(Commentary originally published by YES! Magazine, January 18, 2022)
Our current society cannot be considered civilized by any objective standard. We grow the fortunes of billionaires, even as we increase the numbers of homeless refugees and destroy Earth’s capacity to sustain life. This places us all at risk, rich and poor alike. The problem becomes more evident with each passing year. But delineating a viable alternative continues to elude us.
We have now entered the third year of what science tells us will be humanity’s decisive decade. Unless we navigate a global change of course before 2030, we risk doing such irreversible damage to Earth’s regenerative systems that our species is unlikely to survive.
I’ve been privileged over my 84 years to engage in global conversations about human possibility with some of the world’s most extraordinary minds—conversations that transcend the varied identities that have so long divided us. Recently, these conversations have become an experience in rapid collaborative learning, creativity, and commitment beyond anything I’ve previously experienced.
Out of these conversations is emerging a vision of a life-serving civilization built from a convergence of Indigenous understanding and observations at the leading edge of contemporary science. Let us commit to making 2022 our year for crafting that vision.
The foundational truths on which that vision rests are the following: Life is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise that depends on diverse communities of living beings that self-organize to create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and mutual existence. The living Earth that births and nurtures us is distinctive among all the planets we know because of its community of life. Our well-being depends, in turn, on that of the Earth.
The implications of these truths run deep. They call us to transform how we structure and manage our relationships with one another and the Earth.
Humans are distinctive among Earth’s many species in our ability to consciously shape our planet’s future, and thereby our own. This ability is a powerful gift. But when we get our choices wrong, we become an existential threat to ourselves and to the whole of the living community.
The epic disruptions wrought by a dramatic surge in heat waves, storms, floods, droughts, fires, and now the COVID-19 pandemic leave us desperate to return to life as we previously knew it. In our growing panic, we forget that it is exactly that previous way of living that created the current emergency.
This is not a temporary problem that we can put behind us by electing new political leaders or reducing our use of plastic bags. We are dealing with false assumptions about what and who we are that lead to deeply flawed collective choices. We must publicly challenge those false assumptions and replace them with our deepening understanding of how life works.
What would a truly civilized, life-centered civilization look like? And what is required to bring it into being? These are defining questions for our time, and addressing them must be among our 2022 priorities.
The Ecological Civilization Essential to Our Future
The future most of us seek will be an ecological civilization: peaceful, democratic, equitable, sustainable, and dedicated to securing the well-being of people and Earth. Getting there requires a civilizational change.
An ecological civilization will differ dramatically from our current world, with its focus on maximizing growth in individual and corporate financial assets. There are many among us who hold insights into critical pieces of this very large and complex vision. A defining challenge for 2022 is to speed the process of identifying and fitting together those pieces of the puzzle.
The Spring 2021 issue of YES! Magazine, What an Ecological Civilization Looks Like, is an important contribution. I provided my own contribution with my white paper for the Club of Rome, “Ecological Civilization: From Emergency to Emergence,” which synthesizes the work of many colleagues involved in an exploration of the pathway to a truly civilized world community.
We now take on the most complex creative challenge the human species has ever faced. So much must change if we are to have a viable future. We have scarcely begun to discuss the magnitude of those changes.
The discussion must be public and global. Success depends on the power of the people united by a compelling vision of a possible future that is true to our love of all life, not just our own.
We have yet to figure out how to get there and how it will all work, but these are some essential components of the vision now emerging:
- Conflicts will be resolved peacefully. War will be confined to history books.
- Power will be shared within and among bioregionally self-reliant local communities, and most decisions will be made locally through radically democratic processes. Government and business will be accountable to the people they serve. Everyone will share in the ownership of and responsibility to care for the physical and intellectual assets on which their means of living depend.
- Each community will care for and seek to live within the means of its local ecosystems. Most material needs will be met with local circular supply chains, and we will vacation locally with minimal need for long-distance transport. Farms will be small-scale. Farming methods will feature regenerative soil care. And diets will be mostly vegetarian.
- Tools, appliances, and devices will be designed for easy repair and recycling.
- Cities will be designed to reconnect people and nature while meeting needs for personal transport with walking, cycling, and public transit.
There will be sacrifices, especially for those of us who currently consume beyond our share of Earth’s means. But overall, these changes will reduce environmental impacts while increasing the well-being of people and the Earth. Some may feel burdened by being stripped of their assumed right to exploit others for personal gain, but perhaps with time they may come to cherish the restoration of their humanity.
These changes are not modest and will not be easily achieved. Our 2022 discussions will properly include exploring how we might accomplish each of them. The further we take these discussions toward this shared vision of the future, the greater our prospect of success in achieving humanity’s change of course by 2030.