‘Social Justice’ is a powerful concept, evoking ideas of equality, democracy, freedom from violence and fairness. However, social justice has almost always been thought of through a human lens, as a way to achieve fairer outcomes within human societies. Campaigns to save rainforests or end factory farms are rarely framed with the language of social justice. Traditional social justice goals – such as demands to redistribute wealth more fairly, or to reduce violence – are typically only understood as relating to human actors alone. However, today, social justice increasingly demands a view beyond the human.
Anthropogenic climate change for example, is a stark reminder that we can no longer treat the environment as an inexhaustible resource. Demanding justice in this context means recognising the extent of human activity by taking into account the impact of our actions on the non-human world.
Moving beyond the human also shapes the strategies we have available to deal with human social justice issues. For example, we are aware that deep and growing income and wealth inequalities are a feature of human societies. In the past, governments have pursued economic growth as a way to raise living standards and address income poverty. But today we face the stark reality that pursuing unfettered economic growth is unfeasible without considering the effect on the climate. As the authors of the recent IPCC 1.5˚ report suggest, in order to respond to climate change effectively, sustainable development and poverty reduction can only happen through careful management and strong democratic consensus.
It is not only environmental concerns that pressure our traditional conceptions of social justice. The question of how we engage with non-human others in our food systems has been subject to a great deal of scholarly and public debate, and arguably this debate is intensifying. Public concern over the welfare and rights of animals used as food has led to significant demand for changes in how animals are treated and how food is seen. This includes strong consumer pressure to improve the welfare of egg laying hens and the expanding interest in vegetarian and vegan foods.
Mass species extinction, driven again by human activities, continues to demand a response from human institutions. The recent public horror over mass fish death in the Murray-Darling river system, and the exposure of government mismanagement, perhaps highlight a growing sense of human responsibility for our impact upon our environment and other beings.
Demands for recognition of non-human beings, whether through rights or some other form of moral or legal status, have also altered how we see social justice. We have already seen dramatic changes in how the law is conceptualised in relation to the non human. This includes recent moves to grant formal legal rights to nature, such as the rights awarded to Whanganui river in New Zealand in 2017 and progress on personhood rights for great apes. These shifts in how we see the world in connection to ourselves show that we cannot ignore the non-human world around us – ecosystems, plants, animals, atmosphere. Justice in this sense is increasingly, whether we like it or not, becoming multispecies in nature.
How might we reimagine social justice to take into account a multispecies perspective? In some ways this may require a fundamental re-think. The historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that climate change is more than just an environmental or political challenge, but something that forces us to renovate old ways of looking at the world, including in the humanities and social sciences. Chakrabarty makes the important observation that the traditional split between the natural sciences and the social sciences does not make sense anymore. While in the past we imagined that the Earth’s geological systems did not necessarily shape or impact human institutions (and imagined that humans did not have the capacity to shape the Earth’s systems), today we can no longer maintain these ideas. The old view that there was a human history that was separate from a natural history is no longer tenable.
Chakrabarty’s observation applies also to key political concepts, including ‘social justice’. Justice has traditionally been only applied to human relations and human institutions, almost as if there were no world outside these institutions. Non-humans were ignored or seen as simply resources to support human activities. But this view today seems unjustifiable. Where might social justice move as a concept if it must take into account the world beyond the human? What would a multispecies justice look like?
First published at Sydney Environment Institute (SEI). SEI will explore these questions and more over the next year in a monthly Multispecies Justice blog series, featuring researchers from the new Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) research theme at the University of Sydney on Multispecies Justice.