, that the story of a person's life ends at the moment of death, is that it fails to acknowledge both what we owe to those who have died and at the same time the ways the future beyond our own deaths matters to us. The Finality Thesis, the narrative of no narratives, fails to capture why past and future generations matter to us. The focus of Val Plumwood's criticism of the Finality Thesis is not however primarily concerned with the relations between human generations but rather with the body and ecological processes. It is the narratives of nature that she emphasises and in particular the body itself as something that belongs of the circulation of life. An insight of her essay is the way that particular perspectives on death are embodied in mortuary practices, in particular in the ways that even in death the body is kept separate from ecological processes that would benefit other forms of life. In contrast, she suggests an alternative set of practices: 'mortuary symbolisms and grave practices might aim to nourish rather than exclude other life forms, affirming rather than demonising our transition to the non-human in death'.8 It was fitting that her own funeral was the occasion for this alternative mortuary practice. In death, philosophical theory and practice were not kept apart.

JOHN O'NEILL

notes

1 V. Plumwood, 'Tasteless: Towards a Food-Based Approach to Death' Environmental Values 17 (2008): 323-331, p. 328. doi: 10.3197/096327108X343103.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 325.

4 Lucretius On Nature R. Greer trans. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965) Book 3, pp. 967-971

5 J. O'Neill, 'Happiness and the Good Life', Environmental Values 17(2008): 125-144, p. 138. doi: 10.3197/096327108X303819.

6 The discussion of logic points to aspects of Val Plumwood's work which are less well-known but which deserve some mention. In the early 1990s while I was discussing some of Val Plumwood's work on ecofeminism and environmental philosophy in my teaching, my colleague Geoffrey Hunter seeing her name spoke highly of her work on relevance logic. This was not an interest that she kept separate from her more well-known work on ecofeminism. Her work on non-standard logics informed her discussions of feminism and reason.

7 In doing so we were continuing an older conversation I had had with Richard Sylvan who in an unpublished essay had written the following about the Three Peaks Area of the Yorkshire Dales which we could see from Clougha:

[T]he Three Peaks district is now prized for its recreational values, it is prized for its comparative remoteness and wilderness, its fewness of people and absence of industry, for the walks and wild meadows it offers. But it is a landscape far removed from its pre-agricultural original. It has been almost totally stripped of its native vegetation, and most habitats and much of its ecology destroyed, the remainder substantially modified, in the former quest ... for agricultural advantage and optimal, or often excessive, grazing usage. The district remains starkly treeless.

I discuss Richard Sylvan's remarks in J. O'Neill, Markets, Deliberation and Environment (London: Routledge, 2007), chapter 7.

8 V. Plumwood, 'Tasteless: Towards a Food-Based Approach to Death', p. 329.