This month we are happy to highlight the impressive work of our GNHRE member Josh Gellers.

Josh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Florida, Research Fellow of the Earth System Governance Project, and Core Team Member of the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment. He was also a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Sri Lanka. Josh’s research focuses on environmental politics, human rights, and technology.

His work has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and cited in seven UN reports. Josh runs the Enviro Rights Map, a free Google Maps-based website that catalogs constitutional environmental rights throughout the world. He is the author of The Global Emergence of Constitutional Environmental Rights (Routledge 2017) and Rights for Robots: Artificial Intelligence, Animal and Environmental Law (Routledge 2020).

1. What led you to work on human rights and the environment? 

Growing up in South Florida, hurricanes were a regular fixture of life. During one particularly memorable event, my parents were forced to cut our family trip to Disney World short in order to prepare our home for Hurricane Andrew. I remember the wonder I felt knowing that while environmental hazards were inevitable, human responses could change how resilient we are to them. This fascination led me to study El Niño in college and climate change during my master’s degree, always with an emphasis on the extent to which human institutions are used to mitigate the effects of environmental destruction. Later during my doctoral studies I took a course on environmental law under Professor Joe DiMento. It was there that I gained an appreciation for the ways in which law has proven useful in addressing some environmental challenges while struggling to rectify others. I also read a fantastic article by Jimmy May and Erin Daly that introduced me to the concept of constitutional environmental rights. Immediately I began wondering why we didn’t have environmental rights in the U.S. Constitution (which is the oldest and among the shortest in the world). This question formed the basis for my dissertation, which examined why some countries adopt constitutional environmental rights while others do not. After running a global statistical analysis and identifying a pair of countries suitable for deeper investigation, I traveled to Nepal and Sri Lanka in search of an answer. I have been trying to assess the impact of constitutional environmental rights ever since.

2. What have you been working on recently and/or what is your next big project? 

My latest work is a new open access book, Rights for Robots: Artificial Intelligence, Animal and Environmental Law (Routledge 2020). The inspiration for this project came from recent scholarship on the rights of nature and the increasing presence of strikingly human-like robots in popular culture. My thinking was, if natural entities that are clearly not human have been deemed eligible for rights, what does that say about the prospect of rights for nonhuman entities that actually look and act like humans, such as certain robots? As a political scientist who dabbles in law, I never imagined I would write a book about robots, but trying to square the two aforementioned observations was just too alluring to pass up. In the course of focusing my efforts on the so-called “machine question” I realized I was pursuing a much taller task involving the moral and legal status of nonhumans in general. A more finely tuned version of this aspect of the book was presented in the form of an open access article I recently published in Earth System Governance. If nothing else, I hope to have drawn communities of scholars working on artificial intelligence, animal rights, environmental ethics, environmental law, and moral philosophy into greater dialogue with one another, highlighting the need for AI ethics to take environmental ethics seriously and for human rights to exhibit more epistemic humility towards non-Western worldviews.

I am currently finishing a study on the quality of environmental impact assessment reports pertaining to hydropower projects in Sri Lanka, which has opened my eyes to the environmental and social impacts of foreign-funded development projects. In the future, I’d like to examine the environmental justice or sustainable development implications of these kinds of projects on a comparative basis. In addition, my personal robotic turn has also illuminated other fruitful avenues worthy of exploration, including the use of marine robots in conservation, implementing the Sustainable Development Goals using AI, how novel technologies might improve participation in environmental governance, and the spread of environmental misinformation on social media. I’m waiting to see what sparks my interest the most before jumping back in.

3. Which scholars, writers or activists do you think are not getting the attention they should be getting? 

As someone trained primarily in international relations, I have long been steeped in a field I found intellectually stale and more driven by methods than interesting questions. Therefore, I really admire people whose work pushes disciplinary boundaries and applies a critical bent. A few scholars advancing impressively innovative ideas in this spirit include Matilda Arvidsson, John Danaher, Tanja Kubes, Jason Edward Lewis, Timothy Morton, Yoriko Otomo, Enrique Salmón, Mathana Stender, Kim Tallbear, and Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni. Reading any of these brilliant minds will cause you to rethink dominant ontological or epistemological approaches.

4. As briefly but as specifically as you can say, what are the most compelling challenges in HR & E right now? Can you briefly describe any proposed solutions? 

Because of the ways in which the Anthropocene has exposed frailties in environmental law, the field is undergoing a kind of schizophrenic fragmentation at the moment. The main source of disturbance seems to revolve around the question of whether we should operate from within an existing paradigm that has proven itself incapable of preventing environmental devastation or seek to replace it with something more flexible (if uncertain). We see this dynamic play out in the way the rights of nature are being adopted in different jurisdictions and in the emergence of competing (or perhaps complementary) projects such as ecocide. The goal remains the same but the tools vary. I don’t lay claim to any definitive answer, but in my new book I proposed that law should be guided by a critical environmental ethic that would afford us clear ethical directives and legal concepts adaptable to different contexts in service of overcoming dilemmas intrinsic to the Anthropocene.