Debate Over Mother Earth’s ‘Rights’ Stirs Fears of Pagan Socialism

Religious and political conservatives have long feared the global march of paganism and socialism. In their view, it was bad enough when Earth Day emerged in 1972, promoting a socialist agenda. But now, under the auspices of the United Nations, the notion has evolved into the overtly pagan, and thus doubly dangerous, International Mother Earth Day. 

At least, this is the implication of a recent Fox News article, “Is ‘Mother Earth’ Human? U.N. Gets Ready to Decide.”

The article explained that in 2009 the UN General Assembly passed, with all 192 member states in agreement, a UN Resolution proclaiming International Mother Earth Day; that the socialist Bolivian President Evo Morales, who regularly blames capitalism for the planetary decline of ecosystem health, advanced the 2009 proposal; and that the idea for the proposal to confer rights to mother nature had been “influenced by the spiritual indigenous Andean world outlook that revolves around the earth deity Pachamama, roughly translated to Mother Earth.” 

Alarmist in its overall tone, the report was full of ridicule for the UN’s April 20 debate on whether ecosystems and other non-human entities should be conferred legal rights. 

Fox also noted that Morales had recently signed into law Bolivian legislation that “establishes 11 rights for nature,” and “a Ministry of Mother Earth to act as an ombudsman.” This was indeed a historically significant development, although Fox inaccurately stated that Bolivia was the first nation to confer rights upon the natural environment. In fact, on December 28, 2008, Ecuador enshrined rights for nature as a part of its new Constitution. This little-noticed but stunning innovation included these words:

Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain itself and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions, and its evolutionary processes. Any person, people, community, or nationality, may demand the observance of the rights of the natural environment before public bodies. (See the rights of nature guaranteed by Ecuador’s constitution for this remarkable document, which I have put online as recent evidence of the emergence of a civil earth religion that is gaining traction globally.)

The remarkable language in the Ecuadorian constitution and in Boliva’s new Mother Earth law did not, however, result from indigenous Andean spirituality alone. They were also influenced by a generation of thinking and debate around the world about human responsibilities toward nature. In the U.S., much of this has taken place among philosophers and legal theorists, including in the landmark argument by Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing?: Law, Morality, and the Environment, which was first published in the Southern California Law Review in 1972. Indeed, I contend that the recent developments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and within the United Nations are as American as apple pie: they are to some extent in the spirit of a diverse range of American voices that led to the pioneering Endangered Species Act of 1973 signed into law by Richard Nixon. 

Yet today, those who call themselves conservative are generally hostile to environmentalists, often considering them to be politically or spiritually dangerous socialists or pagans.

Unless one is beholden to an absolute truth (only a pure, free market capitalism is acceptable, and only one religious understanding is true), there is nothing to fear from these developments. Even if “Mother Earth” is not the way we might be accustomed to speaking of the planet, it is a reasonable and even compelling metaphor for our ultimate dependence on environmental systems and the entire community of life. 

But don’t take my word for it. Read the thoughtful “Study on the need to recognize and respect the rights of Mother Earth,” produced under the auspices of the United Nations by its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Or, if pressed for time, peruse the “Summary of a Declaration on the rights of Mother Earth,” language below proposed by Evo Morales on the occasion of the first International Day for Mother Earth on April 22, 2009.

Most people who care about their planet and its inhabitants will discover that this indigenous and socialist leader from Bolivia makes more sense than the voices expressed on Fox. And in any case, it is a good idea when observing Earth Day in 2011 to be aware of the International Mother Earth Day, which was devised to turn the original Earth Day a darker green color, one in which our environmental concerns are not only about our own self interest, but about what arguably is a natural love for all life and the planet itself. 

Summary of a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth 

1. The right to life

This means the right to exist, the right of every ecosystem, animal or vegetable species, snow-capped mountain, river, or lake not to be eliminated or exterminated by irresponsible behavior on the part of human beings. We humans must acknowledge that Mother Earth and other living beings also have the right to exist and that our rights end where we begin to cause the extinction or destruction of nature. 

2. The right to the regeneration of bio-capacity

Mother Earth must be able to regenerate her biodiversity; neither human activity on planet Earth nor Earth’s resources are infinite. Development cannot be open-ended, there is a limit and that limit is the ability of the animal, vegetable, and forest species, of water sources, of the very atmosphere to regenerate. If we human beings consume and, even worse, waste more than Mother Earth is capable of replacing or recreating then we are slowly killing our home, little by little we are choking our planet; all living beings and ourselves. 

3. The right to a clean life

Means the right of Mother Earth to a life free from pollution, because not only we humans have the right to live well, but also rivers, fish, animals, trees, and the Earth itself have the right to live in a healthy environment, free from poison and pollution. 

4. The right to harmony and balance with everyone and among everyone

Mother Earth has a right to be recognized as a part of a system in which all living creatures are interdependent. This implies the right to live in harmony with human beings. There are millions of living species on the planet, but only we human beings have the awareness and ability to take command of our own destiny in order to promote harmony with nature.