The Earth Charter is an extraordinary document. It may be the first global vision to recognize that humanity's environmental, economic, social, cultural, ethical, and spiritual aspirations are interconnected.
But even more extraordinary than the document is the process by which it came into being. Over the course of 10 years, thousands of people in cities, villages, meeting halls, schools, and in the open air have been part of drafting the Earth Charter.
It has been “the most open and participatory consultation process ever conducted in connection with the drafting of an international document,” says Steven Rockefeller, chair of the Earth Charter drafting committee. It grew out of the passions of people from around the world — experts and those rarely heard from—for a just, sustainable, and peaceful society.
What did this global consultation look like?
Former Soviet head Mikhail Gorbachev, as president of Green Cross International, funded youth art contests in eight countries and helped bring the Earth Charter to almost half a million students and thousands of teachers in Argentina, Burkina Faso, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, the Ivory Coast, Russia, and South Korea.
Marina Bakhnova with the Earth Council in Costa Rica convened Ukraine villagers in a workshop on the Earth Charter and witnessed their amazement when they learned that others shared their yearning for a poverty-free world.
Frank Meyberg brought feedback to an Earth Charter drafting session in Europe from the 8 million members of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, who are working to include the Earth Charter in their code of ethics.
Women in Mauritius emphasized women's education and gender equality during the African Earth Charter campaign.
Four thousand children joined hands to encircle a mountain outside Cuiaba, in Mato Grosso, Brazil, in a protective embrace as a nearby Earth Charter drafting session drew to a close.
A peoples' document
The Earth Charter was first proposed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the representatives of world governments were unable to agree on language for an Earth Charter and instead adopted the Rio Declaration.
Peter Adriance, the US Baha'is liaison with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), was among those at Rio who refused to drop the idea of an Earth Charter. Peter joined NGO representatives from 19 countries in a tent on the “fairgrounds” of the Rio NGO Forum to try to “create a coherent document out of all the ideas that were swimming around.” Passions ran high and the discussions “degenerated into arguments and ultimatums.” The irony was not lost on Peter and the others that while working on a global ethical vision, their small group was having difficulty agreeing even among themselves.
Despite the difficulties, the group did come to agreement and, on their last day at the forum, they enthusiastically accepted the Earth Charter. Together, they had developed an integrated vision and sense of universal responsibility for the community of life.
Following the Rio Summit, the Earth Charter process went into hiatus. Then in May 1995, Maurice Strong, chair of the Earth Council, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of The Netherlands, called a meeting at The Hague to revive the Charter's development. Over the next two years, drafting committees met by region: Africa, Central Asia, the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Pacific.
The drafting process picked up steam in 1997 with national committees formed in 40 countries. In the US, over 2,000 people were involved in more than 40 meetings in homes, religious centers, universities, labor halls, and community centers. The Earth Charter International Secretariat located in Costa Rica held three Earth Charter drafting sessions over the Internet that included people from 73 countries.
The consciousness-raising process that took place during drafting sessions held throughout the world is at least as meaningful as the actual document.
In Cape Town, South Africa, a non-controversial session on the meaning of poverty was followed by discussion on equality for women. Many of the men present stated in various ways their belief that “Our women love to serve us. It is our tradition to have women serve us. We must respect our traditions.”
A woman from Nigeria said, “You men just don't fully understand yet, but your daughters will help teach you.” More voices, both male and female, spoke about traditions, the “right” to question them, and the impact of traditions on the well-being of both men and women. In the end, there was acceptance — if not enthusiasm — for the Charter's principle of promoting the active participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural life.
Third World debt was a key issue in several countries. In response to these concerns, the Charter calls for enhancing “the intellectual, financial, technical and social resources of developing nations, and relieving them of onerous international debt.”
In India, Kamla Chowdhry and other members of the Hindu religion felt that the 1997 draft's approach to creating a “culture of peace” was too limited. The draft called for the elimination of nuclear, biological, toxic, and other weapons of mass destruction and the conversion of military resources to peaceful purposes. Chowdhry and others felt the charter should also address strategies to prevent violence, including proactive nonviolence and collaborative problem solving. As a result of these comments, nonviolence was included with Peace and Democracy in the final section of the Earth Charter.
One of the stickier points in negotiating the Earth Charter came at a final drafting session in Assisi, Italy. Finn Lynge from the Greenland government and representing the “Arctic hunting cultures” said he would refuse to sign a charter that included any principle that called for “respect and compassion” for animals. He said that although the peoples he represented respected animals, they did not feel sorry for them. Bawa Jain of India then spoke about the deeper meaning of the word “compassion” as found in the Jain and Buddhist religions. Finn was unconvinced. The dialogue went on for an hour, always with a tone of respect. Finally, Charley Spencer, a Secular Franciscan, suggested the words be “respect and reverence,” with everyone breathing a sigh of relief at Finn's opening to that possibility. After further discussion, Finn suggested the word “consideration” because “reverence” gave the impression that the hunters would be “bowing down” to the animals. All present were moved by the group's dialogue because all points of view had been honored while the integrity of the Earth Charter's purpose was maintained. The Inuits later issued a statement at the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Greenland that “the wording of this principle now fully meets the concerns of the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic.”
In March of this year, the final draft of the Earth Charter was released in Paris. The May 2000 Millennium NGO Forum called on the UN General Assembly to adopt the charter — organizers hope that will happen by 2002, the 10th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit.
In the meantime, the Earth Charter principles provide a values framework that is already being used in schools, universities, faith communities, government, business, and civil society.
Caring for people, caring for Earth
The Earth Charter draws on the seven UN summits held during the 1990s; over 200 NGO declarations and position papers; the insights of science, law, and cosmology; and the wisdom of the world's philosophies and religious traditions. It also builds on best practices for sustainable living, both ancient and contemporary. In the words of Steven Rockefeller, “It shifts authority from the outmoded ideologies of the last century to a new ecology of values.”
While the Earth Charter has an environmental focus, it is based on the conviction that caring for people and caring for Earth are two dimensions of one task. “We cannot care for people in a world with collapsing ecosystems,” says Rockefeller. “And we cannot care for Earth in a world with widespread poverty, injustice, and violent conflict.”
The process of drafting the Earth Charter brought people from throughout the world together to discuss their deepest values and hopes for the future. Perhaps the unity and strength of purpose embodied in the Charter will empower us all to make our hopes for a life-sustaining future a reality.
Learn more about the Earth Charter at www.earthcharterus.org
The Earth Charter USA Communities Initiatives is the facilitator for grassroots efforts to implement the vision and principles of the Earth Charter in local communities. To learn more and to get involved, go to: www.eccommunities.org
The Earth Charter
We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.
Earth, Our Home
Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. The forces of nature make existence a demanding and uncertain adventure, but Earth has provided the conditions essential to life's evolution. The resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity depend upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its ecological systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air.
The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.
The Global Situation
The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous — but not inevitable.
The Challenges Ahead
The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more. We have the knowledge and technology to provide for all and to reduce our impacts on the environment. The emergence of a global civil society is creating new opportunities to build a democratic and humane world. Our environmental, economic, political, social, and spiritual challenges are interconnected, and together we can forge inclusive solutions.
To realize these aspirations, we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole Earth community as well as our local communities.
Everyone shares responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world. The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature.
We urgently need a shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community.
Excerpted from the Preamble to the Earth Charter, which also addresses: Respect and Care for the Community of Life; Ecological Integrity; Social and Economic Justice; and Democracy, Nonviolence, and Peace.
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