All posts by Dr. Rosalind Warner

My background includes graduate work in Political Science at York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies, a one-year travel-study tour around the world focused on issues of peace and conflict resolution, and almost 20 years of teaching subjects from International Development to Canadian government. I have researched and published on topics like ecological modernization, global environmental governance issues, protected areas governance in North America, environmental discourses, and environment and trade in Canadian foreign policy. I am also energized by educational technologies and the latest news and information about teaching and learning in higher education.

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.

Student Opportunities

Directional Signs SlideshowFor a great listing of Student Opportunities in the field of International Development, check out the Okanagan College International Development Careers page here.

  • The Canadian Consortium for Humanitarian Training offers training in disaster and humanitarian response training.   Interested applicants can apply directly on our webpage  or send their inquiries to the Program Manager, Melanie Coutu at melanie.coutu3@mcgill.ca
  • World Student Environmental Network hosts an annual conference. More information: http://www.wsen.org/
  • Looking for a job in the environmental field?  Check out ECO Canada (Environmental Careers Organization): http://www.eco.ca/

US is Now a Normal Country

Whatever happens on August 3rd, whether a full default or a spluttering decline, we are now at an historic turning point in the history of US hegemony.  For the first time since the US ascended to the role of world leader in 1945, the leadership (and the people) of the US must deal with the implications of world leadership—and realize its accompanying costs just as they have enjoyed its benefits.

Despite the rhetoric on the right, the US government is not spendthrift, wasteful, or bloated.   Rather, it has attempted through the decades to chart a course that balances domestic with international requirements in such a way that Americans avoid paying the costs of maintaining US leadership in the world.  Initially, maintaing Pax Americana meant spreading a US military presence virtually everywhere around the globe that it would be tolerated, and even some places where it was not.

In exchange for fighting communism, American taxpayers would become the customers of the world, and to do so, their currency would be as good as gold.  Unlike other countries, the hegemon is able to avoid the full costs of its expenditures by manipulating the value of its currency, something the US resorted to in 1971 at least in part to avoid paying for the Vietnam War.  However, domestic and international roles still essentially coincided, since what was good for the US as a world leader was also generally good for US consumers.

A hegemon can pay its bills by manipulating its currency.

As long as there was little real conflict between the domestic and international roles of the hegemon, the US could continue to spend with impunity.  Relatively sheltered from global crises of inflation that damaged their trade partners, Americans could afford to keep buying, borrowing, and spending without having to worry about maintaining their export markets or competitiveness, as other countries had to.  Consumers responded to this exceptional situation essentially rationally, by using their dollars to  purchase cheap imports.   The government responded by lowering taxes and interest rates to reflect the strength of consumer purchasing power relative to other countries, and hoped for continued growth and the goodwill of trade partners to make up the difference.

Eventually, the costs of hegemony must be borne—if not by Americans, then by someone else.  As long as Americans kept buying, the emperor’s lack of clothes could be conveniently ignored.  However, the conflict between the interests of Americans and the interests of the world is now apparent.  If history is any judge, do not expect Americans to sacrifice to maintain US leadership.  The US has little experience in being a normal country, and it seems unlikely that it will now take its place among the rest without a fight.

The Attack on Liberal Arts Education

After reading William H. Gross’s blog on Global Public Square I realized that the attack on liberal arts education had reached a new level.  Yes, recently, there has been a lot of talk about university education in general being overvalued and overpriced.  At first, I thought that this was just another foray into what is really an attack from the right on academia in general.

This in itself is nothing new, I remember similar things being said during the 1980s recession when unemployment was hovering around a similar level, and university enrollments surged for similar reasons.  However, the attack this time is more subtle.  What those on the right seem to be saying is that it’s not university education or universities that are the problem, but liberal arts education specifically, for not sufficiently responding to the vagaries of the job market and ensuring that graduates are able to find jobs.

Let’s leave aside the implication that it is somehow central to a unversity’s purpose to churn out employable graduates in numbers that the economy can absorb, and to anticipate these needs and adjust their programming according to the demands of a fickle market (an assumption that I don’t accept).

Even if one were to assume that liberal arts education is really about preparing for the job market, why would North American society choose to abandon it just when it is paying dividends, and other countries around the world are adopting the liberal arts model, which includes inculcating critical thinking, reflection, historical knowledge, and self-awareness?  Business schools around the world are encouraging their graduates to learn ethics, business history, and philosophy, in order to avoid another financial meltdown caused by irresponsible behaviour.  Universities in China, tiring of the rote-learning and stilted memorization that instill monolithic and narrowly-focused skill sets, are turning to the freer-thinking models of Western universities to ensure their graduates are more flexible and globally-focused.  Western educational experiences based on liberal arts models are in high demand around the world (one of the things that permits universities to charge such high tuition!)

Finally, although I agree that technical, apprenticeship and skills training are important and I agree that more needs to be done to ensure that students have access to these programs and training, without a corresponding push from governments to invest in public infrastructure, building projects, and non-military industrial development, it may well be that these graduates find themselves out of work and heavily laden with debt.  Without the ability to communicate and think clearly, and to be flexible and adaptable, it may be more difficult for such graduates to adjust to a changing economy in the long run.

Let’s stop bashing liberal arts education, and start a conversation about the content and purpose of education in society.  Such a conversation should not exclude economic considerations, but it should begin with the idea that  education should ensure accessibility, instill the values of good citizenship, and ensure that students leave university more empowered than they were when they entered.