Opinion

Designing A Multispecies Future

How do we decide which species deserve to be valued and included in human spaces? Following the Architecture of Multispecies Cohabitation exhibition, SEI Honours Fellow Sam Norman muses on the turbulent past and future of our relationship with the more-than-human world.

Image by Didssph, via Unsplash.

The Architecture of Multispecies Cohabitation exhibition by the Feral Partnerships collective is an imaginative space full of story-telling capabilities; stories of our past, present, and future, with the focus on the coexistence between human and more-than-human beings within shared spaces.

There is a smooth, clean aesthetic to the exhibition, which plays well to convey the deeper messages behind it. Warm lights blanket the artefacts displayed, illuminating the sleek white walls and crunchy beige haystacks alike. Artistic renderings of spaces of multispecies cohabitation are placed on walls in flat 2D prints – white canvas with black lines. A variety of medium are on display through the exhibition, including a compilation of video essays from architecture students unpacking stories of multispecies cohabitation. The audience is invited to view these stories on an impressive couch made of hay bales.

This merging of the uber-sleek modernity with the rugged past projects beyond the aesthetic realm of the exhibition, and welcomes the audience to actively engage with a broader theme and purpose of it. This is a space for reflection of human – nature relations: of the past, where alternative relations existed; of the present, where the Anthropocene continues to dominate life on Earth; and of the future, where better relations can be imagined and hoped for.

The audience is invited to reflect on the spaces which we use for home, work, and recreational fun, and imagine how more-than-human beings can be incorporated into the picture. Currently, within the urbanised ways of living perpetuated by the hegemony of Western culture, multispecies cohabitation has a shallow execution. Some animals are accepted in shared spaces with humans for companionship, while others are rendered as foreign entities to be never seen in the foreground, but hidden out of sight to belong in ‘the bush’ or ‘nature.’ Meanwhile, flora and trees are arbitrarily granted life and death by humans on whether they fit in with the urban design plans or not. An underlying factor to these relations between human and more-than-human beings come from an understanding of belonging.

“Currently, within the urbanised ways of living perpetuated by the hegemony of Western culture, multispecies cohabitation has a shallow execution. Some animals are accepted in shared spaces with humans for companionship, while others are rendered as foreign entities.”

Having interacted with this exhibition at this particular point in my life, where I am an Honours student who is concerned with Multispecies Justice and how more-than-human beings can be recognised as political actors, has evoked an intimate response from me due to the resonance with my research. Multispecies Justice (MSJ) is concerned with addressing the injustices experienced by more-than-human beings, including animals, trees, and elements. Ideas of justice and habitation intersect with the notion of belonging in multiple senses. A being recognised as not belonging, or belonging to a lesser degree, is subject to further injustices, in the endeavour to further draw the line between insiders and outsider. This cuts across both species, that is human – nature relations, but also within humanity, with power dynamics present across multiple facets of identity (race, gender, class, ability).1 The physical environment constructed is reflective of these attitudes, accommodating to insiders, and hostile to outsiders. The metal spikes on buildings to stop birds from sitting are akin to the bars placed on public benches to deter homeless people sleeping on them. Architectural designs both inhibit attitudes and contribute to ongoing power dynamics and relations between beings, enforcing the constructed notion of who belongs and who does not belong.

“Architectural designs both inhibit attitudes and contribute to ongoing power dynamics and relations between beings, enforcing the constructed notion of who belongs and who does not belong.”

As has been heralded by countless voices before myself, and sadly, will seemingly be continued to be said for the foreseeable future – we are facing mass climate breakdown. The Anthropocene is not ‘just another age’ or a neutral phase of geological history.2 Rather, it is a phenomenon that has been produced, and continues to be produced, by specific attitudes and norms of human domination over nature.3 Such way of being human is not natural, or neutral either, but reflective and co-constitutive of the economic paradigm which arose while the natural world was impacted – capitalism. Hence why some scholars prefer to call this geological age the capitalocene.4 While I am reflective in this piece on the intersections of the Anthropocene with attitudes of domination towards more-than-human beings, it is important to recognise that these attitudes intersect across other dimensions, such as racism, sexism, colonialism, and ableism.5

A multispecies turn is critical now more than ever. With human activity having contributed to climate breakdown, the Sixth Extinction, and mass displacements of survivors to urban environments, a shift in human attitudes can be a way forward. The acceptance and practice of the fact that humans are not the centre of the world, or the only actors in the game, is a start to repairing human – nature relations. There are opportunities to flourish for humans and more-than-human beings alike, as they co-emerge in beautiful assemblages. This can come from a shift in understanding static notions of belonging, with fixed insider and outsider identities, to a sense of co-becoming, where there is recognition of the relational impacts beings have on each other’s identities and lived experiences.This rebuilding of ties with the world can be reflected within the architectural designs of our environments.

The journey to reimagining human – nature relations need not be one which strains the imaginative capabilities of humanity. In the past lies answers. The past holds both painful and hopeful truths for the current situation which we hold. Soberly reflecting upon the development of the modern world for humans, at the experience of all other life forms, is a guilt trip that needs to be addressed. Turning a blind eye only perpetuates the injustice; it only continues to silence the victims. As more and more victims become silenced out of existence, the irony is that humans are silencing themselves out alongside them. The realisation of co-dependency on the natural world, on more-than-human beings, ought to evoke change.

“The past holds both painful and hopeful truths for the current situation which we hold. Turning a blind eye only perpetuates the injustice; it only continues to silence the victims.”

Indigenous philosophies of kinship with more-than-human beings present an interesting example in which the co-dependency of species is recognised in past, alternative relations between humanity and nature.7 There is a recognition of the agency and world-building capabilities of more-than-human beings, with a focus on the flourishing of the community over the individual. Each being is recognised, in their own right, as co-emerging and co-becoming, within a beautiful assemblage which create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – life.

The story for our future yet, is not determined. Spaces like the Multispecies Cohabitation exhibition are important to remind us to reflect about our current practices, of how the current paradigm need not be carried on into tomorrow, and of what is ultimately at stake here. It presents hope, which is a form of world-building.8 World-building with our more-than-human partners. It starts with a physical incorporation of more-than-human beings into our environment, and recognising that the world is a shared space for all beings, not just for humans to call home.

References
1. Weitzenfeld, Adam, and Melanie Joy. An overview of anthropocentrism, humanism, and speciesism in critical animal theory. Counterpoints 448 (2014): 3-27.
2. Swanson, Heather Anne. Anthropocene as political geology: Current debates over how to tell time. Science as Culture 25, no. 1 (2016): 157-163.
3. Swanson 2016
4. Moore, Jason W. The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis. The Journal of peasant studies 44, no. 3 (2017): 594-630.
5. Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The question of the animal from Heidegger to Derrida. Columbia University Press, 2008.
6. Bell, Sarah J. Co-becoming with angophora: performing more-than-human belongings in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Social & Cultural Geography 20, no. 5 (2019): 605-629.
7. Salmón, Enrique. Kincentric ecology: indigenous perceptions of the human–nature relationship. Ecological Applications 10, no. 5 (2000): 1327-1332.
8. Anderson, Ben. Transcending without transcendence: utopianism and an ethos of hope. Antipode 38, no. 4 (2006): 691-710.


Sam Norman holds a Bachelor of Arts & Bachelor of Advanced Studies, majoring in Politics and Philosophy, and is currently undertaking his Honours with the Department of Government and International Relations. Sam’s research interests include; analysis of how the Anthropocene promotes a specific mode of being human, exploring alternative ontologies of human-nature relations inspired by multispecies justice and indigenous philosophies, and reimagining how more-than-human beings can be recognised as political actors and active participants in political processes and institutions.