When over the course of human history the peoples of the world confronted an environmental crisis, they engaged in a struggle with the biophysical parameters of nature — that is, changes that involved biological and physical forces and conditions within natural ecosystems. Thus humankind witnessed irrigated agriculture leading to the salinization of fields, desertification, loss of productivity, and, ultimately, the decline of civilizations. Survival required sufficient time to recognize changing environmental conditions, identify causality, and adopt new strategies. Often the strategy of choice was simply to go somewhere else.
By contrast, today’s environmental crises often involve or are exacerbated by non-natural forces — notably toxins that introduce degenerative, synergistic, and cumulative changes in species, and which thereby alter local and global ecosystems. Thus, human survival is increasingly threatened by the bio-degenerative consequences of human action: expanding deserts; decreasing forests; declining fisheries; poisoned food, water, and air; and climatic extremes such as floods, hurricanes, and droughts. While environmental degradation in itself is by no means new, the bio-degenerative nature of our current crises presents a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
One of these challenges involves the need to address the many crises and potential crises resulting from global warming. As polar ice caps melt and sea levels rise, global warming threatens the fresh water resources of nearly 30,000 Pacific islands, forcing saltwater into island aquifers. Eventually, rising sea levels will completely submerge low lying islands, and even whole nations. As Sheila Watt-Cloutier describes, declining ice caps also threaten arctic ecosystems and the very survival of Inuit culture.
Another significant challenge is coping with the hazardous byproducts of the nuclear age. The world’s nuclear hot spots — where nuclear weapons have been (and are being) developed, tested, and their waste stored — will continue to contaminate the environment and affect the life processes for thousands of years. Our ability to contain, reduce, and possibly even remove this threat is not only limited by our knowledge, technology, and money, but, as described in Michael Kilburn and Miroslav Vanek’s essay on environmental contamination in the former Czechoslovakia, by the nature and will of political systems, conflicting agendas, and inept and dysfunctional governance.
Human adaptation to changing environmental circumstances requires time, space, and the means to implement change. Today time is an increasingly scarce commodity, especially given the rapid pace of degenerative change. In terms of space, migration is less and less a viable option; there are few unaffected regions in which to relocate. As for means, degenerative environmental conditions challenge survival skills, often rendering customary knowledge and traditions ineffective. Consequently, the traditional rules and tools used to manage natural resources increasingly fail. Efforts to reform resource management systems using modern technologies and supporting national participation in global markets often produce painful conflicts. We see this in Blake Ratner’s examination of the Cambodian struggle to maintain subsistence and regional market production in the face of declining fisheries, deteriorating habitat, and government policies that favor the economic interests of the few over the interests of the community.
At first glance, these three cases are representative examples of environmental problems: global warming, pollution, declining resources. At a more fundamental level, however, these cases illustrate the synergistic relationship between human rights and environmental quality, and what happens when environmental human rights are abused.
Environmental human rights include those basic human rights that pertain to minimum biological requirements, notably of food, water, and shelter; and the civil and political rights that enable individual and group participation in the creation of institutions that ensure social and eco-systemic viability. In past eras, when economies and societies were place-based, these rights were mutually interdependent. In today’s world, where cultural identity is fluid and involves membership in multiple communities, and where economies are shaped by global as well as local forces, control over local resources is rarely in local user hands.
Individual and group efforts to secure basic environmental human rights often conflict with broader governmental efforts to control natural resources. Such conflicts can be characterized as environmental human rights abuses when political and economic institutions and processes: (1) wrest control over traditionally-held resources without negotiation or compensation, or when such institutions continue actions that knowingly harm the critical resources that sustain a cultural way of life (the Inuit); (2) degrade the environment, and place individuals and populations at risk on the basis of national security, national energy, and national debt (the former Czechoslovakia); and (3) co-opt the implementation of legal structures (Cambodia’s fisherfolk).
In their review of environmental and human rights politics in northern Bohemia, Kilburn and Vanek remind us that the social conflicts emerging from abuses of environmental human rights involve questions of agency, moral duty, and participatory processes. Who has the authority to define resource use — the state or the affected communities? Who participates in shaping development and other decision-making agendas? Who is responsible for remediation — that is, restoring damaged environments and providing meaningful redress to people and communities harmed by degradation? How do we respond to human environmental crises that are the legacy of past governments? What is the basis for determining socially just measures of compensation? All these questions reflect a “responsibility gap” stemming from our current system of state and international governance, which is characterized by social, political, economic, and geographic distance between those who decide and those who pay the price of short-sighted policy decisions.
The organizing and networking of civil society can be seen as an effort to bridge the responsibility gap by actively confronting and engaging responsible parties. As happened in the former Czechoslovakia, life-threatening situations prompt people to ask questions, confront authority, and demand accountability. Increasingly, affected communities and their advocates are using international and regional human rights instruments, as well as national laws, to force acknowledgement of culpability, halt impending environmental human rights abuses, and renegotiate existing human and environmental conditions. The Inuit’s initiative in filing a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking remedy for the consequential damages of global warming is representative of this trend.
All three cases remind us that as the exploitation of world resources and the degradation of the biosphere intensify, social movements to reshape priorities and ways of life are assuming an increasingly significant role. Whether political action produces short-sighted or sustaining change depends largely upon the structural arrangement of power and whether, within this arrangement, individuals and groups have the opportunity to voice opinions and seek redress in forums that respects the inseparable nature of human rights and the environment.