The Australian National University Earth Charter Initiative

The Declaration, Volume 2, Number 1 : Winter 1998  [Research]

by Brendan Mackey, Ph.D.

The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia has a long standing commitment to research and teaching in the fields of sustainable development and environmental studies. This commitment can be traced back to the creation of the Human Ecology Program in the late seventies by Professor Steven Boyden, at that time the Research Fellow in the John Curtin School of Medical Research. The Human Ecology program continues to this day under the guidance of David Dumeresq. Professor Boyden, following his recent retirement, has formed an organization called Nature and Society Forum which works to promote the human ecology perspective through the wider community. This organization is based on campus and is supported by the ANU.

ANU also established the Center for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES) within the Institute of Advanced Studies in the late 1970’s. CRES conducts research and post-graduate education that interprets biophysical, socio-cultural, and economic theory and methodologies. CRES also houses the ANU’s Ecological Economics Program. Six years ago, CRES together with the Departments of Geography, Forestry, Geology, and Human Ecology Program, formed the School of Resource Management and Environmental Science, with the objective of fostering integrated and multidisciplinary solutions to environmental problems.

Two other recent initiatives are worth noting: First, a consortium of around fifty academics have created a Global Change Federation to promote the study of human/environmental interactions. Second, a virtual Center for Integrated Catchment Management has been formed to consolidate the many research activities being undertaken in this critical field. The ANU has only recently become informed about the Talloires Declaration and the opportunity to join ULSF. A proposal for the ANU to become a signatory is currently being circulated, and will be put to the Vice Chancellor as a collegiate initiative. Within the context of this long-term and long-standing commitment to sustainable development and environmental studies, the ANU is making a significant contribution to the Earth Charter process.

The Earth Charter

The proposal to create an Earth Charter can be traced back to Our Common Future, the report issued in 1987 by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). In its report the Commission recommended that the United Nations undertake “to consolidate and extend relevant legal principles in a new charter to guide state behavior in the transition to sustainable development.” The proposed new charter should serve as “a universal declaration” that sets forth “new norms for state and interstate behavior needed to maintain livelihoods and life on our shared planet.” The WCED also proposed that the new Charter “be subsequently expanded into a convention setting out the sovereign rights and reciprocal responsibilities of all states on environmental protection and sustainable development.”

At the first meeting of the United Nations Preparatory Committee for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)- at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro- the UNCED Secretariat proposed taking up the challenge of creating an Earth Charter. The proposal attracted much support and several draft Earth Charters were prepared and widely circulated. However, the time was not right for intergovernmental agreement on an Earth Charter. In its place the Earth Summit approved the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.” The Rio Declaration falls short of the aspirations many people had for the Earth Charter, and it is distinctly anthropocentric. At the conclusion of the Earth Summit, Maurice Strong, the UNCED Secretary General, called for ongoing international efforts to reach an agreement on an Earth Charter.

A new Earth Charter initiative was started in 1994 through the collaborative efforts of Maurice Strong and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Following the first international workshop on the Earth Charter in May 1995, an Earth Charter Management Committee, chaired by Strong, was established to oversee the project. During the past two years, an Earth Charter consultation has been carried out in connection with the “Rio Plus Five” review organized by the Cost Rica-based Earth Council, set up after the Earth Summit to monitor progress towards sustainable development.

Early in 1997, an Earth Charter Commission was formed to oversee the consultation process. This body includes representatives from the major regions of the world and different sectors of society. The Commission issued a Benchmark Draft Earth Charter in March 1997 at the conclusion of the Rio + 5 Forum in Rio de Janeiro. The Forum was organized by the Earth Council as part of its independent Rio + 5 review, and it brought together more than 500 representatives from civil society and national councils of sustainable development. The Benchmark Draft reflects the many and diverse contributions received through the consultation process and from the Rio + 5 Forum. The Commission has extended the consultation process and the Benchmark Draft is being circulated widely as a document in progress.

Efforts will be made to enlist wide support for the document and its principles in civil society, religious communities, and national councils of sustainable development. It is hoped that many organizations will conduct their own workshops on the Benchmark Draft and report their findings and recommendations to the Earth Council. At the end of the consultation period, a final version of the Earth Charter will be prepared. With a demonstration of wide popular support, it is hoped that the Earth Charter will be endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2000. [This history in excerpted from a longer paper prepared by Dr. Steven Rockefeller (Middlebury College, USA) for the Rio + 5 Forum in March 1997.]

The EC Consultation Process in Australia

The Australian Steering Committee for the Earth Charter, chaired by Dr. Brendan Mackey is planning a program of consultations with various organizations and communities, culminating in a National Earth Charter Forum. The ANU is providing secretarial support to the Steering Committee and will be organizing the National Forum.

The overall aim of the program is to involve a very broad cross section of the Australian community in a dialogue about the Earth Charter. The National Forum in May will officially launch the program. National representatives of business, industry, government and NGO organizations and communities will be invited to attend. The outcome of the National Forum will be commitments by these various sectors to engage their constituents in Earth Charter consultations. These groups will then reconvene latter in the year to help develop an Australian position, or positions, on the Charter. The objectives of the program are to educate people about the Charter and its role in promoting sustainable development, and gain feedback on its form and content as input to the formal drafting process. In addition, a media strategy is being planned to help involve the general public, that is, the unorganized component of civil society, in this dialogue.

One of the major components of the Australian Earth Charter program will be the Youth Consultation. A task force has been formed at the ANU to design and implement the youth consultation activities. These will be aimed at both primary and high schools across the country. Three main activities are planned to maximize creative input from students about the Earth Charter:

  1. a school-based project where students are asked to produce their own vision of an Earth Charter using any of a wide range of media.
  2. a “web-based” virtual forum, to facilitate input from geographically remote schools.
  3. a national youth drafting team will be selected to help collate and synthesize the various materials these activities generate. This team will then participate in the planned National Earth Charter Forum.

We are collaborating with colleagues in various agencies with experience in interacting with school children about the environment. For example, the Murray-Darlign Basin Commission has a primary school program called ‘Special Forever’ which focuses children to think about their local environment. We will be jointly developing curriculum material for next year using the Earth Charter theme to help children make the link between their local and global environments.
The Earth Charter is a challenging concept for any University to come to terms with, as it is intrinsically multi-disciplinary in nature, and perhaps will require a new transdisciplinary approach to be fully resolved. The Charter will need to contain principles from the widest spectrum of human thought and enterprise, including the scientific knowledge base, as well as wisdom and insights gained from traditional and religious philosophies. This makes the Charter an invaluable tool in helping to catalyze the kind of integrated thinking needed to promote sustainable development and environmental protection. We hope that our activities will stimulate other universities to take a leadership role in establishing Earth Charter dialogues within their regions or countries. The Earth Charter has the potential to be a landmark document in bringing about the fundamental changes needed to redirect the societies of the world towards sustainable living. It is worthy of the support of universities everywhere.

Benchmark Draft, 18 March 1997

The Earth Charter Earth is our home and home to all living beings. Earth itself is alive. We are part of an evolving universe. Human beings are members of an interdependent community of life with a magnificent diversity of life forms and cultures. We are humbled before the beauty of Earth and share a reverence for life and the sources of our being. We give thanks for the heritage that we have received from past generations and embrace our responsibilities to present and future generations.

The Earth Community stands at a defining moment. The biosphere is governed by laws that we ignore at our own peril. Human beings have acquired the ability to radically alter the environment and evolutionary processes. Lack of foresight and misuse of knowledge and power threaten the fabric of life and the foundations of local and global security. There is great violence, poverty, and suffering in our world. A fundamental change of course is needed.

The choice is before us: to care for Earth or to participate in the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. We must reinvent industrial?technological civilization, finding new ways to balance self and community, having and being, diversity and unity, short?term and long?term, using and nurturing.

In the midst of all our diversity, we are one humanity and one Earth family with a shared destiny. The challenges before us require an inclusive ethical vision. Partnerships must be forged and cooperation fostered at local, bioregional, national, and international levels. In solidarity with one another and the community of life, we the peoples of the world commit ourselves to action guided by the following interrelated principles:

  1. Respect Earth and all life. Earth, each life form, and all living beings possess intrinsic value and warrant respect independently of their utilitarian value to humanity.
  2. Care for Earth, protecting and restoring the diversity, integrity, and beauty of the planet’s ecosystems. Where there is risk of irreversible or serious damage to the environment, precautionary action must be taken to prevent harm.
  3. Live sustainably, promoting and adopting modes of consumption, production, and reproduction that respect and safeguard human rights and the regenerative capacities of Earth.
  4. Establish justice, and defend without discrimination the right of all people to life, liberty, and security of person within an environment adequate for human health and spiritual well?being. People have a right to potable water, clean air, uncontaminated soil, and food security.
  5. Share equitably the benefits of natural resource use and a healthy environment among the nations, between rich and poor, between males and females, between present and future generations, and internalize all environmental, social, and economic costs.
  6. Promote social development and financial systems that create and maintain sustainable livelihoods, eradicate poverty, and strengthen local communities.
  7. Practice non?violence, recognizing that peace is the wholeness created by harmonious and balanced relationships with oneself, other persons, other life forms, and Earth.
  8. Strengthen processes that empower people to participate effectively in decision?making and ensure transparency and accountability in governance and administration in all sectors of society.
  9. Reaffirm that Indigenous and Tribal Peoples have a vital role in the care and protection of Mother Earth. They have the right to retain their spirituality, knowledge, lands, territories, and resources.
  10. Affirm that gender equality is a prerequisite for sustainable development.
  11. Secure the right to sexual and reproductive health, with special concern for women and girls.
  12. Promote the participation of youth as accountable agents of change for local, bioregional, and global sustainability.
  13. Advance and put to use scientific and other types of knowledge and technologies that promote sustainable living and protect the environment.
  14. Ensure that people throughout their lives have opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, and practical skills needed to build sustainable communities.
  15. Treat all creatures with compassion and protect them from cruelty and wanton destruction.
  16. Do not do to the environment of others what you do not want done to your environment.
  17. Protect and restore places of outstanding ecological, cultural, aesthetic, spiritual, and scientific significance.
  18. Cultivate and act with a sense of shared responsibility for the well?being of the Earth Community. Every person, institution, and government has a duty to advance the indivisible goals of justice for all, sustainability, world peace, and respect and care for the larger community of life.

Embracing the values in this Charter, we can grow into a family of cultures that allows the potential of all persons to unfold in harmony with the Earth Community. We must preserve a strong faith in the possibilities of the human spirit and a deep sense of belonging to the universe. Our best actions will embody the integration of knowledge with compassion.

In order to develop and implement the principles in this Charter, the nations of the world should adopt as a first step an international convention that provides an integrated legal framework for existing and future environmental and sustainable development law and policy. – Approved by the Earth Charter Commission, Rio de Janiero, March 18, 1997

Dr. Brendan Mackey is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography and School of Resource Management and Environmental Science at Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. He is also Co-Chair of the Ethics Working Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

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