Newsletter – May 30, 2023
(For more Newsletter Essays, visit HERE…)

Dear Friends,

As an introduction to this month’s essay, I would like to share some background, including insights from recent conversations with a colleague.

As some of you may know, my academic experience centered on how to design and manage effective organizations. It was the subject of my Stanford Business School PhD and the subject I later taught at the Harvard Business School.

Organization theory makes a clear distinction between organizing as top-down authoritarian hierarchies and organizing through bottom-up processes of collective problem solving among co-equal partners.

Top-down authority structures headed by kings and emperors, then presidents and prime ministers, and now corporate CEOs and financiers backed by police and military force have defined the imperial civilizations that have dominated much of the past 5,000 years. These often decidedly uncivil civilizations have brought extraordinary advances in human knowledge and technology. They also bear responsibility for massive social and environmental harms so disruptive that they now threaten humans with self-extinction.

It is important to note that self-organizing bottom-up processes characterize most living systems, traditional human societies, and healthy contemporary human communities.

My friend and colleague David Bollier has long used the term “commons” to identify human communities that manage their interdependence through bottom-up self-organization. He refers to the complex processes involved as “commoning.” I’ve known and respected David and his work for years, but never previously recognized its larger implications for the transition to an ecological civilization. Indeed, I was startled to discover that the words “commons” and “commoning” never appear in my defining paper on “Ecological Civilization: From Emergency to Emergence.”

David Bollier and I recently reconnected via Zoom. David made clear that he applies the terms “commons” and “communing” only to human systems. Non-human systems are far more complex. But from my perspective the underlying bottom-up power-sharing organizing principles are much the same.

That conversation with David B. confirmed for me the defining relevance of the commons as it applies to both human and non-human life and to the transition to an ecological civilization. Introducing its relevance in relationship to equality and ownership in human systems is the topic of my essay for this May newsletter. I expect what I present here to be foundational to my work on ecological civilization going forward.

You are welcome to share my newsletter essays in any way you wish.


Sharing and Caring for the Commons We All Inherited

David Korten | May 30, 2023

A viable human future requires the rapid navigation of deep transformation to restore Earth’s health and equitably distribute Earth’s natural surplus. It will rest on recognition and embrace of these tragically forgotten foundational truths:

  1. Life, the sacred product of Earth’s commons, is the source of our being.
  2. Money is a number with no utility or meaning beyond the human mind.
  3. There will be no winners on a dead Earth.
  4. We will prosper in the pursuit of life, or we will perish in the pursuit of money.
  5. The choice is ours to make.

A choice for life, presents us with three key priorities for action:

Priority Number 1: Earth First. We must learn to share and care for the living Earth commons. That commons is the collective creation of the living beings that preceded and ultimately birthed the human species. We can destroy it. We cannot control it. We have an inherent responsibility to care for it. None among us has a right to monopolize or attempt to control it.

Priority Number 2: Humans follow Earth. We must facilitate Earth’s healing and assure that its gifts are equitably shared in support of life’s continued evolutionary unfolding. To that end, our societies must support every person in meeting their essential material needs in ways that are satisfying to themselves while contributing to the wellbeing of the whole.

Priority Number 3: Institutions follow Humans. Human institutions are human creations that guide us in our relationships with one another and Earth. Our current institutions are guiding us to self-extinction, which does not serve. We have the right and means to eliminate or change them, beginning with the institutions of military and financial domination that bear major responsibility for our crisis.

Advancing these priorities will be a foundational purpose of eco-nomics, the moral philosophy needed to guide us to a viable human future.

The barriers to transitioning to an ecological civilization are daunting but reside mostly in the human mind, which can—and must—quickly change.

Far from calling us to sacrifice for the wellbeing of Earth, the essential transformation requires only that we relieve ourselves of forms of consumption that are ultimately self-destructive.

We can cheerfully shed: the massive consumption entailed in war; frivolous consumption driven by advertising rather than need; planned obsolescence; financial speculation and cryptocurrencies; global supply chains; and cities designed to make us dependent on cars for transportation and to provide office space for activities best eliminated. All are sources of our dehumanization.

Let our joyful celebration of the gift of life reawaken us to our true nature as caring living beings and to our potential to create a future in service to the wellbeing of all of life.


Noteworthy…more on the “commons”

Alternatives to Economic Globalization, a report of the International Forum on Globalization published in 2004, is still considered the definitive document of the anti-corporate globalization movement; it is the consensus report of an alliance of leading activists, scholars, economists, researchers, and writers, including David Korten.

Chapter 5,  “Reclaiming the Commons: What should Be Off-Limits to Globalization,” addresses natural and “modern” commons in depth.

“Among indigenous peoples around the world, virtually all political, social, and spiritual values have traditionally been so deeply intertwined with the values and teachings of the natural world that these societies say they are inseparable… [A]ll creatures – human as well as plant and animal – are directly related, equal, and with equal rights to exist in a fulfilling manner. ” (p. 127)    Learn more here


David’s friend and colleague, David Bollier, co-edited The Wealth of the Commonsa collectioof 73 essays by writers from 30 countries, and co-authored, with Burns H. Weston, one of the essays – Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Commons.” 

They write: “We must gird ourselves for the ambitious task of mobilizing new energies and commitments, deconstructing archaic institutions while building new ones, devising new public policies and legal initiatives, and cultivating new under­standings of the environment, economics, human rights, governance, and commons.”     Read more here




From the Bookshelf …

We have long been prone to see a conflict between the rights of people and laws intended to protect nature. Once we recognize that we are inextricably a part of nature, the seeming conflict between humans and nature largely disappears. Care for the health of living Earth and the countless species that create and maintain the conditions essential to life is both a fundamental human responsibility and a matter of foundational self-interest. Only by saving nature from ourselves can we save ourselves.

Just as a living economy requires a living Earth story and a living Earth economics, so too it requires a living Earth jurisprudence that recognizes our common dependence on the health and integrity of Earth’s community of life.” (p.345)


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