Watch your language: More-than-Human, Other-than-Human or Non-Human?

More-than-human, other-than-human, non-human: do the expressions sound familiar? What do these words mean, how did they emerge, where from, what baggage do they carry? «I think [these are] important question[s] to ask ourselves in deciding which idioms we deploy in our analyses» (Sophie Chao, Exchanges 2023)

Watch Your Language: More-than-Human, Other-than-Human or Non-Human?

The questions mentioned above and Chao’s quote extends a conversation between Giuseppe Di Salvatore, Lidia Gasperoni and me which took place in Berlin in October 2023. We discussed the Anthropocene. This is a shocking and forceful geological concept, a name given to our geological epoch where humans have the capacity to disrupt (but not control) the Earth’s biological and ecological processes.

Anthropocene: Pollution and Extractivism

Atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (1933-2021) proclaimed a new version of the Anthropocene in 2000. He argued in Nature (2002, 23) that coping with the Anthropocene may well involve large scale geoengineering projects to optimise climate. The Nobel Prize-winner called for research into the possibility of reflecting sunlight away from Earth by injecting sulphur particles into the stratosphere. Crutzen’s intervention caused a surge in research on proposals for geoengineering. To some scientists and politicians, an intentional intervention into the climate system to reduce climate heating seems to affirm “our” assumed mastery of nature. Pioneers of Earth System science would guide Planet Earth to safety. This begs the question of governance and oversight, as US scholar Rob Nixon asks, «who would be geoengineering and for whom?»

“Anthropocene” is from the ancient Greek words “anthropos” meaning “man, human being” and “kainos” meaning “recent, new”. The Anthropocene is then the new epoch of humans, the age of man. Yet who is this undifferentiated anthropos? Philippe Descola, a French anthropologist, ponders «which groups of humans and non-humans, which organisms, and which kinds of practices and living patterns affect the interaction between the geosphere, the biosphere, and the atmosphere, and how?».

Historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz apportion blame for our current predicament to, «above all, the 500 million most well-off inhabitants of the globe – [who] are not only consuming the fruits of the tree on which we sit but also sawing through its branches». Their analysis of the main intellectual constructions of the Anthropocene that disabled marginalised and denied warnings and planetary limits affirms a more complex conception of humans and environmental agencies than the “fable” of Crutzen’s Anthropocene. For Bonneuil and Fressoz, the Anthropocene event is a continuity (not the arrival of a new event) of the history of the marginalization of [such] alerts and knowledge.

Descola also emphasises that «neither global warming nor the sixth mass extinction is being driven by humanity as a whole. Indigenous Amazonians, Australian aborigines, or the native populations of the circumboreal zone on the ecosystems they helped shape, are not to blame for the fact that concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have risen by one third, for the acidification of the oceans, or for our rapidly melting glaciers.» Similarly, the British poet and “new” Nature Writer Robert Macfarlane has «good reasons to be critical of the word Anthropocene as it encodes political presumptions, specific histories of power and violence. It can also mask the responsibility that exists between [current] humans and humans to come and between us and other species.»

Post-humanist Debate on the Rights

Against this backdrop, emerging post-humanist currents such as the environmental humanities, multispecies studies, and new materialisms attempt to address global and local concerns about polluting industrialised practices. Descola links the Anthropocene to climate justice and the imperative necessity to move beyond the distinction between “things/objects/nature” and “humans/persons/culture”. This construct, inherited from Western civil law, undergirds the development of an ontology pertaining to capitalism, neo-liberalism, extractivism and such like. This is what Descola calls naturalism. In the Anthropocene, is it the reform of the system of relations between “humans/persons/culture” and “things/objects/nature” which can usefully frame the foundation of new values?

The constitution of Ecuador, for example, recognises the rights of Pachamama (Mother Earth) to exist and to maintain and regenerate its cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes since 2008. The country was the first in the world to enshrine the rights of nature in a constitutional document. This extension of the legal right of humans to an “object” contrasts sharply with the Western classical tradition where man and culture dominate a subservient thing/nature.

Another example is the French parliament, which in 2014 amended the civil code so that animals were defined as “sentient living beings” rather than “moveable property”.

In 2016, represented inanimate right-holders received compensation for damage to their life on the basis of civil liability. A French court straight-facedly ignored its Cartesian culture and granted legal rights to 400 km of coastline and its ecosystem, including its birds and the ocean beds in Brittany. This followed the 1999 sinking of Erika, a tanker belonging to the French oil company Total, which spilled 20,000 tonnes of fuel and created one of France's worst environmental disasters.

In 2017, the New Zealand parliament granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River, and a few days later, in India, the High Court of the Himalayan state decreed the Ganges and Yamuna rivers to be living entities with legal status.

Do these examples sway the naturalism Descola speaks about, that is, the ontology which sees human as separate and also superior to nature because of their differences? A practice which only exists among Westerners who have imposed it upon the world. Is this the Anthropocene event: a shift towards a hierarchical indistinctness with/of all species, a symbiotic way of being that is not war against nature? Species, nature and their rights, in the paragraph above, are already recognised by the judiciary. What terms can be used to speak without blushing about nature, the “thing” which was left out of Rousseau's Social Contract?

The vocabulary issue

The words “more-than-human”, “other-than-human”, “non-human”, what do they mean? Which ontology of life are they pregnant with? How useful are they to express various degrees of interdependence between humans and nature?

Sophie Chao works at the very heart of ecological devastation. She said that over the course of long term immersive participant-observation and ethnographic fieldwork on the West Papuan plantation frontier, she was privileged to be able to think with and learn from the Indigenous Marind Peoples. Their own grammars for describing or storying a plant, an animal, a species, or an ecosystem are incredibly rich. Marind talk about shared skin or wetness and a shared vitality or animacy or energy that binds different lifeforms across their different skins and bodies. «I stick to emic terms, or terms that are used by people themselves in the field and in everyday life. I try to bring those terms into conversation with conceptual or theoretical idioms that are used in the scholarly space. Bringing these diversely situated terminologies and grammars into the mix can help push against the colonial and extractive approach to knowledge production that continues to dominate in much of the academic world. That is, that theory is produced by and for the Global North, based on realities that somehow just “happen” in the Global South.» (Makere Stewart-Harawira, 2013). «It’s also an approach that speaks to my own sense of accountability and responsibility towards the people whose worlds I’m trying to understand and whom I’ve had the gift to learn from. I think it’s an important question to ask ourselves in deciding which idioms we deploy in our analyses.» (Chao, Exchanges 2023)

The Social Contract of Rousseau is shifting, towards the Natural Contract proposed by thinker Michel Serres. This is an agreement that grants equal dignity to nature and defines the duties of humans. Which idioms, what language, best reflect and support that shift?


“Non-human” is still widely used in the social sciences and humanities. It is a blanket term for all organic life forms situated outside the human category. There is though a problematic dichotomy at the heart of non-human. To describe someone as non-human is like describing a woman as non-man, or black as non-white, or nature as non-culture. This replicates the dichotomies of nature/culture, body/mind that post-humanist scholars reject. Binaries tend to flatten the multiplicity, or the diversity within any particular construct. The human, for instance, is a diverse composite of cultures, societies, bodies, relations, norms and practices. And the non-human encompasses a whole array of different plants, animals and other kinds of organisms. Each of these beings are equipped with their own specific affordances, attributes and agencies. It is often these specific differences that matter most – and a blanket term like “non-human” struggles to capture such complexities.


This is widely used in social sciences and humanities. It originated from an American science fiction novel titled More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953). More-than-human engages with the idea of “more than”, away from the paradigm of human exceptionalism. It acknowledges the existence of a diversity of beings that together participate in the making of our multiple and ongoing transforming worlds (Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, 2014). In other words, there are always more than (just) human actors and agencies involved in the production of “landscapes” and communities.

The term encompasses animate, agentive biological beings and looks beyond biology's boundary to include soils, water, fire, mountains, glaciers, technologies and data. Also, it includes transcendent entities who matter in Indigenous and other non-Western cosmologies: spirits, ancestors, ghosts, ghouls and the deceased who are co-shapers of situated worlds. When approached from this angle, the range of actors who participate in making worldly stories and storied worlds multiplies.

As critical race scholars have pointed out, however, to invoke the hierarchising idiom of more-than-human when talking about plants and animals can obscure the fact that many human communities, historically and in the present, continue to be treated as sub-human, less-than-human, or even non-human under entrenched racism (Alexander G. Weheliye, 2014). “Other-than-human” is a way to avoid replicating hierarchies of worth with roots in imperial-colonial logics.


Donna Haraway in When Species Meet (2008) coined the word “multispecies”. A feminist theorist and science and technology studies scholar, Haraway’s concept draws attention to “species”, a generative unit of analysis which includes humans too. Unlike the terms “non-human” or “more-than-human”, multispecies does not refer to humans, which could be understood as resisting the dominant Western notions of anthropocentrism. Multispecies foregrounds the multiplicity of organisms that humans become-with. Species all have biological, cultural, historical and political lives (Thom Van Dooren et al., 2016). That’s animals, plants, microbes, viruses, and fungi – the diverse array of critters that humans unevenly share the planet with. However, the construct of “species” draws from Linnean taxonomies and systems of classification which are tethered to colonial and imperial practices of ordering and exploiting the world.

Chao explains, «I moved away from “multispecies” because I work with Indigenous Peoples in Papua who do not speak of, or story, lifeforms through the notion of species as categories, but rather through lifeforms’ distinctive relations to other kinds of lifeforms, as well as with elements and ecosystems. These Indigenous epistemologies offer far more capacious and relational ways of thinking about life than a species-specific, taxonomic framing.» (The Promise of Multispecies Justice, 2022)



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JUST DUST, a collective of artists, designers, facilitators, game designers etc., was co-founded by Marie-Pierre Leroux and Perry Walker.

JUST DUST ’s most recent projects include multispecies critical questioning of the commodification of air through role play in Voicing the Air

Credits Photos: 2 Stills from «Trees Emerge», a video by Marie-Pierre Leroux
©Marie-Pierre Leroux