Political participation for nonhuman

Winter, Christine J. (2019). 'Political Participation for Nonhuman' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


This paper explores how connecting the laws of three nation states may advance a mechanism for expanding the capability of 'Control over One's Environment' to nonhuman within democracies.

The capabilities approach to justice and international institutional functions are designed to promote just structures to enable human freedom and wellbeing (Alkire, 2005; Nussbaum 2011; Robeyns,2005; Sen, 1999, 2009). Some theorists working within the approach have suggested it may also be used to ensure just relations between human and nonhuman (Fulfer, 2013; Holland, 2012; Nussbaum 2007; Nussbaum Wichert & Nussbaum, 2017; Schlosberg, 2012, 2013;). However, the approach cannot accommodate some Peoples' understanding of the nature of nonhuman nature. Specifically, the capabilities approach's current theoretical structure cannot account for nor reflect Aotearoa New Zealand Māori thinking (Watene (2016); Winter (2019a). Moreover, as I have argued previously, the approach needs to acknowledge the potential for domination associated with instrumentalising the approach within non-Western settings or to find a means to accommodate a broad range of other-than-Anglo-European-American philosophies. Alternatively, it might relinquish claims to universalism. The latter option seems particularly unpalatable because people of non-dominant cultures (at both national and international scales) stand to benefit from the strengths of the capabilities approach.

Democratic participation and voice are fundamental to Nussbaum's tenth capability:

Control over One’s Environment

A.  Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protection of free speech and association.

 (Nussbaum, 2007: 76-78).

Within this framework, nonhuman has only mediated representation in democracies. Furthermore, this mediated representation is often more about human need for a clean environment and foodstuffs. That is, it is more about human flourishing than an intrinsic right of nonhuman to flourish. Partly this anthropocentrism stems from the narrow definitions of dignity used to ground justice theories (Watene, 2016; Winter, 2019a) and in part because of the fundamental ontological foundations of Western philosophy.

This paper examines one possible avenue for harnessing and combining the strengths of the capabilities approach and Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge and philosophy). It does this through an examination (and subversion) of seemingly unconnected sets of legal frameworks. First, laws designed to promote corporate participation in the democratic process in the USA and New South Wales, Australia (NSW). Second, Aotearoa's mechanism for addressing historical injustices to Māori by creating 'personhood' or 'identity' status for geo-regions -- domains of entanglement between human, plant, animal, waters, land and geology.

Three geo-regions have formal personhood status -- Mt Taranaki, Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera. This move combines a Māori understanding of entangled relationships of recognition, respect, reciprocity, and responsibility between and within the human/nonhuman community with the Western concept of the singular identity and set of interests of a community of shareholders. In both cases, nominated people -- guardians or kaitiaki for the geo-regions, boards and executives for the corporations -- are responsible for representing the interests of a wide range of conjoined actors.

In the USA and NSW corporate legal persons have democratic rights -- rights to voice and influence in the USA (Winkler, 2018) and direct municipal election voting rights in NSW. A precedent exists therefore for direct democratic participation by 'legal persons'. It seems this may open the possibility to give Taranaki, Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera direct representation -- where their guardians represent the geo-region's interests -- in the democratic process. It also suggests they may have claims to a seat at the table of international organisations and conferences in which their interests are at stake -- organisations such as the UNEP or the Conferences of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Winter, 2019b).

This paper explores the formal ratification of corporate influence in political processes. It then outlines how legal personhood status for nonhuman demonstrates a way in which two incommensurate ontologies -- those of Mātauranga Māori and Western law -- have been married to create personhood status for nonhuman. Next, it looks at the potential (and possibly obligation) to expand the duties of the guardians of these nonhuman persons into the political realm. Finally, it explores the implications for the capabilities approach and its capacity to embrace human, nonhuman, and at least one non-Western philosophy to promote human and nonhuman flourishing.

Key words: Māori, nonhuman representation, decolonisation, Aotearoa New Zealand,

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