Exploring Environmental Justice Through the Lens of Human Dignity
16 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2020
Date Written: 2019
Human dignity is an inherent attribute of human life and fundamental constitutional value explicitly reflected in more than 160 constitutions and thousands of constitutional cases worldwide. Although originally a philosophical and religious concept, dignity has become a legal right that is enforceable in courts around the world.
Environmental justice recognizes the indivisibility of environmental rights and human rights, and focuses its attention on the discriminatory impacts of these conditions that fall, in the United States and in much of the world, particularly harshly on the politically underrepresented, vulnerable and powerless.
Environmental justice and dignity rights share a quietly symbiotic relationship. Both environmental justice and human dignity are relevant to rights that are civil, political, social, economic, and cultural in nature, including but not limited to the right to vote, the right to speak freely and to associate, the right to health care, the right to life, the right to liberty and to due process, the right to choose, the right to define one’s identity, and the right to fully develop one’s personality. Both are fundamental to managing one’s own life in society with others.
Thus, this symposium — Dignity Rights and Environmental Justice: A Symposium to Explore Environmental Justice Through the Lens of Human Dignity — examined the burdens and humiliations of environmental injustice through the lens of human dignity. It aimed to understand the many ways in which environmental injustice impairs human dignity, and the ways in which the recognition of human dignity could guide us toward solutions. In particular, it aimed to show how the recognition of human dignity can help to frame arguments and provide a vocabulary for articulating these arguments before judges, juries, and legislators, and, thereafter, in the implementation of environmental policies; how the goal of dignified life for all can be a measure for a well-designed remedy; and, finally, how the legal insistence of human dignity can focus environmental policies so as to improve the human condition for those who are most acutely affected by environmental degradation in the service of environmental justice.
Globally, at the national level, we see environmental justice issues reflected in a very broad range of laws (such as laws that provide for environmental impact statements, which exist in almost every country), regulations (such as those limiting exposure to toxic chemicals or imposing human rights restrictions on permits that affect the environment), and, especially, in constitutional provisions that guarantee the right to a healthy environment. These examples are not hypothetical. In this very symposium, Viola (“Vi”) Waghiyi spoke about the extraordinary cancer rates in her remote community in St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, where — for decades — the government has dumped 178 Widener Law Review [Vol. 25:177 toxins that are no longer of use for its military operations. Gina Luster, an activist from Flint, Michigan, spoke of the immediate, dramatic, and pervasive impacts on her own mental and physical health and that of other members of her community that resulted from the government's decision to deprive residents of clean drinking water. Michele Roberts, a leader of the national environmental justice movement, spoke about toxicity in the soil where children play and go to school as a result of government siting decisions in Delaware and elsewhere and government failure to take responsibility for environmental distress. Despite the evident and sometimes catastrophic harms, litigation is an uphill battle for victims of environmental injustice: it may be nearly impossible to prove discriminatory intent and even then, government may be able to justify decisions on economic or other grounds. But there is no question that such policies violate the dignity of the people in those communities — harms made worse by the fact that the burdens of such policies are borne disproportionately on poorer and darker-skinned people.
This article examines dignity jurisprudence and its application to environmental justice. Part II explains the evolution of dignity rights and the prominent constitutional role they serve under law nearly everywhere on the globe. Part III then provides a snapshot of the modest role that human dignity plays in American jurisprudence, focusing the Supreme Court’s brief but invocations of dignity in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Part IV then explains the symbiosis shared by environmental justice and dignity rights. Part V shares examples of how viewing environmental justice through the lens of human dignity has shaped outcomes in courts around the globe. Part VI offers concluding observations.
Keywords: Environmental Justice, Human Dignity, Environmental Law, Dignity
JEL Classification: K32
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation