By David Korten
A 5,000-year Imperial Civilization of violence, competition, and domination now exceeds the limits of Earth’s tolerance. We now face an imperative to navigate a transition in a blink of history’s eye to an Ecological Civilization that organizes in cooperative partnership with the rest of Earth’s community of life to meet the needs of all.
This imperative calls us to embrace our human potential and responsibility as a truly global choice making species born of and nurtured by a living Earth. It is by orders of magnitude, the most daunting challenge our species has ever faced.
From Imperial to Ecological Civilization
For some 5,000 years, the dominant human societies have organized around institutions of Empire that pit people in violent competition for domination of one another and nature. Whether we celebrate this past for its accomplishments or condemn it for its injustices, we now face the reality that imperial civilization’s time has passed.
History’s great empires have each in turn destroyed themselves as their excesses created systemic imbalances that led to environmental and social collapse. In the past the collapse was always contained, because their institutions were anchored in geographically defined imperial states and their excesses never threatened global environmental collapse.
By contrast, the current imperial system organizes around placeless transnational corporations that recognize no boundaries. The excesses are more extreme, and global in scale, and threaten human viability. The magnitude of the resulting imbalances is captured in two statistics.
- Global Environmental Imbalance: We humans currently consume at a rate 6 times what Earth can sustain. Consequences include toxic contamination of the air we breathe and the water we drink, the erosion of soil fertility, and destruction of the pollinators on which the plants that feed us depend. We are placing at increasing risk, Earth’s ability to support life.
- Global Social Imbalance: Globally, the world’s 8 richest people own as much economic wealth as the poorest half of humanity—3.7 billion people who struggle to survive on an income of $2.50 or less per day. This extreme social imbalance is tearing apart the social fabric of society and undermining the credibility of both national and global governing institutions.
We humans are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth—itself a community of life—a living organism— that self-organizes to create and maintain the conditions essential to life’s existence.
Over billions of years, living Earth developed a capacity to continuously renew her fresh air and water, fertile soils, forests, grasslands, and fisheries—constantly adjusting to maintain the chemical composition of her atmosphere and oceans and the stability of her climate and surface temperatures to meet the needs of ever more complex organisms. Life’s ability to self-organize locally everywhere holds the key to its ability to quickly adapt both locally and globally to diverse and constantly changing local conditions as it evolves toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility.
Consistent with this reality, the culture and institutions of the Ecological Civilization of our future must support a planetary system of local bioregional community economies that self-organize to:
- Maintain a healthy balance between humans and the generative systems by which living Earth continuously renews herself.
- Secure for all people the essentials of human health and happiness.
No human created the generative systems of Earth’s biosphere and no human has the right to monopolize or destroy them. We share a long-neglected responsibility to secure their health and to share their fruits equitably for the benefit of all.
The implications are daunting. We must reduce the global human consumption footprint from 1.6 times what Earth can sustain to 1.0 or less. We must also reallocate current consumption to secure for each of Earth’s 7.5 billion people the essential needs of a healthy and joyful life.
Fortunately, we have enormous opportunities to reduce the human burden on Earth in ways that potentially improve the quality of life for all.
Imagine a world free of toxins, air and water pollution, and other wastes; urban noise; war; extremes of wealth and poverty, and hours long-commutes in traffic jams. A world in which most transportation needs are met by walking, biking, public transportation, and car sharing. The production, sale, and use of military weapons is prohibited. And every child is a wanted child assured of a good education, an opportunity to be valued as a contributing member of their community, and a secure retirement.
This vision is more than possible. It is essential. And it starts with getting our priorities right.
GDP and the Corporate Takeover
Human well-being is best assessed by indicators of the health and happiness of our children, the strength of our families and communities, the purity of our air and water, the stability and fertility of our soils, and the vitality of our forests and fisheries. In denial of this seemingly obvious reality, we have allowed ourselves to become captive to economic theories and institutions that would have us believe that economic health is best assessed by the growth of a financial indicator, gross domestic product (GDP).
Much of what GDP counts as economic growth is the monetization of the living relationships on which the well-being of people and the rest of nature depends. My insights into this tragic human misdirection are informed by my years as an international development professional working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a mission to end poverty.
In the 1950s and 60s, most people still lived in villages and met most all their needs by growing and harvesting their food and other essentials directly from the land with little or no exchange of money and thus no contribution to GDP. An explicit objective of international development assistance programs funded by the World Bank and many national foreign assistance programs was to get people off the land and into paid employment where their labor would count as a contribution to GDP. No one mentioned that once people became dependent on money they could get only by working for corporations, corporations and their owners were assured a portion of the benefit of every human exchange.
As countries “developed,” corporations increasingly controlled access to the essentials of living: from food and water to shelter, communications, education, and health care. They granted access only to those who paid with money they could get only from corporations that controlled access to paid employment, loans, and investments. All except the very rich were reduced to lives of involuntary servitude as corporations consolidated their control of both the means of living and the money required to access it.
GDP measures the expansion of the financial economy at the expense of the living systems and relationships on which our health and happiness depend. From a human perspective, GDP is best regarded as a measure of economic cost rather than of economic benefit.
Managing the economy to maximize economic costs to generate corporate profits results in what I call a Suicide Economy, because it systematically destroys the foundations of its own and human existence. Known also as capitalism, it is dedicated to what Pope Francis calls the idolatry, or worship, of money.
The inevitable consequence is the concentration of wealth, destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life, and widespread human suffering.
Assault on Sovereignty
But it gets worse. As individuals became dependent on corporations for their means of living, national economies in turn became dependent on imports, contractors, and technologies from foreign countries paid for with foreign debt repayable in foreign currency that borrowing nations could get only by selling their peoples’ labor and assets to foreign corporations.
When it became evident that the borrowing countries could repay only with dire consequences for their own people, the World Bank and IMF stepped in as international debt collectors with a corporatist policy agenda. They forced indebted countries to:
- Slash public expenditures for health and education to fund tax breaks and subsidies for foreign investors,
- Eliminate restrictions on foreign ownership, imports, banks and financial institutions, cross-border financial flows, and the extraction and export of natural resources;
- Put public assets and services—including natural resources and communications, power, and water services—up for sale to foreign corporations. and
- Roll back protections for unions, workers, consumers, public health and safety, and the environment.
This completed transfer of sovereign control of the economies of foreign aid recipient countries from the people and governments of those countries to the institutions of transnational capital.
Corporate Imperial Rule Goes Global
In the 1990s, the corporatists that had engineered this recolonization process extended their takeover agenda to high income countries through international agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO). Step by step the corporatists reduced the ability of governments of countries both rich and poor to protect and advance the well-being of their own people. Security the profits of transnational corporations became their economic priority.
As transnational corporations took over the economy of the United States, corporate profits soared as workers became mired in unpayable mortgage, credit card, and student debt they have no means to repay.
Nowhere, including in the United States, did people vote to yield their national sovereignty to transnational corporations. The world’s wealthiest financiers and corporations used their wealth to buy our politicians and consolidate their control of mass media to assure the public that trade agreements, corporate mergers, and the privatization of public services will increase efficiency and bring peace and prosperity to all.
Most of the corporations that now dominate daily life have shed any sense of national identity or obligation. They operate by rules of their own making and accept no responsibility for consequences of their actions for people and the rest of nature. The resulting devastation bears major responsibility for the political backlash that handed the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump.
The globalization of corporate rule was guided and legitimated by an intellectually and morally corrupt Neoliberal/Free market ideology posing as economic science. We were constantly assured that the destruction of life to grow GDP is an act of wealth creation and the globalization of unaccountable corporate power advances freedom and democracy.
The Step from Adolescent Rebellion to Adult Maturity
The Era of the Imperial Civilization may be characterized as our human time of adolescent rebellion against and separation from our Earth Mother. We might think of our step to an Ecological Civilization as a step to maturity and adult responsibility. That step requires that we:
- Shift the defining economic priority from growing consumption and financial assets to securing the health and happiness of all people for generations to come;
- Shift institutional power from global corporations to the people of self-governing, self-reliant communities that meet their needs within the limits of their own self-renewing resource base;
- Shift production-consumption systems from global, linear, one time use-and-dispose resource flows to local circular resource flows; and
- Shift the ownership of productive assets from global corporations and financiers to people who live in the communities in which the assets are located and who feel a responsibility for the wellbeing of future generations.
Each of these essential shifts runs directly counter to the prescriptions of the failed ideology that legitimated and celebrated the expansion of imperial corporate rule. The term “economics,” derives from the Greek ‘Oikonomia,’ meaning ‘household management’ We are in desperate need of a new economics that recognizes Earth as a living organism and honors her household as the meta-household to which we all belong.
As we rethink economics, so too we must rethink many of our foundational legal principles. Western law generally gives corporations more rights than people, and gives nature virtually no rights at all. Yet without nature, there are no people, and without people, there are no corporations.
The rights of nature are paramount. People—as self-aware, morally accountable, choice making beings—have both natural rights and natural responsibilities.
In an Ecological Civilization, nature will have rights. People will have both rights and responsibilities. Corporations will be accountable to democratic governments of, by, and for the people for fulfilling the only legitimate reason for a corporation’s existence, serving the common good if the people who whose government created it. Corporations, which are purely creations of governments that themselves exist only to serve a public purpose, will have no rights beyond the jurisdiction of the government that created them and only for so long as the fulfill beh public purpose for which they were created.
As each nation moves to revise its own laws to secure the health and integrity of the natural systems within its territorial borders and assure the equitable allocation of the Earth’s generative product to secure the health and happiness of all its citizens, the system of global corporate governance will be dismantled.
Global Governance in the New Era
We humans are now a truly interdependent global species. Earth’s community of life is part of a complex, interconnected global system. As noted previously, the key to life’s resilience is its ability to organize everywhere locally to quickly adapt to changing local conditions in ways that maintain its own viability. We must similarly organize globally around local, self-organizing, self-reliant community economies that in their relations with one another honor the wise words of John Maynard Keynes:
Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel—these are things which should in their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and above all let finance be primarily national.
We can speed the transition to an Ecological Civilization through international exchange and sharing that advances mutual understanding, cooperation, and learning—freely sharing ideas, knowledge, art, and culture to enrich the lives of all. But the free international movement of physical resources, goods, and money is a different matter.
In addition to increasing overall system resilience, local community self-reliance eliminated non-essential long distance transport of physical resources and manufactured goods and the related carbon burden on Earth’s atmosphere. Localizing economics would present a serious blow to corporate profits. It would be a boon to people and nature.
Global humanity currently has two competing systems of global governance: The UN system and the Bretton Woods system. The UN system was created to facilitate cooperation and the peaceful resolution of conflict among nations.
The Bretton Woods institutions—the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank—have relentlessly championed economic growth as the primary measure of economic performance and advanced an agenda of rule by transnational corporations that undermines local self-reliance, resilience, and adaptations.
Humanity must now choose between these two competing systems of global governance: one that supports peace, local self-reliance, and self-organization to maximize the well-being of people and natural systems. The other feeds international tensions, weakens local control, and undermines democracy to grow the profits of transnational corporations.
I see three top priorities for a system of global governance for an Ecological Civilization.
- Dismantle the Bretton Woods institutions and revitalize, strengthen, and extend the UN system.
- Break up global, transnational and multinational corporations and restructure the pieces to serve the common interests of people, nations, and local communities.
- Reduce international tensions and advance the peaceful resolution of conflict among nations while dismantling the global military establishment and rolling back the production and international sale of arms.
Unwinding the excesses and structures of Imperial Civilization while navigating a transition to an Ecological Civilization—and doing it within the time that remains to us between now and environmental system collapse—presents the greatest challenge the human species has ever faced. It will require bold and intelligent leadership from all levels of society.
With thanks to Peter Buffett for editorial assistance. Bascd on “A Living Earth Economy for an Ecological Civilization,” presented to the 2016 Donghu Forum on Global Governance: Symposium on Green Development and Global Governance, Hauzhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China.