Lecture looks at environmental crisis through a political lens

Political theorist James Tully speaks at 7 p.m. Wednesday in UVic’s Bob Wright Centre.

The average person might only have one passport, but they still navigate multiple citizenships. People are simultaneously part of countries, cultures, provinces and municipalities, but while these social groupings might aim for equality among people, other living things typically take a back seat.

In a free public lecture Wednesday night, political theorist James Tully explores what he calls Gaia citizenship, a vision that “rethink[s] the relation of homosapiens to the living earth, not as standing above it and separate from it but within very complex systems: social systems, ecological systems, earth systems.”

Part of the Masterminds lecture series sponsored by the UVic Retirees Association and the Centre for Aging, Tully, an emeritus distinguished professor of political science at UVic, believes that blending Indigenous and Western ways of conceiving humanity’s place in the world could better address issues like climate change, deforestation, and other environmental problems that affect all people regardless of identity.

“It’s not always been successful,” says Tully. “There’s been lots of tension and so on, but with my background I felt one thing I can do was talk about the way we might conceptualize it so that we see we have more in common than we thought we did.”

A well-known Canadian scholar who retired in 2014, Tully taught at McGill for nearly two decades before coming to UVic in 1996 where he taught courses in political science, philosophy, law and indigenous governance. As a political theorist he covers many research areas, but his publications typically include ideas on the building blocks of nations, constitutions in Canada and abroad, and the similarities and differences between Indigenous and Western laws and traditions.

The idea of Gaia citizenship is influenced by philosophy and science, and it is perhaps fitting that its overarching theme of co-operation was conceived through co-operation. It began to take shape in the 1990s when Tully met Mohawk scholar Taiaike Alfred, both of whom were involved with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which aimed to find paths to reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous peoples after the Oka crisis and two failed constitutional accords. Tully was later inspired by conversations with John Borrows, an Anishnaabe lawyer and UVic law school professor specializing in Anishnaabe legal traditions and the ways Indigenous and Western legal traditions can influence each other.

Its scientific framework comes from Western ecological theories popularized by James Lovelock (who first used the term Gaia in this way) and others, but it was also inspired by Indigenous knowledge holders and Western scientists who worked together to improve forest codes and methods of environmental conservation. Tully acknowledges that they do not always see eye to eye, but hopes that this theory can integrate these ways of thinking.

“It’s a shared problem we have and maybe this is a way of joining hands, of reconciling not just our relationship to the living earth but also to each other and working together in a good way.”


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