The Anthropocene, Earth system vulnerability and socio-ecological injustice in an age of human rights

Despite important victories, human rights have been unable to respond effectively to the many deeply intertwined socio-ecological injustices in the Anthropocene. In particular, human rights have failed to practically address, in a meaningful way, the plights of billions of oppressed human beings (and failed to address the vulnerability of non-human beings), while conceptually human rights are proving to be ill-suited for the epistemic demands of the Anthropocene. As a trope, the Anthropocene presents an opportunity to re-interrogate the role of human rights as key mechanisms in the state’s regulatory mix to address socio-ecological injustices arising within the context of a vulnerable Earth system. This article reflects upon whether a re-interrogation could be accomplished by utilizing vulnerability theory, which is an alternative approach to ethical evaluation. As a heuristic, vulnerability has the potential to inform an ontological change of stance away from a human-centred, neoliberal, and impregnably Western understanding of human rights, towards an altogether more porous and contingent understanding of the vulnerability of the entire living order as a starting point from which to critique the epistemological closures and regulatory challenges confronting the human rights paradigm in the Anthropocene.

Louis J. Kotze, North-west University, South Africa and University of Lincoln