Tag Archives: Usha Natarajan

Critical Theory for the Future | Conversations for the Future


UPDATED July 26 2018

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

Lara Tessaro

Law's Slow Violence Guest Post: Usha Natarajan on visibility and changing the deal

As part of the Law’s Slow Violence workshop hosted by Osgoode Hall Law School on June 14 2013 (complete information here or at the bottom of this post), we solicited guest posts from academics attending the workshop and interested in the issues. 

Find the other posts here.


Today, international law specialist Professor Usha Natarajan of the American University in Cairo, where she is assistant professor in the Department of Law and the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, offers us her thoughts.


image of a puddle of dark oilAs aphotograph of Usha Natarajann international lawyer living in Riyadh and Cairo over the past four years, certain passages in Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor had particular resonance for me. Most memorable was Nixon’s quote from Abdallah Tariki, former Director of Petroleum and Mineral Affairs of Saudi Arabia, who said, ‘We are the sons of the Indians who sold Manhattan. We want to change the deal’.[1] There are a number of reasons why someone like me – a postcolonial international lawyer interested in environmental issues – would find such a statement thought provoking: Did Tariki really relate himself so closely with those indigenous peoples, in a remarkable imagined alliance across disparate times, spaces and cultures? What is the deal that he wanted to change? Has he changed it?


We could read various meanings into his statement. My interpretation understands the sale of Manhattan as one where indigenous peoples sold to the colonizers what they desired at a low cost. When the land’s value increased hyperbolically, the original owners were excluded from the benefit. Indeed, the purchase and subsequent development of that land had a role in materially, culturally and symbolically disempowering the indigenous peoples.


Have the Saudis changed this deal? Saudi Arabia is the central cog in an oil industry that, through anti-market mechanisms and monopolies, can sell their product at more than a hundred times the cost of production. Unlike those who sold Manhattan, the Saudis, through possessing a resource desired by the United States, have established a relationship that allows Saudi Arabia to enhance national power and wealth. Some non-western states now play the game of industrialization and capitalism and – by the game’s own measurements – they win. They have, in common parlance, ‘emerged’. In this sense, the deal has changed.


But the Arab uprisings give lie to this claim, reminding us of those who are sacrificed to this narrative. While they may not have articulated it in this way, for many in this region the uprisings were an outpouring of resistance to slow violence. Whether a drought-displaced Syrian farmer forced to move to the nearest city, a fisherman or farmer trying to cope with increasing industrial pollution in the Nile delta, a street-vendor harassed by police in Tunisia, or a Bahraini or Saudi Shia disenfranchised in their own land, for a while they made their everyday sufferings and injustices visible and spectacular. The unthinkable had happened.


Saudi Arabia continues to put down long-standing resistance from Shia inhabitants in its Eastern Province as well as in neighboring Bahrain. While they live on top of most of the oil and gas – indeed they are a majority there – the Shia population remain not only impoverished but despised. The alliance with the United States brought to the Kingdom economic growth, but this alliance is also central to maintaining a rigid monarchy allied to a strict Islamic sect. Saudi society has fissures along many lines, including wealth, gender, religion, and province. But whether rich or poor, man or woman, Sunni or Shia, the commonality is a society deeply traumatized by the strange contradictions of life in an ultracapitalist strict Islamic state, an ultra-Americanized monarchy, unimaginable luxury alongside destitution, the holiest site in Islam overshadowed by the adjacent gigantic 7 star luxury hotel and shopping mall.


Attempts to ‘change the deal’ were rife in the region and throughout the third world in the decolonization era. The New International Economic Order and the doctrine of permanent sovereignty over natural resources were normative efforts to do just that. Nasser, Nehru, Sukarno, Nyerere, and other non-aligned leaders asserted that the resources of the former colonies were no longer available freely: our resources are ours and we set the conditions for access.


But in the Arab region, doctrines such as permanent sovereignty simultaneously helped bolster the power of domestic tyrants. By asserting strong and centralized state control over natural resources – resources that provided the essentials of life such as water, food and energy – post-independence rulers could establish swift control over their populace and territory. Thus, the discourse of resistance put forward by third world international lawyers arguing for a New International Economic Order not only failed, but the very same discourse became a tool of dispossession and profound unsovereignty for most Arab peoples, who did not equitably share in the wealth generated by natural resources.


In the context of the struggle over Arab natural resources, it is difficult to identify an independence moment: a clear postcolonial rupture with past patterns of dependence, subordination and exploitation. As Nixon states, ‘for if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post’.[2] Hence for many, especially the region’s youth, the uprisings felt like independence movements, and in Tunisia and Cairo where leaders were overthrown there was the promise of long-desired postcoloniality.


In this place and at this time the bringing together of two discourses, postcolonialism and environmentalism, as Nixon does, may prove strategic and useful. The discontent underlying the uprisings are linked with environmental issues, natural resource management, unequal access to water, food and energy in the region where inequalities are grotesque (for example, 100 per cent of Kuwaitis have access to electricity compared with 25 per cent in the Sudan), land degradation, desertification, drought, and severe onset of climate change.


Post-revolution regimes have not focused on environmental issues, seeing them as something to be addressed after the important work of elections, constitutionalism and development is done. However, as grassroots movements in other regions have realized, environmental issues are one of the few ways to disrupt dominant economic paradigms, because they can pose a clear and rational challenge to the fundamental assumptions that underpin capitalism and development. Such a discourse is helpful in a region where people are struggling to imagine their way out of the destructive development patterns of the past – a development that bred widespread discontent through multiplying the sites of slow violence.


For an international lawyer participating in this reimagining effort, one of the difficulties is that our discipline’s dominant discourse understands life in a way that makes environmental violence difficult to identify and source, let alone resist. For instance, our understanding of the economy – what it is, what is inside and outside it, what we count and what we discount – has compromised our ability to spot and define an environmental problem and has also circumscribed our ability to offer solutions. How have environmental issues become fragmented, specialized and marginalized within international law? What is our role as lawyers in defining the limits of the economic? And does it matter what we lawyers do? Interestingly, in a region familiar with the complicity of law – domestic and international – in the disempowerment of the masses, Arab peoples still look to the law for salvation in the post-revolutionary moment, asking for constitutional reform, human rights, reform of the judiciary as legal constraints on state power. Law continues to be an important instrument both for those asserting their power and for those resisting it.


Law, lawyers, and our way of understanding life, is an intimate part of the process whereby nature is made ‘abstract in order to extract’.[3] Arundhati Roy describes that, ‘[a]t The Hague I stumble on a denomination, a sub world, whose life’s endeavor was entirely the opposite of mine. For them the whole purpose of language is to mask intent … they breed and prosper in the space that lies between what they say and what they sell’.[4] International lawyers have participated in creating a world inattentive to environmental violence through universalizing particular concepts at particular times. Whether the definition of sovereignty and laws of title to territory, private property and the concept of eminent domain, the development myth feeding the illusion of limitless growth everywhere all the time, or asserting the human as a possessor of inherent rights, each of these international law concepts brings with it underlying assumptions about the natural environment – assumptions that may tie us to perpetuating certain types of slow violence.


Critical international lawyers have focused on retelling the story of law to reveal how it participates in perpetrating or obfuscating slow violence. This is an ongoing project and what is interesting to me, as Nixon relates with regard to his own discipline, is how postcolonial international lawyers – long wary and skeptical of environmentalism – are tentatively approaching environmental issues, as we come to realize that such an engagement is both strategic and indispensable to us if we indeed want to change the deal.

[1] Nixon 68.

[2] Nixon 8.

[3] Nixon 41.

[4] Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (2001) 43 as quoted by Nixon 169.