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Our Rights and Obligations to Future Generations for the Environment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 February 2017

Extract

This we know: the earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth. … Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

Chief Seattle

We read every day about the desecration of our environment and the mismanagement of our natural resources. We have always had the capacity to wreck the environment on a small or even regional scale. Centuries of irrigation without adequate drainage in ancient times converted large areas of the fertile Tigris-Euphrates valley into barren desert. What is new is that we now have the power to change our global environment irreversibly, with profoundly damaging effects on the robustness and integrity of the planet and the heritage that we pass to future generations.

Type
Agora: What Obligation Does our Generation owe to the Next? An Approach to Global Environmental Responsibility
Copyright
Copyright © American Society of International Law 1990

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References

Letter from Chief Seattle, patriarch of the Duwamish and Squamish Indians of Puget Sound, to U.S. President Franklin Pierce (1855). Although the letter appears in numerous anthologies, the original has never been located.

1 Weiss, E. Brown, In Fairness to Future Generations: International Law, Common Patrimony and Intergenerational Equity (1989)Google Scholar.

2 The field of human ecology studies this relationship. See Readings in Man, the Environment, and Human Ecology (A. S. Boughey ed. 1973) (good selection of readings in human ecology); R. & P. Watson, Man and Nature (1969) (thoughtful essay).

3 Professor D’Amato criticizes existing theories of equity for depending on “an articulate link to the improvement of the human condition” (i.e., as anthropocentric), rather than on a moral relationship with nature itself. It is certainly true that In Fairness to Future Generations is concerned with equity among generations of the human species. But it is equity with regard to the care and use of the planet, which is explicitly rooted in the recognition that the human species is part of the natural system. This implies great respect for the natural system of which we are a part, but it does not imply that all other living creatures are or should be treated equally. Rather, the human species, as a part of this natural system, has a special obligation to maintain the integrity of the planet, so that all generations will be able to enjoy its fruits.

4 Burke, E., Reflections on the Revolution in France 139–40 (1790), in 2 Works of Edmund Burke 368 (London 1854)Google Scholar.

5 See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971).

6 See Callahan, What Obligations Do We Have to Future Generations?, in Responsibilities to Future Generations 73 (E. Partridge ed. 1981).

7 See B. Ackerman, Social Justice in the Liberal State (1980).

8 E. Brown Weiss, supra note 1, at 25–26.

9 For a thoughtful analysis of group rights in relation to goods that are enjoyed together, see J. Waldron, Can Communal Goods Be Human Rights? (paper delivered at Conference on Development, Environment and Peace as New Human Rights, Oxford University, Oxford, England, May 28–31, 1987).

10 The temporal dimension may offer a theoretical basis for unifying those human rights that we now consider to be group or social rights and for so-called new human rights. Group rights, such as cultural rights, have a temporal dimension since the community inherently extends over time. Theoretically, rights to development, to food, to health, and to the environment can be seen as intergenerational, or intertemporal, in that they are rights of access of each generation to use and benefit from our natural and cultural resources. See E. Brown Weiss, supra note 1, at 114–15.

11 Bryan Norton, a philosopher, argues that if one accepts the conceptual model of rights as limited to individual rights (which he does), it is preferable to recognize general obligations toward the integrity of environmental systems rather than to discuss environmental protection in the framework of rights, since this framework cannot encompass such categories as future generations, whose individual members are still contingent. Norton, Environmental Ethics and the Rights of Future Generations, 7 Soc. Theory & Prac. 319, 337 (1981).

12 Kelsen, H., Pure Theory of Law 62 (M. Knight trans. 1969)Google Scholar.

13 Austin, J., Austin’s Jurisprudence, Lectures on Jurisprudence 413–15 (1873)Google Scholar.

14 Khadduri, M., The Islamic Conception of Justice 233 (1984)Google Scholar.

15 For catastrophe theory, see R. Thom, Mathematical Models of Morphogenesis (1983); for the theory of complex systems, see I. Prigogine & I. Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (1984). For a concise review of the influence of chaos theory, see Chaos Theory: How Big an Advance?, 245 Science 26 (1989).

16 G. Gallopin, President, Fundación Bariloche, discussion with author, June 1986. This is consistent with the scientific paradigms in the theories of catastrophe and of the dynamics of complex systems far from equilibrium.

17 See, e.g., J. & J. Baldwin, Beyond Sociobiology (1981). Sociobiologists assert that there are four types of inherent behavior that explain all our social behavior: selfish, altruistic, cooperative and spiteful. Humans act so as to try to ensure that their genes will be carried forward into succeeding generations. Id. at 49–50.

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