On November 28, 2023, David participated in a webinar, “East and West Dialogue on Ecological Civilization,” hosted by Earth Charter International. He joined Zia Chen from China, Andrew Schwartz from the United States, and Sukhyun Park from South Korea to explore three defining questions:
- What is an Ecological Civilization?
- What are the possible paths and driving forces to get there?
- What are some good examples paving the way towards this vision?
In addition to the recording of the entire webinar, which is available on the Earth Charter YouTube channel, the text of David’s responses is captured, here:
What is an Ecological Civilization?
An Ecological Civilization is the future that thoughtful humans envision when asked to describe the future to which they aspire. It is the future described by the Earth Charter; a document produced by the most participatory and inclusive drafting process ever in human experience. That Charter arrived at a global human consensus on four defining elements of the future we seek together.
- Respect and care for the community of life
- Ecological Integrity
- Social and Economic Justice
- Democracy, nonviolence, and peace
It is within our human means—if we together so chose—to create the world of material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all that the Earth Charter describes.
We humans are a living Earth species of extraordinary potential. We are distinctive in our capacity to choose our future with conscious collective intention. We now face a defining choice as expressed by these opening words of the Earth Charter Preamble,
“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.”
The Earth Charter is an essential document for everyone committed to creating the future of respect and care for the living Earth community that all caring humans seek.
To create that future, we must discuss it. To discuss it we must name it. Ecological Civilization is the emerging name of choice for the future we are now challenged to create together.
Four defining features will distinguish an Ecological Civilization, as described by the Earth Charter, from the world we now have:
- Decision making will be predominantly local and flow from the bottom up rather than the top down and be truly democratic.
- Wealth and power will be equitably shared.
- Life rather than money will be the defining purpose and value. Once basic needs have been met, our focus will be on being more, not having more.
- Relationships will feature caring and sharing rather than competition and violence.
The transformation needed to achieve a viable human future presents a daunting challenge. 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; a world with little urban noise; no war; no extremes of wealth and poverty. A world in which most transportation needs are met by walking, biking, public transportation, and car sharing with no long-commutes in traffic jams. Where 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 is within our means. Do we have the will, wisdom, and time? We will know only if we try.
What are the possible paths and driving forces to get there?
Begin with the simple and obvious. Refer to the future we seek as an Ecological Civilization. And identify the Earth Charter as its defining document.
We humans have a distinctive ability to imagine alternative futures grounded in alternative stories. Creatures of the mind, we live by the stories by which we know ourselves, our purpose for being, and the sources of our wellbeing.
With this in mind I want to share with you two defining personal experiences that have fundamentally shaped my understanding of life and the best of what it means to be human. The first was a chance meeting in May 1997 at a conference in Spain. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, a brilliant molecular biologist of Chinese ancestry introduced herself to me. She said, “I know your work on the dysfunctions of the global economy and believe my work on living cells may be relevant.” She proceeded to awaken me to the simple truth that life is conscious, intelligent, and complex far beyond the frame of the scientific understanding of that time, only 26 years ago.
She said, “A conventional biologist grinds up a living cell, studies its chemical composition, and thinks they have learned something about life. I study living cells and their continuing exchange of nutrients, water, energy, and information.
Each human body is comprised of tens of trillions of living cells, half of them microorganisms. All self-organize together. With no mechanism of central control, they together create and maintain the vessel of our consciousness and the instrument of our agency on which we each depend.”
Dr. Ho went on to explain that the living Earth is a far larger and more complex organism, an even more breathtaking example of the wonderous collaboration by which life creates the conditions on this planet essential to life’s existence.
By this point in my life, I had a PhD in organization theory from the Stanford Business School and had served for eight years on the Harvard University faculty teaching organization at its Business School and then its School of Public Health. This was the first time that I had ever heard mention of these obvious truths about life’s extraordinary ability to self-organize.
The life sciences have since made enormous advances aligned with Dr. Ho’s insight.
Another life defining experience came from my January 1992 visit to South Africa during its transition from apartheid and from white to black leadership. I was an invited guest lecturer in a course preparing those who had been imprisoned along with Nelson Mandela and were preparing to assume leadership of the new government.
These black leaders had endured years of history’s most extreme, violent, and degrading imprisonment. I was stunned when they spoke with compassion of their white jailers, and how their imprisonment had dehumanized their jailors much as it had dehumanized them. It was the most profound expression of a human capacity for compassion that I have ever experienced. An expression of a potential that gives me hope that we humans may be able to find our way to the viable future of an Ecological Civilization grounded in the principles of the Earth Charter.
What are some good examples paving the way towards this vision?
The Enlightenment of the 18th Century was grounded in the Newtonian image of a mechanistic universe. This image greatly expanded and deepened our human recognition and understanding of the order inherent in creation. In so doing, it set the stage for extraordinary advances in technology and social organization.
It undermined faith in an authoritarian Church and the divine right of kings. And it unleashed the forces of democracy and self-organizing social movements essential to the transition to an Ecological Civilization on which we are now embarked.
The process of drafting the Earth Charter set the stage for the unleashing of a 21st century Enlightenment. An Enlightenment that draws from the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples, insights of the great religious prophets, and findings at the current leading edge of science. The 21st century Enlightenment acknowledges the intelligence and consciousness of life that the 18th century Enlightenment denied. Politically it recognizes that we have only begun the journey to a truly democratic sharing of power.
Perhaps our greatest source of hope is the extraordinary communications revolution of the past 100 years that is connecting we-the-people of our previously scattered and isolated species into a seamless global communications web. The first transatlantic phone call took place in 1927, less than 100 years ago. There are now 5.4 billion internet users worldwide, two thirds of the global population joined in a web of instant communication.
Video conferencing is now a daily routine for billions of people doing what we are doing here—connecting across cultural divides in search of common values and interests. These intercultural conversations are now a daily occurrence all around the world.
Nearly 1.5 billion people now share English as a native or second language. Another 1.1 billion share Mandarin Chinese. Those on the internet have access to instant translation.
Meanwhile, women are moving into positions of leadership power and influence. For the first time in thousands of years we honor the wisdom and seek the guidance of indigenous peoples.
I find particular hope in the growing interest in worker cooperative ownership of business, which moves us beyond profit maximization and connects business to community wellbeing.
There is also growing recognition of an imperative to acknowledge and secure the rights of nature.
Ecuador inserted a commitment to recognizing the rights of nature into its constitution in 2008. China added a commitment to Ecological Civilization to its constitution in 2018. Just two weeks ago, the European Union reached an agreement to make ecocide a crime punishable with jail sentences of up to 10 years and fines for companies of up to 5% of their global turnover.
Global awareness of the need for dramatic rapid change is building at light speed. People are now desperate for a vision of a possible and viable future—the future that the Earth Charter describes and Ecological Civilization names.
For more, see “Ecological Civilization: From Emergency to Emergence,” which includes David’s paper and links to additional resources.