Research Handbook on Human Rights and the Environment
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Research Handbook on Human Rights and the Environment

Edited by Anna Grear and Louis J. Kotzé

Bringing together leading international scholars in the field, this Research Handbook interrogates, from various angles and positions, the fractious relationship between human rights and the environment and between human rights and environmental law. The Handbook provides researchers and students with a fertile source of reflection and engagement with this most important of contemporary legal relationships. Law’s complex role in the mediation of the relationship between humanity and the living order is richly reflected in this timely and authoritative collection.
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Chapter 5: Environmental human rights: a constructive critique

Peter D. Burdon


This Chapter presents a constructive critique of environmental human rights. The analysis is ‘constructive’ in the sense that it seeks to reveal the underlying assumptions and preconditions upon which a discussion of environmental human rights rests. Three key critiques are advanced. The first concerns the way environmental human rights embody an anthropocentric logic that abstracts human beings from the environment and from each other. I suggest that this abstraction gets produced and re-inscribed in the political and legal discourse of human rights and in its application to particular circumstances. Second, I describe how contemporary human rights discourse represents a ‘last utopia’ in the political juncture which right wing Hegelian Francis Fukuyama termed ‘the end of history’. Drawing on Samuel Moyn’s recent revisionist history of human rights, I consider how human rights have been used as a tool for repressing ‘radical politics’ and how the language of human rights acts as a ‘colonizing space’ that subsumes other discourses or modes of action. Finally, I draw attention to critical discourses that get displaced by environmental human rights – namely anti-capitalism and other alternatives to the modern market economy that are often presented under the heading of the ‘new economy’. I argue that the egoism of environmental human rights limits their ability to combat market capitalism and that environmental human rights risk being subsumed within a capitalist economic framework.

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