Earth Democracy and the Rights of Mother Earth
The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.—Albert Einstein
In 2012, the world community will gather in Rio to discuss global environmental issues, just as the citizens and movements of the world gathered in Rio for the Earth Summit back in 1992.
The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution in 2009 to hold this upcoming conference twenty years after the Earth Summit. Member states agreed that the Rio+20 Summit would focus on “green economy within the context of sustainable development and poverty” and “institutional framework for sustainable development.”
But what is the “green economy” and what is the “institutional framework for sustainable development”? If the answers are offered in the old paradigm of the market-driven solutions that have failed to protect the earth, “green economy” will mean more of the same. It will mean more carbon trading, which has failed to reduce emissions. It will mean more commodification of food and water, land and biodiversity, which has failed to reduce hunger and thirst, poverty and ecological degradation and has instead increased it.
Will Green Be the Color of Life or Money?
If the Rio+20 Summit’s “institutional framework” creates a World Environment Organization like the World Trade Organization — an organization based on commodification and trade in nature’s gifts, and trade wars as global environment management — we will further impoverish the earth and local communities, and we will further destroy democracy.
If, on the other hand, the answers are offered in the context of the emerging paradigm of the Rights of Mother Earth, then the green economy is Gaia’s economy, and the institutional framework is Earth Democracy, democracy from the bottom up, democracy rooted in the earth. The world order built on the economic fundamentalism of greed, commodification of all life, limitless growth, and the technological fundamentalist idea that there is a technological fix for every social and environmental ill is clearly collapsing.
I share with Allen Kanner the view that a narrow environmentalist framework is not enough, and that it is time to recognize that nature itself has rights (the view he expressed in “Why Extinction Matters at Least as Much as Climate Change”), but I see the need for a paradigm shift even greater than the shift in focus that Kanner proposes from climate change to extinction. What we need is a complete transformation in our understanding of economics and citizenship.
The collapse of Wall Street in September 2008 and the continuing financial crisis signal the end of the paradigm that put fictitious finance above real wealth created by nature and humans. This paradigm — which put profits above people, and corporations above citizens — can only be kept afloat with limitless bailouts that direct public wealth to private rescue instead of using it to rejuvenate nature and produce economic livelihoods for people. It can only be kept afloat with increasing violence to the earth and people. It can only be kept alive as an economic dictatorship. This is clear in India’s heartland, where the limitless appetite for steel and aluminum for the global consumer economy and the limitless appetite for corporate profits are clashing head on with the rights of tribal communities to their land and homes, their forests and rivers, their cultures and ways of life. Tribal groups are saying a loud and clear “no” to their forced uprooting. The only way to get to the minerals and coal that feed the “limitless growth” model in the face of democratic resistance is the use of militarized violence against tribal people. Operation “Green Hunt” has been launched in the tribal areas of India with precisely this purpose, even though the proclaimed objective is to clear out the “Maoists.” Under Operation Green Hunt, more than 40,000 armed paramilitary forces have been placed in the tribal areas that are rich in minerals and where tribal unrest is growing. Operation Green Hunt shows clearly that the current economic paradigm can only unfold through increased militarization and the undermining of democratic and human rights.
The technological fundamentalism that has externalized both ecological and social costs, blinding us to ecological destruction, has reached a dead end. Climate chaos — the externality of technologies based on the use of fossil fuels — is a wakeup call that we cannot continue on the fossil fuel path. The high costs of industrial farming is running up against limits, both in terms of the ecological destruction of the natural capital of soil, water, biodiversity, and air, as well as in terms of the creation of malnutrition, with a billion people denied food and another two billion denied health because of obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases.
The green economy agenda for Rio+20 can either deepen the privatization of the earth (and with it the crisis of ecology and poverty), or it can be used to re-embed economies in the ecology of the earth.
Green economics needs to be an authentic green. It cannot be the brown of desertification and deforestation. It cannot be the red of violence against nature and people, or the unnecessary conflicts over land, water, seeds, and food. As Gandhi said, “The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for some people’s greed.”
To be green, economics needs to return to its home: Oikos. Both ecology and economics are derived from this Greek word for “home.” Ecology is the science of household, economics is supposed to be the management of the household. When economics works against the science of ecology, it results in the mismanagement of the earth, our home. The climate crisis, the water crisis, the biodiversity crisis, the food crisis are different symptoms of this crisis of mismanagement of the earth’s resources.
We mismanage the earth when we do not recognize nature’s capital as the real capital and everything else as derived. If we have no land, we have no economy. When we contribute to growth of nature’s capital, we build green economies. And the richer nature’s capital is, the richer human society is.
Let’s Reject Corporate Reductionism and Become Earth Citizens
The ecological and economic problems we face are rooted in a series of reductionist steps, which have shrunk our imagination and our identity, our purpose on the earth, and the instruments we use to meet our needs. We are first and foremost earth citizens. And our highest duty is to maintain the living systems of the earth that support our life. Earth citizenship needs earth-centered cultures, earth-based democracy, and earth-centered economies.
However, society and culture have been reduced to economies; economies have been reduced to market economics; market economics has been reduced to finance; and finance has been reduced to abstract instruments like derivatives, securitization, and collateral debt obligations.
Simultaneously, the conception of humans as earth citizens — global subjects with duties and rights to the earth — has been replaced by a focus on corporations, which have no duties to either the earth or society, only limitless rights to exploit both the earth and people. Corporations have been assigned legal personhood, and corporate rights are now extinguishing the rights of the earth, as well as the rights of people to the earth’s gifts and resources.
Corporate rights are premised on maximization of profits. There are two tools corporations use to maximize profits. The first is the use of technologies that transfer production from local communities to distant corporations, substitute biodiversity with toxic products, and make everyone into consumers of toxic, nonrenewable products whose cost is high but price is cheap.
The second instrument is the creation of tools for wealth accumulation. These tools include measuring wealth as capital, thus ignoring both nature’s wealth and society’s wealth. They also include measuring wealth as the growth of GNP and GDP. At the core of the second instrument of profit maximization is the privatization of water and even the atmosphere.
More often than not, the tools of technology and economic tools of wealth appropriation go hand in hand, reinforcing each other. Thus genetic engineering goes hand in hand with patents on life and privatization of biodiversity. Dams for long-distance water transfer go hand in hand with water privatization.
Earth Rights: A New Paradigm of Economic Nonviolence
We need a new paradigm for living on the earth because the old one is clearly not working. An alternative is now a survival imperative for the human species. We need an alternative not only at the level of tools, but also at the level of our worldview. How do we look at ourselves in this world? What are humans for? Are we merely a money-making and resource guzzling machine? Or do we have a higher purpose, a higher end?
I believe we do have a higher end. I believe that we are members of the earth family – of Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam. And as members of the earth family, our first and highest duty is to take care of Mother Earth: Prithvi, Gaia, Pachamama. And the better we take care of her, the more food, water, health, and wealth we have. “Earth rights” are first and foremost the rights of Mother Earth, and our corresponding duties and responsibilities to defend those rights. Earth rights are also the rights of humans as they flow from the rights of Mother Earth: the right to food and water, the right to health and a safe environment, and the right to the commons (the rivers, the seeds, the biodiversity, and the atmosphere).
I have given the name Earth Democracy to this new paradigm of living as an Earth Community, respecting rights of Mother Earth.
Earth Democracy enables us to envision and create living democracies. Living democracy enables democratic participation in all matters of life and death — the food we eat or lack; the water we drink or are denied due to privatization or pollution; the air we breathe or are poisoned by. Living democracies are based on the intrinsic worth of all species, all peoples, all cultures; a just and equal sharing of this earth’s vital resources; and sharing the decisions about the use of the earth’s resources.
Earth Democracy protects the ecological processes that maintain life and the fundamental human rights that are the basis of the right to life, including the right to water, the right to food, the right to health, the right to education, and the right to jobs and livelihoods. Earth Democracy is based on the recognition of and respect for the life of all species and all people.
Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the basis of many faiths that have emerged on Indian soil. Translated into economics, nonviolence implies that our systems of production, trade, and consumption do not use up the ecological space of other species and other people. Violence is the result when our dominant economic structures and economic organization usurp and enclose the ecological space of other species or other people.
According to an ancient Indian text, the Isho Upanishad:
The universe is the creation of the Supreme Power meant for the benefits of [all] creation. Each individual life form must, therefore, learn to enjoy its benefits by forming a part of the system in close relation with other species. Let not any one species encroach upon other rights. Whenever we engage in consumption or production patterns which take more than we need, we are engaging in violence. Non-sustainable consumption and non-sustainable production constitute a violent economic order.
In the Isho Upanishad it is also said:
A selfish man over utilizing the resources of nature to satisfy his own ever increasing needs is nothing but a thief, because using resources beyond one’s needs would result in the utilization of resources over which others have a right.
The rights of corporations extinguish the rights of the Earth and all her children, including humans. The economy as currently structured is centered on corporations and corporate profits. Corporate profits are based on destruction of the earth and dispossession and uprooting of people. The technological and economic systems that impoverish the earth also impoverish local communities.
The rights of the earth are ultimately intertwined with the rights of the people. The rights of corporations to appropriate or contaminate the earth’s resources undermine both the rights of the Mother Earth and the human rights of people to livelihoods and basic needs of food and water. That is why the rights of Mother Earth are the very basis of the human rights of people to land and natural resource, food and water, to livelihoods and basic needs.
Earth rights are the basis of equity, justice, and sustainability. On Earth Day 2010, Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma organized a conference on Rights of Mother Earth. The idea was to start a process for adopting a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth on the lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without Earth Rights, there can be no human rights. It is time to deepen human rights by deepening the recognition that humans depend on the earth. Earth rights are human rights.
Humanity stands at a precipice. We have to make a choice. Will we obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems and the diversity of her beings?
The laws for maximizing corporate profits are based on:
- Privatizing the earth
- Enclosing the commons
- Externalizing the costs of ecological destruction of hazards
The laws for protecting the rights of Mother Earth are based on:
- Respecting the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems and ecological process
- Recovering the commons
- Internalizing ecological costs
Corporate ideology has presented corporate profits as growth, and growth as beneficial to all, even though corporate greed is taking away resources necessary to meet people’s needs. People’s needs for food and water can only be met if nature’s capacity to provide food and water are protected. Dead soils and dead rivers cannot give food and water.
Defending the rights of Mother Earth is therefore the most important human rights and social justice struggle of our times.
(To read other perspectives on extinction, climate change, and the rights of nature, click here.)