Environmentalism: Recounting A ‘Third World Approaches To International Law’ Perspective

Shambhavi Srivastava

Global warming and climate change, among many other environmental maladies that the world faces today, have been the focal point of international treaties and dialogues since the inception of an international movement to protect the environment. However, we can all agree that despite being the focus of international law’s attention for the last 30-40 years, these issues have only seemed to worsen. One reason for this is a glaring lack of political will and the other is the lack of consensus between the developed and developing States on how to protect the environment. This is not unprecedented given that relation between persons and even between States is determined by economic parameters and the priority for developing States today is to achieve economic equality at par with their already developed counterparts.

This economic equality can be obtained through either of the following two means: (a) the developing States continue with their rampage of natural resources in their quest to become developed States, or (b) the developed States are made liable to contribute to mitigating carbon emissions proportionate to their output of greenhouse gas emissions in the course of their industrialization. The former is unacceptable and the latter is increasingly difficult. The nations of the Global South have often demanded a proportionate share of the burden in protecting the environment from the richer states of the Global North as these are the ones which contribute unequally to causing environmental harm.[1] However, in turn, the developed States have either pulled out from the Agreements they initiated, for instance, the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change or worse still, have refused to acknowledge the problem itself.[2] Sustainable development may be the hue and cry of the world; especially, the third world States who will bear the brunt of collapse in environmental balance yet unsurprisingly, there is no consensus on how to make sustainable development actionable. The North-South divide in this matter is stark. Owing to its imperial and colonial roots[3], international environmental law (IEL) is also unfavourably tilted against the Global South.

Environmental Colonialism

The idea that developing countries like India and China are equally to blame for the heating up of the planet and must share the blame for the same is an excellent example of ‘environmental colonialism’[4]. Looking at data evidence[5] from the last hundred years, countries like China and India have a very minimal share in the overall accumulation of greenhouse gases. It is, therefore, a pertinent question as to how concrete data gets ignored and political motivations reinforce such claims. In this context, it must be discussed how IEL is a tool that has been used for perpetuating environmental colonialism even in the post-colonial era.

Given the unrepresentative roots of international environmental law, it would not be wrong to state that IEL is trapped within western modernity[6]. The notion of environmentalism on global platforms like the United Nations and various international legal instruments was initiated by the First World countries once their populations started facing the adverse impacts of rapid industrialization. This environmental consciousness was contemporaneous to the decolonization of various Third World nations on the promise that development activities will be undertaken, markets will remain open and consumption will continue. In the tussle between two competing objectives, economic considerations inevitably prevailed because of its deep disciplinary history. Thus environmentalism turned out to be not a paradigm shift in thought that advocated for “protecting and conserving the natural resources and planet” but only a tiny step forward from “utilization of natural resources” to “EFFICIENT utilization of natural resources”[7].

International law unavoidably incorporates this concept of environmentalism as the world continues to suffer from the belief that western philosophy is the epitome of human thought. But even though environmental law has become a specialized field of study, its implementation is handicapped due to its parochial nature.

The Way Forward

To remedy this handicap, international lawyers must step up in their efforts[8] to interpret and apply IEL in an inclusive manner. Environmentalism need not be confined to the accepted definition that the West has extended. Limiting ourselves to the age-old development versus conservation debate would be to stick ourselves to a binary. It is rather imperative to encompass alternative ideas and recognize the disciplinary interconnection between law, politics, economics and environment studies. Nature is dynamic and hence should not be viewed as a mere object of governance. Rather, it should be allowed to stretch legal understandings and even change them if need be.

Some examples of the movements that challenge existing concepts and notions of environmentalism are class actions on behalf of future generations in the Philippines[9], law reform recognizing the rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia[10], rights of indigenous persons in places like South Asia[11] and the Arctic[12], climate justice for small island nations[13] which are most vulnerable to climate change, etc. These movements are not new and there are many others like these. However, they have been constantly ignored, silenced or suppressed. This is evident from the murders of environmental activists, in India[14] and worldwide[15].

Activism in the name of the environment has been thought to be a threat to capitalism and consumption. While it is true that rampant consumerism is the reason behind environmental degradation, it is not necessarily true that giving priority to ecological concerns is going to need an overhaul of the existing economic system. This has been discussed by the author elsewhere[16]. What is required is to escape from the binary of “development or environment” that has continued from the colonial era and percolated our international legal instruments. The blame game between developed and developing countries only distracts us from reaching a sustainable solution.

The environment and its constant changes should govern our actions and not the other way round. Environmentalism needs to be a bottom-to-top approach where local communities and their interaction with nature determines conservation strategies rather than the North-South divide which is a legacy of years of colonialism. For this, international lawyers, especially representative of the neglected communities of the Global South have to engage with IEL and strive towards making the provisions inclusive through interpretative strategies to end the implementation crisis.

This brings us back to the beginning of this discussion. Even the most difficult of things is possible if there is a will to bring change. Therefore, as citizens of a world that is under the danger of collapsing due to the pressures humans have exerted on it, we must know our consequences, make our fellow human beings aware of the same and pressurize our political leaders to listen to the ones who will inherit the Earth they leave behind.

About The Author
Shambhavi Srivastava is currently pursuing LL.B Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi. She is keenly interested in International law and Constitutional law.

Photo Credits: Studio Ghibli


[1] Usha Natarajan and Julia Dehm, Where is the Environment? Locating Nature in International Law, available at: https://twailr.com/where-is-the-environment-locating-nature-in-international-law/

[2] US is hotbed of climate change denial, major global survey finds, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/07/us-hotbed-climate-change-denial-international-poll

[3] Antony Anghie, “The Evolution of International Law: colonial and postcolonial realities”, Vol. 27 No. 5, Third World Quarterly, pp 739-753 (2006)

[4] Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, Global Warming in an Unequal World 1 (Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2003)

[5] CO2 Country Profile: Our World in Data, available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/united-states?country=USA~IND~CHN~GBR

[6] Brian-Vincent Ikejiaku, “International Law in Western made Global Law: The Perception of Third World Category”, Vol. 6 Issue 2-3, African Journal of Legal Studies, pp 337-356 (2014)

[7] Usha Natarajan, “TWAIL and the environment: The state of nature, the nature of the State, and the Arab Spring”, Vol. 14, Oregon Review of International Law p. 177 (2012)

[8] Kishan Khoday, Vanessa Lamb, et.al., “Locating Nature: Making and unmaking International Law: Introduction”, Vol. 27 Issue 3, Leiden Journal of International Law p. 571 (2014)

[9] Oposa v. Factoran, G.R. No. 101083 (1993), available at: https://www.lawphil.net/judjuris/juri1993/jul1993/gr_101083_1993.html

[10] Law of Rights of Mother Earth, available at: https://bolivia.infoleyes.com/norma/2689/ley-de-derechos-de-la-madre-tierra-071

[11] Samina Luthfa, “Transnational Ties and Reciprocal Tenacity: Resisting Mining in Bangladesh with Transnational Coalition”, Vol. 51 Issue 1, Sociology pp. 127-145 (2017)

[12] Trade in Seal Products, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/biodiversity/animal_welfare/seals/seal_hunting.htm

[13] Fighting an Existential threat: small island states bringing climate change to the UN Security Coucil, available at: https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2018-03/PSI_PB_Small_Island_States_Climate_Change_UNSC.pdf

[14] Record 212 environmentalists killed in 2019, watchdog says, available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/record-212-environmental-activists-killed-in-2019-says-watchdog/article32217916.ece

[15] Land and Environmental Defenders, available at: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/

[16] Unlearn, Re-orient and Govern: Exploring the Justiciability of DPSPs for Sustainable Development, available at: https://www.tscld.com/post/unlearn-re-orient-and-govern-exploring-justiciability-of-dpsps-for-sustainable-development

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