On March 29, 2023, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) requested the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on states’ obligations with respect to climate change. In response to this request, some scholars, including Rafsi Albar, my fellow researcher at Universitas Gadjah Mada, have encouraged the ICJ to adopt the existing anthropocentric approach by integrating different stakeholders’ perspectives and linking the ecological crisis with international human rights principles.
While the importance of human rights cannot be denied, anthropocentrism has proven insufficient to address the demands of the climate crisis, at times producing undesirable ecological results. Environmental protection is a necessary condition for the effective enjoyment of human rights, but the protection of human rights does not by itself provide sufficient protection for the environment. Furthermore, sustainable development (SD)—a prominent example of an anthropocentric approach—has demonstrated its failures, encouraging exploitation while labeling such activities as sustainable instead of enacting true environmental protection. Conversely, recognizing the inherent value of nature through ecocentrism would lead humans toward comprehensive protection under the idea of the rights of nature.
Ecocentrism as a restriction, not a denial of human needs
One common misunderstanding of ecocentrism is that it requires climate advocates to deny human needs for the sake of protecting nature. Let’s be clear: ecocentrism refers to a view in which nature must be valued for its own sake apart from any utilitarian value to humans. However, ecocentrism does not require the sacrifice of human needs.
As it confers rights to nature as a subject worthy of protection, ecocentrism compels humans to accept limits on their conduct. In the ecocentric model, they cannot engage with nature solely as an object by gravely exploiting and treating it merely as a commodity in the consumption cycle. Experience shows that it’s not impossible to protect and, at the same time, utilize nature wisely for the benefit of mankind. Some communities have an alternative life system in which they align human life with nature rather than exerting power over it.
To preserve a healthy environment for current and future generations, ecocentrism must prevail over anthropocentrism. The uncertainty of nature makes it nearly impossible to determine how much we need to conserve to maintain human interest, as nature consists of non-linear processes. It is impossible to predict, for instance, precisely how much extractive mining is enough to devastate the environment and impact human life.
Moreover, through the anthropocentric approach, certain communities’ interests are recognized while others are disregarded. When nature is treated merely as an object to support human life, people’s interest in protecting it goes only so far as it gives benefits and doesn’t threaten their existence. However, ecological degradation affects many societies differently. The notorious cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or oil drilling in the Niger Delta are prime examples. These events have gone mostly unopposed by societies outside Africa (Western and Asian countries) because they provide a considerable number of socioeconomic benefits. If advocates from Western and Asian countries are concerned only with inter- and intragenerational equity, the equity for “their generations” is more or less secured as long as their soil is not directly affected and they possess the technological capacity to protect their people.
From an anthropocentric point of view, it is illogical to provide equity globally. In the case of resource extraction in the DRC and the Niger Delta, the most affected are the least advantaged, i.e., the Congolese and Nigerian people. The anthropocentric view indeed allows that they, as human beings, have the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment and that all nations are obliged to respect their rights. However, the Congolese and Nigerians also have rights to development that should be fulfilled by their government based on mining profits. Such flexible and hypocritical narratives of human rights are inadequate to meet the demands of the climate crisis.
Several attempts have been made, albeit partially and locally, to legally establish an ecocentric approach. In India, for instance, the anthropocentric approach had led courts to solely recognize humans as rights holders, thus enabling massive pollution across the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. In 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court in India shifted the paradigm by recognizing the legal personhood of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. Similarly, in its Advisory Opinion OC-23/17, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) acknowledged the rights of nature without the requirement to prove violations of existing human rights by environmental degradation. By adopting ecocentrism, the court implicitly recognized the effectiveness of this approach in safeguarding human rights holistically.
Sustainable development led environmental protection to Neverland
To concretely measure the effectiveness of anthropocentrism, this analysis will turn to the sustainable development principle as an example of an anthropocentric understanding of nature. The notion was first devised during the colonial era to respond to a gradual drop in timber and fish reserves, mainly in colonial territories. That fisheries today are egregiously unsustainable speaks to a broader failure of SD principles.
But why did SD fail? To begin with, SD does not promote environmental preservation. Instead, the idea behind SD is to exploit sustainably or with the appearance of sustainability, offering an apparent reconciliation between ecology and economy. Therefore, related discussions always revolve around certain key terms, including development, growth, resources, and basic needs. The environment is considered, in part, with a twisted logic: the alleged culprit of its degradation is not capitalism but poverty. Following this line of argumentation, poverty will encourage population growth that contributes to environmental degradation. In addition, poverty leads some societies to ignore education and embrace environmentally harmful behavior. Hence, to decrease environmental destruction, poverty must be alleviated through economic growth that improves social welfare. Today, over 30 years into its postcolonial application, proponents of SD have failed to strongly oppose and eradicate fossil fuels, leading the world’s carbon emissions reduction plan to collapse.
Another example is deep-sea mining (DSM). Building upon the law of the sea that upholds SD principles, privileging human interests has spurred exploitative conduct. Cusato and Jones note that while several organizations have called for a moratorium on DSM because of its vast environmental impact—some of it still unknown, the discussions to draft a mining code are underway in the International Seabed Authority. Proponents, of course, rely on SD principles to claim that this exploitation will be conducted sustainably.
As has often been said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” The ICJ must stop returning to the same dominant environmental framework that has failed since the colonial era. Anthropocentrism (and its progeny in the form of SD) has long proved insufficient—even justifying ecological destruction. As human rights relating to the environment have been recognized in constitutions around the world, it’s time for ICJ to incorporate nature rights per se.