by Leah Boecker
“Unsustainable actions have affected the ecological processes and functions that keep our planet stable… violating the human rights of younger and future generations by taking away their opportunity to live in a healthy, stable living environment.”
Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all individuals are entitled, often held to include the right to life, liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law. These rights are universally accepted, as is the idea that it would be morally wrong for a person to violate the rights of another person. So why are people infringing on the rights of other people every day?
The thing is, it’s not difficult to make the connection between human rights and sustainability, it’s just not something most people would think about. I think it can be said that the most important human right is the right to life. Well, if we choose to act unsustainably, we are taking away that right from future generations. It’s that simple. Being sustainable generally means acting in a way that allows the present generation to meet their needs while leaving enough resources for future generations to meet their own needs. By acting unsustainably, we would be preventing future generations from meeting their needs, we would be compromising their ability to survive, and therefore we would be violating their human right to life.
Being sustainable also includes acting in a way that enables ecosystems to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity, and productivity into the future. These factors are what keep our planet alive and running. They are the foundation for the stability of all life on earth, and if they are not treated with respect, our planet will start to fall apart. Sound familiar? Global climate change is the result of unsustainable actions that have affected the ecological processes and functions that keep our planet stable. By allowing this to continue, we would be violating the human rights of younger and future generations by taking away their opportunity to live in a healthy, stable living environment.
However, contrary to popular belief, there’s more to sustainability than taking care of the environment. Sustainability also means preserving the social, economic and political conditions that allow for peace and harmony among mankind. In this way, human rights are essential components of sustainability. If we make sure to preserve resources and biodiversity but ignore human rights, we are not acting sustainably. If we know that our society, economy, or political system is on its way downhill, it would be extremely unsustainable to just let it happen and let the next generation deal with the repercussions.
Younger and future generations have the same human rights as we do today. Many people don’t realize that their actions actually affect other human beings who haven’t even been introduced to the world yet. We have a responsibility to create these conditions of sustainability, and we also have a responsibility to educate and inform young people so that they can learn to create these conditions for themselves and successive generations. In addition, there are people today who do not have the knowledge or power to do something, but still have to deal with the repercussions of the actions of others. These people have the same rights as everyone else, and we have to realize that our actions directly impact them.
So why aren’t people taking action? Is it because they don’t care about other people’s human rights? Is it because they don’t care about the future of our planet? Possibly, but the more likely cause is that they simply aren’t informed. They don’t know that when they leave the bathroom light on, they’re violating someone’s human rights. They don’t realize that when they are passive instead of active about a social issue, they are leaving this problem for future generations to deal with, after it has evolved and become magnified. Most importantly, they aren’t making the connection between sustainability and human rights. Some people may realize the direct consequences of their actions, but that’s not enough for them to change. If people realized that their unsustainable actions actually impact the human rights of future generations, would this be enough of a wake up call to make them rethink their actions?
Being an advocate for sustainability means being an advocate for human rights. The more information people know, the closer we are to achieving a sustainable world in which every human retains access to their universal human rights.
Leah is a sophomore at Muhlenberg College, with a Psychology major and a Public Health minor. She has long had a passion for sustainability, and is also concerned with social issues such as human rights. Leah is a member of the Social Justice Collaborative at Muhlenberg and is currently a communication & media intern with the Alliance.
(Published in the 2013 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)