Guardians for Future Generations
The Women’s Congress for Future Generations elevates the voices of women to
protect Mother Earth and Future Generations at this critical moment in history.
The Women’s Congress for Future Generations is a project of the Science & Environmental Health Network (SEHN).
For more than two decades, SEHN has been working to engage communities and governments in the effective application of science to protect and restore public and ecosystem health.
Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director of SEHN, had become the leading proponent in the U.S. of the Precautionary Principle as a new basis for environmental and public health policy.
The words "Precautionary Principle" come from Germany. German environmentalists had been trying to find a way to address the decline of the Black Forest, and came up with this idea, which literally translates from the German as forecaring -- caring for what might be a difficult future. The Precautionary Principle involves a different calculus than risk and economics in its mandate. The Precautionary Principle says we must take action to prevent
harm to present and future generations -- the ethic -- in the face of scientific uncertainty. In other words, decisions ought to be made with the seventh generation in mind.
SEHN picked up this idea and held the Wingspread Conference, a gathering of U.S. environmental health advocates, policymakers and scientists in 1998. At the time, it was a novel way to make decisions because it coupled epistemology with ethics. Before that, most environmental issues were decided solely on economics and risk sciences. Decisions were generally made using cost-benefit analysis which left out a lot of ‘hidden costs’, like impact on human health. There was little or no discussion of ethics or rights in the halls of governmental agencies. We wanted to help change that and we have! Though there is much work left to do.
Years later, Bob Shimek from the Indigenous Environmental Network, called to ask how we could put the Precautionary Principle together with the Seventh Generation Rule -- a rule long practiced by the Iroquois Confederacy of the northeast United States -- to change the terms of the debate around a large gold mine proposed for Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska. His question sparked an immediate answer: Yes!
We could designate a legal guardian for future generations to protect their interests and their rights. And not just on claiming rights but on claiming responsibility. We need new policy frameworks, to some degree because so many voices, the indigenous communities, communities of color and women's voices have been missing,
The Women’s Congress expanded this theoretical foundation to include women working in their own communities. This is the crucial difference in this new phase of feminism: a responsibility to act.
In 2012, SEHN co-convened with Peaceful Uprising and KZMU Radio, the first Women’s Congress for Future Generations in order to mobilize a movement of women going forward, fueling actions to shift cultural and political conversations toward a worldview that recognizes the interdependence of all things. A second Women’s Congress was held two years later in Minneapolis, which focused on economics and environmental issues.
This effort flowed naturally from SEHN’s large body of work around the rights of future generations. SEHN is honored and inspired to steward this critical work of uniting women to demand systems-level change. We are steadfastly committed to calling forth a legal system grounded in guardianship and care for future generations of all species. Fulfilling our responsibility to Future Generations calls for not only new institutions but also new decision-making tools, especially economic ones.
Substantive outcomes of the Women’s Congress include a living “Declaration of the Rights of Future Generations and the Responsibilities of Present Generations” which articulates, codifies, and upholds these rights and responsibilities. At the 2014 Congress, an additional declaration was ratified, the Declaration of the Rights of All Waters.
The events bring forward ideas to help shift the way we care for and relate to our Earth—ideas captured in our Companion for Political Change, such as moving environmental law out of free market private property law into rights law; caring for the Commons, the Precautionary Principle, Guardianship for Future Generations and Free, Prior and Informed Consent
Congress-goers – all people are welcome! – imagine different economic principles that counter dominant but destructive paradigms. Real democracy is to extend rights, looking at the rights of future generations. We can fulfill these by standing together. Women are coming together. We are taking seriously our responsibility and creating a space where we can explore that responsibility and take effective action.
“When people come together, they can accomplish more than they can by individual actions. With this transformation from “me” to “we,” the wind picks up, the sails fill, and the boat is off. . . Media coverage tends to focus on one person and doesn’t point out that the heroine of a story has the support of a small group behind her.”
- Mary Pipher, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture
In September 2012, we gathered in Moab, Utah, for the 1st Women’s Congress for Future Generations: three days to dream, debate, write, sing, speak and create. The focus was on the rights of future generations to a just and livable future.
A Declaration of the Rights Held by Future Generations and the Bill of Responsibilities for Present Generations (link) was drafted and ratified. This is a living document, designed and defined to expand and evolve as it is passed down from generation to generation.
In November 2014, a Minnesota team, under the auspices of the Science & Environmental Health Network, convened the 2nd Women’s Congress in Minneapolis. We collaborated with environmental and justice organizations, inspiring women to stand together for the rights of future generations. A Declaration of the Rights of All Waters was drafted and ratified by this Congress.
In both gatherings, hundreds of people, mostly women, came together for three days to catalyze and deepen our connections, to seed new ideas, to discover new ways of working together and to join with the world-wide movement for justice, fueling inner beliefs and outer actions that shift cultural and political conversations toward a worldview that recognizes the interdependence of all things.
In November of 2017, we will convene the 3rd Women’s Congress for Future Generations in Minneapolis. When women and men come together to explore and act on big ideas, we can shift the trajectory of history. Envision “Seneca Falls,” the “1963 March on Washington.” Remember the “2017 Women’s March on Washington” when over 5 million people, all over the world, marched to say “we care.”