Changing our endangered relationship with wildlife

By Katie Woolaston

We are in the midst of a mass extinction crises. We are losing entire species at an unprecedented rate, and we – us humans – are to blame. Human-induced climate change, land clearing and human conflicts with wildlife are cited as the primary destructive processes. However, I argue that it is the human relationship with wildlife, and nature generally, that is the most dangerous. I address this relationship in my PhD, and the legal nature of our relationship with wildlife was the subject of my recent paper ‘Ecological Vulnerability and the Devolution of Individual Autonomy’.

Nature, people and the law

Overall, the law in western liberal societies is concerned with protecting individual freedoms and promoting individual autonomy–freedom from interference by government and other individuals.[1]However, individuals don’t always make the best environmental decisions, and as an unfocussed, undisciplined collective, rarely do so. Instead, decisions are often made based on personal gain, and many of our environmental policies are linked with money and economic development, with an underlying goal of making people more autonomous, more able to look after themselves, often at the expense of the people around them and the environment.

But, autonomy from the environment and the consequences of environmental destruction is a myth. We are entirely dependent on the environment for our survival, and the aspects of the environment are in some ways dependent on us for well-being. We all have a level of environmental vulnerability so whilst autonomy is a myth; vulnerability is a universal human condition, present in all of us. As such, vulnerability theorists argue that the law should stop promoting individual autonomy and instead respond to this universal vulnerability.

Human-wildlife conflict and the law

My research looks at methods of reframing wildlife law to focus on vulnerability. A particular form of environmental governance focuses on a problem called ‘human-wildlife conflict’. If you have not heard of it, you have most likely experienced it. If you have ever had unwanted rodents or spiders in your house, hit a bird with a car, or had animals destroy your garden, property or crops, you have been involved in human-wildlife conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict we experience, and the negative attitude it creates towards wildlife, is one of the largest causes of biodiversity loss worldwide. Human-wildlife conflict must be resolved if we are to stem the loss of species we are currently experiencing.

The law in its present form is designed to respond to human-wildlife conflict by removing the ‘problematic’ wildlife. In our country we have seen recent culls of sharks, dingoes, kangaroos and other native and threatened species. The law allows for cull decisions to be made with little or no regard to the local circumstances of the conflict and the broader social and ecological relationships that would likely be affected.

Community governance an alternative solution

Community-based governance is one way of addressing the conflict and responding to the vulnerabilities related to biodiversity loss. The main premise of community-based governance is that power in decision-making is given to local communities, who come together, work through their differences in opinion on appropriate wildlife management, and plan to solve and manage the issue collectively. In focusing on building relationships and solving a collective problem, researchers are finding that stakeholders are less likely to maintain their notions of individual right and autonomy, so far as it makes the conflict worse. The process also increases an individual’s decision-making ability because the full scope of social and ecological relationships in a particular setting cannot be known alone.

If we are to care for people and country we must find alternative governance solutions to conflict with nature, and involving the community in the governance process is proving to be an effective place to start.

About the author

Katie is a PhD candidate at Griffith Law School and the winner of the 2018 Australasian Society of Legal Philosophy Essay Competition, she recently presented her winning essay at the Society’s annual conference.

For more information see Katie Woolaston, ‘Ecological Vulnerability and the Devolution of Individual Autonomy’, forthcoming in the Australasian Journal of Legal Philosophy.

For detailed examples of community governance in action, see Francine Madden & Brian McQuinn, ‘Conservation’s Blind Spot: The Case for Conflict Transformation in Wildlife Conservation’ (2014) 178 Biological Conservation, 97-106.

[1]This definition, and the theory of vulnerability as it applies in the legal context more generally was developed by Martha Fineman in The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency(New Press, 2004)and developed in subsequent publications.