Please visit one of the exciting panels I’m participating in this year in Philadelphia at the annual APSA Conference.
Collective Action, Environmental Politics, and (Nonhuman) Animal Rights
Division 3: Normative Political Theory
Thu, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, PCC, 107-B
Yogi Hale Hendlin, Chair
Cities, Climate Change, and Sustainability Policy
Division 30: Urban and Local Politics
Fri, September 2, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Room 310
Yogi Hale Hendlin, Discussant
Interrogating the Anthropocene
Division 42: New Political Science / Related Group: Green Politics and Theory
Sun, September 4, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Room 411
There is no doubt that the environment is under stress as a result of a quickly transforming climate. The increasing pressures on the Earth’s resources are linked to transformations within the population and increasing consumption, producing socio-environmental consequences that invite a reconsideration of green political thought. What perspectives within green political thought best respond to contemporary planetary challenges? And how might green political thought address an array of socio-environmental tensions? To what extent does green political thought help to address uneven geographies? And, how might differing ideologies within green political thought come together to address the challenges of our contemporary political, social, economic, and environmental climate?
It is ironic that despite our pressing concerns of environmental sustainability, humanity has yet to consult with the rest of nature. Regardless of the urgent need to address the crisis of reason in human action creating a destabilized ecological order, the contentious sustainability and climate change discourses have inadvertently neglected to query nonhuman nature as to what arrangement works best for our mutual survival and flourishing. Sure, the natural sciences have attempted to ascertain how environmental systems work objectively, but their approach has been instrumental, not communicative. Insofar as we view “instrumental” and “communicative” as discrete categories, the type of information available from instrumental investigations, more often than not, amounts largely to mirroring back our own interests and presuppositions in a feedback loop full of distortions where output reflects input, leaving little room for listening-based inquiry, leading to appreciation for the full polychromism of phenomena. Even among those working in animal studies, the tendency has been, more often than not, to treat animals as moral patients rather than communicative agents. Addressing this discursive gap in environmental political theory rectifies the oversight that nonhuman political agencies currently contribute to political outcomes only indirectly.
While democratic societies have come a long ways in the last few hundred years, extending the opportunity for political participation to non-propertied males, to the poor, people of color, indigenous groups, and women, nonetheless it seems like such progress stops abruptly at the species barrier. Whether for philosophical a priori assumptions that nonhumans do not have agency, or for more practical reasons that the communicative possibilities of nonhumans de facto exclude them from having voice as our political systems define it, with few exceptions nonhuman agents has been systematically left out of the question of political inclusion, or have been subsumed under larger phenomenological approaches that have obscured the difference between living organisms and lifeless things. Jane Bennett and other theorists allied with the object-oriented ontology (OOO) movement, for example, often collapse the ontological distance between beings and things, natural processes and the human domain of history. The agency of nonhuman organisms becomes merely representational in OOO as all things borrow their agency from human meaning, without any notion of intention, or meaning-creation or -orientation for nonhuman organisms. The implications of this is that this line of theorizing (including Steven Vogel, from a different theoretically committed direction) emphasize there is no substantial difference between field mice and trackpads, ecosystems and malls.
In order to diagnose and remedy a discursive gap involves several steps. First, the constituency being effected by negative political outcomes or lacking political involvement must be certified as a legitimate party relevant to the political process that should, because of such standing, be included. Second, it must be proved that the constituency in question actually can communicate and contribute to the already involved political actors, so that translation does not become an insurmountable problem. Third, the predominating decision-making processes must shift and evolve to take into account the unique ways in which these new relevant members of the expanded polis interact and express themselves, assuring that new polity members are not forced into political ventriloquism, speaking in the master’s dialect(ic).
Rather than just including nonhuman organisms or processes passively or indirectly through their impact on human actors—displacing their agency onto human recognition and action precipitating through their behavior—nonhuman natural beings can have direct political consequences. The inverse of the totalizing narratives of the anthropocene starring human actors monopolizing planetary environmental agency, nonhuman political agencies have long shaped cultural factors, whether acknowledged or not. Recognizing and interacting with these constituents of the ecological polis in ways eliciting their true interests, and weighing their interests in political decisions (e.g., through ambassadors or representatives, as Bruno Latour has suggested, or through granting rights, as Donaldson and Kymlicka have proposed), helps close this discursive gap. Other methods stemming from biosemiotics and democratic theory are also relevant to closing the discursive gap, and are pertinent to transforming political institutions and processes as we reorient towards sustainable environmental policy and tackling the systemic issues undergirding climate change.