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Winds of Change

Several factors are combining to create a climate that is more conducive for civil society organizations to take up ecocentric governance ideas. First, acceptance of the need for fundamental changes to our governance systems is growing. Dissatisfaction among many people is rising as their overall wellbeing declines in response to population growth, the intensifying impacts of climate change and other forms of environmental damage, the rising cost of extracting “natural resources,” the growing concentration of wealth, and slowing economic growth. It is increasingly apparent that existing international and national governance systems are incapable of responding effectively to these challenges.

Second, public faith in the development models and solutions that governments and the international community have proposed to address these challenges effectively is declining. For example, the civil society organizations participating in the 2012 Rio+20 conference rejected in its entirety the summit's main declaration, The Future We Want, which proposed a “green economy” based on commoditizing and trading ecosystem services. This rejection demonstrated that most civil society organizations do not believe that the significant challenges of the twenty-first century can be addressed by employing the same market-oriented thinking that created them, and exposed the gulf between the aspirations of civil society and those of governments and business. (See Chapters 13 and 15.)

Third, the increasing discourse around the rights of nature and Mother Earth is helping to break down the debilitating barriers between social justice organizations and environmental organizations. For centuries, movements for social change have articulated their concerns in the language of rights, justice, and freedom. Yet until now, few environmental activists used these terms because the law defines nature as a collection of objects that are by definition incapable of holding rights or volition. Climate change activists and the UN Human Rights Commission have made significant progress in shifting climate change discourse from a predominantly scientific, technological, and economic debate to one about human rights (although not yet about rights of nature).

On the other hand, local communities (particularly indigenous peoples) increasingly are using the language of rights to reassert their worldview that Earth is animate and sacred. In India, the Dongria Kondh tribespeople, who recognize that their livelihoods and well-being are dependent upon the Niyamgiri Hills, met with determined opposition a project by Vedanta Resources to establish an open-pit bauxite mine in their territory. In April 2013, after the tribespeople framed their efforts as protecting the rights of the hills as a sacred natural person, the Supreme Court of India upheld the religious and cultural rights of the most-affected villages to prevent the mining.

Fourth, as natural resources become scarcer, corporations are intensifying their attempts to exploit areas that local and indigenous communities value highly or regard as sacred. Because existing governance systems are designed to facilitate activities such as mining and because the tax revenues from extractive activity encourage governments to authorize it, these communities are increasingly exploring other means to protect their interests. For example, the rising worldwide use of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract oil and natural gas from subterranean shale rock has intensified conflicts between local communities and large corporations (usually supported by governments). In the United States, many communities have responded by adopting local ordinances and charters that assert community rights of self-determination, recognize the rights of nature, and, in some cases, provide that if corporations infringe those rights then their status as separate legal persons holding legal rights will no longer be recognized.

 
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