Dr Christine Winter on intergenerational environmental justice, indigenous perspectives and ‘what next?’

Late last year an article “Disaster! No Surprise” was published on Environmental Politics. Its author, Dr Christine Winter, answers questions from Dr Marc Hudson, the journal’s social media editor.

Who are you, how did you become interested in indigenous conceptualisations of “the environment” (the very word is of course freighted with assumptions!) and  what was the particular impetus for this article?

I’m a citizen of Australia (my adopted home of the last 20+ years, where I live, play & work on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people) and Aotearoa New Zealand. So I am a settler in every sense of the word in Australia. My positionality in Aotearoa is more ambiguous as I descend from Anglo and Irish settlers who, from both sides of my family, arrived 4 generations before me, and Ngati Kahungunu who arrived from the Pacific something in the order of 28 generations ago. I grew up in Taranaki – which is across the country from the traditional lands of Ngati Kahungunu. It was a very outdoor childhood, spent at the beach or in the bush where my father gathered kai moana (sea food). It didn’t realised what a gift he had given me until much later when I discovered I knew all these little things that were not ‘mainstream’ as it were…like the Maori names for the plants, and their uses, or very little acts of respect for the environment like always returning rocks to their original places if we’d moved them searching for shellfish in rock pools. So what I am saying is that while it was a childhood that was removed from the cultural hub of Ngati Kahungunu aspects of Maori tradition seeped into my life.

What this has meant is that I feel a deep connection with the smells, sounds, forms and movement within the outdoors; it’s there I feel wonder and joy; where my spirit soars. I’m ‘outdoorsy’ and an ‘environmentalist’ if a label must be applied. I’ve spent as much time as I possibly could (as a city dweller) outside ‘in’ the natural realm. I say ‘in’ because we are part of any environment we are ‘in’. We take it in through our breathe and return our breathe to it, we take it in through our senses, and it soothes our turbulent thoughts, and slows our 24/7 clocks, it takes up residence in our tissue and bones as we absorb minerals from the air and food and water. That is we are inseparable, which is something I have always accepted, but which is something that is quite foreign to the Western dualistic imaginary. So all that is a long winded way of saying that yes ‘environment’ is a burdened word, and who I am is what is characterised as environment. I am also my ancestors and future generations. And this too is a conceptual orientation inherited from Maori tradition – and is common throughout Pacific peoples from whom we descend.

Abstract of “Disaster? No surprise”

What was the impetus for this article is a much easier part of this question to answer. In 2019 my colleague Susan Park asked me to speak at a symposium she was organising on global environmental governance. [See Prof Park’s recent article in Environmental Politics “The role of the Sovereign state in 21st century environmental disasters”]. That focus is well outside the ambit of my usual research, so I needed to think about how to integrate my environmental, intergenerational, indigenous and multispecies justice work with that theme. I’d research the Te Whanau a Apanui court case for a separate project and realised that it provided a potential way to examine the efficacy of global environmental governance (or lack thereof) from a critical philosophical perspective and that that might have something to add to the debate. So thanks go to Susan for intuiting I might have something to say here.

On page 3 you write that you “draw a contrast between the Māori practice and protocols of intergenerational environmental justice (kaitiakitanga) crafted to forestall environmental disaster and the government’s approach which compartmentalizes risk.” What is distinct about Maori concepts of intergenerational environmental justice compared to other parts of the world that have been on the receiving end of Western settlement. – I’m thinking of the words of Chief Seattle.

This is an interesting question. Maori philosophy has its foundations in Aotearoa – it is built on the philosophy of our Pacific ancestors, which in turn grew from the philosophies of South-East Asia. So it has deep roots that trace back over more than 3,000 years of Pacific settlement. There are common themes across the traditions.

And some of these themes are found within other Indigenous Peoples philosophy – for which I cannot speak and of course many of which I am not even passingly familiar.

My starting place – in all my work really – is grappling with how western politics, law and regulation does not seem to be able to provide frameworks to protect ‘the environment’ nor does it seem able to adequately acknowledge responsibilities to future generations. A question I ask myself constantly is whether or not what I am doing respects, and pays homage I suppose, to my ancestors, whether I am honouring the work they have done, the sacrifices they made, and so on, and at the same time wondering if I am a good ancestor – that is will future generations look at what I have done and speak of it with pride. And this backward-forward thinking does not seem to be a feature of the way that the west makes decisions.  It strikes me that the ‘problem’ does not lie so much with institutions of power but that its roots are much more fundamental. That is, that the source of the problem lies in philosophy, in the understanding of the world and the place of humans in that world. As I see it western philosophy – in its post-Enlightenment, liberal forms anyway – constructs a distorted view of human and environment, and those philosophical foundations are hurtling us towards extinction. It’s not just greed, or economics, or political capture – while it is all those things they are the product of a particular set of philosophic ideas. And perhaps more alarmingly for me, many claim this philosophy is universal or the ‘end of history’, that it is the pinnacle of philosophic thought. And I do not agree with that. I think it is underdeveloped as I claim in the article. There are other philosophies out there that can meet the needs of modern malaise. And it’s time to take them seriously and to reconsider some of the basic tenets of liberal philosophic thought.

My starting place – in all my work really – is grappling with how western politics, law and regulation does not seem to be able to provide frameworks to protect ‘the environment’

My point in the article is not to establish an inter-Indigenous comparison, but rather to identify that there is at least one extant philosophic tradition significantly different to ‘universal’ western epistemology and ontology, and that has resolved aspects of intergenerational environmental justice that the west is grappling with. We know from the huge body of writing by Indigenous scholars and knowledge holders from around the globe that there are multiple traditions of environmental protection, respect for and ‘husbanding’ of nonhuman realms – traditions that are labeled ‘backward’ or ‘prehistoric’ or ’mythical’ that are dismissed as story not philosophy. That is patently absurd – all people and peoples philosophise – it’s part of what makes us human. My work is focussed on dismantling that western myth – that the west is the source of (all) philosophical wisdom. I wanted to show particularly in this article that when the starting point is one that seeks to understand and enhance relationships and how we relate (human to human, human to nonhuman) rather than how things ‘stand alone’ and can be itemised or individualised or corralled or quantified and rendered fungible, then the philosophy and the practices, protocols and procedures for IEJ look very different. More importantly it is then much easier to both craft and implement frameworks to protect the environment.

From what I know of other Indigenous philosophies this seems a fairly common feature. It’s the cultural and spiritual wrapping that varies perhaps.

If your article were a story from the satirical newspaper “The Onion” would it be this one – “Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe.

Oh I love this article. It’s so very pointed. We do gasp, grapple, stand aghast when there’s a sudden and spectacular oil spill and then ignore the everyday harms that stem from fossil fuel use after a ‘safe’ marine passage.

Perhaps I could offer The Onion “‘Resource Management’ lawyers’ in shock: mass redundancies as Government implements kaitiatikanga framework”.

(Channelling my inner Andrew Bolt), if someone said “If the Three Gorges dam were to collapse/go badly wrong, would the blame for that be on “Western philosophy” or the Chinese government for pursuing such a path?  Surely you admit there were human-caused environmental disasters before “Western philosophy” took hold (the Neolithic hunting to extinctions of other species, for instance)” – it’s not like there was no environmental degradation before whites turned up with their guns, germs and steel – to say so is to peddle ultimately regressive ‘noble savage’ myths.”

Ah yes this is a recurrent chestnut. I find the accusation that identifying with indigenous philosophy, culture, practices, protocols etc. is to romanticise, while ignoring the harm of Western philosophy, culture, practices, protocols etc is ‘rational’. I would argue it is equally if not more romantic and certainly self delusional to fetisise ‘western civilisation’.

First, segueing to the Neolithic falls into a trap. It suggests Indigenous Peoples are not and have never been ‘modern’. That is a developmental hubris that compares all to the ideal of modernity which is only a western practice. This is rubbish. Indigenous philosophy always has been and has continued to be discussed, developed, amended — to evolve in other words — just as western philosophy has. There is nothing ‘archaic’ about these ideas — they are modern. They exist now, are practiced now, and have efficacy now. They just have different foundations, intellectual roots as it were. 

Why not relitigate western deforestation and extinction events of the last 10000 years in Europe — this is a fairer comparison. It seems to me that Indigenous Peoples learned from Neolithic extinction events and developed the practices to prevent their recurrence whereas the west just moved into new territories and started the whole process all over again — they seem incapable of learning from past disasters or mistakes.

And I argue this is at least in part a function of philosophy — an delusional philosophy of mastery and human exceptionalism. The other part might be sheeted home perhaps to hubris and arrogance.

The Three Gorges Dam — mmm yes its collapse is predictable. And that is my point really. There is such a focus on human domination, and short term gratification that is underpinned by philosophy that there are no processes or protocols in place to think holistically or systemically. The thinking seems to be: we want this, we can do this and do we will and be damned (or dammed if you will excuse the pun) with the long term consequences, be they consequences to humans only or to the wider multispecies community in which I place land, landform, waters, waterways, seas and the air.

In short, since I seem to continue to be very long winded, you cannot separate government from its philosophical foundations. To do so is ‘romantic’.

If your article were a bumper sticker (!) would it be  “The game is rigged, y’all”.

Oh holy cow! How on earth do I condense my thinking to three or four words!. Liberal philosophy harms the globe

You argue that there is a “philosophical deficit” underpinning the legal and political system of Aotearoa that impedes environmental intergenerational justice.  What would it take for the legal and political system to respond to this critique? Who would have to push them? To do what? Without getting into the weeds too much, how do you think concepts like Rob Nixon’s “Slow Violence” might help?

Yes the idea of slow violence is one way in. Perhaps if we reported on species extinction, deforestation, water pollution, algal growth, populations numbers for iconic species, aquifer depletion, glacier melt rates etc, etc, with the same frequency as financial reporting – daily?, and we judged our governments’ performance against environmental and social well being, not just GDP, we might get somewhere.

What next? What are the puzzles and debates around conceptions of justice and “sustainability” (another freighted word!) that you hope to tackle?

I have been looking at the ways in which multispecies justice is conceived; what do we mean by multi and species – who or what is in, who or what is excluded – and what do we mean by justice in this realm – who are the subjects as I’ve already said, but what are might just outcomes look like? In a related vein, I’ve been thinking about how legal identity or personhood status for georegions may have political implications that align with the political liberties that those other legal identities – corporations – have. 

And this is leading me toward what I think will probably be my next ‘big’ project which is to think even more specifically about the subjects of justice – breaking away from the anthropocentrism and individualism of the liberal frames – and maybe towards thinking of the subject as something other than an identifiable subject/object. It’s early thinking that I don’t want to say too much about yet…and there are ideas percolating away that I’m getting really excited about.

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