General Assembly Vice-President Stresses Importance of Changing Human Behaviour
Despite progress by a growing number of countries towards striking the balance between growth and respect for the planet, more concrete, holistic and law-based approaches would be needed for the drive to true sustainable development, the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs told the General Assembly today.
Under-Secretary-General Wu Hongbo said that in order to realize that vision, all stakeholders must actively seek fair, balanced and sustainable ways to meet the economic, social and environmental needs of both the present and future generations.
He was delivering a statement, on behalf of the Secretary-General, to the Assembly’s Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature to commemorate International Mother Earth Day, 22 April. Today’s event focused on Earth jurisprudence and the need to scale up national efforts to protect the planet and its people.0
Mr. Wu said that approach to sustainable development was rooted in a philosophy of law and human governance by which the well-being of each member of the human community depended on the health of the planet as a whole. While failure to understand that philosophy had led humanity to a self-interest-driven relationship with Earth, more and more countries were taking action to correct the situation, he noted.
Agreeing, Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve (Belgium), Vice-President of the General Assembly, underlined the key importance of changing human behaviour. That view was central to ending the ongoing destruction of biological diversity, realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and fulfilling commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change, he said in a statement on behalf of the Assembly President, explaining that Earth jurisprudence recognized the deep interconnection between people and the planet. At the core of law and economics lay the notion that people lived on a planet full of resources to be exploited at will for the benefit of the human species, but an Earth-centred view shifted the focus towards forging a new relationship in which people would live in harmony with nature, he said.
Fernando Huanacuni Mamani, Bolivia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the production and consumption patterns that had led to climate change and financial crisis demonstrated the limits of economic and cultural development. Emphasizing the need to consider alternative paradigms for dealing with the world’s deep social inequalities, he said indigenous peoples knew the right path to take concerning Mother Earth. Bearing in mind that humanity could simply not continue to exist without respecting the planet, he said, it was now vital to adopt a universal declaration on the rights of Mother Earth, with the United Nations playing a critical role in harmonizing the international community’s efforts.
Concurring, Helena Yánez Loza (Ecuador) said that ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources was the key to both promoting growth and eradicating poverty. Speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, she emphasized the critical need to enhance support for developing countries, including by transferring knowledge, building capacity and establishing a non-discriminatory market system. Calling for holistic approaches to sustainable development, she said they would restore the health of ecosystems and ensure prosperity in harmony with nature.
Delegates also participated in two interactive panel discussions on Earth jurisprudence and the 2030 Agenda, as well as the rights of nature, ecological economics, education, ethics, philosophy, holistic science and the media. The morning panel discussed the forging of a thriving relationship between human activity and the Earth, and the afternoon discussion focused on developing countries.
Moderating the morning panel discussion, titled “Earth Jurisprudence and the Sustainable Development Agenda: The Roles of Rights of Nature, Ecological Economics, Education, Ethics, Philosophy, Holistic Science, and the Media”, was Jorge Islas, Professor of Law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. It featured the following panelists: Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief, Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; Liz Hosken, Director, Gaia Foundation, South Africa; Klaus Bosselmann, Professor of Law and Founding Director, New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law, University of Auckland; Peter G. Brown, Director, Economics for the Anthropocene Project, McGill University, Canada; and Linda Sheehan, Executive Director, Planet Pledge, USA.
Ms. ROY-HENRIKSEN said that for indigenous peoples around the world, nature was part of Mother Earth. Human existence depended on harmony with nature, and as the Earth changed, humans must adapt to its cycles. Indigenous peoples occupied 20 per cent of Earth’s territory and represented 5,000 indigenous cultures, accounting for most of the world’s cultural diversity. The areas they inhabited were those with the greatest biocultural diversity. Highlighting the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned land, she added that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development emphasized the importance of nature and sustainable lifestyles.
Ms. HOSKEN, quoting Thomas Berry, the father of Earth jurisprudence, said the industrial process was in its terminal phase and it was vital to transform all modern industrial institutions, from economics to religion to governance. Nature and indigenous traditions could be the primary source of inspiration for that change. Sharing lessons from a series of dialogues that she had co-facilitated with more than 100 community and civil society leaders on the shores of Lake Albert, she said the Gaia Foundation was developing experience-based learning, and a three-year training course that would enable Earth Jurisprudence practitioners to become “animators” in their own countries. In 2016, the Expert Report on Earth Jurisprudence, submitted to the General Assembly, had emphasized the importance of ensuring that an Earth-centered world view underpinned the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Mr. BOSSELMAN said the United Nations should provide a forum for a high-level dialogue promoting the idea of nation-States as trustees of the Earth. The ethics of Earth stewardship were an integral part of the world’s religions and indeed humanity’s cultural heritage, and those ethics had never been more topical than today. Earth trusteeship was the essence of what Earth jurisprudence advocated, and was expressed in 25 international agreements, from the 1982 World Charter for Nature, through to the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. Calling on the international community to think beyond the paradigm of sovereign nation-States, he added that despite the deeply rooted conservatism in the United Nations system, the Organization was the only hope for humanity because the problems were only worsening.
Mr. BROWN said the current economic model appeared to represent the Earth as “a hotel room that would always have a plug and a waste basket”. There were many problematic assumptions in that model, which considered the economy to be an isolated system not connected to biophysical realities. That had resulted in radical inequality. Highlighting the notion of planetary limits, he added that an “economics of Earth” would acknowledge that the human project was too big and too toxic. Humans had a duty to use the Earth’s resources in a thrifty way, incorporating energy equilibrium and “compassionate retreat” from increasing consumption.
Ms. SHEEHAN said that sustainability as a concept should guide humanity to improve the health of the biosphere rather than prop up harmful consumption and production practices. The United Nations had acknowledged that the human right to water was a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights. But she wondered how humans could have that right if water itself did not have the right to exist and thrive. Highlighting recent actions, such as legislation passed in New Zealand and two court decisions in India which recognized the legal personhood of ecosystems and species, she called on the international community to create a self-perpetuating system, designed to generate development and investment behavior that regularly advanced net positive impacts for human and ecological communities.
In the ensuing discussion, many speakers emphasized that humans were part of nature. They also highlighted the importance of tapping into indigenous ancestral wisdom regarding balance and harmony with nature, with some speakers asking about the possibility of an international court for Earth rights and measures for promoting information about indigenous traditions.
The representative of Ecuador said her country’s Constitution went beyond the traditional view of nature as a resource to be exploited. Ecuador promoted a bio-centric culture and its criminal law codified crimes against nature. Human existence depended on the adoption of sustainable consumption and production patterns and of a green economy, she said, which was also in accordance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The representative of Cuba asked if it would be possible to achieve sustainable development by 2030, based on the current models of consumption and production.
The representative of Nicaragua underscored the need to change lifestyles in favor of living in harmony with nature. Developing countries were most affected by the impact of extreme weather, although they were the least responsible. Climate change directly affected Nicaragua’s food security, he said, noting that the 17 biggest greenhouse gas emitters produced about 75 per cent of carbon emissions. There should be a mechanism for compensating developing countries for the damage caused by climate change.
Mr. BROWN, referring to Albert Einstein, replied that the separateness of the human self was a useful illusion for humans. But the goal of human maturity was to feel the embeddedness of humans in nature, which was what the philosopher George Santayana had referred to as a kind of piety, he added.
Ms. SHEEHAN said there was a growing call for an international law, along the lines of a universal declaration of rights of Mother Earth. During negotiations in Paris, an international tribunal had addressed the violations of nature’s rights, thereby providing a model for an international court to hear those issues.
Mr. BOSSELMAN said the Western legal tradition was based on individual human rights and did not have a full concept of Earth rights. While there was anecdotal evidence of States assuming trusteeship over their territories, Western Governments still struggled with that logic. Most constitutions were based on the idea of private property and did not take the integrity of ecological systems into account.
Ms. HOSKEN said that even in the Western world, there had once been an understanding that nature was the foundation of life. It was crucial not to reduce humans to consumers. The production of food locally and respectfully was a crucial aspect of that shifting consciousness.
Mr. BROWN added that the current economic system would not bring the world to sustainable development by 2030 because it was “measuring the wrong things”.
Ms. ROY-HENRIKSEN noted that the United Nations did have a system-wide action plan for raising awareness on the rights of indigenous people.
Also speaking were representatives of Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, India, and Nepal, as well as stakeholders from various civil society groups.
Moderating the afternoon panel discussion, on developing countries, was Mr. Islas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The panel featured presentations by: Jean-Paul Mertinez, Producer and Studio Director, Illumina Studios & Media Ltd., United Kingdom; Germana de Oliveira Moraes, Professor of Constitutional Law, Federal University of Ceará, Federal Judge, and Co-Founder, Pachamama Nation, Brazil; and Pallav Das, Co-Founder, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, environment and communications consultant, India.
Mr. MERTINEZ, addressing the theme “Focus Pulling: How the arts can inspire citizens and society to interact with the natural world”, said the arts, design and media fields offered many opportunities to foster a collective shift towards sustainability. While existing approaches reinforcing anthropocentric views must be altered, there appeared to be a genuine hunger for change. The hedonistic “me” trend must give way to a view that reflected the common good. Indigenous views must be represented. In the current consumption crisis, a new model for design and media was needed, he said, underscoring the importance of inspiring citizens and societies to reconsider how they interacted with nature. As such, Earth jurisprudence should be included and applied to the implementation of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Ms. MORAES, in a presentation on “The Rights of Mother Earth and Humanity: Harmony with nature as a precondition for sustainable development”, said indigenous peoples provided an understanding of Mother Earth, as reflected in laws in Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and other countries. Reconciling that ancestral perception with a development perspective required an understanding that the rights of Mother Earth and harmony with nature were preconditions for sustainable development. Human rights depended on nature’s rights, she said, adding that implementing the 2030 Agenda hinged on respecting “harmony with nature principles”. In Brazil and other countries, social movements and networks mobilized to propose related laws and policies. She urged all stakeholders to engage in a robust action plan facilitated by the United Nations.
Mr. DAS, focusing on the theme “Rights of Nature: Emerging judicial and civil society convergence in India”, cited a range of examples of how court rulings had affected real change. Among them were recent High Court rulings that had declared land and waterways as legal entities, indicating that Government bodies were expected to act on their behalf for their protection and conservation. Climate change had increased temperatures, triggering the Gangotri glacier and causing swollen river flows in the Ganga basin. Noting that the basin contained 5 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, with 50 cities generating almost 3 million litres of sewage daily, he said the High Court ruling had brought environmental protection to a new level, prompting mining prohibitions and other protection-related activities.
In the ensuing dialogue, participants asked a range of questions, including how new media and design models could be created locally. Speakers also requested that panellists provide examples of laws recognizing ecosystems and legal precedents that could be used to protect other areas.
Mr. DAS said the Government of India was reviewing a draft declaration on the fundamental rights of the Ganga Basin. Sacred areas were also being recognized across the country, he said, citing a case in which the court had ruled against mining corporations and recognized the rights of local tribal and indigenous populations.
Ms. MORAES cited cases of the “rights of rivers” being recognized in Latin America, including one in Ecuador. Such rights often began with recognition of water systems, he said, adding that changing views could trigger similar actions. Implementing a new world view could begin with the economy or education, but the best way to foster change was to start by examining the feelings of indigenous and other cultures about the Earth.
Mr. MERTINEZ said filmmakers and other artists must first embrace the visions they were promoting. Citing a British Academy of Film and Television Arts carbon-testing programme intended to monitor and reduce the environmental footprint arising from productions, he said discussions within the industry were also examining how related messages could be transported onto the screen.
The Assembly also heard interventions by stakeholders from civil society groups, universities and non-governmental organizations.