In response to Val Plumwood’s ‘Nature in the Active Voice’ (AHR 46)

By John Bennett

© all rights reserved. AHR is published in PDF and Print-on-Demand format by ANU E Press

Val Plumwood in ‘Nature in the Active Voice’ appeals to a reinvented ecophilosophy and asks for a new reanimated sense of the earth. It is a lot to ask for, but not enough.

One item missing in this essay was a new ontology. Life is related and we share so much of life processes, most inventions courtesy of our bacterial ancestors, such as the ubiquitous energy carrier, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). We share 99% of genes with primates and 30% with lettuce; developmental genetic pathways like the Hox genes that lay down a basic body plan were discovered in fruit flies, then frogs, then fish and now humans. Despite the diversity of body form, the Hox gene sequences are close to identical across a diverse range of animal groups. Life is also intensely symbiotic, reliant on microbes (half of your 100 trillion cells are bacteria working in digestive industries) or fungi, in turn reliant on rocks and soil, air, water, sunlight—it is this ecology of the biota in feedback within itself and with the abiotic environment that could nourish a new understanding of ourselves. We are dependent on the Earth and the Earth, while not dependent on us, is affected by us. The natural environment provides us with our lives, which sustains life; without all the levels of biodiversity, food, clean water, air and fertile soils would not exist and Earth would return to dark and stinking pre-Cambrian days.

Our ecology is one of interrelationships with microbes the key—they are our power sources and our ancestors. The fact that ‘Everything is connected to everything else’ (Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology) is troubling for environmental concerns, because there is a sense that the problems are too vast and complex, but it is also useful, because if everything is interconnected, then everything can make a difference. Many diverse approaches are needed, but in terms of cognitive change in our knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and articulated values, it is not necessarily a re-animating intentionality or ‘a living earth’ (Clive Hamilton, Sydney Ideas Lecture, July 2009) that we need, but a realisation of the ontology of natural processes, and this sense of our belonging.

John Bennett is a poet and video artist with a PhD in poetics. He has developed and taught an eco-thinking course for the University of Sydney’s Continuing Education program.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email