“Progress towards a sustainable world runs head-on into a slew of human rights issues.”
We can all agree that we need, rather quickly, to achieve a sustainable environment. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. But this raises a lot of questions: How would we feel about a sustainable environment achieved in a country where the government is totalitarian? After all, one could argue that the most important single step towards sustainability was China’s “One Child” policy. In a democracy, how should a government behave when an action that seems needed to achieve environmental sustainability is opposed by a large majority of the population? How much inequality is acceptable in a sustainable society? Several of the world’s leading religions are adamantly opposed to some of the things required for sustainability. How should we handle that? What can we do to control the non-sustainable implications of unforeseen advances in technology? For example, “the Cloud”—that form of remote data storage which exploded in the last few years and has become such an important part of our lives—requires huge facilities that consume enormous amounts of power. What will the next technological advance bring?
In short, progress towards a sustainable world runs head-on into a slew of human rights issues.
Even locally, we could—for example—ask: should the warehouses which are being developed in the Lehigh Valley be required to be energy neutral and to operate sustainably? In addition to an environmental impact statement, should they (and any other kind of development) be required to file a “sustainability audit”? Should the authorities of the Lehigh Valley pass regulations that require it? We could expect that the effect of local regulations would be to move the developments elsewhere—to a place with no such regulations. It would appear that, to achieve sustainability, we must insist on federal action to greatly curtail the free enterprise system. Can we live with that?
Many of the human rights issues mentioned above are issues that are problems across the whole world, and this reflects the interests of Amnesty International (the human rights organization of which I am a member). Many countries are far worse than the United States of course, as far as human rights are concerned. Within the United States, the human rights issue, that has concerned Amnesty longer than any other, is the death penalty. It is outrageous and quite extraordinary that a country as civilized as this keeps the death penalty. A generation from now, people will surely look back and wonder that it was retained for so long.
In Pennsylvania, we are now at an interesting time with regard to the death penalty. The legislature has created a bipartisan “task force and advisory committee” to study the death penalty. It is due to report at the end of this year. We can hope that the task force will make recommendations that result in the abolition of the Pennsylvania death penalty (as happened in Illinois, following the report of a similar committee). The local group of Amnesty International is submitting evidence with the aim of helping to bring this about.
More recently, Amnesty International has also been taking action with regard to other aspects of the penal system in the United States. The United States has over two million people incarcerated (more than any other country—even as a percentage of the population), and a disturbingly large number of these are kept in forms of solitary confinement that are tantamount to torture. Amnesty groups around the country are active in campaigns to ameliorate these unacceptable conditions.
Finally, returning to the theme of the opening paragraph, does all this mean that the part of me that sees the need for a sustainable environment will be in perpetual war with the part of me that defends human rights? It certainly looks like it.
Alwyn lives near Wassergass in Lower Saucon Valley. He is a retired professor of engineering at Lehigh University.
(Published in the 2013 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)