If we want social justice, we have to do more than widen the existing lens

Lucy Aphramor
3 min readMar 26, 2021
A tree trunk, branches and canopy seen from the ground with sunlight coming through to the left of the photo.
Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

Like millions of other people, I was taught that trees compete with each other for nutrients and space and light. Rapid tree growth was a sign of success. The text book said that planting trees at some distance apart would maximise yields. The worth of a tree started when it became wood, or because it trapped carbon dioxide which benefited humans. Nowadays we can add forest bathing (shinrin yoku) — when explained only as self-care — to the list.

Imagine if we’d been taught that young trees shaded by older trees are more likely to thrive than young trees that have ‘too much’ light. This reframes competition to inter-connection. Imagine if we’d been told about the ‘wood wide web’ that trees use to keep their neighbours alive, by transferring sugars for instance. Now we’re in the realm of collaboration and the collective, competition and individualism are jettisoned. Imagine if we’d been introduced to the world through animist rather than materialist sensibilities.

Where white supremacy has not imposed the binary rupture of human dominion over non-human nature, humans relate to trees, and they to humans, in very different ways.

The metaphors and language we use to organise our thoughts have a profound influence on the values we enact. They limit or enable our imaginations. In other words, they shape our futures, and heal or amplify past harms. They tether us to, or untangle us from, the deep grammar of oppression.

I’m white and thin and sighted and I work in healthcare. Here, at the edges of the mainstream, a great number of us are challenging received wisdom. We recognise that we need to build knowledge very differently than we were taught.

Hence the reminder to widen the lens. But if we widen the lens we see more in the same way we always see. More competition. More scarcity. More wood.

More of the same. That’s not generally a route to deep adjustment.

We could tilt, clean, smudge, swap the lens. Maybe within these options I can find a way of seeing where I don’t only look through the white of my eyes.

Widening the lens assumes that more data will be helpful for transformation. And yup it might be. It might also serve to…

Lucy Aphramor

Lucy Aphramor is a radical dietitian and performance poet. They are Associate Professor of Gender, Power, and The Right to Food at CAWR, Coventry University UK.