Q&A

Expanding Environmental Justice Through a Lens of Political Philosophy

How can the concepts of political theorists Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt be applied to critical environmental justice? Here, 2022 Honours Fellow Ailish Ryan discusses her research into how philosophical notions of self-care and freedom can inform interpersonal, localised environmentalism. 

Image of green landscape and winding road by Silas Baisch via Unsplash.
Image by Silas Baisch via Unsplash.

Emma Holland: What are you researching for Honours? 

Ailish Ryan: For my honours I am researching concepts in political theory that operate on the level of the individual and their surrounding community and looking to apply them to local-level environmental justice initiatives. The concepts I’m working with are from the works of political theorists/philosophers Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, who, respectively, wrote about self-care as a political practice and the mental faculties of thinking, willing and judging as human abilities that enable freedom. Neither author wrote explicitly about environmental justice, but they were thinking about justice more generally, and in considering their work in the 21st century I hope to be able to contribute to environmental justice studies through the analysis and application of their work. 

What is your academic background and what was the inspiration behind your Honours research? 

My background is in philosophy and politics and international relations, so the inspiration behind my project is to explore the nexus between those two fields. Specifically, Arendt and Foucault as political philosophers (although Arendt wouldn’t dare use the label) both produced work that was intended for academic audiences and beyond. They were attentive and responsive to the political situations of their time and place – Arendt to the post-Shoah trials of Nazis, and Foucault to the ideological scramble for Europe between the trans-Atlantic forces of the United States and Britain, and the Soviet Union – and wary of any universalising political ideologies or oversimplified conceptions of the social world. These attitudes inspired me to investigate their works for potential enlightenment on issues of environmental justice.  

For my honours I am researching concepts in political theory that operate on the level of the individual and their surrounding community and looking to apply them to local-level environmental justice initiatives. The concepts I’m working with are from the works of political theorists/philosophers Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, who, respectively, wrote about self-care as a political practice and the mental faculties of thinking, willing and judging as human abilities that enable freedom.”

What do you hope this research will contribute to society and its future? 

Within environmental justice studies there has been an effort towards ‘critical environmental justice’ spurred by David Pellow, Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Global Justice Project at UCSB in the US, and collaborator of SEI. One aspect of which has been a push for research guided by multiple scales of analysis. This is the specific lacuna which I hope to contribute to. Pellow talks about how the use of scale particularly in understanding the effects of climate change, is predisposed to problems of racism, colonialism and classism. When viewed on a global scale, climate change is a force whose effects are on the horizon, yet to be significantly experienced. But it can be argued that a majority of the world’s people are experiencing the effects of climate change now, albeit wrapped up in other environmental issues, by virtue of the circumstances of their birth. Environmental injustice involves, for lack of a better term, the systemic ‘unloading’ of the distasteful consequences of our unequal consumption of the planet’s resources onto those who are ‘out of sight and out of mind’. By adjusting the scale to the individual, these injustices can be captured by a critical environmental justice lens. Furthermore, if we have a theoretical basis that gives principles for how to conduct individual political action and resistance, we can begin to devise approaches to addressing that injustice.  

Why were you interested in applying for an Honours Fellowship with the Sydney Environment Institute? 

I was attracted to researching in the Sydney Environment Institute due to the amazing academic staff working within it, as well as the innovative, interdisciplinary research it produces. The project Grounded Imaginaries headed by Professor Danielle Celermajer is forging a path of interdisciplinary work between the humanities and environmental sciences that I hope my research will follow in. Additionally, the work that Professor David Schlosberg is engaging in regarding environmentalism and the politics of everyday life really inspired my research by helping me recognise that environmentalism at the interpersonal, daily level is where my academic interests are. 

By adjusting the scale to the individual, these injustices can be captured by a critical environmental justice lens. Furthermore, if we have a theoretical basis that gives principles for how to conduct individual political action and resistance, we can begin to devise approaches to addressing that injustice.”

Aside from research, what are your interests and passions?  

You can have non-research interests and passions in the Honours year?! Just kidding. When I’m not researching, I really enjoy reading fiction, and seeing movies. Recently the movies Everything Everywhere All at Once and Quo Vadis, Aida? moved me beyond words, in very different ways. They represent incredible storytelling, and evoke quite complicated emotions about human relations, about what is possible to achieve in our singular human lives, and about what we should value.  

In fiction, the book The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell is an incredible story about three intertwined families across generations, centred in Zambia. Amongst themes of coloniality, destiny and familial determinism, Serpell has a clear appreciation for human connection to land, which includes commentary on the effects of the West’s unsustainable, modernist consumption of the environment. Whilst my appreciation of these works is primarily personal and non-research, they do inform my desire to connect personal principles, beliefs and values, with our political understandings of and relationships to the environment. 


Ailish Ryan is one of four 2022 Honours Fellows with the Sydney Environment Institute. Hailing from the Department of Government and International Relations, her research interests include critical environmental justice, contemporary political theory, and the study of horizontally organised social justice. Ailish’s honours thesis aims to connect the philosophy of self-care and the cultivation of the mind with individual- and community-level action in the face of a climate changed environment and a climate changed society.