Sustainability has few right answers. Any decision creates so many ripples, affects so may different but interconnected things, that no one can hope to foresee — or understand — all the consequences.
The challenge, therefore, is to anticipate as many ripples as possible, assess as many consequences as possible, and in the end, choose a course that will support living things, in all their complexity, as best as possible.
That sounds pretty complicated, but it’s not. It’s a matter of how much we care.
There’s an old native saying : « We don’t inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.’’ When I think of sustainability in those terms, it’s much less intimidating.
The welfare of children is always in the thoughts of parents. They ask a million questions, they assess a million responses. If they thought about this in the abstract, if they fretted about the paucity of right answers, it would be intimidating. But because they do it day in and day out, because they search out the widest range of opinion when concerns arise — because they cherish their children — it seems like the natural order of things.
Sustainability is much the same. After caring, the three most important factors are process, process, and process — how well we search out choices.
All of which brings me to one of the most ambitious undertakings in terms of process that I’ve come across.
It seeks to involve the peoples of the world in drafting an Earth Charter that will be similar in concept to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
« We want it to be a people’s charter,’’ Bill Holt told me at a meeting in Toronto. Holt is treasurer of the Earth Council, an organization set up by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the close of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Its purpose is « to keep the spirit of Rio alive.’’ Holt is also chairman of ESSA Technologies Group Ltd., a Vancouver company that focuses on environmental technologies, and vice-chairman of Consoltex Group Inc., the second largest public textile company in Canada.
Maurice Strong, former chairman of Ontario Hydro and secretary general of the Earth Summit, is chairman of the Earth Council. It has offices, and a staff of 40, in San José, Costa Rica.
« This will not be a document submitted to governments for their amendment,’’ Holt said. « We intend this to be the voice of the people.’’
The council wants the United Nations to adopt it by January 1, 2000. But for that to happen, Holt said, and for individual governments to respect it, the council had to create a process for drafting the charter that would give it legitimacy. « In a sense we’ve created a political process that governments will be able to act on.’’
The council is depending on networking to involve people at grassroot levels. It is linked to broad based NGOs such as the World Council of Churches, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Amnesty International, the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, and the Women’s Environment and Development Organization.
They, in turn, are involving their individual networks…and so on down the line. The aim is to have a Rio-Plus-5 conference in Rio de Janeiro in March to debate a draft charter and to assess progress in the five years since the Earth Summit.
The Earth Council will then finalize the draft and present it to a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in June.
The council is also looking at the possibility of taking on the role of an ombudsman. Once there is a charter, Holt said, and if the council has established its credibility, perhaps it can become an environmental watchdog somewhat like Amnesty International is in the field of human rights.
If you want to get involved, you can call Stephanie Foster, executive director of Earth Council – Canada, in Toronto, at (416)203-8601. Or you can visit the Earth Council web server at http:/www.ecouncil.ac.cr. Or you can access a Canadian web site established by Stephen Purdey, a principal in WTT Communications Ltd. of Toronto and an environmental consultant, at WWW.earthcharter.org/online/.