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Environmental Human Rights 101: Anthropocentrism (and Other Similar Problems)


This series of articles provides an analysis of the recent recognition by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) of “the access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as a universal human right” (UNGA, 2022). The recognition of a universal human right to a healthy environment has been a long-awaited accomplishment for environmental law scholars, which brought to a conclusion a long course of preliminary steps that have paved the way to such a result in past decades. This itinerary, made of scholarly contributions, judicial rulings and domestic legislative recognitions, has highlighted the multiplicity of connotations that can be attributed to such a fundamental concept. The different perspectives adopted by different cultures and different fields of study are a feature of the human right to a healthy environment, which deem it necessary for such a right not to be encapsulated in a single, one-dimensional notion. It will be observed that, even after the successful adoption of the above-mentioned Resolution by the UNGA, the debate has been florid on the multiplicity of perspectives which can be taken to interpret the words it contained. There is no doubt that judicial courts will be invested in the very important task of setting precise legal standards. This sixth and final article challenges the different positions that exist surrounding the adaptability of the "human rights" notion to the protection of the environment.

The Environmental Human Rights 101 series consists of six articles:

Environmental Human Rights 101: Anthropocentrism (and Other Similar Problems)

Along with the most interesting takes in the ambit of environmental studies of the last few decades, a relevant spot must be dedicated to the notion of Anthropocentrism or, more accurately, to the Age of the Anthropocene.

The notion was first developed in the latest years of the Twentieth Century, and found public diffusion thanks to Nobel-prize winner Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene J. Störmer's cornerstone publication "The Future of Nature", where the term was first found. The term Anthropocene—which literally derives from the merging of the two Greek words "anthropos" and "kainos", respectively meaning "man" and "recent" —aims to describe the current world and the modern age as systems where humankind exercises a profoundly dominant force over the Earth's dynamics (Zalasiewicz et al., 2008). The Anthropocene thesis argues that the Age of Holocene - a term connoting an epoch where the prevalence of humans over the comprehensive life force of the planet was less poignant - has come to an end and that socio-ecological disorder lies "at an unprecedented scale, where humans are changing Earth and its system for the worse" (Kotzé, 2018, p. 142).

Evidently, the term has a detrimental tone to it and the general notion serves the role of emphasizing the unprecedented extent to which mankind is producing its effects on the Earth's general functioning. In this sense, a strengthened protection of the environment from human behavior, even where following the introduction of a "human right to a healthy environment", seems to progress perfectly in line with the objectives that lay behind the birth of the notion of the Age of the Anthropocene. Or is it?

Figure 1: An artistic representation of the historical and progressive human dominance on Earth (Falconer).

Is the very Notion of Human Rights too "human"?

A fascinating argument, which has gained considerable traction in the latest years, ever since becoming familiar with the possibility that a "human right to a healthy environment" could be born, has been that of alerting about the inherent risks that reside in a mechanism of environmental protection based on the notion of "human rights", one which is incontestably anthropocentric. Human rights law has facedand is still facing an overwhelming debate concerning the universality and relativity of human rights themselves, with the central question being whether there can ever exist a human rights system which is suitable for all different cultures, civilizations and people, respectful of each population's specific traits, posing, therefore, a serious question on whether human rights can ever find a global application, or at least a unitary one (for reference on this, among many, see Donnelly, 2007). Similarly, the human rights instrument is doubted in its efficiency with reference to its application to environmental protection. Greatly simplifying: if the main danger to the environment is caused by the human species, will ever a system of protection which is parametrized on human needs and rights be suitable to offer adequate protection?

Kim and Bosselmann, indeed, argue precisely that, given the fact that the origin of environmental threat is to be investigated in a misconception of a healthy relationship between mankind and nature, a system of protection which draws from an anthropocentric base, such as human rights, may not be effective as to the main goal, which would be that of re-establishing a balance of power between Man and Nature (Kim and Bosselmann, 2015).

Beware, even though it might appear unnecessarily problematic, the issue at hand can not be treated as a mere doctrinal frenzy. As said, some of the many issues inherent in the human rights legal horizon can be found in the hardships that hamper the creation of a unique, truly universal system. These hardships prevalently lie in the different cultural interpretations and priorities between States and populations, differences which manifest themselves quite prominently with reference to "environmental rights". For instance, a considerable difference in focus can be noted between regional sources of rights' protection concerning environmental care, with the Indian Federal Constitution, for example, providing that: "It shall be the duty of every citizen of India [...] to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures" (Article 51A(G), Federal Indian Constitution, 1949). The expectation of environmental protection as a duty, even more than as a right, shifts the perspective of de-centralizing mankind, which serves as a means to Nature's conservation, as opposed to the conception of environmental safeguard for better enjoyment of human life, where Nature serves as a means for mankind, typical of the vast majority of legal instruments which conceive environmental rights (see, for example, Article 45 of the Spanish Constitution: "...right to enjoy an adequate environment for the development of the people and the duty to preserve the environment").

Figure 2: A healthy environment necessarily requests a more respectful transitional process between Man and Nature (Falconer).

It can be argued, therefore, that it is fundamental to strengthen a conceptualization of the human right to a healthy environment in a way that avoids falling into the pit of limiting the interpretation of the word "healthy" as merely related to mankind, but a notion which conceives Nature itself as the central actor.

A New Conception of Environmental Protection

Along with the notion of Anthropocentrism and the issues concerning the relativity of human rights, the trails of doctrinal positions about environmental protection and human rights have been numerous, mostly highlighting the necessity to individuate the primary danger for the environment. For instance, very interesting doctrinal currents have developed around the theme of analyzing socio-cultural, or economic factors, which have played a central role in the gradual progress of climate change. In this sense, human contribution to environmental degradation has been coined as "Capitalocene" (Moore, 2016), centering capitalistic dynamics at the origin of the climate change phenomenon, or "Polemocene", pointing direct attention to the element of conflict and the urge to prevail (Antonacci, 2021).

The importance of avoiding overlooking social and cultural dynamics is indisputable and it might be argued that an efficient application of any possible source of law directly depends on the attention to societal demands in the practical interpretation of a norm. This does not only mean having an awareness of the immediate dangers and threats of a particular population of area, but also being able to understand and overcome social constraints which may concern different rights. Gender studies have traced interesting linkages between patriarchal predomination, Anthropocentrism, and climate change (among the most important, Merchant, 1990). These dynamics prove crucial to bring forward a serious proposal in human rights law, especially given the strong interconnectedness that exists between the different rights.

Figure 3: An artistic depiction of industrial pollution (Nabaum, 2022).

To have submitted a Draft Resolution for a human right to a healthy environment is an achievement, and such reality should not be overlooked. Similarly, however, it must be well understood that the main threat, at this point, is substantial irrelevance. To fight against this danger, it is important to consider all aspects of modern human (and not merely human) life, in order to place the newborn right in a welcoming scenario correctly. To do so, it is important to have unity and vision, or, in the words of Vice-President of the ICJ, Judge Weeramantry: "International environmental law will need to proceed beyond weighing the rights and obligations of parties within a closed compartment of individual State self-interest, unrelated to the global concerns of humanity as a whole" (Gabčikovo-Nagymaros, Separate Opinion of Judge Weeramantry, para. 118).



Antonacci, J. P. (2021). Periodizing the Capitalocene as Polemocene: Militarized Ecologies of Accumulation in the Long Sixteenth Century . Journal of World-Systems Research, 27(2), 439–467.

Crutzen, P. & Stoermer, E. (2013). “The ‘Anthropocene’’’ (2000). In L. Robin, S. Sörlin & P. Warde (Ed.), The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change (pp. 479-490). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Donnelly, J. (2007). The Relative Universality of Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly, 29(2), 281–306.

Kim, R. E., & Bosselmann, K. (2015). Operationalizing sustainable development: Ecological integrity as grundnorm of international law. Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, 24(2), 194-208.

Kotzé, L. J. (2018). "In Search of a Right to a Healthy Environment in International Law. Jus Cogens Norms". In: John H. Knox and Ramin Pejan, The Human Right to a Healthy Environment. Cambridge University Press, pp. 136-154.

Merchant, C. (1989). The death of nature: women, ecology, and the scientific revolution. New York, Harper & Row.

Moore, J. W. 2016 ‘Introduction: Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism’ In: J.W. Moore, ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press.

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Smith, A., Barry, T.L., Coe, A.L., Bown, P.R., Brenchley, P., Cantrill, D., Gale, A., Gibbard, P. and Gregory, F.J. (2008). Are we now living in the Anthropocene?, Gsa Today 18(2).

Legal sources:

Spanish Constitution (Constitución Española [Spain]), 1978, Art. 45;

The Constitution of India, 1950, Art. 51A(G);


Gabčikovo-Nagymaros Case, Separate Opinion of Vice-President Weeramantry, [1997] ICJ Rep. 88, 118.


Author Photo

Vittorio Lago

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