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close this bookEnvironmental Change and International Law: New Challenges and Dimensions (UNU, 1992, 493 pages)
close this folderInternational human rights law and environmental problems
close this folder8. The human rights system as a conceptual framework for environmental law
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentEnvironmental issues
View the documentEnvironmental rights in the context of the natural order
View the documentDuty to future generations
View the documentThe concept of ''the common concern of mankind''
View the documentThe protection of indigenous peoples
View the documentEnvironmental rights and international refugee law
View the documentSubstantive norm-making and enforcement procedures
View the documentConclusion
View the documentNotes

(introductory text...)

R.S. Pathak

The increasing emphasis on environmental protection and ecological preservation makes it eminently desirable to analyse the conceptual values in which environmental law is based. The mounting interest evidenced in scientific, legal, political, and governmental circles in the various dimensions of environmental law constitutes sufficient justification for this exercise.

Nature has always exercised a mysterious fascination for man. Primitive man regarded the elemental forces of Nature with awe and respect, and identified them as deities to be feared and propitiated. With time man began to acquire a more intelligent understanding of the relationship between him and the natural order. In some early civilizations and ancient cultures, religious piety, philosophical principles, and moral standards drew their values from that relationship. Some others focused on man as the reason for all creation. The earlier Greco-Christian attitude was that "since everything is for man's use, he is at liberty to modify it as he bill."1 This belief betrayed man into a false assumption of paramountcy over the natural order. He misconceived his stewardship of the planet for an absolute proprietorship.2 In the dynamics of daily existence, human life has been lived since in the dimensions of an anthropocentric perception that treats the rest of Creation as bonded in subservience to it. In harsh paradox, civilized man has continued in a state of alienation from Nature, abusing and degrading the planet's ecological system. We realize now that the resources of the planet have been ruthlessly yoked to human needs, and exploited with thoughtless extravagance and uneconomic waste, through methods that are altering irrevocably our existing natural heritage. The reckless speed with which this destruction proceeds issues from socio-economic pressures compounded by a rapacity for short-sighted gains. It has reached the point when the quality and condition of human life is threatened and has put into question the very survival of the human race.

During the latter half of this century, the enormous power provided by the advanced sciences and high technology has given an impetus and a momentum to environmental problems that enable them to influence living conditions in distantly separated territories. Environmental issues now call for global policies and global action. Solutions that once found adequate expression in state law now demand a wider frame of reference. For the first time, the human mind is engaged with the task of identifying areas of environmental deterioration on a global scale, of determining the nature and consequences of the damage apprehended or suffered, and of considering measures to prevent or repair it.

A single unified global approach is quite often not possible in a pluralistic world community, and there are bound to be several areas where individual evaluation on the basis of the same criteria in differently constituted economic, social, and cultural societies produces remarkably different results.3 Environmental concerns and policies will vary, for example, with the degree of development attained by the particular society, developed countries finding it easier to emphasize environmental protection over development, while developing countries ordinarily prefer to stress development over environmental concerns. Changing circumstances with passing time have often led to a reorientation of perspectives within the same country. With insights obtained during the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the less-developed countries began to favour environmental protection, convinced that it could be incorporated into their economic development programmes. Contrariwise, the developed countries began to lose their enthusiasm for environmental projects as the intractability of some environmental problems became clearer.4

The fundamental significance of environmental protection in shaping the quality of life of a people was reflected, from the commencement of the second half of this century, in the enacted constitutional law of a large number of countries, which include both developed and developing nations.5 There is a growing volume of environmental legislation and an increasing number of environmental protection agencies.

And as the gap closes between the developed and the developing countries in regard to the significance of the environmental philosophy, an enlarging consensus has become possible in the adoption of global policies and programmes providing for environmental protection.

Environmental law is concerned with our natural heritage and our cultural heritage. The natural heritage includes the atmosphere, the oceans, plant and animal life, water, soils, and other natural resources, both renewable and exhaustible. Our cultural heritage includes the intellectual, artistic, social, and historical record of mankind.6 Natural heritage is linked with cultural heritage, the survival, protection, and progress of both being interdependent. Man is the bridge between the two. Cultural heritage is the product and record of human perceptions of the natural order through visual, ethical, or mystical perspectives. It issues from man's vision of his natural heritage. In turn, the protection and preservation of man's natural heritage depends on human attitudes emanating from cultural, ethical, and religious beliefs.