Ask What You Can Do for Your Planet

Surgical assistant Rachel Heule had planned her pleasure trip to Tahiti for months. Her itinerary included plenty of time for sunbathing on the beaches by day and partying in the disco clubs at night. She even took a second job to earn enough money to make it all happen. Then she read an article in NEED magazine about the life-changing, lifesaving surgeries that the nonprofit organization Mercy Ships provides free to those who lack the most basic health services in some of the world’s poorest countries. On the spot, Rachel decided to volunteer.

Thousands of others responding to external promptings and inner callings are signing up to do environmental healing, social justice, and humanitarian aid work around the world. After spending spring of 2001 in Kenya through the School for International Training’s study abroad program, Emily Verellen and Karen Austrian founded the Binti Pamoja (Daughters United in Swahili) Center, a reproductive health and women’s rights program for teenage girls in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. Professional urban planner Holly Pearson spent six months in La Plata, Argentina, working with Fundaci–n Biosfera to create a plan for reducing the city’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Former web programmer Matt Berg now heads the Geekcorps’ Last Mile Initiative, a program focused on improving access to communications technology in rural Mali.

Over the next 10 to 20 years a daunting array of potentially calamitous crises will come to a head: global warming and climate change; depletion of groundwater and fossil fuel; the pandemic spread of HIV/AIDS; proliferation of nuclear weapons and small arms; the expanding gulf between the rich and the poor; and the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism. The list goes on.

The scale and severity of these crises goes beyond what even coordinated international governmental action can remedy. Millions if not hundreds of millions of volunteers of all ages need to step up if we have any chance of maintaining a viable planet for our children and future generations.

National service of some sort, either in the military or in alternative arenas (such as teaching in the inner city or cleaning up toxic waste sites) is well established in more than 30 countries, including Germany, Sweden, China, Chile, New Zealand, Russia, and Israel. But national service is not enough. We need to think beyond traditional governments and recognized borders. We need an independent, nongovernmental, worldwide citizens’ movement of school-age children, college-age students, midlife adults, and postcareer retirees. We need an Earth Corps for Global Service.

‘In our globalized world, the threats we face are interconnected

. . . Whatever threatens one threatens all,’ Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway and former director-general of the World Health Organization, said at an October 2005 sustainability conference. ‘We must respond to HIV/AIDS as robustly as we do to terrorism and to poverty and as we do to [nuclear arms] proliferation. . . . We can all make a difference to influence public policies, nationally and globally. What we need is to inspire greater political commitment and determination to make this world a better place.’

The Earth Corps for Global Service would work with existing service organizations to recruit and help international citizens to, among other things, address the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; providing universal primary education; reducing child mortality; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and promoting gender equality and empowering women.

Earth Corps for Global Service has already begun a global media recruiting campaign with a goal of doubling the current number of service volunteers around the world in the next three years, and quadrupling that number by 2012. The plan is to work with more than 200 service organizations, such as the Peace Corps, UN Volunteers, and AIESEC (an international work exchange organization) to form an Earth Corps Coalition. An Earth Corps training to help environmental and social justice service volunteers match their interests and skills with global needs will be available soon.

If John F. Kennedy were alive today, he might be saying, ‘Ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for your planet.’ Those who are moved by this call can visit

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. Carol Bellamy is CEO of World Learning, president of the School for International Training, and former executive director of the Peace Corps (1993-95) and UNICEF (1995-2005).

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