Transition to An Ecological Civilization: The Role of the City

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This presentation was delivered by David Korten at the Transition City Seoul conference hosted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and organized by The Seoul Institute, on October 11, 2018.

Thank you. It is a very special honor to be invited to share my thoughts with this distinguished group on the human transition to an ecological civilization. I especially thank Mayor Park for sponsoring this landmark conference to address the challenge, framed by these opening words of the Earth Charter.

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

Humanity has arrived at a defining choice point. It is now within our human means to achieve—in co-productive balance with Earth—the long denied human dream of a world of peace, beauty, creativity, material sufficiency, and spiritual abundance for all. It requires, however, a profound and rapid transformation of the culture, institutions, and infrastructure that currently lead us ever further from achieving this dream.

Five dominant global trends lead us not only in the wrong direction—they threaten human self-extinction and the potential destruction of Earth’s capacity to sustain life. 

First Trend, Consumption Beyond Earth’s Ability to Sustain. The potentially fatal consequences include climate disruption, loss of fertile soil, diminishing supplies of clean freshwater, disappearing forests, and collapsing fisheries. The Global Footprint Network calculates that we humans now consume at a rate 1.7 times what Earth can sustain. Yet we continue to make aggregate growth in Gross Domestic Product our defining measure of economic performance. We ignore the devastating consequences for people and Earth.

Second Trend, Extreme Inequality. We tolerate a growing global wealth gap that reduces ever more people to lives of desperation, as a few engage in profligate consumption far beyond any need. The combined financial wealth of the world’s six richest individuals now exceeds that of 3.8 billion people, the poorest half of humanity.

Third Trend, Life-Destructive Technologies. Our nuclear, carbon energy, genetic modification, and artificial intelligence technologies pose increasing threat to Earth. We continue to increase the numbers and potential impact of those technologies.

Fourth Trend, Corporate Control of Government and Public Policy. We create a growing concentration of monopoly power in profit-maximizing transnational corporations dedicated to growing the financial assets of the world’s already richest people, thus enhancing their ability to buy political influence and advance policies that further increase their wealth and power.

Fifth Trend, Loss of Institutional Legitimacy. We watch in horror the rise in political demagoguery that follows when our most powerful institutions fail to address the issues that reduce ever more people to lives of desperation.

My country, the United States, is a leading force in driving all five of these devastating trends.

The world is in desperate need of new leadership. It is exciting to see South Korea, the country Bloomberg Innovation Index ranks the most innovative in the world, rising to the challenge.

To get our human future right, we must be clear why we get our present so terribly wrong.

We’ve made terribly bad cultural, institutional, and infrastructure choices. As humanity globalized, we embraced money as our defining common value; competition for power and resources as our dominant mode of relating; private-purpose, profit-seeking transnational corporations as our defining institutions; and cities designed for cars rather than for people our primary places of residence.

These choices are the product of a relentlessly promoted ideology called neoliberalism. It would have us believe that money is wealth; that those who make money are creating wealth; that there is no community interest beyond the aggregation of individual interests; and that we properly look to profit seeking transnational corporations to take us to a better future for all.

Under the influence of this fatally flawed ideology, our political systems facilitate a concentration of monopoly power in transnational corporations that value money more than life and strive to exploit the labor and resources of ordinary people desperately seeking to make a living in the place they call home.

The remedy is simple in concept; daunting in application.

We must discredit neoliberal ideology by pointing out that money is nothing but a number and destroying life to make money is an act of suicidal stupidity. We must simultaneously call attention to a foundational truth that Eastern cultures have long recognized and the dominant Western cultures have long ignored—even denied.

We humans are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Living beings, survive and thrive only in community.

Ecological civilization seems a fitting name for the future we seek.

Ecological puts the focus on the capacity of living organisms to self-organize in community to create the conditions essential to life’s existence. Civilization evokes the depth of the cultural and institutional transformation required to create together a future in which human relationships with one another and nature are truly civil.

Think of your own body as a community of tens of trillions of living cells constantly balancing their individual needs with the needs of the body on which they in turn depend. They constantly accommodate to changing conditions, including the continual death and reproduction of individual cells, changing temperatures, and varied inputs of nutrients, water, information, and energy.

Through this process, they create and maintain the body that is the holder of your consciousness and the vehicle of your agency.

Earth does the same on a truly grand scale. Her countless single and multi-celled organisms join in the exchange of energy, nutrients, water, and information to regenerate soils, aquifers, forests, fisheries, streams, and rivers; sequester excess carbons, toxins, and other wastes; capture solar energy; purify air; and stabilize weather and temperatures.

We have hardly begun to understand how it all works, and with no known natural equivalents of the human institutions of money, markets, corporations, and government. We will likely continue to depend on these human institutions to guide our individual exchanges with one another and Earth, but we must recognize they are only tools.

As currently structured, they centralize decision-making to give the richest and most powerful among us the ability to control and exploit our means of living for their own exclusive benefit. To achieve the future we seek, these institutions must be restructured to support decentralized decision making to secure material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all people. And they must do it in ways that heal and restore living Earth to full health and vitality.

Here is another piece of the puzzle. We humans evolved to live in community.

For roughly 99 percent of the time since the first humans walked the Earth, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherer tribes with direct connections to one another and nature. Together, tribal members foraged for nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Together, they stalked, killed, and dressed their game. Together, they prepared their food around communal fires in communal kitchens.

Relationships with one another and nature were direct, lifelong, and grounded in intimate knowledge of one another and the plants and animals of their place.

Children experienced constant support, engagement, and enduring relationships with other members of an ever-present multi-generational tribal family. The maturing child also led an active outdoor life rarely separated from parents and never separated from nature.

This experience of not only supported the child’s immediate well-being, it also built a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the whole and for generations yet to come.

How different from how we now live. Statistics on global trends suggest ever more of the world’s people are living alone in single-person households. Since the 1960s, the percentage of households with only one person has more than doubled in Australia, Canada, the United States, China, Japan, and… South Korea.

So, what of our children? Thirty one percent of children in the United States now live in single-parent households. Often the single parent is a mother struggling to make ends meet with one or more low-wage jobs—often with long commutes, little security, and no opportunity to socialize with fellow workers or neighbors. The child has no contact with a parent or other relative during most of its waking hours and little or no contact with nature.

These conditions of isolation and lack of community support have devastating mental health consequences. Suicides have increased in the United States by 25 percent since 2000 and experts predict that 50 percent of the current U.S. population will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.

Much of what we have celebrated as progress over the past century involves inserting money, cars, corporations, and government as intermediaries in our relationships with one another and nature. We now face an imperative to restore the direct relationships we have so unwisely disrupted.

Our goal must be a future in which most every person lives in a city, town, or village devoted to restoring our essential relationships with one another and nature, meeting our essential needs, and minimizing the collective material burden we impose on Earth. Suburban sprawl, which increases automobile dependence, separates households, and disrupts ecological integrity, has no place in an ecological civilization. And cars have no place in its cities.

The car-free cities of an ecological civilization will feature multi-generational, multi-family living units that function as vibrant eco-communities sharing facilities, tools, resources, and labor—and looking out for one another and their children as tribal communities once did.

We need to design urban infrastructure to make it easy and attractive for people to meet their needs for services, shopping, education, spiritual practice, work, and recreation within walking or biking distance from where they live. These cities will feature an abundance of attractive meeting places for people to mix and mingle to create and renew relationships.

Attractive and distinctive neighborhoods will be connected by high speed elevated or underground rail. Everyone will be connected by high speed internet.

With the removal of suburbs, boundaries between urban and rural areas will be clearly delineated in ways that facilitate urban-rural linkages and sharing. City governments and rural jurisdictions will work together to improve the lives of both rural and urban peoples in ways that meet the food, water, energy, and material needs of both; restore and enhance the natural regeneration of air, water, and fertile soils; eliminate use of artificial fertilizers and insecticides; and recycle, decompose, and reuse wastes.

At a global level, instead of moving money, people, and goods around the world to maximize the profits of transnational corporations, we will favor locally self-reliant, bioregional economies that bring people together to maximize health and well-being in the place where they live. All this must be accomplished in ways that minimize class divisions, maximize equality, maintain human connections with nature, and honor the city’s interdependent relationships with surrounding rural areas and peoples.

This will require major changes in law, technology, and infrastructure. It will require breaking up transnational corporations and restructuring the pieces to secure their subordination and accountability to the communities in which they do business.

In a spirit and ethic of cooperation, bioregions will strive to meet their own needs with their own resources using their own labor. They will freely sharing ideas, technology, and culture. They will engage in fair and balanced trade with their neighbors for what they cannot reasonably produce themselves. And they will keep banking, finance, and ownership local.

On a related note, we must eliminate war. Civilized people do not engage in war. Neither people nor Earth can afford it.

Humanity has reached a defining choice point. We can hold to our present course and perish in the pursuit of money so the few can enjoy temporary excess. Or, we can embrace the vision of an ecological civilization and join in common cause to achieve the cultural, institutional, and infrastructure transformation required for all humans to prosper in the pursuit of life.

The time has come to unite as families, communities, and nations in our common identity as members of Earth’s community of life joined in a shared commitment to create a world of peace, beauty, creativity, material sufficiency, and spiritual abundance for all.

Thank you for your commitment. And thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts.

2018-11-20T16:54:37+00:00November 20th, 2018|Categories: Ecological Civilization, South Korea|
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