During the brilliant August EPT Agenda 2023 participating institutions meeting organised by Filip and bringing five invited speakers together to talk about the integration of planetary health, environmental and sustainability perspectives into occupational therapy, physiotherapy, architecture, urban planning and philosophy education, I was struck by how much of our climate justice work focuses on rehabilitating people’s hearts and minds, particularly those in regions of the world that bear the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis.

It made me wonder whether this was the wrong track and whether we should focus instead on finding ways to reduce our focus on human-led change. But how would we do this? How could we even conceive of climate action that didn’t begin and end with human action? What would non-anthropocentric research, thought and practice even look like?

The logic of human-centred climate action seems so obvious it would seem literally un-reasonable to suggest it might actually be a deeply flawed idea. After all, it is humans that have caused many of the problem, so we should be the ones to fix it. Right?

But this argument only seems to hold these days when we talk about climate change. Few would suggest that if we want to eliminate racism and reverse the effects colonisation we should focus on getting more white people involved. Or that it should be men that resolve the gender discrimination. So why does so much of our climate change work rely on making the perpetrators of mass species extinction the agents of the climate restoration?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we can understand how to give voice and cede power to another human being – however oppressed and marginalised – but cannot imagine how we do the same thing for a coral reef, zinc ion, chimpanzee, or spent car battery. One retains a sense of human superiority, while the other gives up human power entirely.

David Nicholls (PhD)

David Nicholls (PhD)

Prof Critical Physiotherapy

David is the inaugural professor of critical physiotherapy at AUT University, New Zealand. He is a physiotherapist, lecturer, researcher, and writer with a passion for critical thinking in and around the physical therapies. David is the founder of the Critical Physiotherapy Network, an organization that promotes the use of cultural studies, education, history, philosophy, sociology, and a range of other disciplines in the study of the profession’s past, present, and future. 

But isn’t this a fundamental point, and a possible explanation for so many false dawns and failed promises in the fight for fealty with our floral and faunal family? Isn’t the problem that we keep coming back to the idea that climate justice begins and ends with human agency, when in fact this should be the very last consideration?

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in ideas that we need to rethink the classical, Western, Enlightenment view that humans sit above animals, plants and ‘things’, replacing it with a ‘flat ontology’ that sees all entities as ontologically equal.

There’s been an outpouring of interest in Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), New Materialism, Affect Theory, and a range of other philosophies, each of which grapples with how we might define and understand ‘things’ if we got rid of the idea that sentience and consciousness make humans superior to all other things.

Writers like Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, Nick Fox, Graham Harman, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Annemarie Mol, and Timothy Morton have been ploughing this furrow for some years now, leading to some fantastic new ways of thinking that could radically change our approach to planetary health, but also the work of professionals like physiotherapists. (See some examples in the recommended readings below).

While it is understandable that we focus our attention on human-centred action on climate change, we might remember that physiotherapy has always embraced the non-human (oxygen, ultraviolet light, water, stairs, heat and cold, ACL tendons, horses, walking frames…)**, and the division between what is ‘inside’ the body and ‘outside’ has always been highly fluid for us. So perhaps we might consider how our practice might be a little less ‘human’, and what that might mean for our understanding of those significant others that make up 99.99% of the cosmos surrounding us?


Recommended readings


Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The posthuman. Polity.

Fox, N. J., & Alldred, P. (2016). Sociology, environment and health: a materialist approach. Public Health, 141, 287-293. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2016.09.015

Haraway, D. J. (2008). When species meet. University of Minnesota Press.

Harman, G. (2016). Immaterialism. Polity Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social-an introduction to actor-network-theory. Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour, pp. 316. Foreword by Bruno Latour. Oxford University Press, Sep 2005. ISBN-10: 0199256047. ISBN-13: 9780199256044, 1. Google Scholar

Mol, A. (2021). Eating in Theory. Experimental Futures. http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=aWOVzQEACAAJ&hl=&source=gbs_api

Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with nonhuman people. Verso.


Physiotherapy related

Abrams, T., Setchell, J., Thille, P., Mistry, B., & Gibson, B. E. (2018). Affect, intensity, and moral assemblage in rehabilitation practice. BioSocieties, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-018-0115-2

Dahl-Michelsen, T., & Groven, K. S. (2018). A Baradian approach to evidence-based practice in physiotherapy education.  In B. E. Gibson, D. A. Nicholls, K. Synne-Groven, & J. Setchell (Eds.), Manipulating practices: A critical physiotherapy reader (pp. 242-262). Cappelen Damm Forlag.

Maric, F. & Nicholls, D.A. (2021). Environmental physiotherapy and the case for multispecies justice in planetary health. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. https://doi.org/10.1080/09593985.2021.1964659

Gibson, B. E. (2018). Post-critical physiotherapy ethics: A commitment to openness.  In B. E. Gibson, D. A. Nicholls, K. Synne-Groven, & J. Setchell (Eds.), Manipulating practices: A critical physiotherapy reader (pp. 35-54). Cappelen Damm Forlag.

Groven, K. S., & Dahl-Michelsen, T. (2019). Recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome as an intra-active process. Health Care Women Int, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/07399332.2019.1663195

Nicholls, D.A. (2019).  What’s real is immaterial: What are we doing with new materialism?  Aporia: The nursing journal, 11(2), 3-13. http://hdl.handle.net/10292/13056

Nicholls, D. A. (2018). New materialism and physiotherapy.  In B. E. Gibson, D. A. Nicholls, K. Synne-Groven, & J. Setchell (Eds.), Manipulating practices: A critical physiotherapy reader (pp. 101-122). Cappelen Damm Forlag.

Nicholls, D. A., Atkinson, K., Bjorbækmo, W. S., Gibson, B. E., Latchem, J., Olesen, J., Ralls, J., & Setchell, J. (2016). Connectivity: An emerging concept for physiotherapy practice. Physiother Theory Pract, 32(3), 159-170. https://doi.org/10.3109/09593985.2015.1137665

Setchell, J., Abrams, T., McAdam, L. C., & Gibson, B. E. (2019). Cheer* in Health Care Practice: What It Excludes and Why It Matters. Qual Health Res, 29(13), 1890-1903. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732319838235

Setchell, J., Nicholls, D. A., & Gibson, B. E. (2018). Objecting: Multiplicity and the practice of physiotherapy. Health (London), 22(2), 165-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363459316688519


*The title of this blog post refers to the book Human, all too human, written by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1878. In the book, Nietzsche argues that humans are wrong to think they are omniscient; ‘To be sure the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition; if the wheel of the world were to stand still for a moment and an omniscient, calculating mind were there to take advantage of this interruption, he would be able to tell into the farthest future of each being and describe every rut that wheel will roll upon’. This is ‘[t]he acting man’s delusion about himself’ (p. 74).

**See the latest project by the International Physiotherapy History Association looking at 100 objects that define physiotherapy (http://history.physio/exhibitions/100-objects/)

Header image credits: Etienne Girardet on Unsplash