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MORETHANHUMAN MATTERS

An interview with Dr. Christine Winter

Our guest this week is Dr. Christine Winter, a lecturer in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. Drawing on her Anglo-Celtic-Maori cultural heritage, Christine is interested in decolonizing political theory by identifying key epistemological and ontological assumptions in theory that are incompatible with indigenous philosophies. In doing so, she has two aims: to make justice theory just for Indigenous peoples of the settler states; and to expand the boundaries of theories of intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of Indigenous Peoples and their settler compatriots.

       Hello Christine, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Your work examines the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice. In your perspective, how and why is it important to think about justice in more-than-human terms?

That’s a really interesting question. So, to take a step back, the original reason for doing this research came from thinking about climate change, from looking at the ways that the West was struggling to resolve the issues of climate change, and from trying to elaborate a cogent structure around how we should act in the face of climate change. If you read the climate justice material, you’ll find that everyone is trying to grapple with these questions from a different perspective, but all of them remain deeply human-centred. Then, there’s the element of intergenerational justice. Now, for the first time, we are really confronted by a truly long-term, intergenerational justice issue. And while intergenerational justice has a strong foundation in theory, very few Western theories tend to think beyond overlapping generations or generations that extend beyond fifty or a hundred years from the present. Now, of course, that is totally unsatisfactory when we are dealing with climate change. And then there are other theorists who simply say that intergenerational justice is a stupid idea, and that it is irrelevant because we are not part of the same community as those who will come after us. So then, I looked at this material and I thought this was daft because indigenous people have already theorized such concepts of intergenerational justice. In New Zealand, for instance, there is a theory or philosophy or set of protocols and practices called kaitiakitanga. According to kaitiakitanga, we have been gifted what we have by our ancestors and what we pass on to future generations must be even better than that which we have received. This is a constant consideration – how do we ensure that our future generations receive from us land and species that are better than that which was here when we came here? This is intergenerational justice. Done – resolved philosophically and resolved practically.

So, then the question is, how come it’s so easy in indigenous philosophies to think about justice in intergenerational terms, but so hard in the West? There are a number of reasons for this. Partly, it’s because indigenous peoples don’t understand life as being individuated. Second, it’s because indigenous peoples don’t understand land and animals as property. We humans and them non-humans are all one – interconnected and living in relations of reciprocity. Other elements at play here include the anthropocentric focus of Western philosophies and their tendency to think about space rather than place, among others. Once you are considering other species, your timescales also shift. You have to ensure justice for a tree that is going to live for a thousand, or two thousand, or even three thousand years – like some olive trees in the Mediterranean. If you’re thinking about a donkey with a fifty-year lifespan, then you don’t just buy it off the cuff. You need to think about your obligations to that creature in the longer-term. Finally, the more-than-human also involves a spiritual dimension. Everything and everywhere is full of spirit and spiritual connections – or wonder. If we rephrase the matter as one of “sites of awe and wonder,” then it’s absolutely essential that you make such sites available for future generations. If you destroy them, how are they going to experience that sense of awe? How are they going to have their spirits lifted? How are they going to feel their spirits connect?

 

       In a recent article published by Environmental Values, you explored the idea of dignity as a foundation for principles of justice and democracy drawing from Maori philosophical concepts. Could you tell us a little bit more about how these concepts – mauri, tapu, and mana – can help decolonize environmental justice theory and democracy?

The first important thing is that these three concepts – mauri, tapu, and mana – cannot be separated. Nor can these three concepts be separated from two other spiritual components – wairua, which is the spirit per se, and hau, a beautiful concept meaning the power or force for good in everything and everyone. These concepts are all contained by the tinana, meaning the form or the body. Mauri, tapu, and mana together form a similar idea to the Western idea of dignity. Now, dignity has about eight different definition within the European corpus. It is an entangled web of an idea. When we look at justice theories like human rights theories or capabilities approaches to justice, they start from the premise that justice is important because it supports the dignity of humans. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based in the idea of human dignity. In the first statement, for instance, the Declaration states that it is because humans have dignity that we must respect their rights. So, justice really comes from this idea of dignity. But then this thing called “dignity” is not actually explained or defined. Rather, it’s simply assumed.

Let’s return here to the three concepts of mauri, tapu, and mana. Mauri is the lifeforce and everything has its own mauri – rocks, trees, humans, animals, and so forth. And each lifeforce is spiraling out to meet the lifeforce of other beings and creatures. Mauri, then, is a force of interconnection. And interestingly, the way mauri is conceived in Maori philosophy is very similar to the way that STS scholar Karen Barad describes the lifeforce of an atom – the way that atoms reach out to touch other atoms, to interact with other atoms, and so forth. Similarly, mauri is a lifeforce that is constantly seeking connection. Then, we have tapu and mana. Mana is intrinsic and earned. It has multiple ways of being interpreted. It is a mixture of your earned and intrinsic respect-worthiness. For instance, mana can be earned from your good deeds. It can be a term for charisma, in a sense – someone who is very good, who is out there, and who shines, is someone with a lot of mana. Leaders, for instance, have mana. And everything else has mana too – this “respect-worthiness.” This tree beside us, for instance, with its tall stature and its strength of purpose going up there, and the fact that at the moment it’s cold and bare. It has mana, a presence of its own.

Now, you cannot separate mana from the tapu. Mana and the tapu work together like dignity and respect. The tapu has a more sacred quality. It is something’s potentiality to be. Anything you do to diminish the tapu of something, anything you do to reduce its potentiality to be, also diminishes its mana. Conversely, if you strengthen the mana, you also strengthen the tapu. So, for instance, a Maori carver will only cut down a tree if it is to enhance and protect its mauri and mana. You don’t just cut it down because it’s in the way. There needs to be a bigger purpose to your action. If you are going to put a road up a mountain, then you carve that road in a manner that is respectful of the shape of the mountain, so that it doesn’t cause erosion, and so that it doesn’t leave an unsightly scar on the landscapes, so it respects the form that you are engaging with. This is not a luddite’s call to do nothing and to leave everything as it is. Rather, it is an aesthetic call to appreciate everything for itself, and to work with everything. To return to your question on more-than-human justice, then, if everything has mana and tapu, and if justice theory is based in dignity and respecting the dignity of the holder, then our environmental, intergenerational, and multispecies justice all tumble out into meeting the other-than-human realm.

Finally, on the question of democracy – everything I’ve described suggests that the democratic process has to become much more reflexive. In my mind, this requires that future generations be included, at least intellectually, within current democratic reflections, contemplations, and planning. If they are included as a function of what we have been gifted by past generations, then we will start to rethink our approaches to, for instance, digging up coal, or discarding piles of spent uranium on the banks of rivers that will last for thousands of years. We don’t have the technology to ensure the containers of spent rods do not leak sometime down the track. We don’t ask ourselves questions like how the plant is going to be decommissioned, and what are we leaving future generations to deal with – financially, practically, ecologically.

Yet each of these actions has implications for many, many generations to come. These implications have to be part of the democratic process and democratic decision-making. At the same time, we need to rethink the democratic process backward. We need to remember what sacrifices were made by past generations for us to inherit and inhabit the world we live in today. We have benefited, but we are not prepared to make the same sorts of sacrifices for future generations. For me, that’s largely because of the individualist thrust of our politics, which denies temporal interconnections and the links between our forefathers, ourselves, and generations to come. We are not seen to be part of a continuum of a community, and that is the problem.

 

       Justice is often framed as a future-oriented disposition – something yet to come or aspirational. What is your understanding of the relationship between time and justice – within and beyond the human? 

The temporal dimension is intimately involved in any discussion about climate change – a phenomenon whose temporal scale is simply unimaginable for the mere human. Yet even concepts like intergenerational justice continue to be framed in a short-term way – one hundred years, at best. There’s also the corporate justice approach to time which comes out in things like cost-benefit analyses – if we spend this money now, we have to take account of its value in the future, and we discount the future because we know future generations will be better off than we are now. But when it comes to climate change, all those calculations break down. We have no guarantee that future generations will be better off than us – if anything, they will likely be worse off. And interestingly, in all these discussions, there is very little reflection on what we ourselves have been gifted, what we have gained from past generations, and in turn, what responsibilities we have towards future generations. In terms of intergenerational justice theory, there are only a couple of people who examine the idea of obligations to ancestors, and even then, they struggle with the concept.

In indigenous ontologies, in contrast, lives are seen to be entangled and part of a continuum, which includes the ancestors. Respecting the ancestors is something that is constantly practiced – along with the thought, of course, of how I myself will be thought of as an ancestor. How will my behavior be viewed when I am an ancestor? I think that very few of our current politicians are really thinking about that. They think in terms of four- or five-year leaps. Corporations think in terms of six-month leaps. But thinking about ourselves as “future ancestors” puts a completely complexion on the scale of justice and its relationship to time.

What I’m leading to here, as I’m sure you realize, is that the Maori view of time is radically different to Western conceptions of time. It requires looking into the future backwards, remembering what my ancestors have given me, thinking about what obligations I have both in the present and into the future, and looking into the future to inform how I behave now. Seen from this perspective, justice becomes a very complex temporal discussion and set of thoughts. If you’re not just worried about the immediate and about something that might occur in the near future, but rather entangling the future, present and past in one concurrent spiral (for Maori) or circle (for Aboriginal people), then justice takes on different dimensions. And funnily enough, it makes something like intergenerational justice or environmental justice easy! I was left a beautiful world. I don’t want to be thought of by my heirs as having destroyed the beautiful world I was given. What an ungrateful thing, and insult to the mana of my ancestors that would be… And what an insult to the potential of my heirs.

 

       Finally, Christine, what practical, ethical, or scholarly advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?

Our journeys in academia are all different – the same goes for the reasons we are here, our motivations, our desired outcomes, and so forth. I am just one of many on this extraordinary journey. With that in mind, the advice I’d give – should I be so bold as to give any – encompasses a number of things. One is that academia can be a very lonely place. Making connections is very important, as well as being open to being given support and giving others support. The second thing would be – if somebody says let’s do something together, then do it! Even if you feel too tired, or don’t feel like being with others, you need to look after yourself by creating communities. Otherwise, it can be so easy to get lost. Indeed, it seems to me that academia can easily become a hotbed for depression and mental illness. One way to avoid this is to say “yes” to the people and communities that invite you to be part of them. Having said that, I think it’s also important to know when to say “no”! Don’t go into overload. People have families, partners, dogs that need walking – sometimes saying “no” is necessary. There are really no hard and fast rules here. Most importantly, look after yourself and look after those around you. 

 

Thirdly, if you’re doing research, don’t just try to fill a gap. You need to be engaged with your material, to be doing something that absolutely and utterly lights you up. Now, of course, there will be moments that will be deadening – but the overall project needs to be something that you have a real and really strong reason for doing, beyond filling the gap in the scholarship. Otherwise, it can be soul-destroying experience. Finally, I find the study of more-than-human worlds hugely exciting because it’s such a new field. There, my advice would be – don’t think you need to invent it. It’s out there already. You need to be open and humble. The West is not the source of this information. This is the point of a decolonial turn, I believe. Indeed, this is where a new(ish) branch of scholarship has the opportunity to be decolonial from the get go. And that’s what makes it particularly exciting for me.

 

"Mauri is the lifeforce and everything has its own mauri – rocks, trees, humans, animals, and so forth. Each lifeforce is spiraling out to meet the lifeforce of other beings and creatures. Mauri, then, is a force of interconnection that is constantly seeking connection."

 

"The Maori view of time is radically different to Western conceptions of time. It requires looking into the future backwards, remembering what our ancestors have given us, thinking about what obligations we have both in the present and into the future, and looking into the future to inform how we behave now."