Environmental Justice and Sustainable Citizenship in Asia

Duke Kunshan University Campus – Kunshan, China

The Global Asia Initiative (GAI) at Duke University, together with Duke Kunshan University Campus (DKU), will hold a conference on environmental humanities titled "Environmental Justice and Sustainable Citizenship in Asia" from May 22-24, 2017. In this first year of the conference series, the event will focus on comparable and connected issues regarding the environment in China and India.

Why sustainable citizenship and what does it mean?

The term citizenship can best be understood historically as it has developed into the present. Over the last couple of centuries, it developed from the rights and duties between the nation-state and subject in the civic and military spheres.  Since the middle of the twentieth century, it has expanded to include a set of social and economic rights (right to food, education, health, etc) of individuals to be protected by law.  In deepening this realm of rights in welfare theory, thinkers, most notably, Amartya Sen developed the notion of ‘capabilities’ afforded by society and state to humans/citizens  as the criterion  for the exercise of rights and freedom. In the absence of the apparatus to generate such capabilities, citizens’ rights could remain merely on paper. Philosophically, the enhancement of capabilities rather than a focus on maximizing growth or utility may be considered a more appropriate goal for a planet with finite resources.

These arguments gain particular force when applied to a sustainable environment and what it would mean to have rights of citizens to a protected environment and fair share of sustainable resource use. While advocating the capabilities argument, the economist Tim Jackson has urged that capabilities and rights must be bound on the one hand by the scale of the global population and on the other by the finite ecology of the planet.  In order for the capabilities argument to provide justice not only for the poor of the planet but for the environment, it is necessary to re-evaluate the basis for true human flourishing.  In these ways, we may return to such normative goals as Leopold’s Land Ethic while also attending to the vast numbers of humans across the world who are in reality excluded from genuine citizenship rights.

The theme of sustainable citizenship and environmental justice thus offers a wide agenda of research to pursue in the environmental humanities of Asia.  In this conference we focus principally on China and India. The rights of citizens to be able to achieve their goals of livelihood, education and freedoms is matched by the research on what it means to have a sustainable planet. The preservation of biodiversity; the value of animal life; the protection of our home and work place versus degrading other environments; the problems of governance and vested interests; the means – whether by governmental, activist or aesthetic—to enable and promote sustainable justice; the exploration of alternative modes, historical and contemporary, of human-nature relations; the inquiry into the optimal means of conserving and sharing scarce resources whether by spiritual or secular means, are some of the topics undertaken by the workshop participants.

In this project, we understand citizenship not merely as an abstract set of rights, but seek to grasp how these rights may be intertwined with a deeper sense of belonging linked to practices and values of home and the landscape, animals and spirits, fairness and resilience. Are modern resources, such as ‘rights’ and civil society always compatible with or capable of furthering or adjudicating (dispensing justice to) these values?

For more information on "Environmental Justice and Sustainable Citizenship in Asia," contact: taylor.rowland@duke.edu