Authors: Manini Syali and Aaditya Vikram Sharma*
The Coronavirus pandemic is not the first occasion when human civilizations are witnessing the outbreak of a deadly disease. This becomes even more crucial in the present day era, dominated by technological and scientific advancement, when cures for a number of life threatening ailments have successfully been discovered. Yet, a virus, because of its highly contagious nature has brought human life to a complete halt and even specialised international organisations like the World Health Organisation, devoted towards the sole objective of maintaining health care standards worldwide, more or less appear to be helpless in containing it. The pandemic can be called a watershed moment, after recovering from which, the way human beings have been living in industrialist societies will change drastically. Signs of this change can be felt in the form of increased awareness towards environmental issues, which in spite of having been a subject matter of policy consideration for more than fifty years now, largely remained being seen as ancillary in front of ‘crucial issues’ like peace, security, poverty etc., which demand swifter actions. The need of the hour, therefore, is to broaden the horizons of ecological analyses, as it is being done traditionally, and to realise that pathogens need to be made an integral part of eco-system management.
Further, it is a well-known fact that the consequences of environmental degradation have always been seen in anticipatory terms, reducing the gravity of the situation further. Moreover, the environmental doctrines like ‘sustainable development’, themselves are worded in such a manner that they portray sufferings of the generations yet to come instead of being seen as a present day problem. It will also not be wrong to say that there exists a resemblance between environmental principles like the polluter pays principle, precautionary principle, transboundary environmental pollution etc. and the classic common law doctrines having their basis in the tort of negligence. This has further strengthened the perception that non-abidance with the said doctrines will merely give rise to claims of compensation which can be easily settled in monetary terms. Alternative jurisprudential theories like green-criminology, which advocate criminal remedies in case of environmental destruction, or imbibing sustainability in all kinds of regulatory frameworks, therefore, majorly remain limited to academic discussions.
An attempt will, therefore, be made in the present article to trace the evolution of the already existing models of environmental governance and give a critique, highlighting their non-applicability in the post-Corona world order, which would demand alternative models of sustainability and would not only help in containing the spread of similar diseases in the future but will also supplement effective implementation of the already existing environmental law instruments.
Technocratic Progress and Altered Human Conditions
In the 18th century, the human kind encountered a life changing turn of events in the form of Industrial Revolution. The repercussions of the revolution were such that it did not remain limited to the economic front and left its impact on the social and cultural life of individuals as well. Moreover, the changes which the society underwent as a result of the revolution were rather quick and demanded implementation of regulatory frameworks, covering different aspect of human life. A few examples of the same are family laws for regulating altered family ties, alien to the pre-industrial society, establishment of a legal regime for intellectual property rights, banking and commercial laws for facilitating the contemporary financial activities etc. The way nation states interacted with each other also witnessed drastic changes due to increased dependence on technology.
The gravity of the situation, however, was only realised in the year 1962, in the aftermaths of the Cuban missile crises, when around two dozen experts met in Santa Barbara, California during a Conference to discuss the impacts of technology on human affairs. The conference ended on an optimistic note, but also received a highly sceptical submission from the side of French sociologist Jacques Ellul, who argued that human life had become dangerously dependent on Technology and no aspect of it had the capacity to escape ‘the technique’.
Early Years of Environmental Governance
The criticisms against the technocratic notions of ‘progress’, however, remained limited to sociological fronts for a long time despite emergence of early signs of Climate Change in the late 1950s itself.The United Nations (UN)-centric international legal regime also remained silent on these issues till the advent of the UN Conference on Human Environment (Stockholm Conference),held in the year 1972. The Conference was the first occasion when global environmental issues were discussed as a matter of concern at the global level. Before this also environmental treaties existed, but they largely remained limited to localised issues like wildlife preservation, migratory birds, conservation of wetlands etc. Multiple factors like extinction of the Blue Whale due to indiscriminate hunting, rampant nuclear bomb testings in the 1960s and use of chemical warfare during the Vietnam War which adversely impacted environment as well as human health, finally resulted in a proposal from the side of the Swedish government to organise the Conference.
It will not be wrong to state that the Stockholm Declaration, the legal instrument produced as a result of the Stockholm Conference appears more to be a Human Rights instrument rather than an environmentally oriented regulatory framework. Moreover, the anthropocentric nature of the declaration, which otherwise is popularly known as Magna Carta of environmental law, gets reflected in its preamble itself.
Evolution of Sustainable Governance Models
This spirit of the declaration, was further carried forward in the Brundtland Commission report, published in the year 1987, which gave the concept of ‘sustainable development’ a concrete shape. Through this concept it was realised that developmental activities cannot be given up in absolute terms and the need of the hour, therefore, was to adopt environmentally sustainable activities to create a balance. The next milestone in environmental regulation, achieved by the World Community, was the UN Conference on Environment and Development. The conference gave birth to three important environmental law instruments namely, the Rio Declaration, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Further, all three of the above mentioned instruments had ‘sustainability’ as their theme.
Despite receiving a good response from nation states in the form of substantial number of ratifications, the objectives of the above mentioned international instruments has remained a distant dream and the natural environment continues to witness deterioration, so much so, that it is about to reach the stage of irreversibility. Further, rampant developmental activities, which are being carried out at a global scale have also totally disregarded the principles of ‘conservation’ and ‘sustainable use’, as enshrined in the preamble of CBD. The UNFCCC mandate of ‘stabilization of greenhouse gases’ has also not received a collective effort from the side of the World Community.
Sustainability in the Times of Coronavirus Pandemic
The significance of these issues increases multifold in the contemporary times when the World is witnessing a humanitarian crises in the form of the COVID19 pandemic. Establishing a connection between ‘development’, ‘environmental degradation’ and the Corona Virus pandemic is important because in the roots of this virus spread lies the illegal wildlife trade in which China has remained engaged for decades. In the past also the scientific community has attributed origination of several contagious diseases to Chinese wet markets where exotic and vulnerable species are sold at commercial levels. This deadly disease outbreak is, thus, being seen as an eye opening moment, having the capacity to halt wildlife trade as well as habitat destruction.
The other linking point between the Coronavirus pandemic and sustainability is the issue of sanitation and hygiene. Insanitary conditions can be called both a cause and an effect of the pandemic. The connection between unhygienic practices and disease outbreak does not require much explanation, however, the bio-medical waste management and related issues have emerged as a major regulatory hassle in the present day crisis, which are demanding a detailed policy framework for proper management. This also gets reflected in the ‘Goal 6’ of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established in the year 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly, which talks about ‘Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.’
It has further been reported that due to the lockdowns imposed in several nation states, economic and industrial activities came to a complete standstill, which resulted in drastic reduction in greenhouse emissions worldwide. Certain reports were also rejoicing by citing positive signs being shown by ozone layer recovery and giving the Corona pandemic a credit for the same. In those moments of temporary happiness, the years which national jurisdictions spent in implementing the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depletion were discredited. Moreover, if latest reports are to be believed catastrophic rise in greenhouse gases has further worsened the condition of ozone levels in the environment. This raises a very pertinent question with respect to how the mankind plans to deal with climate change, because of the simple reason that such arguments are simply based on devaluing persistent application of sustainable governance models, which will not merely improve the degraded environmental conditions but will also result in improvement of living condition of millions of individuals living under perilous circumstances.
*Aaditya Vikram Sharma, Assistant professor, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies.