Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Water - Mine and Yours

It appears that Canada has scuppered a United Nations effort to have water, or at least access to it, recognized as a basic human right. It seems we acted out of fear; fear that not obstructing this effort could land Canada in a situation where other nations could claim entitlement to our freshwater resources in the name of upholding basic human rights.

This is a tough question that's deeply rooted in the larger environmental crisis and, as so typical in these matters, there are no good answers.

What are basic human rights and who is responsible for ensuring access to them? I suppose it would be hard to argue that access to clean air is a basic, as in the sense of fundamental, human right. No one has a right to foul another person's air. But wait a minute. What do you tell the people of Toronto or Hong Kong or so many other places where residents have to be warned to stay indoors lest they be exposed to the air?

You see, once you recognize something as a basic right, those who interfere with or impair that right must bear some moral, if not outright legal, responsibility to those adversely affected. I won't get into cases like Rylands v. Fletcher but let's say you and I live beside each other on a hill. My property slopes down to yours. You have a lovely back yard with a patio and swimming pool, the whole deal. I decide I want to really get my lawn looking great so I have a truckload of manure delivered to my backyard. A massive rainstorm hits, loosening the manure pile and sending it sliding across into your yard and your swimming pool. How would you feel about that?

Do you have a basic right not to have my manure slide into your swimming pool? Of course you do and I'd have to pay to have everything made right and, even then, you'd still be furious with me for a long time to come.

So why then do we feel entitled to release other forms of contamination into our most essential, common property - the air? We don't keep that pollution on our side of the fence, we don't even attempt it. Why not? Because we wouldn't want to live or breathe in such a place. Just to keep going we'd have to spend a lot of money to clean up our mess and that, in turn, would eat into our profits, our prosperity. So therefore our very prosperity is directly linked into having most of that pollution released to be carried elsewhere.

Now, if we were going to recognize access to safe, clean water as a basic human right, how could we resist the argument that access to safe, clean air is an even more fundamental human right? You see, if we let that one slip past us, we could be held to account for the garbage we spew into mankind's air.

And who would be howling the loudest? Why those poor folks who, while they contribute almost nothing to greenhouse gas emissions, just happen to live where its effects are most strongly felt. We get the prosperity bonus of releasing this contamination into the atmosphere and they get to pay the real price of that. Sounds fair, doesn't it? Isn't that sort of like telling your neighbour that as soon as that manure slid across the lot line it became his and therefore he can clean up his own damned yard? Of course it is.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that we can't treat water and air and resources (renewable and non) on a problem by problem basis. All that will ensure is that we don't succeed on anything because even meaningful success on one front can be rendered meaningless by failures on others. What good is it if I ensure you have an abundant supply of clean, freshwater yet, at the same time, you can't breathe the air? What good is it if you have clean air and adequate drinking water but nothing to eat? Sustaining life demands that we deal with all of these issues comprehensively and we're nowhere near acknowledging that yet even as the clock ticks down.

We need to be really clear-headed on these challenges. There are no Goody Two Shoes solutions. Overpopulation has to be addressed. It's one thing for an agrarian China to have 1.3-billion people. It's another thing altogether for an industrialized China to impose on the world the burden of that population. China, like India, is still just getting into second gear but it's on the accelerator and wants to get into fourth or fifth just as soon as it can and that, friends, spells disaster if we haven't dealt with these challenges comprehensively. We have to find a workable balance and that's probably going to mean some measures to curb overpopulation.

I think what we're most afraid of and yet won't mention is that, if we're going to call upon others to make concessions, we're going to have to be willing to give ground ourselves. We have reached the point where our consumption exceeds our planet's finite resources. We have hit the wall. Now if these wealthy newcomers decide they want the same sorts of things we Westerners enjoy, somebody is going to have to give up something and all eyes are going to be on those guys who have the most.

The thing is we don't even have to wait for this to happen. It's already begun. Look at the food riots in Africa and as close to home as Mexico. Look at our collapsing fisheries. 70% of our food fish species are endangered and we're switching over to the put the remaining species in the same position. A lot of the world's poorest people are dependent on fish for their survival. At the same time they're facing the disappearance of their fisheries, global warming is bringing them freshwater disruptions and desertification.

Here's something you need to understand, something you have to remember. These people look at their misery and misfortune and they see your face. If you check out any Third World papers there are plenty of reports about just who has brought this devastation to them. We're not talking about horseshit in a swimming pool, we're talking about people struggling and failing to find food and water for their kids. Can you see what's coming?


Anonymous said...

I think your understanding of "rights" is flawed.

"I suppose it would be hard to argue that access to clean air is a basic, as in the sense of fundamental, human right."

"Do you have a basic right not to have my manure slide into your swimming pool? Of course you do . . ."

Both of these are not rights, and certainly not human rights.

The Mound of Sound said...

Scott, I don't know what they taught you about rights at your law school but I'm still able to remember a bit of what I learned way back when. I don't know how to explain this to you Scott but the world is changing and many nations are now clamouring to have access to water declared a basic human right. It is a human right if we make it so Scott, that's one of those things humans can do. And if we did make access to water a human right, how would you be able to resist admitting air as a similar right? Now you may not like that Scott but that's irrelevant.
And, by the way Scott, you do have a right not to have my manure in your pool, a very actionable right that the courts won't hesitate to enforce. No one's suggesting Scott that's a human right, except perhaps for yourself.

Anonymous said...

MofS: A human right is not a human right because we make it so, that is a legal right. Human rights are a type of natural rights, inherent in each person because they are human. Human rights can not be 'made,' they are discovered through reason.

If human rights can be made, they are arbitrary and can only have legal standing if so enacted and thus would become strictly legal rights.

You end by stating: "No one's suggesting Scott that's a human right, except perhaps for yourself." Okay then please explain the difference from your term, "basic right" and the regular term of right.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sorry Scott, but human rights are indeed made. If not they would reside only in the eye of the beholder and quickly become nothing at all. They must be prescribed in accordance with the enlightenment of societies and nations at any point in time. A thousand years back this very discussion would be considered utter nonsense. Times change and with them so does the will and interests of peoples and nations.

If human rights aren't prescribed, made certain and clear, then they become arbitrary. That's been the historic role of statute and common law in our civilization. These rights are considered and debated and argued and narrowed or expanded and, through these processes, become defined and certain. Without that they would be no more than whim.

I watched your piece on the death penalty and I was struck at how you so emphatically held the right to life to be so inviolate as to supercede national sovereignty. If we are to have a basic human right not to lose our lives to execution then what is important - life or the cause of its extinction? Is it worse if life is forfeit to avoidable lack of water or corruption of the atmosphere or only, as you seem to suggest so passionately on your video, when it is a state taking life?

These are questions for societies and nations to debate and determine to define the scope of what we, in this era, will consider human rights. Who knows, a couple of centuries from now we may be taken to be barbaric.

As for basic rights, here's an example - the right to quiet enjoyment. When you hold an estate in land -freehold or leasehold, the law generally recognizes your right to the peaceful enjoyment of that land free of unwarranted intrusion by others.