human rights and the environment, law, philosophy

The Environment and Human Rights (8): Instrumental Environmentalism

scene from Blade Runner

scene from Blade Runner

(source)

At first sight, human rights are at best irrelevant to environmental concerns such as global warming, resource depletion, pollution, toxic dumping, deforestation, desertification, biodiversity etc. Human rights are about what people do to each other or what governments do to people, not about what people do to the earth. In some sense, human rights are worse than irrelevant. They may take attention away from environmental problems, and perhaps even cause some of those problems. Perhaps a focus on rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of residence etc. contributes to environmental problems. Hence, human rights, in some interpretations, are not just unhelpful but even harmful. They can indeed be seen as anthropocentric, elevating the needs of humans above the needs of nature and the earth.

However, that doesn’t have to be the case, or at least not when we focus on one type of environmentalism. There are of course different types: some forms of environmentalism see nature or the earth as intrinsically valuable and in need of preservation for its own sake, while other forms have a more instrumental approach to conservation. Instrumental environmentalism argues that we should save the planet because it is – as yet – the only possible abode for humanity. (There are also other approaches – such as ethical, aesthetic or holistic ones – but this crude distinction suffices for my current purpose).

It’s the instrumental approach that is, in my opinion, most amenable to human rights discourse, even though it may not be the most convincing approach (it’s open to the criticism that it instrumentalizes nature and that it is therefore self-defeating). I would say that it’s more than merely amenable: human rights discourse can be a powerful tool for environmentalism. There are two ways to understand how this can work. First, a healthy, non-polluted and sustainable environment is a precondition for many if not all human rights. The right to health, the right to life and the right to a certain standard of living as well as numerous other rights directly depend on a healthy environment, on the preservation of forests and energy resources, on safe drinking water etc. More generally, if environmental problems are not merely local but global and if life on earth is potentially threatened then that obviously includes rights.

And secondly, it’s useful to focus on the transtemporal aspect of human rights. Human rights have many dimensions, for example a horizontal and a vertical one. The horizontal dimension – human rights are rights claims of individuals against each other and not just against the state (individuals have rights-based duties to all other individuals) – isn’t limited to individuals who are currently alive. Our current actions ought not to violate the rights of future generations. Those future generations have rights that we have to respect. And that means, inter alia, not destroying the environmental preconditions for future life. It also means that future life should not be of such low quality that it becomes impossible to realize certain human rights.

However, there’s one major drawback to this approach. One can safely assume that proper concern for the rights of future generations will ipso facto result in enormous sacrifices for existing generations, and hence violations of the rights of existing generations. Future generations are by definition very numerous, especially given adequate environmental policies. If, for example, natural resources have to be managed in such a way that future generations can have a minimal standard of living, then the mere fact that future generations will be very numerous compared to living generations means that the latter can’t use any natural resources at all. (Which is perhaps why some forms of environmentalism advocate a return to pre-modern lifestyles). That’s a variation of the so-called repugnant conclusion. I assume most of us want to avoid this conclusion, but in order to do so, we’ll have to cap the importance we give to the rights of future generations.

On the other hand, there are cases in which efforts to respect the rights of future generations automatically produce respect the rights of present generations. Saving the earth’s fish stock for the future can also benefit present generations.

the earth as seen from the moon

We can conclude that human rights and the environment can be both complementary to and at odds with each other. Whether conflict or mutual reinforcement will be the more likely outcome depends not on the specific nature of either project, but on our ability to overcome conflict. And this ability depends on a certain way of looking at those projects. If human rights are understood in a limited way – without considering the rights of future generations or without taking into account the environmental prerequisites of rights – or if environmentalism is seen as a non-instrumental value, then complementarity may be impossible and the two projects will come into conflict. One will then have to give way to the other. Of course, even if we try, we won’t always be able to find complementarity. Some human rights will in some cases be bad for the environment, and some environmental concerns will be bad for some human rights. But that will be the exception, and when it occurs, human rights will have to take precedence because most often it will be the case that rights violations, compared to disrespect for the environment, cause more immediate and certain harm to living human beings.

More on the rights of future generations is here. More posts in this series are here.

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6 thoughts on “The Environment and Human Rights (8): Instrumental Environmentalism

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly except for your conclusion. I think that environmental rights have to take precedence for, as you have pointed out, without a healthy planet there will be no humanity at all. Where conflict arises the human has to adapt its needs to the ecological needs. I agree that a partnership can be built between these seemingly conflicting needs, but priority must be always given to the planet. Without the world we are nothing.

    • Hmm. Maybe, but I think point my point about immediate harm (to rights) v long term harm to the planet still holds, at least as long as the long term harm is sufficiently far in the future in order to allow for the development of technological solutions that can undo the harm. But maybe I’m wrong here.

      • You might be right, but it’s a dangerous allowance to make I think. We are now understanding the extreme fragility of the ecosystem and what seems long term now may suddenly come crashing down on her heads tomorrow. We tend to get used to gradual trends by adapting to the small changes, but chaos theory tells us that eventually the small changes will suddenly spike and that is the danger.

  2. It’s an interesting twist to the issue; the complementarity between human rigths and the environment. It will also be so more complex to address. I just read a very interesting article about the connection between capitalism and our eco-system. Same problem. Interesting as an intellectual exercise, no offense, but after 25 years in the oil business, I am much more focused on what we can DO about our own destruction. For the record: I have now left the oil business and I am a member of the Norwegian Green party.

    After pondering on these issues for some years, I have, for my own sake, concluded that we need to address the issue of our environmental disaster case by case. There will of course, at any given time, be a number of activities towards saving our planet, but to integrate it with concepts like “capiatalism” or “human rights” will complicate the work and maybe take the focus away from the more important task ahead.

    I you will allow me, I will give an example that many of us is fighting right now. It is taken from my blog, and shows what greed (I know, over simplified, but I can’t think of a better word) can do to us.

    “Norway is the leading country when it comes to technology for developing and operating oil and gas fields offshore. No wonder when you take the harsh weather conditions into account and how close we are to the Arctic.

    BUT, we are also one of the biggest producer and exporter of fish. Our ocean is one of the most fertile biotope for fish. Before we found oil, our greatest asset was fish. Fish is still a major part of our export. We sell fish to 153 countries worldwide.

    One of the richest area for the fisheries is the Barents Sea, but it is also the most vulnerable biotope. It is way up North, in the Arctic.

    So, what do we do? We drill for oil and gas in an area with the harshest climate imaginable and with one of the most important source for fishing.

    What is this government thinking ? Statoil, the biggest oil/gas company in Norway, has found several very promising oil/gas fields much further south, so we have more than enough produce. AND, we are probably the richest country in the world. The so called oil fund is approaching 4500 billion NOK, and we are around 5 mill. people in this country. You do the math……………

    So, WHY are we taking the risk of destroying huge parts of the Arctic, including our own fisheries, by developing oil/gas fields in the Barents Sea? ONE large oil spill will be an utter disaster in that area, and because it is so far north, it may take 30, 40 or maybe 60 years to reestablish the biotope to normality. As a fisherman said some years ago: “We can eat fish but not oil”. Simple but true. We must not forget that pumping oil/gas will come to an end one day, but we will always have the fish, and we will be dependent on that simple fact. So, why destroy the most sustainable source of income for our country?

    The responsibility for this destructive policy lies wholly in our government. The government consist of three parties: The biggest, the Social Democrats (Arbeiderpartiet), and two very small parties; the Socialist Party (SV) and Senterpartiet, earlier called The Farmers Party. Both SV and Senterpartiet are very conscious and focused on the environment. It was therefore quite a shock when the minister for Petroleum and Energy, Ola Borten Moe from Senterpartiet (!!) stated that we (Norway), will drill for oil and gas up to the North Pole.

    What one minister say may not be that important. My main concern is the policy of this government. Drilling after oil and gas in the Arctic is utter madness.”

  3. Pingback: The Causes of Human Rights Violations (55): Bad Luck | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

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