Earth Charter: Pathway to a Sustainable Future? A Course Review from Michigan State University

The Declaration, Volume 6, Number 2: November 2003  [Curriculum]

By Terry Link

Teaching sustainability is an ominous endeavor. What is it? What pedagogy might be used? How do we invite the entire community to learn together? These questions challenge us as we try to develop courses that might bring the complexity and messiness of sustainability to a diverse group of learners. Is it easier to take sustainability in chunks, perhaps being moderately interdisciplinary, but without trying to be totally transdisciplinary (i.e. going between and beyond academic boundaries to integrate perspectives from scientific and non-scientific disciplines)? What department might have the whole picture of sustainability in its view? How would one even get a degree in sustainability studies? What would such a degree look like?

My colleague Dr. Laurie Thorp and I threw off the straight-jacket these tough questions wrapped us in and chose to use the Earth Charter as a vehicle for discussing and venturing into the ideas and ideals of sustainability. The Earth Charter (
or is an ethical framework for a more just, peaceful, and ecologically sound world. As part of the unfinished business of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Earth Charter Initiative was restarted in May of 1995 when the Earth Council, led by Maurice Strong (Secretary General of the Earth Summit), and Green Cross International, led by Mikhail Gorbachev (former President of the Soviet Union), and the Dutch government hosted an international meeting in The Hague. This meeting led to the organization of a global consultation process and the formation of an international drafting team. This Drafting Committee, led by Professor Steven Rockefeller, released the final version of the Earth Charter in 2000. The Earth Charter is the result of a global consultation process that has involved thousands of individuals and organizations. It has also received the endorsement of the International Earth Charter Commission, composed of eminent persons from around the world. The Earth Charter process is coordinated and supported by an international Secretariat at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

The Charter is now being circulated throughout the world as a “people’s treaty” promoting the awareness of and commitment to the values necessary to create a sustainable future. It has been endorsed by more than 1,800 organizations glo-bally, includ-ing most leading environmental organizations, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the World Parliament of Religions, the International Association of Universities, the Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership, the NGO Millennium Forum, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, UN University, and the University for Peace. The number of governments endorsing the Charter is relatively small but growing rapidly, and includes the Republic of Tatarstan, all 99 municipalities in Jordan, and, in the U.S., the cities of Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, and others.

The Earth Charter is a set of principles that focus on our responsibilities to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations, as a counter-balance to our often-voiced rights. These principles are formulated around four key themes:

1) Respect and Care for the Community of Life,
2) Ecological Integrity,
3) Social and Economic Justice,
4) Democracy, Nonviolence and Peace.

Within these four themes are sixteen principles that cover the elements Earth Charter draftees deem necessary to create a sustainable future. They embody, as many students in the course suggested, a hope, an ideal for which to aim. While they can be looked upon separately and distinctly, the power of the principles is in their wholeness. Needless to say, the real world constantly presents situations where these principles are in conflict with current realities. The principles are not arranged in order of priority, but all are weighted equally. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they tell us what we should do, not what we shouldn’t do.

Course Design
In Spring 2001 we offered this course through our Resource Development Department within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources although we also had the opportunity to run it through the College of Social Science. Funding was the determining factor. RD491 is a three-credit course on “Special Topics.” It was open only to juniors and seniors, although we were willing to waive that requirement. Nonetheless, that prerequisite served to reduce the number of enrollees. This course is not a required course but can be used to satisfy a social science requirement.

In a 15-week semester we simply couldn’t cover a principle a week, although we were able to do so with the last 12 principles. We decided instead to address the first four principles collectively under “Respect and Care for the Community of Life” as these values form the foundation for the other 12. This allowed us to address and discuss expectations for the class, the syllabus, and to introduce the history and development of the Earth Charter without giving a whole period to either of these items.

The course was developed with a great deal of thought regarding the appropriate pedagogy to use. As we state in the syllabus:

“We believe that you cannot talk about global sustainability without including our current system of education as part of the equation. The present patterns of distanced, abstract, and objectified teaching and learning only serve to perpetuate a way of knowing and being that is detrimental to planet Earth and her inhabitants. This course has been purposefully designed as an alternative model for students, teachers and the subject to come together in a meaningful way. In developing this course we have designed opportunities for:

  • thoughtfulness and deep reflection rather than rote memorization of information;
  • action and engagement rather than passive receptivity;
  • creative self-expression rather than one-size-fits-all assignments;
  • individualized self-assessment rather than multiple guess tests with one right answer;
  • collaborative construction of meaning through dialogue rather than lobbying for position with debate and discussion.This course will focus on the Earth Charter document as a vehicle for personal, institutional, community, national and global transformation.”

The course met twice a week for an hour and 20 minutes. The first session of each week featured a speaker or group of speakers addressing a specific principle of the EC. From each speaker or set of speakers we requested short recommended readings. We compiled these readings into a course pack. The second class meeting of the week was a discussion session based upon the readings and the presentation given earlier in the week. Each student was expected to participate in a semester-long project of engagement with the Earth Charter document in their community. These projects were chronicled through the compilation of a praxis portfolio. In addition, students had to complete two short reflective essays and their attendance also counted toward the final grade.

One of our early dilemmas was deciding whether to rely on local or nationally recognized speakers. In an earlier course we chose principally out-of-town speakers, which cost more money and took a lot more time to plan for logistics, travel, lodging, etc. However, we were concerned that involving predominantly outsiders devalued the local. The course conveners brainstormed in a small group to come up with both local and national figures who we thought would address the individual principles well. The final list included primarily campus and local folks, including some students, with just a few presenters from out of the area. Aside from recommending pertinent readings, speakers were urged to engage the students beyond simply lecturing on the topic.

Term projects were to be determined by the student with the approval of the instructors. We compiled a list of possibilities and contacts on campus and in the immediate community. Students could choose from the list or suggest an alternative. They were given two weeks to make a choice and to submit it to us for review over a weekend. Students were also given a set of expectations and criteria by which their involvement and recording of that involvement would be evaluated. Students were required to schedule a meeting with their instructors during the middle of the term to check on the progress of their project and to seek advice and or ask questions. This was based on the assumption that there might be a need to reframe individual projects, or at least to ensure that progress was being made. We also spent a session talking about the criteria and listening to student voices on how to apply the criteria as we evaluated their projects.

Snapshots of Course
As I write this article more than a year after the conclusion of the course it is still easy for me to reflect on a number of the sessions that had a life of their own. There was the visit by Fr. Peter Dougherty, a leader of the Michigan Peace Team who had recently returned from Palestine, where the peace team was bearing witness to nonviolence by putting themselves between Palestinians and Israelis. He addressed nonviolence as one of the principles of the charter and spoke of his own life journey that connected him to nonviolence during the Vietnam War. There was some very heated discussion regarding the view of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Fr. Dougherty, while outspoken about the violence on both sides, saw the Palestinian position as that of an occupied state where citizens live in poverty and have little freedoms. Some students could not distinguish his “pro-Palestinian” position from his nonviolence and were more interested in getting the historical record straight. Fr. Dougherty’s refrain throughout the class was that “we are all broken and beautiful” and that we are all brothers and sisters. When he told his tales of involvement in nonviolent protests and civil disobedience over his lifetime, the students were clearly moved by the stories, and by the power that nonviolence can have. His ability to give flesh to the bones of an idea was written about later by a number of students.

Similarly, Peter Plastrik, author of several books on democracy, opened the eyes of the class to different ways of looking at democracy. He brought a healthy skepticism towards the Earth Charter with him, asking us to look at the assumptions in the Earth Charter and really assess them. Several students were up to defending the EC and he relished the opportunity to challenge them with tough questions. One of the ideas he shared was the role of “private democracy,” which looks at the marketplace and how we vote within it, as well as what he called “civic democracy,” where we volunteer our time or make donations. Peter was persuasive in his insistence that democracy was not simply voting, writing letters to representatives, and working on election campaigns, although those are important. He challenged us to consider that the ways in which we spend our money and time are also votes in a democracy. Many of us found this idea engaging and we spent the next day talking about the nature of the choices we make every day. Peter also had us consider whether “democracy mimics nature.” Is there equality in nature? Majority rule in nature? Representation in nature? There was much food for thought in his engaging presentation.

Clearly the most engaging session was conducted by a panel of faculty on the issue of animal welfare. After they opened up the session with a brief review of the issues, they had the students role play on the issue of controlling deer populations. Students were asked to play the roles of hunters, government regulators, farmers, environmentalists, township officials, etc. The exercise of role playing brought many of the issues to the forefront and allowed people to see how they felt from different positions. Initially, many of the students were reluctant to play, but some of them soon took on the roles seriously and it was both fun and informative.

Each session brought a different kind of engagement around an Earth Charter principle or set of principles and students explored some of the ways in which principles could be in conflict.

Course Evaluation
We had 26 students representing a wide variety of majors including political theory, building construction management, anthropology, urban planning, environmental studies and philosophy. We had one graduate student, but otherwise a mix of undergraduates from freshmen to seniors. No one was familiar with the Earth Charter when we began. After reviewing the EC for their first assignment, it was clear that while students found the principles affirming, many felt the EC was “too utopian.” This raised an early concern for at least one of the instructors as we wanted the course to be “empowering.” We wanted students to feel that they can make a difference, that they can change the world. The “utopian” concern arose from folks already feeling quite cynical about the world.

The speakers gave an array of performances. Some had very polished Powerpoint presentations, others relied on simple notes and some short readings. Still others organized panels, many brought questions for the students to ponder, and one group developed a scenario exercise and assigned roles to all students to act out. We think the variety of presentation types was a strength of the course. Some loved the role play sessions, others did not. Some really enjoyed the Powerpoint presentations, others found them too formal. Several speakers were mentioned time and again as the ones most compelling. In each case it was a speaker who was actually working with the issue in the real world: a social worker, two elementary school teachers, a consultant, and a leader of a peace team. They were each passionate about their work and told personal stories that made the principles come alive. The instructors are believers in the power of narrative and storytelling. The responses of these students reaffirms that belief. The instructors shared stories and poems aloud with students throughout the course to reaffirm the power and beauty of the spoken word.

The power of the course was most noticeable in the student semester projects and the weekly discussion sessions. In the course evaluations these strengths were emphasized. Student projects were of their own choice and we encouraged them to pick something they were passionate or deeply curious about for project areas. Students worked in school gardens, literacy programs, underprivileged tutoring programs, studied green building standards, developed recycled products lists, organized a regional collegiate conference on global warming, raised consciousness on eating meat, studied and performed with an international dance for peace effort, and so on. Of particular note were those students who stumbled into projects with some ambivalence, yet experienced significant impact. They learned more about themselves and the complexities of life in a much deeper fashion than the typical classroom could offer, for they lived their projects. The freedom to express their projects through different media was also a delightful surprise. We had more typical poster sessions and displays, a long essay, a binder loaded with reflections and photos, a couple of Powerpoint presentations, and a video. The presentations were generally first rate and revealing. We had the students share their projects through a “share fair” with each other on the last day of classes. Thus students were able to view not only the content of the other projects, but also the depth and variability of presentation modes.

The discussion sessions usually focused on the topic covered earlier in the week at the featured presentation. However, we occasionally stepped outside that format through a checking-in process where students related what was generally on their mind at that time. We met outside on a few occasions and on one day in particular we ended up playing a children’s game in the botanical gardens. Ideas were characteristically challenged with respect, and differing perspectives were welcomed, although there was some initial reluctance to go against the “groupthink” that sometimes arose. Instructors would raise questions to probe different ideas and to challenge “groupthink.” This was needed less as the semester advanced, as questions came to be generated by the students themselves.

I was amazed at the generally positive energy that the Earth Charter stimulated. There were a number of cynics in the course, who tended to soften their cynicism somewhat as the course developed. There was one week in which a presentation on hunger and schools led to students wanting to take on the local school board over the inadequate food program at a nearby school. Activism typified much of the discussion and projects. Yet there were clear differences among student values. The highly idealistic students learned how much more complicated their key issues were. Environmental activists learned to consider and balance the social and economic factors, while the social justice activists began to look at environmental and economic elements with more openness.

The course group was small enough that personal connections were made between them, and new and deeper relationships were built. The atmosphere that was created in the classroom was among the best by-products of the course for many students. Age and background differences enhanced the exchange in discussions as students learned to challenge stereotypes. Perhaps one of the strongest outcomes was the effect on the instructors. The present author has been inspired to promote the Earth Charter beyond the course, starting a local Earth Charter study group. The other instructor has expanded her own work with school gardens and is offering a single-credit Earth Charter course for new students this semester. Neither of these outcomes was expected. Perhaps the true power of the Earth Charter is as a fertile ground where many good things may bloom.

Terry Link is director of the Michigan State University office of Campus Sustainability, a librarian, and an activist. He co-founded the American Library’s Task Force on the Environment, sits on the boards of several environmental organizations, and feels we need to address the role of violence and it’s antithesis, nonviolence, in our future sustainability work.

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