A child’s right to a good earth

By Kate Holden | 23 Nov 15

20 minute read

My two-year-old son is learning the world. Up, down, big and small, purple and yelloooooooow, and “thank you” and “sparkly” and “now” and “later”. He is learning himself and not-himself; same and different. And he is learning consequences. If he throws the cup on the floor, it stays there. If he pushes his toy car down the back of the couch, it is gone.

He is also learning animals: the great menagerie that surrounds all modern children. We buy plastic model animals, soft-finger-puppet animals, postcards and calendars of photographed animals, pyjamas and t-shirts with animals on them, and endless books full of talking bears, sad possums, green sheep, mythological serpents and actual snails. He breathes real air and treads real grass; he sleeps indoors, amid versions of deserts, seas and forests. The natural world in one rendition or other has pressed close from the moment he was born.

All cultures venerate, domesticate, fantasise and represent animals, and other forms of nature, even as we collectively throw ecology out of true. Some argue there is no possible authentic “wildness” in nature anymore: all of it is either distorted or curated by humans. Humans administer the entire planet by adjusting habitats, transforming genetics, domesticating the wild, hemming in the surviving, and, finally, altering the very climate of the atmosphere and the composition of the oceans. We have made this the Anthropocene age, where even wild animals that have never seen a human depend on us. Nature with an N is already a museum.

At this point in history we face what scientists call the Sixth Extinction, in which up to a third of living species may disappear over the next century. This is, the evidence vigorously suggests, ultimately due to human behaviour. Anthropogenic climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and overhunting and harvesting are dunning the animals of the Earth. My son has been born to a world where his books and toy chests and pyjamas are thriving with tigers and frogs and polar bears that may not exist by his adulthood. Playtime is a dramatic staging of a parental melancholy: we play together on the floor with soft toys as memento mori; we use fake versions of real animals to make-believe with what is even now becoming an actual fantasy world.

In a sense, however, this is an abstract sadness. My childhood was diminished, but not truly saddened, by the lack of Tasmanian tigers (I was born in 1972; the tiger went apparently extinct in 1936). I don’t, really, miss the dodo. Urban dweller here in Melbourne, I am used to backgardens and “nature strips” planted mostly with invasive species. I must look up the difference between a bandicoot and a potoroo, and I stroll oblivious past toxic dankness spilling from drains on city beaches, believing it to be “natural”. Tigers are almost entirely reduced, already, to pictures in books and on television, to fluffy toys, to plastic models. Yet the idea that a creature might vanish – might cease – on our watch, when its demise is our doing, and its prevention was in our powers, is profoundly distressing. It is piercing and painful not because it’s nice to show our kids tigers or polar bears, but because there is a moral wrongness to such neglect (or outright destruction), and because elements of nature – be they pallid little moths or growling apex predators – are part of an ecology, and the more they are diminished, the more frail our own world becomes too.


This winter my partner Tim and I took our son to the Kimberley. Wallabies hopped past our cabin; waterhole mudbanks were dappled with the prints of marsupials, wading birds, small reptiles and crocodiles; the place was replete with kapok and boab trees, acacias, pandanus and speargrasses. We visited famous Windjana Gorge to see the crocs. There they were, dozens of them – “tiny baby ones,” as my son exclaimed ecstatically, “mummy ones and great big daddy ones!” The gorge is red and grey, green with eucalypts under a peerless blue sky, and the Fitzroy River tranquil except for its dark watchers, who stirred from time to time or floated eerily in the green shallows. We posed for photos near the animals, exchanged admirations of the place with other families visiting, and contemplated the timelessness of the scene.

Freshwater crocodiles have existed in Australia for millions of years. The gorge is tens of millions of years old. What we saw was essentially the same scene as that witnessed by Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago, and by birds, mammals and insects for longer still. As we lingered over departure Tim said, “It’s just as well we came now.” He smiled along with our son, who was gazing happily at a croc sliding into the tranquil river, then turned to me. “This time next year, it will all be dead.”

The cane toads are coming down the Fitzroy. Already they’ve crashed the freshwater crocodile populations in Kakadu and around Katherine. The crocs and the reptiles of the wildlife sanctuary where we stayed, Tim went on, will be dead next winter too. And the smaller mammals, the quolls, the lizards, others as well. “What?” was all that I could say, stricken. “What?” Our son will likely be among the last to witness Windjana Gorge teeming with freshwater crocs, after millions and millions of years, and at two-years-old he’s too young to remember a thing. By the time he’s three both the crocodiles and his memory of them will be gone.


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It is impossible to draw a baseline and pronounce it “true nature”, as if there is some authentic planetary Eden within human memory. Even our own continent has not been “pristine” for many thousands of years. There exist remote, near-untouched enclaves, certainly, but it’s a fantasy that we can comprehend what a prelapsarian, undamaged Earth looks like. Some might even say humans have improved the planet, geo-engineering and adjusting for our advantage, creating the vistas of Tuscany and the rice terraces of Bali, bringing water to deserts and enriching poor soils. But many of us would disagree, citing desertification, salinity crises, poisoned waterways, habitat degradation, the demise of creatures, not to mention the pollution of the atmosphere.

Some may see changes in our environment, such as the cane toad tragedy, as part of an eternal cycle of “natural” progression: species die off to make room for others; droughts are followed by floods and then more droughts; nature provides; we need to exploit our resources; rivers need to be dredged, it cleans them up; it was the same in my grandfather’s day

Others see God’s hand, like a conscientious kindergarten teacher’s, letting one group have a turn, then the next. Or a Darwinesque tidying away of weaker subjects, a logic that rightly refuses to position “human” separate from “nature”, but concludes that humans are simply destined by evolution to be supreme, and other species that fail to withstand our presence are demonstrably suited to their doom.

But as E. O. Wilson’s famous term biophilia reminds us, we are not only part of nature but also responsive to it, as even the most ruthlessly ecocidal property developer discovers while playing golf or cycling on Sunday mornings. Nature is our habitat, even if we foul it.


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It is tricky to draw firm distinctions of what is “natural.” Goat-hide, stone, mudbrick buildings? Yes. Fired brick? Concrete? Steel? Yes? Is a river still a river when it runs in a canal, when it’s polluted, when it’s diminished to dry flats by careless irrigation schemes? Is a front garden of azaleas and roses natural in Australia? It’s possible to be disingenuous here, but let’s go with the most commonsense connotation: nature is organic, not in the sense of marketed foodstuffs but originary, authentic and unadulterated. It is the bush, the scrub, the desert, the ocean, the wildlife. I think we understand it to be the world as it was before humans changed things. This is a pathetically simplistic axiom, but it will serve. Nature is what we feel is diminished when a coal mine, a property estate, a logging project, a waterways effluent, a carpark, a highway are imposed. Nature is, to get very Gaia about it, what can be wounded.

My son’s generation faces environmental issues rather more dramatic than their parents or ancestors did. The world is on track to warm by at least two degrees above pre-Industrial conditions with consequent crises in climatic circumstances that will impact almost every facet of life. Whole parts of the known map may disappear under rising seas. Many will die from extreme weather events or corollary issues, such as tropical disease and depleted resources. Living in the 21st century may be as challenging and changeable an experience as a world war, or worse – for it won’t end in four years or five, but will roll on and on, taking humanity and all other species of life to untested limits. We have many and various responses to this prospect – this unfolding present reality, in fact – but one felt by many who are parents at this moment is a pure, instinctive cry: what will become of my child?

It is a question – a beseeching – I certainly feel. But it is better as a genuine, not rhetorical, question. Instinct is not always logical, or answerable. So I ask myself more carefully, does my son have a right to inherit an Earth we have not ruined? Does he have a right to return and find those crocodiles still living? Do we have a responsibility – a stern, practicable, distinct responsibility – to leave him a world in which he may safely exist, and hopefully thrive?

Immediately I hedge this uncomfortable question with qualifications. I’m sheepish that I can explore this topic at leisure and in literacy, and can afford to experience it as a sudden shock; other parents live environmental degradation and desperation much more immediately. They raise their children in toxic wetlands, industrial smog, radioactive haze, lead-poisoned gardens. Indigenous Australians might argue I’m rather late – white girl of the 21st century, descendent of 19th century migrants – to lament the damage already done to the land their people curated so carefully for thousands of years. And just because I have a kid does that give me some kind of inflated righteousness? Didn’t I care about everyone else’s children before I had mine? Well, probably not, and I am hypocritical, conflicted, guilty and abashed. Nevertheless, I ask the question.

If my son was born 30 years earlier, this question would be a little simpler because climate change, though already in progress, was not then recognised as it is now, and we wouldn’t have the impulse to answer that query with a dismissive, bitter, “well it’s too late now, anyway”. Climate change has already ensured our world will become more difficult and less hospitable; many species will go extinct for certain (though we don’t know which), because the global average temperature will certainly increase, with all its associated damages. In a sense this bitterness is correct, because in the face of this cataclysm the issue becomes moot. The Earth is irrevocably going to be “worse”, not better. The best we can do is act now to mitigate the damage. But for a moment let’s put aside climate change, and just think this through as a general question.

Does a child have a right to inherit a good Earth?


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Without a healthy environment, all other human rights are jeopardised.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has long recognised that the environment has a fundamental relation to human rights. According to the Council’s website: “From the pollution of air and water to the unsustainable use of natural resources, environmental degradation adversely affects the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights.” The relationship of human rights and the environment is, ultimately, quite simple. Without a healthy environment, all other human rights are jeopardised.

Environments vary enormously across the globe. Desiccated, polluted, clean, tropical, urban, rural, mountainous or coastal, they frequently host humans. Those humans affect their environments, and their environments affect them. A child growing up in a lead-polluted mining town in Queensland will have its biology damaged by the air it breathes and the water it drinks and the soil it plays on. An elderly person living on a mountain in Tasmania will breathe extremely clean air but pass on, through urine and sewage, levels of pharmaceuticals and hormones into the waterways used by plants, marine animals and land creatures.

Sitting here in Melbourne, I absorb low-level radiations, emit carbon dioxide, wear clothes made with highly-treated fibres farmed on deforested land and transported with carbon emissions across the ocean. And so on. We are each of us inhaling, infusing, absorbing and emitting through radiation, our skin surface, our digestive systems or our airways, a thousand different elements of our environment. And then we waft around, excrete, reproduce, expunge or nourish our personal ecologies, and eventually die, and all that we are, and what we have absorbed, remits once more into the world around us.

We exist in an environment. Our behaviour exists in an environment. Basic human rights, such as life, shelter, food, water and sanitation, must exist in an environment. It is difficult to wash when there is no water; it is impossible to cook when there is nothing left to burn.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment John Knox is tasked with exploring the implications of this nexus. Not only does a poor environment fundamentally imperil the enjoyment of human rights, he finds, but also protecting human rights helps to defend a healthy environment.

Many environmental activists (often, but not always, indigenous) face persecution, prosecution and even murder. In South America, West Africa and, closer to home, West Papua, activists have been killed when they defend their lands. In Australia, supporters of civil rights have criticised the federal government’s recent proposals to change the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which will make it harder to challenge environmentally-damaging projects. And in 2013 the federally-funded state and territory Environmental Defender’s Offices were radically defunded. Ensuring the rights of people who are on the frontline of environmental protection in turn helps to support a healthy environment.

But nothing is simple. Human rights and environmental rights are not always gracefully aligned. What of the impoverished Amazonian farmer who clears pristine rainforest to plant crops for his family? What of the road blasted through a savannah that allows medical assistance to reach the isolated ill, or children to reach school? What about the untouched outback scrub cleared to erect a wind tower whose circulation reduces the need for carbon emissions, to the benefit of global humanity and the rest of nature?

As populations increase, living standards rise and technologies change, environments will change also, for good or bad. One can observe that wind towers are dramatically less intrusive or destructive than open-cut coal mines, and produce no direct evidence of adverse health effects; remote medical technology can already interpret and advise on complicated issues through a smart phone camera and other online diagnostics, and will only get more capable; remote education and social networking platforms can mitigate many issues faced by isolated populations, and so on.

But pressures of human needs – for agriculture, for housing and built environments, for industry and transport – in the short term will continually press upon the capacity of the environment to endure in the long, particularly as the global population continues to increase. Population growth is identified by some as the greatest threat of all to the natural world and global sustainability. Simply being born, especially in the developed world, may bruise the world that supports us a little more.

Another complication, as noted by Knox, comes when indigenous traditions, ownership and other cultural rights come into divergence with environmental protection. He describes visiting Afro-Caribbean communities in Costa Rica who are at risk of being displaced from traditional habitations by strict laws preventing urban structures within a certain proximity to the coast. In Australia Queensland’s short-lived Wild Rivers Act of 2013, which protected the country’s last “near-pristine” rivers, was contentiously opposed by some Aboriginal groups and spokespeople, notably Noel Pearson and the Cape York Land Council.

An Aboriginal mother, asking the same question as myself, might feel a keener sense that her child’s inheritance of a good Earth is already irrecoverably limited. The lands are built on, fenced off, over-planted or over-run with invasive species, the bush tucker is gone, the waterways polluted. The songlines are smeared. Her Earth here is not what she might wish it was.

Her lament may be more piercing than mine, but is that perhaps because I am just more complacent, less aware of the damage to “my” environment, less able in my white, urban fastness of privilege to perceive myself as intrinsic to an environment? And that my environment is as degraded, in its pretty, European-style way, as an outback site spoiled by mining? Am I simply catching up slowly now I have a child? My human rights in this regard are also at peril, if not as dramatically as those of an Indigenous mother contemplating the legacy of her people.

Arguments and hopes aside, there remain paradoxes and conundrums between environmental and human rights, but so remains the fundamental syzygy.


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To have a child is to make yourself a hostage to fortune, a friend counseled as I first encountered the mind-obliterating barrage of terrors that assail the mother of a first infant. From now on you will always wear your heart on the outside, he said.

And so it is, for having a child is the displacement of a part of you out into the world, the making of a vessel of your love and hopes; a vessel which floats away further and further from your guiding fingertips. You cling now to charms and superstitions, internet forum advice and medical science, the magic of commercial products and the faith that love will glamour your child with protection to the ends of the Earth. And you cling to the conviction that the world will respect him, as it can, it must, it should.

Just like adults, children have rights. But under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, children have the particular right to special protection: fundamentally, as vulnerable humans with limited agency, they possess the right to have their “best interests” as the first consideration of any actions concerning them. Because children are not able to articulate their needs or defend themselves or fulfill responsibilities in the same way as adults, they are treated rather more passively, and the adults around them (and beyond) are entrusted with care for the rights of children until they come into their suite of adult rights and responsibilities.

Philosopher Joel Feinberg, in a landmark 1980 article, set out the important and influential idea of “rights-in-trust”, meaning rights held for children against the day they become adults. This famous “right to an open future,” as he called it, has been used in applied ethics to invoke a moral obligation on the part of adult caretakers to not close off any option that might be beneficial to the grown-up child; to set up long-term benefits; to refrain from making important life choices on behalf of the child before the child is capable of making them him- or herself. Feinberg argued that many adult rights are not possible for children yet they exist in potential, and as such must be protected. A child has the right to grow up, and to grow up into a world that will sustain her.

Surely a healthy environment, which is the foundation for basic human rights of both adult and child, is to be considered as part of the right to an open future. A child’s existence, and ability to enjoy its human rights, will be diminished if it grows up in a world infringed by environmental degradation and climate change.

Certainly more thought is being turned to the legal manifestation of that forlorn parents’ cry for their children, the desire for the meek to inherit a fair Earth. The recent “Dutch case” regarding carbon emission abatement has taken this movement abruptly forward. Environment advocacy group Urgenda, fearing “an unlivable world,” sued the Netherlands Government for inadequate carbon emissions reduction commitments. A district court judgment in The Hague centered on international requirements, a prohibition on polluting other states, and the contravention of a UN article requiring adequate action on carbon emissions. It also focused on mobilising the “law of torts” (the requirement to do no harm) and invoked the government’s obligation to protect the nation not only in the present but – importantly – for future generations.

Lawyers for environmental advocacy groups argued the Dutch Government’s inadequate emissions-reductions plan contributed to almost-certain dangerous global warming, so that, as the court ruled, “the possibility of damages for [the plaintiffs], including current and future generations of Dutch nationals, is so great and concrete that given its duty of care, the state must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change” [my emphasis]. Furthermore, the court ruling included consideration of human rights, noting that “human rights law and environmental law are mutually reinforcing.” The state, the court said, has a “duty of care” that applies to the “livability of the country and the protection and improvement of the living environment.”

For the first time in legal history, torts have been explicitly linked to global warming through carbon emissions. This first successful “climate liability” suit, compelling dramatic reduction in emissions, has brought the misty horizon of the future clearly into focus as a problem for us, here and now. The right of humans – including those who are currently children – not to be harmed by degradation to the environment has been established in potential. At the moment there are difficulties with bringing a similar case in Australia – not least that our constitution does not recognise obligations to future generations. Australian law, which is a common law system, has a different understanding of “duty of care” to that under Dutch law. Here, any group wishing to mount a claim must show “special interest” beyond simply public concern (and this requirement was set to be stiffened by the Abbott Government before its leader’s demise). Apparently “common humanity” and “nowhere to live but this planet” do not quite constitute special interest.

But some legal experts believe a citizen could have standing for a claim. Environmental justice groups around the country are keenly considering their options.

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It is a selfish thing to demand the world turn around one’s child – or even children in the most general sense. The globe contains multitudes, and the inheritance – even the persistence – of the human race is only one force. If it were only a question of preserving an agreeable lifestyle, or the right to find great bushwalking sites, or summers that aren’t too hot, it would be harder to insist that our children deserve to inherit a good Earth. But it’s about survival – for ourselves and the survival of other beings on the planet. It’s about the preservation of ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years into a symphony of function as well as loveliness. The very foundation of our capacity to enjoy our human rights is at stake. There has never been a time in human history when the legacy passed to the very next generation is as significant.

Many of us live myopically, looking up and ahead only long enough to plan a holiday or feebly save for superannuation. Having a child lengthens our focus a little. Much of the world’s economy and politics function the same: a central focus on the here-and-now, and a blurry peripheral distance beyond. We must gaze bifocally now to consider, even if we cannot imagine, the future; and act now for its sake. Or all our children’s picture books of the world we know will be turned into fairy tales alone.