Human rights and ethics in a crowded planet

Any renewal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has to acknowledge the fact that we live in a crowded planet – crowded in the sense that the demands placed by the world’s human population on its ecological space are such that some members do not have adequate for their health and well-being.

The growth of human numbers is clearly a major concern, but in framing that concern we need to think carefully how the naturalistic element of the problem – the size of a population in relation to its ecological support system – is affected by the social relations that distribute rights of access to it.  The connection between the ecological and the social is not always reflected on clearly, if at all, in discussions of human rights and ethics.

Yet some of the most extensive and severe human rights problems involve a combination of ecological and social disadvantages. Needs for human rights protection on grounds of severe economic poverty, of insecurity due to conflict over resources, and of precarious living or displacement due to environmental degradation and climate change tend to coincide in afflicting the same people – those whose plight, at root, can be described as one of ecological marginalization.

Those of us who enjoy the advantages brought forth by a dynamic global economy need to think about the rights of those on the wrong end of radical inequalities.  We need to recognize our own responsibilities and duties to reduce the claims we make on the planet’s resources and environmental capacities that exceed what could be justified on a human rights basis.

Certainly, before being tempted to pose any question about which of the other, distant, people are ‘too many’ for the planet to bear, we need to think about how our own pressure on resources and environment are too great.

If human rights are, first and foremost, basic rights, in Henry Shue’s sense, and they correspond to the ‘morality of the depths’, then a right of access to the basic means of life that are furnished in what we can conceptualise as ecological space is as basic a right as any.

This way of thinking – integrating ecological concepts into ethical thought – is unfamiliar to many.  In a forthcoming book chapter, ‘Ecology, Ethics & Global Justice’, I set out an “ecological” way of seeing the place of humans in the world, as they relate both to the rest of nature and to each other.  This leads to a conceptualisation of “ecological space” as what answers to the most fundamental needs of human beings, such as to be appropriately regarded as the object of a human right.  It allows us to conceptualise the circumstances of justice in the world today as those of a crowded planet where some people deprive others (as well as non-humans) of access to sufficient ecological space.

(For more on this see also T.Hayward, ‘Ecological Space: the concept and its ethical significance’, forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics, currently available as Just World Institute Working Paper 2013/02.)