What Environmentalists Can Learn from Human Rights History


Looking back at the historical development of human rights, one could easily point out the depressing record of genocide, oppression, discrimination, violence and hatred that has characterized the world.  One can paint a similar picture with respect to the environmental record:  every graph and equation seems to show a decline in biodiversity, environmental quality, and in prospects for a sustainable future. 

However, recent events suggest that pessimism on human rights may be misplaced. If we look at the big picture, we might start to see that there are some lessons for environmental activists in the history of human rights. For example, it was once accepted as natural or inevitable that military campaigns necessitate mass bombing of civilian targets, that violent regimes would persist beyond the ability of the international community to act or even to comment on them, and that individual despots were beyond the reach of justice, likely to spend their retirement years in obscure luxury.

savetheclimateAll of these assumptions are now, if not gone, severely strained.   The fight for human rights continues throughout the world, individual people have shown over and over that there are limits to their toleration of oppression.  Similarly, environmentalists might consider harnessing frustrations that are emerging around the world, in order to change international environmental norms in fundamental ways.  Here are my suggestions:

1. Work from the inside out

With global environmental initiatives stalled, local action will become more important than ever.  The fundamental barrier to progress on climate change has always arisen from the tensions between countries at differing levels of economic development.  As with human rights, differences between countries historically stood in the way of new legal instruments to structure international norms.  In the case of the UN Universal Declaration, Cold War differences stalled the development of the two major Protocols for decades after the 1948 effort.  Given these differences, beginning work on the ground, and working within the norms, rules and procedures that operate locally will have greater effect on the international process than starting at the top.

worldingrass2. Use moral and ethical arguments

Environmentalists have sometimes shied away from appealing to ethical arguments, preferring to couch the case for environmental sustainability in the stale language of self-interest and economics.  This strategy should now be abandoned, as it guts the vision and content that is needed to inspire change.  Systems change in response to fundamental cultural and normative shifts, not to instrumental rationalist appeals to individual gain.  Human rights have made strides because of the universal power of the ethical arguments for human dignity. Everyone can relate to the struggles of others, and this is why the suppression of rights and freedoms (including rights to economic opportunities) has inspired resistance all across the world, from Tunisia to Britain to Libya.

3. Appeal to states & peoples, not to governments

Governments, whether democratic or not, are ill-equipped to deal with ecosystem breakdowns.  Governments in democratic countries are focused on electoral cycles and polls.  Governments of non-democratic countries are focused on keeping power.  Although it may sound like heresy in some circles, states (in the sense of political institutions and communities that sustain a common identity and legal personality over the long term) are better equipped to deal with these problems than individual governments. Human rights language has always transcended governments, and human rights activists have always used government statements and commitments against them, entangling them in commitments that end up constraining them in ways that never could have been predicted.

4. Think long term

Human rights struggles continue, but progress should be acknowledged and recognized.  The institution of slavery, which had existed in various forms for millennia, has now virtually been abolished, and any group who practices it now does so in the shadows, surreptitiously and shamefully.   It could be argued that the planet can’t wait, and I agree with this sentiment, however, it is short-termism that has gotten us into this situation of ecological crisis, and changing the view to a planetary one should also involve a shift in thinking beyond the 20-year window that presently hampers societies.

Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall fell only after years of careful activism behind the Iron Curtain

5.  Quiet efforts pay off

After Live Earth (Al Gore’s massive public relations global conference event) in 2007, interest in addressing climate change seemed to fade away.  Big, splashy events are temporary, they ignite but lack the ‘long tail’ needed to create sustained change.  The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia with the actions of one individual, seemed to come out of nowhere.  Closer examination, however, reveals that the work of thousands of activists, journalists, and ordinary people created the conditions for change that enabled the revolutionary movements to transnationalize quickly.  Contrasting these two examples also reveals the key role of information technology.   Live Earth was primarily a visual and broadcast-style ‘industrial’ event, while change now happens through microblogs and  ‘post-industrial’ social media.  These efforts are necessarily more dispersed, less hierarchical, and less predictable, but clearly they are potent.

None of this is to say that torture, oppression, and genocide are (or perhaps ever will be) eliminated.  The reports out of Syria and other places like Sri Lanka, Somalia, Congo, and Colombia suggest that there is a long way to go to achieve respect for fundamental human rights, freedom, and dignity.  Nevertheless, environmentalists should take heed.

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