In an important article on environmental outrage and human rights1 my colleague, Tom Kerns wrote that a Latina student in his course on environmental toxins had been enduring serious health problems since she was born. One day in class, she put two and two together – as students so beautifully do. “Do you think my health problems might be because my mother, when she was pregnant, was a spotter?”
A spotter? Yes, a spotter is the person who stands at the edge of the berry field while the crop-dusters come in low, spraying poison. Her job was to wave her arms so the spray plane would sweep around and head the other way. Pass after pass after pass, she waved her arms as the crop-duster buzzed her, glazing her with pesticides.
That story made me furious. What sort of sorry son of a bitch . . . It made me even madder because I was pretty sure the practice was widespread and perfectly legal, approved by all the right agencies. Do we have the words to express this indecency, this disgust?
Of course, we have a couple of words, and they are useful, as Tom points out.
When an agency or official has an obligation to protect someone from injustice – say a field worker — and they not only fail to do that, but rather injure the worker at exactly the point when they should have been protecting her, we have double-injustice. This, the philosopher Schopenhauer calls, “treachery.”2
And we have another extraordinarily helpful word, for instances when the failure to protect is not just random cruelty, but the quid pro quo for a bribe, or a corporation’s campaign donation (which in America can no longer be distinguished). That word is “corruption.”
But two words are not enough. What we need is the moral framework to express how wrong this is. And against what standard.
The world had a similar problem after WWII, when terrible atrocities were committed in a modern nation-state with a government that had been democratically elected. The horrific acts were, as Tom writes, “implemented according to that country’s legally enacted statutes and were regulated and overseen by administratively legitimate government ministries (as are many environmental assaults today). And yet they were clearly abhorrent and inhumane.”3
What was needed was a clear statement of universal standards of human decency that were higher than the law, universal standards against which the government practices themselves can be measured, and censured.
So, seventy years ago this month, all the nations of the world came together and wrote the standards down. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Imagine this, an agreement among every nation in the world, the first universally recognized moral code in the history of the world.
All persons have the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
It is the responsibility of governments to prevent violations of those rights.
If persons have a right to life, liberty and security of person, then they have, ipso facto, the right to air that has not been poisoned, water that has not been poisoned, food that has not been poisoned – the material and necessary conditions for the exercise of their fundamental rights.
And with that, the divide between environmental thriving and social justice snaps shut. There can be no social justice in a degraded and dying world; and there will be no environmental thriving unless there is justice – equal protection from thugs and oligarchs who would wreck the world and impose the costs on the poor and silenced.
Now, as the world reels under the effects of global warming, we face the greatest violation of human rights the world has ever seen. Fortunately, we now have the language and the moral authority to condemn it.
We have the moral framework that explains the enormity of the wrong done to that mother and her daughter and to millions like them: It was a violation of their human rights, compounded by the failure of the government to protect them. Treachery.
We are able to boldly name this collusion of governments in the ruthless expansion of international agribusiness, Big Oil, and others, and the massive violations of human rights that follow. Corruption.
With human rights, we have the moral language, we have the narrative structure, (1) to understand the basis of our fury, (2) to measure the scale of the wrong-doing, and (3) to stand on the moral sensibility of the whole world.
With human rights, we have made the connection between social justice and environmental thriving. As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si, “Our work is to link social and ecological wrongs, the desperate instability of the poor and the fragility of the planet. We have to integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so we can hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
We have become the Spotters.
Our work is to stand in the field and wave our arms, calling out, “You have come to the end of the row! The end! Turn around! Turn around.”
1. For the full argument, see Tom Kerns, “Schopenhauer’s Mitleid, environmental outrage and human rights,” Thought, Law, Rights and Action, ed. Anna Grear and Evadne Grant (UK: Edward Elgar, 2015). 2. Ibid. 3. Kathleen Dean Moore and Tom Kerns, “Introduction,” Witness: The Human-rights Impacts of Fracking and Climate Change (forthcoming).