Ethics and the Earth Charter:
A Conversation with Steven Rockefeller
Steven C. Rockefeller is professor emeritus of religion at Middlebury College, Vermont. He received his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and his Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Religion from Columbia University. Professor Rockefeller is the author of John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (Columbia, 1991) and co-editor of The Christ and the Bodhisattva (SUNY, 1987) and Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment is a Religious Issue (Beacon, 1992). From 1997 to 2000 he chaired the international Earth Charter drafting committee. He serves as a member of the Earth Charter Commission. Active in the field of philanthropy, Dr. Rockefeller is chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a trustee of the Asian Cultural Council, and a member of the Council of the UN University for Peace in Costa Rica. He was interviewed by the Center's Patti Marxsen.
PM: What is the Earth Charter and how is it different from existing laws and treaties?
SR: The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global community. It is a people's treaty created by civil society under the oversight of an Earth Charter Commission. In the language of the lawyers, it can be described as a soft law document — a statement of widely shared values and aspirations as opposed to an international treaty or hard law document that is legally binding on the nations that adopt it. Soft law documents often do, however, exercise a strong influence on the development of international law.
The Earth Charter can be adopted and used by governments as well as by civil society, organizations, and businesses. The document is being circulated to all these groups. A growing number of NGOs have endorsed the document, as have many local governments. For example, the Sierra Club, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have endorsed the Earth Charter. We hope that the UN General Assembly will endorse or in some way recognize the Earth Charter at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002.
It is also important to recognize that the Earth Charter contains a more inclusive vision than most international treaties, which tend to focus on a particular issue, such as human rights, biodiversity, or peace. Even though the Earth Charter is centrally concerned about the environment, it was recognized early on in the drafting process that if the document was to gain wide support in both the North and the South, it would have to address issues of human rights and development as well as environmental protection. The Earth Charter affirms the interdependence of the environmental, economic, social, and cultural challenges facing humanity. In this regard it provides a broad integrated vision of sustainable living and sustainable development.
PM: You have spoken elsewhere of the importance of intergenerational responsibility. How might the Earth Charter bring generations together and offer an ethical vision that cuts across time?
SR: When the World Commission on Environment and Development issued its report Our Common Future (1987) focusing international attention on the concept of sustainable development, the chair of the Commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland, commented that fundamental to achievement of sustainable development is adoption of an ethic of intergenerational responsibility. Environmental concerns have generated a heightened sense of responsibility with regard to future generations. It is a matter of intergenerational equity. The well-being and rights of future generations provide one compelling reason why sustainable development is essential.
PM: You have also spoken about ethics as a path to the development of the self and the expansion of spiritual life. How does the Earth Charter encourage this?
SR: There are two different ways of looking at ethics. On the one hand, from the point of view of society, ethics provide a set of values and principles that promote cooperation and the common good. On the other hand, one may approach ethics from a psychological point of view and consider ethics in terms of its significance for the development of the self. Commitment to ethical values promotes the growth of the self because it leads to the identification of the self with the larger community or communities to which one belongs. In this regard, some philosophers like to talk about the democratic self, the ecological self, or the universal self. The Earth Charter ethic encourages us to identify ourselves not only with the human communities of which we are members, but also with the larger community of life of which we are a part. This is implied in the concept of universal responsibility.
Under the impact of rapid social and cultural change, there is great moral confusion in the world, and it is very important ecologically, socially, and spiritually that we clarify our moral values. Moral values are the way we define what we choose to be as individuals and as a community. The quality of our lives is shaped by our ethical commitments and decisions. The loss of moral vision and conviction is a very serious matter. The Earth Charter is designed to address this challenge. The decade-long Earth Charter consultation process revealed that people throughout the world are searching for moral direction, and they want to participate in constructing a new moral vision adequate to the challenges of the time.
PM: Does the final draft of the Earth Charter provide that kind of ethical and moral vision?
SR: The Earth Charter is a product of a global dialogue on fundamental values and principles for sustainable living. It reflects the new consensus on shared values that is taking form in the emerging global civil society. It sets forth the kind of integrated ethical vision that is so urgently needed.
However, all of us who worked on the drafting of the Earth Charter recognize that it is not a perfect document and that the global dialogue on common values must continue. The Earth Charter goes far in accomplishing the ethical reorientation necessary, and communities can build on it as they clarify their understanding of sustainable living and implement the vision.
PM: The Earth Charter process has been a story in itself. Looking back, what were some of the turning points?
SR: The first critical turning point came when the governmental effort to draft an Earth Charter failed. This occurred during the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. When the Earth Charter process was started up again in 1994 by Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong, the secretary general of UNCED, it became a civil society initiative. It did, however, receive some critical financial support at this juncture from Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers and the Dutch government.
There was a critical debate about the nature and length of the document in 1997 when the drafting process began in earnest. Many people strongly favored a short poetic document of a few hundred words that could be printed on one page. They wanted a text with eight or ten principles that could be easily memorized or put on a wall poster. However, the drafting committee soon discovered that many other groups — particularly those in the developing world where people were struggling on the front lines of social change — urgently needed a more substantial document.
In the light of these considerations the structure and content of the document gradually evolved. After three years of international consultations, it was decided that the Earth Charter would have a Preamble and sixteen main principles that could be easily printed on one page or a poster. Over 60 supporting principles were added to the main principles in an effort to spell out more fully their meaning, and a conclusion to the Charter was drafted. In addition, in order to make the big organizing ideas in the Charter readily understandable, the 16 main principles were divided into four parts with four main principles each. The four main principles in Part I have been constructed as very broad and general principles that can be used as a concise summary of the Earth Charter vision as a whole. In this way we tried to address the concern of those who were looking for a succinct formulation of basic principles.
PM: How did you manage the process of what became, in effect, a conversation with the world?
SR: The Earth Charter Commission and drafting committee were determined to do everything possible to produce a document that people from all cultures and regions around the world could support. The Earth Charter Secretariat in Costa Rica has a relatively small staff with limited resources. However, they did a remarkable job, and hundreds of individuals and groups around the world volunteered their time and support. Over fifty Earth Charter national committees were organized in different regions of the world. Local, national, and regional Earth Charter conferences were conducted in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East. An Earth Charter Web site was created, and a number of online forums were held that involved intensive dialogues with the drafting committee. One ten-day online conference in 1998 attracted participants from 72 countries and 300 universities. The Earth Charter drafting committee worked with an international network and circulated new drafts of the Earth Charter throughout the world as the document evolved
The first text of the Earth Charter was produced in March 1997 at the end of the Rio+5 Forum, which brought to Rio de Janeiro over 500 NGO and government leaders. During the six days of the Rio+5 Forum, the drafting committee issued a new text every day and conducted an open dialogue with anyone at the Forum who wished to become involved. The Earth Charter Commission met during the final two days of the Forum. The final text of the first draft--the Benchmark Draft--was finished at 4:30 a.m. on the final day of the Forum and was presented to the media by the Commission shortly thereafter.
There were times when it took as much as two years to work out how best to address a particular issue and to find acceptable language. And there were times when we had to abandon certain ideas simply because disagreements persisted, and there was not a consensus. In most cases, however, we were able to find common ground. Some groups remain unhappy with certain formulations in the Charter, but it is impossible in a document of this nature to satisfy everyone. The Commission and drafting committee were clear with all who participated in the consultation process that the Earth Charter could not retreat from any principle that had been established in international law and United Nations summit meetings.
PM: Could you share some experiences in your life pre-Earth Charter that prepared you for this task and allowed you to stay with it, believe in it, work through it?
SR: What prepared me intellectually was over 35 years of work in the fields of religion, philosophy and ethics. Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism and democratic social ethics and John Dewey's philosophical naturalism and democratic humanism were especially helpful. A significant amount of my teaching over the last 20 years had focused on the ethics of environment and development, the search for global ethics, and the interrelation of democracy, ecology, and spirituality. In addition, the Zen training that I underwent, which included meditation practice and working on koans, developed powers of concentration and persistent inquiry. I also benefited greatly from my study of Buddhist philosophy and other Eastern religions.
My family has many international interests, and by the time I graduated from college, I had traveled extensively throughout the world. In addition, I have had a certain amount of experience in politics. My father was Nelson Rockefeller, and during the 1960s, I participated in a number of his political campaigns when he was running for governor of New York and was seeking the Republican party nomination for president.
The Earth Charter provided me with an opportunity to work on a project that reflected many of my international, democratic, environmental, ethical, and spiritual interests.
PM: What lessons have you come away with regarding peacemaking, compromise, and conflict resolution?
SR: First, listen carefully and sympathetically to all sides and points of view. Be clear about the problems at hand. Be open, flexible, and imaginative. Be patient. Think through the long-term consequences of any compromise before agreeing to it. Be persistent in seeking common ground and solutions. When significant problems are confronted in a process like the Earth Charter Initiative, there must be people involved who are firmly committed to sorting out the issues, and they must have staying power. It was very important to the Earth Charter process that there were a number of individuals who had this kind of commitment.
PM: Who were some of those people who were instrumental in the development of the Earth Charter?
SR: The success of the Earth Charter Initiative has been the result of the collaboration of thousands of people. However, some individuals have played particularly significant roles. Maurice Strong, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Ruud Lubbers launched the new Earth Charter Initiative in 1994 and created a framework for the consultation and drafting process. Their vision and leadership have been critical. Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun from Algeria served as the first executive director of the new Earth Charter Initiative and has been a very effective supporter of the Initiative all along. Kamla Chowdhry of India and Wangari Maathai of Kenya have made especially important contributions as Earth Charter Commissioners.
The Earth Charter Secretariat, which is located in Costa Rica, has been led by Maximo Kalaw of the Philippines and Mirian Vilela from Brazil. They both have played very important roles. The support and guidance of Nick Robinson, the chair of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law and of Parvez Hassan, the former chair of the Commission, has been invaluable.
The drafting committee included a number of very dedicated individuals, including Mirian Vilela, Christine von Weiszäcker from Germany, Brendan Mackey from Australia, and Abelardo Brenes from Costa Rica. Johannah Bernstein from Canada, and Ron Engel from the U.S., were also very helpful to the drafting committee. There were many other individuals who have made substantial contributions.
The guidance and support of President Ikeda during the consultation and drafting process was very helpful and deeply appreciated. The Boston Research Center, under the leadership of Virginia Straus, is a very good example of the many organizations who have provided the Earth Charter process with wonderful support by organizing conferences and generating publications that have educated and informed the public about the Earth Charter.
PM: Now that the document is written, how do you envision the Earth Charter becoming a living reality?
SR: First of all, the Earth Charter is increasingly being used in schools, colleges, and universities as an effective teaching tool. The Earth Charter Secretariat is in the process of preparing Earth Charter teaching resource materials to support use of the document in elementary and secondary schools. In Vermont, for example, the Earth Charter has been integrated into classroom activities in over 40 elementary and high schools, and the Earth Charter is being used in many college courses that deal with environmental ethics, global ethics, and related issues.
Secondly, local governments around the world are beginning to use the Earth Charter as a guide for sustainable development planning and assessment. I mentioned earlier that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has endorsed the Earth Charter. In addition, the document has been endorsed by the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which represents over 350 municipalities around the world, including cities like Cape Town, South Africa, and Heidelberg, Germany. The Earth Charter Initiative is working to develop goals and measures for each Earth Charter principle in order to help local governments use the document effectively. Earth Charter national committees and national councils of sustainable development in dozens of countries are encouraging national governments to use and implement the Earth Charter.
Thirdly, hundreds of organizations and institutions in different regions of the world have endorsed the Earth Charter and are beginning to use it as an educational tool and guide to sustainable living.
PM: Apart from educational value, how might other sectors of society implement the Earth Charter?
SR: The Earth Charter principles are relevant to all sectors of society. Every individual, family, institution, business, and government faces the challenge of living sustainably. The Earth Charter sets forth the ethical principles and strategic guidelines required to meet this challenge. Its principles, however, do not identify the mechanisms and instruments that are necessary to attain the goal of sustainability. This would require a document of several hundred pages. Each culture and organization must take on the responsibility for developing appropriate mechanisms and instruments, and there are many resources available today that can be used to assist groups in this task.
PM: What are its applications to the world of business?
SR: The major source of environmental degradation today is contemporary patterns of production and consumption. Industry and business must undergo a sustainability revolution in order to address this problem. The Earth Charter provides fundamental guidelines for accomplishing this transformation of the economy. Principles 5, 6, 7, and 8 are especially important in this regard.
In addition, one of the fundamental problems facing the world is widespread poverty and the growing gap between rich and poor. As stated in Principles 9 and 10, the economy should be designed to "eradicate poverty" and to "promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner."
In short, a primary purpose of the Earth Charter is to set forth guidelines for building local communities and a global economy that protects ecological integrity and promotes social and economic justice. As stated in the Preamble, the principles of the Earth Charter have been drafted as "a common standard by which the conduct of all individuals, organizations, businesses, governments, and transnational institutions is to be guided and assessed." The document is not just a poetic vision of the ideal. It is intended as a tool to assess whether groups, including businesses, are living sustainably. We hope that as growing numbers of organizations and governments endorse and use the Earth Charter, the business community will also take it seriously as a guide to sustainable development.
PM: Even though it is a people’s treaty, UN endorsement still matters. Why?
SR: Endorsement of the Earth Charter by the United Nations would enhance its standing as a soft law document, that is, as a statement of common moral values and aspirations, and it would increase the likelihood that it would directly influence the future development of international law.
The United Nations only "adopts" documents that it has negotiated and drafted. It is, however, possible that the UN General Assembly at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 might endorse the document if there is a strong demonstration of support for it as a moral framework for sustainable living in the twenty-first century.
PM: In Elise Boulding's recent book, Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History, she states, “The Earth Charter brings together all the values and practices that a twenty-first century culture of peace would embody.” Do you agree with that statement?
SR: Elise Boulding has developed a deep understanding of the history of cultures of peace and of how they are created. I very much appreciate her evaluation of the Earth Charter. We certainly tried to make it a document that identifies what is essential for peace. The Earth Charter Commission and drafting committee recognized that environmental protection, human rights, equitable development, and a culture of peace are interdependent and indivisible. When we refer to peace in the Charter in relation to other critical values, peace is always listed last, because enduring peace requires, for example, justice and sustainability. Indeed, we can only establish peace on Earth by implementing all the principles in the Earth Charter. At the same time, it must be said that justice and ecological sustainability cannot be made secure in a world wracked by violence and war. As we work to secure human rights and to restore the environment, we must promote tolerance and nonviolent conflict resolution.
At one point the main principle on peace stated: "Be an instrument of peace and practice nonviolence." This was a combination of the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi, West and East. Then Kamla Chowdhry, co-chair of the Earth Charter Commission, pointed out that nonviolence is the method and peace is the goal. So we began to use the term "nonviolence" more and emphasized peace as the comprehensive goal that includes all the other elements in the Charter.
The final main principle in the Earth Charter is now a call to "promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace." The last principle of the Charter defines peace as "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." With this broad definition of peace in mind, it is possible to understand peace as the long-range goal of the Earth Charter. The ethical and spiritual vision in the Earth Charter emphasizes the importance of relationship and community, and the Earth Charter lays out a path for building lasting peace.
In a sidebar to the original interview, Steven Rockefeller commented on the significance of the Earth Charter in the aftermath of 9/11.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue