Primal Scene to Anthropocene: Narrative and Myth in International Environmental Law

Abstract

In recent years much jurisprudential affection has coalesced around the concept of the Anthropocene. International lawyers have enlisted among the ranks of humanities and social science authors embracing this proposed scientific time category, and putting it to work. This essay draws on sources from a range of fields including legal anthropology and critical legal theory in re-examining the reception of the Anthropocene in international law, focusing on its mythical qualities. We demonstrate how the Anthropocene both reinforces and meshes perfectly with the three narrative pillars of contemporary international environmental law: evolutionary progress; universal evaluations of nature and constructions of legal subjectivity; and legal monism. The Anthropocene, like few ideas in modern scholarship, is quite expressly a tale of origins explaining and legitimating its narrators’ place in the universe. Joining signposts such as The Tragedy of the Commons, the Myth of the Anthropocene embeds collective memories eclipsing the need to reconsider complex and contested histories in understanding the contemporary roles of law in mediating people’s relations with nature. In response, we call for a more inclusive account of environmental law that draws on diversity rather than universality, with particular sensitivity to those perspectives that are inadvertently excluded from the Anthropocene discourse.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Tolkien (1954), ch. 7.

  2. 2.

    Morrow (2017), p. 269.

  3. 3.

    Kotzé (2017), p. vii.

  4. 4.

    In this article we adopt Brownlie’s broad definition of international environmental law as ‘nothing more, or less, than the application of international law to environmental problems and concerns’. See Brownlie (1988).

  5. 5.

    Lovbrand et al. (2010), p. 211.

  6. 6.

    Kotzé (2014), p. 130.

  7. 7.

    Biermann et al. (2016), p. 341.

  8. 8.

    Castree (2014), p. 247.

  9. 9.

    Hamilton (2016), p. 93.

  10. 10.

    Oldfield (2016), p. 169.

  11. 11.

    Dalby (2014), p. 5; see also Stephens (2017). Stephens argues that ‘[A]s humanity is now transforming the planet’s biophysical systems, and imperilling their functioning, the Anthropocene entails the collapse of the human/nature distinction’ (p. 32).

  12. 12.

    Dalby (2014), p. 4.

  13. 13.

    Kotzé and Muzangaza (2018), p. 279.

  14. 14.

    Kotzé (2014), pp. 135, 137.

  15. 15.

    Ibid., p. 155.

  16. 16.

    Vidas et al. (2015), p. 4.

  17. 17.

    Stephens (2017), pp. 31, 54.

  18. 18.

    Ibid., p. 32.

  19. 19.

    Robinson (2014b), p. 13.

  20. 20.

    Ibid., p. 24.

  21. 21.

    Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2017), p. 120; see also Stephens (2017), p. 32.

  22. 22.

    Morrow (2017), p. 269.

  23. 23.

    Oldfield (2016), p. 165.

  24. 24.

    Malm and Hornborg (2014), p. 65.

  25. 25.

    Grear (2017), p. 79.

  26. 26.

    Manderson (2003), p. 88.

  27. 27.

    Von Hendy (2002), p. 218.

  28. 28.

    Fitzpatrick (1992), p. 160.

  29. 29.

    Malinowski (1926), p. 82.

  30. 30.

    Rouland (1994), p. 157.

  31. 31.

    Hegel (1967), p. 589.

  32. 32.

    Fitzpatrick (1992), p. 20.

  33. 33.

    Hart (1961), p. 195.

  34. 34.

    Marx (1973), p. 106.

  35. 35.

    Cover (1983), pp. 4–5.

  36. 36.

    Fitzpatrick (1992); Manderson (2003); Cover (1983); Schroeder (2009).

  37. 37.

    Manderson (2003), pp. 87–88; Fitzpatrick (1992), p. ix.

  38. 38.

    Fitzpatrick (1992), p. 44.

  39. 39.

    Ibid., p. 28.

  40. 40.

    Ibid., p. 25.

  41. 41.

    Manderson (2003), p. 89.

  42. 42.

    Fitzpatrick (1992), p. 12.

  43. 43.

    Ibid.

  44. 44.

    Our source is the wall at Berkeley; research indicates it is an excerpt from a speech given to the Suffolk Bar Association, 5 February 1885.

  45. 45.

    Hobbes (1968), chapters 1–16; Hart (1961); Hardin (1968).

  46. 46.

    Schroeder (2009), p. 139; Hart (1961).

  47. 47.

    Vidas et al. (2015), p. 4; Humphreys and Otomo (2016), p. 802.

  48. 48.

    Manderson (2003), p. 88.

  49. 49.

    Ibid.

  50. 50.

    Ibid.

  51. 51.

    Ibid., p. 90.

  52. 52.

    Ibid.

  53. 53.

    See for example Bosselmann (2015), pp. 44–61 and Burdon (2012), p. 28.

  54. 54.

    Tamanaha (2001), p. 52.

  55. 55.

    Ibid.

  56. 56.

    Eliot (1985), p. 39.

  57. 57.

    Ibid., p. 38.

  58. 58.

    Stephens (2017), pp. 49–50; Kotzé (2017), p. viii; Ivanova and Escobar-Pemberthy (2017), p. 170.

  59. 59.

    Gunningham and Holley (2016), p. 273; Arnold (2011), p. 771; Angelo (2006), p. 105; Esty (2001–2002), p. 183.

  60. 60.

    Vasak (1977), pp. 30–31; for a critical account see Jensen (2017).

  61. 61.

    Hoebel (1968), p. 288.

  62. 62.

    Stein (1980), p. 127.

  63. 63.

    Bosselmann (1995), p. 120.

  64. 64.

    Ibid., p. 123.

  65. 65.

    Ibid., p. 127.

  66. 66.

    Ibid., p. 128.

  67. 67.

    Nash (1990).

  68. 68.

    Ibid., p. 213.

  69. 69.

    Ibid., pp. 7, 13–14.

  70. 70.

    Ibid., p. 7.

  71. 71.

    Johannes (2002), p. 317.

  72. 72.

    Nash (1990), p. 6.

  73. 73.

    Vermeylen (2017), p. 139.

  74. 74.

    Ibid., p. 138.

  75. 75.

    Ibid., p. 144; Kohn (2013).

  76. 76.

    Vermeylen (2017), p. 143.

  77. 77.

    Ibid., p. 157.

  78. 78.

    Serres (1995).

  79. 79.

    Hobbes (1968).

  80. 80.

    Vermeylen (2017), p. 158.

  81. 81.

    Ibid., p. 159.

  82. 82.

    Ibid.

  83. 83.

    Ibid.

  84. 84.

    Barthes (1972), pp. 107, 109–159, 124.

  85. 85.

    Ibid., p. 124.

  86. 86.

    Ibid., p. 115.

  87. 87.

    Hiley (2004), pp. 838–860, 840.

  88. 88.

    Barthes (1972), pp. 120, 124.

  89. 89.

    Levi-Strauss (1965), p. 105.

  90. 90.

    Robinson (2014a), p. 46.

  91. 91.

    Darwin (1891), p. 398, as quoted in Robinson (1998), p. 497.

  92. 92.

    But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions. Darwin (1891), p. 398.

  93. 93.

    Typical, but not inescapable as illustrated by de Montaigne in On Cannibals, an essay penned 300 years prior to Descent of Man: ‘We may, then, well call these people barbarians in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who, in all sorts of barbarity, exceed them.’ (de Montaigne 1580).

  94. 94.

    Gould (1978), p. 530.

  95. 95.

    Robinson (2014a), p. 48.

  96. 96.

    Gould (1978); Kennedy (2014), p. 12.

  97. 97.

    Brown (2008), p. 363.

  98. 98.

    Robinson (2014a), p. 58.

  99. 99.

    Ibid., p. 61.

  100. 100.

    Ibid., p. 18 (italics in the original).

  101. 101.

    Ibid.

  102. 102.

    Ibid.

  103. 103.

    Ibid.

  104. 104.

    Gould (1978), p. 532.

  105. 105.

    Emphasis added. Robinson (2014a), pp. 47, 61.

  106. 106.

    Ibid., p. 53.

  107. 107.

    Von Hendy (2002), pp. 25–48.

  108. 108.

    Curry (1998).

  109. 109.

    Palumbo (2014), p. 92.

  110. 110.

    Wordsworth (1807).

  111. 111.

    Humphreys and Otomo (2014), p. 8.

  112. 112.

    Ibid., p. 11.

  113. 113.

    Ibid., p. 12.

  114. 114.

    Ibid.

  115. 115.

    Alexander (2014), p. 31.

  116. 116.

    Berry (2002).

  117. 117.

    Cullinan (2002).

  118. 118.

    Ibid., p. 26.

  119. 119.

    Ibid., p. 30.

  120. 120.

    Ibid.

  121. 121.

    Berry (1999); Berry and Swimme (1992), p. 5.

  122. 122.

    Berry and Swimme (1992), p. 6.

  123. 123.

    Ibid., p. 5.

  124. 124.

    Ibid., p. 4.

  125. 125.

    Ibid., p. 2.

  126. 126.

    Berry (1999), p. 31.

  127. 127.

    Cullinan (2002); Burdon (2015); Burdon (2012), p. 28.

  128. 128.

    Cullinan (2011), pp. 77–78.

  129. 129.

    Ibid., p. 78.

  130. 130.

    Ibid., p. 79.

  131. 131.

    Burdon (2015), p. 85.

  132. 132.

    Eliot (1985), p. 94.

  133. 133.

    Burdon (2015), pp. 80–92.

  134. 134.

    Brown (2008), p. 363.

  135. 135.

    De Sousa Santos (2002); also Petersen (2011).

  136. 136.

    Todorov (1992), p. 71.

  137. 137.

    For example, Burdon (2015) uses the descriptor ‘Western’ throughout the analysis, except that prescriptions are for humans, not westerners. Bosselmann recounts ‘the legacy of the European cosmology’ and bemoans the ongoing influence of Descartes and the Enlightenment for having bequeathed contemporary society an inheritance of ‘dualism, anthropocentrism, materialism, atomism, greed, and economism’. He discusses experiences in New Zealand and Germany but does not mention, much less describe, intellectual traditions other than European or European settler societies. See also Bosselmann (2010), pp. 2424, 2430.

  138. 138.

    Bosselmann (2010), p. 2442.

  139. 139.

    Cullinan (2002), p. 95.

  140. 140.

    Ibid., p. 97.

  141. 141.

    Ibid.

  142. 142.

    Brown (2008), p. 368.

  143. 143.

    Cullinan (2002), p. 132.

  144. 144.

    ‘European’ includes European settler-dominant societies. See Blaut (1993).

  145. 145.

    Braidotti (2019), p. 156.

  146. 146.

    Grear (2017). See also Hayman (2018).

  147. 147.

    See especially United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Art. 3(1) and Paris Agreement Art. 2(2).

  148. 148.

    Sands and Peel (2012), p. 233 (italics in the original).

  149. 149.

    Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, ‘Our Common Future’ (1987), p. 43 (the Brundtland Report).

  150. 150.

    See e.g. Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 18: Non-Discrimination, HRI/GEN/1/Rev.9 (Vol. I), adopted 10 November 1989, para. 10. See also De Schutter et al. (2012).

  151. 151.

    A term coined by Grear; see Grear (2015), p. 225.

  152. 152.

    Steffen et al. (2011).

  153. 153.

    Said (1994), p. 8.

  154. 154.

    Malm (2016); Moore (2017); Malm and Hornborg (2014), p. 63. See also Grear (2017).

  155. 155.

    Malm (2017).

  156. 156.

    Russell (2014).

  157. 157.

    Williams (1944), pp. 51–58.

  158. 158.

    Black (2007), pp. 173–174; Karp (2011).

  159. 159.

    Heglar (2019).

  160. 160.

    Morrison (2015), p. 76.

  161. 161.

    Grear (2017), p. 79.

  162. 162.

    Ibid., p. 83; Malm and Hornborg (2014), p. 63.

  163. 163.

    Braidotti (2019), p. 157.

  164. 164.

    Ibid. (citing Clarke 2018).

  165. 165.

    Federated States of Micronesia, ‘Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’ (Palikir, FSM Government, 2012), p. 115. Sacks (1997) provides a good description of life on a remote Micronesian atoll, Pingelap.

  166. 166.

    Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2017), p. 120.

  167. 167.

    Yusoff (2015), pp. 6–7.

  168. 168.

    See World Bank (2010), p. xx.

  169. 169.

    Human Rights Council, ‘Climate Change and Poverty: Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights’, UN Doc. A/HRC/41/39 (2019), p. 7.

  170. 170.

    Ibid., p. 14.

  171. 171.

    Ibid.

  172. 172.

    Ibid., p. 50.

  173. 173.

    Ibid., pp. 168, 172 (quote from p. 168).

  174. 174.

    Rajagopal (2003), p. 23.

  175. 175.

    Rouland (1994), pp. 44–46.

  176. 176.

    Davies (2005), p. 90.

  177. 177.

    Ibid.

  178. 178.

    Griffiths (1986), p. 3.

  179. 179.

    Davies (2005), p. 92.

  180. 180.

    Griffiths (2002), p. 293.

  181. 181.

    See e.g. Rajagopal (2003), p. 22.

  182. 182.

    Le Roy (1994), p. 4.

  183. 183.

    Ibid.

  184. 184.

    Griffiths (1986), p. 38.

  185. 185.

    Manderson (2003), p. 87.

  186. 186.

    Rajagopal (2003), p. 23.

  187. 187.

    Von Benda-Beckmann and Turner (2018), pp. 255, 258.

  188. 188.

    Melissaris (2004), p. 58 (emphasis in the original).

  189. 189.

    Rajagopal (2003), p. 23.

  190. 190.

    Chinkin et al. (2019), p. 28.

  191. 191.

    Hayman (2018).

  192. 192.

    Ruddle et al. (1992); McMillen et al. (2014); Rose (2008).

  193. 193.

    Kleinhans and Macdonald (1997), p. 26.

  194. 194.

    Noteworthy in this context is the campaign to establish ‘ecocide’ as a fifth international crime. See Higgins, Short and South (2013).

  195. 195.

    Werell and Femia (2013).

  196. 196.

    Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ‘Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Australia’, UN Doc. E/C.12/AUS/CO/5 (2017), p. 4.

  197. 197.

    Humphreys and Otomo (2014), p. 13. Notably, the reference to 1930s Germany was omitted from the final version of the chapter cited above (n. 113).

  198. 198.

    Klein (2019), p. 45.

  199. 199.

    Ibid; Malm and Hornborg make the same argument: Malm and Hornborg (2014), pp. 66–67. See also David Boyd, ‘Safe Climate: Report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment’, UN Doc. A/74/161 (2019), p. 10 (citing evidence that climate impacts ‘could push an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030’).

  200. 200.

    Hayman (2018), p. 78.

  201. 201.

    See Viñuales (2016), p. 59.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are grateful to Tejas Rao for research assistance, and to Colin Leo for his contribution to this article.

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Rose, J., Wewerinke-Singh, M. & Miranda, J. Primal Scene to Anthropocene: Narrative and Myth in International Environmental Law. Neth Int Law Rev 66, 441–473 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40802-019-00151-5

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Keywords

  • Anthropocene
  • International environmental law
  • Environmental justice
  • Critical legal theory
  • Legal pluralism