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The Earth Charter: A Manifesto for the 21st Century

Social Movements

Whether they are addressed to social issues or environmental concerns, anti-capitalist movements need a positive vision of the future as well as criticism of the status quo. If we are to build solidarity among the many different anticapitalist causes, we need both a critique and a positive mission shared by Reds and Greens; people of First World, Third World, and Fourth world societies; men and women, and members of both mainstream and minority groups in all societies. The Earth Charter may provide this shared positive vision.

In a recent issue, CD asked, “Why is the environmental movement reformist?” The question contains no hint that the environmental movement might include a positive and potentially revolutionary agenda of the future. Fortunately for the quality of the discussion, the three respondents went beyond the limitations of the question.

Laurie E. Adkins saw the environmental critique as being broader than, but including, a critique of capitalism. She pointed out that the environmental movement is part of the larger counter-hegemonic discourse which includes opposition to capitalism, “patriarchy, homophobia, racism, anthropocentrism and scientism.” She pointed out that one barrier to a united anti-capitalist movement is that “the socialist Left in Canada has been peculiarly resistant to integrating the insights and alternatives provided by radical ecology.”

Keith Stewart wrote directly about Red-Green unity when he pointed out how the support of organized labour was critical for Canada’s signing of the Kyoto Protocol. The campaign for Kyoto succeeded because it was endorsed by an alliance of the kind I advocated in an earlier article (CD, Vol 35, #3 ). Stewart rightly pointed out that the environmental movement is seen by capitalists themselves as an anti-capitalist movement. The opposition to Kyoto “was a comprehensive coalition of Canada’s capitalist class.”

John Warnock correctly pointed out that the green political movement is usually left of centrist and social-democratic parties, but he is probably incorrect in his assertion that “the green movement is primarily a First World phenomenon.” There are active environmental NGOs and green political movements in many developing countries but, like labour unions, women’s groups, and other progressive political and civil society organizations, they are often suppressed and persecuted by international business interests and authoritarian governments. Environmental concern is a major issue in the political and cultural discourse of most First Nations.

The environmental movement has reformist roots in the sense that it has grown out of struggles over specific issues. However, the movement has also developed a more general analysis of the causes of environmental destruction. Environmentalism arose in reaction to the destruction of wilderness, depletion of natural resources, and pollution of the environment by the forces of economic “development.” Similarly, socialism and the labour movement grew out of specific abuses that accompanied the industrial revolution.

Alternative conceptions of our relationship to the natural world, usually described as the “ecology” movement, have gone far beyond protest environmentalism. While it comes in different forms such as deep ecology, social ecology, eco-psychology, and spiritual ecology, most ecologists share a systemic worldview. They see humans as part of the natural world, everything as inter-connected in a web of life, the future as a cause for concern, and individual consciousness and behaviour as connected to collective economic and political experiences and action.

In 1987 Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Labour Party prime minister of Norway, headed the UN World Commission on Environment and Development which first articulated, on a global scale, the complete interdependence of economic and ecological issues. The commission identified the need for a policy giving weight to both ecological and social justice concerns.

Background of the Earth Charter

The drafting of an Earth Charter embodying this interconnectedness was on the agenda for the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, but like many good ideas at that summit, it did not survive the assault by forces supporting the corporate agenda. Frustration with the lack of significant outcomes from the first Earth Summit led to a proposal to create an Earth Charter independently of the UN and national governments.

With financial support from the Netherlands government, Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev created and led the Earth Charter Commission in a worldwide consultation process that resulted in the current version of the Earth Charter, launched in 2000. The consultation process included scientists, scholars, religious leaders, political leaders, and thousands of civil society organizations. It identified and gave voice to a huge global constituency for ecological integrity, social and economic justice, democracy, and peace. The interdependence of these issues and of all the world’s ecosystems and peoples is central to the Earth Charter.

A worldwide ethical vision for peace, nonviolence, democracy, economic justice, social justice, and ecological integrity sounds like a nice idea, but it may seem overly idealistic and irrelevant to the many immediate ecological, economic, and military crises facing the planet. The founders of the Earth Charter Commission, however, do not seem to be impractical dreamers. Maurice Strong, diplomat and former energy CEO, Mikhail Gorbechev, former president of the USSR, and Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of the Netherlands can hardly be accused of being naïve about the practical world of international capitalism, diplomacy, bureaucracy, Marxism, economics, or electoral politics.

Following the 2000 launch of the current version of the Earth Charter, the goal was to have it endorsed by the world’s governments meeting for the second Earth Summit at Johannesburg in 2002. The Earth Charter was included in the first draft of the Johannesburg Declaration. South African president President Thabo Mbeki described the Earth Charter as a significant expression of “human solidarity.” Speeches in support of the Earth Charter were also made by representatives from Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Jordan, Mexico, Netherlands, Niger, and Romania. The conference then went into closed sessions and again the Earth Charter was not included in the final version of the Johannesburg Declaration. As a consolation prize, it was made an educational partner of UNESCO.

New Direction

The current Earth Charter Initiative took a new direction after the disappointment of the second Earth Summit at Johannesburg. It became clear, ten years after the Rio disappointment, that meetings of government representatives are still controlled by international corporate interests, not the alternative ethical agenda provided by the Earth Charter. Rather than continuing to make presentations to international government bodies, the Earth Charter Initiative has become an effort to build support for a “people’s treaty” among civil society and political movements around the world. It is a manifesto for a world in which hegemony moves from government and capitalism to a balance with community and civil society. The vision of the Earth Charter includes the Red-Green alliance in a larger coalition committed to human rights, sustainability, peace, democracy, and ecological integrity.

Its supporters see the Earth Charter as a set of principles which all the progressive people in the world can join together in supporting. The Earth Charter recognizes the complexity of inter-connected global systems and the continuing need for negotiation, balance, and problem-solving, but it also provides a vision of a future world in which we would like to live. By providing a shared vision, the Earth Charter makes possible a global coalition of progressive counter-hegemonic forces.

The Earth Charter Initiative, with headquarters in Costa Rica, is currently pursuing three goals: support community leaders of Earth Charter activities, support education about sustainable development, and encourage endorsement and implementation of the Earth Charter. Their website at provides a clearinghouse of materials, news, and ideas and a network for the worldwide Earth Charter campaign. There is no intention to create a new, separate Earth Charter organization. Instead, the goal is to encourage all civil society and government organizations to incorporate the Earth Charter into their operations, decision-making, and advocacy.

By early 2003, the Earth Charter had been translated into 27 languages. More than 2,000 civil society organizations, 1,000 governments, and a number of businesses have endorsed its principles. Fifty-four countries have formed Earth Charter national committees. It has been endorsed by more than 75 organizations in Canada and there are a number of active local initiatives but there is no national committee in Canada yet.

The Earth Charter provides an opportunity for all of us on the Left, in the green movement, in both rich and poor nations, young and old, and minorities and majorities, to unite behind a common vision for the future. The Earth Charter, by recognizing how we are interconnected and interdependent, can break down many of the barriers dividing resistance movements from each other. I invite CD readers to consider the Earth Charter, share it with the organizations to which you belong, and endorse it as a new revolutionary manifesto for the 21st century.

THE EARTH CHARTER (An Abridged Version)


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.Toward 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

Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. 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 global environment with its finite resources is a common concern of all peoples.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.


Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.

  1. Recognize that all beings are interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings.
  2. Affirm faith in the inherent dignity of all human beings and in the intellectual, artistic, ethical, and spiritual potential of humanity.

Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.

  1. Ensure that communities at all levels guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms and provide everyone an opportunity to realize his or her full potential.
  2. Promote social and economic justice, enabling all to achieve a secure and meaningful livelihood that is ecologically responsible. Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

Recognize that the freedom of action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations.


Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.

  1. Adopt at all levels sustainable development plans and regulations that make environmental conservation and rehabilitation integral to all development initiatives.
  2. Establish and safeguard viable nature and biosphere reserves, including wild lands and marine areas, to protect Earth’s life support systems, maintain biodiversity, and preserve our natural heritage.
  3. Promote the recovery of endangered species and ecosystems.
  4. Control and eradicate non-native or genetically modified organisms harmful to native species and the environment, and prevent introduction of such harmful organisms.
  5. Manage the use of renewable resources such as water, soil, forest products, and marine life in ways that do not exceed rates of regeneration and that protect the health of ecosystems.
  6. Manage the extraction and use of non-renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels in ways that minimize depletion and cause no serious environmental damage.

Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community wellbeing.

  1. Reduce, reuse, and recycle the materials used in production and consumption systems, and ensure that residual waste can be assimilated by ecological systems.
  2. Act with restraint and efficiency when using energy, and rely increasingly on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
  3. Promote the development, adoption, and equitable transfer of environmentally sound technologies.
  4. Internalize the full environmental and social costs of goods and services in the selling price, and enable consumers to identify products that meet the highest social and environmental standards.
  5. Ensure universal access to health care that fosters reproductive health and responsible reproduction.
  6. Adopt lifestyles that emphasize the quality of life and material sufficiency in a finite world.

Eradicate poverty.

  1. Guarantee the right to potable water, clean air, food security, uncontaminated soil, shelter, and safe sanitation, allocating the national and international resources required.
  2. Empower every human being with the education and resources to secure a sustainable livelihood, and provide social security and safety nets for those who are unable to support themselves.
  3. Recognize the ignored, protect the vulnerable, serve those who suffer, and enable them to develop their capacities and to pursue their aspirations.

Ensure that economic activities and institutions promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.

  1. Promote the equitable distribution of wealth within nations and among nations.
  2. Enhance the intellectual, financial, technical, and social resources of developing nations, and relieve them of onerous international debt.
  3. Ensure that all trade supports sustainable resource use, environmental protection, and progressive labour standards.
  4. Require multinational corporations and international financial organizations to act transparently in the public good, and hold them accountable for the consequences of their activities.

Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development.

  1. Secure the human rights of women and girls and end all violence against them.
  2. Promote the active participation of women in all aspects of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural life as full and equal partners, decision makers, leaders, and beneficiaries.
  3. Strengthen families and ensure the safety and loving nurture of all family members.

Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual wellbeing, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

  1. Eliminate discrimination in all its forms, such as that based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic or social origin.
  2. Affirm the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.
  3. Honor and support the young people of our communities, enabling them to fulfill their essential role in creating sustainable societies.

Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.

  1. Uphold the right of everyone to receive clear and timely information on environmental matters and all development plans and activities which are likely to affect them or in which they have an interest.
  2. Support local, regional and global civil society, and promote the meaningful participation of all interested individuals and organizations in decision making.
  3. Protect the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, association, and dissent.
  4. Institute effective and efficient access to administrative and independent judicial procedures, including remedies and redress for environmental harm and the threat of such harm.
  5. Eliminate corruption in all public and private institutions.
  6. Strengthen local communities, enabling them to care for their environments, and assign environmental responsibilities to the levels of government where they can be carried out most effectively.

Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.

  1. Prevent cruelty to animals kept in human societies and protect them from suffering.
  2. Protect wild animals from methods of hunting, trapping, and fishing that cause extreme, prolonged, or avoidable suffering.

Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.

  1. Encourage and support mutual understanding, solidarity, and cooperation among all peoples and within and among nations.
  2. Implement comprehensive strategies to prevent violent conflict and use collaborative problem solving to manage and resolve environmental conflicts and other disputes.
  3. Demilitarize national security systems to the level of a nonprovocative defense posture, and convert military resources to peaceful purposes, including ecological restoration.
  4. Eliminate nuclear, biological, and toxic weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
  5. Ensure that the use of orbital and outer space supports environmental protection and peace.

This article appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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