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Never So Relevant: Fritjof Capra on the Earth Charter Initiative

Fritjof Capra’s systems map for the Earth Charter (see below to view full map)

Last year saw one of the most historically symbolic events of recent years when 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement to cut back on pollution contributing to climate change. So, last month when President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the US out of the agreement, there was a huge reaction, with many leaders of countries around the world expressing their dismay.

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D. is a scientist, educator, activist and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society. Given the historical, political and environmental significance of the events of recent weeks, I took the opportunity to discuss the Earth Charter with Capra, who is one of the Earth Charter Council’s leading members.

The Earth Charter was first considered in 1987 when The World Commission on Environment and Development (known as “the Brundtland Commission”) launched their Our Common Future report, with a call for a “new charter” to set “new norms” to guide the transition to sustainable development. It is an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It seeks to inspire in all people a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole human family, the greater community of life and future generations.

Could you explain why the Earth Charter is so important?

Fritjof Capra: The Earth Charter is so important, in my view, because it lays out in great detail an ethical vision for creating a world that is sustainable, just and peaceful. These three principles are not difficult to understand, but to apply them concretely in business, politics, education and so on is quite a task. The Charter, which was composed over many years in a unique global collaboration, has achieved that. It is a declaration of 16 values and principles, each consisting of several sub-sections, for building such a sustainable, just and peaceful world. The document was completed in 2000 and if you read it today you will see that it is still fully valid. It is a magnificent summary of the kind of ethics we need in today’s world, in our time.

What are the challenges involved in wording a charter that can resonate with people around the world, with widely different cultures, languages and realities?

FC: I did not participate in this process, but I have heard from people who did that it was a long and patient endeavor involving dialogues with many individuals and groups around the world — NGOs, indigenous peoples, various activists and so on. As in many international negotiations, various groups objected to particular words or phrases, but somehow the result was not a watering down of the text, but rather a strengthening. Maybe that’s because the core principles of sustainability, justice and peace are values that are common to all of humanity.

The Earth Charter speaks of values. Could you explain these values, why they were chosen and what work the ECI is doing to help people understand and live these values?

FC: Well, the 16 values and principles are divided into four groups. In the first group, “Respect and Care for the Community of Life,” we find, basically, the values of deep ecology. I find it impressive that the Earth Charter begins with these values, because this is the deepest level of the change of paradigms that is now urgently needed. The other three groups of values relate to the three fundamental qualities of an ideal future world: sustainability, justice and peace.

The Earth Charter Initiative has a Youth Program, produces educational materials, holds courses and seminars at its headquarters in Costa Rica, forms partnerships with other NGOs and develops guidance for organizations, businesses and local communities to incorporate the Earth Charter into their frameworks.

In the Spring 2017 edition of Capra Course, you shared your systems map of the Earth Charter (below). Could you explain what a systems map is and some of the key insights which your map shows?

Click to enlarge map.

FC: I have used systems maps, also known as “mind maps” for several decades. They are conceptual maps that show how various concepts and ideas are interrelated. My systems map for the Earth Charter shows the four value groups and the 12 principles with their numbers in bold face and then key words from the Earth Charter text in smaller print. In some instances, I have used language that is not in the Earth Charter (because terms like, for example, “LGBT” were not in use when the text was written) but which seemed appropriate to make connections with contemporary thinkers and activists. I wrote those terms, not present in the Earth Charter, in italics.

The interrelations exhibited in the map are too numerous to mention. Just to give you a couple of examples: sustainability (principle #4) is related to education (principle # 14), as well as to human development (principle #10). The respect for Earth and Life (principle #1) is related to human dignity (principle #12), and so on.

Many of the participants took part in the various conversations about the Earth Charter. Could you share some of their reactions and responses to these conversations?

FC: I love these discussions in my online course. I find them more substantial than classroom discussions, because the participants and I have much more time to prepare our comments, questions and answers. In our discussion of the Earth Charter, several participants expressed their admiration for the writing process of the Charter, in which many voices from around the world were heard over an extended period of time. “It seems to me,” wrote one of the participants, “that many authors and contributors of the Earth Charter experienced a great depth of listening with a whole lot of love and patience to the many voices they heard and they captured those voices to produce a holistic document.”

We also discussed the merits and problems of written documents in general, from Paolo Freire’s notion that literacy enables people to imagine the world differently, to the problem that such documents — the Earth Charter, the Declaration of Independence or the recent Paris Climate Agreement — represent the level of consciousness of the authors at a particular time and fixes the agreed-upon values in time and space.

In another lecture, I had discussed the nature of power, distinguishing between power as domination of others and power as empowerment of others. So, in our conversations I applied this important distinction to a “systems view of documents.” I argued that, whereas legal texts, contracts and media generally serve to dominate others, the purpose of joint manifestos and declarations, often composed through elaborate collaborative processes involving many individuals and communities, is to empower others.

These are just some examples of the extensive conversations we had on the Earth Charter.

In what ways can the Earth Charter contribute to the reduction of global conflicts taking place in this turbulent moment around the world?

FC: Many of these conflicts arise because our political and corporate leaders do not have a “moral compass,” in the memorable words of Václav Havel. If wealthy individuals and corporations paid fair taxes instead of hiding their wealth in off-shore tax shelters, we would not have any economic crises. If fossil fuel companies were more interested in the future wellbeing of humanity than in making exorbitant profits, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels would already have happened. These are questions of values, of ethics. Now, when you bring up the issue of ethics, people will often say: I agree, we need some ethics, but what kind of ethics would be appropriate for today’s complex world? Well, the Earth Charter gives a comprehensive answer to this question.

What have been some of the achievements of the ECI? Could you give some examples of the ways in which people are working with it?

FC: Since the inception of the ECI in 2000, the Earth Charter has been endorsed and used by thousands of individuals and organizations from around the world. It has inspired many educational resources and the development of several educational programs. Schools, universities and other educational institutions have embraced the Earth Charter and used it in many creative ways. It has been part of research projects and many publications. All of this is documented by the ECI.

Through the efforts of the ECI, the Earth Charter has acquired special significance for scholars working in the field of environmental ethics and philosophy. Moreover, an increasing number of international lawyers recognize that the Earth Charter is acquiring the status of a so-called “soft law” document.

How can people become personally involved in the initiative?

FC: I would say, first read the Earth Charter and be inspired by it. Then go to the ECI website and join one of its many programs and initiatives around the world.

Fritjof Capra is one of the worlds leading thinkers in systems theory and the author of many influential books, such as The Tao of Physics; The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter; The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture; The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living; and Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius. The next edition of Capra Course will begin on September 1st. For more information, please visit www.capracourse.net


Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education and the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. He is a member of the Emerging Future Institute, a member of the Strongly Sustainable Business… [Read more about Simon Robinson]


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