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The Anthropocentric Ontology of International Environmental Law and the Sustainable Development Goals: Towards an Ecocentric Rule of Law in the Anthropocene

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In this article we argue that the Anthropocene’s deepening socio-ecological crisis amplifies demands on, and exposes the deficiencies of, our ailing regulatory institutions, including that of international environmental law (IEL). Many of the perceived failures of IEL have been attributed to the anthropocentric, as opposed to the ecocentric, ontology of this body of law. As a result of its anthropocentric orientation and the resultant deficiencies, IEL is unable to halt the type of human behaviour that is causing the Anthropocene, while it exacerbates environmental destruction, gender and class inequalities, growing inter- and intra-species hierarchies, human rights abuses, and socio-economic and ecological injustices. These are the same types of concerns that the recently proclaimed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to address. The SDGs are, however, themselves anthropocentric; an unfortunate situation which reinforces the anthropocentrism of IEL and vice versa. Considering the anthropocentric genesis of IEL and the broader SDGs framework, this article sets out to argue that the anthropocentrism inherent in the ontological orientation of IEL and the SDGs risks exacerbating Anthropocene-like events, and a more ecocentric orientation for both is urgently required to enable a more ecocentric rule of law to better mediate the human-environment interface in the Anthropocene. Our point of departure is that respect for ecological limits is the only way in which humankind, acting as principal global agents of care, will be able to ensure a sustainable future for human and non-human constituents of the Earth community. Correspondingly, the rule of law must also come to reflect such imperatives.

Affiliations: 1: Research Professor of Law, Faculty of Law, North-West University, South Africa, ; 2: Professor of International Law, and Head of the Law School, University of Lincoln, United Kingdom,


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