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the environment and human rights

On tackling the environmental crisis through human rights

Markku Oksanen
p. 104-119


There is broad scientific consensus on the anthropogenic roots of the environmental crisis, whether we think about biodiversity decline, climate change, pollution or, in general, about the increasing scarcity of ecological space for living entities. Unlike humans, other living beings have no notion of crisis and are probably not bothered by such highly abstract concerns. When a crisis occurs, non-humans either adapt or vanish, whereas humans may see it lurking ahead and become anxious. This human urge to reflect on the state of nature and the role of humanity is manifest in the new concept of the Anthropocene. Originally, human rights and environmental crisis entered the public sphere as separate themes but from the 1970s, they began to appear together on a regular basis in legal and political documents and in research literature. Philosophically, the ultimate question is whether we humans are to blame ourselves for the environmental crisis because of the rights that we grant to ourselves. In other words, are human rights, above all, a source of the environmental crisis or an essential element in the search for solutions? In this article, this quandary is approached philosophically from the belief that the framework of human rights might help us envisage a civilised way out of the crisis.

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  • 1 E.g. Boyle, Anderson 1998, Hiskes 2009, Woods 2016, Knox and Pejan 2018.
  • 2 Aiken 1992.
  • 3 See Cruft, Liao, Renzo 2015.
  • 4 E.g. White 1967, Blackstone 1974, Plumwood 2002.

1Human rights and environmental crisis originally entered the public sphere as separate themes but, since the early 1970s, they have frequently appeared together in legal and political documents and in research literature.1 Philosophically, the ultimate question is whether we humans are to blame for the environmental crisis because of the rights that we grant to ourselves. These rights not only regulate our relations with our fellow humans but also provide us with a superior status with respect to the natural world. When understood in this way, are human rights drivers of the environmental crisis as they encourage and justify unsustainable use of the land, the waters and the air; or are they an essential element in the search for a way out of the crisis?2 While I recognise the former as a possibility, a future without the protection that human rights grant to individuals is not alluring. Human rights comprise a complex and conflicting set of specific rights that can be constructed and justified in many ways. The questions that may be asked in this regard include whether such rights are moral or legal in nature, whether they are justified instrumentally and non-instrumentally, what specific rights should be included and how these specific rights should be ranked.3 There are, roughly speaking, both theoretical (purely philosophical) and practice-based answers to these questions. The former stem from armchair reflections; while the latter are shaped by laws, court cases and public policies nationally, regionally and globally. Furthermore, the notion of crisis has been used varyingly in cultural and social criticism since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s to the present.4

  • 5 Etinson 2018: 3.
  • 6 E.g. Moyn 2017: 166.

2This essay is essentially exploratory in nature and does not aim to articulate and defend any particular position concerning either the nature and causes of environmental crisis or the conception of human rights. I take the view, however, that without human rights (or a similar normative framework), there is no hope of a civilised response to the environmental crisis. I would also argue that, through the framework of human rights, humans can promote an ethos of common humanity, which is much needed in the era of the Anthropocene. I take inspiration from the belief that the framework of human rights might enable us to «reimagine our ideals and practices as they ought to be»5 despite the doubt – even among the defenders of human rights – as to the power of the framework to address the problems of «our common future».6 Human rights provide at least two evaluative agendas. First, as is most often noticed, they offer the promise of safeguarding decent living conditions for every human being as a member of a polity. Second, and less often noticed, they offer a view of humanity as a collective actor whose moral character can be evaluated in terms of success in collective action, which refers to what humanity has achieved by means of setting up institutions that govern and coordinate human behaviour at various levels.

3The article is divided into four main sections. The first examines human rights in the context of the Anthropocene and human accountability. The second considers the notions of human rights and humanity in relation to the existence of the human species. The third focuses on the creation of the ecologically informed conception of human rights. The fourth section, before the conclusion, examines the environmental crisis as an emergency that impacts on conceptions of human rights.

1. Human rights and the Anthropocene

  • 7 Hamilton 2015: 39.

4There is broad scientific consensus on the anthropogenic roots of the environmental crisis, whether we think about biodiversity decline, climate change, pollution or, in general, the increasing scarcity of ecological space for living entities. Unlike humans, other living beings, however, do not have the notion of crisis and are probably not bothered by such highly abstract concerns. Therefore, although there have been radical changes in climate history and five previous mass extinction events on earth, the atmospheric warming and the sixth mass extinction that are currently taking place are exceptional because of the existence of humans. When a crisis occurs, non-humans either adapt or vanish, whereas humans may see it lurking ahead and become anxious. This human urge to reflect on the state of nature and the role of humanity is manifest in the new concept of Anthropocene that Hamilton portrays insightfully: «In the Anthropocene, in addition to the past we seek to escape, now we have a future we want to avoid.»7 Thus, the Anthropocene is a crisis concept, not a neutral geological periodisation.

  • 8 Cf. Gardiner 2011.
  • 9 E.g. Williston 2015.
  • 10 E.g. Crist 2018.

5When it comes to the details of the drivers behind the environmental crisis and the emergence of the Anthropocene as a moniker for the current state of the environment, divergence in opinion exists and researchers and others disagree about the reasonableness of applying moral concepts to abstract ideas such as humanity. How could humanity bear the guilt of mass extinction or climate change? Even though it is neither fair nor true to life to attribute equal culpability to each human being, as if their ecological footprints were all of the same size, finding ways out of the crisis seem to require two things: (1) taking all of humanity into account and (2) speaking of the crisis and the response to it in terms of common humanity. Both are needed because the crisis is global and intergenerational and because each individual human may both be affected by its consequences and exacerbate it through their actions. Speaking of the crisis in terms of common humanity creates a shared sense of urgency in relation to it.8 That is to say that the notion of the Anthropocene points to a crisis of which people are aware and this awareness can trigger a response, first in the mind, later in practical action. In a crisis situation, few things offer hope of a better future, although some authors want to focus on the bright side,9 while others stress, perhaps somewhat longingly, the glorious past of the biosphere in the period before its mass destruction on an industrial scale.10 Whatever attitude we take to the Anthropocene, the concept itself gives a rise to the political quest for collective action.

  • 11 Taylor 1986, Korsgaard 2018.

6The notion of the Anthropocene seems to entail the subjection of an entire species, Homo sapiens, to moral scrutiny. Does this make any sense? My first response to such an effort would be infeasible because it rests on attributing responsibilities to a biological species. The main reason for reacting this way is that the concept of responsibility – like any other cognate concept – is only attributable to human individuals, to normal or competent human adults who are classified as moral agents by virtue of certain psychological capacities that makes us rational, self-reflective and capable of moral motivation and which members of other species lack or possess only to a limited extent.11

  • 12 Hardin 1968, Stone 1972.

7My second, perhaps more deliberate, response is the opposite of the first. The rationality of individuals and the tendency to be social and cooperative makes discussion of species responsibility meaningful. There are recent, highly sophisticated studies on the ontology and ethics of collective (joint, group, shared) agency. The language of agency and the moral evaluation of the actions of individuals has significance beyond the level of individuals. Moreover, established collective actors and organisations such as nation states, municipalities, corporations and universities are perceived as legal persons to whom rights, duties and responsibilities can be attributed. In environmental political philosophy, this discussion goes back, on the one hand, to Hardin’s provocative analysis of the problems of collective action that inspired sophisticated research on designing sustainable institutions; and on the other hand, to Stone’s analysis of the rights of non-conventional entities, including collective agents and natural objects.12

  • 13 See Moyn 2018.
  • 14 See Nickel 2007: 62.
  • 15 Ignatieff 2002: 173; cf. Beitz 2009: 57, Caney 2010: 72.

8Traditionally, the collective rules of behaviour have been local or national in scale and have sought to resolve issues related to common resources within and between communities. The development of a global perspective and the modern idea of humanity are of more recent origin. One of the newish institutions that espouses this approach is the United Nations (UN), whose foundational values are expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The idea of human rights has materialised in the development of international human rights law and the establishment of legal institutions, such as supranational human rights courts. Despite the original intention that social and economic rights would have a strong role to play, the practice of human rights has become rather limited in scope and focuses on eradicating systematic oppression and persecution of citizens on the part of the states in which they live.13 Philosophical investigation of human rights has often aimed at identifying the core rights that clarify the overall function of human rights in the wider normative landscape.14 Some human rights scholars prefer a minimalist approach, focusing on a rather narrow list of human rights and concentrating on the gravest wrongs done to people.15 Demonstrating minimalistic tendencies, mainstream human rights has emphasised the protection of individuals but, as is typically true of abstract norms, is open to reinterpretation. A situation characterised by crisis may not allow a decent life to be lived, either materially or psychologically. Thus, we face the question, provided the minimalistic approach: what actions that intentionally prevent humans from having a minimally decent life are prima facie harmful actions that entitle the public authorities to take steps to prevent them from happening?

  • 16 See Boyd 2012.

9As mentioned above, since the early 1970s – first in the Stockholm Declaration, and later in numerous constitutional reforms around the globe – new debates addressing the scope and the content of human rights have taken place.16 Contrary to the minimalistic tendencies discussed above, these rights stretch to cover the economic, social and cultural dimensions of human lives and their environmental conditions. They also cover, however varyingly, democratic rights, such as the right to know and to participate. (I examine these rights in section 4). The background to these changes lies in the formation of international organisations and novel forms of regulation that, inter alia, aim at mitigating global warming, preventing biodiversity loss and tackling many other environmental issues of a global and transboundary nature. As such, they are human responses to human-created problems; that is, to the Anthropocene.

2. The species problem and human rights

10Even if we accept the idea of collective agency, the species Homo sapiens might not qualify as an established collective actor in itself. As a category, it differs from legal persons, which are recognised in domestic law; and from states, which are recognised by the international community. Translating the matter into the species problem, a key issue in the philosophy of biology and metaphysics more widely, would constitute a highly intuitive approach to the question of whether human rights are species-specific or species’ rights. There are two classic positions: nominalism and realism. Nominalists see humankind as consisting of individuals that are classified under one concept based on some criterion. Species realists instead argue that there is a species essence.

  • 17 Griffin 2007.

11Approaches to this problem were characteristically essentialist before the Darwinian revolution, and so the issue was to determine the necessary and sufficient properties of an entity to justify its inclusion in the category of humanity (or any other species). Thus, species realism has it that a species has an existence that is somehow independent of its individual members. Species realism as applied to human rights thinking rests on the idea that certain individuals have rights solely because of their species membership.17 Thus understood, the aim of this approach is to close the scope of humanity as a category. A critical point in this conception is whether it assumes that the species itself is a rights-holder or whether only members of the species are rights-holders. Thus, there is a potential conflict between a species’ rights and individuals’ rights.

  • 18 Stuurman 2017: 1.
  • 19 Cf. Korsgaard 2018: 48-50.

12Various new scholarly works argue against species realism. These include Stuurman’s The Invention of Humanity, which offers a detailed historical presentation of the development of the modern conception of the human species. Stuurman begins with the thesis that «common humanity» is not a «primeval fact» to be discovered and that the members of Homo sapiens constitute «a single community is not an empirical fact». Rather, when many humans believe that humans constitute a single entity, this entity will be created and the process is an intellectual process leading to the emergence of «an imagined humanity».18 In other words, humans must conceive of themselves as belonging to the same species so as to make the highly abstract talk of common humanity meaningful.19

  • 20 Stuurman 2017: 546.
  • 21 See Smith 2013: 41.

13Stuurman’s historical analysis seems to presuppose an anti-realist view on species and, in particular, on the existence of Homo sapiens, because humanity is an invention, or a construction. On the other hand, when certain biological beings conceive themselves as members of the same group, this group comes into existence as a part of social reality. This is, however, realism about the existence of social reality, whose nature depends on shared beliefs; that is to say that humanity is, ultimately, a social construct that ceases to exist when we humans give up the notion of common humanity. Stuurman’s approach is plainly humanistic, and he considers that «we should not assume that biology has now become a discourse of common humanity, except in a very restricted sense». Therefore, he assumes that «all humans are members of the same species».20 Consequently, it is not clear how the ideas of meta-community and «imagined humanity» relate to the competing biological conceptions of species. Imagined humanity may be understood as a social fact and thus distinct from a brute fact, because the existence of a brute fact is entirely independent of human beliefs, whereas the existence of a social fact is contingent upon collective human beliefs. How do these two conceptions of human then relate? One opinion is that we can make a parallel distinction: as a social fact ‘human’ refers to a folk category and as a brute fact Homo sapiens constitutes a scientific category.21 Nevertheless, the more typical framework hesitates to endorse such a distinction between folk and scientific species conceptions.

  • 22 Ereshefsky 2017.

14The extreme individualist position regarding species stands, nevertheless, in an awkward relation to social reality, which to my mind is more complex. Furthermore, in addition to individuals, there are established collective actors. The position known as «relational essentialism» may offer an answer to the question of whether humanity is a collective actor. Ereshefsky defines this position as follows: «According to relational essentialism, certain relations among organisms, or between organisms and the environment, are necessary and sufficient for membership in a species.»22 This definition seems promising when we combine the historicity of species (i.e., the extant genetic lineage) and the historical development of human social structures. As I have tried to show above, humanity (also as a biological entity) can evolve to the point that it can constitute an agent. There is no world government and the world community is not well organised. There are, however, strong global tendencies, of which the creation of the human rights framework is one. At the same time, there are strong national or even regional tendencies that stand against ideas of globalism, common humanity and even supranational human rights courts. At the end of the day, the key issue is ideological in nature and concerns the direction in which humans decide to go. It should be clear that the discourse of the Anthropocene and human rights used here implies a defence of globalism and international institutions.

3. Human rights to nature

15In the early 1990s, Aiken published a rare defence of human rights. He begins with an intellectual historical generalisation:

  • 23 Aiken 1992: 191.

Among the more “ecologically” inspired value theories like bio-centricism, eco-holism, bio-egalitarianism, and some versions of eco-feminism, the notion of human rights, though not entirely abandoned, is seen as somewhat bothersome.23

16He goes on to explain why human rights have been «bothersome»:

  • 24 Ibidem: 191-192.

Many “green” and ecologically informed political and ethical theorists do not even mention the notion of human rights in their analyses. The very concept is seen to be tied to the ethical theories of the age of Modernity – the age of individualism, rationalism, domination, homocentricism, and androcentrism. But this worldview, and its moral theories, is precisely what is being challenged by environmental philosophers.24

17In other words, the mainstream conception of human rights has been strongly anthropocentric. For this reason, it has failed to tackle the environmental crisis, and will fail to tackle it as long as the larger normative landscape and the interpretation of the focal norms are strongly anthropocentric. As an ideology, the human rights conception supports structures, practices and activities that lead to biodiversity loss, global warming, pollution, acidification and other transgressions of planetary boundaries25. It manifests and justifies an attitude to the rest of nature that is often called human supremacy.

18Human rights are human’s rights. As standardly defined, they are rights that belong solely to humans because they are human; no other reason needs to be presented. If this is accepted, human rights may be viewed as reflecting the human self-image as an exceptional species in the animal kingdom, which very fact is regarded as justifying human exploitation of nature. Thus, it is presupposed that a sharp divide between humans and non-humans exists. Human exceptionalism can refer to many different ideas. In the most general terms, it can single out a factual property in humans that does not exist in any other form of life. All species and all biological individuals are exceptional in this sense, and therefore this understanding of exceptionalism is not necessarily normatively loaded. The explicitly normative meaning of exceptionalism is of interest here and can be expressed in axiological terms, by using the concepts of worth, value and dignity. Thus, the worth of humans exceeds the worth of any other species, which forms the basis of humanity’s conception of itself as having higher status in the natural order and acts as justification for the exploitative human attitude to the rest of nature.

  • 26 See Oksanen, Vuorisalo 2019.

19Historically, the doubt over the anthropocentricity of human rights is not pointless, even though international law governs states rather than individual citizens. When one considers the social, cultural and economic dimension of human rights, there are indications to be found in the landmark declarations and conventions that the natural world is regarded as a storehouse of resources and that the use of these resources is ultimately in the hands of sovereign states.26 This ideology even colours the 1992 Rio Convention on Biodiversity. Each country has a right to pursue development, the realisation of which calls for ever-increasing exploitation of the natural world. Environmental philosophy, as an academic discipline, first saw daylight in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a critique of worldviews that support development at the cost of the environment. At the level of individual humans and of the prevailing ideology, human rights are the rights of humans to exploit resources and, therefore, some of the environmental philosophical points to be made are precisely those listed by Aiken in the quotation above.

20The points Aiken mentions are comments on the ideological system that is deemed to allow, justify and enable action that leads to biodiversity loss, global warming and other environmental calamities. Despite all the talk over decades, human rights have played a minor role in environmental conservation and protection policies, and furthermore, their role has been much bigger in allowing developmental activities. With growing worldwide interest in what are known as environmental human rights, the seeds have been sown for an ecological transition.

21In the context of human rights, the justification of action means that there are no appropriate reasons for external interference in individual action and that rights are protections against external interference. Enabling action, again in the context of human rights, means that public policies make action possible in various ways, through education, economic support and incentives, for instance. The array of acceptable environmental policies that exist within the human rights regimes is so expansive that critics may argue that their sheer proliferation fails to prevent environmentally harmful human action. What sort of threat does this argument pose to the normative view of human rights.

22By means of human rights, certain types of action that impact on nature may be regarded as wrong. Marrying human rights with the time-honoured harm principle brings us onto familiar terrain. It is clear that pollution activities from identified emission sources that exceed a certain limit can violate the rights to health, life and property, for instance. However, when a violation occurs, it naturally falls to the law courts to adjudicate upon it or it is the task of public officials to implement policies based on legislation. Within the human rights regime, there are many possible public policy alternatives for the regulation of polluting activities and businesses. When pollution is a human rights violation, government has a duty to establish harm-reducing policies. There is a lot of discussion whether global warming is a human rights violation, too. In both cases, as these emissions may be allowable from the human rights perspective due to human dependence on fossil fuels.

  • 27 Taylor 1986.
  • 28 See Oksanen, Kumpula 2013.

23In respect of environmental concerns as significant as biodiversity loss, ecosystem function and landscape protection, a common intuition is that it is difficult to interpret human rights as covering both the banning of individual action and the elimination of public policies that generate these concerns. It does not make much sense to say that endangerment of the polar bear is a human rights violation. If a right has been violated, it would appear more promising to argue that the rights-holder is the polar bear and to defend its rights. The rights of polar bears are not human rights, however. Therefore, some other basis of argument must be provided. One way to approach the issue is to emphasise rights as regulating interhuman relations, as Taylor argues.27 In respect of environmental human rights, this interhuman element is articulated when the focus is on procedural (or democratic) rights that enable citizens to participate in political decision-making; the right to know is a classic example.28 Is this understanding of human rights applicable to more substantial rights?

  • 29 See, e.g., Oksanen, Kumpula 2018; Kareiva, Marvier 2012: 967; Kharavi 2015.

24Attempts have been made in that direction, in which specific environmental concerns are addressed within the human rights framework.29 In 2017, the UN special rapporteur John Knox’s analysis of human rights and biodiversity was submitted to the UN General Assembly. The key idea of the analysis was to connect biodiversity and human rights via the language of ecosystem services as follows:

  • 30 Human Rights Council 2017: 3.

The full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food and water, depends on the services provided by ecosystems. The provision of ecosystem services depends on the health and sustainability of ecosystems, which in turn depend on biodiversity. The full enjoyment of human rights thus depends on biodiversity, and the degradation and loss of biodiversity undermine the ability of human beings to enjoy their human rights.30

25In this quotation, the report points towards substantive rights. They govern access to and use of the resources that are vital to meeting the basic individual needs of every human as a biological entity. The report represents a significant step outside the established and important but narrow framework in which biodiversity values are paired with the rights of indigenous peoples. Biodiversity is a human rights issue for all humans everywhere. Nevertheless, there may be inbuilt tensions and even contradictions in the rights framework. For instance, even if our focus is on the loss of biodiversity, we worry about the presence of the harmful aspects of biodiversity in the form of infectious diseases and the threat they pose to humans. Consequently, the right to a healthy environment might include a conflict between the right to a germ-free environment and the right to a biodiverse environment in which the human immune system develops (the biodiversity hypothesis of health).

  • 31 Moyn 2018.

26As mentioned above, the minimalistic approach to human rights has been strong, although not historically accurate understanding31 and, therefore, political debate over the expansion of the idea of human rights to new objects of interest has continued. Whatever our approach to human rights, the idea of applying human rights to biodiversity conservation comprises a new understanding of the place of humanity in the natural world.

  • 32 Corrigan 2018.

27In practice, the greatest impact of human rights can occur via courts where cases are being adjudicated on. Adjudication is meaningful as long as sovereign states accept international rulings and revise domestic lawmaking, policies and court decisions accordingly. It is not self-evident that the resulting adjudication is always optimal from an environmental perspective. Thus, it is possible – provided that the case concerns human rights – that the human rights regime allows activities that are not sustainable.32

4. Rights, crisis, emergency

  • 33 See Carrington 2019.

28It is rather natural to associate the concept of crisis with that of emergency. Emergency is not, however, an unambiguous concept. We can use emergency concepts for rhetorical reasons and to raise public awareness of certain issues: think of a university declaring a climate emergency, for example. Influential voices warn of the possibility that, in a world in which temperatures are rising, social institutions and the rule of law can collapse, resulting in a situation where human rights cannot be safeguarded33: think about weaknesses in safeguarding the right of asylum, for example. In addition, states of emergency may be used as intentional political choices by societies: think about governmental responses to the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, for example. Most nations have legislation on how to declare a state of an emergency and what kind of powers will be assigned to public authorities. Typically, an emergency is a situation in which the targeted suppression of basic rights is brought about by governments or other actors. Is the current environmental crisis, however, of a kind that warrants the curbing of basic rights as long as the crisis continues?

29Again, there are different rights and different conceptions of rights. Some rights are directly related to environmental considerations, others only indirectly and yet others perhaps not at all. In the name of tackling the environmental crisis, there are no grounds for overriding those rights that are unrelated to the crisis. For instance, no government can justify its negligence to the killing, torturing and raping of people for environmental reasons – it is difficult to imagine how decriminalising murder, torture and rape would help in tackling biodiversity loss or climate change. On the contrary, the basic rights of environmentalists tend to be violated either by governments or by non-governmental actors. Thus, human rights protection is essential in environmental civic activism34. In general, it is difficult to see how a passive approach can be taken in respect of rights in the face of extreme situations that threaten the existence of the rights-holder. Thus there are grounds for thinking that emergency measures and policies are fully compatible with the human rights framework. Measures taken in relation to a disastrous epidemic are a commonly cited example of this. If rights are limited to some extent, the onus to show that this is necessary lies with those responsible for instituting the state of emergency. Can they satisfy the burden of proof required? As recent experience has shown, it may be hard to earn public trust in relation to such measures. Some scientists have declared «the final warning»,35 while others paint a less dramatic picture of the situation: «Crossing these boundaries could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.»36 Some discussants prefer more alarmist, politically conventional wording and legally established wording and utilise the emergency concept. But there are many others whose views are different, to say the least. Therefore, declaration of a state of the emergency and the implementation of exceptional measures accompanied by exceptional ethics will surely face resistance. Hardin’s original problem, population growth, is a good academic example of this that continues to be debated.37

  • 38 Crist 2018: 111.
  • 39 Crist 2018: 139; cf. Ripple et al. 2019.

30Although the idea of an emergency does attract some people, requests to cast aside the human rights framework are much less attractive or rejected outright. For example, Crist is highly critical of the ideology of human supremacy and even suggests giving up reflections on the issue of «[h]ow are humans different?» When this is done and there is no compulsion for making distinctions based on identity, «the entire world (and existence) will appear in a completely new light».38 At the same time, she defends human rights, some of which are «hard-won and still-fought-for freedoms are not exercised at the expense of the natural world».39 This is somewhat paradoxical: it entails rejecting anthropocentric notions except those that are still useful to fight the notion of human supremacy. At the end of the day, emergency measures to tackle an immediate environmental crisis must not contradict the fundamental values that justify human responses to the crisis.

Concluding remarks

31In 2020, many of secular utopian visions have turned out to be unappealing. The idea of human rights is, by and large, flourishing and enables us to assess the moral nature of the actions and institutions – or the lack of them – that aggravate the crisis at the global level. There is, however, no simple human rights solution. We need an environmentally friendly or ecologically informed conception of human rights – i.e., those known as «environmental human rights» or «environmental rights» – that offers a vision of allocation of responsibilities within and between societies. Such a conception would enshrine the rudiments of the appropriate treatment of the natural world by setting standards by which to measure (1) the harm caused to present and future generations of humans; (2) access to necessary resources such as water, food and clean air; and (3) political and legal participation in the practical application of these rights.

32Applying human rights thinking to environmental crisis is an example of humans attempting to solve the crisis they have created. I have also examined the question of whether the environmental crisis constitutes a threat that strengthens or undermines the concept of human rights. The dominant understanding of human rights functions in a manner that allows ecologically pessimistic thoughts to arise but, on the other hand, the expansion of human rights to new aspects of human life and the safeguarding of activist lives can work in the opposite direction.

  • 40 Malm, Hornborg 2014; cf. Crist 2018: 94ff.

33I have also examined the following question: can humanity achieve agency in a morally relevant sense and thus be capable of holding responsibility? My answer is that the emergence of such agency is possible, that it has been evolving but that it has not yet been fully achieved. The invention of common humanity is a starting point. The idea of human rights and the global institutions through which this idea is being realised is an expression of the genuine collectivity of humanity. Moreover, when we reflect on the culpability of humans, the notion of human is not used in a literal sense but in terms of participation in humanity’s critical collective self-reflection. One aspect of this reflection is to recognise the limitations and biases of language. Talk of humanity as one collective actor can blind one to the differing degrees of responsibility or accountability among humans with respect to the environmental crisis. Neglect of this fact is the major criticism levelled by the political left towards the concept of the Anthropocene.40 Here we encounter another problem for the idea of common humanity – that talk of common humanity hides a cruel world of injustice. Nevertheless, environmental harms endanger individuals’ ability, albeit in a socially differentiated manner, to lead a minimally decent life. If rights protect these individual basic interests, then there is at least an element of hope in the crisis.

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1 E.g. Boyle, Anderson 1998, Hiskes 2009, Woods 2016, Knox and Pejan 2018.

2 Aiken 1992.

3 See Cruft, Liao, Renzo 2015.

4 E.g. White 1967, Blackstone 1974, Plumwood 2002.

5 Etinson 2018: 3.

6 E.g. Moyn 2017: 166.

7 Hamilton 2015: 39.

8 Cf. Gardiner 2011.

9 E.g. Williston 2015.

10 E.g. Crist 2018.

11 Taylor 1986, Korsgaard 2018.

12 Hardin 1968, Stone 1972.

13 See Moyn 2018.

14 See Nickel 2007: 62.

15 Ignatieff 2002: 173; cf. Beitz 2009: 57, Caney 2010: 72.

16 See Boyd 2012.

17 Griffin 2007.

18 Stuurman 2017: 1.

19 Cf. Korsgaard 2018: 48-50.

20 Stuurman 2017: 546.

21 See Smith 2013: 41.

22 Ereshefsky 2017.

23 Aiken 1992: 191.

24 Ibidem: 191-192.

25 See (accessed: 17 April 2020).

26 See Oksanen, Vuorisalo 2019.

27 Taylor 1986.

28 See Oksanen, Kumpula 2013.

29 See, e.g., Oksanen, Kumpula 2018; Kareiva, Marvier 2012: 967; Kharavi 2015.

30 Human Rights Council 2017: 3.

31 Moyn 2018.

32 Corrigan 2018.

33 See Carrington 2019.

34 See, e.g., (accessed: 17 April 2020).

35 Ripple et al. 2017; cf. Ripple et al. 2020.

36 The framework of planetary boundaries identified by Johan Rockström and his colleagues is widely acknowledged. See (accessed: 17 April 2020).

37 Hardin 1968.

38 Crist 2018: 111.

39 Crist 2018: 139; cf. Ripple et al. 2019.

40 Malm, Hornborg 2014; cf. Crist 2018: 94ff.

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Markku Oksanen, «On tackling the environmental crisis through human rights»Rivista di estetica, 75 | 2020, 104-119.

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Markku Oksanen, «On tackling the environmental crisis through human rights»Rivista di estetica [Online], 75 | 2020, online dal 02 février 2021, consultato il 18 septembre 2021. URL:; DOI:

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