David Korten, LEF December 2016 Report

Surprise election of Donald Trump, introduction to Ecological Civilization as a transformational frame, and my visit to China to share insights on a living Earth economy for an Ecological Civilization

Humanity is poised between breakthrough and breakdown. Environmental and social system failures are accelerating and the related loss of legitimacy of establishment political institutions in the United States is poised to put the world’s most powerful office in the hands of an unstable personality who lacks the most elemental understanding of the issues that will define the human future. Yet he believes he has all the answers and is assembling a team of the like-minded.

Chaos and a public desire for structure are typical of transformational historical moments. Hope lies with an incipient convergence among progressive movements to seize the positive opportunity this moment presents. New local national, and global initiatives consistent with a living Earth frame are emerging like seeds sprouting from rotting debris following a natural disaster. We are positioning to embrace this moment.

LEF in Transition

For the Living Economies Forum (LEF), the last year and a half have been a time of transition. For many years, our primary points of focused engagement with the larger social movement world have been through YES! Magazine and the New Economy Working Group.

YES! has been steadily improving its reporting and reach even as we navigate a crucial leadership transition as my life partner Fran Korten prepares to retire as ED. We have hired Christine Hanna—founder and co-director of Good Business Seattle, BALLE’s Seattle chapter—as Fran’s successor. We feel very confident in this choice. The next challenge is to identify my successor as YES! board chair.

The New Economy Working Group has disbanded as the new economy movement has strengthened and diversified. The elements of the movement now connect primarily through the New Economy Coalition and the Next System Project.

The Claremont Group and China

LEF is developing a new partnership with a complex of organizations affiliated with the Claremont School of Theology at Claremont Graduate University under the leadership of John B Cobb and Philip Clayton. Its 2015 conference on Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization—drew 1,500 leading thinkers and activists.

The unifying focus of the Claremont group is on advancing the human step to an ecological civilization—an official slogan in China and a term adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in its sweeping and visionary 2015 Declaration on Climate Change.

The Claremont group includes the Institute for Post Modern Development of China, which recently named me to their advisory board and was a primary sponsor of my recent trip to China to deliver a presentation on “A Living Earth Economy for an Ecological Civilization” at a high level national conference. The conference was hosted by the Institute for State Governance at Huazhong University, which presented me with an honorary appointment as a Visiting Professor during the conference.

During the visit, I had an individual private one-and-a-half-hour meeting with the top editorial board of China’s official Xinghua News Agency at its headquarters in Beijing. I had a similar session with the faculty and staff of the Academy of Marxism of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), China’s premier academic research organization.

I returned fascinated by China’s potential leadership role in moving the world beyond the failed ideas and systems of the human past. China’s concept of an Ecological Civilization is evocative of the civilizational shift to which our work is dedicated.

Over the past several decades the Chinese have been testing both communist and capitalist economic models, learning what does and doesn’t work, and searching for new answers at the level of a paradigm shift that one could only dream of happening in the United States. With the world’s largest population—equal to the United States plus a billion people—and world’s second largest economy—China has enormous potential for positive global influence and leadership.

Ecological Civilization: The Next Ten Years

The combination of political developments sets the stage for breakthrough advances in the human step to an Ecological Civilization. The failing legitimacy of the existing system creates new openings for advancing a deeper conversation about the implications of the contrasting stories that support imperial and ecological civilizations respectively. The emerging story of the Ecological Civilization aligns with what I believe to be the deepest human values and the true self-interest of every person.

We have yet to frame and communicate the story in a simple intellectually and emotionally compelling story that energizes people from across the political spectrum. The devastating US election result has unleashed a stream of opportunities to advance this work. Figuring out how best to leverage these opportunities and connections will be my central focus over the next few months as we move into 2017.

In addition to further activities with the Claremont complex and China, this includes the a potential collaboration with Matthew Fox, beginning with an opening evening plenary session we will present at the 2017 annual conference on The Science of What Connects Us of the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS). We are describing our session as follows:

Title: “What Connects Us—and Why Is It Important?”
A Conversation between spiritual theologian Matthew Fox and philosopher of living systems David Korten

Description: This dialog/conversation will explore how to translate a spiritual awakening into a societal transformation from an Imperial Civilization to an Ecological Civilization that is sustainable, respectful of the sacredness of all creation, and leaves no one behind.  The frontiers of science suggest that matter as a thing-in-itself is an illusion and only relationships are real. By this reckoning, our understanding of relationships holds the key to understanding reality, the purpose and possibilities of creation, and the human place in creation’s unfolding. We will explore those levels of being human that unite all people and for which a new civilization must make room.  What does it look like to be true to our deepest humanity and to be in kinship with “all our relations?”

One potential theme of this work might be looking for inclusive unifying themes that might bring people together across the US political divides that currently block any semblance of constructive national level problem solving political action.

I’m now reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s, Strangers in Their Own Land. It is an amazing compassionate dive into the lives and political alignments of people in rural Louisiana in search of understanding of the Trump phenomenon. These are beautiful, caring people who love the land that once nurtured them, bear the terrible pain of its horrific pollution and environmental devastation by petroleum and petrochemical corporations, and side politically with the corporations that provide them with dangerous, insecure, and poorly paid jobs that kill them, their friends and family, and the environment around them.

It is a story of unbelievable contradictions told with deep respect and desire for understanding. And it awakens the consciousness of the reader to the possibility there might be some comparable blinders on both right and left.  I’m thinking, for example, of a focus among progressive on identity politics that inhibits their ability to see the systemic structural dynamics that increasingly marginalize and impoverish people of all identities.

Not sure where all this will lead, but it feels like a breakthrough moment of opportunity and challenge to which we are well positioned to contribute.

Current Activity

Like most of my friends and colleagues, I emerged from the presidential election both terrified and energized with a sense that this is humanity’s moment of truth. For me, it is the tipping point between the human step to an Ecological Civilization and collapse into violent chaos. Hope lies in the electorate’s expressed rejection of the neoliberal establishment wings of both US political parties, thus creating a possibility for deep political transformation.

I am less focused on tweaking the failed system and on what we want politicians to do. I am more focused on what really needs to change and what We the People need to do. And I’m more focused on working with and connecting people who have a clear system frame and recognize and understand the importance of a deep paradigm shift.

I believe the cause of the election outcome is a failure of the political establishment to recognize and address the pain of economic and social marginalization and the fear and insecurity that results from the loss of both community and public safety nets. Among progressive movements there is too little focus on the rights and needs of people who grew up in the United States and feel abandoned by neoliberal establishment. That they focus more on rights and needs of people under stress elsewhere where who seek relief by migrating here, adds insult to injury. It is also a failure and loss of credibility of our education system and commercialized mainstream news media—both of which uncritically parrot the neoliberal story.

My November 30, 2016 YES! Magazine column presents my current take on four priorities for US progressive movements during the next two to four years of virtually assured Washington, DC dysfunction.

  1. Resist the forces of corporate rule.
  2. Grow community.
  3. Democratize political institutions.
  4. Advance a new public narrative.

We will encourage and support all four, with a primary focus on advancing a new paradigm public narrative under the banner of an Ecological Civilization.


In 2015 we celebrated the launch of Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth and the 20th anniversary edition of When Corporations Rule the World. We have no new books currently in the works. The change in reading habits—particularly among millennials—is shifting toward short form web content.

Adapting to this trend, our current publication priority is my biweekly YES! Magazine Living Earth Economy column that launched on March 23, 2016. In addition to YES! social media promotion, many are reposted on other high traffic sites. Popular columns can reach tens of thousands of readers in the space of a week.

Other contributions to a variety of publications are listed in Kat Gjovik’s communications outreach report. We have done two major longer form pieces this year as contributions to major new paradigm initiatives.

  1. The New Economy: A Living Earth System Model. Prepared for the Next System Project as one of a series of invited contributions from 24 leading new economy thinkers presenting a variety of approaches to a next system model.
  2. China and the Ecological Civilization. This is an invited expanded version for print publication of my presentation to the Wuhan, China conference. It outlines a new economy frame for an Ecological Civilization and why China may be positioned for a global leadership role in the larger human transition. I have prepared a slightly trimmed down version for a predominantly US audience, which was posted on our website and summarized in my November 16 YES! column. It is my current intention to make the Ecological Civilization and its emphasis on a civilizational shift for humanity the overall frame of LEF’s work going forward.