Re-imagining climate justice for humans and more-than-humans

a sign saying 'climate justice now'

The most prevalent voices in climate change are rarely those most impacted— anthropological insight proposes changes to the way in which we seek climate justice. Photo credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

Recently, I had the privilege of being in discussion with environmental anthropologist Dr. Sophie Chao, following a dialogue that traversed more-than-human worlds. Her work is conscious of the delicate balance of relations between human, land, and disease ecologies, as well as the intersecting issues of capitalism, health, and justice. She is a co-editor of an essential reading on the Human Sciences ‘Human Ecology’ course, The Promise of Multispecies Justice, and from this encounter emerged a live reading, a series of emails spanning three months, and finally, a podcast and this article–or more accurately, reflective essay.

One article in Chao’s repertoire calls for… “transdisciplinary, experimental, and decolonial imaginations of climate change”

Sophie Chao

The title of this article reflects a collaborative exchange, where Chao revised my initial proposition of “Demanding Justice for Humans and More-than-Humans”. A more subtle approach to the call, in retrospect this also more faithfully lays out to the reader and onlooker the principles of “a hesitant anthropology”. In this ethically driven design, one is confronted with the “stakes of writing violence”. To the end of “what good is anthropology?”, in the held breath of hesitation, Chao proposes the value of ethnographic approaches to write, or not write, the fleeting: conversations, the ripples of rivers, momentary still.

One article in Chao’s repertoire calls for “Beyond-Human Imaginaries”, that is, “transdisciplinary, experimental, and decolonial imaginations of climate change”, in the project to “[Decolonise] climate knowledge,” which she undertook in collaboration with Samoan scholar and co-author of the aforementioned article, Dr. Dion Enari. It found its way into the Planet Art Exhibition hosted by Oxford Climate Society and collaborating societies in Michaelmas Term 2023 (November) after I read one profound excerpt:

“Imagination and Crisis (p.35): The imagination and the climate crisis are profoundly entangled. Climate change, according to Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh (2016), is nothing less than a “crisis of culture, and thus of imagination.” In a similar vein, American journalist David Wallace-Wells (2019) describes climate change as the tragic result of an “incredible failure of imagination.” In taking the imagination as our central object of inquiry, we aim to push against the paralysing political of despair that can so easily arise in the face of the climate crisis as an omnipresent and seemingly insurmountable “hyper-object” (Morton 2013). In our view, it is not the failure of imagination itself that is the issue. Rather, the problem lies in the exclusionary scope of voices and beings heeded and represented by current dominant climate imaginaries.”

Maintaining the importance of the imagination, Chao’s hesitant anthropology enacts participatory and processual justice between anthropologist and interlocutors. This legitimises Indigenous knowledge and philosophies, the agency of non-human beings, and narrates resistance to the dominance of Western scientific paradigms. One literature review of climate change adaptation research found that the main countries of origin for findings were the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Canada; a clear irony that those with the most vocal privilege are not those with the greatest environmental burden. The disjunction was conceptualised in Planet Art II in Hilary Term 2024 (February) in our call-out for artists who could speak to the silent and silenced voices in the climate movement:

Ushika: “Last time, I read an excerpt from Sophie Chao’s article, calling for beyond-human imaginaries and to decolonise climate change. [This week] I received a timely email from the Guardian’s ‘Down to Earth’ newsletter based on a piece asking: Why is environmentalism so white? Some of these answers lie in the RACE Report, standing for Racial Awareness for the Climate Emergency. Maunganidze, who was interviewed for this newsletter, stated that Black, Asian, and other minority groups have long been excluded from natural environments, and this is reflected in the environmental sector.”

Chao’s hesitant anthropology…legitimises Indigenous knowledge and philosophies, the agency of non-human beings, and narrates resistance to the dominance of Western scientific paradigms.

Setting the tone of the evening was Beau Boka-Batesa, student at the University of Oxford and co-founder of Choked Up UK, then-nascent during the turmoil of 2020, in the wake of the 2019 climate strikes, COVID-19 pandemic, and Black Lives Matter protests. Their chronicles of life in the frontline of these environmental health risks echoed their written manifesto on race and the climate justice movement published in the Cherwell newspaper in 2022: for some, the climate crisis appears in the media as “hypothetical” or intangibly beyond the scope of everyday concern, but for many, and particularly, marginalised communities, the toxicity of pollution is an everyday bitter pill to swallow.

In anthropological fashion, these micro-scale tales of livelihoods co-existing with sensory violations speak to another phenomenon amongst individuals a continent over in China–notoriously subject to Western media criticism regarding its pollution issues and environmental policies–unarticulated by residents, but documented ethnographically as ‘The art of unnoticing’. Shifting from the unnoticed to the act of unnoticing, this entails residents’ ability to “reclaim their agency in the face the unavoidable”.

Lou, author of the article, describes this practice as a “contrived form of ignorance that enables them to live with the reality of pollution”. Despite the relentless petrochemical fumes and visual obstructions of an industrial landscape, living with these invasive surrounds becomes reduced to simply living itself. Initially, drawing these parallels was something of an artistic thrill for me: a welcome source of narrative and flow in writing. Equally, they are telling of a worrying ubiquity of climate injustices internalised into a dangerous status-quo that weds the deterioration of environment with the deterioration of health.

In the podcast, Chao lucidly appeals to the “Arts of Noticing”, referencing the first chapter of Anna Tsing’s book, “The Mushroom at the End of the World”. A compelling study of the matsutake mushroom, this posthuman, transnational, and multispecies endeavour situates the reader at the literal grassroots level – which claims agency for grassroots movements. On a musical note, in this chapter Tsing coins the “polyphonic assemblage”, which is a play on the ecological term to describe layers of melodies that together, when we notice them, convey harmony and dissonance, isolation and cooperation. Recalling the art of unnoticing, all that remains really is the imagination. With the creativity of all these contributors, we should call on creative ways of coping, and radical re-imaginations of climate (multispecies) justice.