On the 25th of June, the government of the Netherlands lost a case against 886 of its own citizens. Citizens suing their government is not uncommon; it is the nature of the ruling that is unusual. Concerned citizens sued their government for only cutting down their greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 by 17%. The Dutch government was accused of neglecting the environment and infringing upon fundamental human rights. The Hague District Court ruled in their favor and ordered the Dutch government to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% from what it was in 1990. The deadline is 2020.
This ruling is important for a variety of reasons. First, it acknowledges that human rights discourse is inevitably tied up with environmentalism and environmental preservation. Second, the very idea that it is possible to commit a tort against a non-human entity bestows upon the environment a newfound judicial standing. Lastly, this ruling indicates a ripple of civil dissatisfaction at the government’s inertia with reference to climate change. Each of these three points reflects different dimensions of the environmentalist agenda and underlines the importance of environmentalism.
The District court was explicit in mentioning that the destruction of the environment, also known as ecocide, is akin to a human rights violation. This ruling acknowledges a) that humans are dependent upon the environment for survival and b) that ecocide is akin to genocide and other crimes against humanity. This implies that the anthropocentric egoism that previously pervaded human rights discourses is being questioned and deconstructed.
Furthermore, the fact the environmental welfare has been equated to human rights injures the anthropocentric ego and autonomous attitude that we all seem to collectively share. The very fact that our well-being is dependent on an entity outside of ourselves leads us to question our role in nature and our belief in our superiority. Not only this, but the jarring fact that we are dependent on nature forces us to reevaluate our priorities. Our priorities cannot only encompass ourselves, but also other entities upon who we are inevitably dependent. We often forget our vulnerability, which allows us to be rash and dominating. The fact that the District Court’s ruling equated ecocide with genocide is poignant as redefines what we consider human harm. If we are to survive, we must embrace a biocentric lifestyle, even if it is for purely selfish reasons.
This subtle shift in perspective leads us to our second point, which highlights the judicial standing of the environment. It is well known that there has been a movement to include ecocide as a human rights violation within the Rome Statute by activists such as Polly Higgins. Currently, ecocide is considered as a part of genocide, pushing it into a secondary, less considered position. However, the ruling by the Hague District Court changes that by painting the environment as a victim of a tort. This implies that the environment is owed a certain degree of respect, and has a certain judicial value. Under this ruling, tort law dictates that the Dutch government is the tortfeasor and therefore is legally liable for any harm caused to the environment.
The connotations of victimization acknowledge that harm has been done to a certain entity and thus, reparations are owed. The victimization of the environment holds the tortfeasor responsible for its well-being, both morally and legally. Morally, the government has shirked its duties without culpability. Legal liability, however, has more political significance and holds a more tangible punitive value. Moral arguments for environmental protection are often dismissed as overly sentimental; colloquially speaking, it is considered hippy-ish. However, a legal backing has the tendency to strengthen even the most morally weak argument. In the case of the Dutch ruling, a similar pattern can be observed; environmentalism has finally gained traction due to the legal support it suddenly finds itself with.
As previously mentioned, this legal support is not coincidental; it is the result of lengthy legal proceedings. The very fact that this case was brought to court, regardless of its results, marks the politicization of environmentalism. No longer is the environment only the interest of certain fringe groups; it is a part of the political rhetoric and reasonability of the Dutch government. Even if the court has ruled in favor of the government, the politicization of the issue would have been nearly inevitable. Caring about the environment is certainly not enough, but it marks a certain niche interest in biocentrism, which will eventually trickle down to the masses.
The 886 individuals who filed the case against the government represent the dissatisfaction that is brewing not only in the Dutch society, but also across the globe. While governments have always been criticized for their inaction, this case is remarkable in that it gives new value to ecological concerns in that it is considered a legitimate source of contention. Civil dissatisfaction is the first step to societal change, though it is often ignored in favor of more monumental change. However, it is important to keep in mind that constructivist transitions are sluggish and that little progress is better than no progress.
The Dutch ruling is a small step towards a more secure ecological future; there is still much work to be done. There is no one ruling or solution that can solve the great environmental crisis that we have brought upon ourselves. Change can only come about through perpetual collective action and the will to change. Unfortunately, it is not this realization that has come too late; it is the excuses we make that have reduced realization to inaction. With this in mind, the Dutch ruling can be considered to have come much too late to the game, however, there is no doubt that it is a game changer.