26 June 2009

death of an icon

To a child of the 80s with the big hair and flamboyance, there are some things that stood out more than others. The first album I ever bought was 'Dangerous' - on tape - which still reminds me of the start of my incredible journey through music, which is a never-ending search.

Armies of Jackson fans are already calling June 25th the day the music died. For me, not a lot has changed because the music still exists. What has somehow been altered is a perception I cannot fully understand yet.

In the 90s when Michael was singing about environmentalism, it was new and radical. In many ways, it still is - but then there wasn't this sense of urgency we feel now. This is exactly what his songs were predicting: that the day will come when we look back and wonder why we didn't do anything about it then.

He was one of the few artistes in that era who sang about socio-economic-environmental issues in the wide, convoluted forum of pop music. He was an intelligent lyricist and a sensitive performer who often got ridiculed for portraying emotion in his songs. The material he chose to sang about always encompassed a lot more than what empty pop portrays today.

Setting aside (as if it is possible) the moonwalking and the thrilling and the unique voice and the incredible dancing and the 'wacko' image and the bling and the plastic surgery, there was a marked dichotomy between the man and the myth. There are those songs that cannot be forgotten and some that are still relevant and others that make us think and still others that make us feel. For me, apart from contributing the much needed originality to the 80s, the king of pop was the headliner of a mass environmental movement. Even if nothing else, it made people aware of socio-enviro issues through his songs.

Death is both dramatic and dramatized even if dying isn't. Heroes are born after they die and the way to immortality is what you leave behind. For someone who has been the icon of a generation, death will be hard to live down. For those of us who call themselves fans or claim to have cut their musical teeth on Thriller or Bad or Dangerous - forget about the images for a second and focus on the words that is still a much needed refrain.

24 June 2009

future of RTD

The Right to Development (RTD), a concept that emerged in the 1970s, is one of the most debated and contentious issues in international relations. RTD builds on the rights based approach to development, seeking to integrate the norms and principles of human rights with policies and plans to promote development. Despite its importance for the world’s poor and dispossessed, a great deal of definitional confusion still surrounds the concept.

The future of RTD depend on the extent to which governments are willing to address the political and practical obstacles to its implementation. The political obstacles appear in the tone and substance of the deliberations as well as the decisions of the Commission and General Assembly. It is up to those governments that take the RTD seriously to shift the discourse away from posturing and towards specific programs and mechanisms that will assist governments in meeting their obligations in this area.

The most important obstacle to implementing the RTD is the practical one, because of the lack of incentives to modify the formal policies of the international agencies and national governments and to incorporate meaningful approaches to this right in the practice of development. Human rights are claims of entitlement that arise as of right and are independent of external justification; they are "self evident" and fundamental to any human being living a dignified, healthy and productive and rewarding life.

Human rights are not some abstract, inchoate 'good'; they are defined, particular claims listed in international instruments such as the [U.N.'s] Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the major covenants and conventions. Like the fundamental rights guaranteed by any Constitution, these rights are inalienable; they cannot be transferred, forfeited, or waived; they cannot be lost by having been usurped, or by one's failure to exercise or assert them.

Sustainable development acts as a reconciling principle between economic development and environmental protection. Just as economic development is an inalienable right of States' self-determination; environmental protection is an erga omnes (in relation to everyone) obligation of all States for the benefit of the global commons that all share. The principle of sustainable development is thus a part of modern international law by reason not only of its inescapable logical necessity, but also by reason of its wide and general acceptance by the global community, and not just by developing countries.

conflict of rights

Both the right to development and the right to environment are basic human rights ensured by the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. Traditional international law does not consider that rights to a clean and healthy environment to be a jus cogens human right.

Jus cogens
(compelling law) refers to pre-emptory legal principles and norms that are binding on all international States, regardless of their consent. They are non-derogable in the sense that States cannot make a reservation to a treaty or make domestic or international laws that are in conflict with any international agreement that they have ratified and thus to which they are a party. They are the axiomatic and universally accepted legal norms that bind all nations under jus gentium (law of nations).

While the international legal system has evolved to embrace and even codify basic, non-derogable human rights, the evolution of environmental legal regimes have not advanced as far. While the former have found a place at the highest level of universally recognized legal rights, the latter have only recently and over much opposition, reached a modest level of recognition as a legally regulated activity within the economics and politics of sustainable development.

No State today will publicly state that it is within its sovereign rights to damage their domestic environment, much less that of the international community, however most States do not guarantee environmental protection as a basic human right. Currently, environmental law is composed of mostly Conventional International Law. Unlike for human rights and international crimes, there is no general environmental rights court in existence today. The human right to environment must have at an international organ of protection as it is not the right of the State but the right of individuals and cannot be effectively protected by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Domestic remedies would have to be pursued first, of course, but standing would be granted to NGOs, individuals, and States when such remedies proved. For example, although the ICJ has an 'environmental chamber' and U.S. courts often appoint 'special masters' to handle these types of disputes, it is clear that the recognition of the human right to the environment needs an international court of its own in order to recognize such a right and remedy international violations in an efficient and equitable manner.

The right to development is a composite right to a process of development; it is not just an 'umbrella' right, or the sum of a set of rights. The integrity of these rights implies that if any one of them is violated, the whole composite right to development is also violated. The independent expert describes this in terms of a 'vector' of human rights composed of various elements that represent the various economic, social and cultural rights as well as the civil and political rights. The realization of the right to development requires an improvement of this vector, such that there is improvement of some, or at least one, of those rights without violating any other.

16 June 2009

go forth and really really think before you multiply

One of the issues that does not seem to get talked about is the increase in global population and its direct links to global warming. The increase in population means a proportionate increase in consumption patterns - especially of energy and food. No one is talking about this obvious connection because it is controversial and there is no easy solution.

Most natural scientists agree our growing numbers and our unchecked impact on the natural environment move us inexorably toward global calamities of unthinkable severity. The reason that most environmental activists shy away from addressing the obvious connection between increasing numbers and climate change is that it is seen as an infringement on basic human rights. Ultimately however, it begs to answer the question of whether it is worth it to tiptoe around the tulips on the issue right now or our ongoing failure to act to prevent hundreds of millions, even billions, dying as a result of global ecological collapse?

There are already areas in the world showing acute 'population stress' and competing for natural resources and basic amenities - this is a problem that is both intensifying and spreading. The prudent scientists insist that we have overshot the Earth's carrying capacity - our inability to live as we do, at our current numbers, without causing pervasive environmental degradation is the very definition of carrying capacity overshoot.

Overshot is usually followed by population decline. So our choice is very clear - our chance to avert such an outcome depends on our ability to address our numbers before nature reduces them for us. Population demographics most often than not bring up India and China - the world's most populous countries.

China's 'one-child policy' has led to its own social problems like a skewed sex ratio for example. India's efforts to curb its own population has been unsuccessful - in short, there is no easy way to deal with this issue of growing population. Again, like many enviro-social reforms, education at the grassroots is the key to alleviating the problem.

A growing population puts numerous pressures on resource management and allocation. It also leads to the rise of mega-cities which on their own exert enormous pressure on the environment.

Reproduction is of course, a personal choice but it is one that cannot be made lightly . Apart from the emotional investments of child-creating, there are several moral implications now attached to it. It is about time people made this obvious connection and not take too literally the adage "Go forth and multiply".

07 June 2009

business as usual is over

I have blogged about green-roofs before and today I came across one of the most amazing things I've read about in green architecture. Reading breaking-edge news like this makes me hopeful because there can be eco-warriors even on the corporate side. The NGO/corporate divide is simply that. There are corporates who realise that business as usual cannot progress without accountability. This is precisely because they understand that there are limits to growth when development is unsustainable. This is further reinforced with civil society organizations taking the role of the 'watch dog' seriously enough to challenge both corporates and governments to give more importance to socio-enviro issues. All of this provides an elaborate feedback loop keeping the various systems of regulation in check - for the most part.

Anyway, back to the big news. It has been touted as the biggest green innovation and the future of green cityscapes. It is the vertical greenhouse that has been introduced by the Swedish company Plantagon International in association with Sweco. Launched on World Environment Day, the greenhouse will make it more possible to grow local and eco-friendly crops in an urban environment. While the global population continues to expand at a rapid rate, 80% of all land suitable for crop production is already being used for other purposes. With traditional farming practices, the Earth’s arable land will not be sufficient to produce enough food for this growing population. In response to this challenge, Plantagon has collaborated with the consulting engineering company Sweco to develop a vertical greenhouse for the urban environment.

The idea is to provide organically and locally grown food. Vegetable seeds are grown at the bottom and the spiral in the middle of the 'globe' rotates and in thirty days the vegetables are ready to harvest. This design makes optimal use of the sun's natural light to ripen the vegetables grown.

The future of the world's cities may not just include hydrogen powered emission-less cars, but also dwelling spaces that are entirely powered by renewable energy with zero-waste outputs. Cityscapes filled not only with steel and chrome structures but also green houses and rooftops with vegetation. In my head, it looks wonderful. Like something out of a greener version of the Jetsons.

The world we dream of can be possible. It has been the same world we have been dreaming of these past many years but there has never before been a time like this which will make or break 'the vision'.

There is exactly enough time... starting now
- Dana Meadows

thoughts...post-world environment day

June 5th was celebrated as World Environment Day and from a previous post on similar 'events' my sentiments are clearly established. This year for me, there was a lot of excitement around the day. Excitement that made me believe; because sometimes even in the most dire times, another world is possible.

On the eve of World Environment day, one of the things that happened was a large 80-foot banner that was hung off the Mumbai-Thane Bridge which was targetted at bringing attention to the effects of climate change on the Indian monsoon. This action was part of Greenpeace's efforts to bring climate change firmly into the spotlight of national politics and debate. The monsoon which is the lifeline of so many people in India cannot be wagered in the face of development that can be potentially unsustainable. All of the devastating effects of failed monsoons including loss of revenue has been published as a report entitled 'Monsoon Wager' by Greenpeace India.

The second thing that happened which was much quieter but nonetheless important was the stand that the Environmental Minster Mr. Jairam Ramesh took on GM-food crops. The GM-battle within India has been fraught with complications, set-backs and frustrations. The lack of labelling laws, prevalence of mis-information and regulation will eventually lead to a potential mine-field if precautionary methods are not put in place now. Victories are rare and government officials taking a precautionary stand, are even rarer.

Since then obviously, the excitement has died down a little bit and life has gone back to being existence for most part. But what I'd like to take away from productive days like this one, is that even in the most challenging times, change can be demanded and even for the most cynical of us: hope floats.