This brief keynote was delivered on October 19, at the opening of the People for Earth 2022 Ecozoic Culture Forum: ESG & Integral Ecology for Earth in Crisis, held in Seoul, South Korea, and online. David shared the stage with Mary Evelyn Tucker who spoke on “Integral Ecology for a Flourishing Future.”
Growth for Me? or Wellbeing for All?
(As translated and delivered)
Thank you. I’m delighted to have this opportunity to explore together the choices now before us as the people of a living Earth. We have an extraordinary opportunity to create together a world of beauty, peace, material sufficiency, spiritual abundance, and creative potential for all.
That said, we come together with recognition that our current dominant institutions have reduced the vast majority of the world’s people to lives of desperation and are stripping Earth of its ability to sustain complex intelligent life.
Ours is not a broken system in need of repair. It is a failed system that must be abandoned and replaced.
Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker has so beautifully presented, we come together informed by the deep and beautiful insight of one of the great minds of our time, Thomas Berry.
We are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth born of and nurtured by a living universe.
Berry envisioned a new era in which human societies would live in mutually beneficial relationship with one another and the natural world.
My brief remarks this morning will focus on recent contributions of science to our understanding of living systems. And the implications for transforming our institutions of business to bring forth an Ecological Civilization grounded in living system principles.
It is fitting that this gathering is hosted in South Korea by People for Earth. People for Earth is an initiative inspired by Thomas Berry. And East Asian culture stands on a deep sense of community and the inseparable human connection with one another and Earth.
It is a stark and welcome contrast to the Western individualism that bears major responsible for the current human drive toward self-extinction. And that Thomas Berry called us to move beyond. The human species is awakening to the imperative to respond to his call.
Science now tells us we have less than a decade to address potentially irreversible damage to Earth. This is an Emergency. Our home is burning. We must act.
Meanwhile global inequality is growing at a record rate as power shifts from living communities of people and nature dedicated to the wellbeing of life. To incorporated pools of money dedicated to growing financial assets. The greater the greater their corporate profits, the greater the ability financial interests to further shape the system to their advantage—at the expense of people and Earth.
The current growth of extreme inequality is breathtaking. On Jan. 17, 2022, Oxfam International reported that the wealth of the world’s 10 richest billionaires had doubled just since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Meanwhile, incomes of 99% of the world’s people had fallen while financial returns to the world’s richest—soared.
In March 2022, Forbes Magazine identified a global total of 2,668 billionaires with a combined wealth of $12.7 trillion, up significantly from the 2,096 billionaires it had identified in 2020 just before COVID went global. Those competing for the top spot on the Forbes billionaires list have chosen to ignore the obvious reality that there will be no winners on a dead Earth.
Which brings us to the environmental crisis. According to estimates of the Global Footprint Network, it would take 1.75 Earths to sustain current levels of human consumption. We have only one Earth. Long term human viability depends on reducing the total human burden on Earth by 75 percent.
Yet we continue to embrace growth in human consumption to grow GDP as our defining human priority, partly on the pretext that this will end poverty. Yet little if any benefit from current GDP growth goes to the billions of Earth’s people who face a daily struggle to fulfill their basic needs for food, water, shelter, and other essentials.
Consumed by that struggle—often separated from family, community, and nature—a growing majority of Earth’s people find little opportunity to experience the joy of living. This results in high rates of suicide and mental illness and provides fertile ground for demagogues stirring up hatred and violence.
As social and environment collapse renders ever more of Earth uninhabitable by humans, millions abandon their homes in fear and sadness to seek refuge in what remains of Earth’s still livable places. Simultaneously, a favored few squander Earth’s bounty in displays of extravagant excess.
How could we get it so badly wrong? The answer is shockingly simple. We are captive to the deeply flawed story of an economics that would have us believe that money is wealth and growing money by growing GDP will secure a better life for all.
Life is what we want. Life is about being more, not having more. Money is nothing but a number. It will be useless on a dead Earth.
Let’s begin with our human body. If we include microbes—like beneficial bacteria and fungi—each human body depends on 60 to 80 trillion highly diverse living cells acting in partnership to create and maintain this vessel of our consciousness and instrument of our agency. In their continuing exchange of nutrients, water, energy, and information, each of these trillions of cells makes constant decisions essential to our existence as a living being.
Think of Earth as a vastly larger and more complex living body. It too survives as a living being only for so long as its countless, highly diverse, living organisms self-organize in partnership as a living community. Together they create and maintain the stable Earth climate, air and water, fertile soils, and other conditions on which they depend.
Contemporary biology now recognizes that complex intelligent life exists only in living communities of choice-making organisms that self-organize to create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and collective existence.
Over some 3.7 billion years, Earth’s continuously evolving species learned to create and maintain the conditions on Earth’s surface on which all current Earth life depends. So far as we yet know, Earth is distinctive among planets in its achievement of this miracle.
A viable human future requires that we accept responsibilities consistent with our rapidly advancing scientific understanding of creation’s extraordinary complexity, interdependence, and ways of learning. This responsibility presents us with a crucial question.
How do we humans structure our relations with one another and Earth to fulfill our essential role within Earth’s community of life?
Two preliminary findings at the forefront of the social sciences hold especially significant implications for how we structure our economic institutions.
- More equal nations are generally more functional and rank higher on happiness indicators.
- Once our basic needs are met, our greatest satisfaction comes from being more, not having more.
Like all other living beings, we humans are members of a living Earth community. Membership in functional communities comes with both rights and responsibilities.
Yet contemporary global culture reflects the long-standing Western focus on the rights of individuals—generally ignoring our interdependence and mutual responsibilities. We divide Earth into privately owned plots of land with few limits on how much the rich can own—or where. This leaves them free to shift environmental costs of their actions onto others, while protecting themselves from consequences harmful to others.
It is a very different situation when ownership is distributed and close to home. The benefits of responsible environmental management then become evident and immediate.
Extreme inequality is the primary barrier to our human ability to recognize and address the unfolding crisis that currently threatens all Earth life. A primary driver is the profit maximizing, limited liability corporation that has long been a favored instrument of the rich to consolidate control of massive assets shielded from accountability for the consequences of how those assets are used.
I grew up in a small town with a dad who had a very successful local music and appliance store. He was deeply committed to providing our community with quality products that met their needs at a fair price. Members of the community were his neighbors, customers, friends, and relatives. He continually stressed to me his defining principle of business: “Unless you are in business to serve your community, you have no business being in business.”
The purpose of business is to serve the community. Profit is a means. Not a purpose.
I grew up believing this is what business is about. Why else would anyone be in business other than to find joy in making a living for themselves and their family serving the community in which they live?
Only later did I come to recognize the difference between a business owned and operated by members of the community in which it does business. And a transnational corporation controlled by distant owners whose defining priority is growing their personal fortunes.
Proponents of corporate responsibility commonly claim that responsible corporations make more profits. That may provide incentive for ego-centric profit driven owners to give some thought to social and environmental responsibilities. But it misses an essential point. The world has a great many essential unmet needs. Growing the fortunes of billionaires is not among them.
The time has come for business leaders who are truly committed to ESG (Environmental and Social Governance) to take truly serious action. This will include restructuring corporate businesses to limit monopoly power and transfer ownership to their workers and the communities in which they do business.
There will be no humans—and thus no winners—on a dead Earth. A viable human future depends on our coming together in mutual recognition that as living beings on a living Earth we have a common interest in restructuring our institutions—including our institutions of business—to support us in organizing as an equitable self-organizing bioregional communities that share power to secure the wellbeing of all people and the living Earth.
We will prosper in the pursuit of life. Or we will perish in the pursuit of money. This choice is ours.