A future of political theory, when justice is multispecies

27 March 2023
What does justice for all Earth beings look like in 2050? In a Special Issue of Political Theory, SEI researchers reflect back from an imagined future world where justice extends beyond the human, and our planet is once again thriving.

By Danielle Celermajer, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney, Christine Winter, Politics Program, University of Otago, David Schlosberg and Dinesh Wadiwel, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

Political theory, like every branch of the humanities and social sciences as they have disciplined in the western academy, has both assumed and perpetuated the myth of human exceptionalism. This also means it has – except at the periphery – been decidedly anti-environmental, relegating the more-than-human to background, resource, and property – thereby giving intellectual cover to an ideology where extractivism and wholesale violence are completely compatible with justice.

So, when the top journal in our field, Political Theory, invited papers for a Special Issue to celebrate its 50th anniversary asking, “what will political theory look and sound like in the next century and beyond?”, a few members of SEI’s Multispecies Justice Collective decided to write a future of political theory through a multispecies justice lens. We did that by taking four of the foundational concepts of political theory – the subject of justice, economic systems and property, responsibility and agency, and democracy and representation – and imagining how they will be theorised in a world where justice means justice for all Earth beings, in 2050!

Here, we imagine how those key political theory concepts will look in 2050, along with their emergence from what is now the present, but will then be the past. 

The subject of justice

We discuss three key problems about the subject of justice liberal theory created and maintained – first, that the subject is only ever human; second, that the subject can only be individual; and third, that such individual subjects exist distinct and isolated from any surrounding environment(s). Multispecies justice embraces a conception of the subject that is ecological and relational, rather than simply human and individual.

A narcissistic, colonial, and extractivist anthropocentric worldview, embodied in the individual subject and their rights, is not mere theory; it has been responsible for much violence and destruction across numerous human and more-than-human worlds.

Now in 2050, human chauvinism and individualism have been replaced by principles of maintaining entangled coexistence of multiple entities in a relational system as the basis of justice. This broadened subject of justice has helped frame an ethics beyond individual human harm, attending instead to behaviours that undermine the ecological reality of shared lives. By imagining and implementing justice in the ecological flows in which individuals and systems live their lives new life has also flowed into political theorising. With the recognition of the impossibility of ‘the individual’ in actual ecological life has come a growing understanding of justice, and just systems and processes, as the construction and maintenance of sustainable and relational flows of everyday life.

Economic systems and property

Something we took seriously is the incompatibility between the hegemonic economic system – that is capitalism – and planetary systems. The climate crisis re-energised older debates around economic systems, distribution and equality, as made clear that economic justice is interconnected with justice in relation to environment and more than human beings.

Property is a central focus here. The idea that humans have a right to take possession, in a seemingly unlimited way, over everything external to them informs the hostile logic that has organised the social, economic, and environmental catastrophes that undermined the relative stability of the Holocene.

In 2050, in contrast to capitalist economies, where money and capital were the goal, economies serve to collectively produce and distribute meaningful and valuable goods and relations that promote flourishing for all earth beings as a social and political community. In this context, the knowledge systems, material practices and economies of First Nations peoples have provided continuing reminders of the alternatives available.

How quaint it seems that humans imagined other Earth beings had no political voice, and how close that wilful ignorance brought all to annihilation. Now humans understand their flourishing depends in all Earth beings’ flourishing: Earthly beings are again a partner in life.

Responsibility and agency

Like the subject of justice, the complete incapacity of classical liberal ideas about agency and responsibility to explain the causes of, and moral stakes involved in preventing the gravest harms against humans and the more-than-human world was something political theorists were onto already in the 20th century! Ultimately though it was the complete failure of institutions charged with taking responsibility for preventing the climate crisis that forced a collapse of moral and political theories that remained tethered to ontological individualism and to national or state-centrism. Only when political theory conceptualised responsibility as distributed, multidimensional and multi-scalar could it begin to be on the side of justice for all Earth beings.

At the same time, the intensifying violence against the more-than-human, together with increasing recognition of how those harms were rooted in longer histories of colonialism, capitalism and multi-dimensional anthropocentrism, revolutionised ideas about to whom and to what moral and political responsibility is owed. At last, disciplines acknowledged that humans are always already entangled in more-than-human worlds, not least because the various bases of the purportedly ‘natural’ exceptionalism of humans were crumbling. But then there was the world – the collapse of the ecological conditions required to sustain human flourishing, and widespread well organised social movements insisting on the moral considerability of being and beings other-than-human.

Together, they forced a radical expansion of the idea of responsibility. And of course, once the legal and political representation of the more-than-human moved from radical idea to standard political practice, ideas followed. As the ‘voice’ of the more-than-human displaced western humanist hegemonies, it became clear that the basis for the obligation to moral responsibility is not dependent on proximity to ‘the human’, cast as an autonomous rational agent.

Democracy and representation

That shift in ideas of representation did not come easily. It was only with the recognition and institutionalisations of Indigenous notions of relationality, and the democratic demands of climate movements in the wake of disastrous flooding, heatwaves, and fires in the 2020s and 2030s, that theories of environmental and ecological democracy flourished again – and were reinstitutionlised.

It started in the early decades of the 21st century in Ecuador and Bolivia where ‘rights for nature,’ extending human rights conventions into the more-than-human realm, were enshrined in their Constitution and an Act respectively. Aotearoa New Zealand turned to corporate personhood legal structures to designate whole complex and lively ecosystems ‘persons’ with all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.

Other nations followed suite: rivers, glaciers, the air, lakes and ecosystems all gained personhood status across the planet despite strong resistance from corporates and some legislatures. The weight of ecological destruction and the thirst for change propelled radical reimagination of political participation and responsibilities.

The journal asked us to look forward, and we imagined looking back.

What has changed? The planet is thriving again. A mighty movement was unleashed by rights of nature and personhood laws, sending ripples of change around the world.

How quaint it seems that humans imagined other Earth beings had no political voice, and how close that wilful ignorance brought all to annihilation. Now humans understand their flourishing depends in all Earth beings’ flourishing: Earthly beings are again a partner in life.

Sun’s light touches softly on Earth, mists kiss the streams, birds sing up a chorus and whales navigate safely through the cooling seas. Earth breathes again, forests share their oxygen once more. The planet rests in comfort.

Read the essay ‘A Political Theory for a Multispecies, Climate-Challenged World: 2050’, published in the special issue celebrating 50 years of Political Theory.

Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Sydney, Deputy Director – Academic of the Sydney Environment Institute, and lead of SEI’s Environmental imaginaries and storytelling research theme and Concepts and practices and multispecies justice. After living through the 2019/2020 NSW bushfires, Dany wrote of her experience of the “killing of everything”, which she calls “omnicide” and published her book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future.

Christine Winter is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics Program at the University of Otago Te Whare Whānanga o Ōtākou and a research affiliate of the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research focuses on the ways in which justice theory perpetuates practices of domination, oppression and violence in the settler states broadly and specifically for Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand. Her key areas of interest are multispecies, environmental, intergenerational and climate justice. Christine is also the author of Subjects of Intergenerational Justice.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Discipline of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. His work focuses on contemporary environmental and environmental justice movements, environment and everyday life, and climate adaptation planning and policy. His books include Defining Environmental Justice and Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life.

Dinesh Wadiwel is Associate Professor in the Discipline of Sociology and Criminology, The University of Sydney. Dinesh has a background in social and political theory, with research interests in theories of violence, critical animal studies and disability rights. Dinesh is author of The War against Animals and the forthcoming Animals and Capital (2023, Edinburgh UP).

Header image: Mountains by Sergey Pesterev via Unsplash.

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