The Anthropocene, Earth system vulnerability and socio-ecological injustice in an age of human rights
  • 1 Research Professor of Law, North-West University, South Africa; Marie Curie Research Fellow, University of Lincoln, UK

Despite important victories, human rights have been unable to respond effectively to the many deeply intertwined socio-ecological injustices in the Anthropocene. In particular, human rights have failed to practically address, in a meaningful way, the plights of billions of oppressed human beings (and failed to address the vulnerability of non-human beings), while conceptually human rights are proving to be ill-suited for the epistemic demands of the Anthropocene. As a trope, the Anthropocene presents an opportunity to re-interrogate the role of human rights as key mechanisms in the state's regulatory mix to address socio-ecological injustices arising within the context of a vulnerable Earth system. This article reflects upon whether a re-interrogation could be accomplished by utilizing vulnerability theory, which is an alternative approach to ethical evaluation. As a heuristic, vulnerability has the potential to inform an ontological change of stance away from a human-centred, neoliberal, and impregnably Western understanding of human rights, towards an altogether more porous and contingent understanding of the vulnerability of the entire living order as a starting point from which to critique the epistemological closures and regulatory challenges confronting the human rights paradigm in the Anthropocene.

Contributor Notes

My sincere thanks go to Rosemary Lyster, David Boyd, Duncan French, Nathan Cooper, Willemien du Plessis, Francois Venter and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions. I am particularly indebted to Anna Grear for her guidance and editorial interventions during various stages of revision. All errors are my own. Research for this article was supported by the author's European Commission Marie Sklodowska Curie project titled: ‘Global Ecological Custodianship: Innovative International Environmental Law for the Anthropocene’ (GLEC-LAW) under grant agreement No. 751782 and it was completed in December 2018.

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