The Sacred and the Dead

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

How do values enter politics?

The Bolivian national legislature, pressured by a movement of indigenous people and small farmers, may be about to birth a stunning global precedent in the creation of an environmentally sane future: establishing legal rights for Mother Earth.

On the one hand, huh? How can we reduce nature itself — the entirety of the universe beyond humanity’s small outpost of self-importance — to an entity that requires bureaucratic recognition? On the other hand, Mother Earth — Pachamama, in indigenous Andean parlance — is humanity’s vulnerable context, without which, though the universe will go on, we will not. As Bron Taylor, author of Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future, put it: “Ecologically maladaptive cultural systems . . . eventually kill their hosts.”

The Bolivian legislation, in essence, establishes a legal right for our own future. As such, it is a stunning juncture of two worlds: the modern world, of science, technology, geopolitics, corporate dominance, despoliation and war; and the indigenous world, under assault for the last 500 years, of connection to nature and reverent respect for the circle of life.

These are not worlds that are going to meet seamlessly, but if they don’t meet — if the latter is simply chewed up by Western growth and dominance, sacrificed along with the rainforest on the altar of the Big Mac and unlimited corporate growth — we will have lost our chance, I fear, to pull out of our downward ecological spiral. Without reclaiming the indigenous wisdom we have abandoned, we will have no way to limit our own resource-devouring, cancer-like economic growth.

What strikes me, therefore, as most remarkable about the Bolivian legislation is that it is steeped not just in the clarion warnings of environmental science but also in what can only be called a sense of sacredness and reverence for the planet. Such a sense begins with the term “Mother Earth,” vibrantly discordant in the context of legislation, which we expect to be delivered to us in the dead prose of legalese.

Mother Earth,” the Bolivian bill declares, as reported by Nick Buxton in a recent issue Yes! Magazine, “is a living, dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

The legislation, Buxton writes, grants Mother Earth “the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance and restoration. Bolivia’s law mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.”

He goes on to note that the legislation would require national policy to be “guided by Sumaj Kawsay,” an indigenous concept meaning “living in harmony with nature and people . . . rather than the current focus on producing more goods and stimulating consumption.”

The law’s specific requirements, Buxton writes, include: a transition from non-renewable to renewable energy; the regulation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; research and investment of resources in energy efficiency, ecological practices and organic agriculture; and the development of new economic indicators that would assess the environmental impact of economic activities. Under the law, companies and individuals would be held accountable for any environmental contamination they cause and be required to repair the damage.

Not surprisingly, the country’s mining and large-scale agricultural industries have little enthusiasm for this legislation, which would, they fear, threaten their sacred profits. Their allies in the government, Buxton writes, would like to ensure that the law has no real power behind it and remains “nothing more than a visionary but ultimately meaningless statement.”

Beyond places such as Bolivia and Ecuador — which two years ago incorporated the rights of nature into its new constitution — and other Third and Fourth World nations, indigenous people have little or no political power and their way of life and the consciousness behind it are part of natural history museums, not present-day reality. The “sacredness” of Mother Earth is not something that would be taken seriously, by which I mean, entertained politically. It would be a joke.

In the world in which most of us are used to, sacredness is a relic of antiquity, and nature itself is hardly more than a theme park, protected in specially designated locales ($12 individual admission), but otherwise up for grabs. The planet that sustains us may be “pretty” (in spots) but is hardly a living organism. Such consciousness — that the universe is inert, that our will is all that matters — is no less a religion than the belief that Mother Earth is sacred, but it’s unacknowledged as such by its proponents.

I repeat the words of the Bolivian legislation: “Mother Earth is a living, dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

Can we rebuild the world on such a foundation?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at