Last Friday, Oct. 8th, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly to declare that access to a ‘safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment’ should be considered a human right. Environmental activists hailed this as a major achievement, a breakthrough for their work. You can read more on CNN or Reuters.
Breakthrough or not, unfortunately everyone understands that this resolution will have no effect by itself. It is not legally binding on any country in any way. The expected benefit is only that this vote will add to the urgency of addressing pressing environmental problems, climate change in particular. And as harm caused by climate change is accepted as a human rights violation, this may help opponents make a more potent moral or political argument against those who take too little action to reduce emission of greenhouse gasses.
Similar to Our Religious Teachings
Viewed that way, this UN resolution merely adds to widespread religious teachings that environmentalists have drawn on always. For example, the often cited Torah verses prohibiting the cutting down of fruit trees even for the purpose of war make clear that no matter how great the short term necessity we must preserve natural resources for the future (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). The Talmud (Gittin 60b) explains that while it is permitted to divert a stream to benefit from its water, if such diversion causes other peoples’ fields to flood then it is not allowed.
It’s easy to argue based off these examples (and the many more too numerous to be cited here) that releasing greenhouse gasses that will cause sea level to rise and property to be destroyed should be forbidden, even if there is economic benefit to be had by doing so. As the cause and effect relationship between release of greenhouse gasses and climate change has been ever more clearly proven by science, there shouldn’t be much room left to wiggle. All this resolution is doing is adding the accusation of human rights violations to what was already a well-established matter of environmental justice.
But alas, as we see, religious teachings have done little to rein in polluters. It’s therefore unlikely this UN resolution will have much impact either. The reason is that environmental issues often involve convoluted chains of competing values that are very difficult to address.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes rights to basic material necessities- food, shelter, health care, and so on. To provide just this for the Earth’s approximately 8 billion human residents requires the consumption of enormous resources, likely causing some amount of climate change already.
Of course many of the world’s 8 billion people live well beyond the minimum, appropriating for themselves far more land, water, and energy than necessary to meet their human right needs. What this UN resolution did not do is set clear guidelines and limits for every person’s diet, home size, and travel radius, let alone dictate penalties for not turning off lights when leaving a room or turning on the oven too early to preheat. Would that perhaps have obstructed the resolution’s quick passage?
In other words, declaring access to a safe, clean, and sustainable environment a human right is vital and necessary, but it’s also the most simple and straightforward part of an environmentalist’s work. The harder part is forming a consensus about how to balance use of natural resources for our own necessary well being with our obligation to not harm others, all while leaving a sustainable world for the future.
Religious teachings do not offer us a detailed guide about how to do this. We’ll need to figure it out ourselves, and international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council are a good place to have these discussions. Unfortunately, last week’s resolution makes clear that these deliberations are just at the very beginning. Any sort of plan is not yet in sight.