February 8, 2023
This is the first of my newly redesigned newsletters. In each, I will share my thoughts on current events and other matters related to our shared commitment to creating a world that works for all people and the living Earth. I hope you find the content thought-provoking and the short-form presentation useful for sharing and engaging important conversations.
I invite you to visit the David Korten website as well. There you’ll find the intellectual products of my lifetime relevant to our mutual cause and the cultural stories that shape our worldviews and our relationships with each other and Earth.
Today, prompted by a recent article in The New York Times related to population, I want to share my thoughts on getting our questions right as we work to change the story to change the future. — David Korten
Let’s Ask the Right Questions
A recent New York Times story entitled “China’s Population Falls, Heralding a Demographic Crisis” evoked in me a strong negative response. It characterizes China’s recent shift from population growth to population decline as a devastating blow to the health of the Chinese and global economies. Implicit in the article’s argument is the idea that growing the economy is a defining human purpose.
It then reviews China’s efforts to encourage its women to produce more babies. The article never mentions that growth in human population and consumption is driving a global environmental crisis.
The problem of population growth was first brought to global attention by Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, when global population was 3.1 billion. Carson’s warning was augmented in 1972 by the book Limits to Growth, which reported on an MIT computer model that demonstrated the inevitable devastating consequences of sustained economic growth on a finite planet. Publicized by influential Club of Rome thought leaders, that report captured global attention. By then, global population had reached 3.8 billion. At that point, the Global Footprint Network estimated that humans were consuming slightly more that Earth could sustain in the long run.
We now have a global population of 8.0 billion. Annual global GDP has grown from $1.6 trillion in 1962 to $96.1 trillion now. The Global Footprint Network now estimates that it would take 1.75 Earth-like planets to sustain current human consumption. Yet we have only one Earth and our current global economic system falls far short of providing a secure and fulfilling means of living for the population we already have.
With these facts in mind, I found the Times article deeply discouraging. Its assumption that China must grow its population in order to grow its economy seemed absolutely backward. I asked myself if we will remain ever captive to a story that the purpose of humanity is to grow the economy. Then my attention shifted to the 1,932 reader comments on the article. Most readers shared my concerns about the environmental issues created by the already excessive human population burden on a finite living Earth.
I found those comments reassuring evidence that a great many people recognize that the global economy is failing us big time. They seem ready for serious exploration of options that recognize our dependence on a finite living Earth.
Which brings me to the matter of the importance of asking the right question. Will we continue to ask how people can better serve the economy? Or will we ask how the economy can better serve the living Earth and all its people? We will get our future right only if we get our question right.
In October 2022, David joined “renegade economist” and host of the Upstream Podcast, Della Duncan, for an important conversation, “Ecological Civilization: Humanity’s Transformational Alternative.” Hosted by Work That Reconnects, it is an exploration of the epic opportunity created by our existential crisis, from the big picture/global view to the visible/tangible manifestation.
Watch the video
David was invited by Alternative Radio to record his talk, “Our Existential Crisis,” for broadcast on public radio stations in July and, again, in September, 2022. Given the positive response, and with gratitude to Alternative Radio, the recording and transcript (PDF) are now available for wide public use. Listen to the recording, read or download the transcript, enjoy the comments from some of the radio listeners.
Find it here
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