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Five minutes with Danielle Celermajer

5 June 2019
Research Director of the Multispecies Justice Project
In the lead up to Sydney Film Festival, we speak with Professor Danielle Celermajer, lead of the Multispecies Justice Project in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences about the power of independent film to inspire action in the age of the Anthropocene.

What is your professional background and how did you come to the University? 

I planned to go to Paris to complete a doctorate and become a scholar after completing honours in philosophy at the University of Sydney. The summer after I finished honours, I was walking on the beach in Northern NSW and it occurred to me that all I was going to do if I went directly into academia, was regurgitate what others had said. Or reorganise the pieces on the board but not add anything authentically new or important – not until I’d steeped myself in the world for some time.

I was passionate about two areas – psychoanalysis and social and political transformation, so I started working in both. I trained as an analyst and worked at the Australian Human Rights Commission. My brother once said that I wanted to discover a way of doing the type of transformative work analysts do, at the individual level, within collectives. I think that is right.

At the end of the day, human rights won out, especially when Mick Dodson, soon to be the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, offered me a job with him. My years working in Indigenous human rights and politics were extraordinary. It was a time of expansion and possibility under the Keating government and the Bringing Them Home report.

During this time it also became clear to me that to bring about deep and sustainable transformation in systematic human rights abuses, we needed the type of careful and slow thinking that can only really occur in academia, where you have the genuine space to do that. That is why I decided to do a doctorate – to be given that precious time to think, that you never get when you are doing frontline policy and advocacy work. I always intended to take that knowledge back into the world.

It became clear to me that to bring about deep and sustainable transformation in systematic human rights abuses, we needed the type of careful and slow thinking that can only really occur in academia, where you have the genuine space to do that. That is why I decided to do a doctorate.

As the Research Director of the Multispecies Justice Project, can you tell us about this concept and why it is important?

Traditionally, the idea of justice has been one reserved for relationships between humans. We recognise ourselves as the types of beings who merit consideration, who have our own life aspirations and dignity, and we appreciate that we owe each other just treatment – at least ideally.

Animals and the environment, by contrast, have been seen as objects, instruments, resources, tools or commodities (for the most part in the West). Perhaps they merit being protected in some way, for example through welfare laws for animals, or environmental protections. However, they have not been seen as subjects of justice in their own right.

Multispecies justice means recognising that all humans, non-human animals and the environment, are all subjects that have legitimate claims of justice. This does not mean we treat them all as individuals, like humans. On the contrary, we recognise that the subject of justice goes beyond humans.

It also means we need to rethink the concept of justice itself, in particular, the idea that justice applies to autonomous individuals only, rather than to relationships or entangled beings.

It is important because once you recognise that beings other than humans are also subjects of their own lives, with a ‘desire’ to flourish, then omitting them from the community to whom justice is owed becomes a terrible ethical breach. So multispecies justice is a fundamental ethical obligation because of the intrinsic worth of all beings. We now know that the way we have instrumentalised non-humans is leading to a planet where all our futures are under threat.

Once you recognise that beings other than humans are also subjects of their own lives, with a ‘desire’ to flourish, then omitting them from the community to whom justice is owed becomes a terrible ethical breach.

You said while watching the documentary Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, (screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival) you kept asking yourself, “Who is benefiting from this?” So, who is benefiting?

There is a superficial answer to that and then I think a more complicated answer. The superficial answer is that those who are in positions of economic, social and cultural privilege - the people who enjoy the fruits of resource exploitation in the form of access to wealth and all the goods it can purchase - are benefiting.

Clearly though, there are many goods that cannot be purchased, as is evident from the insatiability of the desire to accumulate. So, in this sense, even for the most privileged, the benefits have a limited ‘purchase’ on the quality of a life lived.

Beyond this, if the benefits some humans accrue are wrought at the expense of the life of other beings, and are directly causing massive injustice, suffering and destruction, one might cast into doubt the integrity of their benefit.

Is there any hope for humans, animals and the planet? What can people do to make a difference in your opinion?

The starting place for any transformative action needs to be authentically recognising the gravity and reality of what we are facing. Humans are astonishingly adept at getting on with our lives as if we were not, in fact, stumbling on the edge of a precipice. If we could know and feel the reality of what is at stake, and also feel our connection and love to beings that are at risk (human and more than human), action would follow.

Action though, cannot only be about changing individual lifestyles, as important as that is. Yes, changing how we consume, what we eat, how we travel and so on are all important. However, the changes need to be structural and for this we need collective and political action. For those of us privileged enough to live in democracies and to have the right to free speech and protest, we need to make it clear to those seeking political office that sustaining existing economic interests is not sufficient reason to block the massive transformations we need to change how we collectively produce and consume energy, how we produce and market food, the design of our cities and transport systems, our systems of distribution and so on.

Why do you think it’s important for the University to support events like Sydney Film Festival?

Precisely because it is so difficult for people to truly understand and acknowledge many of the injustices and possibilities of our complex world. We need rich and varied media of transmission and communication. Scholarly work is not enough. Films are extraordinarily powerful because of their immediacy and visual impact. They are also capable of conveying complexity and contradiction, which is critical to develop the nuanced understanding we need to take action. 

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