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Issues of equality have never been too far from environmental concerns. We can see from nineteenth century literature that references the industrial environment, such as Dickens’ (1854) Hard Times, that concerns regarding the impact of industry on the natural environment were inflected through concerns about social matters.

The inequities observed emerging in modern industrial society animated writers and thinkers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Rousseau (1988), for instance, was concerned with how civil society replaced natural society distributed rights and access to resources unequally process (see also Morris and Shipman, 2015: 7).

Where liberal-republicans like Rousseau called for a state that should intervene to unsure a just distribution of rights, conservative thinkers such as Burke (2012) called for minimal government interference so that “natural” rights are not interfered with.

Both liberal and conservative thinkers noted people’s rights to property, life and liberty, but differed in the ways in which such rights are conceived and protected. Rousseau expressed a concern that a natural right to the commons was replaced by a civil right to private property. For him civil society had offended natural rights by dividing property through the imposition of individual ownership that separated people from each other, prioritising the “private good” over the “public good”.

For other liberal-republican thinkers such as Paine (1998), decisions about the just distribution of rights should come from public deliberation over the public good. For conservatives such as Burke (2012), this concern with public or collective rights restricted individual liberty and could result in the sort of tyranny seen in the French Revolution. Property rights, including the right to exploit that property, were natural, as was their inequitable distribution. The consequences of the exploitation of this exploitation – such as hunger and pollution – were hardly considered.

The notion that industrial exploitation of property might infringe on the rights of others necessitates consideration of the ordering of rights. Their unequal distribution has also been a point of contention in politics. For instance, Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (1998) argued that all should have equal rights, which became a rallying cry of the French Revolution. However, he was criticised by Mary Wollstonecraft (2004) in her Vindication of the Rights of Women, as Paineignored the rights of half of the population, and thus exposed a significant inequality in the conception of political rights.

Whether relating to women, ethnic minority groups, or economic class,at different times rights have been limited to different groups. Indeed, civil rights activists in 1960s America called for the recognition that black men were men and should be allowed to claim rights as men. This politics of recognition has also influenced indigenous groups whose natural right to their land has been over-ridden but the private rights of mining and development corporations (Watson, 2015: 190).

Such considerations drove activists to call for the formalisation of rights in codified documents such as constitutions and bills of rights, like the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the U.S. Constitution. Although these provisions were strong, they excluded large groups of people within those societies. As rights movements sought to push for the inclusion of workers, women and ethnic minorities, the government’s role in the protection of rights came to be questioned through the 20th century.

The atrocities of the Nazi regime from the 1930s and 1940s made it clear that where states may be able to enforce rights in certain respects, they can also fail to do so. It was partially for this reason that states formed the United Nations after the Second World War. The body would oversee both the protection of individual rights against the state as well as mediating between competing claims over space, land, sea and resources contained therein (Smith, 2015: 53).

The United Nations’ International Bill of Human Rights reflected the political divisions mentioned above, as they came to be articulated by the “Western” capitalist and “Eastern” communist blocs. The former focused more on individual political and civil rights, the latter more on collective, social and group rights (Week 27: 74).

As the twentieth century progressed it became apparent that for all the development of Western societies, many were left behind. This led to a renewal of liberal thought with John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which focused on those left at the bottom. Rawls (1971) introduced the notion of primary goods to help us understand how the provision of basic needs should be organised in a just manner. As such it led him to distributive justice and “lexical ordering” of rights.

These questions are central to understanding the role of the state and international organisations in addressing environmental challenges. For instance, the agreements pursued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are subject to discussions about equality of pollution, with newly developing states such as China and India demanding a right to use their resources for industrial development so they can catch up with the US and Europe (Smith, 2015: 56-60).

However, debates between the rights of states to exploit their natural resources raises concerns about access within states. In states with territories over which private property rights are being relatively recently claimed, the Western model of property rights is challenged by the assertion of group rights to the land. So “first nation” groups such as the Nuu Chah Nulth and the Dongria Kondh may draw on the United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development that provides for indigenous rights (Bhagwat et al, 2015: 155-160).

Indigenous peoples are often disadvantaged within their home states, and can be socially marginalised. This means they are at a disadvantage when it comes to challenging, for instance, international corporations’ demands for mining rights. At the same time, such poorer communities often suffer disproportionately from the consequences of pollution and environmental degradation. The Vedanta mines in Lanjigarh and the Niyamgiri Hills provide a useful case study to illustrate this. In this instance Vedanta purchased the rights to mine in the ancestral lands of the Dongria Kondh people. While it may have been legal to do so, the corporation still took advantage of the social disadvantage of tribal people (Bhagwat et al, 2015: 155-160).

These examples show how property rights can conflict with human rights. The property right here is not really a human right as it is owned by a corporation, but it still trumps the rights of indigenous people (Week 18: 139).

Awareness of environmental impact has been increased through media coverage of the environment and the popularity of nature documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. Yet such programmes tend to dichotomise human society and the natural world as if they were not part of the same world. At the same time, though, such films have drawn attention to both the scale of the environmental disaster and the role of human beings in causing it, but perhaps less on the impact on human beings (Week 14: 15).

The rate of environmental degradation is such now that the fate of the people affected by it cannot be ignored. As such, a range of non-governmental organisations emerged, to ensure that the differential experience of environmental degradation forms part of the response to it under the banner of social justice.

Beside poverty and subjugated First Nation groups, women are also frequently considered to suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental problems such as climate change. Two hundred years after Wollstoncraft wrote her vindication of the rights of women, in much of the world they are still subjugated and are often left out of discussions about the environments in which they live. As primary carers they are often economically excluded, so environmental changes such as drought of crop failures disproportionately affect women.

When we consider a range of factors influencing the life experience of women, we can see that there are intersections that further deteriorate their positions – so for example, a poor Indian, lower caste woman living in a rural area may be significantly more disadvantaged than a wealthy white woman in New York.

It is thus that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace push states and international organisations to recognise these intersectional struggles when addressing environmental issues. NGOs are on the ground, observing, analysing and reporting on conditions. They also submit reports to and are called on by governments and international organisations such as the UN. Finally, they engage in pressure and protest to compel governments to adhere to their responsibilities in upholding rights, especially of those neglected by governments (Bhagwat et al, 2015: 152).

As the impact of human society on our environment increases it is clear that the poor will suffer more than the wealthy. Food scarcity, water shortages and pollution tend to affect the poorest most profoundly, with the richer being able to avoid such costs. For organisations that advocate for those marginalised in the current system, its seems the rights that were so hard won for marginalised sections of the population against the state must now by won in respect of the environment.


This essay looks at how states and international organisations are influenced by concepts of inequality, rights and justice in addressing environmental challenges. It is focused on drawing out the complexities of equality and rights, considering for example how rights can be claimed against each other. In terms of equality it considers how groups are included and excluded in rights discourses over time, from the exclusion of women to the exclusion of indigenous groups. The essay argues that these exclusions are based on different approaches to rights, which prioritise either individual property rights or groups and social rights, drawing on liberal thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to briefly outline the arguments.

The essay then moves to consider how such debates influence the international agenda, especially international organisations. It briefly touches on the development of the United Nations and the different approaches to rights in the “Eastern” and “Western” blocks, before moving to the case study of the Dongria Kondh people. This case study provides a perfect example of how Rousseau’s concept of natural rights to common land is enshrined among the Kondh people, but “Western” concepts of property come to override those rights. This conflict between private property rights and collective rights to manage primary goods illustrates a central tension in environmental politics. It also serves to demonstrate how the exercise of one set of rights – the exploitation of one’s “own” property – can impact on the rights of others – to use commons to survive.


Bhagwat, S. Jones, N., and Mohan, G. (2015). ‘Indigenous Lands and Territories: mapping the commons’, in Drake, D., Morris, A., Shipman, A. and Wheeler, K. Investigating the Social World 2 Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Burke, E. (2012). Reflections on the Revolution in France, New York,

Dickens, C. (1854). Hard Times, London, Bradbury & Evans.

Morris, A. and Shipman, A. (2015). ‘Introducing Common Resources and Rights’, in Drake, D., Morris, A., Shipman, A. and Wheeler, K. Investigating the Social World 2 Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Paine, T. (1998). ‘The rights of man’, in Philip, M. (ed.) Thomas Paine: Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Rousseau, J. J. (1998). The Social Contract London: Wordsworth Classics

Smith, J. (2015). ‘The politics of environment’, in Clarke, J. and Woodward, K. (eds) Understanding Social Lives Part 2 , Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 125–168.

Watson, S. (2015). ‘Introducing Boundaries and Justice’, in Clarke, J. and Woodward, K. (eds) Understanding Social Lives Part 2 , Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 125–168.

Wollstonecraft, M. (2004). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 3rd edn, London, Penguin.

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