Environmental Domination

Published date01 August 2020
Date01 August 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17Au9ogqDox2cy/input 890833PTXXXX10.1177/0090591719890833Political TheoryKrause
Political Theory
2020, Vol. 48(4) 443 –468
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591719890833
Sharon R. Krause1
In their vulnerability to arbitrary, exploitative uses of human power, many
of Earth’s nonhuman parts are subject to environmental domination. People
too are subject to environmental domination in ways that include but also
extend beyond the special environmental burdens borne by those who
are poor and marginalized. Despite the substantial inequalities that exist
among us as human beings, we are all captured and exploited by the eco-
damaging collective practices that constitute modern life for everyone
today. Understanding the complex, interacting dynamics of environmental
domination can orient us to a more liberatory approach to our environmental
problems and to one another, both human and nonhuman. To make good
on this potential, however, we need to move beyond existing conceptions of
domination. This essay reconstructs the concept of domination to illuminate
the multiple ways that the human domination of nature interacts with the
domination of people, and it identifies changes that could support more
emancipatory forms of political order, a politics of non-domination for
people and the Earth.
domination, environment, ecology, nature, emancipation
Meaningful change on environmental matters has been difficult to achieve in
most contemporary democracies despite the intensifying pressures of our
environmental problems. A central source of the difficulty is the dynamics of
1Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sharon R. Krause, Brown University, 111 Thayer St, Providence, RI 02912, USA.
Email: Sharon_Krause@Brown.EDU

Political Theory 48(4)
domination that drive many environmental problems but that frequently fail
to register with democratic publics. This essay draws from a range of litera-
tures in political theory and environmental studies—including neo-
republicanism, critical theory, political ecology, eco-feminism, and environ-
mental political theory—to formulate a holistic account of environmental
domination that clarifies the diverse ways that domination structures human
relationships with nonhuman beings and things, generating environmental
problems and undercutting our ability to deal with them effectively. On this
account, environmental domination is a multifaceted phenomenon that
includes the political, economic, and cultural forces through which human
beings (a) dominate “nature” understood as Earth’s more-than-human parts;1
and (b) are themselves dominated in terms of both (i) the special burdens
placed on poor and marginalized people with respect to environmental harms,
and (ii) the ways that virtually all of us—even privileged people in the world’s
most affluent societies—are confined and exploited by forces that degrade
the Earth, often in our names and with our participation.
Understanding environmental degradation through this multifaceted lens
forces us to take a nuanced view of the human in relation to nonhuman beings
and things. On the one hand, environmental domination reproduces and com-
pounds the harms of historical and continuing global power inequities from
colonialism to slavery to patriarchy, as work in environmental justice, eco-
feminism, and critical political ecology has demonstrated.2 On the other
hand, environmental domination also cuts across these inequities, both
because it confines and exploits virtually all of us in significant respects and
because of how it formally constitutes the political status of a generic “non-
human” as subordinate to a generic “human” in law and public policy. The
framework developed here asks us to simultaneously hold in view these
diverse and in some ways conflicting aspects of the human relationship to the
Earth, insisting that a holistic approach illuminates dynamics of environmen-
tal domination that are otherwise occluded.
This approach also makes the domination of nonhuman beings and things
central to the analysis. Because the domination of people in the environmen-
tal context often imposes terrible harms on them—displacement, violence,
impoverishment, illness—work that focuses on the interhuman dimensions
of environmental domination has tended to emphasize human experiences
and to sideline the domination of nonhuman beings and things, or even to
reduce it to relations of domination among people.3 This essay links its dis-
cussion of the environmental domination of human beings to an account of
what it means for (different groups of) human beings to dominate nature, and
it treats the domination of nature as irreducible, meaning not subsumable
under the dynamics (and harms) of interhuman domination.

In analyzing the domination of nature, I extend contemporary republican
theory to show that domination in this form involves a status condition that is
fundamentally political, rooted in a particular way of situating nonhuman
beings and things relative to human power within the field of political institu-
tions, law, and public policy. Domination means being in a position of sys-
tematic vulnerability to unchecked power and exploitation. To be sure, the
domination of nature is also tied to cultures of instrumentalization and politi-
cal economies of extractivism. Yet the political status-condition aspect is cru-
cial, both for understanding how the domination of nature differs from the
simple use of it, which is unavoidable, and for identifying more emancipatory
alternatives. It also helps us see the distinction between domination and per-
fect control, thus making it possible to understand how human beings can be
said to dominate nature even as phenomena such as climate change and
superbugs demonstrate the limits of human control.
Part one of the essay begins with a preliminary definition of domination,
to be deepened and developed in the course of the argument. It then draws on
work in environmental justice and critical theory to elaborate key aspects of
domination among people that arise in the environmental context, arguing for
an intersectional approach that acknowledges the sometimes cross-cutting
ways that environmental domination affects people, and briefly sketching a
plural, differentiated account of responsibility that responds to this complex-
ity. Part two takes up the domination of nature, engaging the critical environ-
mental philosophy of William Leiss along with Philip Pettit’s neo-republican
political theory. The two views offer important resources but also define
domination in ways that limit it to human beings; my account moves beyond
them in theorizing the domination of nature directly and specifying how it
figures in environmental domination more broadly. The essay’s final section
reflects briefly on what a politics of liberation might look like. Drawing on
recent work in environmental political theory, it identifies some institutional
mechanisms in politics that could formally check the exploitative power that
people have over nature and incorporate nonhuman beings and things, along
with all persons, as valued members of our political communities. Situating
these mechanisms within the broader framework of the holistic account of
environmental domination offered here enables us to see them as tools of
emancipation. I mean to press the point that we cannot make fundamental
progress on environmental problems without also making progress toward
liberation. By the same token, when we do take up environmental action we
are not simply doing justice to nature, or helping people who are disadvan-
taged, or creating a better future for our children. Environmental action does
serve all these purposes, but it is also about living freer—all of us, human and
nonhuman—here and now.

Political Theory 48(4)
Environmental Domination in Interhuman
Although domination varies in ways that we shall explore, its core features
include: (1) being subject to insufficiently checked or unlimited power and
(2) being subject to exploitation, meaning treated as a mere instrument for the
profit or power of another without regard to one’s own well-being. In the
republican tradition, the quintessential examples of domination are slavery
and despotism, because they manifest in a striking way this combination of
unchecked power and exploitation.4 Yet slavery and despotism do not exhaust
the possible forms that domination can take. Both presuppose a clearly iden-
tifiable human individual in the position of superior who exercises a form of
personal control over clearly identifiable subordinates. In this regard, the
classic examples fail to capture the phenomenon of structural or systemic
domination made visible by a range of literatures from critical theory to femi-
nist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory.5 These literatures demon-
strate that domination can also be effected through impersonal forces such as
racial majorities; cultures of patriarchy and heteronormativity; corporate
entities and other large-scale, nonstate actors; and markets. The power of
such forces, if insufficiently checked, may confine and exploit people with-
out exercising personal control over them in the manner of a master over his
slave or a despot over his...

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