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“The Imperative of Responsibility“ in a Legal Context: Reconciling Responsibilities and Rights

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In the last forty to fifty years, a large body of literature has emerged which investigates the moral and ethical foundations of the ecological crisis that currently confronts human society. Much of this literature, which is both scholarly and popular, identifies a human centred ethic (“anthropocentric”) as a motivating cause for behaviour that plunders the Earth's resources to meet the short-term interests of humanity. This behaviour largely ignores the present interests of other life, together with the longer term interests of future generations of humans and non-humans. For centuries it has been possible to conduct human activity with little regard for these other interests. Earth's abundance has been sufficient to accommodate such behaviour, and the potential needs and interests of future generations were both too remote and without voice. But now, as the limits of Earth's biological capacity are over-reached, as present human populations become impoverished by ecological degradation, and species extinction rates threaten the resilience and function of lifesupporting systems, fatal flaws are emerging to challenge the “logic“ even the rationality, of human behaviour. Humanity is undermining the conditions of its own present prosperity and existence, together with that of other living beings. The long term prospects for the prosperity of humanity and the continued existence of millions of species look grim. This situation has resulted in many calls for a new or alternative “ethic” or morality to guide human activity and to bring humanity into “right” relationship with nature. In response to such calls, scholarly literature is replete with examples of alternative ethics that derive from a rich array of sources.

The debate, within what might broadly be termed the field of environmental ethics, has been of considerable interest to legal theorists for the last four decades. It is now almost trite to say that legal systems recognise and protect the moral values of society together with accepted spiritual, religious, economic and political philosophies. With this in mind, legal theorists have investigated the ethical foundations of current legal systems and found them wanting. They have also suggested alternative ethical paradigms and begun the task of implementing them into law.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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  • Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law
    Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law is the latest product of research by the Global Ecological Integrity Group (, an organisation that has been meeting annually since 1992 to discuss scientific, philosophical, political and legal aspects of ecological integrity. This collection examines various aspects of governance from the standpoint of integrity: from democracy, to forms of Native governance, from globalization and neocolonialism to specific human rights to food, water and climate.
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