What is more-than-human care? And what can it do?

By Adriana Ressiore Campodonio

More-than-human: does this expression sound familiar? Did you ever wonder what it meant? Or was it already obvious to you? I would imagine that people who reached this blog would have heard “more-than-human” before… It is frequently used in fields of study such as STS, political ecology, ecofeminism, anthropology, feminist political ecology, environmental humanities, and so on. There are no clear “set in stone” definitions and it is possible to see some confusion and different forms of talking about more-than-human. A common form is when it is used as a synonym for other-than-human, non-human, earth-beings, referring to basically something/someone that is not human: it can include technologies and/or be something that belongs in the realm of what is often called nature or environment. An example of this usage is when Sarah Wright defends that belonging is actively co-constituted by humans and more-than-humans[1].

Photo by Camilo Contreras on Unsplash

Nevertheless, I am inspired by a slightly more complex meaning and understanding of the expression. For some authors, including myself, to talk about more-than-human is a form of breaking up with the human-centric perspective and the binaries of culture-nature. David Abram[2] says that it allows many senses, or feelings, to come together, therefore, humans are able to connect with our insides and outsides. In addition, it is understood that the expression feeds into different methods[3, 4] and is interdisciplinary[5]. Which then, makes visible that there are no such categories as only human or only non-human; enabling connections and contributing to understanding such connections. Therefore, this perspective sees more-than-human as a huge web of interconnectedness where humans are just another small part of the world.

After dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the matters of more-than-human, we (you, the reader, and myself) move forward. We finally reach the main question: what is more-than-human care?

Inspired by several authors such as María Puig de la Bellacasa[6, 7], Joan Tronto[8], Angela Moriggi and colleagues[9, 10], Annemarie Mol[11, 12],  Marian Barnes[13], Elisabeth Conradi[14], I have been working on a notion of more-than-human care that aims to be profound, provide rich understandings and practices. This rises from both feminist care literature and care ethics, as well as ideas of caring for/with/from nature or/and the Earth.

More-than-human care is about and is rooted in principles of interspecies reciprocity.  Where reciprocity is not reduced to empathy, but it is to communicate (also non-verbally), to understand agency of non-humans, to visit, to listen, and to feel. It is not about looking through the eyes of someone/something else, but to see with your own eyes from a position that is not your own[15, 16]. When doing so, such understanding allows us to pay attention, and engage with stories, lives, and relations that are not ours but somehow we can see, partially, the plurality of perspectives and the multiple ways of being and caring in this world.

Photo by Patrick Schätz on Unsplash

When thinking of care many think of what is considered human-only relationships: health-care, unpaid labour, daily care, motherhood and how these burdens – economic, political and social – is a gendered activity. A major part of the discussion is surrounded by questions of gendered division of labour and the public-private sphere [17, 18]. To expand this notion and think in terms of more-than-human care is not to forget or to leave behind such important discussions, but is to join hands with feminist claims, practices and studies. These have shown us through research and experiences what care is, and what it is not [13, 8]. It also allowed us to expand our understanding that human-only care practices do not exist as other living and non-living beings are always, somehow, part of the process.

More-than-human care contributes to grasping our complex web of relations with the other beings in this world, which then allow us to sustain life as well. As Tronto defines “care is species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our world”[8]. Following Tronto, I ask whether care should be considered a species activity or an interspecies activity. Puig de la Bellacasa sheds light on the matter: “care is human trouble, but this does not make of care a human-only matter”[7]. She says that care is not a universal connection, also, it is not all that there is in a relation, but it is something that traverses and intersects with entities and agencies, intensifying awareness of how beings depend on each other [7]. Puig de la Bellacasa adds that, from the standpoint of soils, care requires thinking from the web of relations maintenance rather from the benefits to humans [6]. That opens the floor to think of our existence in the world as an entanglement of being, doing, relating, knowing, interchanging, influencing with all other beings.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

This brings you and me to the following question: what can more-than-human care do? First of all, more-than-human care is very powerful, it is also something that already exists in the world, and it is a continuous iterative cycle that keeps sustaining lives. Yet, living through the Anthropocene, its mass-extinctions, climate change, and socio-environmental challenges start to look like a “careless-cene” or the epoch of carelessness in many relations and practices.

Bearing that in mind, I here propose a few transformations that thinking, living, doing, studying, planting, consuming, – the reader may add what they find relevant here – , etc, with more-than-human care can bring:

  1. Allow non-human agencies, voices, presence to become more and more part of any sort of decision-making procedures;
  2. Allow humans to understand and be more aware of the interconnectedness and interdependencies of their lives with non-human lives;
  3. Provide a more complex and richer lenses to look into socio-environmental issues or conflicts
  4. Highlight the question of how protection, conservation, preservation of nature have been developed, implemented and thought through (argument being developed in upcoming publication by the author);
  5. Remind us that more-than-human care is primarily and intrinsically rooted in practice and we cannot transform (or face the Anthropocene) only with theory and thoughts.

With the power of reflecting, writing, doing, thinking and living with more-than-human care, how would we face the Anthropocene? How would our consumption (of food or anything else) look like? How would business models look like? What about our methods, our fieldwork, our research epistemologies: how would they continue? How would our policies for biodiversity change? Could we re-imagine protection or conservation of nature? Would a care-full action put fences away and facilitate humans and non-humans growing together?

Can you even imagine a world where more-than-human care is the starting point to any relation, any decision, any research and any practice? What would that look like to you?

References

[1] Wright, S. (2015) “More-than-human, emergent belongings: A weak theory approach.” Progress in Human Geography 39, no. 4 – 391-411.

[2] Abram, D. (2012). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. Vintage.

[3] Bastian, M., O. Jones, N. Moore, E. Roe (2017) ‘Introduction: More-than-human participatory research Contexts, challenges, possibilities’. In Bastian, M., O. Jones, N. Moore, E. Roe eds. Participatory Research in More-than-human Worlds. London: Routledge, 1-15

[4] Noorani, T., & Brigstocke, J. (2018). More-than-human participatory research. University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme.

[5] Gan, E., 2019. Natureculture: Theorizing the More-Than-Human. [online] As.nyu.edu. Available at: <https://as.nyu.edu/departments/xe/curriculum/past-semester-courses/courses-spring-2019/Nomenclature.html- 391-411.> [Accessed 17 June 2021].

[6] Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2015). “Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care.” Soc Stud Sci 45(5): 691-716.

[7] Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds (Vol. 41). U of Minnesota Press.

[8] Tronto, J. (2013). Redefining democracy as settling disputes about care responsibilities. In her Caring democracy: Markets, equality and justice (pp. 17-45).New York; London: New York University Press

[9] Moriggi, A., Soini, K., Bock, B. B., & Roep, D. (2020.a). Caring in, for, and with nature: An integrative framework to understand Green Care practices. Sustainability, 12(8), 3361.

[10] Moriggi, A., Soini, K., Franklin, A., & Roep, D. (2020.b). A care-based approach to transformative change: ethically-informed practices, relational response-ability & emotional awareness. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 1-18.

[11] Mol, A. (2008). The logic of care: Health and the problem of patient choice. Routledge.

[12] Mol, A. (2010). Care and its values. Good food in the nursing home. Care in practice: On tinkering in clinics, homes and farms, 215-34

[13] Barnes, M. (2012). Care in everyday life: An ethic of care in practice. Policy Press.

[14] Conradi, E. (2015). Redoing care: Societal transformation through critical practice. Ethics and Social Welfare, 9(2), 113-129.

[15] Ormond, M., & Vietti, F. (2021). Beyond multicultural ‘tolerance’: guided tours and guidebooks as transformative tools for civic learning. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 1-17.

[16] Arendt, H. (1992). Lectures on Kant’s political philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

[17] Gilligan, C. (2011). Ethics of care. Entrevista concedida a Webteam em, 21.

[18] MacGregor, Sherilyn. “From care to citizenship: Calling ecofeminism back to politics.” Ethics & the Environment 9.1 (2004):56-84. Beyond mothering earth: ecological citizenship and the politics of care. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.

Bio

Adriana Ressiore Campodonio works on the theory-practice of More-than-human Care in three different contexts and scales in Brazil. More-than-human care is ethical, relational, political and transformative; possibly, having the potential to open up for non-humans beings to be more present in the decision-making processes.

Adriana is part of the Global Epistemologies and Ontologies (GEOS) research project at Wageningen University, bringing together heterogeneous knowledges systems to tackle social-environmental challenges.

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