What does the Earth Charter teach us about ethics, value systems and the vision of the future that are not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Ricardo Young, February 2022 

We know, and no one questions, the fundamental role that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has played for human dignity, democracy and individual freedoms. However, the UDHR arises in a context in which the countries were exhausted by the World War II and all the arbitrariness committed by the State to the detriment of the citizen reached its extreme with the holocaust and the millions of lives taken by the war. Not only was a historical halt to the tyrannical abuse of state power over the citizens necessary, but it was also necessary to recognize human dignity above national, racial, religious and ethnic differences. The resentments left by the war and the enormous wounds in the relations between peoples prompted a profound revision of the set of values and the behavior of the society of nations in the difficult post-war recovery. 

Another important aspect of the UDHR is its characteristic of a normative, declaratory and imposing treaty. Despite the voluntary adherence of the Nation States committing to bring it to its national regulation, the document affirms universal rights from the intrinsic concept that the values postulated therein are shared by all and whose moral force is self-explanatory. This ends up giving the Declaration a formal, linear character and, above all, a normative character of the human rights of sovereign states, almost a concession of nations on the rights of citizens. The historical moment demanded it and the Declaration had a profound humanizing and civilizing impact, playing a fundamental role in mediating future conflicts and in containing barbarism. 

Seventy-three years have passed, the 20th century has given way to the 21st century, and a new shadow has begun to hang over humanity. First, timidly, at the Stockholm Environment Conference in 1972, then in the more severe signals given by the Bruntdland Commission in 1987, followed by the first irreversible signs of destruction of ecosystems and their biodiversity in Rio-92. From then on, the events unfolded until today’s climate emergency and the conclusion that, without a new beginning, the planet and life on it are severely threatened. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, at the end of the 20th century, planetary civil society began to weave a new systemic vision of what a planetary ethic should be, a set of values that housed elements beyond humanity per se, but of the entire ecosystem that allows not only human life, but of all species as well. The need arises to abandon anthropocentrism for an ethic based on life and its systems. Here, it is the civil society of the planet that, united in a wide-ranging collaborative action, embraces the fundamental elements of human dignity in the set of values of a new declaration. And it goes further: it shows that human rights are insufficient and only the rights inherent to all species give meaning to humanity itself. The Earth Charter emerges as the next stage of human rights. Now, incorporating the right to life; the new human condition as guardian of the planetary community. 

The most important thing is what the Earth Charter teaches us in the context of the Climate Crisis. The sustainable development envisioned through the SDGs and enshrined in the Paris Climate Conference as the only way to reduce the effects of climate change, depends in its 17 goals and 169 targets, on an integrated systemic vision, but above all ethical. It is not possible to implement the SDGs from an anthropocentric point of view; it is not possible to implement them in a compartmentalized and linear way; it is not possible to implement them without a new civilizational commitment that abandons the dominant and, at times, looting vision of the highly destructive and predatory community of life. Companies talk about Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) countries, the Paris and Glasgow Agreement, carbon credit markets, but they don’t see the ethics behind these issues. Maintaining the logic of pursuing carbon emission indicators, or opportunities in the green economy or even the implementation of the SDGs, the sum of efforts will be zero, as it has been. 

Just as the UDHR provided the ethical principles that guided humanity in its diplomatic relations, disputes, conflicts and peace resolutions, between humans; the Earth Charter offers the ethical reference so that humanity, at its highest level of collaboration, can regenerate the planetary ecosystem and heal itself from the civilization disease of which it is ill. The affirmation of human rights in the context of the greater right to life and the responsibility to preserve it for future generations, understanding life as a whole and the planet as our common home, gives the Earth Charter an unprecedented reference for a new sense of civilization, integrated into the destiny of the planet. Social and environmental responsibility are not just goals to be achieved, but a way of thinking and acting without which it will not be possible to access the knowledge that can redeem humanity and the community of life on the planet from the threat that hangs over us. 

Ricardo Young

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Entrepreneur, born in São Paulo, Capital, was president of the Ethos Institute and the ABF Brazilian Association of Franchising. With an entrepreneurial vision, he transformed the family business, Yazigi Internexus Language School, into one of the largest franchise cases in the world. In his youth, he participated in the student movement in the struggles against the dictatorship and for democratic freedoms. He is a post-graduate in business administration, he joined the NTEB – National Thought for Entrepreneurial Bases, having contributed to the project for the adoption of public schools by companies and the creation of the NTEB institute that developed the project “My street, my house” for people without housing. At the head of the Ethos Institute, he had an important participation in international forums, such as the United Nations Global Compact, the Global Report Initiative and ISO 26000 – Guidelines on Social Responsibility. He is a member of the Boards of Non-Governmental Organizations such as Instituto Ethos and UniEthos, IDS – Instituto Democracia e Sustentabilidade. Everyone for Education, Akatu Institute, Rede Nossa São Paulo.

Ricardo Young was also the initiator of the Integrity Pact to Fight Corruption and a pioneer in the fight for sustainability as one of the promoters of the Earth Charter in Brazil and a signatory of the “Brasil with an S” Manifesto. He participated in the founding of the Nossa São Paulo Movement and the Sustainable Amazon Forum. He was a councilor for the city of São Paulo, for the PPS. Ricardo Young believes in the rescue and resignification of politics as a legitimate instrument to transform society and serve the citizen.