Initial Reflections on the Human Rights Project in Relation to Climate Change
By Nicholas T. Dahlheim
My reflections on the human rights project comes from spending most of the first half of my summer recovering from an illness and spending much of my convalescence reading and thinking about the problem of protecting human rights and human dignity in the teeth of the gathering storms of climate change and general environmental crisis. The scholarship on human rights laws and norms, once I delved deeply into it over the last two months, has proved to be a lot more thoughtful than I had realized. I even think some of the critics of the human rights project miss something in that their criticisms of the human rights project stem greatly from their intense focus upon the Western origins of the two major developments that catapulted the idea of rights forward: the Enlightenment and the political revolutions it inspired in America and then France and then the creation of the U.N. and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) after the conclusion of the Second World War. While the explicit criticism of Makau Mutua and Arturo Escobar and others combined with the implicit criticisms of intellectuals such as Edward Said are extremely important in shaping a human rights system more attuned to the agency of the world’s poor and its non-white and non-Western populations, that the language of human rights has emerged as the global moral lingua franca represents a major development of human consciousness whose significance is often underappreciated.
The scholarly critics of the human rights movement I have just mentioned, as well as others unmentioned here, somewhat obsequiously provide allegiance to the grand liberal project of which the human rights project is part. This somewhat obsequious allegiance becomes all the more curious in spite of the fact that the complex intersection between globalization, the postmodern, technological change, and the shifting sands underpinning political agency and the conditions of selfhood in the 21st century point towards the unmistakable decline of the West and the entire Modern Age. The implications of these interrelated and intertwined developments for the human rights project deeply dependent on a U.N. system that still bases its legitimacy in the sovereignty of the nation-state are multifaceted and disconcerting despite of the growth of the moral and legal acceptance of human rights. Global threats to security from nuclear proliferation have existed and have been fairly successfully regulated within the international system for decades, but the international system at present less successfully counters new threats such as climate change and the related dimensions of the environmental crisis. The harm environmental degradation and climatic destabilization already inflict upon the world’s peoples, particularly those who are already among the poorest and most vulnerable to environmental calamity, will exacerbate the human rights deprivations that the marginalized experience as well as cause new instances of rights violations. The climate crisis and generalized environmental degradation will first negatively affect social and economic rights, the “2nd generation” human rights which still receive less attention than the “1st generation” civil and political human rights, before similarly in turn negatively impacting civil and political rights. Climate change and environmental degradation not only are threatening the realization of rights, they are also debasing the material basis for human life and therefore the foundation of political order itself. The manifestation of climate change’s harms against the social and economic well-being of the world’s most vulnerable peoples, if not already also their political rights, is occurring simultaneously with momentous shifts in the global political economy. To the lengthier explication of the important drivers, discrete manifestations, and weighty consequences of this momentous shift we shall return later. Nevertheless, developments in the global political economy exist as a glossy sheen on the top of an oceanic postmodern culture which is presently rapidly undermining the cultural edifices of the West which combined to bequeath humanity the benefits and drawbacks of the Modern Age. The accelerating descent of the West will also undermine the political institutions and relationships currently working to guarantee and implement human rights around the world. Thus, the existential challenge confronting the human rights project appears as vice where the decline of the West and the Modern Age exist as one pincher arm with climate change and the broader environmental crisis representing the other pincher arm.
The forthcoming reflections ask three questions. The first question: whether the concept of human rights derived from the Universal Declaration can continue into the future. The second question: what understanding of human rights (or lack thereof, as the case may be) will prevail as new world events and global trends unfold. And the third question: how a future human rights regime will either govern itself or how governance will continue in the absence of a recognizable human rights regime. Considering these three questions in appropriate context requires dual awareness of the passing of the Modern Age in the West’s twilight as well as an acute sense for the gravity of the general environmental crisis with the particular potential for devastation latent in climate change.
The maintenance of such a dual awareness of both the final passing of the West and the severity of the sickness of an embattled biosphere in addressing the future of human rights and the meaning of human dignity more broadly in the 21st century requires new analytical tools. The trend towards increasing specialization of the academic disciplines and the fragmentation of the public sphere in the Digital Age have understandably led to a dearth of sober perspective. The perspective most lacking is an awareness that the wheel of time is again turning and a major cleavage with the past appears imminent in timescales of years or at most decades. Humanity has likely already entered this transition period immediately preceding a great cleavage akin to the Fall of Rome in 476 C.E. Thoughtful and reflective persons well rooted within a given discipline or specialty have much to contribute to the generation of a narrative perspective capable of leading humanity through the upcoming tempest that the great cleavage will leave in its wake. Natural science, law, economics and the related social sciences constituting the “hard” disciplines still privilege methodological approaches to the production of knowledge cloaked in mathematical models; but, too often these disciplines use such models to avoid more disturbing questions of narrative, context, and ultimate meaning more at home in the disciplines of the arts, humanities, literature, media studies, cultural studies, theology, and especially philosophy. Even these “soft” disciplines have lost themselves amidst a combination of the pursuit of specialization within the academy that have similarly plagued the “hard” disciplines. More importantly, the “soft” disciplines have fully succumbed to postmodernism. Postmodernism does indeed leave new space for a fresh engagement with a 21st century human society arguably more multiethnic and pluralistic than ever. The tendency of postmodern intellectuals—insofar as a generally impressionistic understanding of that terminology suffices here—to praise themselves for their open-mindedness in rejecting the validity of meta-narratives belies their ultimate prejudice. Postmodern thinkers almost instinctively and reflexively reject the existence or perhaps even the possibility of the existence of meta-narratives. Thus, postmodern thinkers in their eager tendency to reject the existence of meta-narratives unwittingly create a most tyrannical meta-narrative: a meta-narrative committed nihilistically to refraining from the intellectual commitment that compels the mind of the wild, the curious, the romantic, the awe-inspired, the creative, the genius to propel the human imagination forward to remake the world anew. The crucial intellectual task ahead, though daunting, requires rescuing the ostensible openness prevalent within the postmodern mental structures and spaces and placing this orientation towards openness in the service of Reasonability and Creativity such that Homo Sapiens may survive the coming storm. The careful utilization of the openness suffusing the muddle of this postmodern era–when crystallized in the minds of the most visionary and reflective of persons–can creatively engage the best of the natural sciences, law, economics, and the social sciences in formulating a new meta-narrative capable of bridging the widening void of the abyss appearing underneath humanity.
The unfolding collapse of the biosphere, at least insofar as it can support highly organized and civilized human life, represents the canary in the coal mine. The collapse has not proceeded to a point where the failing health of the biosphere will unleash tumult capable of crashing civilization in tow. The continued general trajectory of the expansion of the modern industrial form of society and culture, with all of its attendant cultural and psycho-social biases, continues apace and pressures the lid of the Pandora’s Box filled with other potential environmental nightmares. How can the idea of universal human rights itself embedded in the historical cultural development of modernity in the West fit in a postmodern world where the industrial model of society itself, at least on a global scale, no longer can propagate itself without cooking the planet to a temperature unsuitable for Homo Sapiens and the natural world on which human life is based? Subsequent writings and posts will further unpack this very complex and multi-faceted question…