Multispecies stories: Why do they matter for human rights?

By Sophie Chao
woman in West Papua
Sophie Chao

The world we inhabit today is one of multiple and overlapping environmental crises. Increasingly frequent forest fires have resulted in the indiscriminate obliteration of wildlife, vegetation, and property throughout the world. The rains had barely quelled the flames of the 2019 Australian fires when a viral pandemic exploded, triggered by the trade and consumption of wildlife, and taking human lives across the Global North and South. Both of these crises sit within the broader phenomenon of climate change — a symptom of the systematic exploitation of natural resources by humans.

Together, these phenomena have had unimaginably destructive impacts on both humans and the environments that they inhabit. They vividly exemplify how the presumption of human mastery over the natural world can backfire with devastating consequences across species lines – even as these consequences are always unevenly distributed across different human communities.

Multispecies ethnography is also a form of story-telling – one that aims to decenter the human as the primary protagonist and instead opens space for non-human beings as actors in their own right.

These overlapping crises highlight our inextricable interdependence with natural environments, whose fates and futures are profoundly interwoven with those of human generations present and to come. Protecting the environment is therefore also a matter of human rights. It demands that we cultivate an appreciation for and understanding of, the more-than-human world – its constituent plants, non-human animals, and ecosystems, for instance. It demands that we become aware of and responsible for the violence and care at play in interspecies relations, and their consequences for human wellbeing. One promising path in this direction is multispecies ethnography. 

Multispecies ethnography invites us to explore the complex and diverse forms of human-environmental relations that exist across time and place. It calls for finetuned observation of and immersion in the lifeways of non-human organisms who so often form the mere backdrop to our everyday lives – the trees we walk past during bushwalks, the plants and animals we consume, and the bacterial communities that populate our own bodies.

Multispecies ethnography is also a form of story-telling – one that aims to decenter the human as the primary protagonist and instead opens space for non-human beings as actors in their own right, whose beings and doings can have profound implications for the humans they co-exist with. This form of story-telling highlights the biological, political, ethical, historical, and cultural dimensions of non-human life. It also shows us how these dimensions transform in the contexts of colonialism, capitalism, and technoscience and what we can learn from Indigenous societies about interspecies reciprocity, care, and kinship.

Multispecies stories can take diverse forms – a fleshy description, a theoretical analysis, an improvised song, an inter-generationally transmitted myth, a cultural performance, an everyday practice, or an art installation. Through these and other mediums, multispecies ethnography seeks to foreground the oft-neglected entanglements of humans with their diverse companion species, and the meaningful lifeways, or ethos, of non-human species themselves. In doing so, multispecies ethnography constitutes a political, practical, and ethical practice. It tells multispecies stories in order to invite more harmonious and reciprocal forms of giving, taking, and caring in a more-than-human world. 

Multispecies stories challenge the assumption that humans, or culture, is a realm separated from and superior to, the environment, or nature.

Why then, does multispecies ethnography matter for human rights? First, multispecies stories challenge the assumption that humans, or culture, is a realm separated from and superior to the environment or nature. Rather, multispecies stories reveal our profound interdependencies with the natural world and the enduring logics of environmental-racialised imperialism that continue to justify both the exploitation of natural resources and the dispossession of vulnerable human communities, notably Indigenous peoples and other rural populations.

Multispecies ethnography also draws attention to the violence committed in the name of environmental protection against marginalised human communities. These include exclusionary forms of conservation that aim to salvage biodiversity but also often result in the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples and the erosion of their cultural lifeways, values, and modes of subsistence.

Multispecies ethnography also matters for human rights in that it reveals how the natural world matters to humans in different ways across particular places and times. For instance, what one cultural group might cherish as a domesticated pet another cultural group might consider an important source of food, a spiritual being, or a non-human kind. This variety of perspectives demonstrates that the “human” (as much as the “non-human”) is best approached not as a universal or homogeneous category, but rather one that differs across time, space, and context. In doing so, multispecies ethnography not only opens our mind to species diversity but also our gaze to human diversity and how this diversity has and continues to shape our relations to the natural world.

Finally, multispecies ethnography highlights how expanding our concepts of rights beyond the human can alleviate or remedy injustices towards humans themselves. The growing recognition of rivers, mountains, and ecosystems as non-human legal persons, for instance, seeks to forge more relational, inclusive, and expansive notions of rights that account for past and present violence towards both local communities and their sentient environments.

These legal advances frame the fulfilment of human and non-human justice not as separate or hierarchical endeavours, but rather as mutually supportive practices that can promote wellbeing in more-than-human terms. Not surprisingly, many of these legal advances have been led by Indigenous communities and activists, whose philosophies, practices, and protocols of interspecies kinship long predate the advent of multispecies ethnography.

Telling multispecies stories matters for human rights because human wellbeing ultimately depends on the wellbeing of the environment.

Multispecies stories, then, are far from just stories. As ethical tools, they seek to redeem non-human beings and ecologies as worthy of consideration and care. They also highlight how environment degradation and exploitation perpetrated by some humans results in the systemic violation of other humans’ rights to food, life, environment, culture, and a future. As political tools, multispecies stories thus reveal how environmental destruction poses a serious yet always unevenly distributed threat to humans and to human rights.

They foreground how human justice depends in turn on doing justice to the life-sustaining worlds of non-human beings – in our everyday practices of production and consumption, in global economic and political systems, and in the law. These stories point to the importance of rethinking rights and who deserves them in more-than-human terms. In doing so, they call for us to consider how our relations to the non-human world may be better arranged towards less violent shared futures and more responsible forms of multispecies flourishing.

Telling multispecies stories matters for human rights because human wellbeing ultimately depends on the wellbeing of the environment. These stories offer important precedents and promises for multispecies thriving that are at once untethered from assumptions of human superiority or mastery over non-human beings, and that are attentive to the environmental and social vulnerability of some human communities over others. Telling multispecies stories well brings to light what is at stake in the making and unmaking of biodiverse landscapes – for whom, and with what consequences. In doing so, they offer crucial alternative visions for what a world worth living and cherishing might look like, in the lively presence of more-than-human beings.

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