Environmental Rights and Canada’s Constitution

Environmental Buttons

Our Conservative government’s recent penchant for gutting several decades’ worth of environmental rules all at once using the stealthy technique of omnibus legislation is no secret. Given this depressing reality, some Canadian environmentalists yearn to ground conservation in something more stable, more permanent, than mere statutory law.

Enter environmental rights.

Environmental lawyer David Boyd, author of The Environmental Rights Revolution and The Right to a Healthy Environment, makes a powerful case for directly and explicitly enshrining environmental rights into national constitutions. He notes that over 140 countries in all parts of the world now have constitutions that feature some form of environmental protection, finds a correlation between these provisions and strong environmental performance, and provides examples of these tools being put to work by regular people and enforced by the courts.

Unfortunately, Canada finds itself on the wrong side of this divide, making no mention of the environment in any of its constitutional documents. Accordingly, and contrary to our self-image, we tend to find ourselves situated near the bottom of OECD rankings on environmental measures. It is for this reason that David Boyd and many other Canadian environmentalists support some kind of green amendment to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Three possible objections to this approach spring immediately to mind. First, it is often claimed that human beings ought to regard their relationship to the natural world from a perspective of duties, whereas national constitutions more often than not speak the language of rights. Would environmental rights take us in the wrong direction?

I prefer not to get bogged down too much in such symbolic considerations, as it is a well-known truism that every right has a corresponding responsibility. If Canada were to confer upon its citizens a constitutional right to a healthy environment, this would entail enforceable responsibilities to respect this right on the part of individuals, industrial polluters, and all levels of government. But if semantics are a concern, I would certainly not object to a constitutional amendment that characterizes sustainability as both a right and a duty.

Second, not everyone has equal access to the institutions of justice. Could it be that the environmental rights approach would provide remedies only for those who can afford to take the government to court?

The legal system’s inaccessibility is a serious problem for many poor people, but it is a problem that is neither created nor exacerbated by the idea of constitutionally enshrining protection of the environment. Much environmental destruction is so widespread and indiscriminate that virtually everyone suffers (although the poor are without doubt more vulnerable). However, even in those unjust cases where the cries of poor communities go unheard, the solution is not to prevent a potentially useful environmental remedy from coming into being, but to work all the more strenuously to reduce inequality and make the benefits of the legal system more widely available.

The third possible objection is that environmental laws are best left in the hands of democratically elected governments. To allow unelected judges to overturn any aspect of environmental governance put in place by Parliament, according to this argument, is anti-democratic.

This objection is routinely trotted out every time someone disagrees with a court decision, and in fact was commonly heard during the original debate over the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But if it is granted that the courts ought to be able to overrule the government on at least some occasions — and the majority of Canadians who support the Charter’s existence must believe this — then we should ask ourselves what makes it acceptable.

For me, it comes down to the issue of majority rule. In certain situations, even in a democracy, majority rule is not the appropriate way to settle things. Take individual and minority rights, for instance. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, marriage equality, and Aboriginal rights are a few of the many areas widely considered to be none of the majority’s business, and hence offered explicit or implicit constitutional protection. I believe that the well-being of the natural world is entitled to the same protection, because not all relevant stakeholders are included in a democratic majority. Particularly glaring in their absence from the electorate are future generations and other species — entities who, it might be argued, have even more to lose from environmental destruction than the current generation of human voters.

Yes, for practical reasons it is necessary to secure the consent of the majority and its representatives in dealing with many environmental questions, but that should not give elected governments unlimited authority. For future generations and other species, as well as for ourselves, we must to some extent keep the long-term health of the natural world out of reach from the frivolous, short-term machinations of this or that government, to bestow upon the environment the same aura of almost inviolate importance as constitutionally protected civil liberties.

If only such environmental rights existed already, whining about foreign-backed radicals might be the extent of a government’s attack on the natural world, rather than a mere opening salvo.


Montreal Gazette Letter

Joel Lion, Israel’s Consul-General in Montreal, wrote an op-ed in the Montreal Gazette detailing the virtuous lengths Israel goes to in order to avoid civilian casualties in its unrelenting bombardment of the Gaza Strip. At the urging of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, I submitted a short letter to the editor in response, which the Gazette was kind enough to publish on its website. Please click here to read my letter. It is succinct and — let us say — snippy.

Live From Gaza

Nothing cuts through the bullshit quite like live footage.

The following comes inadvertently from a CNN interview conducted with a Palestinian in Gaza and an Israeli in Ashkelon. I will let the video speak for itself:

An Open Letter to Israeli and Palestinian Hawks

Israeli Apartheid Week artwork

Dear Israeli hawks:

What are you thinking?

I realize that you consider every destructive, civilian killing, infrastructure shattering air raid you launch on the impoverished people of the Gaza Strip to be an act of self-defence against the terrorism of Hamas and other militant groups, and that every cheap rocket fired at you from the Strip represents an existential danger. You have even managed to convince most of the mainstream media (at least in North America) of this rocket-and-retaliation narrative. But reality is considerably more complicated.

Forget for a moment the near impossibility of determining who “started” any given Israeli-Palestinian flare-up. If we wish to rise above the proverbial cycle of violence in search of root causes, we are left with three explanations: the blockade of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, and, to a lesser extent, the refugee crisis that has been ongoing since 1948.

Your blockade, enforced with Egyptian assistance, has never limited itself to purely military concerns. The import of fuel and construction equipment is heavily restricted, and your government has at times reportedly counted calories to determine how much food to allow into the Strip. From day one, the intent was to strangle the Gazan economy and pressure its long suffering civilians.

None of this excuses Palestinian violence, but the importance of these issues must be acknowledged. Context matters, and so does scale. As of this writing, the death toll from the current escalation is at least forty on the Palestinian side and three on the Israeli side. This ratio is fairly standard.

It is therefore incumbent upon you to accept an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and bring an end to the blockade of Gaza.

Dear Palestinian hawks:

You are not helping.

I realize that the humanitarian crisis brought on by the ongoing blockade or siege on Gaza fosters anger, desperation, and extremism, but you need to recognize that you will never defeat a nuclear-armed, American-backed regional superpower militarily. Not only are your constant rocket attacks ineffective; they are positively counterproductive. They produce an unreasoning impulse for revenge among Israelis no less than Israeli strikes do among you.

Furthermore, in addition to the above strategic considerations, any act of violence against civilians is morally reprehensible and a war crime. This applies both to your actions and to Israel’s. I do not mean to present a false equivalence; it is not even close. After all, context matters, and so does scale. But a death is a death is a death. Crimes cannot be justified simply because the other side is doing it more.

It is therefore incumbent upon you to accept an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

False Flags and Vapour Trails: Reflections on Conspiracy Theory

Vapour trailsYesterday, I attended a talk here in Vancouver by author and activist Yves Engler, promoting his latest book The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy. While the talk was very informative, most of the entertainment came during the question-and-answer session towards the end, during which a pair of audience members raised the topics of false flag operations and chemtrails.

Not being fully caught up on all forms of supervillainy commonly attributed to the US government, I had to look that last one up. Chemtrails refer to chemical agents placed in the vapour trails of airplanes for purposes of spreading illness, changing the weather, or controlling the population. Engler for the most part refrained from responding to that one. However, on the subject of false flag operations (military attacks made to appear as though they were executed by one’s opponents), Engler gave an utterly reasonable, if brief, reply along the lines that such operations have undoubtedly occurred historically, but that this did not mean they were everywhere. Sometimes, things actually are the way they seem.

I always feel relieved when radical thinkers resist the temptation to fall into the conspiracy theory trap, something exceedingly easy for anti-establishment types to do. Is this fair, this dismissive attitude? Is it really so simple? (See here for an interesting read on how not-so-simple it is, a read that significantly influenced my thoughts on the matter.)

If I may extend Engler’s comment on false flag operations, conspiracies in general sometimes do take place and will probably continue to do so into the future. This is uncontroversial. Well-known examples include Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair. And if we include not only conspiracies of action but also conspiracies of motivation (for example, governments lying about their reasons for passing a law or pursuing a goal or invading Iraq), then there is nothing particularly uncommon about conspiracy theorizing.

Yet I feel reluctant to place myself anywhere on a spectrum that includes truthers, birthers, climate change skeptics, and Holocaust deniers. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad?

If one assumes (as I do) that the vast majority of conspiracy theories — though not quite all — are false, then it is reasonable to greet every new one not with outright rejection, nor with perfect neutrality, but with an attitude of healthy suspicion. That is an appropriate starting point, and one should adjust one’s position in one direction or the other as evidence presents itself.

Some, however, will object to the first premise above. Who says conspiracy theories are usually wrong? Maybe they have simply not been found out. Where is the evidence that proves them false, and to the extent that such evidence exists, is it reliable or is it itself part of the conspiracy?

That last question is what makes conspiracy theories, in their most extreme form, so frustrating to me. They are unfalsifiable. Any expert opinion that appears to support an opposing worldview is treated not as evidence against the conspiracy, but as evidence of how deep this thing really goes. President Obama’s birth certificate is dismissed for being short-form rather than long-form, or, if the long-form certificate is released, for allegedly being photoshopped. Scientific testimony that the Earth is warming due to fossil fuel use is dismissed as having been paid for by deep-pocketed environmentalists or some kind of global communist New World Order.

It is virtually impossible to disprove these allegations. Whatever retort one offers, the “true believers” will have an answer that weaves the retort seamlessly into the very fabric of the conspiracy. Therefore, my policy of healthy suspicion must ultimately rest on pragmatic grounds.

If we were to require the same stringently high standards of proof that conspiracy theorists demand of establishment narratives, and moreover if we were to apply these standards consistently, then it would be virtually impossible to truly know anything. We would be plunged into a world of darkness and uncertainty. No election result or ingredients list or auditor’s report would ever be trustworthy. For that matter, neither would any conspiracy theory.

In other words, in order to believe in anything — “official story” or otherwise — we must agree on a few basic things that, at least most of the time, deserve our trust. For starters, I recommend science, as well as other forms of scholarship. I would also add those facets of government that are sufficiently constrained by legal checks and transparency requirements as to be reliable. Obviously not every politician or office or agency would make that cut.

At the same time, while my policy of healthy suspicion of conspiracy theory is certainly not compatible with dogmatic mistrust of the establishment, one should not go too far in the other direction either. An open mind and a willingness to question authority are necessary so that we are not caught by surprise on those occasions when real conspiracies do occur. At the very least, mainstream voices need to stop treating the term “conspiracy theorist” as an insult.

Still, don’t expect me to run for cover the next time I see a vapour trail.