An interview with David Schlosberg
Our guest this week is Dr. David Schlosberg, Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. David is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – particularly for his work on environmental justice. His other theoretical interests are in climate justice, climate adaptation and resilience, and environmental movements and the practices of everyday life - what he terms sustainable materialism. David’s more applied work includes public perceptions of adaptation and resilience, the health and social impacts of climate change, and community-based responses to food insecurity. He is the author of a host of groundbreaking books and articles, including Defining Environmental Justice (2007). He is co-author of Climate-Challenged Society (2013), and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (2016). David’s latest book, Sustainable Materialism: Environmental Movements and the Politics of Everyday Life, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.
Hello David, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Your work explores the intersections of environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory with environmental justice. How does thinking about politics as a more-than-human phenomenon (encompassing, for instance, animals, plants, elements, and climates) reconfigure our understanding of the meaning and scope of political rights, communities, and/or movements?
I’ve been thinking about the intersection of environmental justice and ecological justice for a while now, in particular what the struggles for environmental justice can teach us about how we do justice to those most disenfranchised from political systems and decisions. At first, what I was hoping to do was to apply lessons about the kinds of justice demanded by environmental justice communities to the nonhuman as well. There, I argued that the demands for recognition and respect, for procedural inclusion in decision making, and for the basic capabilities necessary for individuals and communities to function could be used to understand forms of justice we could apply to nonhuman communities. The focus was really about how the nonhuman realm experiences injustice, in its invisibility, its exclusion, and in the undermining of basic lifeways. I still think that’s an important way to think about extending a consideration of justice beyond the human.
But lately I’ve been thinking more about that idea of politics as a more-than-human phenomenon. Or that it should be a more-than-human idea and practice. The problem is that all of these conceptions of ‘the political’ in contemporary liberal theory, from the definition of a valid subject to the idea of individual rights, have been written and designed in a fictional world where individual humans are both independent and superior to all else. The very bedrock of our political ideologies and systems – liberal individualism – is an ecological fiction. That fiction of the individual is obviously very useful at times – I wouldn’t deny the importance of existing ideas of rights and justice. But clearly, given the disconnections liberalism has spawned, between peoples and the material environments in which they are entangled and which literally flow through them with every breath and bite of food, and given the impacts of those disconnections, it is time to declare the liberal individualist experiment a failure. It was designed for a world that does not physically exist and undermines the world that does. Not coincidentally, liberalism combined with colonialism helped to undermine a series of longstanding Indigenous ways of knowing that were more attentive to ecological realities.
So, it is time to move beyond political theories that exist in a fictional vacuum. There is much work to do in developing and/or rediscovering ideas and practices for a functional environmental political theory. Concepts like rights and justice, which are so clearly and deterministically designed for human in isolation, need to be rethought; it is time, and it is possible, to design a politics for the real world of ecological flows and entanglements, of multiplicity and complex relations.
Your latest book explores the motivations of environmental and community groups that are focusing on more sustainable practices in their everyday life. Can you give us some examples of these practices and what makes them revolutionary, unique, and/or effective?
Sustainable materialism, as some of the subjects of this book pointed out, is about doing – or do-activism. The point of the work is to examine not only what is possible in some dire times, but what is actually being done to create more sustainable flows of materials and power through communities. The book is about movements focused on local food systems, community energy systems, and sustainable fashion supply chains; it is about activism that is attentive to the social and environmental impacts of the flows of the goods we use to sustain our everyday lives.
In examining these movements, I was initially just curious about the political motivations for such activism. In particular, I wanted to know about people who had left more mainstream environmental policy organizing and movements and focused instead on the flows of everyday life. While some analysts have derided such work as ‘lifestyle activism’ and non (or post-) political, it became very clear that there is a distinct and radical politics in these movements. They are inherently critical of approaches to politics that are separate from everyday life, and particularly in the idea that political values are of a ‘higher’ value than getting one’s hands dirty in a local food system. They are incredibly sophisticated in their analyses of power and injustice. The focus is on removing communities from the flow of both materiality and power of destructive industries – corporate agriculture, the fossil fuel industry, and fashion that decimates social lives and environments; but in addition to just being critical of the power of those industries, they create alternative flows of power and materials through the development of more sustainable systems to supply everyday needs. Justice in these movements is about responding to power in ways that sustain the health of human and nonhuman communities. And their understandings of sustainability are all about a more relational ontology, attentive to connections across species boundaries.
One of the things I want to continue with is this notion of material participation as political participation. There is too much dismissal in the academic realm, and denial that a focus on everyday life and needs is actually political. I think attentiveness to material flows and systems, and conscious action to make those flows more sustainable, is both straightforward and revolutionary. Imagine if our everyday needs were met without violence to human or nonhuman systems – and now imagine millions of people focusing on accomplishing just that.
Since 2013, you have been first co-Director and now Director of the Sydney Environment Institute, a multidisciplinary center that brings together talented researchers across diverse disciplines to advance teaching and research objectives in a collaborative environment. In your view, how does interdisciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-humans?
Well, it’s similar to my critique of individualism; no discipline actually stands alone. More importantly, no problem that we face can be solved with a single discipline. Sure, we need climate science, but that goes nowhere without political and cultural studies. And, sure, I can talk about sustainable material systems, but I need the chemists and the engineers, and the policy and finance experts. Multidisciplinarity helps us see and understand from the perspective of others, and interdisciplinarity demands that we work together to fully grasp problems and solve them. Working across these boundaries helps make what we do not or cannot see more visible, and it is that openness to recognition of other perspectives, and the need to make connections to ours, that is just as crucial to human food security as it is to multispecies justice.
Two projects we’ve started this year alone illustrate this. On the one hand, we are working with many others across the University of Sydney to design a new sustainability strategy. This has required not only multidisciplinary work, but work across the research, education, and operations sides of the university; it has put ecologists in the room with grounds crew, food systems scholars together with managers of campus cafes, and economists and investment experts in conversation with the managers of the university portfolio. Real change of university practices, and the everyday life of everyone who works and studies here, requires this work across what were some fairly formalised walls between sections of the uni. What I’m really looking forward to is involving students in the understanding, measurement, and reporting on the forthcoming changes, and to engaging across all of these disciplinary, work, and educational lines in the development of recommendations for further action.
On the research side, the most ambitious new project this year is on what our Deputy Director, Michelle St Anne, has called ‘sites of violence’. The aim is to make connections between a range of forms of violence that remain mostly unseen – violence in both human and nonhuman contexts. It’s about how we learn to ignore violence in plain sight – violence against women, against migrants, against the nonhuman realm, against sustainable futures. That has brought together researchers from social sciences, humanities, law, performance studies, music, and more, to not only try to understand the processes of keeping violence out of sight, but also of exploring a range of ways of expressing and representing this invisible violence.
Finally, David, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
My main advice is to never try to do academia alone; the first thing someone told me when I started my own postgrad study was to find my cohort and stick with them, and it’s still the best advice. This is even more the case when you are doing something that isn’t mainstream in your own discipline, or you are pushing your discipline in directions the gatekeepers really do not want to go. Research or reading groups, topical collectives, the hidden subfields of your discipline – find your people. Part of that, of course, is to find the elders in your fields who have forged pathways and seek their ongoing advice as well.
I’d also encourage young scholars to do immersive work – get out and engage publics, peoples,
and communities. Think about ways your work can actually be of benefit beyond the academic.
What research questions are coming out of vulnerable or disenfranchised communities, what
research is necessary to change in the way we live with both the human and the more-than-human
realms, what can you do to make change?
Finally, humility and constant reflexivity are absolutely foundational virtues in the academic realm.
One of my favorite scholars taught me that moral outrage and revolutionary thinking were important
motivators for both research and action. But they also cautioned, ‘Don’t be an asshole’. It’s advice I’ve
tried to live, and to pass on to all of my own students.
"The very bedrock of our political ideologies and systems – liberal individualism – is an ecological fiction. It was designed for a world that does not physically exist and undermines the world that does."
"Concepts like rights and justice, which are so clearly and deterministically designed for human in isolation, need to be rethought; it is time, and it is possible, to design a politics for the real world of ecological flows and entanglements, of multiplicity and complex relations."