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The Earth Charter: Framework for Sustainable Development

Dave Ewoldt, May 2005

   Think about a previous enjoyable experience you've had in Nature. This could be a time from your childhood, or from last week. It could include such things as the spectacle of fall colors, sunlit clouds, a blanket of stars, or watching a playful family of river otters. It might include the grandeur of a mountain, the stature of a tree, or the freedom of the wind.

   What feelings, such as joy, awe, or relaxation were a part of this experience? What senses, such as color, form, motion, or belonging were activated by this experience?

   One of the important things to take from this experience is to realize you didn't have to learn how to have these good feelings from a book, parent, teacher, or other authority figure. The ability to have these feelings and the senses that enabled them is an inherent part of being human and so is shared by people everywhere. It's one commonality that is as old as the human race itself.

   If we don't actively work to protect, save, and restore the natural world that provides for our health, and provides these good feelings and our ability to enjoy life in a sustainable manner, we degrade our quality of life. In addition, we need to be aware that quality of life is very different from standard of living.

   The Earth Charter provides a framework for developing and maintaining a quality of life that is equitable and sustainable for both people and the planet.

   Before I talk more about the Earth Charter, though, I'd like to quickly define sustainability, so we'll have a common understanding of how this term is being used and how it relates to development. A sustainable process is one which maintains its ability without interruption, weakening, or loss of valued qualities. To be sustainable means to remain within an ecosystem's biological carrying capacity--its ability to provide sustenance for the full diversity of life that exists within it.

   Sustainable development, then, is that which meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability also carries with it a moral conviction that the current generation must pass on our inheritance of natural resources, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in potential to meet the needs of future generations.

   The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, over 50 years old, is still very valuable, but is limited to human rights. In 1987 the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development issued a call for creation of a new charter that would set forth fundamental principles for sustainable development. The drafting of an Earth Charter was part of the unfinished business of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In 1994 Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev launched an Earth Charter initiative with support from the Dutch government. An Earth Charter Commission was formed in 1997 to oversee the project and the Commission approved a final version of the Earth Charter in 2000.

   The Earth Charter is an international people's declaration of interdependence. The Earth Charter provides a framework for communities who are ready to start moving toward sustainable development, environmental protection and a culture of peace. The Earth Charter inspires each of us to embrace our shared responsibility not only toward the human family, but to the larger world. Its values, principles, and aspirations are based upon contemporary science, international law, and the insights of philosophy and religion from around the world and throughout time. It does not belong to any one group and was developed through a truly global dialogue. It is at the same time a document, a process and a movement.

   The Earth Charter provides a wonderfully articulated expression of a set of common goals and shared values through its 16 major principles and 61 supporting principles which are divided into four main parts--1) respect and care for the community of life, 2) ecological integrity, 3) social and economic justice, and 4) democracy, non-violence, and peace.

   The Earth Charter has been endorsed in Costa Rica, Italy, Spain, by the 1000 members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Florida League of Cities, and by numerous towns in the US, including by the City Council of Bellingham.

   One way in which the Earth Charter can be used to guide local development is as a "soft-law" document. Such documents are not legally binding but are recognized to contain a set of norms that signing parties should abide by and make good-faith attempts to implement.

   Because "soft-law" provisions have already been agreed to contain reasonable approaches to problems, negotiations attempting to create legally binding commitments can begin with the solutions contained in the 'soft-law" documents. The "soft-law" provisions are strong starting points in negotiations because they represent solutions that the parties have already gone on record as being reasonable.

   From the perspective of sustainable development, the local community level is where "the policy rubber hits the road" and government programs are given effect. This is also the level where individuals can generally be most involved and influential. It is increasingly appreciated that justice, nonviolence and peace must be evident at the local community level in order for these attributes to emerge at national and global scales - a culture of peace and sustainability begins at home.

   A sizable percentage of the Bellingham business community, as represented by the 400 members of Sustainable Connections, as well as many members of local government, also support the goals and conclusions of the 2003 Governors Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel. The panel's goals of environmental stewardship, social development, and economic security support the principles of the Earth Charter.

   The Earth Charter provides evidence that there is an available alternative to the unsustainable growth that constitutes business as usual; an alternative that actually contributes to personal, planetary, economic, and democratic health. We need to reclaim the power we have, as a sovereign people, to create positive, lasting, sustainable change. The Earth Charter's universal code of conduct can be used to guide us toward sustainable development in Whatcom County. We should all become active advocates to hold local government accountable to uphold their stated intention to not further degrade the quality of life in Whatcom County.

   The Earth Charter provides not only a framework to guide sustainable development, but an internationally accepted way to measure our progress toward that goal.

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Attraction Retreat, a call at (360) 756-7998.


"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Alan Watts


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