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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

November-December 2012

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Editorial—On Environmental Standards and Human Rights

In 1998, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution produced a very powerful report on the role and mechanisms for setting environmental standards (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (1998) On Setting Environmental Standards. RCEP, London). Its central analysis deserves reflection in the light of the article by Steve Kolmes and Russ Butkus that appears in this issue.

When environmental standards are set or other judgments are made about environmental issues, decisions must be informed by an understanding of people's values. Traditional forms of consultation, while they have provided useful insights, are not an adequate method of articulating values.

No method for determining or articulating people's values, whether traditional or novel, provides a guaranteed solution. Novel approaches should be evaluated for their ability to elicit a full spectrum of values on the issue in question from representative participants, so that the procedures used can be refined in the light of experience and their full potential realized.

These ideas were unusual for the time. They reflected the wide-ranging membership of the Royal Commission, encompassing theologians, scientists, politicians, economists, and lawyers. The Royal Commission, now disbanded because its slow-motion, deliberative style did not suit the austerity-focused UK Coalition government, reveled in its authority, its broad expertise, and its thoughtful judgments.

Kolmes and Buktus offer an incomplete story on a process of standard setting for healthy fish eaters in a river system potentially contaminable by various toxic agricultural and industrial emissions. They reveal the apparent unwillingness/forgetfulness of some of those mandated with the standard setting procedures to take into proper account the particular eating habits of Native Americans (in the United States) and First Nations Peoples (in Canada).

In both societies, a culture of fish catching and eating sets up a consumption rate that is particularly high for the slim bodies of women and children. Hence levels of toxic substances, which are considered “acceptable” for those who eat less fish and who have fuller body weights, cannot apply to these peoples. Contrary to the advice of the Royal Commission, the values and lifestyle preferences of all those involved in standard setting were not included at the outset, nor was there any interest in novel ways of proceeding. In this case, the authorities failed to take into account the dignities of native peoples and their special ethical need to be fully represented in any scientific assessment of acceptable or tolerable risk. That would have involved much sensitive consultation, which was not apparently on the table, in a world dominated by conventional standard-setting procedures.

The consequence was protracted stalemate, deep distrust, profound dismay at the sporadic and episodic procedures used, and an initial inability to learn from all of these gaping holes in precautionary procedures so that standard setting for other rivers and states could learn from the opportunities for inclusive participation at the outset. Yet wise counsel eventually prevailed. The inappropriate standard was altered, though the authors remark that it is still quite “rough” because the new standard is not protective of the most vulnerable, and consequently the situation of environmental injustice remains.

This experience leads to a wider conclusion for the modern age. In the light of recession, weak investment, restricted availability of borrowing cash, and a desperate desire to create new jobs, one wonders whether the sage advice of the Royal Commission will even more be bypassed in favor of what is economically feasible by participating corporations, by hard-pressed state and regional officials whose jobs are being cut and whose work responsibilities are forever changing, and by local politicians who have to get business moving.

The loss of the Royal Commission marked the end of an era of sensitive environmental judgment of the kind we need even more today. It is neither the time nor the huge effort involved to get to the final incomplete outcome that was at stake in the salmon eating case. It is the manner in which those who are already weakened by the modern economy and dominant social values may be even more disadvantaged as a consequence of the very procedures that perpetually ignore them.

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