Absent Environments: Theorising Environmental Law and the City

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Routledge-Cavendish, 2007 - 259 pages

Offering a novel, transdisciplinary approach to environmental law, its principles, mechanics and context, as tested in its application to the urban environment, this book traces the conceptual and material absence of communication between the human and the natural and controversially includes such an absence within a system of law and a system of geography which effectively remain closed to environmental considerations.

The book looks at Niklas Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis. Introducing the key concepts and operations, contextualizing them and opening them up to critical analysis. Indeed, in contrast to most discussions on autopoiesis, it proposes a radically different reading of the theory, in line with critical legal, political, sociological, urban and ecological theories, while drawing from writings by Husserl and Derrida, as well as Latour, Blanchot, Haraway, Agamben and Nancy.

It explores a range of topics in the areas of environmental law and urban geography, including:

  • environmental risk, environmental rights, the precautionary principle, intergenerational equity and urban waste
  • discourses on community, nature, science and identity.

The author redefines the traditional foundations of environmental law and urban geography and suggests a radical way of dealing with scientific ignorance, cultural differences and environmental degradation within the perceived need for legal delivery of certainty.

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Review by Jane Holder, UCL
Absent Environments: Theorising Environmental Law and the City by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (Routledge Cavendish, 2007)
Once every so often a really provocative book on environmental law comes along which helps to redefine and shape the discipline. For me, Teubner et al’s Environmental Law and Ecological Responsibility: the Concept and Practice of Ecological Self-Organisation (John Wiley, 1994) was one such book, introducing autopoiesis theory to environmental law and vice versa, and informing how I researched, taught and thought about the subject. I place Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ Absent Environments: Theorising Environmental Law and the City in the same category, not just because it represents another successful work of sustained theoretical analysis, but because it also gives a voice to one of the main concerns about environmental law that I have stumbled over in the course of my writing and teaching, but have failed to pursue so thoroughly, or so honestly: what do we mean by the ‘environment’ in environmental law, particularly since we tend, debilitatingly so, to consider everything as more or less environmental? As Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos describes the dilemma: ‘...we do not know what the natural environment is, whether the urban environment can be considered natural, whether human activity is unnatural, whether the law is anthropocentric or ecocentric, where city stops and nature starts, where law stops and ethics begin, when reality meets utopia’. He continues, and this goes to the core of the book’s argument: ‘This space of encounter between various strands of ignorance is what I conceptualise as absence. Absence is ignorance, and must remain so, if anything is to be done about it’. The main task Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos sets himself is to apply (and elaborate) Niklas Luhmannn’s theory of autopoiesis to environmental law and the city, as well as carrying out an autopoietic interpretation of the theory itself. In a (simplistic) nutshell, autopoiesis theory is a theory of self-referential systems (or objects of analysis), subsystems and their environments (in this context ‘environment’ means that ‘outside’ the system, consisting of all other systems, rather than that which environmental lawyers consider to be ‘the environment’). A system is defined by the difference between itself and its environment. Of course, confusingly, ‘the environment for environmental law is the natural environment, an object of protection, through which environmental law is defined antithetically’. Social systems, such as law, and subsystems, such as environmental law, are made up of communication, but for communication to be meaningful it must re-establish the distinction between the system and its environment. The system ‘selects’ what accords with its ‘code’ (in the case of law the binarism ‘lawful/unlawful’) and carries on evolving cognitively in accordance with this code, reinforcing its normative closure, and contributing, in the end, to the closure of the social system: ‘the system continues to create norms based on previous norms, further creating norms on how to create norms’. Taking the first subject area of the book, environmental law has to date not been theorised to any great degree, with work tending instead to explore its boundaries, and its permeability in terms of other disciplines, by contextual and socio-legal approaches. It has, for example, (and perhaps thankfully) been left relatively untouched by postmodernism. But autopoiesis theory is in many ways a natural choice for a theorised account of the development of environmental law because of its roots in theoretical biology as a means of describing the working of ecosystems. The theory has since been applied to the self-organisation of sub-systems, such as politics and economics and law. For Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, autopoiesis theory also manages to capture the uncertainty and contingency of law and the environment more effectively than 

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About the author (2007)

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, LLB, LLM, PhD is a Reader in Law, University of Westminster.

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