By Cooper Swanson
Balance is an essential aspect of sustainability. This is all-too-often overlooked, although English lexicon is full of phrases such as work-life balance, a balanced diet, checks and balances, and a balanced budget, which lend importance to the word in regards to longevity. Recognizing the lack of such balance in regard to environmental policy, one South American country is taking steps to level the playing field.
The Plurinational State of Bolivia, which has been highly critical of the lack of environmental policy set by developed nations, is now poised to pass the world’s first law giving equal rights to humans and nature and proclaiming the country’s mineral deposits to be “blessings.” The new law is likely to gain heavy support from the Bolivian public as protection, worship, and respect of Pachamama (Mother Earth) has been built into the customs of many Bolivians since well before the founding of the nation. The 11 new rights that the environment will be awarded with the passing of this law include the right to life and to regeneration, the right not to be polluted, and the right to balance with human activities.
It is this balance and equilibrium that is particularly ambitious and innovative as a means for developing a sustainable future. At this point, most people recognize that perpetually increasing living standards is not possible without further addressing environmental concerns. However, governments are not typically quick to explicitly state their intent to add enough weight to the environment side of the scale so as to give it equal importance to society itself. Undoubtedly, the Bolivian government would like to further establish its own commitment to curbing climate change, as the country continues to seek retribution for countries that have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol and to push heavily for a second commitment phase to the agreement before it expires next year.
Alvaro Garcia Linera, Bolivia’s Vice-President, said of the law, “It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration.” What is not yet clear, however, is exactly how this new relationship will be demonstrated in practice. The means by which the law should be implemented, although not overtly stated in detail, are alluded to in general terms in the articles expressing the obligations of the government and society. Appropriately, the government is responsible for implementing policies to protect the environment and promoting this unconventional way of thinking internationally. Certainly the new law is not meant to be so strict as to say that eating meat or even plants is illegal. Likewise, the government will not likely close its natural gas pipelines or zinc mines. This is meant to look at a broader goal of keeping impacts on the environment within reasonable limits and establishing a sound balance between humans and Mother Earth.
Seemingly out of place is the state’s duty to “promote peace and the elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological arms and weapons of mass destruction.” While certainly everyone can agree that peace is an unquestionably good goal and a world without weapons would be an improvement on reality, the obscurity of its inclusion in this law could invoke skepticism about how it will be used in the international arena. The law in its entirety, if used as anticipated, will further amplify the anti-capitalism stance of the Bolivian President, Evo Morales.
Despite uncertainty about the application of Bolivia’s new law and any qualms someone may have in regard to its religious and socialist affiliation, the respect given to the environment by the country’s central government is admirable. While jumping directly into an equal balance of rights between society and environment is yet to be established in practice in Bolivia and would be even more difficult for more developed countries, it could be an objective worth aiming for to realize long-term sustainability. Indeed, only steps towards equilibrium will lead to this rather improbable goal being more of a probability.