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The Queen is Dancing: Reflections on the Earth Charter
Alan AtKisson, 15 Nov 05

Gathering 350 people from around the world, the "Earth Charter +5" Conference celebrated five years since the launch of the Earth Charter itself -- an event that also took place in the Netherlands, in June 2000. It is actually ten years since the process of intense international negotiation that produced the Earth Charter began. And in Amsterdam, I got a much deeper understanding, and appreciation, for what a special and important process this is.

It is merely icing on the cake to note that the conference concluded with a fabulous concert of music by Mali's Oumou Sangare, music that ultimately got Queen Beatrix herself on her feet. She was warmly invited to do so ... indeed, Her Majesty was pulled up by the very multi-cultural crowd, who represented 53 countries.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Let's start with the Earth Charter. (To web critics: the web presence of the Charter is going to be significantly upgraded.)

To those of you who have never heard of it -- which probably includes the majority of Worldchanging readers, because it is not yet well known -- the Earth Charter is a document. But it is not "just a document." It is humanity's most comprehensive consensus statement of a global vision for sustainable development, together with a set of guiding principles and shared values for realizing that vision. It has been formally endorsed by an extremely large and diverse group of governments and government leaders, major organizations, and individuals. It is growing in recognition as a document with the potential to serve a similar function to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which guides international law on human rights without itself being law (what lawyers call soft law).

The Earth Charter is also, as many have called it, a "Declaration of Interdependence." It brings together the vision and values of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace ... and then expresses them in the form of ethical imperatives, the "action steps" most urgently needed to ensure a sustainable future. It is a much more comprehensive To-Do List for a Sustainable Civilization than the one I wrote about previously (in The Natural Advantage of Nations, excerpted on Worldchanging).

The Earth Charter Commission, which created the document, includes twenty-five important leaders from around the globe. That this group -- which ranges from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff to Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai to Maori leader Pauline Tangiora to legendary Sri Lankan community organizer A.T. Ariyaratne -- could agree on such a comprehensive text is striking enough, to anyone familiar with the ins and outs of international negotiations across vastly different cultures. But the truly remarkable thing was that literally thousands of other people were also consulted along the way, from every corner of the globe, and all their input was carefully considered. (Steven Rockefeller, who chaired the Drafting Committee and remains a key leader in the organization, personally spent untold hours poring over the comments and submissions.) These additional contributors and reviewers included eminent thinkers from every major religion, top scientists, grassroots activists ... well, the lists that can be made about the Earth Charter are all very long indeed.

Disclosure: I suddenly know so much about the Earth Charter, after previously not knowing very much at all, because my small consulting firm spent the summer engaged in an extensive strategic review of the initiative's first five years. Then, after we delivered our report, the Steering Committee did something no other client has ever done: they offered me the job of leading the organization through the strategic transition we had recommended, and I accepted. Starting 1 January 2006, I will be the "International Transition Director" of the Earth Charter Initiative.

The story of the Earth Charter is in many ways emblematic of the sustainability movement, which since its earliest days has been driven by a combination of very high-level international diplomacy, and very on-the-ground grassroots activism, with mainstream institutions like corporations and local governments lagging behind. They "lag" because they must do the difficult work of translating idealism (which is common to both international diplomacy and grassroots work) into the real world of policy, practice, and purchasing.

Similarly, the Earth Charte was crafted by international leaders at the urging of Maurice Strong, who chaired both the Earth Summit in 1992 and also ran the original Stockholm Conference in 1972. And it caught on first among passionate grassroots activists. It is only now gaining any serious attention from the business sector, for example (several large companies were in attendance at the Amsterdam conference, and pledged to attract more of their peers to the table).

Since I am far from being an objective observer now, I'll ask others at Worldchanging to report on what happens with the Earth Charter Initiative, both the formal organization and the very informal international movement, which the Amsterdam conference helped to coalesce. But here are a few reflections on the Earth Charter document itself, and what it means for sustainability generally, from my position as an outsider-becoming-insider.

First, the Charter is emerging as the best globally agreed-upon answer to the question, "What does sustainability mean?" We analyzed the Charter relative to other similar global initiatives, and it is significantly more comprehensive. Every principle (indeed every word) was pondered over from dozens of perspectives, and the result is a reference document that seems able both to inspire people, and to be useful to international legal specialists, which is quite a range.

Second, the Earth Charter is a free public good, a great example of what can happen when civil society meets "open source". The Initiative holds rights to things like its logo, the supporting materials it produces, etc. The Earth Charter Commission determines the actual wording of the Earth Charter text. But the text free to use, and there are already thousands of people making use of the Charter in multiple ways, ranging from business assessment to grade-school curricula to animated films.

Third, and most importantly, the Earth Charter raises the bar on most of what is currently happening in the name of sustainable development. It harnesses the power of idealism to lift people's vision above the incremental target or next small technological improvement. Making incremental improvements is of course critical, but the Charter helps people put those contributions in a larger context ... and to keep aiming higher. The world's most successful companies know that you don't succeed unless you set your goals and standards as high as possible, and the Earth Charter provides a unifying set of goals that have the potential to drive similarly high performance in multiple sectors for sustainability.

Speaking of high performance, it's not every day that you watch a Queen -- and a former Prime Minister, and Jane Goodall, and a bunch of international luminaries, and an audience of hundreds of people from 53 countries get up and dance together to the music of Africa.

If the Earth Charter can do that, it clearly has the potential to do a lot of other wonderful things.

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