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Professor Afshin Akhtar-Khavari
QUT

Several high-profile 2019 Australian legal cases and policy decisions have favoured approvals for development activities, despite the evidence that certain species could become extinct or will actually go extinct. Looking at environmental law using extinction as a problem helps to generate insights into the compassion deficit that’s seems to be inherent in Australia’s collective and institutional environmental decision-making structures. Empathising and identifying with the suffering inherent in species going extinct doesn’t seem to feature in the decision’s that are being made. Our conceptions of the importance of other living and complex systems are driven by how we need them rather than their significance in terms of being important actors in ecological thought. This paper discusses the idea of compassion and empathy as a measure not for doing the right thing, but for helping articulate the foundations of the malaise that exists within environmental law, that its ok to kill and severely harm the potential of entire species to survive and exist. Lawyers and governance institutions worry about extinction using endangered species lists, and approval processes that are often needed to clear land and degrade ecosystems. This paper argues that the power inherent in the discourse of compassion helpfully provides environmental law with a critical view of its influence on the human condition. Rather than seeing nature as subjects with agency, the compassion angle creates an imaginative space where learning and understanding of the deep relationships that exists in the world are enlivened in the public sphere. Instead of thinking of the obligations we owe to others, the idea of compassion draws on suffering to empower a critique of what it means to belong and to survive together. It seeks to enliven an alternative narrative for the development of environmental law.

Afshin Akhtar-Khavari is a Professor of International Law and Governance, and also Director of Research at the Law School of QUT. He is interested in the intersections between nature, complexity and subjectivity. He is currently working on projects relating to the wetlands, and also the implications of the idea that plants and trees have a social life. He has published widely in journals and books, and his most recent work included an edited collection with Benjamin Richardson on Ecological Restoration and the Law. Afshin leads the ecological justice group at QUT Law School and is co-chair of the Research Committee of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law.

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