Rethinking Justice with Danielle Celermajer and David Schlosberg

Marc Hudson, social media editor for the journal Environmental Politics (Twitter: @Env_Pol), speaks with Danielle Celermajer and David Schlosberg following the publication of a co-authored paper on multispecies justice, which will appear in the 30th-anniversary special issue of Environmental Politics.

Photo by Jaccob McKay on Unsplash.

You say you began the work while Australia’s eastern seaboard was on fire. Who is “we,” and (how) did the man-made cataclysm affect the writing process and outcome?

‘We’ were the authors who lived through the fires at different levels of proximity, from immediate threat and impacts to land and loved ones, to living for weeks breathing the dense smoke – the remains of forests and animals – that enveloped the east coast of Australia, to watching from a distance as the horrors unfolded and registering what they meant.

Writing from the phenomenological and material reality of the climate catastrophe transforms how one approaches the concepts and ideas we explore in this article. The questions raised were new to none of us, but the concrete reality of what is at stake and the gravity of the responsibility to respond were profoundly altered by the experience. This encounter with the very material nature of experiencing and understanding environmental disaster is directly related to our argument against well entrenched the assumption that what makes humans the unique subjects of justice is the dimension of ideas, as distinct from embodiment.


You write (p3) “Beyond rejecting the belief that humans alone merit ethical or political consideration, multispecies justice rejects three related ideas central to human exceptionalism: a) that humans are physically separate or separable from other species and non-human nature, b) that humans are unique from all other species because they possess minds (or consciousness) and agency and c) that humans are therefore more important than other species (Srinivasan, & Kasturirangang 2016).”  The old argument that Peter Singer came up against surely applies though – if you could only save one creature from a burning building, it would be your brother over your pet hamster, no?

This strikes us as a specious argument that could equally be used to undermine any principle of justice, including one in the realm of the intra-human. Humans similarly have preferences for, and greater commitments to those with whom they have intimate relationships, but this does not detract from the importance of a set of principled commitments to equal treatment. The way in which the question is framed also presupposes rather than calls into question a particular geography of relationships and commitments, as it does that humans both are and should be embedded in relations with other humans in ways that they are not and should not be with the more-than-human world. These assumptions and what grounds and is taken to justify them are precisely what need to be interrogated. Moreover, the framing assumes that the subjects of justice are individuals, whereas part of what we are arguing is that justice through a multispecies lens needs to attend to relationships and the conditions for healthy and flourishing relationships, including relationships across human and more-than-human worlds.


You mention (p4) the “ongoing tension between animal rights positions’ focus on the irreducible good of the individual and environmental holists’ focus on the functioning of systems. This is one of the challenges that motivates a consideration of multispecies justice.” What’s new in MSJ, in contrast to this longstanding rights-based approach?

The principal argument here is that the problem is not limited to the fact that as matters stand, we have failed to apply existing conceptions of justice to a complete set of subjects who merit ethical consideration; it’s that the existing conceptions of justice are based on a fictional understanding of subjects as individuals, and are completely divorced from ecological and material realities of beings-in-relation. Rights-based approaches to animals have for decades tried to expand the realm of justice by arguing how similar some animals are to human beings – they have pain, they have dignity, they have cognition and so on, and so they deserve the mantle of ‘subject of justice’. they get into the club! We object to the persistent, albeit superficially modified human exceptionalism that remains the foundation for such subjecthood, and instead argue for subjects to be defined through what we share, ecologically, with other beings. Crucially, our focus is injustice as much as justice, on human actions that interrupt or undermine systems of relationships of beings and the ecologies in which beings and their relationships are immersed. This might be a space where animal rights and multispecies justice align, for example in the analysis of industrialised animal farming and the range of injustices it materially engenders.


In the final section you “consider the challenges and prospects of operationalizing or realizing MSJ as a framework for political and legal institutions, and the risk that even as we move towards greater democratic inclusion, exclusionary dynamics and ethical tensions will persist” (p12). Sure, but humans have de jure rights which get ignored or trampled all over de facto, in the real world. And humans can talk, mobilise, vote etc. What chance to animals and plants have, even they somehow had the same rights? Where does formal legal recognition (a loaded word, I know) get them, practically?

Your question needs to be answered in two ways, first in terms of the limits of formal law in respect to all matters of justice, which we completely agree with, hence our emphasis on a range of political, legal and cultural institutions, modes of production and practices. At the same time, law’s effects are not limited to its capacity to formally regulate behaviour; it also has a critical expressive function, whereby it establishes the norms that are recognised as legitimate and ought to be observed within the political community where it has jurisdiction. Beyond this critique of law, you are also pointing to the obstacles that beings other than humans face in making claims under the legal protections that might be available, because of their reliance on humans to act as their representatives. And that is a constraint. Nevertheless, this formal recognition needs to be understood as but one dimension of a range of institutional transformations effected once one recognises that humans are not the sole subjects of justice. Think for example of what happens to economic relations and modes of production when beings other than humans can no longer be classified as property or resource. Then the change becomes absolutely practical, but at that point, so of course, does the resistance.


You observe “the risk with this approach is that the hierarchically organised binaries and speciest logics that have generated systematic injustice are retained, albeit softened so as to quell dissent and offset demands for the type of structural transformative that would, as discussed earlier, deconstruct and decolonise the unjust logics.” Can you give an example of where that risk has played out? What can be done to combat the risk?

The non-human rights project, which seeks legal recognition of the personhood of some animals exemplifies this risk, insofar as recognition is afforded to those who most resemble humans or whose affordances include those that humans have and that we have claimed qualify us as subjects meriting a special type of ethical consideration (like symbolic language). Recognition of personhood is in this sense a mixed blessing. For example, the implementation of legal structures validating personhood for rivers is fantastic for legally embodying an Indigenous philosophy about place, and yet is still limited because it requires shoehorning a broad way of thinking about multispecies relationships, responsibilities, and justice into a narrow legal tool or set of requirements based on the notion of ‘the person’. To combat this risk, we need to see moves like these as part of a broader toolkit of strategies. So, for example, rather than seeing these projects in isolation or as end in themselves, they are understood as a tactic for forging a crack in the isomorphism between the person and the human. There will, of course, be a range of views on the pros and cons of more reformist tactics, and whether they contribute to, or waylay more radical transformations. We think that a range of views on that point is important for the broader movement.


You note, “[Claire Jean] Kim’s notion of mutual avowal provides a fertile direction to explore here; rather than situating the diverse moral commitments of differently placed beings (human and other) within a zero-sum game, a ‘multioptical analysis’ (2015, p. 250) opens the possibility of finding ways forward that take into account the diverse stakes and understandings, against the background of historical legacies of injustice and the possibilities available in the present.” Can you say more about how you are trying to bring together concern for beings other than humans with recognition of intra-human injustices? 

One of the important interventions that Claire Jean Kim makes in her work is to call into question the idea that justice always demands a logic of equivalency and that judgements about what counts as just or unjust can be abstracted from history and context. Context matters, including the context of intra-human injustice and the contextual world of differently located humans; you ought not simply apply abstract principles in an ahistorical way. When say Indigenous peoples perform a certain act with respect to animals other than humans, it cannot be assumed that this is the same act as it would be if performed by people from a settler colonial hyper industrialised society. Acts are always performed within worlds of meaning, and they can only be properly interpreted within the context of other acts, relationships and understandings. This is particularly clear in the work of people like Marisol De la Cadena or Eduardo Kohn, whose multispecies ethnography has taught us a great deal.


Who do you want to see involved in “Articulating more complex moral and perspective maps, and discovering the institutional forms that will support this type of multispectival deliberation” and what needs to change in how academics “do” theory to make it more likely that this will happen?

A huge question, and one we can only gesture towards! What we have in mind here borrows from a rich literature well developed in critical race and feminist theory, that knowledge and ethics are perspectival and embedded in material conditions. Academics for the most part occupy a particular type of world, to say nothing of the persistent marginalisation from and in the academy of people on the basis of gender, race, diability and so on. In this sense, the academy institutionalises many types of epistemic injustice. So academic practices that recognise a broader range of knowledges, by including people beyond the academy as knowledge producers, is part of what we need. And of course, given our topic, recognising that knowledge is not the preserve of humans requires developing methodologies and imaginaries that allow us to learn with and from a very broad range of others. There are academics who are already doing this, particularly Indigenous scholars who, for example, include rivers or mountains as their co-authors. Recognising the extractive nature of academic knowledge production is a critical first move for all of us.


Anything else you want to say?

This piece is very much intended as a conversation starter, not a state of the field summary. We are very alive to the limits of the sources that we acknowledged, in part because of our own finite and particular networks of knowledge and in part because of the constraints of an academic article. We look forward to others bringing into the conversation the many other streams that have or ought to run into the idea and practice of multispecies justice. Multispecies justice is not something that exists and is there to be described, at least in our contemporary world. It is a possibility to be imagined, along with the deconstruction of the very limited way that liberal justice has been understood and applied.

Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research stands at the interface of theories exploring the multi-dimensional nature of injustice and the practice of human rights, focusing on the relational intra-space between human and non-human animals. Along with her multispecies community, she has recently lived through the NSW fires, writing in the face of their experience of the “killing of everything”, which she calls “omnicide”. Danielle is the Research Lead on Concepts and Practices of Multispecies Justice.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations, Payne-Scott Professor, and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental and climate justice. His other theoretical interests are in food justice and multispecies justice, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental movements and the practices of everyday life – what he terms sustainable materialism.

For an interview with the authors, contact Danielle Celermajer at danielle.cellermajer@sydney.edu.au.

For all other media enquiries, contact Eloise Fetterplace, SEI Communications and Project Officer on +61 2 8627 9857 or eloise.fetterplace@sydney.edu.au.