Guest post by Linda Sheehan of the Earth Law Center.

In celebration of “International Mother Earth Day” in April, the United Nations General Assembly held an Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature in New York.  The Dialogue arose in part out of language in the final UN Outcome Document from the 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio +20”), which acknowledged the growing rights of nature movement and called for alternatives to Gross Domestic Product as measurements of “progress.”  In line with Rio +20, the April UN Dialogue examined how to achieve a “more ethical relationship” with the natural world through alternative economic systems that enhance the well-being of people and planet.  I was fortunate to be able to participate as part of a panel of international speakers, and addressed the significance of the rights of nature, a point echoed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his remarks.


Given that the UN will be taking up these issues in a new “High-Level Political Forum” in September, a few points bear highlighting now.  The root of “economics” is from the Greek for managing our home.  By all accounts, we have not been managing our home well.  Scientists estimate that because of our actions, the rate of extinction is now 1,000 times the average across history.  Even the World Bank is now reporting that our current climate change path will create a “transition of the Earth’s ecosystems into a state unknown in human experience.”

There is no Planet B.  We cannot separate what we do to the Earth from what we do to ourselves.  Yet, every element of our current, neoliberal economic system is intertwined with the idea that the natural world is property. We trivialize the fullness of life and diversity of natural world by labeling its elements “resources,” so they better fit within our neoliberal economic model.  Workers, or “human resources,” are similarly treated as a cost to business, not a benefit to society.  Our economic system is feeding itself with our collective well-being, and we must find an alternative.

To use a fashionable UN phrase, is “sustainable development” our end goal?  Or should we be aiming for sustainable (or better yet, “thriving”) communities of humans and ecosystems flourishing together?  Both types of communities are intimately connected, and both must be served by – not serve – the economy.

What kind of economic system serves the goal of thriving communities?  Adam Smith, credited with neoclassical economic theories that evolved into the destructive neoliberal system driving the planet to ruin today, provides important and generally-overlooked insights.  Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that the “chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being beloved” – by those closest to us, and within our larger communities.  Smith believed that “wise and virtuous” person was “at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest” – contrary to the motive of individual wealth maximization that drives economics today.  In fact, Smith firmly believed that “[t]he rate of profit … is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.”  This is borne out by our misguided use of GDP as an indicator of well-being, rather than recognizing that GDP grows with the expansion of harmful goods and actions.

The ethical qualities that create happy, prosperous homes and communities – love, cooperation, friendship, duty – both arise from and create strong relationships.  We have discarded these ethics, however, in favor of an economic system premised on separation and greed.  We can do better.

An essential element of this shift in perspective is realizing that relationships can flourish only if we recognize the inherent rights of their participants.  As we came over time to acknowledge the rights of people who were formerly treated as property, we began to have full, thriving relationships with them, which benefitted all.  These lessons extend to the natural world.

When the UN was drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the drafting committee observed that “the supreme value of the human person…did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing.”  So too do the rights and value of the natural world arise from existence.  We are first and foremost Earth citizens, and we must recognize the rights of ecosystems and species to exist and thrive if we are to flourish ourselves.

Acknowledgement of the rights of nature is a movement that is spreading throughout the world.  Ecuador recognized these rights in its Constitution in 2008, stating that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate.”  Under the Constitution, “[a]ny person” may “demand the observance of the rights of the natural environment before public bodies,” including rights to be “completely restored.”  Bolivia has passed two sets of laws on rights of Mother Earth, and New Zealand recognized the rights of the Whanganui River and its tributaries last summer.Earth Rights Now.

Recognition of the rights of nature is essential to help us build closer relationships with the environment that guide our actions to care for it.  But we also must specifically reject the current neoliberal economic system and replace it with alternatives such as ecological economics, which recognizes that the economy is a subset of an overarching natural world, rather than the reverse.  For example, roughly three dozen communities across the U.S. have passed local laws that both recognize the rights of nature and reject the rights of corporations over the rights of local community members to live in harmony with each other and their environment.  These laws support a community’s right to nurture its home, rather than witness its destruction.   The largest city to adopt such an ordinance is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the first West Coast city to take up this effort is Santa Monica, California, which adopted their “Sustainability Rights Ordinance” in April.

The goal of the UN’s new “high-level political forum” (HLPF) is to keep “sustainable development” high on national agendas. The first HLPF meeting will be September 24th in New York City, as the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly begins, and will address sustainable development goals that can be advanced worldwide.  Earth Law Center and other Major Groups will attend to reinforce the message that such initiatives must serve sustainable communities, rather than solely development or the neoliberal economic model that advances unsustainable development.  We must embrace actions commensurate with the sweep and importance of the challenges before us, and so must advance an economic system that guides us to fully care for each other, our communities, and the Earth as a whole, one that recognizes the rights of the natural world to thrive, and for us to prosper with it.

For more information on the UN International Mother Earth Day Dialogue, see the Harmony with Nature website, the U.N. Summary of the Dialogue, the U.N. Press release and the videos of the presentations.


Linda Sheehan is the Executive Director of the Earth Law Center, with over 20 years of environmental law and policy experience. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering with a Concentration in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; an M.P.P. from the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where she was named a Berkeley Policy Fellow; and a J.D. from the University of California’s Boalt Hall School of Law. She is a Research Affiliate with the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and is a member of the Commission on Environmental Law in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Ms. Sheehan is also Summer Faculty at Vermont Law School, where she teaches Earth Law. She is a contributing author to Exploring Wild Law: The Philosophy of Earth Jurisprudence, published by Wakefield Press in 2011; Wild Law in Practice, to be published by Routledge in 2013; and Rule of Law for Nature, to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2013. 

I celebrated Earth Day along with hundreds of other earth-conscious individuals at San Francisco’s Civic Center/UN Plaza. Everyone came out that day under a common idea: we live in a wondrous community of life that is planet Earth and that community deserves our awe, respect, and attention. There was an array of speakers and musical performances as well as booths and vendors featuring local non-profit organizations, green businesses, and organic food.

I participated in a panel discussion at the celebration on Sunday around the question of “co-creating our sustainable future – what are the successful tools for coalition building and collaboration both within and beyond your organization’s work?” I was joined by leaders of the non-profit environmental movement including Rolf Skar from Greenpeace, Sarah Hodgdon of the Sierra Club, and Kevin Connelly from the Earth Island Institute.

It was insightful to hear about the different work that each of us is doing to make the future of the planet and us humans that inhabit it more sustainable and less destructive. There was one common thread throughout the discussion and that was: in order to ensure a positive future for people and the planet we must figure out how to live in balance – or in ‘harmony’ – with nature. And, in doing so, we must also learn how to work in harmony with one another towards the common goal of protecting and conserving Mother Earth and the resources that our human societies depend on for survival.

I spoke about how the emerging global movement for community and nature’s rights works to build coalitions and develop collaborations with a wide variety of groups. Our present-day global economic system and indeed our structures of law have been built upon a mindset that places humans not just apart from, but actually above nature. We codify our values in our laws and so in order to change the system, we must transform the laws that govern it.

Polar bears making a point about climate change at Earth Day

We are building a movement and there is a role to play for everyone.

The idea of organizing to actually challenge our current structures of law to recognize that nature itself has inherent rights to exist, thrive, and flourish is a big one.  We must ask ourselves the following question: If Rights of Nature is to succeed as an alternative framework to our current property-based system of law, how are we going to implement it?

The movement for nature’s rights is unique in its ability to be all-inclusive because the dire need to better protect the environment and the concept of ‘rights’ is something that everyone can understand and agree upon, despite different political beliefs or affiliations. . Most people know that allowing decision-making based on money, greed or narrow self-interest to sacrifice the well being of the planet is foolish, they just can’t see how to move to a better way of doing things.

This is because our current structures of law actually facilitate the on-going exploitation of nature. Climate change, water withdrawal, and deforestation are all symptoms of the same problem; that communities do not have the right to make decisions about how to protect the environment under the current system. Instead, this right is reserved for corporations and the state.

In addition to our coalition building with communities, policy makers, indigenous allies, and climate justice allies, I also spoke about the role of small farmers in creating viable alternative systems to corporate-dominated agriculture. If large, corporate factory farms are not what we want our food system to look like then what is the alternative? The answer lies in small, community-based farmers selling, growing, and sharing their own food.  Food sovereignty is a growing issue for communities across CA (and the rest of the world) and we have been getting an increasing number of calls from places like Nevada City, and Mendocino, CA, where citizens are looking to pass a law that asserts their right to local food sovereignty without interference from government regulations and raids on small farms.

Occupy the Farm

Meanwhile on Earth Day, across the Bay in Albany, California, the Occupy Movement was taking a stand for local food sovereignty by taking over a portion of property known as the ‘Gill Tract’. It is the last remaining 10 acres of Class I agricultural soil in the urbanized East Bay. The owner of the land, UC Berkeley, plans to sell the property to Whole Foods to open a new retail store. For decades the UC has thwarted attempts by community members to transform the site for urban sustainable agriculture and hands-on education. In solidarity with Via Campesina, “Occupy the Farm” is a coalition of local residents, farmers, students, researchers, and activists that have begun planting over 15,000 seedlings at the Gill Tract. Over 300 people turned out on Sunday to help plant seeds and till the land.

The goals of “Occupy the Farm” echo the calls of communities across California and the US that there is a dire need for people to have access to uncontaminated land for farming if we are to reclaim control over how food is grown and where it comes from. That sustainable, community-based farming is the best alternative to corporate control (and poisoning) of our food systems.

The time for a new system is now and the well being of the planet, our health, and that of future generations absolutely depends on it. We are up against an enormous task to remove the power of decision-making from profit-driven corporations (and the state) and put it back in the hands of people and communities, thereby enabling us to co-create our sustainable future.


•    Watch this video documenting the first day of Occupy the Farm.
•    Learn more about the movement for Community and Nature’s Rights.

The following is a guest post by Danny Kennedy, President of Sungevity, Solar Home Specialists. Sungevity is offering a unique way to go solar at your home and support Global Exchange at the same time. Every customer who gets a Sungevity solar system that is reading this can raise more than $500 for Global Exchange. You can find out more here.

Earth Day is a time to reflect on how we get to take action for a better planet. It should also be a time when we consider those whose human rights and democratic rights are suppressed in such a way that they are not able to take action for a better planet. One such person is the rightful and recent President of the Maldives, Mohammed Nasheed.

Nasheed, who served as the fourth president of the Maldives from 2008 to 2012, was the first democratically elected president of this small Muslim nation in several decades. He was forced to resign in February 2012,  in a coup d’etat. His predecessor was a ruthless dictator who had had Nasheed tortured and placed in solitary confinement for being an activist and a dissident journalist. When Nasheed became what he calls the “accidental president” following a political campaign that was given great momentum by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, he set about facing the biggest threat to his country: climate change.

Nasheed famously brought attention to the cause by holding an underwater cabinet meeting near a coral reef (probably one of the most photographed government events in the country), in which he and his ministerial colleagues wore SCUBA gear while signing documents with waterproof ink against the backdrop of a coral reef. He championed climate protection at the international conferences on the subject during his presidency. This became the subject of a recent documentary film on the subject titled The Island President, which you should try to see if you can.

Perhaps his greatest effort to respond to the climate crisis was a plan to make the Maldives the first carbon-neutral country on Earth. Toward this end Nasheed jumped at the offer we at Sungevity made, in conjunction with our friends at, to put a solar electric solution on the presidential palace, a beautiful colonial building built by the British in downtown Malé, the capital of Maldives and home to about one-third of its population. Most of these people probably pass the palace every day on their way to work or school or the beach; it’s on a small island of 150,000 people, and the Muleaage, as it’s known in the local language, is right in the middle of the city. As such it was the ideal place for the president to kick off his efforts to take his country solar.

Sadly, those efforts have been set aside as he was removed from power. He is now agitating for new elections and when he wins plans to pick up where he left off by taking more buildings and whole islands in the Maldives of diesel-based electricity and onto solar. It will save his country money and demonstrate that we can get off our addiction to fossil fuels. You should consider it too – and if you go solar through Sungevity you can support Global Exchange at the same time. Every customer who gets a Sungevity solar system that is reading this can raise more than $500 for Global Exchange. See this link to understand how it works.

As in the Maldives, the model of fossil-fuel import dependency is entirely untenable. For Nasheed it is so from a national security point of view and as an economic proposition going forward. If the price of oil were to exceed $100 per barrel for an extended period of time, the country would go bankrupt. Then the oil industry would no longer deliver the fuel by ship, and the country would be left without electricity. So the president’s push to get solar energy adopted across the country make sense; indeed, it makes dollars and sense. Get a Sungevity iQuote at this website and you’ll see that it does for you too.

Shine on.

Bracelets made from re-used paper? Yep!

In honor of Earth Day, the Global Exchange Fair Trade stores are excited to offer a special deal this weekend on some of our beautiful recycled paper products from Mai Handicrafts and Project Have Hope:

Come by April 21-April 22 to receive a FREE recycled magazine bracelet from Project Have Hope when you mention the secret password “Fair for the Earth”  and purchase $20 or more in product made from recycled paper.

Why celebrate Earth Day by choosing Fair Trade? Because environmental sustainability is inextricably linked to social & economic sustainability. When our economic system is based on massive profit accumulation at the expense of the workers and the environment–we cannot simply celebrate Earth Day by planting a tree and calling it day.

Should we all plant a tree on April 22? Sure. But imagine networks of cooperatively-run Fair Trade tree-nurseries that generate income opportunities for local farmers and fund biodiversity education for children. That project could bear a lot more fruit than one lone tree.

Women in the Acholi quarter in Uganda receive a reliable monthly payment for their beads. Photo Courtesy of Project Have Hope.

As one vision of an alternative market economy, Fair Trade can provide an important connection between creative thinking around solutions to inequality, and waste diversion.

What does that mean, exactly?

Many Fair Trade organizations and businesses work with individuals whose resources are “limited”—this is where  creativity and waste can come together sustainably.

Here’s one example: The women who work with Project Have Hope turn to local printing presses for low cost “reject” paper, or simply collect scrap paper from magazines, posters, whatever is available locally. This low cost raw material is then up-cycled into beautiful paper bead jewelry, providing economic stability for the women, plus educational opportunities for them and their children.

Mai Handicraft artisan weaver Chut is able to work at home, which allows her to also take care of her children when her husband is busy. Photo Courtesy of Richard Else & Traidcraft.

Creative re-use is an important element of the Fair Trade economy. In a world of excessive production and waste, it is a radical step towards recognizing the value of local resources, both material and immaterial, to generate better standards of living without resorting to dependence on charity. Through the work of organizations like Mai Handicrafts, economically disadvantaged people are acknowledged and valued as artisans, keeping craft practices alive for future generations, and contributing to the social and environmental sustainability of their communities today.

On Earth Day we celebrate this amazing planet we live on, and acknowledge our collective responsibility to take care of it. But we never celebrate alone–instead, we celebrate our global communities’ efforts to come together around shared values, and we demand a prioritization of healthy people AND environment, instead of exploitation.

Fair Trade recycled products, like those from Mai Handicrafts and Project Have Hope, offer alternatives to mass-produced commodities, and remind us: people deserve a stable livelihood and trash can be turned into treasure.

Will we see you on Earth Day? We hope to see you on April 21st or 22nd so you can receive your FREE recycled magazine bracelet. Happy Earth Day! Here’s a list of our store locations.

By Maude Barlow and Shannon Biggs

This Earth Day, we need to start envisioning a future based not on exploiting nature but on recognizing that nature has inherent rights.

Ironically, this week also marks the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, the worst one in U.S. history.

Beyond headline-grabbing catastrophes, every day we dump 2 million tons of toxic waste into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population.

Every day we literally blow the tops off of mountains to release hidden coal.

And it’s all legal, because under current law, nature is nothing more that human property, like a slave.

But thanks to some innovative thinking by governments, municipalities and indigenous peoples, a wiser mindset is taking hold. And the United Nations has also begun to consider the rights of nature.

This may be the first step toward the adoption of a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. A companion piece to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, this emerging declaration — which would be backed by enforceable laws around the world — seeks to redefine our human relationship with all other species from one of dominance to one of harmony.

Many places have already begun to change their laws in accordance with this new way of thinking.

On November 16, 2010, Pittsburgh became the first major U.S. city to recognize the legally enforceable rights of nature. Faced with dangerous “gas-fracking,” Pittsburgh’s city council unanimously passed a cutting-edge law that stops gas-shale drilling by elevating the rights of communities and nature above the interests of energy corporations.

Nearly two-dozen other U.S. municipalities have passed similar ordinances, finding that existing laws cannot protect their local ecosystems and, by extension, their human health, safety and welfare.

Canadian communities are also wondering if legally recognizing rights for nature can stop the privatization of their public water systems and halt dangerous tar-sands drilling in the fragile Alberta region.

And these bold municipalities are not alone.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to rewrite its constitution to include rights for nature to exist, flourish and evolve.

This year, Bolivia is set to pass 11 separate laws recognizing the rights of Mother Earth.

These laws do not give rights to individual bugs or trees. Rather, they stop the kind of development that interferes with the existence and vitality of local ecosystems.

A worldwide movement, led by indigenous peoples, has emerged to support this cultural and legal shift.

Einstein said that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.

Every now and then in history, the human race takes a collective step forward in its evolution. The earth, and all its inhabitants, urgently needs this to be one of those times.

Maude Barlow is chairperson of the Council of Canadians. Shannon Biggs is director of the community rights program at Global Exchange. Both are contributors to the forthcoming book, The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
This article also appeared in The Progressive, The Miami Herald, The Bellingham Herald, The Kansas City Star, The Olympian, and The Sacramento Bee.

In honor of Earth Day on April 22nd, San Francisco’s Global Exchange Store (map) is highlighting exceptional examples of recycled and sustainably harvested goods. Fair Trade Certification does not only signify living wage standards for artisans worldwide, it also means that strict environmental regulations are in place.  Fair trade discourages deforestation and the use of harmful chemicals, and encourages organic farming  techniques, recycling post-consumer waste, the use of sustainably harvested natural materials, and the protection of natural resources.

A family owned workshop in Cairo, Egypt produces glass vases, bowls, and votive candle holders from 100% recycled glass products. By sorting discarded glass bottles by color and melting and molding new shapes, this small fair trade company creates beautiful, functional, and environmentally friendly products.

Just in time for spring, we have new recycled magazine gifts from Vietnam! Made out of long strips of magazine that are first soaked in glue and then coiled by hand, a lively spiral pattern adorns boxes, frames, and bowls in all sizes. This project not only keeps paper out of landfills, it also provides employment for over 300 artists in South Vietnam, aiming to promote self-reliance among disadvantaged people through education and training. A percentage of profits are used to fund various social work projects in communities, dealing with social issues, clean water projects, vocational training equipment purchases, subsidized teacher wages and a scholarship fund for the artisans’ children.

While recycling keeps waste out of landfills, sustainably harvested goods – made out of natural materials – keeps materials like plastic and paper from ever being made in the first place. Fair trade celebrates products coming from nature, and what better way to celebrate Earth Day than with Mother Nature’s own gifts.

A women’s co-operative on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua is taking advantage of an abundant local raw material – pine needles – to make beautiful, environmentally friendly, baskets. Starting in 1993 with a group of twelve women, it now employs over thirty women who make their living from weaving baskets. The sale of these baskets help to build a sustainable community in an extremely impoverished part of Nicaragua. These decorative baskets are a great example of a free renewable resource that can be crafted into a piece of art!

Ahimsa, or “cruelty-free” silk is wild silk that is cultivated on forest trees. The silk is spun after the silk worm has become a moth and flown out of the cocoon, which is often not the case for mass-produced silk. It is typical for silk farmers to kill silkworms by tossing cocoons into boiling water or hot ovens before they transform into moths, so that the silk cocoons will not be damaged. Ahimsa silk thread is spun from broken cocoons, which gives a slightly different texture than undamaged silk cocoons, but does not kill any living beings in the process.

Fair Trade Federation member Sevya is using ahimsa silk for their line of fair trade silk scarves (which you can see at San Francisco’s Global Exchange Store!). Sevya is not only helping to sustain the forests and ancient cultures that live in harmony with nature, but also sustaining the lives of those producing the scarves. Sevya works with non-profits in Jharkhand, India to develop training programs for low-caste and tribal women to use foot pedal and power operated spinning and reeling machines, self-help groups where the women save money weekly in a common pool, and micro-credit operations for the cultivators, spinners, and weavers.

We encourage you to deepen your commitment to the Fair Trade principle of environmental stewardship by consuming wisely. Think about the different resources used in creating all the things around us, and whether or not you can lessen your carbon footprint with your purchases. Celebrate this Earth Day by supporting the Fair Trade movement, and stop by a Global Exchange Fair Trade Store near you for recycled, natural, and sustainable handicrafts from around the world!