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Biodiversity and extinction: can we achieve justice for all?

Climate change, resource extraction and increasing levels of extinction present unprecedented challenges
How can the humanities and social sciences help us to respond to the biodiversity crisis in a more just way, which transforms how we protect the foundations of life on our planet?

More than a million species worldwide face extinction, according to a landmark recent report on biodiversity and extinction by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, the report is the most comprehensive of its kind and assesses changes over the last five decades. It concludes that humans’ interaction with our world is eroding the foundations of life at an alarming rate, through our:

  • domination of land and oceans across the planet
  • dumping pollutants into the earth and waterways
  • destruction of forests and other habitats
  • exploitation of other species.

Transformative action though, is not only about new and better science. We need to reimagine how we understand ourselves, the beings with whom we share the planet and our relationships. It is about the stories we tell, the art we produce, the way that we live, and reconceiving fundamental concepts such as justice and value.

Increasingly scholars in the humanities and social scientists – working alongside artists and activists – are recognising the critical role that they play in bringing about these transformations.  

At this Sydney Ideas event, a panel of experts in these disciplines will reflect on how we can powerfully represent and recast the reality and the meaning of species loss and cultural loss, and what we can do and are doing to transform ourselves and our world.

This event was held on Wednesday 19 June 2019 at the University of Sydney. 

The speakers

Marisol de la Cadena is Professor at the Department of Anthropology Sociocultural Wing at the University of California, Davis. Currently her field sites are cattle ranches and veterinary schools in Colombia. There she engages with practices and relations between people, cows, and ‘things’ in general. 

Her most recent book, Earth Beings. Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds (2015), is based on conversations with two Quechua-speaking men who lived in Cuzco (Peru). The book is an ethnography concerned with the concreteness of incommensurability and the eventfulness of the ahistorical.

Ravi Agarwal has an inter-disciplinary practice as an artist, environmental researcher and campaigner, writer and curator. His work, explores key contemporary questions around ecology, society, urban space and capital. He works with photographs, video, installations, and public art and has been shown widely in events, like the  the Kochi Biennial (2016),  Sharjah Biennial (2013) and Documenta XI (2002). He co-curated the Yamuna-Elbe, Indo German twin city  public art and ecology twin city project in 2011 and an international public art and ecology event in Chennai 2018. He is the photography curator for the upcoming Serendipity Arts Festival.

Ravi is also the founder of the  Indian environmental NGO Toxics Link which has pioneered work in waste and chemicals  in India, and campaigns on conserving rivers and the forest in Delhi. He serves on several high level policy committees, and writes extensively on sustainability issues in journals and books. He was  awarded the UN Special Recognition Award for Chemical Safety in 2008 and the Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurship in 1997. He is an engineer by training.

Thom van Dooren is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2017-2021) in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, and founding co-editor of the journal Environmental Humanities (Duke University Press). 

His research and writing focus on some of the many philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places. He is the author of Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (2014), The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (2019), and co-editor of Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (2017), all published by Columbia University Press.

Dr Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Macquarie University and previously worked for international indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a particular focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her broader research interests include human-plant relations, multispecies ethnography, race and human difference, biocapitalism, colonial and postcolonial studies, post-humanism, and phenomenology. Sophie’s current research explores the impacts of climate change on indigenous foodways and on indigenous phenomenologies of hunger and satiety.

Danielle Celermajer's professional life has been characterised by moving between organisations whose principal focus is human rights policy, advocacy and scholarship, and seeking a greater integration between these dimensions of human rights work.

Since joining the University of Sydney in 2005, she has established two postgraduate human rights programs aimed at forging precisely this type of integration between the best of scholarship and effective human rights practice. The Master of Human Rights and Democratisation (Asia Pacific Program) was established with a 1.5 million euro grant from the European Commission, and now runs from Mahidol University in Thailand and is an integral part of the Global Campus of Human Rights.

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