Global Ethics: An American Perspective

Photo: Ribert Maass/Corbis

IN THE SPRING OF 1946, leaders of The Wilderness Society held a retreat at Old Rag Mountain in Virginia to plan the Society’s postwar agenda. They decided to expand the organization’s mission, “to make earth a fitting abode for humans,” by joining conservation with efforts to forge world peace. By the meeting’s end, they had established a Committee on Foreign Relations with Aldo Leopold as its chair.

The conversation at this meeting, like conversations going on at the same time all over the United States and the world, were inspired by the events of the preceding year.

The founding of the United Nations and its human rights agenda in May and June 1945, and the detonations of the atomic bombs at Alamogordo in July and over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, had engendered, worldwide, a combination of hope and activism tempered by terrible dread, and a profound conviction that the world had changed — that nothing would ever be the same again.

The Rag Mountain decisions reflected a spirit that was moving conservationists in many nations to internationalize their work. Many Americans helped to formulate this concept. They included Benton MacKaye, the first postwar president of The Wilderness Society; Aldo Leopold, whose land ethic urged humans to change “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it”; Fairfield Osborn, author of the 1948 bestseller, Our Plundered Planet, who introduced global ecology to the first United Nations Conference on Conservation in 1949; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who proposed the conference as a means of engaging the United Nations in environmental affairs. Then, one month after Osborn’s address, President Truman announced that Russia had the bomb. The Cold War grew ominous, and the United States began to drift away from the idea of joining conservation with world peace.

However, the international effort that first arose in America continues today in other nations around the world, driven by an indefatigable desire to transform conservation and environmental protection into instruments for justice and peace. In the early 1980s, the international environmental community began to produce a series of hundreds of documents with the goal of establishing an environmental ethic that would be internationally recognized as a standard for treaties and law. These documents elevate a healthy, ecologically viable environment to the status of a basic human right. The most recently proposed global environmental ethic is the Earth Charter, a statement of basic principles — of respect and care for the community of life, for democratic societies, and for future generations of human and ecological communities — that will be considered for adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 2002 as the environmental companion to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

THE EARTH CHARTER is also compelling testimony that the momentum of this fifty-year movement is increasing. Between 1994 and 2000, thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations from fifty-one nations on six continents participated in drafting the Charter. Since the final draft was released, the Charter has become even more widely discussed throughout the world, but few Americans have ever heard of it.

In the months before September 2001, I was preparing to write an essay about the history of the international effort that led to the Earth Charter. I wanted to understand the impulse behind it, and why and how this great movement that Americans had helped to begin was now virtually unknown in the U.S. What did we miss? How did America’s popular environmentalism become disconnected from the international effort to apply environmental conservation to the cause of world peace?

I began to write this essay early on the morning of September 11, when the day ahead was primary election day in New York City. Once again, we, and the world, are gripped by the realization that nothing will ever be the same again. The story I was forming that morning about how we had come to see ourselves and nature has acquired new meaning. It is a part of the historical background that led up to that terrible day.

The Earth Charter is built on the axiom that “caring for people and caring for the earth are two interrelated dimensions of one great task,” and views the “environmental crisis” as the product of injustice, inequity, poverty, and oppression. Americans do not generally think of environmental protection in those terms, but most of the rest of the world does.

In developing nations, home to the poorest eighty percent of the world, people rarely have the luxury of thinking of the environment except as part of their subsistence or subsubsistence economies. In other industrialized nations, people understand that every environmental issue has economic and social roots. They began to learn this in the 1960s.

The surge of activism that Americans know as the great environmental awakening of the ’60s was happening at the same time throughout the industrialized world. Growing dissatisfaction with the pollution and environmental degradation that accompanied postwar industrialization galvanized into major political protests following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 in the U.S., and shortly after in Europe as well. In response, the governments of industrialized nations passed new environmental legislation and insisted that the U.N. develop international environmental protections.

These demands for programs to protect land and resources alarmed governments in developing countries. Their economic development required expanding land use and the extraction of natural resources and was dependent upon financial and technical support from the industrialized world. To clarify the issues underlying the conflict between the developing and industrialized nations, the U.N. and several international conservation associations organized the International Conference of Experts on a Scientific Basis for Rational Use and Conservation of the Resources of the Biosphere. “The Biosphere Conference” laid the groundwork for a new understanding of the relationship between people and nature. It provided a forum for eminent scientists to support developing nations by calling for the recognition of human needs and activities, including economic development, as components of global conservation programs. With the Conference’s report on the table, the U.N. General Assembly voted to convene the International Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

The preparations for the Stockholm Conference were the most extensive in the history of the United Nations. Over the course of four years, hundreds of meetings were called around the world. Virtually every issue and demand that might have been raised by any nation at the Conference was aired and discussed, and by the end of the preparation process, all the delegations arriving at the conference had agreed to abide by a principle that stated, “environmental protection is an essential element of social and economic development.” The achievement of Stockholm is that the governments of the U.N. accepted this principle as the basis for continuing international conversations about development and the environment.

In the decade following Stockholm, a period of consciousness-raising in European and other industrialized nations put environmental concerns at the center of their cultures. In Norway, for example, Arne Naess’s philosophy of “deep ecology,” a term he coined in 1972, was both an agent for and a reflection of an environmental consciousness that would restructure that nation’s economy, energy use, and higher education. Throughout Western Europe, new laws and intergovernmental agreements made public health the principal consideration in developing controls on industrial pollution. New tax policies were aimed at reducing energy consumption, the release of toxic products and by-products, and the wasteful consumption of nonrenewables, including appliances, motor vehicles, and housing materials. In Europe and Australia, Green Parties were forging alliances that would make them significant forces in electoral politics.

In his comprehensive history of the Stockholm era, International Environmental Policy, Lynton K. Caldwell writes: “Certainly with respect to the state of the earth and man’s environmental relations, the years 1968 to 1972 witnessed a worldwide raising of consciousness for which there appears to have been no precedent.”

In the United States, the years 1968 to 1972 were among the must tumultuous in the nation’s history. In Vietnam and at home, this country was fighting its second Civil War. America’s 1968 began with the Tet Offensive, in January — the first heavy American casualties in Saigon. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy in June, and in November 250,000 antiwar demonstrators marched in Washington. In 1972, the war was still raging, and while Stockholm was in session, the U.S. was bombing Hanoi and Haiphong.

In America, there was no national debate about the relationship between the environment and social justice between 1968 and 1972. Contrary to what happened in other industrialized nations in the decade following Stockholm, the U.S. environmental movement did not embrace Rachel Carson’s 1962 plea to treat pollution as a violation of human rights. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the subsequent debate over the war robbed the nation of a serious discussion of her proposal.

The debate over the war in Vietnam dominated domestic politics and divided public opinion on every issue. The civil rights movement split when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared his stand against the war. In this unpredictable political climate, environmental organizations proposed legislation that limited its issues to those that could be resolved in the courts without having to rely on an informed citizens’ movement. Our environmental legislation did not emerge from a national conversation about nature and human rights. There was no consensus on the values it represented. It was passed by distracted congresses and signed by presidents who were relieved to be able to support at least one interest group, and it has left us with two terrible legacies. These laws have permitted a powerful alliance between industry and “science” to prevent effective government control of environmental threats to public health, and they have alienated a dangerously large segment of our population.
The first Earth Day in 1970 was a major news event across the U.S. There was much rhetoric about “Mother Earth,” but after Earth Day the most dramatic changes in the culture were a well-publicized wave of people moving “back to the land,” a bevy of back-to-the-land periodicals, and an explosive increase in sales of hiking clothes and camping equipment. The American brand of environmentalism that had evolved by the ’80s demonstrated so little interest in social justice and economics that it inspired the formation of a national countermovement to protect American poor and people of color from the insults to their health and neighborhoods that mainstream environmentalism ignored.

Environmentalism in this country had no Green Party, nor any substantial power in electoral politics. During the Reagan era, the deregulation of laws established in the ’60s and ’70s rendered legislative protections from environmental toxins among the weakest in the industrialized world. Our cars grew bigger, interest in energy conservation dwindled, and, with the economic boom of the ’80s, consumerism began to infiltrate American environmentalism.

By 2001, “nature” had become an expensive amenity and “environmental action” had become a bait-and-switch sales gimmick — as in the e-mail that advised, “There is only one week left to take action to save America’s forests,” and offered an “action-link” that clicked up a page selling organic bug repellent and full-spectrum light bulbs. The word “environment” connoted something people buy: a luxury adventure vacation, a natural face cream, or shirt buttons made from the hand-harvested seeds of endangered South American trees. Sellers of outdoor clothing, whose patrons rated themselves environmentally well informed, improved their bottom lines by associating their products with designer SUVs. Among the people of the industrialized world, we are the least informed about the global consequences of our economy, and the most isolated from the conversations that could inform us — the conversations of global civil society.

THE CONCEPT OF CIVIL SOCIETY arose in the eighteenth century, as formal and informal associations among citizens through which a democratic government derives its “just powers from the consent of the Governed.” The critical moment in the evolution of an international civil society came at the end of World War II, when citizen organizations around the world — led by many in the U.S. — organized and won a provision in the United Nations Charter that permits nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to participate, without vote, in its deliberations. As the United Nations gradually increased the number of its participating NGOs from the original eighteen to the present many thousands, its influence expanded, and so, too, did the influence of global civil society. By most contemporary definitions, civil society includes, or has the potential of including, every NGO (including, in the U.S., for example, the American Rifle Association, Defenders of Wildlife, the John Birch Society, and Physicians for Social Responsibility). But it was the emergence of multinational corporations and economic globalization in the 1970s that triggered civil society’s ascendancy to an unprecedented transnational force.

Today, civil society is recognized by virtually all the governments of the world — whether they admit it or not — as an essential player in the struggle to shape a globalized world. As the primary advocate for the internationalization of justice and peace, civil society competes with the multinational corporations and the world’s most powerful governments to define what the globalized world will become. While governments and corporations engage each other in the arena of the World Trade Organization, civil society engages them both in the arena of culture. And culture — the way people live, the continuum that connects everything they do and believe — is every nation’s most powerful internal political force.

In many nations the opposition of ordinary citizens to industrialized agriculture, genetically modified food, or the exploitation of natural resources associated with economic globalization has helped their civil societies to consolidate as political forces. This has not happened in the U.S. Our popular culture is dominated by the consumer economy that drives globalization, and globalization is not protested here as it is in other nations. Even the majority of our environmental organizations have yet to recognize the threat it represents to the nature they wish to protect.

Another factor that has helped civil society develop in other nations is the United Nations’ policy of involving citizens in U.N. initiatives. This policy is reflected in hundreds of resolutions and documents that urge member states to enlist their civil society organizations in efforts to combat global warming, to reform industrial practices, or to end the effects of racism. The engagement of civil society in environmental affairs has been especially effective. “Agenda 21,” a list of specific assignments that every participating nation agreed to at the close of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, has involved millions of people from all strata of society in studies, evaluations, and programs that address environmental issues.

But since the early 1980s, the U.S. government has distanced itself from the U.N. As a result, few Americans outside of the State Department have ever heard of Agenda 21, or participated in the conversations it inspired. The absence of citizen participation in this process has helped shield U.S. civil society from the social and environmental consequences of U.S. foreign policy. This information is now crucial to understanding what the nation must do to shape a comprehensive response to September 11.

America’s consumerism and isolation have worked together to prevent our civil society from becoming a self-conscious political force. The U.S. media continues to refer to it as the invisible “grassroots.” Nevertheless, U.S. civil society is one of the largest in the world. It includes the environmental justice movement and community-supported agriculture; local affiliates of the International Heifer Project and Health Care Without Harm; the national environmental organizations and the thousands of other local community, religious, social, cultural, and environmental organizations in every county in America. Many among them are as wealthy and influential as any in the world. If ever there were an unrecognized American political revolution slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, it would be American civil society.

The federal policies that have contributed most to isolating U.S. civil society, including the majority of our environmental organizations, from the concerns of the international environmental community can be traced to 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan swept into the Presidency on a landslide. Within two years, the Reagan administration’s efforts to stimulate the economy and increase exports, its refusal to apply human rights in foreign affairs, and its withdrawal from the U.N. had become the rationale for the government’s opposition to an international environmental ethic. This policy was established in 1982, when the U.S. cast the lone vote (out of 130 nations) against the “World Charter for Nature” — the first environmental ethic produced by civil society to come before the U.N. The U.S. vote guaranteed that this Charter would never become the basis for international law. At about the same time, the U.S. also withdrew its support for the Treaty on the Law of the Sea, and it was the only nation to vote against a resolution limiting world trade in materials harmful to health and the environment.

Though many U.S. environmental organizations protested what Reagan was doing in international affairs, they tried to keep the public focused on domestic issues — the actions, and threatened actions, of James Watt to dispose of American wilderness land. Here, environmental organizations mobilized and launched a massive public relations campaign to promote the value of wilderness. Their success taught them that their revenues increase when a crisis threatens American nature. A local forest about to be clear cut, an endangered species at the brink, are simple ideas that fit into the first sentence of a direct mail appeal. Litigation, as a simple quick-fix, is an easier sell than energy conservation or other solutions that require an examination of the deeper causes of environmental problems.

American environmentalism is still haunted by the Reagan-era policies. We still hear wilderness and nature defended with language and values borrowed from business and government. The argument that the value of a forest’s biodiversity is its undiscovered medicines is one example. It may convince a drug company and its stockholders, but few others will rally to save unrealized corporate profits. But environmental debates continue to be defined in economic terms, in which moral judgments do not count.

Similarly, the organizations’ focus on the domestic environment continues to deflect attention from international issues. Nevertheless, many of the national U.S. environmental organizations had been actively involved in international discussions since well before the Stockholm Conference. Scientists, lawyers, executives, and board members representing environmental organizations have been active participants in the international environmental community, including its efforts to define a global ethic. They have played important, indeed decisive, roles in shaping treaties, agreements, and international programs — for migratory birds, marine mammals, Antarctica, oceans, nuclear testing, and environmental monitoring, to name just a few. The Kyoto treaty on climate change would not exist without the support and expertise of these organizations. Unfortunately, their memberships and constituencies learned very little about this work, or even that it was being done.

The result was an uninformed, isolated environmental constituency, which most Americans dismissed as the extraneous defenders of the Endangered Species Act, or as the more-wealthy-than-middle-class members of national environmental organizations, or participants in Earth Day celebrations, or readers of magazines like Orion. Though the U.S. environmental constituency numbers in the millions, it is a meaningless minority of the electorate. No government, Republican or Democrat, has ever been afraid of offending it. And, especially since the end of the Cold War, almost everything it has been told, by government, media, and its own organizations, has contributed to keeping it small and politically inconsequential.

Given the isolation and political impotence of American environmentalism, it’s no surprise that few citizens have ever heard of the Earth Charter, and that most — except for the marginalized poor and people of color — do not associate poverty with pollution, or recognize energy, public health, or pesticide control as environmental issues.

Efforts to establish an international environmental ethic continued through the 1980s. With the Brundtland Commission in 1987, the idea of “sustainability” and the rights of future generations became an essential component of a series of new proposals for ethical principles to which every nation might subscribe.

A global environmental ethic that elevates a healthy, self-sustaining environment — clean water and air; fertile, uncontaminated soil — to the level of a basic human right, challenges what many believe is the fundamental economic structure of modern industrialized society. An unrelenting degradation of earth’s natural systems has often been accepted as the inevitable cost of this industrial model, which depends upon expansion and growth for its continuation. The new idea that polluting water, soils, and air, or destroying natural ecosystems might be declared violations of international human rights — crimes against humanity — is vigorously opposed by powerful political forces as insanely unrealistic, and a threat to the world’s economy.

The first document to present a carefully crafted ethical statement that also answers these criticisms is Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living, published in 1991 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.N. Environment Program, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (distributed by Earthscan Ltd.). It contains both ethical principles and hundreds of examples of specific actions and strategies for living by these principles. The first one, “respect and care for the community of life,” is also the first principle of the Earth Charter, and many of its other principles are echoed there as well. Caring for the Earth was written in consultation with national and international governmental agencies and hundreds of representatives of NGOs worldwide, and many people hoped it would be a blueprint for the construction of a charter at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

Politics and the international economy intervened. The Rio Summit produced a closing “declaration” and Agenda 21, but it did not produce a charter. At the time, many nations represented there were planning for global economic expansion and were not interested in negotiating stronger commitments regarding the environment and development. Several important nations were opposed, including the U.S., which was facing its own economic slowdown in the wake of the Gulf War.

The current Earth Charter was launched “to complete the unfinished business of Rio” in 1994 by Mikhail Gorbachev and Maurice Strong, the Secretary General of both the Rio Earth Summit and the Stockholm Conference. In contrast to the document that would have emerged from Rio, this Earth Charter would be authored not by governments but by civil society. A twenty-four-member Earth Charter Commission was established to guide the process. The first draft of the Charter, prepared with extensive surveys of existing constitutions, treaties, declarations and international law, and with wide consultation, was presented in Rio in 1997 at the five-year review of the Earth Summit. This “Benchmark Draft” was then circulated for discussion around the world in what is now acknowledged to be the most open and participatory consultation process ever conducted in connection with the drafting of an international document.

The Earth Charter in its final form was approved (by the Earth Charter Commission) in March 2000 and released for worldwide consideration by governments and civil society organizations, in forums organized by more than fifty National Earth Charter Committees, or as part of hundreds of Agenda 21 discussions. Supporters of the Earth Charter hope that these global discussions will generate endorsements of and support for the Charter that will help win its adoption by the U.N. at the World Congress on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002.

The Charter is not embraced everywhere. A few corporations, columnists, and editorial writers have opposed it as a threat to the global economy. Some indigenous and tribal people argue that their ancient cultural values and ethics already provide guides for living sustainably. Advocates for the poor argue that the Charter’s “universal” values are merely tools of a new form of colonialism. However, in most places where the Charter is being discussed it is being supported, endorsed, and put into use by governments and civil society, and the dissenting voices illustrate the depth of the Charter discussions.

The Charter has been formally endorsed by the Amazonian Parliament, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the World Congress of Local Governments, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the South American Continental and the Asia-Pacific-Oceania Congresses, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and other international, regional and national organizations. Burlington, Vermont, has adopted it to guide its city planning; and Sanibel Island, Florida, has endorsed it to express support for world environmentalism.

The endorsements are important, as would be its adoption by the United Nations, but the Charter’s real power is in the conversations it occasions, enabling civil society to understand itself and its own power. For it is the petitioners, not the petitioned, who will ultimately make the Earth Charter work.

The Earth Charter is a statement of standards by which people may measure progress toward a just and sustainable society, standards enforced by the authority of moral judgments and the power of public opinion. The model for this form of international agreement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it was created by U.S. citizens, our parents and grandparents. They didn’t do it completely by themselves, but it would not have happened without them.

When the delegates from fifty nations met in San Francisco between April 25 and June 26, 1945, to complete and approve the United Nations’ Charter, they were surrounded by a city filled with citizens and representatives from U.S. and international religious and civic organizations. And when the convention ended, the Charter contained provisions for human rights and a commission to specify those rights. This victory, together with the provision giving NGOs the right to participate in United Nations deliberations, enabled civil society to become a global force.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, began its work in January 1947, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948. It specifies personal, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of all people. It includes the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; to freedom from arbitrary arrest; freedom of movement, residence, asylum, and nationality; and freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, and expression.

Under Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership, and because of her political acumen and unwavering insistence, the document adopted in 1948 was in the form of an ethic. It was not an international law or treaty, but offered, in her words, “basic principles…to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations.” As such, it is probably the twentieth-century’s most important statement of faith in democracy. Alexander Solzhenitzyn described it as the best document produced by the United Nations, and U Thant called it the “Magna Carta of Mankind.”

Some criticize the Declaration for its unenforceability, but since 1948, it has been incorporated into thirty or more national constitutions. In 1986, a full decade after portions of the Declaration finally had been incorporated into legally binding human rights treaties, Charles Malik, a member of the Commission who had been one of the staunchest supporters of enforceable covenants, recognized that “in the long run, the morally disturbing or judging is far more important than the legally binding.” It is this faith in the moral authority of people that has made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights civil society’s de facto constitution, and the model for an environmental ethic.

Principle 3 of the Rio Declaration, issued at the end of the Earth Summit in 1992, states, “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.” It was approved over U.S. objections.

Before September 11, 2001, I had hope, but few reasons to believe, that we Americans could find a way to view caring for people and caring for the earth as two dimensions of one great task. Then, the outpouring of sympathy, generosity, and kindness expressed in every corner of this nation, and around the world in dozens of languages, mourning our thousands of lost and shattered lives, demonstrated that love is reason enough to believe we can. We expanded our politics to include international affairs instantly, when the conceit of our isolationism was so painfully ripped away. Maybe the unity and humanity that rose from the ashes of that Tuesday’s horrors offer us an opportunity to hold the national discussion we missed thirty years ago.

If this is that opportunity, and if we choose to take it, we have the resources to make it work. In the thirty years since the Stockholm Conference, a global civil society has emerged as a powerful force for peace. In proportion to our population, the number and diversity of civil society organizations in the U.S. are perhaps the greatest in the world. If we merge our collective strength with that of global civil society, we can change the culture we have lived by — the culture that separates us from the rest of the world, that supported the government’s objections to Principle 3 and its withdrawals from the Kyoto Treaty, and, just three days before September 11, from the Durban World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance — and rejoin the worldwide effort that started here fifty years ago.

It will not be easy. The U.S. was flying fighters over the no-fly zone in Iraq and was in an economic recession when it helped to kill the Rio charter in 1992. If we are in a recession and flying fighters over Afghanistan, or another nation that harbors terrorists, in 2002, when the Earth Charter comes before the United Nations, our government may need a lot of convincing to support it. But even if the Earth Charter is deflated, the impulse behind it will not die.

In 1948, our parents and grandparents convinced the United Nations to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The next stepping-stone on the path they began to lay for us must now be put in place by convincing this nation and the United Nations to declare that a just, peaceful, safe, and healthy environment is everybody’s human right and the right of every future generation. If we, their children and grandchildren, don’t do it, our children and grandchildren will.

Peter Sauer is a contributing editor to Orion. His writings have appeared in the magazine since 1992. He watches the world from a safe distance in Salem, New York.