Social Justice and the Environment

Informally, there have been assumed to be three waves of international human rights law. [1] The idea being that each level of rights prompted a struggle to be recognized as one.

  • First generation rights include civil and political rights such as the right to vote, freedom of religion, freedom of speech etc.
  • Second generation rights are what we know as socioeconomic rights- embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights- are those such as the right to housing, food, an education, employment and so on.
  • Third generation rights have included the right to development, communication and sustainability.

I want to address the right to a healthy environment/sustainability. Due to the fact that human rights are human-centric, human rights law cannot accord rights on animals or objects or concepts. The environment itself does not have any human rights.

But the definition included in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Report on Climate Change and Human Rights infers that the environment necessitates protection due to its impact on the rights of humans.[2]

Can a dangerous environment can violate human rights?

Environment and Rights
The OHCHR addresses climate change and the state obligation to protect the environment (which encompasses the protection of the human rights of individuals impacted by the environment in a harmful way).
This is where the opinions of human rights advocates and environmental advocates split: does human dependance on the environment require that it be protected or should it be protected on accord of its own virtue?
If there were no humans, should the environment be protected?
But of course, some human rights advocates say, it should be protected but not by human rights law.
If you ask Handl, he’ll say that human rights can conflict with environmental protection (think: development)
I’m digressing from the point. I didn’t want to focus on environmental protections on a macro level (although the above serves well as a short introduction).

Environmental Protection on the Ground Level

Do you ever throw paper into the bin? Perfectly recyclable paper into the bin? If you do, do you feel a sense of guilt? Has the message of sustainability been socially ingrained in you yet? What about recycling when you’re at work? If your office is like most workplaces, you’ll have a blue box right next to your desk for paper. But what about glass and plastic? Do you throw your microwavable container away after you’ve finished up the fettuccine? Or do you not buy microwavable meals because you focus on avoiding processed food?

This article has been inspired by a disregard for the environment on the part of those working in social justice. The argument being that they’d rather spend their time advocating on behalf of individuals who have urgent needs. This is understandable not entirely convincing. It falls in line with other such excuses (I’m a mother of three, I’m a lawyer who puts in 80 hour weeks, I’m a night shift worker and I never sleep so I cannot find the time to recycle).

This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black since I, as well, have too often rolled up the newspaper and chucked it in the little grey can at the foot of my bed rather than making the trek to the designated compartment in the kitchen. Yet, I’m the first to be affronted by the indifference shown by the general public towards the conditions facing single mothers. Apathy is not supposed to be a social justice advocate trait.

In terms of non-profits, the areas that seem to be making the most progress in sustainability are the fields of food security, health, indigenous rights and animal rights. Indigenous groups are quick to recognize that environmental degradation is pestilent to the land that they’ve spent centuries sustaining themselves with and charities in the promotion of health and nutrition recognize the benefits of locally produced food. I was recently speaking to the ED of a food bank who expressed that Kraft meals are a thing of the past and that food sustainability is in. Similarly, animal rights advocates promote protectionist policies as the current situation is causing a depletion in the animal population. Perhaps all of these groups have an ulterior motive for advocating for the environment but at least they are making strides.

Social justice advocates are scarce at environmental rallies.A project manager at an illustrious non-profit claims that she loves the arts but can’t support the arts as she feels that the funding could be better utilized at anti-poverty organization. Despite acknowledging that her own sentiments are silly, she has consciously removed herself from their supporter base. Does the same train of thought transfer to the environment even though we all know that the progression of the world as it is could result is mass catastrophes that leave anything we’ve ever dealt with in the dust (quite literally)?

Why aren’t we supporting environmental groups when issues of contention come up? Why do we scream in fury when we hear of FGM but we don’t make a squeak when mass deforestation is taking place in our own backyards? If we’re harm reductionists, why do we promote studies that serve as evidence in favour of the low barrier method but we don’t give credit to the science that confirms climate change?

I was in the practice of ignoring environmental issues in the newspaper until (very) recently. I accepted that conservation was essential but I didn’t comprehend the role that I had to play. I’d taken ownership over violence against women and children, poverty, multiculturalism, prisoner rehabilitation, other social justice issues, assuming them to be my issues and what I needed to focus on. I realize now that this was an overly simplistic viewpoint. We all need to do our parts. Despite the perception of being too busy to deviate from work, we need to acknowledge the following:

  1. That the environment will impact human rights including the individuals that we advocate for, thus it is our concern
  2. The environment should be protected by virtue of its own self, thus it is our concern

We won’t get there in a day but social justice advocates should be on the right side of history and we will be… once we get in the habit of it.

[1] I do want to emphasize the word informal because the three ‘waves’ of human rights are a point of contention, they usually lead into the debate about positive rights vs negative rights and whether they exist. I’m not claiming to be in complete agreement with this model but I am using it here for simplicity’s sake.
[2] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/HRAndClimateChange/Pages/Study.aspx

The Conditions We Subject Our Mentally Ill Prisoners To

Last month, it was my privilege to attend a panel discussion organized by SFU Public Square featuring Howard Sapers, the current Correctional Investigator of Canada. The topic followed along the lines of his latest report which testified to our current justice system being riddled with mental health problems and addiction.

I won’t run through the entirety of his findings since the broadcast of the talk was recorded on video but some of the points he raised were dismaying. The lack of competent staff to assist individuals suffering from mental health issues along with the sheer numbers being thrown out made me question whether our federally-regulated prisons can, in any shape or form, be considered fit for habitation. The inadequate support after release was also found to be insufficient and it quickly prompted memories of my days volunteering with the John Howard Society last year. We’ve reached the root of the problem, folks.

The topic of co-occurring disorders was also breached by Mae Burrows from Grief to Action, an agency organized by the parents of individuals suffering from addictions. She emphasized the importance of humanizing people with addictions and dispelling the stigma that is so rampant in society. One of the most heart-rending moments of the dialogue involved a couple in the audience who recounted the story of their incarcerated son. He was denied medical attention and subjugated to persisting neglect after suffering from a mental break during which he sustained an injury. It was also particularly astonishing to me that he had been penalized for refusing methadone (he wanted to quit his heroin addiction without resorting to other opioids), being told that his refusal would be considered ‘bad behaviour’. The parents, holding each others’ hands, grieving for their son’s condition served as a tragic example. Their situation epitomized the treatment that our prisoners are being subjected to by a regulating body that seemingly doesn’t have much interest in maintaining their well-being.

A link to a relevant section within Sapers’ current annual report can be found here and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to hear what was being said that night:

(Credit: SFU Public Square)

Contributions for the event were given to the Mary Steinhauser Memorial Bursary for SFU Aboriginal Undergraduate Students in Arts & Social Sciences.