Multispecies justice: A new approach to a growing environmental threat

20 November 2019
The consequences of humans standing apart from the environment

Confronting another climate change summer of extremes, it's obvious the future of humans and the health of the environment are inextricably linked. New theories of justice must respond to this ecological entanglement.

A few months back, a new research initiative of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Sydney Environment Institute, was criticised as an example of the ‘useless’ nature of the humanities, and the gap between the university and ‘real problems’ facing the world. The focus of the work is on the idea of ‘multispecies justice’.

At the heart of multispecies justice is recognising the relationship and entangled functioning of human and nonhuman systems. It doesn’t simply mean, as the critics scoffed, giving votes to wombats. Multispecies justice is about understanding that humans, other animals, trees, rivers, soil, and more are inter-dependent, and all depend on the viability of ecological systems. It means challenging the traditional western view that human success will be won through neglecting and exploiting other beings’ interests, needs, or viability. 

"What was shocking to us, as leaders of this initiative, was that such a critique could come in the midst of myriad ecological crises."

What was shocking to us, as leaders of this initiative, was that such a critique could come in the midst of myriad ecological crises, and in particular so shortly after a million fish died along the Murray River near Menindee (and even more serious die-offs are predicted for this summer). Stunned by the scale of that event, farmers and Barkindji elders alike articulated the spiralling relationship between the death of fish, the mismanagement of the river system, and threats to the viability of their communities.

They asked government ministers to simply come and listen to people who live on the river: to learn that viable and functioning rivers, environments, local economies, and ways of life all rise or fall together. The fish kill makes tragically explicit a range of injustices – most evidently the destruction of human and ecological functioning, but also inequality, lack of recognition, and political exclusion.

Environmental justice movements have been making the point for decades that some human communities, generally those that are already politically and socially disenfranchised, are forced to bear the heaviest burdens of environmental harms. The ongoing decimation of ecological systems, on which all human beings and communities depend, is likewise beginning to be considered a question of justice.

As political theorists, we see that a key part of the problem lies in longstanding theories of justice themselves. Classic liberal notions of justice, on which everyday western understandings and institutions depend, are based on the idea of the independent, isolated, liberal individual. But this idea of the individual is a fiction, as we are we are immersed in, a range of ecosystems. Our bodies also host an ecosystem: our gut microbiome.

Recent medical science has, taught us that this microbiome impacts our health, actions, behavior and moods. The viability of this single bacterial ecosystem is critical not only for our survival, but also to our very understanding of our own ‘individual’ identity.

Even more obviously, no singular human can survive isolated from the everyday entanglements with other parts of the ‘natural’ world – food, water, air, bacteria. We have denied this dependence by calling these parts of the environment ‘resources’; but they, and we, are really just parts of systems in which we are all enmeshed.

So, we have never been individual. And that means that the vast majority of writing on justice, assuming as it does the primacy of the human individual, is based on a world that doesn’t exist, and ignores the world that does. If we are going to take our place in the vibrant multispecies world, and assume our responsibility to it, we must move past this fiction of the liberal individual.

What researchers need to generate today are theories of justice alive to our entangled, ecological, multispecies lives. And for this, we need not look far. Amongst the many existing ways of knowing about an entangled multispecies world are those that have sustained Indigenous peoples on the Australian continent for tens of thousands of years.

Universities have a crucial responsibility to rethink and redirect the limitations of current and dominant ways of thinking, and to understand and engage with other ways of knowing. There are many concepts and practices of justice to explore to help us live in the real and complex world that we inhabit; that is the task of this crucial – and imminently useful – area of multispecies justice.

Written by: Professor David Schlosberg, Department of Government and International Relations and Professor Danielle Celermajer, Department of Sociology and Social Policy.

Illustration by Steph Hughes

The opinions expressed in On My Mind are not necessarily those of the University.

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