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The Earth Charter and the United Nations

One of the more vigorously contested conflicts between private environmentalism and governmental policy has been occurring for a decade at the international level, where the Earth Charter movement is knocking at the door of the United Nations, begging for admission. It is a project of serious, determined, and sometimes zealous environmentalists. They intend their document, which has worked its way through several years of preparatory meetings, to be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and eventually to achieve the enduring status of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. An ambitious project, it has drawn together in one crusade some wildly different characters, including formidable names like Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong. Gorbachev, having so dramatically fallen from his post as the second most powerful man in the world, and having failed in an attempt to come back as Russian president, has reinvented himself as a world environmentalist, founder and president of the non-governmental organization Green Cross International. Strong is a Canadian businessman, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and former secretary general both of the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. He is now president of the Costa Rica–based Earth Council, which, like Green Cross, is a major force behind the Earth Charter. Steven Rockefeller, professor of religion at Middlebury College, is perhaps the principal intellectual resource person for the movement.

Fundamentally Incompatible Ideologies

The Charter began as the project of a loose group of non-governmental organizations who hoped to use their accreditation to the 1992 UN “Conference on Environment and Development” in Rio de Janeiro (the “Earth Summit”) to get their document on the formal agenda and, if possible, adopted there. But that proved impossible, for reasons that will become evident below. After Rio, the sponsors, led by Strong and Gorbachev and some UN personnel moving over to this now non-governmental cause, regrouped. They held workshops and consultations, formed themselves into an official Earth Charter Commission of twenty people, set up headquarters in Costa Rica, created a Web site with interactive possibilities, established links with other interested organizations, solicited input from different religious groups, and, in general, made every conceivable effort to broaden their base and justify their claim to be producing a “true People’s Earth Charter.”

It is a campaign, however, that is likely destined to fail of its stated aim, official UN adoption of the Charter. At least it will be a tough sell. The first “Benchmark Draft” made it clear that there is a fundamental incompatibility of ideologies at work, and subsequent revisions have not removed the difficulties.

Throughout the long process of drafting and revising, Charter proponents sought to preserve a number of core values. Of course, the Charter was centered on sustainable living and conservation of nature—values, however, supported not just by pragmatic calculations but by some kind of “spiritual vision,” conceived broadly enough to elicit support from many different religious traditions. It meant to communicate a sense of crisis and urgency, condemning the present forms of industrial society and calling for a radical change of course, a change that could come only from new values—or ancient values long lost and in need of rediscovery. It was thought that only religions had the power to effect such a change; hence, their support was deemed crucial. The intention was to produce something new, arresting, and inspiring—something that went beyond the practical cast of the twenty-five-year sequence of UN reports.

In its earliest “benchmark” draft, in 1997, the Charter certainly was different. This text was plainly not very interested in matters of social justice, and certainly not in development. References to those issues were only incidental, added on, as some participants admitted, to please certain elements in the supporting coalition—a “Christmas tree” process where different people’s projects and goals were hung on a statement about environmental policy, a bit like irrelevant riders on a piece of legislation. The tone, in sharp contrast to UN documents, breathed a quasi-religious spirit, an overarching pantheism that not everyone could share. “The Earth itself is alive,” it declared, echoing the Gaia hypothesis that earth is, in effect, a single organism deserving of the name of a goddess—here, “Mother Earth,” a name deliberately chosen for such symbolism. All creatures on earth have moral considerability—indeed, possibly even moral equality. We must live in solidarity not only with the rest of humanity but also with “the community of life.” We must “respect Earth and all life” because “Earth, each life form, and all living beings possess intrinsic value and warrant respect independently of their utilitarian value to humanity.” We must, therefore, practice non-violence not only toward other persons but also toward “other life forms and Earth.” We must “treat all creatures with compassion and protect them from cruelty and wanton destruction.” Our goal is to “grow into a family of cultures that allows the potential of all persons to unfold in harmony with the Earth Community,” preserving “a deep sense of belonging to the universe.”

This was simply not a declaration in the UN mold. Throughout the whole course of its conferences and reports, from Stockholm to the “World Charter for Nature” to the World Commission on Environment and Development (the “Brundtland Commission”), to Rio, the UN has been dominated by the developing nations, who intend to keep developing to dig themselves out of poverty. That is their primary concern, and no environmental document that even hints at rules that might impede development stands a chance of gaining official recognition. Suspicion of Western environmentalism leaps off the pages of the documents, the fear that ecological concerns will be used to keep the poorer nations in permanent subordination: environmentalism as neo-colonialism. Virtually every environmental consideration is advanced in such a way that it allows the developing countries room to grow economically, even at some environmental cost. “Standards applied by some countries [read: the wealthy, developed ones] may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic and social cost to other countries, in particular, developing countries” (Rio). The notion popular among some Western environmentalists that poorer nations should scale back their ambitions and preserve their simple ways is dismissed out of hand: “The idea that developing countries would do better to live within their limited means is a cruel illusion” (Brundtland Commission).

The entire UN program in these matters now flies under the banner of “sustainable development,” a mantra-like slogan that succinctly puts the two foci, economic growth and environmental protection, in that order. The five-hundred-page heart of the Rio report, “Agenda 21,” is essentially a massive development program into which environmental concerns have been integrated, sometimes awkwardly so. Environmental programs are to serve human needs, and that is their whole point. The UN's view is, in short, Firmly, resolutely, and uncompromisingly anthropocentric. Always, people first.

The contrast between the two viewpoints is particularly vivid on the matter of population growth. It is an article of faith among the Earth Charter group that the planet is overpopulated and is getting worse, and that serious efforts to limit our numbers are in order. Delegates from the developing parts of the world, again suspicious that the West wishes to curb their power, and convinced by recent UN figures that birth rates are falling nearly everywhere anyway, regularly stymie efforts of the population controllers to write their anti-natalist opinions into UN documents. Population limitation policies belong exclusively to the nation concerned, and only when they would enhance development. “Of all things in the world,” said the Stockholm declaration, “people are the most precious.” Even the Brundtland Commission, which at first glance seems to be an exception with its blunt language about unsustainable population growth, ends in a familiar UN place: “Talking of population just as numbers glosses over an important point: People are also a creative resource, and this creativity is an asset societies must tap…. People are the ultimate resource.” In short, anthropocentrism remains firmly in control here, too.

There are occasional lapses or exceptions to this focus in isolated sentences, which those who are sympathetic to the Earth Charter have sometimes lifted out of context as evidence of UN support for their cause. These exceptions are really internal contradictions that get into the documents because this is committee writing, not Holy Writ; and every group wants its say, including the anti-anthropocentrists. These odd sentences—and that is all they are—are just inserted into sections whose main point always is to stress the need to manage resources to meet the needs of a growing human population.

Adjustments, But No Capitulation

This first “Benchmark Draft” of the Earth Charter was not forged without inner disagreement, and the process had to be kept open for further discussion. In April of 1999 a new “Benchmark Draft II” appeared, correcting some, though not all, of the maladroit parts of the original. The development issue, for one, was rescued from obscurity. Now the principles of the Charter were all said to be “principles for sustainable development”; and although respect for earth and ecological integrity were placed first, a separate highlighted section—called “A Just and Sustainable Economic Order”—was created. Here, development was primary, with ecological concerns factored into the process. In this section, at least, the new version really did read like a UN document.

Throughout the document were new phrases that seemed to honor the equal value of all humans, lest the incipient anti-humanism of the first draft prevail. We were now to affirm, echoing the language of UN documents and especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “respect for the inherent dignity of every person.” We must “secure the human rights of all women, men, and children.” We were to “honor and defend the right of all persons, without discrimination, to an environment supportive of their dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being.”

Gone, too, was the naive and wistful claim that social justice and sound ecology automatically reinforce each other. Instead the new document spoke more realistically of the need to “balance and harmonize” competing interests, including “economic progress with the flourishing of ecological systems.” Whereas the first draft, in full crisis mode, declared that “we must reinvent industrial-technological civilization,” this one commended sophisticated technology that is environmentally friendly. Smart, scientific ecology rather than pantheistic reverence dominated the section on “Ecological Integrity,” again adopting the tone of the UN documents.

Some unfortunate points were mercifully dropped. No longer was it necessary to point out that we are part of the universe. The reference to non-violence was separated from the context where it was to be directed at “other life forms” and scaled back to “practicing nonviolence … to resolve conflict,” although there did remain a suggestively malleable remark about “awakening to a new reverence for life.” Other changes muted and qualified the ascription of independent value to nonhuman entities. “Mother Earth,” despite her many fans, disappeared. Instead of the “Earth itself is alive,” we had, “Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life.” Care for the earth was placed firmly in the context of preserving human life, rather than standing alone as an independent value.

Last March, the “final” draft appeared, though a review even of that finality is promised in a couple of years. The changes are largely stylistic, and for the better. The alert eye will pick up both slight alterations that push the Charter still closer to the UN concern with development and justice issues, as well as some corresponding toning down of vapid and vaguely spiritual exhortations—for example, the removal of the injunction to “seek wisdom and inner peace.”

But these revisions have not entirely capitulated to UN anthropocentrism. The prior language of “intrinsic value of all beings,” an arguable point at best, is gone, but its replacement is its functional equivalent: “[E]very form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.” This is the point that the Charter’s originators regard as indispensable and at the heart of the values shift that they advocate. We are enjoined to “declare our responsibility [not only] to one another, [but also] to the greater community of life.” We humans have “kinship with all life” and need “humility regarding the human place in nature.” We must “treat all living beings with respect and consideration.” (It was “with compassion” in the 1999 draft.) Peace requires “right relationships” not only with other people but with “other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which we are a part.” And we still must awaken to a “new reverence for life.”

Nor has the tendency to add on irrelevancies been conquered. Stretching some rather tenuous connections to the main subject, there are calls for universal health care; education; disarmament; the “equitable distribution of wealth”; “elimination of discrimination in all its forms, such as that based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic or social origin”; participatory democracy; freedom of expression, assembly, and dissent; debt relief for developing nations; “gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development”; and the “participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social and cultural life as full and equal partners” —gifts for just about everyone in a document that is ostensibly meant to focus our attention on the environment.

Falling Short of a Universal Appeal

The Earth Charter was meant by its proponents at Rio to be adopted by the UN first in 1995; then it was postponed to 2000, even though there was always some pessimism and cynicism about its prospects. Now the hoped-for adoption has been put off until 2002—not as dramatic a time as the millennial year, though organizers have rescued some of the lost symbolism by noting that the new date is the tenth anniversary of Rio. Along with the time delay, which allows the campaign to work up support, the revisions in the last two drafts have probably increased the document’s chances in the UN, and the revision process is not over yet.

Still, the principal difficulty standing in the way of UN adoption of the Charter remains a fundamental incompatibility of the general outlooks of the two sides. The UN principles emphasize economic development; environmental management to serve human need; an embrace of science and technology to better human life; the sovereignty of independent nation states; and, gingerly, restraint on population growth where that would help, leaving the choices up to separate national policies. The Charter coalition, diverse as it is, may still be roughly summarized as anti-anthropocentric; ambivalent, at best, about further economic growth and pessimistic about the course of industrial civilization; skeptical of the value of science and technology and their ability to save us from ecological peril (except for the Internet, which they have passionately embraced); convinced of impending disaster, even in matters such as population growth, where recent evidence indicates otherwise, and angry at the UN for not taking this “crisis” more seriously; in favor of an international control regime that will limit state sovereignty and even, perhaps, individual rights; and, somewhat paradoxically, in favor of “decentralized relatively self-reliant local economies,” as the “people’s Earth Declaration” produced by the International Non-Governmental Forum at Rio says.

There is also, undoubtedly, a kind of neo-paganism among many Charter supporters, whose antipathy to modern society in all its aspects, from industrial to religious, has led them back to a radical pre-modernism, a pan-religiousness that appears to be some (partly imagined) basic form of religious life before the destructive divisiveness of the historic religions appeared. Many supporters ascribe sentience, psychic and spiritual reality, to all things, not only to living creatures but also to natural entities like rivers, forests, ecosystems, even stars—a kind of mystic ecocentrism, one might say. All supporters, apparently without exception, attribute intrinsic value, even rights, to non-human entities.

These views have found their way into the actual Charter text at different stages, mostly in merely suggestive phrases; and many have been diluted to the vanishing point along the tortuous way to the current version. Although Charter drafters have made many changes that have moved their document closer to the UN position, one must assume the compromises are grudgingly done, and only for tactical reasons. Changes made for the sake of gaining acceptability in governmental circles are likely to represent sacrifices of values held dear by the Charter movement, risking some loss of enthusiasm among its original supporters. There is obviously a certain point beyond which they are unwilling to go in currying official favor, a point beyond which, as they have bluntly said, they will not negotiate with the UN but instead will “go it alone,” promulgating their Charter without official backing.

What will happen? Each successive draft has been less offensive than the first. Perhaps some of the remaining oddities will be pared if the document is ever considered by the General Assembly for formal adoption. But maybe it will never get that far, and will instead be left standing alone as a non-governmental project, a “People’s Earth Charter,” as they call it, honored by those to whom it speaks meaningfully, ignored by the rest. It is hard, in any case, to imagine that it will ever achieve the status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If I were to guess—and that is all any outsider can do at this point—I would say that the language of intrinsic value that is still in the Charter, which grants nature some immunity from human need—language which, as noted, the Earth Charter Commission regards as essential and non-negotiable—will prove the final stumbling block to official acceptance. As long as the Charter talks that way, it will fall short of the universal appeal that would enable it to be adopted by the General Assembly.