Many of the great societal changes we have seen are rooted in an ethical stance based on concern for human rights and social justice. The abolition of slavery is an obvious example, while more recent examples include the move toward reconciliation with Indigenous people, not only here but around the world, or the growth in recognition and acceptance of the rights of gay people, including the right to marriage.
In my own world of public health, the major shift in our approach to tobacco use, in which we switched from tobacco use being the social norm to non-smoking becoming the norm, was propelled in large part by a recognition of the rights of non-smokers to breathe air uncontaminated with tobacco smoke.
Oddly, though, we have not yet recognized the right of people to live in an environment free of other forms of pollution. While we have many laws and regulations that protect us from air and water pollution or the contamination of our food chain, we do not recognize the right to a healthy environment in Canada.
I think the great new frontier for a transformation in our societal rights — and with that our duties — is rooted in our relationship with our natural environment, other species and future generations. These great ethical issues are made urgent by the Anthropocene: the massive and rapid human-created changes in the earth’s natural systems that threaten the viability of our society in the not-too-distant future.
We have to transition to a world of One Planet communities, where we live in good health and with a good quality of life within the biophysical and ecological constraints of this one small planet. To do so successfully, I believe we have to come to grips with four aspects of our responsibility for and duty toward the rights of others.
First, we have an ethical duty to people in our own community, today and in the immediate future, who might be harmed by the transition to a “green” economy. The concept of a just transition can be traced back to a Canadian union activist, Brian Kohler, in 1998. It has been taken up by the International Labour Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation, among others, and is referenced in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
For the ITUC, the just transition is about “investment in new green jobs, skills, income protection and other necessary measures implemented with adequate funding for transforming local economies, and securing support for the poorest and most vulnerable nations.”
But beyond protecting workers and their families it must be applied more broadly to include vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our communities who could be harmed by higher prices for new technologies and services and other economic shocks that might accompany the transition.
Second, as the ITUC noted, we have an ethical duty to people in other parts of the world who do not have the capacity and resources needed for a decent life. We take far more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources, which means there will be far less available to them, now and in the future. We have a responsibility to reduce our share so that those who have too little may have their fair share.
This is exactly what is meant by becoming a One Planet Region.
Third, we have an ethical duty to future generations, both here and around the world, a concept known as inter-generational justice. When we take more than our fair share of the finite resources of the earth today, or damage the ability of the earth to indefinitely sustain renewable resources in the future, we are guaranteeing that future generations will not have enough.
The Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health said it well in 2015: “We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present.”
Finally, we have an ethical duty to other species, who have just as much right to exist as humans. By taking more than our fair and indefinitely sustainable share, we are driving into extinction other species that depend on the same biocapacity and resources for their existence.
These duties form the ethical basis for a One Planet Region.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.