Earth Charter Summit, San Francisco

We are gathered to consider one of the most visionary documents of our time, the Earth Charter. Before we focus our attention on this great document, though, I need to say something about the drums of war and war itself.

I wrote this poem in 1971, more than thirty years ago during another war, but unfortunately it is again appropriate today. Listen carefully and you can hear the steady beating of the drums of war coming from Washington.


They’re beating on the drums again,
the drums, the drums.
They’re calling out the young men again,
young men, young men.

They’re training them to kill again,
with knives and guns,
with tanks and bombs.

They’re sending them away again,
across the ocean
by ship, by plane.

They’re acting up at home again,
the mothers, the mothers.
They don’t want their sons to go again
to die, to die.

And now they’re coming home again
in caskets wrapped in flags
with shrapnel in their backs,
with heroin in their veins.

And now they’re coming home again
with snickers on their lips,
with medals on their chests.

They’re blowing on the bugles now.
They’re beating on the drums,
the drums, the drums.
War is not an abstract. War kills people, particularly the innocent; war rips families apart, destroys cities and wastes our resources – including our most precious resource of all, our children.

The political leaders of the most powerful nation that the world has ever known are beating on the drums of war, as they pursue perpetual war against terrorism, against the Taliban and now against Iraq. These men, flush with power, seek “regime change” in Iraq. They have decided that it is time that Saddam must go, regardless of the cost in lives of Iraqi civilians and of young Americans who will be sent to fight and die.

If the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team has its way, we Americans will see the face of Saddam on every Iraqi man, woman and child. They will become our targets, the “collateral damage” of the bombs we drop from 30,000 feet. They will serve as both the enemy and those we liberate with our bombs. They will be the victims of our arrogance. Their deaths and injuries will be the cause of the next cadres of terrorists who rise up after we have injured and killed their loved ones and destroyed their homes and families. The new terrorists who are created by this war will make us the victims of the hubris of our political leaders.

Today’s American military force is an army of volunteers, composed primarily of young people who are seeking the opportunity to get ahead. They are promised a college education, something they generally could not otherwise afford, for serving in the military. They are not told when they sign up that they may have to fight and die on a far-away desert before their dreams of a college education could be fulfilled. These are the young people who will be sent to die because they lacked good economic alternatives.

I would like to offer just one simple suggestion that could put an end to this war and perhaps all war: Let those who seek to send others to fight in wars, go themselves. Isn’t that the essence of leadership – to lead the way.

I’m tired of leadership of the “do as I say, not as I do” variety. Unfortunately, that has become the principal form of leadership in Washington – and it is bipartisan. This style of leadership also applies to weapons of mass destruction. Our government doesn’t want Saddam to have even one nuclear weapon, but it plans to retain thousands for itself in perpetuity. Our government provided the materials for biological weapons to Iraq over many years, and now our government has sabotaged the verification protocol of the Biological Weapons Convention that the nations of the world, including our closest allies, were eager to implement.

If Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld said they were ready to go off to fight Saddam Hussein, I would at least believe that they had a modicum of integrity for being willing to put their own lives on the line for what they believed in. Instead, they want to send someone else’s sons and daughters off to fight and die.

And what about Congress? Do you think that those who vote for war will be willing to go or to send their sons and daughters? Of course not. They believe in sending others to fight and die so that their own patriotism will not be questioned.

But why should we judge their patriotism by their willingness to send others to war? What is wrong with us, citizens of a democracy? How did we become so complacent, so willing to let politicians dictate the lives and deaths of our young people without being willing to put their own lives or even their careers on the line?

Hermann Goering, the Nazi Head of the Luftwaffe, said this about war in a conversation with a prison psychologist during the Nuremberg Trials:

Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood.

But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

Voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

The human future stands on soft and precarious ground. Looking ahead, one path leads to war and devastation. Another path, far more hopeful, is the path of peace. But it must be an active, energetic and organized peace. We cannot wait for peace to come to us. We must choose peace and commit ourselves to attaining peace by our actions. A starting point for doing so is saying NO to war.

Daisaku Ikeda has said, “Nothing is more precious than peace…. Peace is the most basic starting point for the advancement of humankind.”

The drums of war are beating. Which will it be: Peace or war? We have choices. We can act.

The Earth Charter is a blueprint for peace. It represents the hopes and dreams of millions of people for our common future. It is built upon an understanding of our shared humanity and our inextricable link with the web of all life. It is premised on our shared responsibility for passing the world on intact to the next generation and the next and the next. We must not be the generation that breaks faith with life and with the future.

Never before in human history has the danger to our survival been greater. Today we live in a world in which nations are pitted against nations, in which wars are commonplace, in which overwhelmingly the victims of wars are civilians, and in which terrorists strike out at innocent civilians. All of this must change if we are to survive, if we are to flourish, and if we are to realize our full potential as human beings.

The Earth Charter is a call to action. It is a call to each of us to rise to our full potential as human beings and to play our part in changing the world. Without our actions, the Earth Charter is only a flowery document – words upon a piece of paper. It is up to us, by our actions, to breathe life into this vision of global decency.

Each of us is more special than we can possibly imagine. We are, in fact, miracles of creation. Each of us is entirely unique. There has never been anyone quite like you – with your combination of interests and talents, knowledge and appreciations — in the entire history of the universe. But beyond our magnificent uniqueness and our diversity, we all share a common humanity.

We have been endowed with gifts that we often fail to realize or to use.

We have the gift of thought and reflection, allowing us to grapple with the world’s problems and to find creative solutions, such as the Earth Charter itself.

We have the gift of memory, making it possible for us to learn from our mistakes and those of others.

We have the gift of voice and language, enabling us to communicate and to make our voices heard.

We have the gift of conscience, enabling us to determine for ourselves right from wrong.

We have the gift of creativity, allowing us to add to the world’s already enormous store of beauty through arts and literature, philosophies and religions, sciences and engineering, and day-to-day problem solving.

We have the gift of love, making it possible to share closely with others the incredible gift of life in all its richness and beauty as well as in its sorrow and suffering.

We have the gift of empathy, allowing us to understand another’s hurt and sorrow and to reach out with compassion and love.

We have the gift of mobility, making it possible for us to go where we are needed.

We have the gift to make and use tools, enabling us to extend our powers dramatically. Our tools have taken us into outer space, where our astronauts and cosmonauts have looked back on our beautiful, blue planet, so alone in the universe, so precious in its nurturing of life.

And our tools have given us the power to destroy ourselves. That is the essence of the Nuclear Age. We can no longer be assured that the continuous flow of life, at least human life, will continue.

Our tools are dual-purpose because we are dual-purpose, creatures capable of both good and evil.

And we must choose. Choice itself is another of our great gifts as human beings. We each have the power of choice that we manifest each day of our lives by every act we make and decision we take.

I believe that we are more powerful than our tools, including our most terrible weapons of mass destruction. We have the power to control these tools and to eliminate them. But we must exercise that power or our tools may eliminate us.

As the Earth Charter tells us, the choice is ours: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.”

That choice can be made by our apathy, complacency and ignorance. That is the choice of abandoning our humanity by default. That is the choice of abandoning our human responsibility. It is the choice of those who would sleepwalk through the greatest challenges of our time, perhaps of any time.

That choice can be made by giving over our power to leaders who would lead us into war and greed and selfishness. That is the choice of abandoning our democratic responsibilities and playing the role of lemmings rushing over a cliff to our demise.

Or our choice can be made by standing on our own two feet, by embracing others, by our compassion, our creativity and our commitment to changing the world.

To choose the path of life and decency will not be easy. In fact, it will require every ounce of courage that we have. We will have to learn to believe in ourselves and to empower ourselves to be a force for peace, even against great odds.

We will have to stand firm and confident in the power of right and decency against entrenched and powerful institutions that would have us be complacent consumers rather than active peacemakers.

At the dawn of the Nuclear Age, just days after the first atomic weapon was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Albert Camus, the great French writer said, “Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only battle worth waging. This is no longer a prayer but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments – a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.”

Let us stand with Camus and choose Peace, because it is necessary. Let us stand with Camus and demand that our governments choose reason.

War no longer has a place on our planet, and we must stop preparing for war. We must stop squandering our resources on tools of destruction. We must demand that the $850 billion now spent on the world’s military forces be spent instead on meeting human needs. If human needs are met and principles of justice among all peoples are adhered to, there will be no need for war, and the need for defense will atrophy.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “One day we must come to see that peace is not the distant goal we seek, but the means to that goal.”

Let us stand with Martin Luther King, Jr. and choose Peace because it is a wiser course of action, respectful of human life. Let us join him in his dream for justice and dignity for all. Let us stand with him in his conviction that peace and nonviolence are not only the ends we seek, but also the means to attain those ends.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Let us stand with Eleanor Roosevelt and believe firmly in the beauty of our dreams. Let us believe deeply that the vision of the Earth Charter is not only right and necessary, but also possible. It is not an idle dream, but a vision of a world that must be built by our actions.

Pablo Casals, the great master of the cello, said, “The love of country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”

Let us stand with Pablo Casals, and choose to be citizens of the world. Let us erase the borders in our minds and replace them with an all-embracing love for humanity. Let us work to create a world in which every person, no matter where he or she is born, is able to live with dignity and full human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Jacques Cousteau, who explored and shared the beauty of the oceans and who lived with a deep commitment to future generations, said, “The time has come when speaking is not enough, applauding is not enough. We have to act.”

Let us stand with Jacques Cousteau and commit ourselves to action – to action that will change the world, even if it is done one person and one decision at a time.

The Dalai Lama has reminded us that we must never give up. He has written:

No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
Is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart
Be compassionate
Not just to your friends
But to everyone
Be compassionate
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world
Work for peace
And I say again
Never give up
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up

Let us stand with the Dalai Lama, who has spoken so passionately for peace and nonviolence, and pledge to never give up our struggle for a more decent and peaceful world, a world we can be proud to pass on to the next generation.

I would like to ask each of you to take three steps today to build a peaceful world and make the Earth Charter the reality we live by.

First, say NO to nuclear weapons – all nuclear weapons – no matter who possesses them. You can go to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s web site at and sign our Appeal to End the Nuclear Weapons Threat to Humanity and All Life. While you are at the web site, you can sign up to receive our Sunflower e-newsletter that will keep you informed monthly about the latest developments in working for a nuclear weapons-free world.

Second, say NO to war. Write to the President and to your Congressional representatives today, and tell them that war against Iraq is an unacceptable solution and that they must find peaceful means through the United Nations and international law to end our impasse with Iraq so that innocent Iraqis and Americans will not be killed and more terrorists will not be created. Send more letters to your newspapers and talk about this with your friends. You can find a sample letter and contact information at the Waging Peace web site.

Third, say YES to Peace and Choose Hope. Put aside complacency and despair and choose Hope as the basis for all of your actions from this day forward. Not frivolous hope, but hope that is rooted in courage, compassion and commitment. Stand up for peace, for human dignity and for future generations in all you say and do.

The Earth Charter states, “As never before in history, common destiny beckons us to seek a new beginning.” Let us begin.

With hope as our foundation, with the Earth Charter as our guide, with each other for support, I am confident that together we will change the world.
*David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Choose Hope, Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age.