What do we mean by ‘multispecies justice’?
What might we exclude or diminish when we use the term ‘multispecies’? How might we understand justice within relations between nonhuman beings? And how might multispecies justice intersect or collide with other notions of justice?
These were questions posed throughout the Sydney Environment Institute’s Beyond Bios symposium (July 27-29). They speak to the ambivalences and even violences that can characterise relations between beings, which complicate arguments that close attention to our connections bear the potential for life-flourishing kinship beyond familial, genealogical and biological ties; what the feminist scholar Donna Haraway sees as a means of staying with the trouble on a wounded planet.[i]
But what happens when connections between beings, human and otherwise, cause harm? How does multispecies justice navigate these complexities given its commitment to justice that is not hierarchical in prioritising the needs of particular beings?
The importance of naming injustice cannot be understated. This is interventionist work, often grounded in critiques of how existing vocabularies invisibilise forms of injustice not adequately captured within their scope. They name the gap; make it ‘knowable’ and visible, hopefully creating pathways to justice and shifting practices that enable injustice.
I recognise this in the work around ‘domicide’ (‘destruction of home’) and ‘memoricide’ (‘killing of memory’), both of which identify specific dimensions of injustice subsumed within contexts of genocide, but which also significantly transcend this widely known crime.
Similarly, the sociologist Danielle Celermajer uses ‘omnicide’ (‘killing of everything’) to illuminate the deep entanglements of beings and place that are violently unravelling all at once through the forces driving human-induced climate and ecological catastrophe; this is not captured in proposed definitions for cultural genocide and ecocide.[ii]
Importantly, these critiques and new concepts enrich our vocabularies for in/justice without diminishing what is illuminated already by existing frameworks. This is how I approach these questions asked of multispecies justice.
The symposium’s theme was thinking ‘beyond bios’ and (unsurprisingly) critical attention was drawn to the ‘species’ in ‘multispecies’. Does ‘species’ impose an exclusionary focus on biological life-forms? Where do geological formations like mountains fit within this framework? What about oceans, atmospheres and the materialities that comprise them? Might ‘multibeing justice’, brought into focus by the cultural theorist Susan Reid, more aptly name the scope of intervention intended?
It is difficult to imagine how justice can be achieved for biological beings, and their ways of life, in isolation from their relations, which extend to other forms and matter comprising the places in which they are situated.
Place is a densely knotted cluster of relations, necessarily multidimensional in its ecological scope, and substantively more than a mere backdrop or setting. It is a deeply entwined and intrinsic part of the whole. Like Christine Winter above, this is what multispecies justice means to me: situated-ness, in relation to more than just the self, in place as an ecological assemblage in its broadest possible sense.
Situated-ness also extends to the (predominantly Western) knowledge structures multispecies justice intervenes upon. ‘Multispecies’ and ‘more-than-human’ are meaningful as terms precisely because they are clearly situated within knowledge traditions that, historically and presently, invest the categories of ‘human’ and ‘species’ with hierarchised values. There is utility in explicitly signposting these foundations – as well as the challenges being posed to them (the ‘more-than’ and ‘multi’) – in the naming of in/justice.
They also serve as markers that distinguish them from Indigenous knowledges. It needs to be constantly acknowledged that ethical ecological relationality is not new to many Indigenous peoples. But Western thought needs to find its own vocabularies, ones generated through engaging with its formative anthropocentrism and its culpability in fuelling climate and ecological crisis.
For me, this is the value in sticking with the ‘species’ in ‘multispecies’. But critiques arguing that the term may not adequately capture either sense of situated-ness are warranted. Rather than entrench competition between ‘multibeing’ and ‘multispecies’ as rival synonyms though, I see an opportunity to consider what both bring to our repertoire. ‘Multibeing justice’ bears significant promise; both in how it might illuminate what is less emphasised by multispecies and in how it may peer beyond situated-ness as a matter of justice.
During her Beyond Bios keynote, the Indigenous linguist Jakelin Troy likened the free-roaming brumbies on Ngarigu Country to the oil palm introduced in West Papua.
The implication of this reference to the anthropologist Sophie Chao's research was clear: “violence itself as a multispecies act – one in which humans are not always the perpetrators and nonhumans not always the victims.”[iv] As the oil palm is embedded in the destructive undoing of local Marind worlds, so too are the brumbies for Ngarigu people, both experiences no doubt resonant for colonised peoples the world over.
The cultural geographer Franklin Ginn warns that emphasising the “relational entanglement” of life – that “‘we’ are connected and thus invited to care” – risks ignoring ambivalences within these relations, including ways in which “life is not drawn together, but pulled apart.”[v]
The ecologist Heather Lynch asks what happens when multispecies justice is not aligned with social justice through her studies of human-bedbug cohabitation within impoverished living conditions.[vi] After all, multispecies justice must mean justice for humans too.
There is further nuance in Chao's research: the pity some Marind expressed for the oil palm as a being completely subject to mass exploitative violence through its monocrop harvesting. While implicated within ongoing eco-cultural devastation, the palm itself is also a victim without control over its circumstances.
This is the story of many introduced species – including Australian brumbies – but also applies to changes in ecological dynamics that are now having detrimental impacts on native beings and forms. Beyond Bios gave me the opportunity to grapple with these complexities and the ongoing question of how multispecies justice can attend to them.
[i] Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press
Reid, Susan. 2022. Imagining Justice with the Ocean. PhD Thesis, University of Sydney. https://hdl.handle.net/2123/29888
[ii] Celermajer, D. 2021. Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Sydney: Penguin Group Australia
[iii] Winter, C. 2023. “Capitalism, Colonialism and Multispecies Justice.” The SEI Podcast Series. Sydney Environment Institute. https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/capitalism-colonialism-and-multispecies-justice/id1513092133?i=1000616238621
[iv] Chao, S. 2022. In the Shadows of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua. Duke University Press
[v] Ginn, F. 2014. “Sticky lives: slugs, detachment and more-than-human ethics in the garden.” Transactions – Institute of British Geographers (1965). 39(4): 532-544
[vi] Lynch, H. 2019. “Toward a multispecies home: bedbugs and the politics of non-human relations.” In The Routledge Handbook of Critical Social Work, edited by S. Webb, 390-400. New York: Routledge
Dr Scott Webster is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. His research is broadly centred on connection to place: its meaningfulness, the knowledge and interventions it enables, and the suffering and injustice caused when these connections are ruptured. Scott’s current role investigates how Australian communities self-organised before, during and after the 2019-20 bushfires and 2020-22 floods. He also explores the ‘killing of memory’ (memoricide) as a phenomenon that bears both everyday and more-than-human dimensions. Scott investigates these with a focus on everyday practices within settler-colonial contexts and how they entangle forms of mnemonic, multispecies and climate injustice. Scott has a longstanding interest in home and its destruction (domicide). He is currently researching how more-than-human entanglements complicate our theoretical frameworks for understanding home as well as home loss especially during disasters and through climate change.