Panel discusses UN Earth Charter

Interfaith Council adds religious perspective to global declaration of goals and aspirations

The Earth Charter hopes to promote discussion about the principles upon which international civil society should function.
The Earth Charter hopes to promote discussion about the principles upon which international civil society should function.

Last Wednesday evening, the Interfaith Council at Queen’s hosted a panel of four speakers to discuss various religious perspectives on the United Nations’ Earth Charter.

The Earth Charter is an authoritative synthesis of views from around the world. It is an expression of values, aspirations and principles that are built on philosophy, contemporary science, international law and religion. The Earth Charter has undergone extensive consultation on an international level. Non-government organizations, professionals in the field and community groups from around the world have given their input to the charter. The charter hopes to generate dialogue and debate about the moral and ethical principles upon which international civil society should function.

Each speaker on the panel was assigned to address a different principle of the Earth Charter document. Sister Shirley Morris from the Sisters of Providence spoke on the “Respect and Care for the Community of Life” principle of the Charter.

Morris said that humankind must show love and respect for the planet’s diverse inhabitants. Such compassion demonstrates respect for God and leads to deeper fulfillment, she said.

Morris said caring for the environment also involves loving all living creatures—animals as well as humans.

“A moral universe is one that includes all life,” Morris said.

Morris said that Canadians are among the planet’s most wasteful inhabitants and must show respect for the earth’s ecological limits. She suggested we show restraint from consumerism, create greener households, decrease our consumption of fossil fuels and purchase locally produced food to reverse wasteful patterns.

James Miller, assistant professor in the department of religious studies at Queen’s and chair of the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology, discussed the “Ecological Integrity” principle of the Earth Charter.

Miller discussed biodiversity and the sensitivity of the earth’s various species. He said extinction rates are occurring at a much higher level today than in the past. He stressed that human life is highly dependent on the health of other species.

“Human life is intertwined with the lives of many other species,” Miller said.

He also emphasized the need to protect the natural environment.

Miller suggested that humans are usually aware of the harm that we are causing the environment, but have not made enough of an effort to do anything about it. In the past few years, scientists and religious leaders have begun to join their efforts to protect and preserve the environment through educational conferences and the formation of new organizations.

Miller said society must change its current patterns of production and consumption. “Our systems of economics and culture promote production and consumption that doesn’t take into account ecological impacts,” Miller said.

He said we often fail to notice the environmental impacts caused by common items such as a single bottle of water. The problem with the environment is not just a local problem, but also a global one, he said.

“We are living in an ecologically bankrupt fashion,” Miller said. “We must calculate the environmental cost of everything we do.”

Queen’s Chaplain Reverend Brian Yealland shared his perspectives on the “Social and Economic Justice” principle of the Earth Charter.

“Our spirituality as human beings has a lot to do with our sustainability,” Yealland said while discussing the protection of places of spiritual significance.

Yealland stressed the need to look at the bigger picture, and see other people as equals to ourselves. We need to realize that the well-being of one person depends on the well-being of people on the other side of the earth, he said.

Yealland said the Earth Charter recognizes the need to think communally, but stressed that seeing beyond oneself is not an easy task.

He said humans may be prone to selfishness and exhibit a natural tendency to hoard things for themselves. This results in social and economic injustice, he said.

“The result of these actions is disparity from those who have too much and those who have too little,” Yealland said.

He said it is problematic that many governments seem to easily find money to fund wars on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, but do not allocate resources to combat global poverty and hunger.

Yealland said the Earth Charter’s goal of redistribution of wealth and well-being is necessary in order to promote justice and peace in the world.

“It is a supreme goal of all religions that all must be well,” Yealland said. “Unless all are cared for, none are well.”

Tony Meers, general director of SGI Canada, a Buddhist organization, discussed the fourth principle of the Earth Charter, “Democracy, Nonviolence and Peace.”

Meers said humankind has failed to create the culture of peace needed for a sustainable future. Instead, we have too often lived in a culture of war and discrimination, he said.

“Views of humans being separate from everything else leads to discrimination,” Meers said, adding these views must be dramatically changed in order to promote peace.

Education is the way to help change some of our current environmental and societal problems and promote a concern for the community, Meers said.

“Enabling others to share common concerns spreads the notion of peace,” he said.

Meers referenced Gandhi and urged that we must be the change that we wish to see.

“When a person can see the effects of their actions, they will change their actions,” Meers said.

While each speaker came from a different background, each shared common perspectives on the goals and principles of the Earth Charter. All agreed that the UN’s Earth Charter holds the key to a sustainable future.

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