A healthy environment is a human right

Today is Blog Action Day, and this year’s focus is human rights.

Because we are so used to perceiving humans and nature as separate, it may not at first occur to us, when thinking about human rights, to look immediately at the environment. Yet what right could be more fundamental than the right to a healthy, flourishing environment?

Human rights include the right to a healthy, flourishing environment.

The U.S. Constitution is famous for recognizing the human rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet a healthy environment is fundamental to each.

Life. Human life is made possible by the surrounding environment. When waters and land are polluted, people and other creatures are born with greater health problems, and human living is circumscribed by the limits of an ailing ecosystem. Our very life as human beings comes from nature—from the millions of organisms and species who preceded us in evolution and lent us the benefits of their billions of years of experiments with life. Without a healthy environment, we cannot be healthy. Without the flourishing of the myriad other species with whom we share this planet, we cannot flourish.

Liberty. We usually think of liberty as freedom from being oppressed by other human beings—freedom to act as we see fit within laws that promote the well-being of all. A healthy environment is fundamental to freedom, for lacking the flourishing of other beings and forces in nature, we will not have the foundation to carry on human activities. Liberty is mocked when people do not have access to healthy food; liberty requires the freedom to find and eat healthy food. Liberty is irrelevant when people lack fresh water; liberty means access to fresh safe water. Freedom, at its heart, requires a healthy, functioning ecosystem.oak tree

Pursuit of happiness. It has been established many times by research in community psychology (here’s one study) that people who live in polluted or degraded environments are prone to greater depression, anxiety, and aggressiveness. Happiness is not possible without a healthy, flourishing ecosystem. Our very ability to pursue happiness depends on the flourishing of the many other beings and species in the land community in which we live.

The environmental philosopher Thomas Berry said, “Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.”

Today the Boulder County Planning Commission will consider including one sentence in the Boulder County Comprehensive Plan:

We acknowledge the rights of naturally occurring ecosystems and their native species populations to exist and flourish in Boulder County.

This sentence was proposed by members of Boulder Rights of Nature (of which I am a board member) and Boulder County Audubon.

Recognizing human rights leads to recognizing the rights of nature. The two are inseparable. And for good reason—because humans are inseparable from the rest of nature. We are one community. The ability of humans to flourish depends on the flourishing of the land community within which we live.

A healthy environment is a human right. It is also the foundation of all human rights.