Roy on Chao and Bolender and Kirksey, 'The Promise of Multispecies Justice'

Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, Eben Kirksey, eds.
Akashdeep Roy

Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, Eben Kirksey, eds. The Promise of Multispecies Justice. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. xi + 284 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1625-0; $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1889-6

Reviewed by Akashdeep Roy (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune) Published on H-Environment (March, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

The Promise of Multispecies Justice was published in 2022 by Duke University Press under the themes of anthropology, environmental humanities, and science studies. In this text, various scholars from different parts of the world attempt to dismantle the hegemonic structure of multiple worlds of both humans and nonhumans. Through a lens of ethics and politics, this book broadens the scope of equality among humans and nonhumans. Further, while discussing intersectional inequalities, the book draws an analogy between deprived social classes and non-loved nonhumans to emphasize an unequal power structure in intraspecies and interspecies domains. While challenging the hegemonic dictums that lead to various forms of ecological disaster and injustices, this book promotes the idea of co-becoming to lessen the nature-culture-politics divide.

In this book, various counterhegemonic political imaginaries revolve around different social groups, nonhuman species, and case sites across the globe to define and reconstruct justice. Each chapter draws diverse but overlapping insights into multispecies justice, which are framed by parallel justice theories.[1] The reader gets the impression of nonhumans (including deities, ghosts, and spirits) and deprived social class of the term "multispecies" justice, although it is not explicitly mentioned in all the chapters. For instance, Radhika Govindrajan discusses a case study of spectral justice from the central Himalayas, India. She explains the transaction between humans and nonhumans across different ontological categories of cows, deities, and ghosts. She emphasizes nonhumans' nonphysical (spirits, ghosts, and deities) world and examines why and how justice and revenge remain central to all entities.

Aligning with Krithika Srinivasan and Rajesh Kasturirangan, the authors show that humans are inseparable from other species and nonhuman nature; thus, every entity deserves equal consideration in environmental policies and development planning.[2] The editors—Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey—draw parallels between the multiple approaches to multispecies justice. The summary of each chapter makes the reader think (and unthink) of a common socio-ecological hierarchy where a few social groups and species are (politically) more powerful than others.

Before moving ahead with the evolving discourse on multispecies justice, the authors highlight the socio-ecological history that is partly responsible for creating a precondition for such inequality. Independently, they blame Western cosmologies for marginalizing certain social groups and species. Through different theories embedded in the theme of colonialism and neocolonialism, the authors highlight the process of geographical and ideological violence between the state and the marginalized people—affecting their more-than-human relationship. Through a political ecology lens, one could understand this as an underlying human-human conflict to form a precondition for the human-nonhuman conflict. Here, conflict could be both physical and psychological. For instance, the case study from the Columbian Amazon portrays the jaguar as "cosmopolitan," similar to Annu Jalais's "cosmopolitan" Bengal tiger from the Sundarban delta in Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans (2010). In both examples, the "rights of nature" are placed above the "rights of locals." Thus, to balance biocultural rights, contingencies of risk and criminalization project the worst form of socio-ecological conflicts. This is an example of reparative and transformative justice, where nonhuman actors actively address and determine the extent of damage, repair, and well-being.

Redesigning and reconstructing such socio-ecological relationships remain a crucial focus of environmental justice and environmental movements, which this book covers well. Environmental actions simultaneously focus on nonhumans and deprived social classes. For instance, Alyssa Paredes writes about aerial fungicide spray in banana plantations that affects not only the natural fungus but also indigenous tribes, who are considered to be "subhumans." Through various instances, this reflects Paul Robbins's arguments in Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are (2007), which explains how a nonhuman commodity plays a crucial role in determining the political ecology of a region in a country. The situation is portrayed through the example of turfgrass (a nonhuman actor) in an urban ecological framework where individual decisions and urban lifestyles are responsible for environmental problems. Such animalization can be seen as a manifestation of neocolonial dominance and subsequent resistance.

Jia Hui Lee discusses humaneness in pest control management methods to emphasize dehumanization further. Through the example of "Iddy's traps," this chapter aims to transform pest management strategies and resist the painful death of pests. In another example, one form of resistance is to build "abolition geographies" against the authoritarian state, as reflected in the chapter by Elizabeth Lara. Such rationalization and marginalization, through differentiation, have been portrayed as preconditions for the current socio-ecological imbalance.

If I were to raise a quibble, it would be that some of the authors could have compared two (or more) nonhuman species across spatial and temporal space and traced their socio-ecological history to their current political reality. For instance, in the context of the forests in India, the Bengal tiger was not always the "national animal," and different events, such as (de)colonialization, forest acts, international relations, and funds, have played a significant role in its upraised status.[3] This nuance would highlight the role of political economy in shaping the transition of the Bengal tiger from the position of "pest" to the "national animal" in India. In other words, a case study on environmental history would help readers understand the process of "making" a political animal. One must realize the stringent top-down approaches to guide the bottom-up strategies to balance multispecies justice. Becoming a political animal differs from a nonhuman being a political actor—which could have been delved into deeper discussions. For example, Lauren A. Evans and William M. Adams present the African elephant as an actor whose agency determines the extent of human-elephant conflict and conservation goals.[4]

Overall, the book highlights various forms of justice waiting to be addressed among humans and nonhumans, raising alternative aesthetic sensibilities to balance the inequality in the multiple worlds through a shift in ideological, judicial, and spiritual unpacking. It challenges the vocabulary of existing literature to establish generative justice—to transform oppressive system(s). It also challenges the institutions where the politics of knowledge is produced—to balance the equilibrium of justice.

Expanding on Charles Darwin's evolutionary fitness, each organism will have to practice mutual fittingness and continual adjustment to coexist, and not merely co-occur, in a conflicted world. The solution lies in the plurality in understanding freedom and justice through moral worldviews and permeable boundaries where nonhuman species and nature have equal space to decide, act, and flourish.


[1]. Danielle Celermajer, David Schlosberg, Lauren Rickards, Makere Stewart-Harawira, Mathias Thaler, Petra Tschakert, Blanche Verlie, and Christine Winter, "Multispecies Justice: Theories, Challenges, and a Research Agenda for Environmental Politics," Environmental Politics 30, nos. 1-2 (2021): 119-40.

[2]. Krithika Srinivasan and Rajesh Kasturirangan, "Political Ecology, Development, and Human Exceptionalism," Geoforum 75 (2016): 125-28.

[3]. Annu Jalais, Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans (New Delhi: Routledge, 2010); and Ambika Aiyadurai, "'Tigers Are Our Brothers': Understanding Human-Nature Relations in the Mishmi Hills, Northeast India," Conservation and Society 14, no. 4 (2016): 305-16.

[4]. Lauren A. Evans and William M. Adams, "Elephants as Actors in the Political Ecology of Human-Elephant Conflict," Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 43, no. 4 (2018): 630-45.

Citation: Akashdeep Roy. Review of Chao, Sophie; Bolender, Karin; Kirksey, Eben, eds., The Promise of Multispecies Justice. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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