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An interview with Katie Woolaston

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This week, morethanhumanmatters interviews Katie Woolaston, an inter-disciplinary researcher, lawyer, and lecturer in the School of Law at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Brisbane. Katie’s research focuses on international and domestic wildlife law and the regulation of human-wildlife relationships. Her current projects include the formation of a collaborative framework for wildlife management in international wildlife law and domestic law in Australia, and the improvement of the human-wildlife relationship using eco-feminist ontological theory. Katie’s most recent publications include the article “Ecological Vulnerability and the Devolution of Individual Autonomy,” published in The Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy and for which she won the 2018 Australasian Society of Legal Philosophy Essay prize, and a chapter in the Research Handbook on the Future of Women’s Engagement with International Law, titled “Wildlife and International Law: Can Feminism Transform our Relationship with Nature” (Edward Elgar, 2019).



        Hello, Katie, and thanks for joining me at Could you tell us how you came to be interested in studying human-wildlife relationships and how you interweave socio-legal theories and eco-feminist ontological theories in analyzing these relationships?

I first became interested in studying human-wildlife relationships in 2012. At the time, I had left the private legal practice l was in and I was doing a Masters Course on animal law at the University of New South Wales. The lecturer in that course was a wonderful woman by the name of Tara Ward who runs the Animal Defenders Office in Canberra. I had never engaged in animal law before that, nor really been involved in any kind of environmental activism. But then Tara just blew my mind, and the course blew my mind. I became really interested in our relationship with the more-than-human. I became a vegetarian at that point. I also wanted to take the exploration of these relationships a little bit further.

I started doing some research as part of my Masters, looking at things like human-wildlife conflict. The first human-wildlife conflict I looked at as part of my Masters Course was shark attacks in Western Australia. I did some work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on that conflict. From thereon out, things sort of snowballed. I did my PhD and now I’m researching solely on legal aspects of human-wildlife relationships.

One of the other things you asked is how I interweave socio-legal theories and eco-feminist ontological theories in analyzing human-wildlife relationships. I think it’s really interesting that many lawyers don’t understand that the study of law itself and the consequences of law is a sociological pursuit. It starts with an acknowledgement that not only do people make laws, but that law can also shape the way that people behave and shift their values and attitudes on certain things. So, for instance, when it comes to human-wildlife conflict, it has been shown that archaic, top-down laws that prohibit certain conducts, such as hunting, can actually increase negative attitudes towards the wildlife that the law was designed to protect. A socio-legal research agenda means not only looking at the efficacy at laws by, say the number of fines or conviction rates, but also analyzing how the laws effect the functioning of society, how people react to laws, and the unintended consequences of laws on issues of justice.

There are so many aspects of how law functions and how the law gets people to do what it wants them to do. But then you also have to consider that people are the ones making these laws. Laws don’t come out of nowhere or operate in a vacuum. Our held attitudes and values go into making the laws and then the laws also come back and shift values and attitudes of those people and so there is a constant feedback loop at play. There’s psychology involved, sociology, behavioral studies, but also broader justice issues. We all know that the law operates in a way that is not just for a large group of people or groups of people. The same can be said for non-human members of the world.

To look at law from a sociological perspective, I use an eco-feminist lens because it fits

within my worldview, but also because eco-feminist theories just fit so well in explaining

why we are where we are in our relationship with wildlife. Eco-feminist theories are immensely

diverse, but essentially they suggest that the domination of the environment is underpinned

by the same factors as the oppression of women in society, and in fact, all oppressions in

society. This means eco-feminist theory goes beyond the patriarchy to consider the effects

of capitalism, neoliberalism, and anthropocentrism on our relationship with wildlife. All of these

things interact with each other to inform that relationship. It is this web of connections between

entangled things that is common across eco-feminist theorists. That’s why I use it and that’s why

it’s great for explaining our relationship to wildlife.


       In your prize-winning article, “Ecological Vulnerability and the Devolution of Individual Autonomy,” you argue that a focus on ecological vulnerability and autonomy can work to reduce biodiversity loss and ensure sustained human security. Could you unpack this argument for us and describe the role that you think vulnerability and autonomy might or might not play in the context of emergent discourses about non-human legal personhood?

The argument in this article really starts with the question: Who is law made for? Who is designed to be the subject of law? Many legal theorists agree that the subject of law, particularly in Western societies, is the autonomous, liberal individual. This is also the case in international law, because the modern international legal system was built by Western societies. This in turn has other exclusionary effects on the Global South, but that’s a conversation for another day. So, the starting point is that in Western societies, the autonomous legal individual is the subject of law. We can see that the law is designed to benefit people that act as though they are autonomous and do not need assistance nor depend on relationships. Our systems are based on individual rights and the accumulation of property. Our welfare systems actively discourage reliance on the government and are intended to encourage autonomy. Our laws distinguish between the private and the public realm, so that unpaid care work is relegated to the private realm and unregulated, making it seem like the beneficiaries of that care are independent in their public lives. So, our legal system operates to promote a sense of autonomy. This works the same way in environmental law. Our environmental laws encourage independence from the environment. The environment is considered a resource for the use of people. The laws favor processes that promote the individual liberal subject. If that means prioritizing development over the protection of an endangered species, then that is what happens. And this has happened a number of times in Australia in recent years with coal mines and endangered species, in Queensland and Western Australia.

But, as we know, no one is ever truly autonomous. We rely on the government, laws, and a vast social network in both public and private life in order to appear autonomous. Even if you have a well-paying job, you don’t rely on social security, you can effectively take care of yourself by a wage, and you don’t explicitly rely on the government, you still use their roads to get to work. You use their buildings and their infrastructures. You probably have help with child-care or housework or gardening. You need social relationships to keep mentally well. No person is an island. And yet it’s precisely that relationship that is ignored when our laws focus on the individual autonomous being.

So, why do our laws try to promote something that cannot be achieved? This is what legal theory asks us to consider. Professor Martha Feinman, a legal theorist at Enmory University, outlines the limits of the autonomy approach in terms of equality and justice. Her foundational book is called The Autonomy Myth and I highly recommend it. Martha Feinman suggests that the promotion of autonomy is actually what results in these massive injustice and inequalities that we are seeing in society. Instead, she suggests that the legal subject should be the vulnerable individual – not the autonomous individual. Vulnerability – not autonomy – is the universal human condition. Everyone is vulnerable – we just have different levels of resilience to that vulnerability. And those levels of resilience are shaped by laws, the government, and societies other institutions. So if those institutions focused on vulnerability, instead of autonomy, we would have a more equal society.

So, vulnerability theory really works particularly well for the human-wildlife relationship because we are not autonomous from the environment or from the non-human beings in our world. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, then surely it is that every facet of our lives can depend on our relationship to wildlife. Our economies can break down. Lives can be lost in the hundreds of thousands. Our hospitals can break under pressure. We lose jobs. We are confined to our homes. Rates of domestic violence go up. All because of a domestic market in Wuhan and our treatment of wild animals. We are all vulnerable to the environment and our relationship to wildlife. And that is exactly what we should all be taking away from this crisis. And of course, vulnerability goes both ways. Not only are we vulnerable to wildlife but wildlife, too, is very vulnerable to us, although that probably needs much less explaining.

       Your research cross-pollinates theoretical and empirical insights derived from an array of different disciplines – from sociology and legal studies, through to philosophy and eco-feminism. In your view, how does inter-disciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-human lifeforms and elements that animate this world?

I think the one thing that really comes to mind is that every discipline has theoretical limits and boundaries that are set by the theories that that discipline is based on. So, let’s take the example of conservation science. I often attack conservation science but I feel very grateful that we have conservation science and I have lots of friends who are conservation scientists. What I’m trying to do here is to demonstrate that every discipline has its limits. So, conservation science is based a theory called ecological holism which was founded by Aldo Leopold and his understanding of the connectivity between different parts of ecosystems. The idea is that a thing is good when it benefits the whole of the ecosystem. So, if you have a look at that perspective, that’s fantastic in terms of what we’re trying to argue in relation to relationality and connectivity. But at the same time, it means that beings (human and non-human) get left behind when they don’t fit within that ecosystem. This ends up creating a different kind of hierarchy that removes humans from the top and puts ecosystems in their place.

So if, for instance, you have a non-human member of the world that does not traditionally

fit within an ecosystem but that we have put there – for instance, brumbies in Kosciuszko

National Park – we find that these species are put at the bottom of the priority list. Their

lives and suffering are valued less than the ecosystem as a whole. So, although conservation

science is vital for saving endangered species and protecting area, it also has its limits in

terms of what it can do for the non-human world. If you consider that every discipline has

limits in that way, it becomes clear that we need to look outside of our traditional disciplines

in order to pinpoint what those limits are. We then need to look at how we might be able

to breach those limits and bring in different aspects of different disciplines in formulating a plan

that might actually work across many different areas. Here, it’s also really important to question

your own theoretical boundaries and discipline. We are all in our disciplines that we’ve chosen

to be in because we agree with them in some way. But we can’t blindly accept anything either.

That’s why we need to pay attention to what other disciplines are saying about our discipline,

how they might inform it, and how they also point to its limits.

        Finally, Kate, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?

My first piece of advice, following from what we’ve just discussed, is to read widely. Don’t just stick to your own discipline. Have a look at different things. Read conservation scientists. Read wildlife management pieces. Have a look at anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and law. There are so many different perspectives that can inform your own view and help expand your thinking about the more-than-human world. The second piece of advice is to get into the environment. Just hang out with non-human beings! That’s when you come to see the value of it and remember what we’re fighting to protect. The third would be to connect with like-minded people. There are a lot of haters out there! You always need a community of people who support you, think the same way as you, and can help you overcome the boundaries between your worldview and other worldviews. Sometimes, we need support do that. So, the multispecies justice collective, for instance, is a great community to be involved with if you want to engage with more-than-human worlds.

Going back to my first piece of advice, perhaps we should not just “read widely” but also read wildly. I wrote a chapter for a book that Michelle Maloney and Nicole Rogers put together on Wild Law Judgements. In the introduction to that book, the author – a judge – talks about exploring law wildly, through anarchy, and by throwing out the “big picture.” So that’s also great advice on how to go about reading – question everything, be wild in your exploration of themes, your analysis of injustices, and so forth.

"The study of law itself and the consequences of law is a sociological pursuit. It starts with an acknowledgement that not only do people make laws, but that law can also shape the way that people behave and shift their values and attitudes on certain things."

"Vulnerability theory really works particularly well for the human-wildlife relationship because we are not autonomous from the environment or from the non-human beings in our world. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, then surely it is that every facet of our lives can depend on our relationship to wildlife."


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