When the world is at stake, personal rights and sovereignty aren’t perfectly clear

By Joseph Chamie, March 27, 2008

The increase in world population and greenhouse gas emissions is widely acknowledged to have
serious implications for human well-being and all other life on Earth. But what can be done about

Any attempt to address this question must take two political realities into account: (1) The
international community has adopted a “rights-based” approach to population and development issues;
and (2) nations are sovereign to formulate and implement their own domestic policies, actions, and
laws to address population, development, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The fundamental reproductive right is enshrined as Principle 8 in the
: “All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly
the number and spacing of their children.” Population policies that limit or curtail this
principle, such as China’s one-child policy, are widely condemned for violating fundamental human

The adoption of the
Universal Declaration of Human
recognized the right to migrate more than 50 years ago. Article 13 states, “Everyone has
the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” But while
everyone has the right to leave their country, they don’t have the right to enter another country.
As a consequence, the supply of potential migrants greatly exceeds demand for them, with the result
being tens of millions of illegal migrants moving to more developed and industrialized regions. A
recent European Union
study predicts an influx of “environmental” immigrants will sweep Europe
following land loss, failing harvests, and environmental conflicts in the world’s poorest
countries, leading to social unrest on the continent.

With respect to development, the international community similarly adopted the
Declaration on the Right to
. “The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every
human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic,
social, cultural, and political development,” its first article states. Not surprisingly, countries
interpret this inalienable right differently. On the one hand, less developed nations assert their
sovereign right to development, emphasizing that their citizens shouldn’t be unfairly disadvantaged
by restrictions that didn’t exist when the industrialized nations developed. Conversely, many
developed nations have stressed that the right to development isn’t absolute and should be linked
to environmental concerns, in particular global warming.”

Balancing fundamental human rights with global societal concerns, such as climate change, raises
many challenges. While many may believe that the rights of the individual reign supreme, there are
limits when greater societal well-being is under threat. In the coming years, we’ll need policies
and programs to ensure that individual behavior is compatible with sustainable living standards for
the broader world community.

As I said earlier in this roundtable, crying wolf about the population bomb and making dire
forecasts of imminent global famine too frequently undermines the credibility of legitimate
concerns that governments and scientists have about the consequences of rapid population growth.
Misidentifying the major factors of climate change and environmental degradation is also likely to
retard progress in finding sustainable, long-term solutions, as Betsy Hartmann has emphasized in
this discussion.

Certainly national population policies–particularly those relating to fertility and
international migration–play an important mitigating role by decreasing aggregate economic demand
for energy and resources, especially in more developed countries. But reducing national population
growth rates involves more than simply reducing unintended fertility. In many less developed
countries, especially in Africa and South and West Asia, policies and programs need to address
family size preferences that are well above replacement-level fertility. In more developed
countries, particularly the United States, immigration must slow in order to achieve population

International organizations and nongovernmental organizations can help foster global cooperation
among nations to reach agreed upon commitments. But the responsibility to deal with these critical
issues remains largely with individual countries. For some nations, voluntary behavioral changes
may be sufficient to alter demographic trends and unsustainable, environmentally damaging
practices. However, as Kingsley Davis and then Garrett Hardin forcefully argued in
Science in 1967 and 1968, respectively, voluntary programs to modify individual behavior
tend to fall short of intended goals. In such cases, legislation, programs, and incentives that
encourage responsible parenting and sustainable resource use must be mandated in order to achieve
population stabilization and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


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