An alternative view of sustainable development

The problem with the UK’s proposed planning reforms is not the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The problem is the definition of sustainable development itself.

The draft National Planning Policy Framework uses the usual definition of sustainable development, that is, a balance between the needs of the society, environment and economy.

The problem with this definition is that it is based on the notion of the economy as an entity that is separate from society. If one is going to treat the economy as somehow separate, then one has to ask the question why sustainable development does not include the law, science, theology, etc as separate entities or systems.

It is indisputable that there is a dialectical relationship between society, i.e. human beings, and the environment. When society expresses or describes the nature of its relationship with the environment, it is recognising that the two are connected. That language of recognition is made up of different dialects.

Law is the expression of the relationship in terms of obligation, economics in terms of value (cost and benefit), science in terms of cause and effect and so on. In environmental law, this is demonstrated in the preventative, polluter pays and precautionary principles respectively. All dialects are part of this one language of recognition and, like American, Canadian and Geordie English, society speaks in all dialects depending on the context.

The point is that one dialect, while distinctive, cannot be separated from the rest. So, in the common definition of sustainable development, there is a preference being given to one particular dialect – economics. It’s a bit like giving priority to Queen’s English. A goal of sustainable development would therefore mean that society sees its relationship with the environment as primarily one of cost and benefit.

On the other hand, how can you achieve a balance between two entities and the method of communication? In other words, sustainable development as defined in this way is impossible.

A more realistic definition of sustainable development would be one that seeks balance between society and the environment through the economy, law, science, etc.

This post is a summary of a part of the first chapter of my PhD thesis

Recycling Nudges

Respublica have posted about the benefits of incentivised recycling. Jonathan West looks at government statistics, highlighting that the amount of waste sent to landfill has gone down over the last 20 years and the amount recycled has gone up. He acknowledges:  “So our behaviour is changeable, great! And we need to change it more.”

But he then asks how behaviour can be changed more.

I would suggest that this is the wrong question. Before wondering how one can do more, one needs to ask “why do we need to do more?”. Now I am in no way a climate change sceptic. I firmly accept that global warming is happening, that greenhouse gas emissions from landfill is a contributor and that we don’t have access to an infinite amount of resources. But since recycling rates are increasing, why not trust that it will continue to increase?

Are prisoners human?

So Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to deny prisoners the vote even though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a blanket ban is a human rights violation. But our politicians are on the side of wrong.

First, they say that a consequence of committing an imprisonable crime should be a loss of human rights. But, on going to prison, they already lose their right to liberty, their right to privacy and a family life is restricted and the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is curtailed. These have a greater effect on a person’s daily life than a simple right to vote.

Secondly, criminal justice is always a hot political issue, particularly at election times. Indeed, in the 2010 election, the Conservatives made a big play about building more prisons. Perhaps, if prisoners were given the right to vote, then politicians would have a much greater incentive to develop a more intelligent and more effective criminal justice and prisons policy that actually meet the real needs of the imprisoned electorate. (Incidentally, this argument also works for lowering the voting age.)

Fundamentally, something is considered a human right because it is considered to be essential to the nature of being human. Therefore, one has to question whether any of the rights specified in the European Convention of Human Rights really are about the nature of humanity. Does being locked up make us any less human? Are we less human if we cannot have some kind of family life? Are we less human if we cannot express ourselves? Indeed, the fact that society has no problem with limiting these rights in respect of prisoners suggest that they are not an essential part of being human. Neither is voting, for that matter.

If one really thinks about it, the overall consensus in Europe suggests that the only real human rights are the right to life, the right to freedom from torture and inhumane treatment and the right to freedom from slavery. Everything else are civic rights – desirable but not essential.

It all comes down to what we mean by humanity.

I would argue that human rights is not really a solution to inequality or discrimination. On the one hand, it is a part of the problem, but not because it gives the appearance of benefitting unsavoury characters. If you define what it means to be human, then it is only natural that people demand that their lives meet that definition. Hegelian scholar Costas Douzinas has written in his paper ‘The End of Human Rights': “Abstract legal relations may create the conditions for equality under the law but they do not recognise or respect the needs, desires or history of the concrete person.” In protecting the recognition of humanity, rights reduce what it means to be human to the lowest common denominator. Legal personality “negates all the contingencies of existence, race, sexuality, colour or religion”. It is the human being stripped of the bonding, social ties, emotions and mutual dependency and affection found amongst members of small and closely-knit units, such as the family. It is very easy for the state to recognise this minimal notion of humanity, because it is simple. The trouble is that human beings and their lives are complex creations that cannot be broken down into technical specification.

So, do I think human rights documents such as the European Convention should be scrapped. No! Unfortunately, the complexity that is humanity is not all good, we each have an evil side. Human rights law, even as a stop-gap measure, is still the best way that we can protect the vulnerable from the strong, without turning to religion.

We cannot define what it means to be human because we always define it from our own subjective point of view. We need an objective party, someone who is above and outside humanity. That leaves either God or E.T.

As for the parliamentary vote on prisoner voting…I attended a presentation given by a fellow PhD student, Kay Lalor, whose thesis is on the conceptualisation of sexual identity and sexual rights in international law. In many ways, the resistance that our politicians had to the idea of giving prisoners the vote is very similiar to the resistence shown by some countries with regard to legislation protecting gay rights. The thrust of Kay’s talk was that what appears to be resistence to matters of substantive law (prisoner voting, gay rights, etc) is more about the imposition of values from above by an external body. Indeed, one of the arguments voiced by several MPs  yesterday was the ECHR court ruling seemed to infringe Parliamentary sovereignty. (Truth is, it didn’t, because it only said a blanket ban was unlawful and all the government has to do is think about some kind of policy that discriminates in some way, possibly on the duration of sentence, seriousness of crime, whether they pleaded guilty, progress in rehabilitation, etc. But it goes to show just how subjective appearance and objective truth can differ.)

Of course, it is not unusual for disagreement between the various branches of government (executive, legislature and judiciary)

Law and the absence of law

I think it’s interesting that the Egyptian government has been using a combination of plain clothes security officers and people released from prison to initiate violence against pro-democracy protesters. Usually, when legal philosophers talk about the absence of the law, they mean that it has its limits, but Mubarak seems to have turned that completely on its head, strengthening law through its absence.

P.S. ‘Law’ in this in sense is a proxy for government as lawmaker.

Law Teacher of the Year 2011

This is just a quick post to say that my PhD supervisor, Professor Andreas Philippoulos-Mihalopoulos, has been awarded the Oxford University Press National Award for Law Teacher of the Year 2011.

Andreas’ thank-you speech really captures the dialectic that exists  between self and other, the fact that we are all in this interdependent relationship and that our actions affect others just as we are affected by others.

“When the nomination by my students came through, I was actually in Barcelona and it came through on my iPhone – to be honest I was extremely emotional! We never really know the impact we have on our students – or perhaps we know and we forget about it over time. Then suddenly something like this happens (being nominated) – people start coming to see you and it’s an inspiration. The more you inspire your students, the more you are inspired – it’s an inspirational experience.

It also shows that no matter what we do, we always make a difference, whether we are aware of it or not. So it pays to thank others for their contribution to their lives.

Human rights and the environment: the dilemma

I went to a debate last night to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Capacity Global, an organisation which works to ensure that everyone has access to environmental justice, self-defined as: “Living in a clean and healthy environment is everyone’s right”.

Now I have always believed that environment protection was a social justice issue. After all, if we can’t look after our own (species), how the hell are we going to look after other species? (Just to clarify, that doesn’t mean conservation isn’t just as important – it is – but one has to question the ethics of protecting the non-human world when human beings are suffering.)

But, in last night’s debate, Phillip Sands QC, a professor of law at UCL, said that it created a disturbing tension between the twin strands of environmental law.

Maria Adebowale, the founder and director of Capacity Global, commented that, just ten years ago, environmental protection was primarily about conservation and that human rights and people – particularly those on the front line – were part of the problem.  The view was that the poor, the marginal communities, needed to be educated. Even more so, it was seen a white, middle class thing and Adebowale remembers the surprise in others when she turned up at events (she is black).

Now, it is not surprising that environmental protection was seen in this very narrow way. Oppression of nature has always gone hand in hand with oppression of marginal communities, whether that be women, ethnic minorities, the poor, gays, the disabled, etc. So it is only right that environmental justice is a social justice issue and is about helping people to protect their own environment, their communities and their lives. However, Sands, talking of his own experience as a barrister bringing legal cases to court, that he saw a marked difference in the way that judges dealt with environmental cases based on the human rights argument and environmental cases based on the conservation argument. His point was that the more environmental justice movement adopt the human rights agenda, it is likely that there will be cost.  The human rights agenda only perpetuates the separation humanity and the non-human environment, which is the cause not only of human pollution of the environment but human oppression of human communities.

At the heart of all social justice movements is the desire for all humans to be treated equally. The problem is that the definition of humanity has always been set by the dominant group – oppression was justified precisely because  the victims were not considered human. So when we talk about equality, equal treatment and human rights, we are effectively fighting for the marginal groups to be like the dominant groups. Raising up the marginal community inevitably means separating it from other marginal communities.

This doesn’t mean that the social justice is wrong. Of course not.  But for it to work, we need to come up with a meaning for humanity that does not favour just one part of it. The problem is that, as long as we try to see humanity from humanity’s point of view, there will always be areas that we cannot see – the nooks and crannies and beyond the limitless horizon. The only way that we can have a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be human is if we refer to someone or something from outside of humanity – someone like God, perhaps.