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.
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.