Opinion

The EJ Series, part 16: Multispecies Justice and the Anthropocene

“Justice in a multispecies context forces us to ask difficult questions about what is “just” for non-humans. What, for example, do animals want from us when it comes to justice?”

Image by Jean Wimmerlin. Sourced from Unsplash.com

This article is based on a presentation by Dinesh Wadiwel on a panel entitled ‘Multispecies Justice’ at the Environmental Justice 2017: Looking Back, Looking Forward Conference, University of Sydney, 6-8 November 2017.

Paul Crutzen is known for having popularised the concept of the Anthropocene to capture the impact of humans on the earth systems measured in geological time. Crutzen’s diagnosis comprised  a sobering list of effects that included anthropogenic climate change, mass human utilisation of fresh water supplies and large-scale forest destruction. Importantly, in Crutzen’s formulation, animals are also directly impacted by this planetary scale effect.

Indeed, animals are named explicitly in at least three ways. Firstly, mass species extinction. The sixth great extinction event is closely tied to human activity indeed, insofar as it is anthropogenic in origin, we are dealing with at least an indirect form of planetary scale human violence directed against nonhumans. Secondly, the massive expansion of global livestock populations, and with them deforestation, expanding land use and unprecedented utilisations of energy, resources and food to maintain this commodity supply. Finally, Crutzen specifically notes the rise of industrialized fishing, and with it, the decimation of our oceans — something I will return to.

Crutzen and his colleagues in defining the Anthropocene have created a peculiar challenge for thinking about justice and particularly justice as it applies to animals. This justice project necessarily looks different from many of the justice projects that have emerged from traditional political philosophy, which have been mainly concerned with just institutions and just procedures that produce just outcomes for humans. Instead, the challenge is how we might imagine justice after anthropocentrism; that is, can we imagine justice without simply reinstating human domination in a different form? And importantly, justice in a multispecies context forces us to ask difficult questions about what is “just” for non-humans. What, for example, do animals want from us when it comes to justice?

In my work, I have been particularly interested in the violence of human domination of human sovereignty as an artefact of our anthropocentrism. In my 2015 book The War Against Animals I was interested in pursuing precisely this systematic set of relationships we have with non-human animals. My argument in the book was that taking a global perspective, our mainstay relations with animals are essentially a relation of continued and unrelenting hostility. If we take food consumption as an example, one conservative estimate is that worldwide over seventy billion land animals are killed annually for food. Estimates of fish killed annually for human consumption range up to 2.7 trillion per year.

Certainly, taking this grim picture into account, it seems reasonable to suggest that if this mass scale injury and death are systematic and directed, then perhaps they conform to an understanding, in political terms, of what might be described as a “war”. This war produces effects that are not preferred or desired by animals themselves. In a political sense, the violence we expose animals to means, to paraphrase Iris Marion Young, that the lives of animals are determined without reciprocation from animals themselves. Put this way, justice in the Anthropocene has to involve some determined effort to reduce human violence towards animals.

The War Against Animals belongs to an emerging field within animal studies that has been identified as belonging to the ‘political turn’ in animal ethics and rights. This new field of the pro-animal theory is less concerned with questions of individual ethics such as ‘what should I personally eat?’ or ‘what should I personally wear?’, and more interested in how we address political structure, institutions, violence, policy and law to generate just outcomes for animals.

Some of this work is directed specifically at democracy and political institutions. For example, thinkers such as Robert Garner, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have recently been making arguments for the formal inclusion of animal interests in democracies. That is, how might we design democracies in ways that are non-anthropocentric? Mostly these theorists have drawn a leaf from Green Theory in designing these models. Other work within the ‘political turn’ is interested in strategic problems relating to how we move forward a political agenda for animals and species and how we work with other social movements to make change. One example of this is the work of Claire Jean Kim who explores the intersection of animals, race and environment in different social movement actions. This work is very useful for thinking about the kind of alliances that might be necessary for responding to the huge problems that face us. For example, I am curious if a multi-species justice platform allows us to build better alliances between animal advocates and environmental justice movements.

Since writing The War Against Animals, I have been addressing a different project, exploring the way in which capitalism might interact with the violence of anthropocentrism. Understanding the specific relationship between anthropocentrism and capitalism is vital for comprehending a range of global problems that confront us. In my view, environmental justice, or more specifically, a multi-species environmental justice, has to be part of the solution.

To explore this relation, I would like to return to thinking about industrialised fishing, which as I mentioned is central to the problem of the Anthropocene. The crisis ahead is that the depletion of fish stocks may have reached an irreversible stage where some have predicted the oceans could run out of key fish species by 2050. It is no secret that during the twentieth century it was the industrialisation of wild fish capture which helped generate the crisis we face in the oceans today. From about the 1950s onwards, industrialised fish capture came to dominate all global fish capture, as local small-scale subsistence and artisanal fishing faced challenges from increasingly well-organised businesses, who captured fish on a large scale. Fish are perhaps the most wildly traded global food commodities in the world and remain a source of intense interest for global markets. We know too that global seafood industries have been the focus of a lot of advocacy by labour rights organisations, with deep concerns around the use of low wage and forced labour in wild capture and processing operations. Another disturbing aspect of this global business is the large number of fish that are discarded as part of the fishing industry. In May 2016, a team of researchers led by Dr. Glenn Simmons at the University of Auckland suggested that fishing vessels in New Zealand waters captured 2.7 times as many fish as they officially declared, and that dumping of unwanted fish was routine in the industry.

All of this is not merely a disaster for humans and the environment, but also a disaster for animals. Almost no wild fish capture involves welfare precautions to prevent fish suffering. Fish are hauled from depths and crushed against other fish and nets. Fish frequently expire painfully from burst swim bladders and those that survive this ordeal are left to suffocate on boats. Growing research on fish sentience and capability highlights that these fish almost certainly feel pain and experience emotions that are comparable to land-based animals. If justice requires us to consider the views of all those who experience injustice – and I would say this is crucial to the environmental justice frame – then what about fish? Are they not delivered a massive injustice in the multifaceted disaster that is industrialised fishing? Would a non-anthropocentric conception of justice acknowledge that that fish have the most at stake in any deliberation over the Justice of fishing itself? And what does this just solution look like?

The example of industrialised fish capture intrigues me because it perfectly illustrates the deep intersections between economic inequality under capitalism and the manifold effects this poses to humans, animals and nature. I find it strange that we have not seen the kind of alliances that might bring these elements together for strategic change. While environment and labour rights groups have been working together admirably in the Asia-Pacific region to address slavery in the industry, it is curious to me that very few of these groups specifically raise the problems this industry poses for fish, beyond questions around the sustainability of fishing for fish populations. On the flip side, I’m curious why animal protection organisations have not worked in solidarity with others to support attempts to end slavery in the industry, as part of the general movement to challenge industrialized wild fish capture itself. From my perspective, the opportunity is there to seek to address injustices that face both humans and non-humans. I certainly think this is an opportunity offered by a conception of multispecies environmental justice.


Dinesh Wadiwel is a Senior Lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies. He has previously taught in Sociology and Politics at the University of Western Sydney, Macquarie University and the University of Notre Dame Australia. Dinesh is convenor of The University of Sydney Human Animal Research Network (HARN). Dinesh is author of the monograph The War Against Animals (Brill, 2015). He is also co-editor (with Matthew Chrulew) of the volume Foucault and Animals (Brill 2017). Dinesh is currently working on a new monograph which explores the relationship between animals and capitalism. Dinesh is also working on several projects related to the application of international torture obligations to the treatment of people with disability. Dinesh has 15 years experience working within the non government sector. He has significant experience within the disability rights movement, and was a previous Executive Officer of National Ethnic Disability Alliance (NEDA), the national peak organization representing people from Non English Speaking Backgrounds with disability. Dinesh continues to collaborate with a number of multicultural organisations working towards rights for migrants and refugees with disability.