Presentation to the 11th John Cobb Common Good Award Ceremony & Annual Banquet at the 12th International Forum on Ecological Civilization, “Ecological Civilization and Symbiotic Development.” April 27, 2018.
We have gathered here from China, South Korea and the United States in search of a human pathway to an Ecological Civilization.
Humanity is awakening to a sobering truth. We have reached a choice point.
The path we are now on leads to the collapse of civilization as we know it. A potential massive die back–even self-extinction of the human species. And the possible destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life as we know it. Our common future depends on a deep transformation of our human relationships with one another and Earth.
Our troubling reality is summed up in just two statistics: one environmental and one social. Environmentally, our human species now consumes Earth’s material wealth at 1.7 times what Earth can sustain. As consumption grows, we pose a growing threat to Earth’s capacity to support life. That includes human life. We are posed to be the first Earth species to choose self-extinction.
Socially, 8 individuals now have combined financial assets equal to the total financial assets of the poorest half of humanity — 3.7 billion people. It is the most extreme and unjustified inequality humans have ever experienced. And it continues to grow—to no evident beneficial purpose.
Human civilization, as we have known it for 5,000 years, is now dying. It has from the beginning been an Imperial Civilization dependent on the exploitation of Earth’s bounty to support the power and opulence of the few at the expense of Earth’s health. It comes at the expense of the suffering and servitude of the human multitudes. We in the West, pride ourselves on the accomplishments of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.
Yet we have never managed to get beyond the exploitative relationships of Imperial Civilization. Where we appear to be successful, it comes at the expense of people far away whose labor and resources we have expropriated. That civilization, having reached the limits of environmental and social tolerance, is now in its final death throws as a new civilization—an Ecological Civilization of Earth balance and social equality—struggles to be born.
Our goal, as an international community of activist scholars, is to facilitate humanity’s passage to a new civilization. We begin with a recognition that we humans are a distinctive species. Far more than any other species, we have the individual and collective ability to envision, then to chose, and to create our future.
No human has yet experienced the Ecological Civilization to which we aspire. We have barely begun even to discern what it will look like, let alone how we might get there. Finding our way requires that we draw from all the sources of human knowledge and understanding to challenge and revise many of our most firmly established beliefs about creation, reality, our human nature and purpose. And the beliefs about wealth and the economy that have led us to the brink of species suicide.
We are in trouble, because the way we have organized the global economy ignores–even denies–the self-evident reality that:
We humans are living beings. We are born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Life exists only in multi-species communities that self-organize to create and maintain the conditions essential to life’s own existence.
That includes the living Earth—itself a living community—and in so far as we know, alone among the planets in the universe in its ability to support life as we know it.
We are awakening to the troubling implications of the mortal conflict between our reality as living beings, and how we organize and manage our now global human economy to create and distribute a means of living for 7.6 billion people–and growing–on a finite and already over-stressed planet.
China’s unique experience and capability gives it a natural role in humanity’s effort to deal with this epic challenge.
We are taught that we are limited to a choice between two basic economic systems. We can have capitalism, or we can have socialism—communism being an extreme version of the socialist option.
Not so long ago, China adapted communism from Russia, did it more faithfully than the Russians, and found it suppressed the freedom, creativity, and innovation that make us fully human.
So, then it turned to the United States for capitalism and implemented capitalism more faithfully and effectively than does the United States. This unleashed extraordinary technological accomplishments. China set new records for GDP growth. It became so proficient at capitalism that now it produces two new billionaires each week.
But China now confronts the reality that growing a capitalist economy to create billionaires confines most people to lives of servitude, destroys nature, and strips both rich and poor of their humanity. Environmentally and socially, capitalism is failing China—as it is failing the United States and the rest of the world.
Implicit recognition of this troublesome truth has led China to a commitment to create and demonstrate to the world a new vision for humanity. Success will depend on creating an economy grounded in a clear recognition that the only legitimate purpose of the human economy is to secure the health and well-being of people who are themselves living beings and whose health and well-being absolutely depend on the health and well-being of living Earth.
To succeed, the transition to an Ecological Civilization must be a global commitment of people everywhere. On our small, finite, and already over-stressed planet, economic success will be measured by progress toward providing material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all. The new economy will evaluate economic performance accordingly.
No more resources can be squandered on war and producing the instruments of war. There can be no more conspicuous consumption simply to show off one’s superior wealth. No more planned obsolescence. And no more shipments of materials and products around the world for the sole purpose of allowing corporations to sell products to the most affluent consumers produced by the most under-paid and poorly-treated workers.
Earth’s community of life organizes and manages itself around materially self-reliant self-organizing bioregional communities. We must do the same. Money and corporations are creations of the human imagination with no equivalents in nature. We can make appropriate use of both, but only in service to the community—not as ends in themselves.
All this will require a massive redistribution of wealth and the breakup and restricting of global corporations.
These are but a few of the challenges now at hand.
This moment of extreme crisis born of 5,000 years of exploitation of Earth and one another presents an epic opportunity. We can, and must, put behind us the dysfunctional ways of our human past to now pursue and actualize our long-suppressed human potential for creativity and cooperation in harmonious, co-productive partnership with Earth’s community of life.
David Korten is an international author, lecturer, engaged citizen, former professor of the Harvard Business School, political activist, prominent critic of corporate globalization, and a student of psychology and behavioral systems. He is co-founder the board chair emeritus of YES! Magazine, president of the Living Economies Forum, member of the Club of Rome, and author of several influential books, including the international bestselling When Corporations Rule the World; Change the Story, Change the Future; The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community; and Agenda for a New Economy: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.
His current work centers on defining a system frame for and path to a new economy in which life is valued more than money and power resides with ordinary people who care about one another, their community, and their natural environment. He and his wife Fran lived and worked for twenty-one years in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty. Visit him at: https://davidkorten.org. Follow him on Twitter @dkorten and Facebook.
The 12th International Forum on Ecological Civilization was co-sponsored by: The Institute for Postmodern Development of China (USA); EcoCiv (USA); Center for Process Studies (USA); Pitzer College (USA); South China Institute of Environmental Science, Ministry of Environmental Protection (China); Huanghe Science and Technology College (China); Institute of State Governance of Huazhong University of Science and Technology (China), and the City of Claremont, California (USA).