Your Earth Charter?

What? You haven't read the Earth Charter even once? And, if you have, you don't think charters do any good except in the world of words?

But wait, those Earth Charter folks are getting serious.

Ten years after stirrings began for a global agreement to sustain the planet, the push is on for adoption by the United Nations in 2000.

Five years after the charter proposal at the 1992 Rio environmental summit - recalled in this week's "Earth Summit + 5" UN conference - a new "benchmark draft" is circulating for feedback and revision.

And, even before the charter is in place, people and institutions with clout are moving as if in accord with a key principle up for adoption:

Do not do to the environment of others what you do not want done to your environment.

When such simple and effective guides to action reach the UN rhetoric stage, watch out. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the UN's adoption of the eloquent Universal Declaration of Human Rights and - imagine! - human rights are still not universal. Progress is credited more to change within nations than to international documents.

Yet the rights declaration, though not "binding," soon was used as a yardstick for governments' compliance with world standards. Within four months, it was the basis for the General Assembly's call on the USSR to end restrictions on travel of Soviet wives of citizens of other nationalities. Under such international scrutiny, the old South Africa made at least cosmetic changes in apartheid. Many countries have embodied UN rights principles in legal documents and judicial decisions. Thus these principles have become "binding" after all, even if not on everybody.

The Earth Charter's influence could be similar. Nations and communities could adopt portions in their own ways. Individuals could act immediately on such principles as these (radically condensed from the benchmark draft): Respect Earth. Care for Earth. Live sustainably. Establish justice. Share equitably. Treat all creatures with compassion.

To provide a legal framework for implementing charter principles, UN sanction is being sought by the Earth Charter Commission, whose co-chairs are Rio summit leader Maurice Strong and Green Cross International chairman Mikhail Gorbachev.

Meanwhile, the growth industries of efficient lightbulbs, nonpolluting detergents, recycling programs of all sorts reflect consumers' efforts to be responsible citizens of the globe, not to mention their own neighborhoods. Investors choose companies for "social responsibility." And dozens of firms, including Fortune 500 manufacturers, subscribe to principles such as those of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES). It is one of the organizers of the sixth annual international "Greening of Industry" conference in November at the University of California, Santa Barbara (last year's was in Germany).

If all these are for the environment, who can be against it? Fewer and fewer, we expect, as the spirit of the Earth Charter spreads long before the ink on the final draft is dry.

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