An oasis is defined as “a fertile or green area in an arid region (such as a desert).” The word also has an alternative definition of “something that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast.” The connotative association of an oasis is often a place of green refuge in a parched desert—but really, it is also a safe, beautiful, and healing space that provides comfort from whatever you are seeking relief from. The latter definition has always resonated with me, because even in the middle of a scorching desert, it’s the seeking and being able to find refuge that defines an oasis. Looking for something that feels like home, even if it’s a place you’ve never been before. This is the paradox we rarely talk about: entering a natural space feels like returning to yourself and coming home, even if it’s your first time there. The familiarity is nature’s way of reminding us that she’s there to heal, protect, and sustain.
We are far from debating the integral role access to nature plays in our daily lives. From increased physical health to being a necessity for our mental wellness, nature is an essential part of living for us. We all need, and should have access to, clean air, water, and natural spaces to live dignified and healthy lives. We should also all have equal access to nature and a clean environment to spend time in and live, however this is unfortunately not the case for many communities, especially communities of color. This is a human rights issue as much as it is a climate change issue.
Environmental racism means that our most vulnerable and racialized communities find themselves on the front lines of climate disaster. Recent studies found that tree inequity is an actual real issue and has devastating impacts on low-income communities. Researchers came to this conclusion when investigating the reasons behind higher temperatures in low income areas in comparison to higher income areas. For reference, this specific study showed that poorer neighborhoods can be up to seven degrees hotter than richer neighborhoods, because poorer neighborhoods are filled with concrete, buildings, and highways, which have the effect of absorbing all of the sun’s energy and then subsequently radiating that heat back out. This is called the “island effect,” and while planting more trees and having green spaces in these areas would mitigate hotter temperatures, low income, racialized neighborhoods always lack the infrastructure, funding, and government care when it comes to trees and nature spaces.
This is one of many examples of how climate change and human rights are so intertwined. Living a dignified life is also dependent on having access to a dignified (CLEAN) environment. It seems so rudimentary, but it’s essential that climate activism encompasses the impact of capitalism and our hyper-consumptionist culture on the environment: how we view, value, and treat the environment is so indicative of how we’ll view and treat human life and community. A culture of consumerism and exploitation extracts from people and the planet—both become commodities for profiteering corporations.
A big win for human and environmental rights
Over recent years climate activists, especially those representing Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, have emphasized the necessity to take on an intersectional approach to combating climate change. These communities have witnessed first-hand the multitudes of oppression from the same systems. What's hurting the environment is also hurting people, especially communities of color and poorer countries around the globe.
When we approach human rights as an issue that’s separate and different from the environment, we miss the opportunity to examine the structures of exploitation at play. For example, extractive industries that are pillaging the land and diminishing our natural resources for coal and fossil fuels are also equally responsible for the detriment and loss of human life. Pipelines have shown to be related to an uptick in missing and murdered indigenous women. When we view these issues separately, we lose the bigger picture and opportunity to reach the damaging root cause of so many societal issues.
That is why a recent resolution that was passed on October 8 by the United Nations Human Rights Council is enormous progress for climate and human rights movements. For the first time ever, the United Nations Human Rights body, whose mission it is to promote and protect human rights globally, passed a resolution recognising that access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right. This resolution underscores that a healthy, clean, and safe environment isn’t just good for the planet, it’s also a fundamental human right.
The resolution goes on to state that "the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land, and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, the resulting loss of biodiversity, and the decline in services provided by ecosystems interfere with the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, and that environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights." Having access to and being able to enjoy our environment is a human right, and this resolution is a big win for the climate movement.
A resolution won’t change the world, but it's a sign of the change that’s been a long-time coming in the climate movement. Sustainability is about recognizing the beautiful and intricate balance between us and the earth, and how interconnected we all are. Establishing that reciprocity with the environment means first acknowledging the essential relationship and exposure every human should have to the environment. Environmental rights are human rights, and a clean and healthy planet is essential to every single human life. To experience the natural world is to experience joy and reciprocal love, and no human should be denied this right.
Written by Sabaah Choudhary for Youth To The People