Exploitation to respect: changing how we relate to other species

20 June 2023
In this Q&A, poet, scholar and environmentalist Craig Santos Perez discusses how he engages with the natural world through his work, ahead of the Sydney Environment Institute's public panel on Indigenous multispecies justice.

What does multispecies justice mean to you?

To me, multispecies justice means establishing equitable and reparative relations between all beings, broadly defined. This involves acknowledging the long history of exploitation and violence that people have wrought among other species, whether it be through the industrial capitalist food systems, the poaching and trade of animal bodies, or even the domestication of pets.

Furthermore, we must think critically about the negative impacts that the concept of “species” has had on how we separate ourselves and objectify other beings. As we reckon with multispecies injustices, we must consider what is equitable, just, and fair in our relations with other species. How can we change the way we understand and conceptualise other species? How can we change the way we farm, fish, eat, domesticate, etc., in order to create sustainable and compassionate relations? Multispecies justice means that we must deeply consider the ethics or how we live and die with all beings. 

How do you engage with the concept of multispecies justice through your work?

Poetry has been the main avenue through which I have engaged with the concept of multispecies. In my most recent book, Habitat Threshold, an entire section is devoted to human-animal relations. There are poems that address how we interact with and understand elephants, fish, whales, cockroaches, bees, birds, turkeys, sea turtles, and more. There are also poems that explore the sixth mass extinction, coral bleaching, and mass die-offs.

To me, poetry is not necessarily a site for solutions or answers; instead, my poetry poses questions and dwells in the “trouble,” as Donna Haraway phrases it, of multispecies entanglements. In my previous books, I have in more detail explored the history of native birds in my homeland of Guam, mapping their endangerment and extinction caused by the invasion of brown tree snakes, as well as their experiences in zoos and captive breeding and recovery programs. These poems do not propose solutions but instead create space for the reader to contemplate what multispecies justice might look like in the context of Guam.  

What elements of dominant philosophies and politics in places such as Australia and the United States need to shift to allow the natural world to flourish?

Dominant philosophies need to change (or more radically need to be overturned and rejected) in terms of how they see other species and the natural world as objects that are under human dominion and thus can be claimed, owned, exploited, and commodified. One way to change is to turn to and learn from Indigenous philosophies, ontologies, and epistemologies.

Native belief systems often envision the world as an interconnected, interrelated web. Within this ecology, other beings are understood as kin, as relatives that should be treated with respect, care, and love. Indigenous practices (such as hunting or fishing) are often conducted with permission, conscientiousness, and sustainability. Politics and economics in the US and Australia would have to completely change from their current capitalist and setter colonial ideologies to something completely different. Thankfully, there are movements within both countries to begin making essential reforms towards multispecies justice. 

To hear more from Dr Craig Santos Perez, register for the Sydney Environment Institute's public panel on Indigenous philosophies and practices of multispecies justice on Wednesday, 28 June.

Dr Perez is the inaugural Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre First Nations Fellow in the Humanities.

Craig Santos Perez is an Indigenous Chamoru from Guam. He holds an MFA in Creative writing from the University of San Francisco and a PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the co-editor of seven anthologies and the author of six books of poetry and the academic monograph Navigating Chamoru Poetry: Indigeneity, Aesthetics, and Decolonization (2022). He is a professor in the English department and affiliate faculty with the Center for Pacific Islands Studies and the Indigenous Politics program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Header image: Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

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