On Dr Christine Winter’s Subjects of Intergenerational Justice

15 December 2021
Sophie Chao reflects on SEI Postdoctoral Researcher Christine Winter’s new book, Subjects of Intergenerational Justice (Routledge 2021), which challenges mainstream Western intergenerational environmental justice theories and highlights the value of Indigenous philosophies and practices for solving global environmental problems.

By Sophie Chao, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre

Subjects of Intergenerational Justice is “vital” to the world in all possible senses of the word. The book is vital in the way it powerfully and poetically dismantles entrenched assumptions within Western justice theories, both delegitimating and undermining these theories’ presumed universality. Such assumptions include exclusionary and hierarchical ideologies of individualism and anthropocentrism, reductionist and instrumental understandings of materiality and property, and linear and progressivist logics of temporality. Together, these assumptions undergird and perpetuate the colonial project of suppressing and silencing the philosophies, practices and protocols – indeed, the very being – of Indigenous peoples.

Subjects of Intergenerational Justice is also vital in the literal sense of the term. Its theoretical contributions to decolonial praxis are first and foremost grounded in the granular terrains and textures of lived experience among Indigenous peoples, whose ways of being, becoming and belonging are dynamic and life-sustaining. In lieu of dominant Western paradigms, Christine Winter fleshes out for her readers a practice and a theory of “intergenerational environmental justice” that is grounded in Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies, offering pathways towards more just and relational imaginings of justice in an age of multiple, overlapping crises. Intergenerational environmental justice, in Christine’s writs, is being and is philosophy. Or rather, intergenerational environmental justice is being as philosophy – those endeavours, in Christine’s poignant words: “to make sense of the world, what it is to be human, the structure and form of knowledge, right and wrong, and what it is to be in the world.”

Many of the stories Christine tells in this book revolve around the consequential miscommunications, presumptions, impositions and incommensurabilities that have resulted in a persistent communicative gulf between Indigenous and settler peoples who “still talk past each other” despite centuries of coexistence. This “talking past each other” is about moments not grasped; break-throughs not achieved; and voices not heeded.

I cannot help but wonder: what of the world and the “we” if these potencies, actions, and dialogues had been grasped? What kinds of country and more-than-human communities of life would “we” be part of? What does it take to navigate the settler-colonial present as impasse – and what is possible beyond it? And what does it mean to inhabit radically different senses of time in the first place – those embraced and embodied, and those imposed and institutionalized?

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of this book is its intellectual and political generosity. Christine challenges the intergenerational environmental justice canon by locating “deficits” not in Indigenous lifeworlds, but in Western thought and ontology. The lived experiences of injustice suffered and acted upon by Indigenous peoples, historically and in the present, thus sit alongside other kinds of injustice – that manifest in intergenerational environmental justice scholarship that continues to be theorized primarily within the epistemologies of liberal philosophy. As Christine admits, her own use of scare quotes for the term “philosophy,” as applied to Indigenous Peoples, is itself symptomatic of the mainstream rejection of the very possibility of such a thing as Indigenous philosophy. I’ve heard similar comments from Western scholars who dismiss Indigenous philosophy as “just wisdom.” For me, this speaks volumes about the inability of some Western scholars to even comprehend the possibility of Indigenous philosophy. It also says something rather troubling about the diminutive value imputed by some scholars to wisdom itself. In this age of anthropogenic planetary unmaking, it strikes me that wisdom is something we could all do with a bit more of.

The book’s generosity is evident in how, rather than simply reversing the power asymmetries at play between Western and Indigenous theories and practices of justice, Christine makes the compelling argument that all members of settler societies can benefit from embracing aspects of Indigenous philosophies and values. The limitations of existing IEJ approaches, as such, speaks not to an “Indigenous problem” of failed alignment with Western ways of being, but rather to a “settler problem” of failed alignment with Indigenous ways of being – one that does violence to Indigenous peoples and country, at the same time as it impoverishes co-existent settler ways and worlds by imposing a fictive separation of the human from the non-human, and of the individual from its constitutive relations.

In anchoring her theories of justice in the lived and embodied intergenerational coexistence of humans and nonhumans, Christine invites crucial reconsiderations of some of the most fundamental elements of social flow and flourishing – from personhood, time and subjectivity, to groundedness, relationality and more-than-human dignity, all within a totality that includes more than the now, more than the individual, more than the human and, indeed, more than the living.

The more-ness of Indigenous being-in-relation is present with us throughout this beautifully crafted work – from Christine’s description of her father’s pilgrimage of reconnection to his homeland, to the philosophy of country articulated by Anangu elder Bob Randall, to Christine’s recitation of her own personal whakapapa from which her “self” emerges as “concurrently future generation, living, and ancestor”. Woven in the bodily “oursness” of this self, she writes, are the traces of minerals from the volcanic soils of Taranaki, the wild winds driving salt and iodine into her lungs and skin, the vibrations of the sand-hills of Bell Block and the cliffs of Back Beach, the peace of the Stoney River, the moss of mountain foothills, and the remnants of the cows, pigs, horses, cats, dogs, lizards and pukeko which at various times shared her homes and life.

What an expansive way of thinking and being in, with, from, and of the world. What a richer way of situating oneself in relation to others and other others. What a humbling and honoring way of reimagining living and dying and continuing across generations. What a gift for envisioning other modes of more-than-human co-becoming through shared sentience and skin. What an invitation to rethink the relationship between more-than-human groundedness, which Subjects of Intergenerational Justice stories, and ground-shifting scholarship, which Subjects of Intergenerational Justice exemplifies.

This blog is a revised version of a presentation given at the SEI-hosted launch of Christine Winter’s book, in conversation with David Schlosberg and Joni Adamson. You can listen to the event recording here or on your favourite podcast app.

To learn more about Christine’s work, an interview of Christine conducted by Sophie may be found here.

Header image: Pohutukawa overlooking water by David Tip via UnSplash.

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. Sophie’s research thus far has focused on exploring the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and Indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on Indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies.