An Ethical Framework for the Sustainable Development Goals: Ruud Lubbers and the Earth Charter Initiative

By Fronika de Wit

On February 14, 2018, Dutch former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers passed away at the age of 78. Lubbers was the Netherlands youngest and longest-serving Prime Minister, governing the country between 1982 and 1994. When I received the news, I immediately remembered the time I had the chance to meet Mr. Lubbers in person. About 12 years ago, on January 28 2006, I was invited to a meeting of the newly established Earth Charter Youth Network. Ruud Lubbers was there to promote the Earth Charter: A declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society for the 21st century. When reading this definition nowadays, it is easy to draw a link with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As a tribute to Ruud Lubbers, this post compares the Earth Charter Principles with the SDGs, shows how they are complementary frameworks, and emphasizes how the SDGs could use Ruud´s Earth Charter as ethical inspiration.

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Earth Charter Ambassador Ruud Lubbers in 2016. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruud_Lubbers

The idea for the Earth Charter was born in 1992 at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and a draft version was then developed. However, the time was not right and achieving consensus among Heads of State was difficult. In 1994, Chairman of the Earth Summit Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev started the Earth Charter drafting process as a civil society initiative.  After a highly inclusive and participatory process, they were able to reach global consensus on the meaning of sustainability and the challenge of sustainable development. The Earth Charter was presented in March 2000, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Bringing together the visions of people and organizations from all over the world, the Earth Charter is a strong example of bottom-up development and represents the world´s common goals and shared values.

The Charter is divided into 4 sections: I. Respect and Care for the Community of Life; II. Ecological Integrity; III. Social and Economic Justice; and IV Democracy, Nonviolence and Peace. Each section contains 4 principles, with a total of 16 principles. When comparing the 16 Earth Charter-Principles (ECPs) with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we can see a lot of overlap: ECP 9 and SDG 1 both talk about eradicating poverty; ECPs 3 and 16 and SDG 16 about peace and justice; ECPs 2 and 7 and SDGs 11 and 12 about sustainable lifestyles. However, there is a big difference in wording: where SDG 11 talks about  “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, ECP 2 refers to Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love”. Also, the Earth Charter holds a more holistic view of the world: where the SDGs look at Climate (SDG13), Life below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15) separately, the ECPs refer to the integrity of Earth´s ecological systems and recognize the interdependence of ecological protection, equitable economic development and social justice.

The Earth Charter is more focussed on the ethical and spiritual dimension of sustainable development. Ruud Lubbers, who was a very active Earth Charter Embassador, called this the fourth ´P´: People, Planet, Profit and Pneuma. Pneuma comes from the ancient Greek word for “breath” and in a religious context for “spirit” or “soul”. Lubbers was expressing the need to include spirituality in what we are doing and the way we address challenges. This is where the Earth Charter brings an added value to the SDGs: it provides an ethical framework for putting the SDGs into practice. Now the question rises: why were the SDGs accepted by the UN General Assembly and the Earth Charter not? Although the Charter was meant to be adopted in 1995 (and then postponed to 2000), until today it has not been adopted as an official UN document. It is actually an example of one of the most vigorously contested conflicts between bottom-up and top-down environmental governance. The language used in the Charter does not comply with what a UN document should look like and, even more important, there is a fundamental incompatibility of ideologies.  The SDGs emphasize economic development, environmental management to serve human need and top-down environmental governance. The Charter on the other hand, is ambivalent about further economic growth and its supporters attribute intrinsic value to non-human entities.

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The 17 UN-Sustainable Development Goals were launched in 2015. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_Development_Goals

In my opinion, the SDGs have a rather Eurocentric perspective of “Sustainable Development” and do not incorporate different worldviews of the Global South. The Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar summarizes these worldviews from the South as a search for post-development instead of the Western post-modernity. An example of a worldview from the Global South is the concept of Sumak Kawsay, the Quechua word for ´Good Living´. Based on indigenous ontologies, it stands for a a harmonious collective development that conceives of the individual within the context of the social and cultural communities and his or her natural environment. Another perspective coming from the Global South and strongly linked to the Earth Charter is the Rights of Nature Movement. Rights of Nature is the recognition and honoring that Nature has rights.

Although it was the intention of the Earth Charter to bring something new and inspiring, something out-of-the-box, the UN prefers to stay inside its Western worldview-box. With the mobile app Mapting, developed in Costa Rica in 2016, you can discover more connections between the Earth Charter and the SDGs. Mapting, a contraction of “Mapping” and “Acting”, is a platform where you can share and browse positive actions. Unfortunately, the Earth Charter will not make it further than an online platform, simply because it does not fit the UN-mold. Nevertheless, Ruud Lubbers´ “People’s Earth Declaration” is an example of a more bottom-up, inclusive approach to Sustainable Development and connects the targets (SDGs) with the fundamental shared values that we need to get there.


Fronika de Wit is a PhD student at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (Doctoral Programme in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies). fronikadewit@gmail.com

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