Here’s OHLS grad program LLM Candidate Lara Tessaro on the ideas we heard at the event:
On June 6, 2018, Dayna Nadine Scott and the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies drew together a group of feminist scholars to share their thoughts and prescriptions on how to approach Critical Theory for the Anthropocene Future. How, they were asked, can we simultaneously reckon with environmental violence and inequalities, while nonetheless collectively rejecting the catastrophism so often invoked by Anthropocene narratives?
The evening began with Crystal Sinclair (Nehiyaw), an artist, hand drummer, facilitator, organizer, water protector, land defender, Indigenous rights activist and member of the Idle No More movement. Crystal shared some Nehiyaw histories, and acknowledged the territory on which we were gathered.
Then Dayna introduced the event’s themes. She noted that we have all had to come to terms with the “Anthropocene era” – the geologic age of humans – as we confront the profound impact that humans have had on the planet, with its apparent ecological boundaries and limits. Proponents of the Anthropocene want us to fear our demise, she said, and indeed, she admitted that we sometimes get caught dreaming about a world without humans in it. Other times, “we try to dream into being bold, beautiful, feminist, decolonial visions of a future on this planet – thriving in the Anthropocene or flourishing after the Anthropocene”. Dayna mused about the “strikeout” of the term Anthropocene in the title of the event, saying that it was meant to signal that this term is only ever shorthand. While the concept immediately brings to mind planetary boundaries and ecosystem survival, and in some ways challenges people to change their course, it also “throws us all into a bucket called “humanity” that erases past and present inhumanity, colonialisms and oppressions”. Each of the evening’s four speakers has influenced our thinking on these themes over the past several years, from different disciplines and perspectives, and each offers critical insights for a better future.
Dayna mentioned that her own engagement with these themes began through a growing dissatisfaction with the way that many legal scholars think about the future. Referring to her recent paper co-authored with Jess Eisen and Roxanne Mykitiuk, she recalled the environmental law doctrine of intergenerational equity, which provides that current generations hold the planet in trust from previous generations and for future generations – meaning that people living today have obligations to people living in the future. Yet this necessarily raises the questions: “Which people living today? What obligations? What will people in the future need? What new and old oppressions will characterize the future? And why only people?”
The first speaker, Angela P. Harris, is a foundational voice in critical race feminism. She has considered implications of the “Anthropocene” for critical legal theory, taking it as an opportunity to inject anti-subordination imperatives into vulnerability theory. In her comments, Angela compellingly assembled the movements that label themselves with the word justice – whether environmental justice, reproductive justice, food justice, land justice, climate justice, or data justice. Following Paola Bacchetta, she encouraged us to theorize these movements as “X Justice”, in which X is the embrace of the unknown and unknowable future. She also urged us to stay with the vague “etcetera” that often clings to the end of our accounts of identities. Compounded, these two commitments make “etcetera and the X”. All these X movements share commitments to undermining white settler law. Angela theorized that white settler law operates through two distinct modes of power: subjection (think corporations, states, persons, wild animals, farmed animals, children) and spatialization (think Canada, US, ghetto, wilderness, private sphere, public sphere, market, state). She concluded by identifying ways in which X justice movements and scholars are undermining these two dynamics, making space for anticolonial and decolonial work.
Next up was Zoe Todd (Métis), an anthropologist and fish philosopher who has helped people see how the “ontological turn” in anthropology and other disciplines is indebted to Indigenous worldviews. Zoe contributed virtually through a video recording. She first read a condensed version of a 2017 piece on relationality in Métis worldviews. Métis legal-governance traditions draw on the Nehiyaw (or Cree) legal principle of wahkohtowin, which, as described by Métis historian Brenda MacDougall, is “predicated upon a specific Aboriginal notion and definition of family as a broadly conceived sense of relatedness of all beings, human and non-human, living and dead, physical and spiritual.” Grounded in wahkohtowin, Métis life centers on tending to relations. Zoe described how she came to understand this all the better after living in the UK, where she learned what it is to be unclaimed: “Without relations, without someone to claim me, and without people to claim, I am nothing.” Zoe then shared her playful and moving poem the Tenderness Manifesto, in which she (at)tends to the multivalent meanings and affects of tender and tenderness (spurring some lawyers in the room to ponder the care-full act of tendering evidence). through a witness).
During a break to congregate and contemplate with colleagues old and new – and for refreshment and nourishment (much thanks to the Gladstone for staging the evening so smoothly) – audience members were encouraged to write down and pop in a box any questions they had for the speakers. For those interested in novel chairing techniques, check out the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies’ ongoing experiment with fairer modes of chairing panels.
The second round of speakers began with Usha Natarajan, an international law scholar who works within Third World Approaches to International Law (or TWAIL), a movement that exposes the ongoing coloniality of international law. Usha began by outlining different ways that international lawyers have responded to environmental degradation. Emphasizing that environmental harms have been created by the North, some lawyers in the South have proclaimed principles such as “common but differentiated responsibility”, now successfully reflected in multilateral environmental agreements. Some critical postcolonial scholars have pointed to how the North has refused to live up to these obligations; while these concerns are valid, this postcolonial critique has not helped to tackle environmental degradation. It has a certain tactical value, allowing resistance to the mainstream’s obsessive focus on climate change as a distraction from underlying inequities (here, she recalled how Manhattan emits more greenhouse gases than all of sub-Saharan Africa, yet humans and nonhumans in these countries experience the brunt of unmitigated climate change). However, focusing only on redistributions of power and wealth will not likely provide solutions to climate change; ultimately, more fundamental changes are needed in our ways of knowing the world. Yet our legal concepts remain wedded to environmental destruction. Sovereignty, for example, is fully dependent upon sovereign states mastering nature. The concept of human rights further atomizes the world into rights-bearing individuals abstracted and demarcated from our natural environments and other species. Usha ended her comments by reminding us that nature has laws of its own, available to us if we listen.
Michelle Murphy, the evening’s final speaker, is a Métis technoscience studies scholar working on environmental and reproductive justice, data politics, race, and colonialism. With many collaborators, including through the Technoscience Research Unit, she seeks to reconceive chemicals and enact decolonial futures. Posing the question “how does environmental data manifest settler colonialism and racial capitalism”, Michelle wants to consider “ways of working with and against data towards better land-body relations”. To illustrate these “infrastructures of gaslighting”, she chronicled a history of the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley – including a massive 2017 flaring event that Vanessa Gray of Aamjiwnaang, with help from Ecojustice, is working to remedy. Chemical Valley is embedded in scientific legacies of how we study and monitor chemicals – one chemical at a time, narrowly prescribed effects, dose-response curves. While activists feel compelled to use the resulting state-reported data to generate environmental justice arguments, Michelle asks: “What if the objects we think (with) are in the world are wrong?” Following Eve Tuck and Audra Simpson, unthinking chemicals also requires refusing damage-based research. Moreover, by refusing to apprehend chemicals as small and individual, we can embrace new ways to depict the extensive and expansive chemical relations in which we are entangled.
When opening a collective conversation, Dayna joked that she was not sure the speakers had followed her direction to be hopeful – which produced some profitable pushback. Angela noted, when confronted with students’ feelings of hopelessness, that rather than let uncertain futures foster fear, she stresses how uncertainty is always also possibility. Insisting that her talk was hopeful, Michelle celebrated the liberation that comes from “naming better concepts” and from the recognition that researchers do not have to work with decontextualized, atomistic objects – like “chemicals” – but can reorient their research around relations. Asked whether this might redeem the object of “law”, Usha reminded us that the products of all disciplines are inadequate – though imagination, art, and literature can help us to articulate things otherwise.
Sonia Lawrence said that she, for one, had experienced the evening as being truly hopeful. Sonia thanked the humans and institutions that had made the event possible. In addition to the four speakers and Crystal Sinclair, she thanked the Institute for Feminist Legal Studies, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, York University MES student Garance Malivel, Osgoode Hall JD student Graham Reeder, Ashley Bell of Osgoode Hall, Suzette Collaird of the Gladstone, and the roomful of those who had gathered to contemplate Critical Theory for the Anthropocene Future