Expanding worldviews through the lens of The Earth Charter: a MAHB Dialogue with Mirian Vilela, Executive Director, Earth Charter International

Geoffrey Holland | December 23, 2021 | Leave a Comment

Crafted by visionaries twenty years ago, the Earth Charter is a document of sixteen principles that turn conscience into action. It seeks to inspire in all people with a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole human family, and the greater community of life. 


Geoffrey Holland – What is the Earth Charter?

Mirian Vilela – We can say the Earth Charter involves a global movement, a document, and an institution. As a document, it offers an ethical foundation for our decisions that seek the common good. It serves as a guide that can lead us to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world. 

GH – How did the Earth Charter emerge, and how can the world benefit from it?

MV – The Earth Charter emerged out of a vision of several leaders and visionaries who identified, back in the mid-80s, the urgent need to change the course of things and the problems with shortsighted and fragmented approaches to development that was taking humanity to a path of peril and destruction. The original idea first appeared in the Brundtland Commission Report (Our Common Future) that articulated the importance of a new charter that would guide humanity towards a more sustainable future. It then became part of the Rio 92 historical effort (over 30 years ago) and following that a broad and participatory process took place to reflect diverse views in the end product. From the outset, it was important to ensure this would emerge from a multicultural and multisectoral process of consultation and drafting. The central question was: what are the shared values that can guide humanity towards a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world? Research on existing instruments of international environmental law that were created between 1972 and around the year 2000 also served as the basis of the Charter. The Earth Charter can be seen as a guide that articulates the ethical foundations that we share as humans beyond our cultural differences and interests. If we think of a house, normally we see the walls, we see the roof, and we see the windows, but we don’t necessarily see the foundations of the house, but it’s the foundation that is holding the house together, right?  

So, if we look at the Earth, and humanity as a community, the Earth Charter offers an ethical foundation or guideline for our Earth community. We can say that the legitimacy of the Charter comes from three things: 

Its comprehensive and inclusive vision. What is articulated here is not just about environmental issues, not just about human rights and social justice, or issues related to peace and democracy. 

The legitimacy of the Charter also comes from the patient and deliberate process from which it emerged. It was not just a group of scholars who put it together. 

And lastly, its legitimacy comes from the actual movement that exists around the Charter since its launch in June 2000. There are people from around the world, from universities and civil society organizations, maybe local governments, etcetera, that have looked at the Charter, embraced it, and are using it in creative ways. There is also room for creativity and interpretation and adaptation of the Charter. 

Finally, to answer your question, people can use the Earth Charter as a guide, as an ethical compass, as a reference for decision making and policymaking. We have more and more people using it as an educational instrument to stimulate dialogue about what kind of world we all must be working for.

GH – What progress has been made to build consensus behind the Earth Charter, and what are some of the challenges you’re dealing with?

MV – Well, progress was made in building consensus between around 1996 and the year 2000. That’s when the Charter was being drafted based on a growing consensus. There were different groups of interests with different views and priorities engaged in the process of dialogue that went with the drafting of the Charter. Since its launch in the year 2000, a lot of effort went through in translating the Charter into over 60 major languages from around the world. We also see progress in the Charter’s use as a reference for policy and decision-making in places like Mexico and Costa Rica. 

You also asked about challenges. What are some of our challenges? I think the first one is people’s mindsets and worldviews. Too many have a mindset of separateness, of fragmentation, considering humans superior to nature or separated from it. It’s a challenge to overcome that thinking to move from fragmentation to systemic and integrated thinking. Hence, the challenge the Earth Charter seeks to address is to elevate and expand our consciousness that we are all part of the larger community of life. In the Preamble, and also throughout the document, the Charter articulates a poetic language to enhance our capacity to feel part of a community of life. So, it is a challenge to expand our consciousness with regard to how we see ourselves and how we ought to find common ground with people from other cultures. The Earth Charter is motivation to move away from short-sighted, fragmented thinking to a more long-term thinking and more holistic approach to our being.

GH – The economics and politics that currently dominate the world stage depend on constant growth and a “winner take all” mentality. Can the Earth Charter work under those circumstances?

MV – Well, the Charter goes against these currents and worldviews, right? So, precisely the Earth Charter invites us to move away from that kind of mentality and can be used to expand our worldviews. The Charter is showing us a different way of seeing the world, not from a competitive lens, but one of cooperation, not from a lens that limits our sense of care and responsibility only to our close family or friends but expands it to the community of life.

It’s an invitation for us to move away from this mentality of national interest or self-interest. It’s about amplifying our views and amplifying our sense of consciousness with regard to the importance of wellbeing, not only of people but also the wellbeing of the community of life. The Charter is moving away from an anthropocentric mentality to one that is more life-centric, that respects nature’s design.

GH – What are some of the strategies Earth Charter International is employing to build global consensus?

MV – Okay, so I think we are not using the idea of global consensus, but we are looking at strategies to have a shared vision in terms of how we ought to relate to one another, where we should be heading to as a human family and how we ought to get there. We do have two strong focuses: one is on youth, the other one is on educators. What does that mean? We seek to engage, empower, and educate young leaders to embrace the more life-centric worldview that is articulated in the Earth Charter. This involves a worldview that is concerned with the wellbeing of the community of life, not just the wellbeing of humans. We need more ethical and caring leaders and for that, we need to expand our understanding of the common good. 

That’s why over the past 20 years, a significant part of our work is focused on engaging and empowering young people. We are encouraging and enhancing the capacity of young people to become ethical leaders and use the Earth Charter as an ethical reference, as an ethical compass for their decisions and actions. The other strategy is focused on educators. We see the important role education and educators have in influencing our worldviews. Education needs to cultivate the values of a more caring world more explicitly, the values of more ecological and civilized citizens. We encourage people to see the Earth Charter as an ethical guide and incorporate it in their sphere of work and action in any region of the world. So, we are empowering people from all walks of life to embrace and make use of the Earth Charter’s sixteen Principles. It’s about the empowerment of people.

GH – It appears the United States and Canada are places where the Earth Charter has not been widely embraced. Why do you think that is so, and what are you and your team doing to try to remedy that?  

MV – Yes, it’s true, it seems there is some lack of interest or indifference to this kind of effort. Somehow, there are more young leaders and educators who are interested in engaging with the Earth Charter and in seeing the world through its lenses from Latin America, Africa, or Europe than in North America. The language shouldn’t be a problem because we work a lot in English. A lot of materials and resources are in English. Our wish would be to have more individuals and partner organizations in North America that embrace the Charter. In our global movement, we want to engage people in seeing beyond national borders and national interests. When people have lived comfortably, maybe it is more difficult for them to engage in processes of social transformation. We need to make bridges across cultures, so we can better understand one another. We want to encourage cross-cultural communication, intercultural communication. It’s very hard to care for things and places you don’t even know to exist. So, to care for others and to care for the larger living world, we need to have a sense of proximity and connection. That’s why principle two of the Earth Charter urges us to care for the community of life with understanding,

GH – What can you say about the collaboration between Earth Charter International, and the United Nations, the World Bank, and other organizations in implementing the principles of the Earth Charter?

MV – Earth Charter International has been collaborating with the United Nations over the past 20 years or more, especially with UNESCO and UNEP, the UN Environment Program. We have not collaborated with World Bank. Any of these international intergovernmental network organizations such as the UN, the World Bank, have their own limitations because they work with their member states, at the government level, each of which comes to the table with their own interests. 

One advantage the Earth Charter has is that we function in a sphere that is across national boundaries and across cultural boundaries. We offer a global movement with an ethical framework and guide that invites us to see our role and ethical responsibility as global citizens as part of the community of life. So, given that the UNESCO and UN 2030 agenda and others are strongly articulating the importance of a shift in the way we see education, we have had over the past 16 years a very strong collaboration with UNESCO to incorporate the values and principles of sustainability, as articulated in Earth Charter as an instrument for teaching and learning. In 2012, we have established the UNESCO chair on education for sustainable development that is located here in San Jose, Costa Rica, where I am based. As Executive Director of Earth Charter International, I coordinate the work of the UNESCO Chair, which has a specific interest in that intersection between the idea of sustainability, sustainability values, ethics, and education.

GH – How should the Earth Charter be used to teach schoolchildren about the rights and responsibilities that go with planetary citizenship?

MV – There are so many ideas that are articulated in the Earth Charter that are critically important for our current times. If we are to become a more caring and ethical and ecological civilization, we need to work very hard through our education system and processes. So, the Charter can be used as an instrument to help young people to consider how they are connected to the larger living world; how they are related to people from other cultures, in other regions. There are many key ideas that are articulated in the Charter, such as the community of life, care and respect for the community of life, and the whole notion of the Earth community that is articulated in the Charter’s preamble. 

Imagine if these concepts and ideas were more often incorporated into our learning experience. There are so many concepts in the Charter that can be brought into any school subject, including the sciences, history, or even mathematics by a creative teacher. Teachers can use the Charter to nurture in their students a sense of responsibility to the common good and planetary stewardship. We are all citizens of one nation or another, right? In school, students learn what citizenship involves. We go to school and learn the importance of being faithful or having a sense of patriotism to that territory that we belong to. That idea of citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. However, students are not necessarily taught the worldview of planetary citizenship. Yes, we belong to a nation, to a country, to a culture; but at the same time, each of us belongs to a larger Earth community. We are citizens of planet Earth. With that comes the responsibility to care for the common good of our planet; to care for the wellbeing, not only of people but the wellbeing of the larger living biosphere we all depend on. This is reflected in the Earth Charter. It can be used by any teacher starting with kindergarten, primary school, secondary school, and higher education to nourish a sense of caring for the larger living world. We must learn that we are not superior to nature, we are part of nature’s design. With that, we have an obligation to be proper stewards of all life on Earth.

GH – What role can women play in supporting and promoting the earth chart? 

MV – When I think about the role of women, I see it as strengthening and amplifying that voice of sensitivity in the processes of decision making, a voice that brings a sense of compassion to the contexts and encourages meaningful processes of collaboration. It’s that sensitivity that comes not only with the use of our brain, and our cognition, but comes with our feelings, and with our whole self. Men and women, we all have our feminine and our masculine sides. But women are particularly wired for nurturing, for caring, for a special sensitivity towards the needs of others. In general, women bring a sense of caring, flexibility, and sensitivity to the process of social transformation. That is of vital importance for the survival of life on Earth.

GH – In your view, what does the fate of the Earth Charter depend on?

MV – I think it depends on the people who are making it alive by using the Charter as an ethical instrument or a guide, as an ethical reference, as an ethical framework. It depends on how people from different generations make use of it. Think about a symphony created over two hundred years ago, such as a symphony by Mozart. What is the fate of such a symphony if people were not listening, using it, or making their own interpretation of it? It could have died, however, people continue to appreciate the Mozart Symphony now, even though many years have passed since its creation, because we have many generations of people who have been inspired by it, playing and interpreting it, and appreciating it in different ways. But it’s always the same collection of music notes. 

So, I think the fate of the Earth Charter depends on people from all walks of life, children, adults, scholars, and activists, policymakers, leaders in the business world, and leaders in the public sphere, appreciating the vision that is articulated in the Earth Charter and making use of it by incorporating it as part of their actions. The Charter’s fate depends on people from all walks of life, regions of the world, and across cultures that see the value of it in motivating what they are doing as stewards of the natural world we all depend on.

The Earth Charter’s sixteen Principles can also be found here.

Mirian Vilela is Executive Director of Earth Charter International, which is based in San Jose, Costa Rica. She has a Ph.D. In Education, and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.