The Environment and Human Rights (8): Instrumental Environmentalism

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.

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

The Environment and Human Rights (7): The Effects of Climate Change on Crime Rates

The relationship between environmental problems and human rights is underexamined. This is deplorable, because the most important environmental problem, namely climate change, is likely to have an adverse effect on human rights in lots of different ways.

For example, there is some data supporting the hypothesis that higher temperatures lead to an increase in crime, probably in part because high temperatures cause higher levels of aggression:

[H]igher temperatures lead to more assault and … the rise in violent crimes rose more quickly than the analogous rise in non-violent property-crime, an indicator that there is a “pure aggression” component to the rise in violent crime. …

Note that all crime increases as temperatures rise from 0 F to about 50 F. It seems reasonable to hypothesize that a lot of this pattern comes from “logistical constraints”, eg. it’s hard to steal a car when it’s covered in snow. But above 60 F, only the violent crimes continue to go up: murder, rape, and assault. The comparison between murder and manslaughter is elegantly telling, as manslaughter should be less motivated by malicious intent. …

Between 2010 and 2099, climate change will cause an additional 30,000 murders, 200,000 cases of rape, 1.4 million aggravated assaults, 2.2 million simple assaults, 400,000 robberies, 3.2 million burglaries, 3.0 million cases of larceny, and 1.3 million cases of vehicle theft in the United States. (source)

More on human rights and the environment here.

The Environment and Human Rights (4): A Right to Water

The United Nations General Assembly recently voted in favor of an international human right to water. It’s only appropriate that people have a right to the most basic resource. Only a few countries (e.g. South Africa) have already instituted this right. The recognition of this right of course doesn’t mean that the water crisis has magically disappeared. Like the right to free speech doesn’t mean that there’s no more censorship. The real work of bringing water to people who don’t have enough still needs to be done, and some serious thinking and debating is required. Opponents and proponents of privatization, of the introduction of a water market and of other possible policies (including the policy of setting water prices high enough to discourage waste and low enough to help the poor) will continue to disagree and it will have to be settled empirically which water policy provides the best access to all.

On the other hand, the water crisis seems to be abating:

some 5.9 billion people, or 87% of the world’s population, enjoyed access to drinking water from an “improved” source in 2008. In other words, those people had water piped to a dwelling, or got it from a public tap or a protected well. Back in 1990 only 77% of the world’s population enjoyed such a luxury. Yet in some parts of the world, notably in Africa, great improvements in water supply are still needed. Some 884m people are still not using an improved water source, more than a third of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern Asia has seen the greatest recent progress: 89% of the population in that region now have access to an improved water source, up from just 69% in 1990. (source)

The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights

We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water – to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages. A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.

If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.

What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?

  • Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
  • More realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
  • Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.

The Environment and Human Rights (1): The Environmental Kuznets Curve

It’s not uncommon to hear people worry about the economic development of the developing world: what if these billions of people start to drive cars, use airco, eat meat etc. to the same extent as the people in the West? Would that not spell the end of the earth? Isn’t there a contradiction between the fight against poverty and care for the environment? Are we forced to make some tragic choices? Leave people in poverty and save the earth? Save people and destroy the earth? Radically change our Western lifestyle?

The concept of sustainable development, development and economic growth which takes the environment into account, doesn’t seem to calm the fears. And then people start to discuss overpopulation and all the nastiness that comes with it, or they turn to cultural pessimism about the excesses of the Western consumer society.

A more hopeful sign comes from economics, and in particular the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This curve shows a U-shaped relationship between per capita income (GDP) and the quality of the environment. Measures of the quality of the environment do indeed fall in the initial stages of economic growth, but this trend turns around at about $5.000 per capita GDP, with many measures of environmental damage showing improvement from $8.000 onwards (source).