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Sustainability and the Law

Posted on May 24, 2011 at 11:29 AM

Subject: Sustainability . . . and Law? What can we say about this concept, and how it informs our world and behaviors? I became interested in this topic when prompted by a call for papers for the 2011 EUKO conference at Aarhus, Denmark. The conference will be the 11th international conference organised by the Department of Language and Business Communication of the Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University, Denmark. This year’s theme is, “Sustainable Communication – Communicative Sustainability.” Their goal is to assemble a wide array of responses on this theme from various sectors of the global business community and communications specialists. The focus will be broad: sustainability and communication as seen regarding the economy, environment, globalization, social welfare and corporate communications, among others. I became interested in the topic from a legal perspective and began to do a bit of research. Thematically, I decided to focus on the dialectic within environmental law, corporate social responsibility and international human rights.


Over the past few months, I’ve assembled an array of resources, and am writing an article in this topical area, tentatively entitled, The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ & Sustainability ’Red Threads’ in the Language of International Law & Human Rights.


I am looking at the concept of sustainability of the environment from the perspective of the traditional positivist language of law, including environmental law, international law and human rights law, while developing a critique of existing structural approaches to its communication within existing rule-based and policy-based systems. Historically, Western property law has resulted in the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ in which resources belonging to the commons will ultimately be depleted beyond sustainability by group members, in contrast to the greater good of all, and in spite of the essential minimum needs of all. Resource utilization struggles of today confirm the tragedy’s principe dispositif, while laws regulating the environment remain under-developed both structurally and ideologically to the challenge.


Core values of sustainability and how it is communicated are found discussed in recent legal and environmental law scholarship. These values include, among others, the right to identity and the protection of language, culture, names and participation. Achieving the preconditions for sustainability through communication also requires challenging ineffective controls while opening political, business and social networks impeding its development. Modern means of communicating sustainability include corporate social responsibility platforms and codes. Beyond this, discussions are taking place on melding core concepts of environmental law with human rights law, and I will be discussing these in the article.


Already, I believe I have identified what could be called ‘red threads’ tying communications and sustainability together within a legal framework designed to address corporate activity affecting the environment, and find these red threads at the center of recent global political and economic trends, i.e. utilizing language, new visual media channels and social media platforms to secure the primary preconditions for sustainability. By focusing on legal perceptions, I hope to encourage law and policy makers to newly prioritize environmental sustainability law, suiting it to changing needs, transparency, and modern global conditions.


sustainability. n. 1. capable of being sustained; 2. Of or relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged (such as sustainable techniques, sustainable agriculture); of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods (such as a sustainable society). First known use: circa 1727. –Merriam-Webster Dictionary


I was pleased that the International Bar Association took my question on this, asking the Legal Director of Royal Dutch Shell about their work with sustainability at the conclusion of the IBA Webinar, May 24, 2011. Peter Rees’s response indicates that he is aware of the practical approaches to incorporating sustainability in their legal work, noting, first, that assuring that Shell is in full compliance with environmental regulation is a part of this. Beyond that, he noted that Shell is involved in looking at sustainability on a continuing basis with regard to reducing their carbon footprint, and seeking ways to reduce impacts of this nature. Rees's reference to the need for a global approach to corporate conditions is also a part ot this, what he called the need for "global consistency."  Such goals require participatory action on a global level.


Sustainability: an evolving concept with specific pre-conditions and significant weight for our survival as a global community. Sustainabiliy: something that the global legal community can help to define and bring about.

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