“Witches Heal.” “The Goddess is Alive and Magic is Afoot.” A picture of Earth with the enjoinder, “Love Your Mother.” These are popular bumper stickers in my “alternative” town, where old hippies and young New Agers mingle on Main Street more or less amiably with us non-hip, married-with-children types. We get along well enough, and probably even find each other a bit amusing. But our amused tolerance on Main Street may yield to something less accommodating if the bumper stickers become public policy.
Consider the “Earth Charter” movement, a project of serious, determined, and sometimes zealous environmentalists worldwide. They intend their document, which has worked its way through several years of preparatory meetings, to be presented to the United Nations in 2000, adopted by the General Assembly in 2002, and eventually 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 (NGO) “Green Cross International.” Strong is a Canadian businessman, former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and Secretary-General both of the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Now he is president of the Earth Council, based in Costa Rica, another force behind the Earth Charter. Complementing their organizational muscle is Steven Rockefeller, Professor of Religion at Middlebury College, and perhaps the movement’s chief intellectual.
The Earth Charter is the project of a loose group of NGOs who hoped to use their accreditation to the 1992 UN “Conference on Environment and Development” at Rio de Janeiro (the “Earth Summit”) to get a document containing some more radical environmental views on the formal agenda and, if possible, adopted. The official channels proved resistant, so the sponsors, led by Strong and Gorbachev and some UN personnel, registered as an NGO after Rio to advance their cause. They 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.” Getting the UN to adopt the Charter will be a tough sell, nonetheless. The first “Benchmark Draft” of March 1997 makes it clear that there is a fundamental incompatibility of ideologies at work.
Throughout the long process of drafting and revising, Charter proponents sought to preserve two core values: sustainable living and conservation of nature. The draft supports these values not just by pragmatic calculations but by a kind of “spiritual vision,” conceived broadly enough to elicit support from many different religious traditions. We are in a crisis because of the present forms of industrial society, it says, and we need a change of course so radical it can come only from new values—or long-lost ancient values needing rediscovery. The promoters believe that only religion has the power to effect such change, so the support of the world’s religions was deemed crucial. Throughout the drafting process, “values facilitators” worked with this animating vision in mind. The intention throughout was to produce something new, arresting, inspiring, going beyond the practical cast of most UN reports
And it surely is different. The Earth Charter has a quasi-religious tone, an overarching pantheism that not everyone will share. “The Earth itself is alive,” it declares, 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, perhaps even moral equality. We must live in solidarity not only with the rest of humanity, but 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 nonviolence not only toward other persons, but 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 is simply not a declaration in the UN mold. From the 1972 Stockholm conference to the 1992 meeting in Rio, the UN conferences and official reports on the environment have been dominated by the developing nations, who mean to keep developing themselves out of poverty. No environmental document that recommends actions that might impede development stands a ghost of a chance of gaining official recognition. These countries see Western environmentalism as a form of neocolonialism, and the fear that ecological concerns will be used to keep the poorer nations in permanent subordination leaps off the pages of UN documents.
Virtually every environmental consideration the UN does propose is advanced in such a way that it allows the developing countries room to grow economically, even at some environmental cost, using boilerplate such as this (from Rio): “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.” 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” (The World Commission on Environment and Development, or “Brundtland Commission”).
The entire UN program in these matters now flies under the banner of “sustainable development,” which succinctly puts the two principles of economic growth and environmental protection in that order. Environmental programs are to serve human needs, and that is their whole point. The UN’s view is, in short, firmly, resolutely, 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 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 growth, 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 nations concerned, and only when they would enhance development. “Of all things in the world,” said the Stockholm declaration almost defiantly, “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 exceptions to this focus in isolated sentences, which those 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.
This first “Benchmark Draft” was not forged without internal disagreement, and the process has had to be kept open for further discussion. The new “Benchmark Draft II” appeared last April, correcting some, though not all, of the maladroit parts of the original. The development issue, for one, has been rescued from obscurity. Now the principles of the Charter are all said to be “principles for sustainable development”; and although respect for Earth and ecological integrity are placed first, a separate highlighted section has been created, called “A Just and Sustainable Economic Order.” Here development is primary, with ecological concerns factored into the process. In this section at least the new version really does read like a UN document.
Throughout there are new phrases that seem to honor the equal value of all humans, lest the incipient antihumanism of the first draft prevail. We are now to affirm, echoing the language of UN documents and especially the UDHR, “respect for the inherent dignity of every person.” We must “secure the human rights of all women, men, and children.” We are 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 is the naive claim that social justice and sound ecology automatically reinforce each other. Instead the new document speaks more realistically of the need to “balance and harmonize” competing interests, including balancing “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 commends sophisticated technology that is environmentally friendly. Smart scientific ecology rather than pantheistic reverence dominates the section on “Ecological Integrity,” again adopting the tone of the UN documents.
Some unfortunate points have mercifully been dropped. The document no longer feels it necessary to point out that we are part of the universe. The reference to nonviolence has been separated from the context where it was to be directed at “other life forms” and been scaled back to “practic[ing] nonviolence . . . to resolve conflict,” although there does remain a suggestively malleable remark about “awakening to a new reverence for life.” “Mother Earth,” despite her many fans, is gone: instead of the “Earth itself is alive,” we have, “Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life.” Care for the Earth has been placed firmly in the context of preserving human life rather than standing alone as an independent value.
But these revisions have not entirely capitulated to UN anthropocentrism. The population issue, which the Earth Charter Commission had always found difficult, has been recaptured by the controllers and emerged in sharper form than in the first draft: “A dramatic rise in population” is part of the environmental crisis, and “responsible reproduction” is enjoined. It keeps the language about the “intrinsic value of all beings,” which the Charter’s originators regard as indispensable and the heart of the change in values they desire. 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 the larger scheme of things.” We must “treat all living beings with compassion.” Peace is “harmonious relationships” not only with other people, but “other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which we are a part.” Earth is to be treated with respect, quite aside from any utilitarian value it might have for us. A whiff of vague spirituality has survived in the call to “seek wisdom and inner peace.” Just as vaguely, we are told that we “require an inner change—a change of heart and mind” that involves an “integration of knowledge with love and compassion.”
There is also an unfortunate “Christmas tree” habit of hanging on irrelevancies to please certain elements in the supporting coalition. So there are calls for universal health care, education, disarmament, the “equitable distribution of wealth,” “racial, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic equality,” participatory democracy, and “the full and equal participation of women in civil, cultural, economic, political, and social life”—gifts for just about everyone in a document whose ostensible focus is on the environment.
The Earth Charter was meant by its proponents at Rio to be adopted by the UN in 1995, and when that deadline passed, in 2000, even though there was always some pessimism and cynicism about its prospects. Now, although the Charter may be “presented” at the UN in 2000, the hoped-for date of adoption is now 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, allowing the campaign longer to work up support, the revisions in Draft II have probably increased the document’s chances in the UN, and the revision process is not over yet.
Still, the principal difficulty in the way of UN adoption of the Charter remains, a fundamental incompatibility in the general outlooks of the two sides. The UN principles emphasize environmental management to serve human need, promoting economic development, science and technology, national sovereignty, and, gingerly, restraints on population growth where that would help, leaving the choices up to separate national policies. Members of the Charter coalition, diverse as it is, may still be roughly summarized as anti-anthropocentric—ambivalent at best about further economic growth, skeptical of science and technology (except for the Internet, which they have embraced with a passion), convinced of impending disaster, even in matters like population growth where recent evidence indicates otherwise, in favor of an international control regime that will limit state sovereignty (and even, perhaps, individual rights), and also, somewhat paradoxically, committed to “decentralized, relatively self-reliant, local economies.”
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 premodernism, 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 ascribe sentience, psychic and spiritual reality, to all things, not only living creatures but natural entities like rivers, forests, ecosystems, even stars—a kind of mystic ecocentrism, one might say. All, apparently without exception, attribute intrinsic value, even rights, to nonhuman entities.
These views have found their way into the actual Charter text at different stages, for the most part only as suggestive phrases; and many have been diluted to the vanishing point along the tortuous way to the current version. Charter drafters have made many changes that have moved their document closer to the UN position, but 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 limit to how far they are willing 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? The second benchmark draft of the Earth Charter is certainly less offensive than the first. Perhaps some of the remaining oddities will be pared if the General Assembly ever considers the document for formal adoption. But maybe it will never get that far, and be left standing alone as an NGO project, a “People’s Earth Charter” as the proponents 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 UDHR.
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 still in the Charter, granting nature some immunity from human need, language which, as noted, the Earth Charter Commission regards as essential and nonnegotiable, will prove the final stumbling block to official acceptance. As long as the Charter sounds like the bumper stickers of my New Age and hippie neighbors, I just can’t see it being adopted by the terribly unhip General Assembly of the United Nations.
Thomas Sieger Derr, who teaches at Smith College, is the author of Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism .