2.6 Session on “Environmental Rights”

Heather Eaton, Ruth Groenhout, John Hiemstra

This panel will focus on the relation between environmental issues and human rights.  For example, there are basic questions regarding the nature of "environmental rights" and how to define them in relation to, or as, human rights.  Other issues relate to the rights of individuals and collectives to be informed and have a say in how state and corporate actions affect their local environment.  The question of what constitutes a just distribution of resources and environmental impact is also important, particularly given arguments about the current injustice of that distribution.

Heather Eaton began the session on rights and ecology by noting the problems with discussing “environmental rights.” Does it mean that nature (artificially distinguished from humans) has rights? While there are examples of this in certain legal rulings, they are exceedingly rare. It is difficult to conceive of the environment’s rights either as extensions of human rights or as a new and separate kind of rights. There is a rising tendency within the ecology movement to recognize the “rights of the earth” as distinct from merely human rights, in the face of impending ongoing ecological disaster, but Eaton finally thinks these cannot get beyond problematic anthropocentrism: in addressing the ecological crisis we are better off changing our thinking about these matters to a different framework.

Ruth Groenhout’s paper had similar conclusions to Eaton’s, but used a different framework to get to them. For example, rights as normally conceived require some sort of reciprocity, and it is difficult to see how non-human natural beings can have reciprocity in the sense that is needed here. Groenhout also used the example of a small bit of a natural environment to show the difficulty of using rights-talk with reference to nature. If there are invasive species in an ecosystem, such as garlic mustard or deer, do they have “rights?” What about the “rights” of those species being harmed or eliminated by the invading species? How are these to be conceived and negotiated? These were meant as simple examples of the problems facing conceptions of the rights of the environment. Groenhout recommends that rather than using the language of rights, an ethics of care would be more appropriate for addressing these issues.

John Hiemstra’s discussion shifted things primarily to the controversial Oil/Tar Sands in Alberta. How does “rights talk” help in sorting out the various issues here? There is a disproportionate impact on aboriginal peoples, but that is addressed using more traditional conceptions of human rights. In a manner broadly similar to his co-panelists, Hiemstra’s overall approach to the topic emphasized the need for a re-conceptualization of the issues. Various other approaches tended to emphasize science or facts or technology or particular aspects of the situation. Hiemstra thinks that getting people to think differently about these things requires understanding the integrated nature of reality so that the overall goal and reason for taking particular actions with respect to nature can be articulated in a way that makes sense, rather than just addressing each particular “piece” of the puzzle ad hoc.

The discussion after the papers tended to focus on how the relation of humans and nature of which they are one part should be understood. Are humans an “invasive species?” Perhaps we need to understand what humans are as much as what nature is, just as the feminist movements has had to think about what it means to be a woman. A recurrent issue was in conceiving how this new language is to be established without falling into a harmful anthropocentrism. Other discussions centered around what it would mean for us to be “obligated” to protect or preserve nature—the notion of something without rights still having intrinsic value.

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