Is it possible to raise the idea of framing climate degradation as a form of violence, and potentially as a crime against humanity?
There are three components to the claim that environmental degradation is a crime against humanity. First, it is an appeal to a universal, common humanity that stretches across space and time, and that is oblivious to geographic and historical differences. Second, the crime in question is an existential one that is committed against the very experience of being human, the human enthusiasm. Third, it is a crime that calls the established legal order into question, because everyone, and yet no one specifically, can be held responsible.
What is the nature of this crime? The human species is the agent of a terrible injustice being perpetrated against other species, future generations, ecosystems and our fellow human beings. Examples include contaminated waterways, mass species extinction, massive fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and unsustainable rates of deforestation, to name just a few. This is leading to extreme and more frequent weather events, expanding deserts, loss of biodiversity, collapsing ecosystems, water depletion and contamination, and the rise of global sea levels.
However, humans are not all equally guilty of this crime. Some, such as those advancing the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, or those whose high-income lifestyles carry a heavy environmental footprint, are implicated more than those living in poverty. Present and past generations are collectively more at fault than future generations.
The degradation of the environment is a record of past and present human activities. Ours is a landscape that bears the burden of human atrocities waged against other humans through war. The battered and burnt-out environments of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are a few recent examples of this. The more than four million refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the horrifying consequence of years of conflict decimating not only that country’s social, cultural, economic, and political systems but its environmental resources as well. Then there is the continual annihilation of numerous habitats which both humanity and other species depend upon for their survival. All of this provides evidence of an environmental crime being committed against humanity.
If this situation continues unabated it will cause extreme harm to future generations and eventually a causeless loss of human life. Let me ask: Should we confer greater existential importance upon present generations of human beings than future ones? Environmental degradation, and in particular climate change, denies future generations their agency through no fault of their own, leaving them with a world that could very well reduce what life remains to that of mere survival.
This is a crime against what makes us uniquely human — the creative agency that comes from a combination of reasoning, imagination and emotion. We may all have different capacities and opportunities through which to realize our agency, but we share the same ability to collectively and individually realize our innovative potential.
Because human activities cause this environmental damage, our species is culpable for a crime we are committing against ourselves. But in our defense, humanity is largely trapped by the political form of liberal state power, which facilitates the smooth functioning of global capitalism — the source of the problem.
It is futile to try and solve the harms being inflicted upon the environment using the same mechanisms that produced the problem in the first place. Environmental degradation is the concrete form of late capitalism. The capitalist system is premised upon a model of endless growth, competition, private property and consumer citizenship, all of which combine to produce a terribly exploitative, oppressive and violent structure that has come to infuse all aspects of everyday life.
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