World Ocean Weekly

The Law of Mother Earth

The Law of Mother Earth is a Bolivian law that sets forth a legal and ethical vision for the rights of the natural world.

Just when you think the world is impossible, the world surprises. Looking forward into the future one can easily despair over the scale of change required, the intractability of vested interests and governments, and the human energy and imagination required to make any change for the better. We talk of hope, but when specific actions are considered and expressed, all the reasons against often overwhelm the possibility.

Enter Bolivia. In December 2010, in response to an understanding of the impacts of climate change on the nation’s economic and community health, the National Congress voted to support The Law of Mother Earth, an act to protect the well-being of its citizens by protecting the natural world — its resources, sustainability, and value — as essential to the common good. The act was supported by Bolivian President Evo Morales; revisions of the national legal code were explored; over 2900 specific conservation programs and anti-pollution projects, conceived as expressions of the practical application of the Law, were implemented in all 327 municipalities; $118 million was invested; and full legislation enabling this new social and economic model is expected to be ratified soon.

The language is astonishing. Here are the binding principles that govern:

  1. Harmony: Human activities, within the framework of plurality and diversity, should achieve a dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent in Mother Earth;
  2. Collective Good: The interests of society, within the framework of the rights of Mother Earth, prevail in all human activities and any acquired right;
  3. Guarantee of Regeneration: The state, at its various levels, and society, in harmony with the common interest, must ensure the necessary conditions in order that the diverse living systems of Mother Earth may absorb damage, adapt to shocks, and regenerate without significantly altering their structural and functional characteristics, recognizing that living systems are limited in their ability to regenerate, and that humans are limited in their ability to undo their actions;
  4. Respect and defend the rights of Mother Earth: The state and any individual or collective person must respect, protect and guarantee the rights of Mother Earth for the well-being of current and future generations;
  5. No Commercialism: Neither living systems nor processes that sustain them may be commercialized, nor serve anyone’s private property:
  6. Multi-culturalism: The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth require the recognition, recovery, respect, protection, and dialogue of the diversity of feelings, values, knowledge, skills, practices, transcendence, science, technology and standards of all the culture of the world who seek to live in harmony with Nature.

The Legislation continues:

Mother Earth has the following rights: To life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living. And it further outlines the obligations of the State and the people to these principles and rights as a binding societal duty.

NASA | Bolivia from space

The Bolivian economy does rely heavily on natural resource export activity, earning a significant part of its foreign exchange thereby. But this moves forward nonetheless, as an endeavor initiated and supported by Bolivian political groups representing some 3 million voters, is on its way to finalization and implementation as national law, supported by the local and national government, with an already existing ministry to implement revisions to the legal system and to continue the applicable programs already underway. Bolivia attempts to move forward, to show us another way, and nearby Ecuador, with similar intent, is right along side.

The Law of Mother Earth — not just an idea, more than a vision. Something new. Something real. Change must begin somewhere, sometime. Perhaps Bolivia is inventing the social model and role of governance that will demonstrate how we can transcend division and conflict, beyond the destruction and despair that we feel, toward a harmonious, effective, efficient, and equitable society connected by the true value of a sustained natural world. If so, should we not pay attention?

Read the complete text of the Law of Mother Earth here (with thanks to the World Future Fund.)

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This piece was rebroadcast for Earth Day, 2017.

Life Below Water: Sustainable Development Goal 14

The Ocean Conference
United Nations, New York
June 5–9, 2017


At this moment, the UN has before it the challenge of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 14 is Life Below Water, and it is the subject of a major UN Ocean Conference in June 2017 wherein all the nations, UN agencies, civil society and non-government organizations, the scientific community, financial institutions, and other interested parties will convene at the General Assembly in New York to exchange views, set objectives, seek funds, build partnerships, and otherwise focus specifically on the ocean and its relation to action toward sustainability in the 21st century. This conference, co-hosted by Sweden and Fiji, purports to be “a game changer that will reverse the decline of our ocean for people, planet, and prosperity.” There will be a final consensus declaration and call for action for the implementation of Goal 14 as part of an agenda targeted for success by 2030.

The United Nations is the world’s grand secret society. Its machinations are pervasive, sometime fraught, oftentimes successful, and in its hand is found in the middle of the mix of international policy, regulation, collaborative practice, and conflict resolution that affects our lives in ways the public does not fully perceive or understand. It is, nonetheless, a system based on voluntary funding and commitments and is subject to the limits of consensus, not to mention the veto power of certain individual nations that can defy the agreement among all the others.

Making progress in such an organization requires understanding of the conflicting needs among nations, diplomacy, compromise, and integrity measured mostly by payment of dues, funds dedicated by certain nations for certain goals and objectives, and time. The schedule of events and the organizational structure is designed to allow for the process to unfold at the most practical level, hence a pace that is set not so much by the disinterested as by the capacity of every nation to live up to its best intentions. For a long time I misunderstood and fought against this apparently endless dialogue and practice, until I realized that it is the only way such a complicated set of interests and needs can be communicated and reconciled toward incremental achievement.

So for a week in New York, the ocean apparat will gather for The Ocean Conference: Our Oceans, Our Future — one of those seminal events where expectation is high and the urgency to move forward is palpable. The final report will include summaries of partnerships made, specific new projects and concrete action to advance Goal 14, and voluntary contributions committed. Toward this outcome I can only add an enthusiastic voice of support and the full participation of the World Ocean Observatory to communicate the outcome.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were created as an attempt to organize a vast compendium of issues and needs, of knowledge and intent, into understandable goals, objectives and strategies. But what I continue to argue is that the ocean is the global commonality encompassing the entirety of this compendium. There is no other totally inclusive system that contains all the problems and all the solutions. The ocean cross-cuts them all, involves them all, integrates them all, and relates them all as the focus, the ecological commons that overlays all this effort and aspiration and informs all response at every level, from the consequence of indifference to the success of future action, from individual to local, regional, and global response. I assert that the ocean is the nexus for the true collaboration and realization of all these goals for worldwide sustainable development.

Follow the conversation using the hashtags #SaveOurOcean and #SDG14. Join the effort to save our ocean by registering your voluntary commitment at

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United Nations Ocean Conference: Our Oceans, Our Future first appeared as a 5-minute audio broadcast on World Ocean Radio.

A New Seaport for Gaza?

Gaza seaport. Credit: Reuters / Mohammed Salem

A port is a place for the exchange of goods, people, and ideas. From the beginning of time, when sailors left home in pursuit of commerce and trade, ports became hubs connecting land to sea to land through ships and maritime connection. When we think these days of ports, we think of big harbors – New York, Shanghai, Rotterdam, Hong Kong – the locus for massive worldwide transport of raw materials and manufactured goods that are the main asset of the export/import contribution to the regional, national, and global economy. Without ports, the world simply would stand still.

As a result of the geopolitical impact of these locations, ports also became financial and cultural centers where the concentration of wealth drove the development of financial institutions and instruments, architecture and urban design, the arts, universities and libraries, governments and diplomacy, and the many social achievements that are the aggregate what we call civilization.

There was also ensuing conflict. To deprive a nation of a port is an act of destruction. To blockade a port as a tactic of war slowly destroys the enemy from within by starvation, disease, political disruption, and social chaos.

In the early millennia of world history, the tiny port of Gaza on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, in what is now Palestine, played an enormous role in the trading of spice from east to west, the spice road by which herbs, incense, textiles, glass, and food stuffs were brought by caravan from the Arabian south and trans-shipped to Rome, Constantinople and other European markets. The value was fought over: early on, the Emperor of Pompeii incorporated Gaza as part of the Roman Empire to assure its possession and control over the lucrative connection.

In modern times, the port of Gaza continued as a minor regional center affected by the constant political and economic vicissitudes of that volatile area then conflicted by European governments competing for, acquiring, and controlling certain areas to augment imperial designs and financial return. Things in the Middle East have always been in flux, a continuing area of aspiration and despair, inhibited by a challenging climate and isolation. As modern transportation became global, the Suez Canal created a more efficient means for volume, transport, and the demands of Europe and the New World left the region behind.

Today, Gaza is a poor city in an even poorer territory, caught in the larger Israel-Palestine conflict with Egypt marginalized. As a result, the consequent Israeli blockade of the port of Gaza controls access and limits imports of food, water, health supplies, and more while the residents become more desperate day-by-day with little hope and no political solution in sight.

A March 2016 article in The Economist suggests interest in a long-planned and discussed project to build an artificial island three miles off the Gaza coast – a piece of “new” land to which no side can lay claim – for a modern port and airport, power and desalination plants that would enable a revival of imports, create employment, stabilize the social unrest in the region, reduce the blockade, and possibly break through the political paralysis in Israel and Palestine that serves no one.

The plan is of course fraught with obstacles. The $5 billion (US) projected cost presumably could be met by investors and donor nations, financing repaid, and operations underwritten by taxes and fees. The engineering is possible and the prospect optimistic, but given the volatility of internal politics, there is no guarantee that the project will ever get beyond a hypothetical solution for an insolvable problem. At best, the economics are marginal.

But what if the investment was calculated to include the savings of avoiding another war in the region? Of no further human loss and social break-down? Of renewed inter-action and cooperation between the nations — a true “peace dividend” of compelling financial, political, and cultural return? What if once more a port might assert its functionality as a place of exchange of goods, people, and ideas and serve again today as a powerful locus of resolution, reconciliation, and peace in a troubled place and a troubled time?

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"A Seaport in Gaza" first appeared as an audio broadcast on World Ocean Radio.

Environmental Protections Under Attack: Time to Rethink Water

How, in the face of the all-out attack by the Trump administration on environmental regulations and values, do we create a new strategy for Nature?

Here are four steps to consider:

First, we must propose a new coherent idea around which to define environmentalism and to infuse it with a broader awareness of Nature as the central, organizing system that unites us all through many different and complex connections. From such a conceptual idea must come a transformed understanding of the natural, financial, political, social, and re-creational value of Nature as focus for living in the 21st century. Only from this holistic cohesion can we mobilize and expand audience and political will to the scale required to resist the power of vested interest and fear of change. Climate change is already affecting our lives in myriad ways and we must move beyond even adaptation and mitigation to implement a more effective strategy, respectful of our basic laws and rights, to assure survival.

In The Once and Future Ocean, (Leete’s Island Books, 2016), I argued for a new paradigm centered on the most valuable natural system on earth -- the ocean/water continuum, the global water cycle, that distributes the one element we all need worldwide to live. The old paradigm, based on consumption driven by fossil fuels, has out-lived its utility, its positive benefits are now overwhelmed by its negative consequences, and its practitioners are dinosaurs, sinking slowly into the mud of retrograde thinking, failed enterprise, structural oblivion, and bankrupt values. To revive these is impossible, to persevere is regressive, and to assert their continuity is destructive.

The new paradigm calls for a “hydraulic society,” a new system of value, organizational structure, and social behavior based on the movement and purity of water in all its forms and places. We are each made of water; we die without adequate water; we use water to support the best of what we create; we conserve, recycle, and apply water to what we need first and foremost to protect and augment our subsistence; we revere water in all its sacred manifestations that have been recognized and celebrated by all cultures for all time.  If we need one big idea to motivate and nurture us, I submit this one is modern, vital, practical, essential.

Second, we must reframe public understanding of environmental value by targeting broad public reaction against the new onslaught, by capturing the general outrage over the cross-the-board contravention of protections and focusing it toward political action. The withdrawal of all clean water controls and standards can be understood hypothetically or specifically as the restrictions are lifted and outcomes become known and expressed as unsafe drinking water or polluted beaches.

Third, we need theory and practice to finance this change. Some economists speak now of the green economy and the blue economy, perpetuating the historical separation of policy and practice between land and sea. We had better think in terms of “ecosystem services,” the incorporation of the true measurable value of Nature into our calculations of price, productivity, and profit. We need to re-organize our governance structures, planning and manufacturing standards, laws and regulations intended not to inhibit growth or profit but to counter abuse. We need to re-price all things and processes in terms of actual water use, providing first a standard supply to every individual as a basic human right, and thereafter controlling, conserving, and pricing all other uses on a scale of need versus sustainability, recalculated to assure that every good and every service protects the finite global supply through conservation, equity, justice, and peace at home and abroad for ensuing generations.

Finally, we must communicate relentlessly, through word and action, to transcend the inhibiting boundaries of history. We must embrace new methods and systems that prevent profligate water waste and we must resolve to prevent water disruption, water theft, and water conflict from today forward. We must accept that we are all water refugees, helpless without pure and adequate supply, and lost without Nature as source, now and forevermore.

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Environmental Protections Under Attack: Time for Bold Action


The natural environment in the United States is under attack as never before. In just a few short months, the Trump Administration--through appointments, executive orders, legislative initiatives, and budget allocations--has launched an all-out attack on standing policies, regulations, and existing designations for environmental protection and natural resource conservation that have been established and evolved since the beginning of the 20th century. This sudden and relentless onslaught may set back the progress of the environmental movement for decades through political shock, indifference to science, and the dilution of laws and constitutional protections on which such things as the creation of the Department of Environmental Protection, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act were originally based and have been defended.

These institutions may not survive the ideological opposition of the new administration. Corporations will be relieved from their regulatory obligations, from prohibitions against oil exploration and hydraulic fracturing, from pollution of lakes, streams, and harbors, from releasing harmful emissions into the atmosphere. The tools of science, such as satellites and observational research, will be abandoned lest they provide additional evidence of the critical changes in our environment caused by these activities to the exhaustion of our natural resources and the detriment of our public health. Even our adherence to international agreements and treaties will be compromised, isolating us further in the community of nations. Indifference to the social consequence of these retro-policies and decisions is fundamental in its willful ignorance and the inevitable destruction to follow.

The many environmental groups, communities and citizens that have taken steps to control this devastation, are rendered almost speechless by a sudden, tyrannical, arbitrary shift by government away from historical protections. They are angered and determined to triple-down on their efforts to oppose these changes; to fight them through political action and the courts; and to organize at the local, state, and national levels to prevent this senseless behavior that so goes against their purposes and commitments. If anything, these events have increased their determination, fund-raising, and participation by old and new supporters who are infuriated and driven to resist.

Listening to their meetings and attending their protests I find myself awed by their commitment but disturbed by their adherence to the tactics and language on which their past achievements have been based -- successes, unfortunately, that have not been strong enough to counter opposition through effective education, persuasion, and political representation. What is most upsetting is that, as a result, in state legislatures and the US Congress, they may not have the votes necessary to counter the new enhanced, anti-environment crusade.

What has gone wrong? Why has the true value of clean air and water, of sustainable exploitation of natural resources, of alternative forms of energy, of the protection of our communities and our individual and family health from persistent poisons, not been fully understood and embraced by the larger public that will certainly suffer the  consequence? What have environmentalists failed to do to promote their accomplishments and enlist legions to their cause? Why is the protection of land and sea – all that Nature provides for our wellbeing – not celebrated as the fundamental principle on which to build our future?

Since the 1970’s, we have adopted the strategy of many organizations aligned with many issues, a kind of practical, but narrow approach to confronting specific problems with specific solutions.  When you look at what has been accomplished, you see a broad spectrum of such endeavors, fighting for individual victories through research, expert testimony, targeted lawsuits, and ardent local or issue-focused campaigns. At a recent meeting of such organizations devoted to ocean matters, I heard all these single-minded voices, but not one advocating for a new collective strategy that might have, and still might, save the day.

Personally, I feel that the electorate has misunderstood environmental protection in a similarly fragmented way – mostly connected to a local stimulus – a poisoned river, an occupational sickness, a threatened animal, or the destruction of a cherished place – that has enlisted them to oppose. Their reaction is driven by immediate, personal feeling, not by a larger understanding of the relation of their problem to the integrated natural system of which the local impact is just a part, not by the realization that their challenge can only be met ultimately by confrontation on a larger scale, by fixing the basic cause as the best way to deny the offending effect.

To do that requires a fully understood and shared value proposition and vocabulary by which to articulate the issues in the broader context of community and social benefit. It necessitates a unifying idea that links these individual concerns and their solutions to the protection and support of family and community to equity and social justice based on a fundamental understanding on how Nature and her resources, sustained, will sustain us too, and thus must be protected and preserved for the benefit of all humankind.  If the environment does not survive, neither will we, nor our children.