In Conversation: The Illusion of Boundaries and the Gift of Multispecies Justice

For students educated solely in Western knowledge systems—me included—it can be difficult to know how to learn about Indigenous philosophies respectfully.

The Illusion of Boundaries and the Gift of Multispecies Justice, Dr Christine Winter’s farewell presentation for the Sydney Environment Institute’s Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellowship Lecture shone a spotlight on the importance of Māori and other Indigenous philosophies for academia and environmental activism. Dr Winter —of Anglo-Celtic-Māori heritage—researches the intersection of intergenerational, Indigenous, and environmental justice. 

Pepeha (a way of introducing oneself in te reo Māori) propelled her presentation. For Māori, Pepeha is a reminder of relationships and responsibilities to the physical environment, to each individual’s ancestral, physical, spiritual, and emotional entanglements with lands and waters. Dr Winter explored Pepeha as a lived expression of multispecies justice (MSJ).

MSJ seeks justice for the nonhuman – the natural realm of plants, animals, insects, waters, land, and air. It sounds novel, but it’s not new at all. Outside of Western philosophy’s division between nature and culture, it has existed since time immemorial. Dr Winter focused on MSJ’s parallel with Māori relationality. Because matter and spirit are considered inseparable, Māori philosophical frameworks do not exclude the nonhuman from history, morality, and justice. 

Dr Winter made a moving and distinctly personal case for MSJ’s potential to open political theory to diverse epistemologies. She highlighted the pigeonholing of Indigenous thinking about life, knowledge, and justice as ‘just wisdom’ rather than as philosophy. These bodies of thought can be as valuable to academic research as the Enlightenment tradition of reason that we all know.

I asked Dr Winter whether Māori philosophy resonates in other disciplines. She believes emerging Māori scholars are challenging foundational principles across the physical and social sciences — from biology to land management, and sociology to law. 

Māori frameworks encourage a reconsideration of basic principles of business. Māori businesses use relationality in their long-term planning to achieve better community and environmental outcomes.

‘Long-term’ doesn’t mean just 5 to 10 years — it means a timescale of hundreds or thousands of years. The 500-year Te Pae Tawhiti plan has been embedded within companies like Wakatū Incorporation to pursue value over generations. 

Imagine what we could aim for with plans that look past financial or election cycles and focus on how to truly care for our world. How can we plan for a period longer than our lifespan, longer even than many of the trees we live with today? 

Dr Winter pointed to the Federal Minister for the Environment’s ongoing high court challenge to the idea that its office may have responsibilities to future generations. That sort of thing would be impossible to justify within a Māori philosophical framework.

Speaking with her again after the talk, I asked how Māori philosophy can be significant for environmental activism. “When you start making decisions out of a respect for the past and the future, the nature of the politics of your decision-making is very different,” she said. 

Dr Winter mentioned a recent study of two youth-led environmental activist movements in Aotearoa. A significant portion of participants in the first group were of Māori heritage, protesting a large housing development on a sacred site. The second group were protesting climate change and mainly from a settler background. While the first group were motivated to protect ancestors and future generations, the second approached activism from the perspective of what climate change means for the individual. 

Both movements are valuable. What’s important is recognising how Māori knowledge systems inspire activism motivated by protecting ancestors, their knowledge, community, and future generations. Thinking beyond the individual is extremely relevant in Australia as well — consider the fight to save the sacred Djab Wurrung trees.   

For students educated solely in Western knowledge systems—me included—it can be difficult to know how to learn about Indigenous philosophies respectfully. I asked Dr Winter whether she had any advice on beginning this process. 

She stressed that making connections in communities is challenging, and there are risks of exploiting these relationships to extract knowledge — a problem with Western scholarship generally. Dr Winter characterises it as an issue of generosity: respect begins with giving credit to Indigenous thinkers, no matter whether their thoughts are written or spoken. 

Dr Winter’s advice is to be generous, read academic work written by Indigenous scholars, and then follow the references. (Try the article Multispecies justice: theories, challenges, and a research agenda for environmental politics.)

The Illusion of Boundaries and the Gift of Multispecies Justice was an incisive, heartfelt, and thought-provoking presentation. Māori and other Indigenous philosophies have importance for academia and activism that too often goes under-appreciated and unacknowledged. 

Dr Winter gave her talk on Wednesday 27 April in association with the Sydney Environment Institute. Dr Winter is leaving the Department of Government & International Relations and Sydney Environment Institute for a new position at Otago University, Aotearoa.