Humanity is sleep-walking towards an ecological apocalypse. Global populations of wildlife have declined a mind-boggling sixty percent in the past fifty years alone, accelerating an already precipitous decline in the diversity and abundance of life forms with who we share this beautiful but beleaguered planet. Climate change is already inflicting a cascade of harms on humans and other species, from heat waves and droughts to more intense and frequent storms and flooding. We are hurtling towards tipping points that could make Earth unlivable for humans and many other species. Meanwhile, pollution quietly kills more people every year than all of the ongoing wars, murders, road accidents, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria, combined.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its special report last fall, the world needs “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to stave off ecological catastrophes that would inflict immense human suffering and rights violations, particularly on the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
Given the magnitude and the urgency of the environmental challenges facing humanity, we need to harness the most powerful tools and approaches available in order to conserve what remains of this planet’s biodiversity and eventually restore it to its former glory. One of the most promising avenues, based on a series of remarkable historical precedents, is to employ the power of human rights-based approaches.
History is full of inspiring examples of the transformative power of rights, enabling grassroots movements to overcome powerful opposition and overturn the status quo. The abolitionists used rights to end slavery in a David and Goliath battle against wealthy landowners and corporations who profited from the exploitation of right-less people. The suffragettes successfully harnessed rights to propel women towards equality. The civil rights movement in the United States relentlessly championed the constitutional rights of African-Americans in legislatures, courtrooms, and on the streets, revolutionizing American society. Anti-apartheid activists, Indigenous people, LGBTQ advocates—the list of rights movements that have achieved extraordinary gains is long and impressive.
There are two promising rights-based approaches that could dramatically enhance the health and wellbeing of both humans and ecosystems. The first is global recognition of the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment. The second involves the more radical extension of rights beyond humans to other species, ecosystems, and Nature herself.
The right to a healthy and sustainable environment already enjoys a surprising depth of acceptance around the world, but more needs to be done to make this right globally recognized and enforced. Over 120 States in Africa, Latin America, Europe, parts of Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean have ratified regional treaties that incorporate the right to a healthy environment. This right enjoys constitutional protection in more than 100 States, from Argentina to Zambia, and is also included in environmental laws in more than 100 States. In total, 155 States recognize and are legally obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. It is time for this right to be recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental human right belonging to everyone, everywhere.
Empirical evidence from numerous scholars demonstrates that constitutional protection of the right to a healthy environment leads to superior environmental performance, from increased access to safe drinking water to faster reductions in air pollution. In dozens of countries, citizens and activists have employed environmental rights in lawsuits that have produced remarkable court decisions, in some cases resulting in substantial on-the-ground benefits for people and ecosystems. For example, the Mendoza decision of Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2008 sparked a massive clean-up of the Riachuelo River watershed, as well as billions of dollars in spending for new drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure serving predominantly poor communities.
Recognition of the rights of nature could transform both laws and cultures. Ecuador’s constitution recognized the rights of Pachamama (‘mother Earth’) in 2009, spurring changes to more than 75 laws and policies and enabling lawsuits to protect Nature, from the Galapagos to the Vilcabamba River. Laws have also been enacted in Bolivia, Mexico, New Zealand and at the local level in dozens of municipalities in the United States. In New Zealand, extraordinary new laws reflect the Indigenous wisdom and culture of the Maori people, granting rights to the Whanganui River and an ecosystem formerly known as Te Urewera National Park. These path-breaking laws are poetic and powerful, transferring title to the legal persons established to represent Nature. In other words, the forests, mountains, lakes, and riverbeds now own themselves, with their rights defended by stewardship bodies led by Maori. Innovative court decisions regarding the rights of nature have been made from Colombia to India, although in some contexts implementation has not yet lived up to aspiration.
To maximize the probability that rights for people and nature will be recognized, implemented, and fulfilled, environmentalists and human rights advocates need to work hand in hand, more closely than ever before. Long viewed as separate and even opposing concepts, the reality of the 21st century is that environmental rights are irrevocably intertwined with human rights.
On a future Hothouse Earth, where the miraculous diversity of life has been devastated by the sixth mass extinction in billions of years, human rights would be but a distant memory, as the focus of surviving humans would be limited to survival. Today, we need to make every effort imaginable to prevent an extended era of darkness and disaster from plaguing humanity over the course of the next millennium. One of our best defenses against such a doomsday scenario is to creatively, relentlessly, and passionately fight for the human right to live in a healthy and sustainable environment, and to simultaneously advance the rights of Nature to safeguard the rest of the community of life among whom we are so fortunate to live.
Despite the best efforts of scientists deploying 21st century technologies, we have not yet identified another planet where the wonders of life have blossomed and evolved. Surely, we must do everything in our power to transform humanity from an agent of destruction into a constructive force supporting the health and well-being of the Earth, this unique place that we are so profoundly fortunate to call home. Rights can help propel us in the direction of a sustainable future for all forms of life.