Opinion

EJ Series, Part 1: Post-Hegemonic Futures: Decolonising Intergenerational Environmental Justice

This blog is based on a paper presented by Christine Winter at the Environmental Justice 2017 Conference, Sydney University, 6-8 November 2017.

Image by Christine Winter.

Contemporary Environmental Justice theory carries with it hegemonic, Western-centric ontological assumptions about justice, that are incompatible with Māori, Aboriginal and other Indigenous People’s ontologies, philosophies and ways of life. These assumptions continue the colonial project of domination and invalidation of Indigenous Peoples.

To decolonise Environmental Justice theory (EJ), let’s first understand the environment is always present in Māori and Aboriginal philosophy. So, all issues of justice are already issues of environmental justice. Therefore, the dilemma is not how to theorise environmental justice, but rather how to overcome impediments created by settler hegemony so that we can continue to implement practices of environmental protection from respect for ancestors and to ensure future generations inherit a healthy and vibrant entangled environment and culture.

As a way to address some weaknesses in EJ theory, I am trying to establish what decolonised intergenerational justice might look like, particularly in my Aotearoa New Zealand Māori context and also for Australian Aboriginal contexts. For this to occur, we need to address some impediments in current EJ theory. We can begin to decolonise theory through ideas grounded in (some) Māori and Aboriginal worldviews, such as notions of time and non-human dignity. The inclusion of these ideas in EJ theory can move us towards a post-hegemonic future.

Decolonising Time

Current impediments to EJ are entwined within the story of time. Time, almost invisibly, underscores the idea of intergenerational justice & EJ, and yet, time itself is left unexamined in justice theory.

Western-centric understandings portray time as an ontologically neutral, irrefutably forward moving measurement of space as represented by science. I want us to examine what happens when we move away from thinking of time as a mechanical, forward moving, and linear projection.

To understand the Māori conceptualisation of time, I’m going to paint a picture of who I am, one that is different from the individualist conceptions commonly portrayed by the West.

Spiral or circular conceptualisations of time make up my whakapapa – the Māori mental construct used to describe genealogies and interconnections between everything – material and spiritual, human, and nonhuman.

This thing ‘Me’, which is here, now, encompasses a basket of ancestry— genetic, intellectual, mythological, biological, mineralogical, ontological, physical and experiential. In whakapapa, we have an ontology that covers relationships with nonhuman (and the spiritual), subjectivity, and community through an ever spiralling past-in-present-in-future-in past.

I am, I embody, at once: ancestors; future generation; living; and ancestor. Rather than a notion of time as forward moving through space it becomes instead spirally bound and emplaced/embodied. My being and knowledge oscillate between ancient and modern, current and future. ‘I’ cannot be separated from culture or animal or plant or minerals, past or present or future.

Our imaginings of EJ shift quite radically if we think of generations living not in competitive sequences, but as living synchronically, if we move away from thinking of time as a mechanical, forward moving, linear projection. We approach the future facing the past.

Including notions of Non-Human Dignity

As a way to ensure EJ reflects indigenous ontologies, we need to explore how ‘the environment’ or ‘non-human’ may be understood to be dignity bearing – as a subject not object.

There is no hierarchy in the Māori and Aboriginal worldview between the human and the non-human. That is, everything has subjectivity. Everything is a site of justice. In the Māori ontology, this is described through the embodiment of fundamental essences – mauri, tapu and mana – life force, potentiality to be and respect. These are common to all things, but with species and sort specifically. The ‘environment’ is not ‘out there’ nor ‘other’. As described in my whakapapa earlier, Māori peoples understand an intimate entanglement with everything.  And we recognise the non-human as dignity-bearing.

Similarly, for Aboriginal Australians, the distinction between human and non-human is blurred. Everything is part of the family, everything is understood to be entangled in relationships and responsibilities, obligations and duties (for more details on this, see work by Mary Graham).

For those peoples for whom the environment is a co-being with the familial and spiritual connection, the idea of dignity is expansive. It ensures ‘human’ is not the only site of justice, and that the obligations and duties of environmental justice are inclusive of the non-human.

Western understandings of dignity have multiple conceptualisations; meaning it is a flexible concept. This suggests there is room to re-conceptualise standard EJ understandings of dignity and to incorporate a non-Anthropocentric worldview. Where all things have type-specific dignity, the subject/object dichotomies of the West dissolve. Moving from the premise that only the human has dignity ensures everything is regarded with respect and dignity. When dignity is conceived like this, obligations and duties to EJ stem from subjectivity in the environment, the potential dignity of future generations of humans and nonhuman.

How can Environmental Justice Be Decolonised?

Understanding time is an ever spiralling past-in-present-in-future-in past, and that nonhuman is part of human and dignity bearing, some other problems with EJ, like individualism, materialism and liberalism, are transcended. They are incompatible with non-competitive imaginings of time and holistic dignity. By theorising within deep entanglements and embodiment with animal, vegetable and mineral within all-time EJ begin the journey of decolonising. Then theory can stop burying Indigenous Peoples under the ongoing ‘colonial project’


Christine Winter is a SEI PhD Candidate from the Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney. Christines PhD research is Christine is looking at how intergenerational obligations and duties are manifest in some Aboriginal, Māori and Amerindian communities and how they can inform a capabilities approach to intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of those peoples, and examines the entanglements of Indigenous Peoples, their compatriots, future generations, nonhuman and the physical environment through the lens of Intergenerational Environmental Justice (IEJ).