I was invited to speak at Future Manchester 2010’s meeting on Earth Rights organised by Merci and I thought it would be useful to …share my presentation and ideas with you. Please feel free to use them. The slides will be published together but the talk will be published in 3 instalments so watch this space and please leave your comments. Only by discussing and sharing ideas will be move forward so please do comment expressing your views.
The title of this talk is: “What legal mechanisms exist for and ….what are the obstacles against granting Earth Rights.”
I am an international environmental lawyer and at the thing that is on my mind is Earth Rights. As a lawyer I have seen how laws can offer real protection to humans and to inanimate being such as corporations, so what has the law done to our environment. I will be looking at what environmental protection we have today and why environmental laws as they are today have not resulted in environmental protection. I will argue that what we now need are Earth Rights to truly achieve a harmonious legal relationship with the Earth in order to give humans the best chance of survival on this planet.
Historically and very broadly speaking our protection of the environment has focused on two legal principles, the polluter pays principle and the principle of sustainable development. There are of course a number of other principles such as the precautionary principle or the integration principle but polluter pays and sustainable development have influenced heavily most of today’s body of environmental law so I will focus on these two.
First in time came the polluter pays principle. We have a huge amount of international and national legislation that controls the amount of pollutants that we can put into the environment. These laws started off as laws of nuisance for the protection of human health from the dangers of industrialisation living in urban areas.
These “pollution control” laws are the precursors of environmental management laws, emission trading and carbon controls such as those imposed in the UK by the Climate Change Act 2005. In essence the result of this principle is that if pay you can pollute.
Then came in around 1983 the principle of sustainable development which in its most populist form is known by its The Brundtland Commission definition: humans are allowed to carry out development but only “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.
This legal principle was a reaction to the vast depletion of our environment and natural “resources” as a cause of an accelerated economic development post Second World War. It has given rise to laws that require humans to consider the impact that their actions have on the Earth and the value of their actions in terms of the public’s social and economic interests. Examples of these laws are environmental impact assessment laws which require planners to balance out the economic, environmental and social impacts of a development and conservation laws which try to protect areas or species from human harm
Given the dire environmental situation that we find ourselves in it is clear that our environmental laws have not fulfilled their “so called” aim of protecting the environment. I argue that this is due to the following reasons. Firstly the aim of these “pollution control” laws was never to protect the environment. The aim of these laws was to protect human health. Secondly when we started to think about protecting the Earth we were really not thinking about protecting the Earth as a self-sustaining living organism, of protecting the very thing which allows human life. We were trying to protect the Earth’s “natural resources” for our human needs.
Let’s take an example when a road build is proposed the decision makers base decision to allow the road to be built on whether the road will cross any special protected areas, whether it will affect protected species, they will look at the impact it will have on human health and on the human communities affected by this road including their economic needs.
So environmental Impact Assessments are a good tool, they do take into account environmental issues. However they are flawed to really deal with environmental protection. This is because the needs of the planet are excluded from this equation. No one asks what consequence the road build will have on the planet as a whole.