Sustainable Development by the People, For the People

From April 19th to April 22nd Cochabamba, Bolivia played host, to much less fanfare than the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, to the first ever People's World Conference on Climate Change. Convened by Bolivian president Evo Morales – only one of five heads of state to formally oppose the Copenhagen accord – the goal of the talks was to bring together NGOs, scientists, activists, indigenous leaders and national to give voice to the poor countries, and regular people whose voices were left out of the Copenhagen talks and are too often left out of global discussions on sustainable development despite its direct effect on their lives.

Reading through the material posted on the conference’s blog gives one the distinct impression that it differed greatly, not only from Copenhagen, but from UN Conferences on Sustainable Development in general. It is, for example, hard to imagine the UN creating a "proposal for the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth" as the attendees of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change did. Article 1, of the proposal, declares the following, Article 1.Mother Earth:

1. Mother Earth is a living being.
2. Mother Earth is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.
3. Each being is defined by its relationships as an integral part of Mother Earth.
4. The inherent rights of Mother Earth are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence.
5. Mother Earth and all beings are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as may be made between organic and inorganic beings, species, origin, use to human beings, or any other status.
6. Just as human beings have human rights, all other beings also have rights which are specific to their species or kind and appropriate for their role and function within the communities within which they exist.
7. The rights of each being are limited by the rights of other beings and any conflict between their rights must be resolved in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth.

All of which reads as distinctly foreign to my American mind, which if grounded in any theology is acutely grounded in the belief that “god granted us dominion over the earth.” This is usually translated into we can do with the planet whatever we feel like until it hurts us, other life forms can fend for themselves. This isn’t necessarily, what I believe, but it is the dominant thread which runs through American culture. It is also the kind of thinking that has brought us, repeatedly to the edge of ecological collapse. Even mainstream discussions on Sustainable Development are not discussions on how to shift our way of thinking and being but rather are focused on how to consume the same amount of stuff in more or less the same way, with a smaller environmental footprint. There is no recognition within the mainstream movement of the inherent right of other life forms to coexist on the planet.

This isn’t just my own opinion; at my last internship I had to read through nearly 100 Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (or PSRPS) of developing nations. For the unfamiliar, PSRPs are documents required by the IMF and World Bank before a country can be considered for debt relief within the heavily indebted poor countries program. They are supposedly made in participatory process with the countries and representatives of the IMF and the World Bank, so you would think that coming from diverse regions with diverse ways of thinking, each strategy paper would be unique.

They aren’t.

For the most part, they each sound so identical that you begin to realize that the IMF and the World Bank do most of the heavy lifting – no way can nearly 100 countries from diverse regions all over the world sound so eerily similar. In the process, it’s easy to get the idea that the goal, really, of sustainable development is not to help developing nations achieve similar quality of life standards regarding poverty, education, and health as developed countries, but rather, for them to start thinking more like the developed countries.

This is problematic. Much as ecosystems only thrive with diversity, so too do human populations thrive. We need people thinking differently if we hope to bring about lasting sustainable change.

The People's World Conference on Climate Change is a reminder that real development is a two-way street. And that if we hope to offer in a sustainable future, we in the west, too have to begin to shift our thinking and to begin to think in some ways, more like ‘them’.