Actions that infringe on someone else’s rights cannot be justified in the name of personal freedom. As consumers, our actions can have destructive environmental consequences which go on to negatively impact the lives of millions of people. From the prisms of ethics and justice, environmental protection is intrinsically also about the safeguarding and promotion of human rights.
When anti-vaxers say they don’t want to get vaccinated because it’s in their rights to choose what to do with their bodies, they fail to realise that their actions have greater implications for society at large. With a decreasing number of people vaccinated, a virus circulates and spreads significantly more quickly in a population, and it may never be eradicated. People with immune deficiency disorders and others who cannot get vaccinated for health reasons will be the first ones to pay the price of the anti-vaxers’ choice1. In this sense, vaccination cannot fall under the category of a personal choice, as its consequences reach far beyond the individual. Forgoing vaccination in the name of personal freedom equates to going around causing harm to people in the name of liberty.
Similarly, people refusing to wear a face mask during the COVID19 pandemic, saying it’s their face and hence their choice, are putting the lives of others at risk by facilitating the transmission of the virus. Therefore, not wearing a face mask cannot be justified in the name of one’s own freedom, just as it would be unthinkable to condone the harming of others in the name of liberty.
This same logic can be used to frame a discourse on environmental protection. Increasing scientific evidence points to consumerism in the most affluent countries as the foremost cause of the current environmental crisis. Consumerism is, in turn, the product of a capitalist economy that prioritises and relies on perpetual economic growth. Engaging in consumer behaviours that feed into the economic status quo and contribute to environmental degradation is no different than not wearing a mask or forgoing essential vaccinations. Environmental degradation causes millions of deaths annually and infringes on the rights of hundreds of millions of people. Minority groups and politically marginalised communities especially in the global South are amongst the most severely affected by environmental impacts, even though they are the least responsible for them.
Certain groups are at greater risk of exposure to pollution because of factors ranging from racism to class bias to housing market dynamics and land costs. For instance, pollution sources tend to be located near disadvantaged and marginalised communities, increasing their exposure to harmful pollutants2. Similarly, scientists agree that while climate change is predominantly caused by the wealthiest living in the global North, its most drastic consequences will be felt in the tropical regions of the South, where local people are also in worse situations to cope with them3. Moreover, such impacts can disproportionately affect certain groups, including females who are already facing increased risks of being raped and exploited due to the social and ecological changes brought about by the ongoing climate crisis. Rampant rates of biodiversity and habitat loss are also creating the perfect conditions for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people, thus fostering the outbreak of pandemics4. The most recent COVID19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than half a million people, with the poorest and the ethnic minorities affected the worst5,6.
For these very reasons, one cannot fully be for the promotion of human rights without also advocating for environmental protection, as the two are intrinsically linked. If you believe in the concepts of justice and equality, then you ought to be an eco-warrior. Going back to our examples above, it would be hypocritical to criticise anti-vaxers or people refusing to wear a face mask during a pandemic if then we are the firsts to do nothing to prevent environmental degradation and exploitation.
It’s not easy to escape unsustainable behaviours when these are engrained in our culture and are unceasingly portrayed as the dreamlife we should all aspire to. Furthermore, alternatives to unsustainable lifestyles are limited and unlikely to bring about significant positive change when we live in a society with a growth-based economy. It’s the economy as a whole that needs to be replaced with a more equitable, just and sustainable one that prioritises human wellbeing and environmental protection over economic growth, such as the idea encapsulated in the concept of Degrowth. In this sense, improvements to one’s lifestyle alone are not enough, as system change won’t come about without protests and activism.
The first step is to become aware that the environmental crisis is foremost a social crisis, and it concerns all of us whose values resonate with justice and equality. The second step is to understand that at the roots of this crisis lays capitalism, and that alternatives such as “green growth” or “sustainable growth” are part of the problem not the solution, as scientists increasingly stress. The third step is to engage in as much activism, advocacy, and protesting as we can to amplify our voices and reach and awaken the conscience of society at large.
There are so many invested interests in the current capitalist system concentrated in the hands of few wealthiest elites, that this is a battle we can only win if we stand together, side by side, with our voices raising aloud in unison.
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- Levy, B.S. and Patz, J.A., 2015. Climate change, human rights, and social justice. Annals of global health, 81(3), pp.310-322. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aogh.2015.08.008
- Settele, J., Díaz, S., Brondizio, E. and Daszak, P., 2020. COVID-19 Stimulus Measures Must Save Lives, Protect Livelihoods, and Safeguard Nature to Reduce the Risk of Future Pandemics’. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES website, https://ipbes.net/covid19stimulus
Cover image credits: https://tinyurl.com/ycbm2beo