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Investigating intergenerational justice and the roots of our environmental crises

2 December 2021
SEI Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Christine Winter has recently published her PhD research in a new book, ‘Subjects of Intergenerational Justice: Indigenous Philosophy, the Environment and Relationships’. In this short Q&A Christine provides some insights on what led her to this research, the contribution it hopes to make and where she sees her ideas going next.

By Christine Winter, Department of Government and International Relations, and Anna Sturman, SEI Content Editor (Temporary)

Anna Sturman: What led you to the questions you contemplate in your new book?

Christine Winter: Early in the 2010’s I did an analysis of the ethics of (or, justice in, if you like) the Labor and Liberal parties’ climate change policies in Australia – and here we are, a decade later, in the extraordinary position where still Australia has no clear climate change legislation, and neither party really has a settled policy – and that is a digression but also it is not. What that analysis showed me was that neither of the parties were really grappling with intergenerational justice as a driving principle of climate change policy. And yet calls for action from Māori, Pacifika, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and other First Nations Peoples repeatedly drew on principles of intergenerational justice.

So I started to wonder whether it was the philosophical foundations of Western politics and justice theory that might be at the heart of the problem. And that then lead to this comparative study. By surveying dominant Western theories of Intergenerational justice, I could compare them with the foundations of Māori philosophies and to a lesser extent aspects of Aboriginal philosophy. It is important here to note that the claims I make are not specific to any particular subgroup or philosophic tradition – Western, Māori or Aboriginal – but rather I’ve looked for common threads, in ontologies and epistemologies, that underwrite philosophy in each tradition broadly speaking. I knew from my own background that for Māori, intergenerational commitments to the environment are paramount – the environment is cared for from respect for our ancestors and for the good of our descendants. But I needed to understand, I guess, why that was so, and why it was not so much the case in Western philosophy; or, why it is so hard to theorise and then implement principles of intergenerational justice within Western philosophical traditions.

How do you see this book meeting and extending the existing scholarship on environmental justice?

Interesting. It seems rather arrogant to say that I meet or extend any of the great scholarship that exists in the environmental justice field. What I offer is to build on it, use all the thinking others have done – Western thinking, Māori thinking, Aboriginal thinking – and to bring it into conversation it in a way that gives us a different perspective from which to meet that challenges of intergenerational environmental injustices. And perhaps one of the things I do that is different is that I privilege Indigenous philosophies and compare the academic theories against them.

Environmental justice generally focuses on people, the real harms that people today are experiencing from the effects of toxic pollution and the unfair distribution of environmental harms – things like air and water pollution, or the effects of climate change for instance. It looks at who gets access to environmental goods (like clean water to swim in and leafy suburbs that protect people from the worst effects of heat waves) and who is cut off from them. It thinks about how we understand that as a matter of justice – based in the principles of the justice theories that exist in Western political philosophy. Is environmental injustice just a matter of poor distribution of the benefits and burdens of modern industry, mining, farming and so on? Or is there some sort of systemic mal-recognition of some members of society that makes it inevitable they will bear the burdens? Or is it that those same people perhaps have too little say in the political decision-making process? Or is it a combination of those things? Or then again do we analyse environmental justice from the perspective of human rights and the capabilities approach and the sorts of things people can do and the opportunities they have to live full and satisfying lives?  And all of this is important…and it is primarily about people, and mainly it is about living people. Much of this discussion rests on the idea of human dignity and human exceptionalism. It might be labelled anthropocentric. And, again, it is important, in no way am I suggesting it is not. How we treat each other and the safeguards our governments put in place to protect us from harms are important. If governments took note of environmental justice in their decision-making we would have a much fairer society and far less environmental damage.

And that still is not enough here in Australia, or in Aotearoa my home country, or other settler states. Because that anthropocentric world view does not accord with the philosophies of the First Peoples of those lands. So, what I suggest is that environmental justice – especially if it is seen as a set of first principles in political decision-making – can be unjust in the settler state contexts. It continues to enforce principles that do not accord with the philosophic world views of the colonised Peoples. It imposes a particular Western world view and legal framework that means it becomes impossible for Indigenous Peoples to continue their practices of environmental protection and justice, and to oppose the state’s laws and practices which are ‘legal’ even if they are destructive.

And in the course of examining those ideas I note that anthropocentrism, materialism, property, individualism, and a sort of discontinuous temporality underpin environmental justice and each is incompatible with many Indigenous world views.

What I look at is the way that philosophies are based on foundational concepts of what it is to be human and have responsibilities in the world. The founding concepts form nested sets, and they vary society to society but they can be represented as sitting on continua from: material to relational; property-based to place-based; individualistic to collective; anthropocentric to cosmological; and discontinuous to continuous temporality. For justice to be just in different contexts it needs to take these different world views into account. And I suggest that is vital in the settler states if they are to move from neo/colonial to decolonised. That is, I’m saying that theory needs to change if it is to meet the challenges of the sixth mass extinction, climate change, and so on, and given theory frames policy that may lead to change at the institutional level.

My suggestion is the for environmental justice to be just, it must adapt to the circumstance in which it is being applied. Put another way, that you perpetuate colonial injustices if you constrain the obligations and duties of justice to the Western orthodoxies in Indigenous settings.

And I go a little bit further than that. I suggest some of the hurdles in environmental justice, and particularly intergenerational justice can be overcome if the inconsistencies between Western philosophy and the real world are amended – in a way that for instance Māori philosophy has already achieved.

Has your research already evolved since you first submitted it for your thesis examination? If so, how? Where do you see this research leading you next?

If anything I have become more convinced that philosophy is at the root of environmental destruction. That we must dig deeper than political ineptitude or corruption, or the asymmetric influence of capital and business, or lack of sound science – or whatever excuse we want to make for continuing to open coal mines, remove habitat, destroy the Great Barrier Reef, destock the seas of fish, watch global mass extinctions of our nonhuman kin and sit on our hands doing nothing. We can’t use government and industry as the sole excuse for sea level rise, vast dislocation of whole nation states, wildfires, devastating floods, and so on.

I claim that there is something much more fundamental in the malaise that has led the world to this place, and it rests within the mindset of the West – what I now think of as one of the least evolved. Greed is not good – grasping, individual self-interest is the behaviour of infants. It takes maturity, it takes practice, it takes insight to act in the interests of your society, for others including for future generations. And yet economics, politics, capitalism are still locked in infantile demands of “I want more”. And while various theorists may claim that is human nature – how many other societies have they examined? Where have they looked for other truths?

And the areas I have been moving into are more explicitly focussed on multispecies justice, on a sense that many more beings, many more things, are subjects of justice than simply humans. How we treat the planet and everything on it is a matter of justice – not just for future generations but for the other beings, and plants and lands and waters, and the elements that make us human and with which we share the planet. So multispecies justice and planetary justice are the two domains my mind is now wrestling with.

The official launch of Christine’s book, Subjects of Intergenerational Justice: Indigenous Philosophy, the Environment and Relationships (Routledge) will be held via Zoom at 10-11.15am, Tuesday 7 December. 

Header image: A bush trail in Aotearoa New Zealand by Phillip Larking via Unsplash.

Christine Winter is a Postdoctoral Fellow with SEI and a lecturer in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice.

Drawing on her Anglo-Celtic-Māori cultural heritage she is interested in decolonising political theory by identifying key epistemological and ontological assumptions in theory that are incompatible with indigenous philosophies. In doing so she has two aims: to make justice theory just for Indigenous peoples of settler states; and to expand the boundaries of theories of intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of Indigenous Peoples and their settler compatriots.

Christine is the Research Lead on The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture.