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Earth Charter (The)

Author: Bishop Geoff Davies - Southern African Faith Communities Environment

( Article Type: Explanation )

The Earth Charter is an exceptional and most important document – it is not just an environmental charter, but a people’s charter, giving guidelines of how we should behave with one another and with the Earth, with which we are inextricably bound and of which we are part.
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights lists the rights that all humans should be entitled to enjoy. Similarly, the Earth Charter provides guidelines for our responsibilities as humans to care for one another, for all life and for future generations. It provides a way out of the dilemma of our present injustices and conflicts, into a future of harmonious, just and peaceful well-being for all life on Earth, not just for humanity.
It was hoped that the Earth Charter would be adopted by the United Nations to stand alongside the UN Declaration of Human Rights. However, it was also recognized that the Earth Charter is not so much a charter for governments and the UN, as for people. It is we, the people, who must uphold the deep yearning for justice, equity and peace that lies in the hearts of all. It is we, the people of the world, who must put it into action.
The Earth Charter was developed by a highly consultative process and enabled people across the world, including indigenous peoples, to identify the shared values and principles that should be part of an Earth Charter. The Charter has been formally endorsed by thousands of organizations, including UNESCO.
The Preamble reminds us that Earth is our only home and that the well-being of humanity is totally dependent on the well-being of this planet:

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.



The first section with the opening four principles lays the foundation for our behaviour if we are to have a sustainable future on this planet:

1. Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
We must learn to respect all of life for our own future and for the future of all life. Most religions uphold this. When we treat others with dignity, we take the first step to peaceful coexistence. But it is no longer humans only. All of life should be respected and cared for.

2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
Many faiths call for compassion and love in our dealings with one another. This comes about with greater understanding of the wonder of life.
The increased knowledge and power we humans have acquired calls for increased responsibility to care for the lives of others around us and to care for all of the community of life. The command to “Love your neighbour” reaches out to all that surrounds us, so that we seek to love not only our fellow human beings, but the trees and flowers and streams and mountains and clean air and birds and insects, all that is around us that makes for the community of life.

3. Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.
Our present world is hugely unjust. We cannot achieve peace without establishing social and economic justice. That is why building democracy is so important. But democracy is not just the vote – it is also about justice, so that we overcome the huge economic inequalities of millions being without food and clean water and sanitation while others have more than they will ever need. If we want peace and a sustainable future, people must have the freedom to participate in a democratic society that allows them to take responsibility for their lives and their surroundings.

4. Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.
We must recognise our responsibility to each other and to the Earth to ensure future generations can share fully in this amazing community of life.
In order to fulfil these four broad commitments, the Earth Charter says that it is necessary to do the following:

This second section acknowledges our dependence on the well-being of the planet and the priority of restoring the integrity of the Earth’s ecological systems.

5. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
It is our duty and responsibility to protect and now actively restore the Earth’s ecological systems. We are We called upon to live with the Earth’s ecological systems.
This requires an urgent and dramatic transformation of our present way of life, as already many ecological systems are so degraded or destroyed that they cannot be restored. If we continue on our present path, we threaten our own existence. We need to preserve the diversity upon which a healthy ecological system exists. As more and more species become extinct, so the natural processes that sustain life are weakened. This is a spiritual matter, as the destruction of our life sustaining processes is a deeply moral issue.

6. Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
In the past we have considered it ‘progress’ to proceed with ‘developments’ and new scientific discoveries without always being clear of the impact on human or planetary health. We now produce millions of tons of chemicals that do not degrade or decompose as natural biodegradable products do, resulting in severe problems of persistent pollutants and hazardous substances.
This section also asks us to consider the long-term, global consequences of our human activities, and not be directed by short-term political or economic gains. This certainly applies to climate change where, for the short-term economic expediency of continuing to generate electricity from coal, we threaten the long-term well-being of the atmosphere and therefore life on the planet.
We are also asked to avoid military activities that are immensely destructive to both people and planet. Again, this is both a spiritual and moral issue, as most religions teach that our security lies in establishing justice, not relying on the force of arms.

7. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
This principle encourages us to reduce, reuse and recycle, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This is becoming increasingly important as we simply cannot continue using up non-renewable resources and burning fossil fuels if we are to leave a habitable planet to our children. At present we are consuming and depleting the Earth’s natural resources as if there is no tomorrow. We need to live in harmony with the natural processes of the universe. Renewable energy resources can provide us with ten thousand times more energy than is needed at any given time. Political will and determination are required to overcome the pressure and influence of the fossil fuel multi-national corporations. Developing small-scale micro-generation, as well as free enterprise large-scale, solar and wind generation will end monopolies, put power into the hands of the people and further democracy. This principle also emphasises that it is our own lifestyle that upholds or destroys ecological integrity.

8. Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.
This principle acknowledges the importance of understanding ecological sustainability and of promoting that knowledge for the good of the planet and all people, rather than financial interests. It particularly emphasises the need to recognize and preserve the traditional knowledge and spiritual wisdom in all cultures, acknowledging the value and importance of indigenous people as we seek to live sustainably.

Principles 9 to 12, with their sub-clauses, recognise the necessity of establishing social and economic justice and overcoming the immoral inequalities found in the world today, if we are to develop a sustainable future and maintain a planet that will continue to support life.

9. Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
Poverty is a ticking time-bomb. There will be no peace while two billion people live in poverty, without clean water, sanitation and food security. Human beings should be empowered with education and resources to secure a sustainable livelihood.

10. Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
Economic policies should further the well-being of people and the planet. Current economic policies make economic growth the priority without considering the social or environmental costs. Constant growth is not sustainable on a planet with finite resources. A radical transformation of our economic policies is needed that will direct the resources of the world to ensuring the well-being of people and planet. This principle also asks that we promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations. Globalisation has meant that we are all part of a world economic market. That means we must realize our interdependence, so that we cannot allow the immoral economic inequities that exist in our world at present to continue. The ‘global apartheid’ between so-called rich countries and the ‘developing’ countries is having severe repercussions both for ecological sustainability as well as for our search for peace.

11. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
We need to secure the human rights of women and girls and end all violence against them as a matter of priority. Securing women’s rights and access to education will be the most significant advance to responsible parenthood and will promote peace and non-violence.

12. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.
This principle calls for the elimination of discrimination in all its forms. We should not feel threatened by the diversity of cultures, races, creeds or languages found among humanity. Instead, we should rejoice, as that diversity adds richness and benefit to the world community.

The fourth section emphasises the need for democratic rights and non-violence if we are to find peace.

13. Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
This section calls for us to uphold and encourage meaningful participation of people and communities in decisions that affect them and the life of the planet. It calls for an end to corrupt public and private institutions.

14. Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
This section call for us to recognize the importance of moral and spiritual education for sustainable living.

15. Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
This is a foundational clause if we are to live sustainably. We must recognise the sanctity of life and the right of all living beings to their existence. We cannot continue to treat other creatures as if they have no fear or pain. No longer can we say our care is confined to people only. We must care for the full community of life.

16. Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.
This last clause emphasises the importance of practising tolerance as a prerequisite for peace. It also calls for nonviolent, collaborative methods of overcoming conflict. It calls for us to recognize that peace is the wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part. In the concluding words of the Earth Charter:

“Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.”