People's Rights, Planet's Rights

Holistic approaches for a better world for all


People are a Living Part of a Living Planet

Recently I picked up a book by Joanna Macy.  Surprisingly, it’s the first book I’ve read by her.  I’ve heard Joanna speak a bunch of times, but for some reason I had never read her books, though she’s written many.  If you don’t know who she is, she is an environmentalist,  often referred to as an eco-philosopher.

Joanna is an inspiration to me.  I find myself writing more often on the how human beings are a part of the web of life, not separate, and what we do to the earth we do to ourselves.  We need to take better care of the planet.  Joanna writes about the Great Turning, which is essentially a “fundamental shift in worldview and values” in which people focus on taking care of their communities and environment, and act with the benefit of future generations in mind.  She refers to efforts to make this happen as the “Work that Reconnects.”

Below is a brief excerpt from Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (published 1998), which Joanna co-authored with Molly Young Brown. These are the principles of the Work that Reconnects, and which speak to me, and I hope, to others as well.  We are a living part of a living planet.  This is the direction we need to turn to if we are to keep a livable planet for all species.




The Principles of the Work that Reconnects


This world, in which we are born and take our being, is alive.

It is not our supply house and sewer; it is our larger body.  The intelligence that evolved us from star dust and interconnects us with all beings is sufficient for the healing of our Earth community, if we but align with that purpose.


Our true nature is far more ancient and encompassing than the separate self defined by habit and society.

We are intrinsic to our living world as the rivers and trees, woven of the same intricate flows of matter/energy and mind.  Having evolved us into self-reflexive consciousness, the world can now know itself through us, behold its own majesty, tell its own stories – and also respond to its own suffering.


Our experience of pain for the world springs from our inter-connectedness with all beings, from which also arise our powers to act on their behalf.

When we deny or repress our pain for the world, or treat it as a private pathology, our power to take part in the healing of our world is diminished.  This apatheia need not become a terminal condition.  Our capacity to respond to our own and others’ suffering – that is, the feedback loops that weave us into life – can be unblocked.


Unblocking occurs when our pain for the world is not only intellectually validated, but experienced.

Cognitive information about the crises we face, or even about our psychological responses to them, is insufficient.  We can only free ourselves from our fears of the pain  – including the fear of getting permanently mired in despair or shattered by grief – when we allow ourselves to experience these feelings.  Only then can we discover their fluid, dynamic character.  Only then can they reveal on a visceral level our mutual belonging to the web of life.


When we reconnect with life, by willingly enduring our pain for it, the mind retrieves its natural clarity.

Not only do we experience our interconnectedness in the community of Earth, but also mental eagerness arises to match this experience with new paradigm thinking.  Concepts which bring relatedness into focus become vivid.  Significant learnings occur, for the individual system is reorganizing and reorienting, grounding itself in wider reaches of identity and self-interest.


The experience of reconnection with the Earth community arouses desire to act on its behalf.

As Earth’s self-healing powers take hold within us, we feel called to participate in the Great Turning.  For these self-healing powers to operate effectively, they must be trusted and acted on.  The steps we take can be modest undertakings, but they should involve some risk to our mental comfort, lest we remain caught in old, “safe” limits.  Courage is a great teacher and bringer of joy.

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A Declaration in Favor of the Earth

In mid-January, the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature hosted a thought-provoking conference in Ecuador on promoting the concept of nature’s rights.  Sixty attendees from around the world came together to strategize and advocate for a forward-thinking approach to protecting  people and the planet.


Rights of Nature

Rights of nature is a holistic movement, much of it based on indigenous wisdom, and offers a positive vision for the world today.  It acknowledges that:

  • nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles;
  • people have the legal authority and responsibility to enforce these rights on behalf of natural ecosystems;
  • an ecosystem itself can be named as a rights bearing subject.

You can read more about the Ecuador rights of nature conference in my post at Earth Island Journal.

And just last week, Global Exchange and allies advocating for the rights of nature released the Stillheart Declaration on Rights of Nature and the Economics of the Biosphere.  This document was the end result of a gathering of global social movement leaders that included Indigenous leaders, deep ecologists, grassroots justice advocates, economists, climate experts, localization activists, globalization thinkers, writers and researchers who convened to examine the emerging legal framework known as Rights of Nature, or Rights of Mother Earth.

It is a thought-provoking declaration, one that represents the profound shift “society” today must make if we are to have healthy communities and a livable planet.  Forty some odd years of environmental laws and regulations, while certainly worthwhile, are not changing the overall global system that is causing environmental degradation and threats to the well-being of citizens.  As many people have noted, we environmentalists win some battles but are losing the war.

A march for climate justice in Richmond, CA on February 14, 2014.

A march for climate justice in Richmond, CA on February 14, 2014.

Here are a couple of highlights from the Stillheart Declaration:

We are pointing to the need for a wholly different framework that recognizes that Earth’s living systems are not the enslaved property of humans. Just as it is wrong for men to consider women property or one race to consider another race as property, it is wrong for humans to see nature as property over which we have dominion. All rights, including humans’, depend on the health and vitality of Earth’s living systems. All other rights are derivative of these rights. This requires an essential paradigm shift from a jurisprudence and legal system designed to secure and consolidate the power of a ruling oligarchy and a ruling species, and to substitute a jurisprudence and legal system designed to serve all of the living Earth community. 


All must speak out for the needs of nature and our Mother Earth as a whole. It is our responsibility to live within the natural order that is sacred to all life on earth. We must redraw the boundaries of the economy to bring them into line with ecological limits and the common sense science of planetary boundaries. Nature’s needs are also our own and must be elevated and protected by legal rights, and maintained through life-sustaining systems of exchange and reciprocity. 

I encourage you to read it in its entirely and give it a lot of thought.  How can we stop fracking, tar sands, mining, drilling, deforestation, etc., if the system is geared against the rights of people and the planet?  We have to change from a system that benefits the 1% and puts profits above all else.

This will be, of course, a long process.  But in the face of increasingly severe climate impacts and continued global inequality, change is inevitable, and all of us – people, government, business – should be doing all we can to create positive change for the world.  Respecting rights for nature and for all people is how we do that.

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Do Rivers Have Rights?

For a river that is as venerated as the Ganges River (known as Ganga to Indians), it comes as a shock when people hear how polluted and imperiled the waterway is today.

Roughly 3 billion liters of sewage is dumped into the river every day, and there is further contamination of the Ganges from solid waste, agricultural run-off, religious waste, and decomposing animals (which includes humans).

The Ganges River, Rishikesh

The Ganges River, Rishikesh

The United Nations has declared the Ganges as one of the world’s fastest and most threatened rivers, and the entire Ganges River Basin is under threat.  The Ganges and its tributaries support almost 500 million people, irrigate one-third of India’s land and account for 25% of the country’s water resources.

Promoting a Rights-based Approach

This past November Global Exchange, a human rights organization based in San Francisco, CA, organized a rights of nature study tour to India that included a visit to Ganga Action Parivar, an Indian NGO working to restore and protect the Ganges River.

According to Shannon Biggs from Global Exchange, recognizing that nature has rights is a potentially powerful tool for protecting the planet.  Rather than treating nature as property, Rights of Nature acknowledges that nature in all its life forms has the right to “exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycle.”  It is a movement to turn the unsustainable system of globalized economic growth on its head in favor of people and the planet.

India, with a population of over 1.2 billion people (much of it rapidly urbanizing, and yet still grappling with tremendous poverty) and a developing economy, is in many ways ground zero for how society can “develop” with a focus on human rights and the environment.   Climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, gender inequality, inequity, industrial agriculture and more pose threats to not just Indians, but all of us.

The rights of nature concept offers a rights-based approach to protect what is truly valuable in today’s world – nature and people – and a path to build a healthy planet for now and for future generations.

Mother Ganga

India and international organizations are spending large amounts of money to clean up its polluted rivers, but thus far not much has happened.  It is time to implement sustainable and forward-thinking actions to protect the Ganges and all of India’s rivers.

Ganga lifeline

In 2012, the Whanganui River in New Zealand was given “legal standing and an independent voice” under an agreement to settle the historical claims of the Whanganui Iwi indigenous people.

The National Ganga Rights Movement is a coalition calling for a National Ganga Rights Act which would, among other things, establish, secure, and defend the inalienable and inherent rights of the Ganga River, its tributaries, and watershed, and the rights of the people of India to a healthy, thriving river basin.  And, it “establishes the rights of the people of India and their governments to defend and enforce the rights of the Ganga.”

Specifically, the proposed legislation would:

• Establish the basin’s right to exist, thrive, regenerate, and evolve;
• Establish the rights of the people, as well as other ecosystems and natural communities, to a healthy river basin;
• Provide that any activity that interferes with the basin’s rights is prohibited;
• Provide that any damages that may be awarded for violations of the basin’s rights are to be awarded for the purpose of, and in the amount necessary to, restore the ecosystem to its pre-damaged state;
• Establish enforcement mechanisms to protect and defend the basin’s rights, including establishing governmental offices responsible for defending those rights; and
• Empower people, communities, civil society, and governments within India to protect and defend the basin’s rights.

The Ganges Rights movement is bringing together a variety of people and organizations to raise awareness and to empower communities to protect the river and promote sustainable solutions.

This is just a taste of the work being undertaken to protect the Ganges.  Stay tuned for more on solutions Ganga Action Parivar and others are proposing.

The Ganges River at sunset in Rishikesh

The Ganges River at sunset in Rishikesh

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Need vs. Greed

Being in India – a country of 1.3 billion people – sort of puts the whole notion of sustainability on its head.  The poverty, pollution, chaos and shear numbers makes everything a challenge, to put it simply.  Here on the sub-continent, and globally, can a healthy, “resilient” environment be created in the next decade or two for both the environment and humankind, or is society just not up to the task?

Near Kanha Natl Park

Near Kanha Natl Park, India

Certainly reams of paper have been dedicated to this topic.  But for a very quick summation, let’s turn to Gandhi.

One of the basic tenets of Gandhian environmentalism is that “the earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not any one’s greed.” These are words that should guide our society as it struggles to find a better course amidst some huge issues, including inequality, inequity, population growth, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Inequity/The 1%:

“The rich should be taught the doctrine of stewardship and the poor that of self-help.  To live above the means befitting a poor country is to live on stolen food.”


“A community or country in which women are not honored could not be considered civilized.”


“The ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare. Self-restraint and not indulgence must be regarded as the law of life.”


“Humankind should act in such a manner that it is a part of Nature rather than apart from nature.”

From the Gandhi Museum in Delhi

From the Gandhi Museum in Delhi

Land Rights/Poverty:

“No man should have more land than he needs for dignified sustenance.  Who can dispute the fact that the grinding poverty of the masses is due to their having no land that they can call their own?”


“Democracy must in essence mean the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of the people in the service of the common good of all.”

There is much, much more that could be listed here, but in our “30-second soundbite” world, the above quotes quickly highlight a few of the important topics of the day.

The world is headed toward 9.6 billion people by 2050, and respecting women and nature, providing healthcare/voluntary family planning services, education for all girls and boys, and ending poverty/reducing consumerism are all issues that we ignore at our own peril as we try to balance the needs of nature and people.

If more people revisit the words of Gandhi and others such as Martin Luther King, Jr and the Dalai Lama, we stand a good chance of bettering our world. As the cliche goes, we only have one planet.

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Nature’s Expression

At long last, I am at Navdanya, an organic farm and community center in Dehra Dun, in the foothills of the Himalayas.  After being in New Delhi, it is literally a breath of fresh air!

I am here with a group of people on a Global Exchange study tour on the rights of nature, human rights, and biodiversity.

Like India itself, getting to Vandana Shiva’s farm was a chaotic and hectic experience.  Not so much from Delhi, from which our group took the train, but prior to that we had come from Agra (home of the Taj Mahal).  It took nearly 3 hours to get out of the city, due to residual festival celebrations stemming from Diwali (a major Hindu holiday).  Then a dinner obligation, late arrival to our hotel, and early, early early departure to catch our train.

Ironically, the afternoon that we arrived, Dr. Shiva herself told us that “India is one of the most chaotic societies in the world.”

But our chaotic schedule is all in the past, and the present moment is one filled with passion, enthusiasm, learning, and much more.  The farm is beautiful, though we’ve only had a short tour of it.  Our longer tour today was co-opted by a visit from Prince Charles.  We did not know that was going to occur, but we all got to meet him.  His royal highness is a big supporter of organic agriculture, an issue he has worked on for many years.  He and Dr. Shiva are colleagues; this was his first visit to Navdanya.

Our group meeting Prince Charles

Our group meeting Prince Charles

As nice as it was to meet Prince Charles, the highlight of being here is to spend some time absorbing the wisdom of Vandana Shiva.  She spoke with us about her fight against genetically modified products and to save seeds, saying that “We save the seeds and fight the laws that make it illegal.”  She and Navdanya have a project called Seeds of Freedom, Gardens of Hope.  “Biodiversity is nature’s expression” she said.  Truly, the monocultures and uniformity of today’s food system goes against our natural world.

Navdanya is a GMO, chemical and patent free zone – it is a seed sanctuary.  We spoke some time with Dr. Shiva about rights of nature, about which I’ll be writing more in a future post.  I appreciated how she sees this issue, that human rights are a derived right and the primary right is rights of nature.  Humans are part of the web of life, and nature is not property.  Rights of nature arise from the recognition of nature as a living being.

For now, I will leave you with one more quote from the venerable Dr. Shiva: “You can only respect the Earth by working with her.”  That is true here at Navdanya farm, India, and anywhere in the world.

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Women Declare It’s Time for Action on Climate Change

(I was very fortunate to have been invited to be one of the 100 women leaders at the International Women’s Earth & Climate Summit in Suffern, New York last month.)

“We are going to create something that will explode beautifully into the world,” stated Osprey Orielle Lake, organizer of the first International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative Summit.  She echoed the heartfelt sentiments of 100 women environmental leaders who gathered for the conference in late September and came from more than 35 countries. The time for talk is over, they believe, and the time for real action on climate change is now.

The women represented a variety of backgrounds, including scientists, environmentalists, grassroots organizers, human rights activists, indigenous leaders, policymakers, and former heads of state.  The focus was on women, environmental degradation, and climate change.

Words of Wisdom

Though many words of wisdom and much knowledge was shared by all, it was the kick-off panel the first evening that set the stage and momentum of the gathering.  Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! led an informal chat with primatologist Jane Goodall and physicist and activist Vandana Shiva (who I will be seeing in November on the Global Exchange Rights of Nature study tour).

Dr. Goodall was asked why women are key to solving the big issues facing the world.  She responded that women are moving into leadership positions and bringing not anger, but femininity, and that women understand the disconnect between the head and the heart. Dr. Goodall also noted the need to share personal stories, and that society must address the ever-growing numbers of people on the planet, one with finite resources.

Dr. Shiva stressed that all our problems are interconnected and that we need to break away from corporate patriarchy that thinks humans are separate from the earth and reduces everything to a commodity.  She believes that this is our moment, and to keep in mind that every action we take should consider the Seventh Generation (the idea that decisions should be considered for impact on the seventh generation to come).

Amy Goodman with Vandana Shiva and Jane Goodall [photo credit:]

The Power of Sharing

Many attendees talked about the need to join our voices and to share our stories with women around the world.  Lucy Mulenkei, director of the Indigenous Information Network in Kenya, said women must be able to support each other and share experiences; after all, “We have one sky that we all look up to.”

Mary Boeve, of the energized movement, called on conference participants to take action.   Voicing great enthusiasm, Boeve remarked that “Once we know what we need to do, it is a remarkable moment.  With climate change, we know what we need to do.”  She said we also know who we have to confront, and that we have to build a movement.  “All that is left is to do it!”

A True Vision for People and the Planet

There have been other gatherings of climate activists, and women activists in past years.  This particular one, though, had a definite feeling of momentum and change.  Lake stated many times that women are key to solutions, and now there is an enormous opportunity to engage women and create a new narrative on women’s values.  And more “outside the box” efforts, such as rights of future generations, rights of indigenous peoples, and rights of nature were a big part of the four day summit, voices that have often been missing from other big events.

These 100 women leaders have the will to set in place a vigorous women and climate movement, and collaborated on a declaration that they all signed the first evening as a path forward.

As Dr. Goodall put it, “We have to take matters into our own hands; we just have to do it.”


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Putting Rights for All at the Center

KachenjungaWe live in a world with over 7 billion people that is predicted to be at least 9.6 billion by 2050.   Global society faces many pressing problems from climate change to poverty to food insecurity that need solutions grounded in fairness, equality, and respect for life.

While there are many approaches that can be taken, the best solutions will be ones that balance the needs of both people and the planet.  And beyond that, solutions that respect rights for all, including the environment.  By focusing on empowering women – who in turn can empower their families – and regarding Nature as a living, breathing entity and not a commodity for human and industrial consumption, we can begin to build that better future for all.

Below are three main areas that should be addressed today:

  • Women’s Rights – providing voluntary family planning services to the 222 million women in developing countries who want access to family planning services but do not have access to contraceptives;
  • Rights of Nature – recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist;
  • Rethinking the Economy – accepting that endless economic growth is unsustainable and more efficient global indicators of human and environmental well-being should be adopted.

The current globalized economic system is not set up with either people or the planet in mind, other than mainly for exploitation.

Later this year I hope to go to India on a Global Exchange study tour to learn what is happening on the ground  there to empower women and promote rights of nature.  I know there is much going on, from the work of Navdanya to the Ganga River Rights movement.

I will be sharing my experiences via blogs, video footage and photos of what is taking place in the world’s largest democracy.  I have been writing about India for several years now, as well as rights of nature, at my personal blog Taming the Tiger: India, Climate Change and Human Rights. And professionally I have been writing and working on human rights, environmental issues, the global economy, population growth, and more at 6 Degrees of Population.

Stay tuned here at People’s Rights, Planet’s Rights, for more on India and ways to learn about and advocate for greater rights for women, men, children, and the ecosystem.  In the meantime, you can also read my report People’s Rights, Planet’s Rights: Holistic Approaches to a Sustainable Population.

Women of SEWA

Women of the Self-Employed Women’s Association, India


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