Michigan Law Review
Although there have been significant civil rights gains made in recent decades, the United States is now experiencing a resurgence of many of the societal ills that have plagued the country for decades. From an insurrection that was seemingly inspired by white supremacist ideology to ongoing examples of police brutality against Black people, anti-Asian violence, anti-LGBTQ violence, and recurring islamophobia, the country sits at an apparent crossroads. There is an urgent need to advance a civil rights agenda that addresses the impact of these societal ills on the affected communities. At the same time, however, we are confronting these ills during a point in history that urges us to think both within and beyond our national borders and boundaries.
For many citizens across the globe, similar societal ills exist and are coupled with the challenges presented by our warming planet. Moreover, since the spring of 2020, these dilemmas have been embedded within the throes of an ostensibly unending global pandemic. Indeed, the COVID-19 virus has, in many ways, exacerbated our societal ills and amplified existing inequalities. For instance, more privileged global populations have priority access to lifesaving vaccines. Meanwhile, the risks presented by climate disruption are also unevenly distributed, with such risks being mitigated more by economic comfort than by geography or preparedness.
As if these challenges were not enough, online disinformation is a growing concern in this era of COVID-19 and climate disruption. The spread of misleading or patently false information about both the pandemic and global warming poses significant threats to alleviating the harms of each. By creating collective uncertainty about the pandemic, climate change, and a host of other societal issues, disinformation undermines public trust in governmental institutions and, in many cases, adversely affects the already frayed relationship these institutions have with vulnerable populations. Moreover, in a world where communication increasingly happens online, digital disinformation challenges the meaning of truth and breathes life into the extremist ideas that often proliferate on social media. Yet attempting to curb the harms of online disinformation implicates concerns over free speech and free association in cyberspace, which in turn implicates broader concerns over digital rights.
Along with climate change, both of these emergent themes—COVID-19 and online disinformation—represent the uncertainty of our changing times and, because they often disproportionately or adversely impact vulnerable populations, pose new challenges for civil rights and democracy. Each of these themes also links two different but interconnected affairs: one that focuses on the civil rights issues of our local and national communities, and the other that focuses on the related wellness of our global neighbors and larger concerns over planetary life.
Connecting local civil rights–based issues to similar global matters is of increasing importance because it coincides with the emergence of the Anthropocene: the “catch-all description of the overwhelming impact of human activity on the planet.” While often viewed through the lens of climate change, the Anthropocene is also a theoretical tool for contesting the deep-rooted political and socioeconomic inequalities of the present. Social scientists have employed this theory to examine such socioeconomic and governmental issues arising from systematic inequalities and injustices on a global scale. This Foreword therefore highlights how recent transnational debates regarding issues presented by COVID-19 and online disinformation implicate broader civil and human rights concerns. It argues that being mindful of these pervasive issues—which affect the local, the global, and the planetary—is paramount to the ethos of civil rights and democracy in the uncertain times of the Anthropocene. As the Articles in this Colloquium reveal, promoting civil rights at home is an ongoing, multi-dimensional project. This Foreword advocates a broader view of that project as encompassing the range of issues that define our current struggle with planetary and global justice.
Jeffrey Omari, Civil Rights in Times of Uncertainty (The Anthropocene), 120 Mich. L. Rev. 1571 (2022). Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mlr/vol120/iss8/2