Environmental Citizenship: A Model Linking Ecology with Social Justice Could Lead to a More Equitable Future

By Latta, Alex | Alternatives Journal, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview
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Environmental Citizenship: A Model Linking Ecology with Social Justice Could Lead to a More Equitable Future


Latta, Alex, Alternatives Journal


IF YOU ARE reading this magazine, you likely have a sense of duty to help protect the environment. You probably recycle, seek out green forms of transportation, and perhaps you also exercise your political right to speak out about ecological issues.

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When a sense of duty or the existence of certain political rights conditions your actions toward the environment, your behaviour marries environmentalism with citizenship. The notion of "environmental citizenship," also referred to as "ecological" or "green" citizenship, has emerged in both academic debates and policy circles as a way to encapsulate and promote this powerful connection between environmental values and the formal relationships of political community.

Common concepts of environmental citizenship focus on how the environment is (or might be) included in the rights and obligations shared by citizens within existing political communities. While providing a useful starting point, this frame of reference leaves out the concepts of inclusion and recognition. With whom might you share environmental rights and responsibilities? Who is marginalized from environmental citizenship due to racism, sexism, economic inequality, arbitrary state borders, or by not yet being born? These kinds of questions explore the limitations of existing forms of citizenship to deal with ecological matters--limitations, some argue, that could be addressed by linking citizenship with social justice.

With regard to citizenship, it is important to distinguish between substantive and procedural rights. Where substantive rights uphold minimum standards of environmental quality, procedural rights address citizen access to environmental decision making. The notion of substantive environmental rights has existed at least since the early 1970s. The 1972 Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment proclaims a right to "adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being...." While providing a rallying point for activists, to date no international conventions and few national constitutions systematically incorporate this concept.

With passage of the 1996 Bill of Rights, South Africa became one of the first jurisdictions to enshrine substantive environmental rights. The bill recognizes citizens' right to an "environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being" and also to "ecologically sustainable development." Nevertheless, as David McDonald observes in his contribution to the book The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution, South Africa's experience illustrates that such rights remain ideals unless citizens defend them in political and judicial struggles.

It is within such struggles that procedural environmental rights become important. In Europe, the 2001 Aarhus Convention guarantees rights to information, public participation and access to justice with respect to environmental matters. In Canada, the 1994 Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights provides frameworks for government accountability, public participation in policy development and improved access to the courts. Similar legislative and administrative measures have been taken around the world, as governments begin to respond to their citizens' demands for inclusion in environmental decision making.

In their introduction to a 2005 issue of Environmental Politics, Andrew Dobson and Angel Valencia Saiz write that citizenship is an important tool for achieving sustainability because it "... offers the possibility of checking self-interest against the common good in systematic ways, because this is part of what citizenship--as concept and practice--is about." It is through this idea of citizen obligation that individual commitments to "green" habits such as recycling, car-pooling and buying organic are seen as societal duties. It is also along these lines that companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HP) have taken up the idea.

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