Bill of Rights for future generations

Jean-Michel Cousteau

July 23, 1991|By Jean-Michel Cousteau

I RECENTLY met a lean young boy named Natake on a small Pacific island near no other. He accompanied me as I explored his tiny homeland, with its landscape ravaged by the phosphate industry.

As we walked among land that had been stripped of trees, through a ghostly abandoned warehouse, around rusting cars and trucks, Natake said nothing. True, I was a stranger. And, true, we did not speak the same language. But at each stop we made, Natake's eyes bespoke bewilderment.

"Why do you care about these things?" he seemed to ask. To him, it was as if his destroyed environment could not possibly warrant so much attention. After all, he had grown up in these conditions -- the only environment that he had ever known was a deteriorated one.

On another remote island, I saw many children swimming in a harbor full of trash -- plastic bags floating like dead balloons, beer cans scattered as thick as stones on the ocean bottom, bits of white plastic foam like an alien snowfall on the waves, amid streaks of greasy low-quality gasoline.

The children swam and had fun, probably believing it is routine to have garbage in the ocean -- that all people in the world swim among trash. How would they know anything different? By what reference point could they judge the quality of their own &L environment?

For too many of the world's children, pollution is not the exception. It is the norm. And as they reach adulthood, what kind of world can they shape if they are accustomed only to pollution?

If we continue to show indifference to the future, we could actually render environmental damage so commonplace that it will no longer be derided. In an effort to stem this tendency, the Cousteau Society -- with the advice of authorities on ethics, science and law -- has launched a global petition campaign to establish a Bill of Rights for Future Generations.

We are proposing to establish in international law the concept that every official decision must take into consideration its impact on the environment of future generations. Using this yardstick, for example, it would be impossible to ignore the peril of nuclear waste, as the world now does. It would be equally impossible to ignore the energy crisis, as the world now also does.

If governments took future generations into consideration, the greenhouse effect would be addressed sooner rather than later. Instead, as leaders put their heads in the sand, it looms ahead for others to fight.

Given the time frame for solving many global problems, our indifference is limiting the options for the next generation. Future generations may have no options at all.

Our goal is to see the following principles adopted by the United Nations and incorporated into every political constitution in the world:

Article I. Future generations have a right to an uncontaminated and undamaged Earth and to its enjoyment as the ground of human history, of culture and of social bonds that make each generation and individual a member of one human family.

Article II. Each generation, sharing in the estate and heritage of the Earth, has a duty as trustee for future generations to prevent irreversible and irreparable harm to life on Earth and to human freedom and dignity.

Article III. It is, therefore, the paramount responsibility of each generation to maintain a constantly vigilant and prudential assessment of technological disturbances and modifications adversely affecting life on Earth, the balance of nature and the evolution of mankind in order to protect the rights of future generations.

Article IV. All appropriate measures, including education, research and legislation, shall be taken to guarantee these rights and to ensure that they not be sacrificed for present expediencies and conveniences.

Article V. Governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals are urged, therefore, imaginatively to implement these principles, as if in the very presence of those future generations whose rights we seek to establish and perpetuate.

I know words are very different from actions, but words provide a framework within which action is possible. With these words, we embrace an action from which only good can come -- good for all the bewildered children of today who look to adults for security, and good for the bewildered children of tomorrow whose security we also hold in our hands.

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