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Governing People for Earth

Governing People for Earth – The Challenge of the 21st Century

(address by Cormac Cullinan to the United Nations General Assembly Interactive Dialogue on living in harmony with Nature, Wednesday 20 April 2011)

To view a Webcast of the Session visit UN General Assembly Dialogue on Harmony with Nature, April 20, 2011

Mr Chairman, your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for this opportunity to participate in this vital dialogue on living in harmony with Nature. This dialogue is intended to yield proposals on way to promote an holistic approach to sustainable development in harmony with nature. As the concept document emphasises, designing and implementing policies that are truly in harmony with Nature implies profound changes in consumption and production patterns, energy and materials use and lifestyle aspirations. Furthermore these profound changes must be achieved through inclusive processes that respect national sovereignty and the rights of individuals. This is no small challenge. In fact I believe that is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st Century. How do we re-orientate industrialised societies so that they pursue human well-being in a manner that contributes to the health of Earth instead of undermining it? In other words – how do we live in harmony with Nature?

The purpose of my address is to support and explain a specific, practical proposal which I believe meets these criteria and provides a potentially far more powerful and effective means of promoting ecologically sustainable societies than any of the means currently used by the international community. I refer to the proposal made by President Evo Morales of Bolivia and the subsequent call from the April 2010 People’s World Conferences on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth that the United Nations should adopt a declaration that recognises that Nature or “Mother Earth” has certain inherent rights that we humans must respect and defend if we are ever to living in harmony with Nature.

However, before outlining this proposal and the reasons why I believe that it would be very valuable for the United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that was proclaimed on 22 April 2010 by the Peoples’ World Conference, it is first necessary to look at the context within which this dialogue is taking place.


Living on borrowed time

Perhaps the most obvious but fundamental point to make is that human activities are degrading Earth, the community that gave rise to humanity and is our only home, at an accelerating rate. Human activities have already caused such severe impacts on natural systems that several crucial boundaries or limits have been exceeded, for example in relation to the emission of greenhouse gasses and the degradation of many ecosystems. This has destabilised ecological balances and means that unless we are able to reduce those impacts to within these boundaries, Nature will establish new ecological balances – probably under conditions unsuitable for humans. In other words we are already living on borrowed time. It is no longer valid to ask how much further we can exploit Earth. We must now focus on preventing further harm and healing the damage already done.

The magnitude of the task

The second point to appreciate is the magnitude and significance of the challenge now facing humanity because under-estimating this has led us to pursue inadequate responses. Human impacts have precipitated changes in Earth’s systems that are significant, not merely on historical time-scales, but on geological time scales. The point here is that we are not dealing with an historic crisis such as a world war, which is significant on a scale of decades or possibly even a century. The transition in planetary conditions that has already commenced is significant on a scale of many millions of years. To give but one example, as many of you will know, we are already in the early stages of the 6th period of mass extinction – the last one of which saw the demise of the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago.

The United Nations and the international community has in the past dealt with many wars, political changes and humanitarian crises and other events of great historic significance. However it is important to appreciate that the situation that we now face is of a different order of magnitude and that a different order of responses is required. We are dealing here with issues that go far beyond national self-interest and geo-political balances of power – we are required now to make decisions and to take action that will play a significant part in determining the future conditions for life on this planet. We are dealing with a transition that is unparalleled in our evolutionary history, a transition the likes of which our species has never seen before. In my view we have been attempting to deal with these issues using governance techniques designed for dealing with problems of a different order of magnitude and of a different nature. If we use inadequate tools and approaches we will fail.

A crisis of governance

Thirdly it is important to appreciate that what are commonly referred to as “environmental crises” are in fact symptoms of flawed governance systems. Climate change, desertification, the loss of fertile soil, the depletion and pollution of fresh water systems, deforestation, the catastrophic decline in biological diversity, the collapse of fish stocks, and so and so on, are all caused by what humans are doing. For thousands of years the human species has flourished largely as a consequence of modifications that we made to our environment which altered it in our favour and made it possible for more and more of our children to survive. However it is now clear that we have modified Nature, our habitat, to the extent that the prospects of the majority of our children surviving and flourishing is now being diminished rather than enhanced. Any species that degrades its habitat to the extent that it severely diminishes the prospects of its offspring flourishing is heading for a precipitous decline in population and potentially extinction. In other words, from an evolutionary perspective our on-going degradation of Nature does not make sense and the fact that we are continuing to behave in this manner indicates that our methods of regulating and guiding human behaviour are dysfunctional. In other words there is something fundamentally wrong with our governance systems.

By governance I mean the systems which societies consciously use to influence the behaviour of people, including policies, laws, institutional arrangements, values and economic instruments. This is closely related to our own internal governance systems such as personal ethics, morals and values. Changing the patterns of human behaviour that are degrading Earth is primarily, a question of governance systems – and as you all know, the governance of world affairs is at the heart of the United Nations.

Inadequate responses

The fourth point that is essential to contextualise this dialogue is that the strategies, actions plans, treaties and laws that the international community and national governments have adopted to date in response to these issues are failing. Furthermore, in my opinion, it is now implausible to conclude that doing more of the same will succeed.

This may sound like a harsh assessment. The last two or three decades has seen an unprecedented increase in the volume of international instruments dealing with environmental issues as well as a proliferation of regional, national and sub-national legislation, policies and other instruments dealing with the environment. However despite some notable successes, judged by the standard of the health of Earth, rather than by political standards, we are undoubtedly failing. Only has to read the succession of reports produced by the United Nations itself, such as the Global Environmental Outlook series, to appreciate that the situation is getting worse not better. In fact, despite technological advances and a greater public awareness, global society has almost certainly never been as far away from being ecologically sustainable as it is today. And tomorrow it will be further away.

What the decades of data about the deteriorating condition of the global environment is telling us is that our current governance systems are not fit for purpose.


If our governance responses are not working it raises the question of why not?

Asking the wrong questions

I believe that one of the reasons is that we have been trying to answer the wrong questions. For example, if one tries to address climate change by asking “How do we reduce our emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere?” one may legitimately conclude that the answer is to invest more heavily in renewable energy technologies, and possibly even in nuclear energy. By asking this question we also focus the debate on technical issues such as carbon trading and parts per million of CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere.

However climate change is not the problem, it is merely one of the many symptoms of a deeper, systemic problem – namely that industrialised human societies have established exploitative, and hence unsustainable, relationships with Nature. Once one recognises this then it is clear that the question we have been asking is the equivalent of how do we reduce the fever of a sick patient instead of asking how to we cure the disease that is causing the fever. From this perspective the crucial question then becomes “How do we live in harmony with Nature?”.

For this reason I believe that this interactive dialogue is particularly important and the fact that it is happening is cause for hope. But what does living in harmony with Nature entail? In my view, at its most fundamental, it involves a shift in world view as fundamental as moving from the belief that the Sun revolves around the Earth to the reality that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In this case the shift is from the erroneous belief that everything revolves around humans and consequently human governance systems need only deal with human rights and obligations, to accepting the reality that the Universe doesn’t revolve around us and that the essential role of the human is to play our part in contributing to a greater whole – what may be termed the Earth community. Interestingly it was the Catholic Church’s fear that the discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus that the Earth revolved around the Sun would undermine the doctrine that humans are not the centre of the Universe that led the Church to denounce this reality. Of course the Earth simply continued revolving around the Sun regardless of what humans believed!

Our governance systems have been designed on the basis of a flawed premise

Perhaps the most important reason why our governance systems have been so unsuccessful in dealing with environmental challenges is that they have been designed to reflect a world view that is simply incorrect. I refer to the belief that humans are separate from Nature, that we are superior to all other species and to Nature itself, and that Nature exists for our benefit – as a vast store of resources for human use. In recent decades materialistic or consumerist ideas that human wellbeing is best enhanced by owning or consuming more, has further shaped our legal, political and economic governance systems in ways that have exacerbated the unfortunate consequences of these fundamental misperceptions.

The governance systems of the industrialised countries only make sense if these fundamental beliefs are true. For example, almost all legal systems define all that is not human being or a corporation as property. This means that in the eyes of the law Nature is merely a collection of objects with no value except insofar as they contribute to human well-being, and certainly incapable of having rights. This entrenches the same relationship between humans and Nature as exists between the slave owner and the slave. It is immediately apparent that a legal system that defines people as slaves without rights and others as slave owners with the right of life and death over slaves, will entrench an exploitative relationship between the slave owner and the slave. This is precisely the relationship that the law requires between humans and Nature.

The dominant modes of civilisation in the world today operate on the implicit understanding that the best way of pursuing human well-being is to appropriate as much as possible of what Earth produces for our exclusive benefit. In other words, human well-being is achieved at the expense of Earth. This may be characterised as a colonial attitude – the idea that one can occupy a place distant from one’s homeland, forcibly extract riches from it at the expense of the indigenous populations (both human and other than human) and take the wealth back to one’s homeland, leaving behind a degraded colony. While colonial strategies are often successful in generating short-term benefits for the colonial power, applying this thinking at a planetary level is fundamentally misconceived because we cannot simply extract the benefits and leave. As the protestors in Copenhagen so succinctly put it “There is no Planet B!” This means that we must inevitable suffer the consequences of the damage that we have done to Earth.

Our governance systems are part of the problem

Because of the world view that informs them, almost all governance systems are designed to facilitate and legitimate exploitative relationships between humans and Nature – in other words relations in which there is a one-way flow of benefits from Nature to humans. Yet we know that relationships which are not mutually beneficial are ultimately unsustainable. Enduring relationships are ones that benefit both parties. What this means is that our governance systems themselves are part of the problem.

I grew up under a system of governance based on similar values to those which inform our attitudes to Nature. The apartheid system in South Africa was based on the understanding that a sector of the community – White people – were separate from and superior to the rest of the community and that it was in their interests to exploit the other members of that community. In fact the word apartheid means “separateness”. It is now accepted that apartheid was a crime against humanity and as the democratic South Africa is demonstrating, for the country to emerge for the long period of deterioration under apartheid it was necessary to recognise that the futures of all South Africans are interrelated and that all would benefit from a vibrant society based on recognising the rights of all. However for apartheid to go it was necessary to make fundamental changes to the governance systems that entrenched these harmful beliefs.

This is where we are at not in relation to Nature. Like the apartheid government in South Africa, our exploitative attitudes have blinded us to the benefits of embracing our participation in a wonderful community. In this case we have been blinded to the reality that we humans only make sense within the context of the community of life of which we form part, and can only attain our full humanity through contributing to the health and integrity of the whole that sustains us all. We need to re-design our governance systems so that they reflect the reality that ultimately human wellbeing is derived from the health of the ecological communities of which we are part.


Rediscovering our ecological niche

If we are to live in harmony with nature then we must all, both individually and collectively, rediscover our ecological niche. Ecology teaches us that each member of an ecological system plays a particular function within that system and occupies a unique space by virtue of its particular characteristics and qualities. Species that are able to provide for themselves in a manner which also contributes to the health of the ecological communities of which they form part, survive and thrive. As they flourish, so their contribution to the whole increases and the health and resilience of the ecological community which sustains them, is enhanced. At the heart of this is the establishment of relationships of mutual benefit as opposed to exploitative relationships which are ultimately unsustainable because they benefit the exploiter at the expense of the exploited.

How do we establish governance systems that will enable us to live in harmony with Nature?

This brings me to the crucial issue. How do we establish governance systems throughout the world that promote mutually beneficial relationships between our species and the ecological communities of which we form part? How might we move towards what I have called an “Earth jurisprudence” approach to legal systems which involves changing their primary purpose from asserting human domination and control over Nature, to facilitating and encouraging mutually beneficial relationships? How can we reshape our governance systems so that support us to bringing about what the American philosopher and monk Thomas Berry referred to as “a benign human presence on Earth”?

In this regard I believe that we can draw inspiration from the events that occurred on the evening of 10 December 1948 – arguably the United Nations finest hour. I refer of course to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As you well know, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a legally binding document yet has had a more profound effect on global human society than any binding instrument. Born out of the horrors of the 2nd World War and a determination to establish fundamental norms that define our humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has changed governance systems and enhanced the well-being of people throughout the world. This has been achieved on the whole by non-coercive means and today the fundamental rights recognised in it form part of binding customary international law.

Today we stand at an even more significant point in the history of humanity. I believe that the fundamental challenge that now faces the United Nations is whether or not it will be capable of making the fundamental changes to the philosophy, structures and content of global governance that are necessary for it to be fit to guide humanity towards living in harmony with Nature.

Next year the international community will meet again in Rio de Janeiro, two decades after the first “Earth Summit” which to many of us had promised that the international community was at last seriously addressing environmental issues. When the World Summit on Sustainable Development last met in Johannesburg in 2002 the main response to the evidence that the environmental law governance regime was failing was to call for better implementation and enforcement. We now know that although that is helpful, it hasn’t really changed anything significantly.

At Rio + 20 next year the international community is faced with the reality that the worsening conditions on the planet are now creating very real threats to peace and almost daily create or exacerbate humanitarian crises. A world in which the powerful use force to monopolise a shrinking pool of resources and the ranks of impoverished, starving and displaced peoples are swelled by the impacts of climate change and other environmental crises is now staring us in the face. We urgently need a bold new way forward.

Now is the time for the United Nations to adopt a new declaration to meet the challenges of our times: the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. A declaration that will explicitly recognise that all the members of the Earth community contribute to the completeness, integrity and functioning of Earth and that they too have the right to exist and to continue to play their role within that community free from human interference that threatens their existence, integrity or functioning.

This does not, of course, imply that humans may not affect and interact with the functioning of ecological systems any more than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means that no conflicts between human rights will arise. What it does mean is that in any particular situation, the interests of humans must be weighed, not only against the interests of other humans, but also against those of Nature (i.e. all that has come into being). Conflicts between these rights must be resolved in a manner that best contributes to the integrity and health of the Earth community as a whole. Maintaining the health and integrity of the Earth community is analogous to maintaining the health of the human body, without it, the health of each component is imperilled. In other words, only by prioritising the health and integrity of the whole can we optimise the health and well-being of humans.


The question that then arises is whether or not adopting the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth will be effective? We cannot know at this time but what we can say is that this approach has very substantial advantages over the international environmental law approaches and sustainable development policies that have been tried to date.

Addresses the crucial issue

This approach focuses on addressing the crucial issue of how to live in harmony with Nature. By recognising that Mother Earth and other beings hold legally-enforceable rights it requires us to negotiate our relationships with them, and where there is a potential conflict of interests, to seek ways of establishing mutually beneficial relationships. Mutually-beneficial relationships are at the heart of any sustainable, viable and flourishing community and are essential for us to live in harmony with Nature.

The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth does not prescribe in detail how States and communities should give effect to it, and so respects the need for a diversity of approaches that are appropriate for each area, and preserves space for much needed innovation. However the Declaration is like the DNA of an ecologically sustainable society. Any society that is able effectively to implement and enforce the rights and duties in the Declaration would in the process restore an appropriate balance between human interests and those of the other members of the Earth community, and in so doing, become ecologically sustainable.

Recognising the rights of Mother Earth/ Nature enables us to transform the purpose of existing governance systems

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers in its preamble to “the recognition of the inherent dignity and … equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family “… and through that recognition provide “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. In so doing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expanded the class of subjects with legally enforceable and inalienable rights to include all people, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity and class. This initiated an on-going process of transforming international and national governance systems so that they gave legal effect to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is now time to expand our idea of the family of which we form part to recognise the reality that it is far wider than the “human family” and in fact includes the Earth community as a whole. The adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth would expand the class of holders of legally enforceable rights and would initiate a global process of transforming existing “colonial” governance systems into governance systems that will require us to renegotiate our relationships with Nature so that they become mutually beneficial and hence sustainable.

Consistent with science and wisdom

Recognising that some aspects of our relationships with Nature are so fundamental that they we should use the machinery of the State to enforce and defend them (as we do with human rights) is entirely consistent with contemporary scientific understandings. Science has increasingly drawn our attention to the mysterious manner in which sub-atomic particles are “entangled” with one another while ecology has drawn our attention to the complexity of the relationships which bind us into the community of life. Scientists long ago rejected mechanistic understandings of the Universe and recognised that we form part of an inseparable whole and that how we function is determined mainly by how we relate to other aspects of that whole. The idea that we can achieve long-term benefits for humanity by continuing to damage the whole of which we form part, is scientifically indefensible.

This is also consistent with the wisdom traditions and indigenous cultures of all the nations of earth. Each representative in this room can go back to their own culture and find within it holistic understandings and standings of the cosmos which emphasise the importance of practices that respect and honour other beings and that doing so is necessary to ensure human well-being.


Your Excellencies, ladies and gentleman, the rights of Mother Earth or rights of Nature movement is already stirring and moving throughout the world. It has diverse roots both in ancient wisdom and contemporary science. It draws its strength from the fact that it is not based on a political ideology but firmly grounded in the reality that as members of the Earth community we need to comply with the fundamental rules of that community. This means governing ourselves in a manner that respects the rights of all to play their part within that community. The common ground that binds this diverse movement is the common ground that lies beneath our feet – Earth.

This movement is not, as some have alleged, a religious movement, a cultural perspective emanating from one place in the world, a Luddite anti-technology movement, or anti-human. It is firmly grounded in the reality of thousands of years of human experience, is consistent with science and addresses directly the fundamental challenge of times – how to live in harmony with Nature.

I hope that the United Nations will rise to the challenge of our times by adopting an instrument that is commensurate with that challenge such as Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. However I have no doubt that whether or not it does so, the rights of Nature movement will continue to gather strength. It is concerned with issues so fundamental to our identity as humans and our survival, that it cannot, and will not be stopped. It will simply flow around any obstacles placed in its path.

I urge you to support this initiative for the sake of Earth and all of us. This is the great task of our times and the challenge facing the United Nations in the 21st Century. This is a task that will require the combined wisdom, integrity and courage of great statesmen and leaders.

The hour has come – now is the time to step forward.

Thank you.