The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law series
Chapter 3: The rule of law in the Anthropocene
The term Anthropocene marks a new geological epoch of significant human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. Human activities have caused climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, overuse in land and freshwater, chemical pollution and interference with nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Scientists believe that each of these ecosystems or processes has a certain ‘boundary’ (that is, threshold or tipping point) which, if crossed, may trigger non-linear changes in the functioning of the Earth system as a whole. Collectively, therefore, these ‘planetary boundaries’ define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system. Ensuring a safe operating space for humanity is the central challenge in the Anthropocene. A precondition for meeting the challenge is some coordinated effort based on global responsibility across nations and cultures. It is doubtful, however, that an effort of this nature currently exists. So far, national interests have only allowed for a set of lowest common denominators: general agreements on climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification or poverty and human rights. There is, at this point in time, no real global responsibility and no sense of urgency for lowering humanity’s overall impact on the Earth system. Yet, the Anthropocene requires nothing less. We must revise our ethics and our laws in order to adapt them to conditions that allow for a just, sustainable world within the limits of planetary boundaries. A fundamental rule of self-constraint is needed, a rule that respects the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems.
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