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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Blog: Reflections on the ‘Relating to Nature’ workshop: Considering the nonhuman within political theory

10 October 2017

From 11 to 13 September, The University of Manchester hosted its annual Manchester Centre for Political Theory Workshops (MANCEPT). Around 200 delegates attended 27 workshops during the conference. PhD Researcher Anna Wienhues reflects on convening the ‘Relating to Nature’ workshop.

There is such a dominance of climate change in contemporary environmental political philosophy that it may seem as if it is the sole environmental problem facing the planet. Combined with the widespread anthropocentrism – i.e. human focus – of political theory in general, there is a need to provide alternative philosophical approaches to contemporary environmental problems. This was the inspiration behind the workshop I convened, entitled ‘Relating to Nature’.

Considering that the ‘Relating to Nature’ panel was one of only two environmentally focused workshops of the entire 2017 MANCEPT conference, environmental considerations are still on the fringes of political philosophy. Whilst this lack of interest was disheartening to some, others were surprised that it was possible to get nine environmentally interested theorists into one room!

The nine papers presented were from a broad range of perspectives not only located within philosophy but also drawing on anthropology, eco-linguistics, sociology and international relations. One theme that ran through the workshop were questions regarding how nonhumans or ‘nature’ are represented in discourses about nature reserves (Douglas Ponton and Mara Benadusi, University of Catania), the discourse surrounding the ‘Anthropocene’ (Ewa Bińczyk, Nicolaus Copernicus University), and more conceptual questions about what we understand as ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ which we aim to conserve and preserve (Linnea Luuppala, University of Helsinki).

A second area of inquiry were the political structures and institutions needed to engage with environmental problems on both the global and local scale. From an international relations perspective, it was proposed that in order to reform world politics the environmental should be understood as a new spatial dimension – in addition to land, sea space etc. – of the global legal order (Marco Genovesi, University of Nottingham).  It was also argued that there is a need for more localised and deliberative forms of politics (Adam Simcock, Keele University). Linking global and local considerations, it was also suggested that institutional proposals designed to represent the interests of future generations might constitute helpful blueprints for incorporating concerns for non-human nature into political institutions (Joshua Wells, University of Reading).

Topics that also ran through the workshop were the potential usefulness of virtue ethics – e.g. the virtue of prudence – as an alternative to more ‘mainstream’ normative theories (Mark Charlesworth, Keele University) and my own work on distributive justice, to provide normative frameworks – i.e. ethical theories – that could accommodate problems such as the limited scientific knowledge about environmental problems or the current sixth mass extinction crisis. In contrast to grounding conservation proposals in a justice framework, the scope of the workshop debate was also further broadened by engagement with considerations on how the philosophical tradition of existentialism could provide an alternative justification for conservation practices (Derek Halm, Western Michigan University).

Despite the diversity of approaches present, the workshop also highlighted significant consensus. Indeed, environmental philosophers, in contrast to many other areas in philosophy, share a broad but clear normative project with environmental activists: current practices and attitudes have to change for the sake of current and future human and nonhuman nature. One of the few remaining sources of disagreement was, for example, whether small or large scale institutional solutions should be prioritised in the context of a rapidly closing window of opportunity.

Slowly the environment and the lives of nonhumans are gaining relevance within political theory discourse and as part of this intellectual journey this workshop was a success. Hopefully, this theoretical development also translates into changed practices and institutional reforms before the window of opportunity to take action has closed – not just in the mitigation of climate change, but also the slowing or reversing other environmental issues, such as the current rate of species extinctions. But as of yet, there is little evidence that would encourage any optimism. 

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