Eco-Social Justice: How Sustainability and Human Rights Mesh

Rachel Lark - November 19, 2023

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Eco-social justice is the bridge between sustainability and human rights. Though disparate, they seem crucial for intersectional, productive conversations in modern eco-activism. The climate crisis impacts every area of life, including poverty, worker’s rights, and everything else. 

So, it was natural the connection between the two would affirm themselves as climate activism became more prevalent. Where are these links, and how can environmental allies comprehensively fight for sustainability and human rights?

Basic Concepts: Sustainability and Human Rights

Let’s get to the foundation. Sustainability in this context strives to achieve ecological harmony, never depleting resources — tangible or not — faster than humanity can replenish them. Human rights are inherent to all humans, regardless of background, demographic, or self-imposed identifier. They are what defines morality and a baseline for ethical norms worldwide.

Eco-social justice acknowledges how a failure to balance human rights globally negatively impacts sustainable progress. Eco-social justice became more mainstream as awareness spread how the two cannot live without each other.

A genuinely sustainable planet with happy populations requires inclusivity. For example, ignoring the needs of less-developed nations because of systemic racism deepens climate-related issues in those regions that trickle out to the rest of the world.

The Need for Eco-Social Justice

Currently, environmentalist conversations do not consider human rights or vice versa. Once people understand how sustainable development goals, like having access to clean water, relate to decreasing carbon emissions, it will be the beginning of significant changes and productive legislation. The discourse will be more balanced in political and social spaces, making the sustainability and human rights discourse more well-rounded and actionable.

Let’s pose a hypothetical. Fast fashion is one of the most discussed topics in environmentalism, primarily regarding zero waste and individual responsibility. The fast fashion industry generally targets impoverished areas for labor, paying them next to nothing. Even if they didn’t want to work for those companies because of environmental alignments, they would have no choice. That could be their only way to get a paycheck to feed their immediate and extended families. 

Meanwhile, a massive landfill of illegally dumped electronic waste poisons the soil and waterways nearby. Smallholder farmers may have reduced or no crop yields that year because Western tech companies are unwilling to control their tech waste. The toxic chemicals seep into food, water, and people attempt to clean the mess without protective gear.

Notice in these scenarios how environmental degradation, like water pollution and textile waste, dismisses human rights. Another term for this is environmental racism because the climate crisis worsens because of systemic prejudice. Humanity must overcome these injustices to move forward. Reversing climate change and helping these people will minimize classism, racism, poverty, hunger, and health crises.

Progress Towards Eco-Social Justice

In 2022, the United Nations declared the right to a healthy environment a human right — if this doesn’t assert how important eco-social justice is, nothing will. As monumental as this statement was, it will not become influential until legally binding. This is the next phase in eco-social advocacy. First, organizations publicize goals and necessities to influence change. Then, they act on making those policies and standards that cannot be argued.

Recent history proves how promoting sustainability is a win for human rights. The United Nations’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights outlines how each sustainable development goal relates to human rights, including the right:

  • To education.
  • For equal access to water and sanitation for rural women.
  • To health and life.
  • To equality and non-discrimination.
  • Of protection from natural disasters.
  • To adequate food.
  • Of all peoples to self-determination.
  • To privacy.

The OHCHR strives to advocate for worldwide policy in the coming years that better human rights with a sustainable lens. They have an agenda to achieve by 2030, focusing on intergovernmental engagement and global policy to implement.

Challenges and Solutions in Achieving Eco-Social Justice

Unfortunately, numerous obstacles stand in the way of solidifying eco-social justice. Sustainability and human rights are some of the most politically contentious topics on the globe, revealing eco-social justice’s number one barrier. Though some argue these issues are non-political because they are inherent to having a positive human experience, the topics must circle governments before becoming applicable to people. 

Slow regulatory processes prevent necessary global healing and equality. It becomes more complex when cross-cultural interests combat each other, which is solved with compromise, empathy, and understanding that climate change is non-judgemental — everyone benefits from eco-social initiatives. International conflict and political tensions add fuel to the fire.

Other tensions, such as resource allocation, competitive corporate interests, among others, make it even more layered. However, here is how anyone can participate in the conversation by supporting environmental justice:

  • Educate yourself on basic environmental subjects by reading studies and interviews of first-hand experiences.
  • Spread the word about stories of impacted people to raise empathy, reinforcing the validity of their stories and their impact on the world.
  • Reach out to your representatives if they oppose sustainability and human rights legislation or projects by reminding them how they synergize with each other.
  • Vote with your dollar by not supporting companies that lobby for antithetical causes or harm people and the planet.

These actions normalize eco-social advocacy, which is the first step in making the conversations more active and vibrant. 

The Relationship Between Sustainability and Human Rights

In obvious and not-so-obvious ways, sustainability and human rights are the same. They coincide with forging a planet that thrives off eco-friendly solutions while providing compassion and empathy for everyone and everything living there. Now that you know the threads connecting these subjects, it is time to spread the word. Educate everyone you talk to, reach out to representatives, and assert the importance of environmental and human rights issues. 

Do this by addressing every concern’s gravity — it is more than air pollution. It is human health and economic stability. It is more than ethical wages. It is giving humans the right to choose not to support environmentally harmful corporations. Pass this message along, and the world will heal faster.

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.