Towards the Environmental Minimum

A project in the Environment and Human Rights research programme

Towards the Environmental Minimum is a book project led by Stefan Theil under contract with Cambridge University Press (forthcoming June 2021). The book explores the implications of environmental degradation and pollution for domestic and international human rights protection regimes. The core objective is to address the gap between human rights commitments to a healthy environment and the doctrinal reality and limitations of existing protection regimes. The book rejects the fashionable critique that environmental harm requires a radical departure from established legal categories and principles. Instead, the environmental minimum provides a normatively attractive and practically viable framework that allows courts to address environmental harm in a principled and consistent manner on the basis of domestic constitutions and international protection regimes (regardless of whether they specifically protect the environment).

Serious environmental pollution presents a fundamental challenge to any commitments to human rights because their meaningful enjoyment ultimately presupposes basic environmental guarantees. A right to demonstrate against government policy is an empty guarantee if the air that protesters breathe entails serious health risks. Likewise, property rights safeguarding home ownership are meaningless if states permit airplanes to pass overhead causing 80db noise spikes. This is true regardless of whether one assigns an instrumental (economical) or an intrinsic (moral) value to the natural environment: it is abundantly clear that the current levels of pollution and degradation cannot continue without risking the long-term survival of humankind.

The most prominent example is manmade climate change, but beyond this headline-grabbing topic, there are countless further examples of severe degradation and pollution that remain unaddressed. For instance, billions of people worldwide are routinely exposed to air contaminated with highly dangerous pollutants that cause as many as 3.7 million deaths annually according to estimates by the World Health Organization. Those disproportionately affected by air pollution are already vulnerable segments of society: children, the elderly and the poor.

Environmental human rights are the moral commitments that form part of the answer to these institutional and regulatory failures. Any serious commitment to their protection requires that fundamental environmental conditions necessary for the preservation and flourishing of human life are preserved: among them access to clean water, food, air, and soil within a functioning ecosystem, including diverse species of plants and wildlife. In the absence of these environmental essentials human life is not sustainable and human rights guarantees are rendered empty promises.

Related Publications

Stefan Theil Excavating Landmarks—Empirical Contributions to Doctrinal Analysis (2019) Journal of Environmental Law 

Stefan Theil The Problem with the Normative Content of Section 24 of the Constitution of South Africa (2019) 37 Nordic Journal of Human Rights 105