ARiS Reading Group, February 2020

by Greg Murrie

Animal Rights in Sydney (ARiS) began in August 2016 with an inaugural meeting at the Town Hall Hotel, Newtown. The original convenors, John Hadley, Siobhan O’Sullivan and Dinesh Wadiwel, still convene the group. This animal rights reading group invites both academic participation (from tenured academics to undergraduates) and participation from the general public. ARiS aims to bring together animal studies work occurring in the academy and non-academic animal advocacy work. Meetings take place monthly in the Social Sciences Building at the University of Sydney and all are invited. If you are interested, please email one of the convenors (J.Hadley@westernsydney.edu.au, siobhan.osullivan@unsw.edu.au or dinesh.wadiwel@sydney.edu.au). You will be added to our email list for details of future meetings and the distribution of readings.

This is the first of an ongoing series of reports that I will be compiling for AASA as a participant in ARiS. I will supply details of our readings and outline the discussions that ensue in our meetings. In this way some of the ideas explored by our reading group members can be shared more widely.

On Monday 10 February the theme of our meeting was wildlife and environmental justice. We discussed three readings:

  1. John Hadley, “Animal property rights: justice or conservation?,” in Anna Lukasiewicz, Stephen Dovers, Libby Robin, Jennifer McKay, Steven Schilizzi and Sonia Graham, eds., Natural Resources and Environmental Justice: Australian Perspectives (2017), 133-42;
  2. David Schlosberg, “Theorising environmental justice: the expanding sphere of a discourse,” Environmental Politics, 22: 1 (2013), 37-55; and
  3. Danielle Celermajer, “Omnicide: Who is responsible for the gravest of all crimes?,” ABC Religion & Ethics. Posted 3/1/20; updated 7/1/20.

Much of the discussion at our meeting hinged on definitions: to what extent do conservation biologists’ and environmental philosophers’ definitions of terms such as “habitat,” “invasive species” and “damage to the environment” differ? Is there a “balance in nature” that needs to be defended or is this concept open to contestation and multiple interpretations? Where does environmental change, that in some sense can be deemed “natural,” end and human-implicated environmental catastrophes such as Australia witnessed this summer begin? In regard to Hadley’s chapter, the use of the concept of “property” was questioned: do not late-capitalist societies require rather less of that concept than more? Even on a human plane, is property unproblematically a “good”? Many analyses of human property rights link property with human labour. We asked how non-human animal labour might link with their property rights in a theoretically and practically productive manner. Further, we wondered if the institution of a human guardian charged with protecting the territorial rights of animals might raise similar objections to those levelled at Martha Nussbaum when she suggested a proxy who could vote in the place of a severely cognitively impaired fellow human if the latter was unable to express a choice. Paralleling the Nussbaum example, what human has the right to represent the non-human? That is, if non-humans cannot represent themselves in some contexts, perhaps guardianship symbolically devalues even those instances when the non-human can.

John Hadley is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Western Sydney University whose monograph Animal Property Rights: A Theory of Habitat Rights for Wild Animals (2015) supplies much of the context for the book chapter we discussed. His work focuses on how the question of property rights might be addressed in ways that reconcile environmentalism with animal rights. Hadley considers two alternative models for animal property rights, the “justice theory” and the “conservation theory.” Before he unpacks these, he discusses two components which apply equally to either of these animal property rights models: guardianship and territorial behaviour.

An animal guardianship mechanism, similar to guardianship systems for humans deemed unable legally to represent themselves, is a proposed device which provides an advocate for nonhuman animals at risk of losing habitat, and therefore possibly their lives. This approach requires landholders, whose interests are potentially counter to the relevant nonhuman animals, to attend an out of court mediation session where they must respond directly to the “voice” of the animals’ interests offered by their human guardians. For Hadley, one of the advantages of this model is that guardians operate outside the realm of “politically expedient administrative decisions” (134). Their sole role is to represent the animals’ interests. Hadley envisages the guardian as someone with expertise in fields such as ecology, animal welfare, law and land management, who is prepared to foreground the interests of the animals, and who possesses the strong interpersonal skills required to deal with potential conflict.

By territorial behaviour, Hadley refers to the use of the natural behaviour patterns of nonhuman animals as a basis for designating the outlines of property, rather than the “ecologically arbitrary or administratively expedient

ways” (135) that follow from ideas of human property. This raises the question of how the guardianship model would operate if the territory of a species serves as the basis for animal property rights. For example, if a species’ territory extends over hundreds of square kilometres, Hadley suggests breaking down the total territory to a core area, or another smaller unit, so that the number of human stakeholders is limited, or utilising town hall style meetings as venues for negotiations between guardians and landholders.

Hadley outlines the basis of the justice theory for animal property rights through the prism of an interest-based argument, where animals have an interest in retaining access to natural goods essential for their survival. This is a property interest, where property is “an institution concerned with regulating access to and usage of natural resources” (135). Hadley accepts that the first premise of this argument—that all animals have an interest in using natural goods to fulfil their basis needs—is non-controversial. He therefore focuses on the potentially contentious second premise: that nonhuman animal interest is at least as weighty as a non-critical human interest in the property in question. He claims there are two bases upon which to argue for the equivalence of animal and human interests in this context, both grounded in orthodox theories of wellbeing. Firstly, nonhuman animals need to have their basic needs met in order to have any sort of life, whether they desire the objects of these needs or not (the objective list theory of wellbeing). Secondly, he argues that nonhuman animals indeed desire this, and this is the basis of their rights (the desire theory of wellbeing). He posits two major flaws in the justice theory. The first is, if all that justice requires for nonhuman animals to gain property rights is the satisfaction of their needs, then multiple species of animals, of potentially multiple hundreds of individuals, each will have rights over the same parcel of land, making the system conceptually complex and an administrative nightmare. Secondly, the theory is unable to discriminate between categories of species: exotic, native, invasive or over-abundant native.

Alternatively, the basis of the conservation theory of animal property rights is centred on specific human purposes such as the control of human/wildlife conflict. Its virtue is its flexibility: it can be applied only to certain species, to particular areas considered to be of special biodiverse importance, for a limited duration during times of heightened threat to habitat, or to override or co-exist with existing property rights or conservation schemes. The chief objection to this schema is that nonhuman animals only acquire rights indirectly when contingent upon particular human conservation goals. Hadley in this context references Robert Garner’s distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory as they pertain to animals. As Hadley points out, not only in the conservation model but in the justice model also, human judgement intervenes. That is, in each case it determines each species’ basic needs and their potential moral significance.

Hadley grounds his theory in the homegrown example of a family of eastern water dragons that have inhabited the backyard of his childhood home in Sydney for as long as he can remember. He suggests that it is creatures like these who would be potential candidates to have the justice model applied; current and future landholders would be required to consider the water dragons’ needs when developments were proposed, whereupon a guardian would be appointed to represent their interests. This guardian would point out to prospective new owners the consequences of any alterations they might make.

In the second reading for this session David Schlosberg, Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, discusses the question of environmental justice. Firstly, Schlosberg demonstrates how early scholarship deconstructed the notion of “environment,” examined the multipronged causes of environmental injustice, and explored diverse social justice solutions. He then shows how the concept has recently expanded to encompass a broader range of issues and a more global perspective. He illustrates how climate change has effected a more complex consideration of both environment and justice and generated a concern for “sustainable materialism,” and focuses on recent work that shows how ideas such as “the environment” and “nature” themselves constitute the conditions for social justice.

Schlosberg explores how early theorisation on environmental justice analysed the vectors of class and race as prime determinants of the inequity of the distribution of environmental “goods” (such as green space, public transit and fresh food). He also notes that the concept of environment was expanded to mean not only “wilderness,” but the totality of the environment in which humans exist. This link between environment as the everyday and environment as the larger natural world persists in contemporary concerns about environmentally just and green cities, climate change, food, energy and sustainable materialism.

Initially, analyses of environmental injustice, in terms of class and race, identified three modes in which inequity operated: the poverty of particular populations and the rationale behind industrial externalization of environmental risk; industry and government targeting poor and racially marginalised communities as easy pickings for development; and the symbolic, racist identification of pollution with communities of colour. Schlosberg, partly through his own work, has seen this focus on injustice expand to include diverse concepts of what environmental justice might look like through exploration of models of participatory justice and recognition—not just equity—and the encompassing of consideration of “the basic needs and functioning of individuals and communities” (40). His focus is on the further expansion of the discourse beyond the individual human to community-level justice and “justice beyond the human” (40). Schlosberg traces the extension of the concerns of environmental justice discourse from the unfairness in the relative distribution of toxins and hazardous waste amongst communities to the various strands of the environmental justice movement—indigenous rights movements, the labour movement, traditional environmentalists, the solidarity movement, general social and economic justice movements, immigrant rights groups, urban environmental and smart growth movements, local foods and food justice movements—to the new themes it has taken up: transportation, access to countryside and green space, land use and smart growth policy, water quality and distribution, energy development and jobs, brownfields refurbishment, food justice, the role of scientific expertise, and the relationship between science and environmental justice communities.

One of the most important changes Schlosberg traces in environmental justice discourse is from sole concern with the human to the non-human realm. As he expresses it, “The shift suggested here is one from environmental conditions as an example or manifestation of social injustice to one where justice is applied to the treatment of the environment itself” (44). For example, in discussions of Hurricane Katrina, rather than the emphasis being placed solely on its effects on human communities, such an analysis would consider also the ecological damage to surrounding ecosystems that negatively affects both human and non-human communities. An analysis of environmental justice in the Sacramento, California delta region would focus both on the economic exploitation of human communities and of nature in the area. Schlosberg pays particular attention to climate change and sustainable materialism as sites where environmental concerns themselves undergird any possibility of social justice. As he says, “a working environment is necessary for justice, and that justice entails creating human practices and material flows that do not undermine environmental processes and systems” (45-6). Schlosberg describes this change in the discourse as “not only a spatial extension, but a conceptual shift” (45).

For Schlosberg, concern about climate change transitions easily to practices of sustainable materialism, for example calls for investment in environmental technologies and jobs, food justice and workable communities; community food justice solutions such as community-supported agriculture, collective gardening, urban farms and farmers markets; and community-wide local generation and supply of solar and wind. All of these strategies seek to step aside from hegemonic, unsustainable food and energy supply networks to create sustainable, local and community-based alternatives. Schlosberg appeals to academics to value the intersections between theory and practice and to engage with the environmental justice movement and its “broad and informative” (50) innovation.

In the third reading for our session, Danielle Celermajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, in an opinion piece written when bushfires were raging over much of Australia, makes an explicit link between “omnicide” (the “killing of everything”) and alternative “cides”: genocide or ecocide (the killing of ecosystems). By describing the fires as a “cide,” Celermajer shifts them from the realm of natural event to that of crime, and attributes human agency to that crime. She does not conceive of the human actors responsible for the fires in a simplistic fashion, but notes the “varied and layered” responsibilities held by a range of parties, including Federal politicians, media owners who support climate-change denial, financial institutions that invest in toxic industries, investors, business owners involved in extracting and resource-exploiting industries, and citizens who implicitly or explicitly support the status quo. Undergirding all these systems is the implied human superiority that dominates and exploits all other animal and plant species.

Greg Murrie, PhD Candidate,  Department of History,  University of Sydney

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