Old fig tree with people walking

What is multispecies justice, and why does it matter?

1 June 2022

World Environment Day: Sunday  5 June 2022

Professor Danielle Celermajer explains multispecies justice and why expanding justice beyond the interests of humans is important.

What is multispecies justice?

It is a theory of justice that includes not only the interests of all humans but of the nonhuman, such as other animals, plants, forests, rivers and ecological systems. Taking their interests seriously as ‘justice claims’ means there is a moral and political obligation for the basic institutions of society – including our political and legal systems – to take those interests into account when making decisions. They cannot be dismissed simply because they are inconvenient or costly (for certain humans), and attending to them is not a matter of charity or generosity.

Image of a cattle

Animals and birdlife should have rights to exist in a safe environment

Why is this important on World Environment Day?

Multispecies justice is an invitation to rethink justice for our time. In a world where extractivism (extracting natural resources from the ground to sell on the world market), untrammelled development, widespread poisoning of lands, waterways and atmospheres, industrial animal agriculture, and fossil fuelled climate change are all leading to the mass killing and destruction of other animals, forests, rivers and ecosystems, multispecies justice suggests that these harms ought to be considered not merely as unfortunate events, but injustices. It is becoming more obvious that justice for humans is impossible without taking seriously the need for a healthy and functioning environment and the health and flourishing of other animals.

Image of a canyon

Rivers deserve to be treated with respect

What is ecocide?

The term ecocide combines ‘cide’ (killing) with ‘eco’ (here the environment, broadly understood) to signify the killing or destruction of environments. Domestic and international legal systems recognise homicide - killing a human being - as a crime and demands its punishment, and after World War II, the United Nations adopted a Convention to prevent and punish the crime of genocide - killing or destroying a people.

The idea of ecocide proposes that destroying environments, including biodiversity is also a grave injustice that ought be to condemned, prevented and punished domestically and internationally.
Professor Danielle Celermajer, Deputy Director, Sydney Environment Institute

What does expanding ‘personhood’ mean?

To be a person means to have moral standing and to be a moral agent. In law and politics, persons are those who are recognised as having certain active capacities, for example the capacity to sue and be sued or to enter into contracts. Over the last several centuries, social movements have fought to have women, people of colour, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and others included as legal persons, as opposed to being ‘things’ that are subject to others' wills and decisions. Critically, persons cannot be property.

Advocates are seeking to expand the boundaries of personhood to include beings other than humans. They are doing this partly because it would change how people understand or think about nature and other beings, and partly because doing so would afford them higher levels of legal protection. If for example we think of an animal as a person, they become a ‘who’ with interests and moral rights. Making a river a person before the law means that the river, or those acting in its name, can bring legal action for damages to the river, rather than relying on the existence of specific pieces of legislation dealing with pollution for example.

Close up image of kangaroo

If we think of an animal as a person, they become a ‘who’ with interests and moral rights

Why does this matter?

The scope and intensity of environmental destruction, and violence against other animals and the earth is bringing human civilisations, ecosystems and other species to the brink of collapse. We can focus in on specific causes, such as dependence on fossil fuels or capitalist economies that encourage the exploitation of nature to maximise profits. Underpinning these systems, however, is the more fundamental belief that all beings other than humans are there for human use.

In other words, environments and other animals are routinely harmed and exploited because, in mainstream Western thought and in Western legal and political systems, they are positioned as things, property or resources.
Professor Danielle Celermajer

If the destruction of the earth and its beings is to be halted, something more than new systems, different economies and better technologies is needed. We need to start to relate to other earth beings as subjects of justice, subjects who can be unjustly harmed and to whom obligations of care and respect are owed. This does not mean that there are not vast differences amongst us all. This is not about saying humans and trees are the same; we still need to recognize and respect the very different ways of being, and the very different interests. Multispecies justice invites humans to reposition ourselves not as over and above the earth and its beings, but as embedded in relationships that nourish and sustain us and that we must also nourish and sustain.

Learn more about multispecies justice in an upcoming panel discussion hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute on 22 June 2022, and in a recent article co-written by Professor Celermajer on why now is the time to seriously challenge the systems that have incentivised environmental injustice for communities and ecosystems

Professor Danielle Celermajer is an expert on multispecies justice in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, and is Deputy Director – Academic of the Sydney Environment Institute.

All photos by Pixabay.

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