Towards the Earth Justice: How far can we go with Anthropocentrism and the Global South Approach?

Towards the Earth Justice: How far can we go with Anthropocentrism and the Global South Approach?

[Nivia (X/Twitter: @NiviaaPipit) is an undergraduate law student of Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia, majoring in international law. She currently works as a research assistant for Gadjah Mada Center for Energy Study as well as the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (an Indonesian-based NGO).]

When I delved into an article entitled Bridging Jurisprudence and Ecology: A New Haven Inquiry into States’ Climate Duties written by Rafsi Albar, a colleague in the International Law Department of Gadjah Mada University, I was astounded by his broad understanding of international law’s approach. His article were written as a response to the recent United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) request for advisory opinion to the ICJ. In brief, the UNGA asked the ICJ to throw light on two important matters: first, the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system and environment from anthropogenic emissions; and second, the legal consequences for States if they cause significant harm to the climate system.

Albar contends that in providing the advisory opinion, the ICJ  can use the New Haven school of thought. He comprehensively argues that this approach will allow participation of States with various capacities (by introducing nationally determined contributions [NDCs]); incorporation of anthropological perspectives in resolving climate issues; and the progressive development of environmental rights, are very comprehensive.

Nevertheless, Albar’s article has led me to question whether we are really on the right track. Does anthropocentrism lead the way for an effective environmental protection? Precisely, I wonder if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its addition of NDCs as the primary international response lead us to emission reduction. If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘not really’, then the ICJ should not build its arguments on such conceptions. This article is intended to debunk the myth of anthropocentrism and the global south approach in the fight against climate change.

Anthropocentrism: A Hollow Yet Glorious Concept in International Environmental Law

Anthropocentrism, as defined by Kopnina, et.al. (2018), is an ideology that roots all value in humanity. The ideology views only humans as worthy of ethical consideration; thus, other things are means to human ends. Anthropocentrism removes all compassion and lessens empathy for nature. It precludes nature from having moral standing. As a consequence, nature has no agency, and without its own value it shall not be respected. This ideology was the foundation of international environmental law from the first conference in 1972 on human environment in Stockholm. Even the first ever-recorded treaty of environmental resource management, an agreement between two Mesopotamian states of Lagash and Umma, reflected human domination over nature. The ecological crises that we face currently bring no different approach.

Aside from centering value only on humans, anthropocentrism implies that we only protect the environment to the extent that it benefits, or is unharmful to, human interest. This brings two unavoidable impacts.

First, environmental protection will never achieve significant progress. Anthropocentrism constitutes a very different quality of ecological conservation: no matter how destructive acts are, we will tolerate them because they serve human, or at least part of the human, interest. For instance, no States have ever be prosecuted or held legally responsible for the ecological destruction caused by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs or Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, because it was deemed necessary for the benefit of mankind.

One may argue, as has the ICJ in its advisory opinion on the legality of the treat or use of nuclear weapons, that such devastation was justified in wartime: “… The Court does not consider that the treaties in question should have intended to deprive a State of the exercise of its right of self-defence under international law because of its obligation to protect environment.” However, would one argue that contemporary coal and rare earth elements mining to expand  green energy is also justified? This mining releases sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particular matter from the smelting and refining process. We justify all of these for the sake of humanity.

Second,  if we entirely depend on anthropocentrism, the idea of human protection itself is doomed to fail. Scientifically, it is very hard to determine which act will influence human life as the environment is constituted by physical processes, which are comprised of concepts such as tipping points, feedback loops, and non-linear processes. Therefore, nobody can conclude how impactful a few mining sites in a region are in relation to climate change (and then human life). As a consequence, there’s no parameter of to what extent we need to conserve merely for mankind’s survival.  Only by protecting nature for its own sake can we minimize the potential of human-made ecological disasters.

Even by looking from a human-centric point of view, it is best to steer away from anthropocentrism. The ICJ plays an important role in shifting this paradigm through its advisory opinion.

Debunking The Myth of Global South Approach

International environmental law differs from international law more generally as it was built within the spirit of decolonization. Accordingly, third-world countries (or the global south), as opposed to the global north that consists of colonizers, receive different scales of environmental obligations, with the latter having more stringent obligations than the former. Such differentiation was based on two arguments. First, the global south argued that the key driver of climate change was the industrial revolution carried out by the global north that systematically exploited them. Therefore, the global north must be the most responsible actor in the current climate crisis. Moreover, sophisticated technology to reduce human impacts on the ecosystem is only available in the global north. This differentiation later culminated in the concept of NDCs that decentralizes not only the mechanism but also the target of emission reduction itself to every State.

Nonetheless, we see advanced development and a rise of emerging economies such as China and India, which were previously categorized as the global. As such, the dichotomy and its impact must be corrected. While a dichotomy based on development stages such as ‘global north’ and ‘global south’ is still highly relevant to maintain the States’ capacity and political will to engage in environmental issues, we can’t keep making excuses for States that had already passed the developing stages. Indeed, the aforementioned States produce only relatively small amounts of emission compared to what Western countries do aggregately. However, it is important for international environmental law to prevent such States from enjoying the privileges of the global south to follow the Western ecological destruction path rather than leaving the level of obligation at the States’ discretion.

Furthermore, the move to the NDCs model is problematic. In the NDC concept, the State is the sole actor vested with power to determine emission targets. Even if it is subject to review by other States, the concerned State has a broad discretion to argue that due to the dynamic of its internal affairs, it is not possible to adopt a stronger commitment. Interestingly, the State is not responsible if it does not meet its target. At this point, would we call international environmental law ‘law’?

Second, there is a presupposition, as can be inferred from Indira Gandhi’s speech at the Stockholm Conference 1972, that higher economic development and income levels will result in ‘green’ societies and economies. Hence, the most important step for the global north is assisting its poorer neighbors to alleviate poverty and advance its industrial sector. Yet, after poverty is addressed and the poor are as rich as the ‘top’, does it result in a more ‘green’ society? As Crist (2012) pointed out, the “rising standard of living” is, in fact, a “euphemism for the global dissemination of consumer culture”. Without an adequate acknowledgment about the real troublemaker (consumerism in the West that keeps demanding capitalism to satisfy it), the extraction, exploitation, and harnessing of the natural world continue at a significant pace. Conversely, our intention to eliminate poverty without a change in the consumption cycle will eventually build a new consumer class.

Merely Justifying the Status Quo is Not Enough

While conceptions such as environmental rights are ripe in almost every country’s constitution, the role of consumerism and capitalism that are entrenched in both the global south and global north are peripheral. Yet, those two are the root of the current crisis. Capitalism relegates nature to just a commodity to please the desire of consumerist lifestyle. Likewise, consumerism itself is constructed by capitalism to maintain the profit-generating system. Although States participate in the global economy, they do not admit their complicity in the matter. Therefore, the ICJ must state in its advisory opinion that environmental issues are not solely those relating to human existence per se,but include the human-made system of capitalism. As Albar states, the ICJ’s advisory opinion has an important role in shaping the future of international law. Thus, it shall not merely preserve the status quo or further flawed conceptions of international environmental law. After years of failure, anthropocentrism and the current approach to the global south, these ideas need to be re-evaluated.

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Environmental Law, General

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