Social Ventures Network Fall 2002 Conference
Santa Barbara, October 10-13, 2002

I sense I’m not the only one here who’s noticed that the Social Ventures Network (SVN) is an amazing organization. We’ve just seen an incredible example. Someone pointed out that a bunch of crazies from Texas have taken over our government and are about to launch an insane war that will kill tens of thousands of innocent people, fuel the flames of terrorism around the world, and cripple the economy. Some one else said we have to stop it. So a day later we organized to work with other peace organizations to do it. Last year at this conference somebody mentioned that a bunch of corporations have taken over the world and created a global suicide economy. We need a new economy owned by people and rooted in communities. So Judy Wicks, Laurie Hammel and others said, “We’ll get right on it,” and they did.

I’ve never seen anything take off like the SVN living economies initiative. Since last year SVN has formed the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies with chapters established or in the process of forming in more than 18 cities and communities across America. It has already been featured in YES!, Utne, Fast Company, In Business and Hope magazines. Business Ethics newsletter has established a living economies enterprise award. Calvert is planning a living economies investment fund. And there are SVN groups giving special attention to the food and finance systems. It seems pretty much every SVN member is involved in some way.

Of course our effort got quite a boost from a stock market collapse that exposed the reality of a bubble economy based on media hype and accounting fraud. This has generated a lot of interest in economic alternatives and made a 3% return on the Calvert community fund look like a terrific investment even in purely financial terms.

So what is this living economies idea whose time it seems has come? It’s all spelled out with lots of examples in the current issue of YES! magazine included in your registration package. Be sure to make use of the subscription coupon inside the magazine. In my time tonight I want to focus on a few highlights that make this initiative special.

Up until now, most work on business responsibility has focused on the ethical behavior of individual managers. The living economies work takes it to a new level by dealing with the essential need to structure our enterprises and our economy in ways that invite and reward responsible behavior. Thus we seek to replace a global suicide economy with a planetary system of local living economies. Here are some of the key ideas:

1. Size and ownership matter. A global publicly traded, limited liability corporation that creates enormous concentrations of power accountable only to absentee owners who bear no liability for the consequences of any action taken in their name creates an invitation to abuse on a grand scale. While this may sound unkind to some I think we need to acknowledge that this system actively recruits some of the most ruthless, greedy, and ethically challenged among us to its top positions. Remember when Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap and Kenny Boy Lay were celebrated as exemplars of corporate leadership?

2. Reforming the suicide economy by working from within is not a promising change strategy. We learn from biology and organization theory that when a complex system becomes corrupted it is virtually impossible to reverse the processes that created it. The more promising change strategy is to grow a new system from the bottom up through a process of emergence that gradually succeeds and displaces the corrupted system. Thus the SVN living economies initiative seeks to grow a planetary system of local living economies comprised of human-scale, locally-owned living economy enterprises to succeed and displace the culture and institutions of the suicide economy.

3. The vast majority of the world’s businesses are human-scale and locally-owned by real people. These enterprises provide the vast majority of employment and account for most innovation. But they now struggle to survive at the fringes of the suicide economy in a dependent relationship to the corporations that dominate it. Our strategy is to create zones of freedom that allow these otherwise healthy firms to walk away from destructive dependent relationships and to grow the webs of relationships of new living economies among themselves. The larger and stronger the living economies become, the greater the opportunities we all have to redirect our life energy as consumers, workers, and investors from the suicide economy to the living economy.

Success for a living economy enterprise means optimizing the living return to all stake holder contributors, including workers, the community, and nature. As we move ahead with translating the broad concepts into practical action we confront all sorts of questions. How large do we want our firms to grow? What is a fair return to money? With whom do we want to develop our business relations: Starbucks or independent coffee houses? Walmart or the local food coop?

Now I want to turn to the larger significance of what SVN is doing. We are witness to a vast and growing gap between what must be done to create a world that works for all and the path taken by those in command of the institutions of political and economic power — especially in America.

We gathered a year ago for the SVN conference in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Our attention was focused on the choice then before our nation as to whether we would invade Afghanistan to kill or apprehend a terrorist leader named Osama Bin Laden, or concentrate our attention on organizing a cooperative multinational effort to identify and dismantle the hidden terrorist networks that know no place or nationality while respecting the civil liberties of all people.

Our country, America, chose to invade Afghanistan at the cost of many thousands of innocent lives and many billions of dollars that could have been used in so many more productive ways. It also suspended many of our civil liberties. The result? We have no idea whether Bin Laden is dead or alive or where he might be hiding and there is no indication that we are any safer from terrorist attack today than we were on September 10, 2001.

We are now being told that America’s national security depends on launching a military invasion of Iraq to eliminate an evil leader named Saddam Hussein. It is about oil, arms, and a national policy of total military domination.

Last month those in control of the administrative branch of the U.S. government issued a new “National Security Strategy” that publicly declares their intention to use the full force of America’s military power to impose a new imperial order on the world. The imperial reach of America’s corporate power has long been backed by America’s military forces, but seldom so openly and explicitly. Pundits, intellectuals, and politicians now debate the merits of a new American imperial order on radio and TV with a sense of pride and national purpose.

This expands the struggle imbedded in the public consciousness by the November 1999 WTO protests in Seattle between the forces of corporate globalization and the forces of an emergent new social organism called global civil society. This afternoon, we saw a lot of pictures of global civil society at work. Global civil society is committed to the cause of justice, peace, democracy, and life everywhere on planet Earth. Our friends in India call it Earth democracy. Its values are spelled out in the Earth Charter, a remarkable document produced through consultations over a period of several years with thousands of persons of virtually every nationality, race, religion, and ethnic grouping on the planet. It opens with these prophetic words:

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.”

Unfolding events bring stark clarity to the choice before us: American empire or Earth democracy?

It is a choice between two wholly different visions of the human future: one leading to global self-destruction through an escalating spiral of violence against life. The other leading to a new human civilization dedicated to peace, justice, and the love of life.

This choice is a contemporary manifestation of an epic struggle deeply rooted in the human psyche between empire and democracy that extends back to the earliest human experience.

The dominator relationships of empire follow naturally from a perception of the world as an inherently hostile and competitive place filled with human and natural enemies that must be controlled or destroyed by physical force. This perception gives rise to a fear of life itself and a desire to control or destroy life as an act of self-protection. It stems in part from a deep inner fear of our own unruly impulses.

It creates a competitive mindset: be a winner or be a loser, rule or be ruled, kill or be killed. It leads to a belief that trust, compassion, and cooperation are for fools and cowards. The values and worldview of empire find expression in a life-destructive global suicide economy, and the American Imperium.

The partnership relations of Earth democracy flow from a perception that the world is inherently nurturing, compassionate, and overflowing with creative abundance and opportunity. From the Earth democracy perspective, violence and conflict are irrational, because they are self-destructive. They are morally wrong because all life is a manifestation of a sacred spiritual unity. Violence against life is violence against God. Meaning and purpose are found in equitably sharing power and resources to secure the well-being of all and engaging in the cooperative exploration of life’s infinite creative possibilities. The values and worldview of Earth democracy find eloquent expression in living economies and global civil society.

Individuals and societies differ as to which one of the competing tendencies — domination or partnership — is more prominent in their lives, but both tendencies reside in each of us. So we ask: Where lies truth? Is the world inherently hostile and dangerous or inherently caring and compassionate? The answer is — it depends on us — on we the people of planet Earth — because we have the knowledge, technology, and organizational capacity to create the world we choose. We need only the vision to see the possibility of a caring and compassionate world and to choose to live it into being.

The underlying dynamics of empire compel it to continuously expand its dominion through conquest and exploitation. With few remaining frontiers left to conquer and with economic, social, and environmental breakdown accelerating beyond the limits of social and environmental tolerance, we have reached the End of Empire.

Empire’s confrontation with the social and environmental limits of our finite living planet is more than historic. It is an evolutionary event that compels us to develop new relationships with one another and the living Earth. The further along we are with getting the foundations of local living economies in place before the final fall of Empire the less tragic the consequences will be.

We cannot look to the institutions of Empire to lead the way to Earth democracy. Leadership, by default and necessity, falls to We the People and to the new planetary social organism we call global civil society. Global civil society is not only the largest, most international, and potentially powerful social movement in human history, it is also the first major social movement not identified with an individual leader. It is a mutually empowering movement in which every one of the millions of participants is a leader in his or her own right. It gains its power from the fact that it is an expression of deeply authentic values that flow from the awakening of a new cultural and spiritual consciousness that springs from deep within our being. That awakening is documented by Paul Ray, who is here tonight and will be speaking to us tomorrow morning.

The emergence of global civil society points the way to the human possibilities that lay ahead — in particular a previously unknown human capacity to self-organize on a planetary-scale with an unprecedented inclusiveness, respect for diversity, shared leadership, individual initiative, and sense of responsibility for the whole of life. Global civil society’s rapidly expanding capacity for mutual learning, consensus convergence, and global coherence suggests the qualities of an emergent planetary consciousness or brain. It manifests a human capacity for democratic self-governance beyond anything previously known.

In the work at hand we must not only replace the global suicide economy with local living economies, we must also replace the dead democracy of money with living democracies of engaged citizens.

We must give substance to the essential truth that in a democracy, sovereignty resides in the people. When politicians lead we call it dictatorship. When private economic interests lead we call it corruption. When dictatorship merges with private economic interests around extreme right-wing nationalism in pursuit of imperial expansion we call it Fascism. Only when the leadership comes from “We the people” can we truly speak of democracy.

These insights have especially important implications for those of us who enjoy the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of being American citizens. Our country has been taken over by forces not of our choosing for ends contrary to the great ideals of liberty and justice for all on which it was founded — founded I might note in a rebellion against empire and a king named George. We take justified pride in America as a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. We can shine that beacon bright and clear as a source of hope and inspiration for all. Or we can expand and consolidate the global dominion of the new American empire by military force.

American empire or Earth democracy? That choice is now very much before us.

Generations ago our forbearers rejected the institutions of monarchy in favor of the institutions of representative democracy. Democracy, however, remained an unfinished project, because the institutions of wealth concentration — in particular the institution of the publicly traded, limited liability corporation — remained in place. Although there is much work to be done on our political institutions, our economic institutions have become the primary instruments of our subordination to values and priorities not our own. It falls to our generation to carry forward the project of democracy by democratizing the economy to achieve an equitable distribution of economic power and to establish economic accountability to the needs of life.

The goal of political democracy was not to create a more accountable monarchy; it was to replace the institutions of monarchy with new institutions appropriate to democratic societies. We need a similar approach to economic democracy. The appropriate goal is not to reform the institutions of corporate rule. It is to replace them, through an emergent process of succession and displacement, with systems of economic relationships that distribute power through the equitable localization of ownership and control. Ironically, given America’s professed commitment to market economies, it means creating economies that actually honor real market principles — which corporate capitalism, with its drive to monopolize markets, concentrate capital, and externalize costs — systematically violates.

I believe the values of Earth democracy are universal values shared by the vast majority of people in America and the world. If indeed that is true, our work speaks to the values of a New American Majority — the foundation of a New American Politics.

Those of us engaged in the active practice of progressive citizenship have for too long thought of ourselves as representatives of an embattled fringe minority. It is time we begin to think and act like members of the true majority we are — engaged in the creation of a new economy, a new politics, and a positive human future. Creating the new economy here in America is the work of SVN and BALLE.


In these turbulent and frightening times it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of human history. For this is the moment when we are being called by the deep forces of creation to awaken to a new consciousness of our own possibilities and to embrace the responsibilities that go with our collective presence on the living jewel of life called Earth. We have the need and the means to create a true Earth democracy. The choice is ours. The time is now. We’re the one’s we’ve been waiting for.