Part V: Mature Communities and Living Economies

By David C. Korten

The following thought experiment frames the problem humanity must now address.

Six billion people live together on a crowded planet. A hundred million or so — less than 2 percent of the whole — enjoy extravagant material affluence and consume as much as half of the planet’s resources. Roughly a billion more account for an additional 25 to 30 percent of total consumption. The rest are divided between two billion who manage to make ends meet with difficulty, a billion who live in conditions of debilitating hardship, and a billion who suffer extreme and dehumanizing deprivation in a struggle for day-to-day survival. An uneasy and partial peace is maintained by the promises of the 100 million to the rest that with patience and work hard all will one day enjoy lives of extravagant material affluence.

One morning all six billion wake up with a new awareness: their planet is not an open frontier endowed with inexhaustible resources; it is a living space ship with an overstressed biological life-support system on the verge of collapse. The economic system that promised eventual affluence to all is in fact a suicide economy wantonly destroying the foundations of life.

Extremist political elements call on their governments to increase their military budgets and mobilize to establish control over the what remains of the collapsing resource base for their ruling elites. Saner minds realize, however, that repression and violence are no answer. They will only provoke yet more violence, increase the stress, accelerate the breakdown, and assure the destruction of all.

Whatever the solution, it must work for all. What can be done?

The essentials come quickly to mind. There must be an immediate reordering of priorities to direct all available resources to the task of preventing social breakdown and the collapse of critical life support systems. To this end all possible measures must be taken to assure the health and security of every person, while restoring the life support system to full function as quickly as possible. There can be no luxuries for the few until the basic needs of all are adequately met. Every resource must be used to maximum benefit. Everything must be recycled. Toxic releases into the environment must be stopped.

The success of the crisis intervention requires innovative action in every locality and at all levels of society to reallocate available resources to meeting the priority needs of both people and bio-systems. It mobilize the creative intelligence and energy of virtually every person on the planet. Most of the real work of rebuilding community and ecosystem function will necessarily be local. The dynamics will be quite like hundreds of thousands of species [including micro-organisms] and trillions of individual organisms cooperating to move a forest ecosystem to a higher level of maturity.

As nature knows well, responsive adaptation to the limits and opportunities of local terrain and climate can only be achieved through radically decentralized self-organizing processes that maintain a creative tension and dynamic balance between individual competition and cooperation — between innovation and stability. Call it a “law of life.”

The “ten commandments of the redwood clan,” the basic operating principles of a mature natural ecosystem summarized by Janine Benyus, biologist and the author of Biomimicry, might be adopted at every system level as a kind of operating check list for spaceship Earth:

  1. Use waste as a resource
  2. Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat
  3. Gather and use energy efficiently
  4. Optimize rather than maximize
  5. Use materials sparingly
  6. Don’t foul your nest
  7. Don’t draw down resources
  8. Remain in balance with the biosphere
  9. Run on information
  10. Shop locally

The longer term goal for the people of this troubled spaceship will be to establish a planetary system of self-directing living communities and economies in which:

  • Human consumption of natural material and energy resources are in balance with the regenerative capacities of nature.
  • All persons are assured access to the means of creating an adequate and meaningful means of living for themselves and their families.
  • Economic and political decision processes are democratic, participatory, responsive to the needs and preferences of all who will bear their consequences, and open to experimentation and innovation through individual initiative.
  • The processes of cultural regeneration are grounded in the authentic popular expression, experience, and aspirations of ordinary people and nurture shared values of trust, cooperation, caring, compassion, and community.

The compressed time scale of the fictionalize version of the story helps bring the issues and options into sharp relief. Once the problem is laid out in simple and straightforward terms the outline of the basic solution is self-evident — the difficult barriers to implementation not withstanding.

Perhaps the most striking outcome of this exercise is the realization that the necessary and appropriate actions are neither radical nor difficult to understand. Indeed they align with solid conservative values embraced by the vast majority of the world’s people. They point to an alternative to predatory global capitalism grounded in authentic democracy and authentic local market economies that function within a framework of community relationships, ethical cultures, and democratically determined rules. This is not an extremist idea.

Perhaps the most critical distinction between a planetary system of living economies and the suicide economy is that the former is comprised of living enterprises. The sociopathic institutions of the suicide economy are nowhere to be found. The structure of a living enterprise is nearly the mirror opposite of the structure of a publicly traded, limited liability, global corporation. It truly functions as a community of people making a living, not a pool of money seeking to reproduce itself. It is built on human relationships and maintains itself at a human-scale  — preferably less than a hundred employees and rarely more than 500 — because to grow larger would be to lose its human quality. It is owned by engaged stakeholders  — workers, community members, customers and suppliers — who have a personal involvement in its operation and a living interest in its healthy function. It’s structure distributes authority. And its owners and officers bear the same responsibility and liability for their actions as any other citizen.

Living enterprises may take on a variety of organizational forms. They may for example, be organized as consumer cooperatives, worker owned corporations, community corporations, partnerships, or family businesses. The only excluded legal forms of enterprise are those that give a controlling interest to absentee owners, legally define organizational purpose primarily in terms of financial returns to shareholders, or confer on special rights and immunities on its owners and officers not available to ordinary citizens.

A living enterprise is values based. Financial viability — including a fair return on financial investment — is essential to any for-profit enterprise, but a fair return is not the same asmaximum return. Furthermore, the living enterprise seeks a fair and balanced return to all its stakeholders — including safe, meaningful, family wage jobs for its employees, good service and useful, safe, quality products for its customers, and a healthy social and natural environment for the community in which it is located. The guiding question for those who lead a living enterprise is not “What action will give me the biggest boost in stock price this quarter?” but rather “What is the right thing to do and how can we do it in a way consistent with financial viability and a fair return on financial investment?”

One of my favorite prototypes of a living enterprise is Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe, founded by  Judy Wicks, former board chair of the Social Ventures Network, and a founder and co-chair of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. The White Dog attracts people with good food and then provides them with an education in citizenship through forums and field trips.

South Shore Bank in Chicago is a prototype living economies financial institution dedicated to developing socially and environmentally healthy local economies and communities. In the 1960s it played a lead role in rebuilding Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, a predominantly black community that was economically abandoned in the 1960s. In addition to funding local enterprise development it also funds projects that upgrade low- and moderate-income rental housing units, provide otherwise unaffordable home ownership opportunities, and develop and staff day care centers and local job training programs.

Life flourishes in community. Mature ecosystems seek local community self-reliance within nested holarchies of ever larger communities that are fundamentally cooperative and sharing. Local self-reliance in living economies is not about isolation or putting up walls. It is about living responsibly within one’s own means, adapting to local conditions to optimize efficiency and security in the use of energy and material, maintaining overall system stability, and creating relationships of trust and individual security that make it easy and natural to cooperate and share with one’s neighbors.

Local living economies naturally and appropriately reach out to their neighbors to form a planetary web of cooperation in which ideas, culture, information, and technology are freely shared and in which each community trades its surpluses with its neighbors to the mutual benefit of all — fair trade, not free trade. In a properly functioning international system, democratically accountable governing institutions at national and global levels will facilitate cooperative exchanges among local and regional living economies and secure them against predatory assaults that threaten their integrity. [See Richard Perl’s commentary and a presentation by David Korten on restructuring global economic governance.] In a living economy life is the measure of value and money is its servant.

As with any healthy market economy, a living economy requires a framework of rules democratically agreed to by its participants to maintain the essential conditions of equitable, efficient, and sustainable function. Since under the best of circumstances there will be those who seek unfair advantage at the expense of their neighbors, there must be provisions for enforcement. The living economy’s primary source of coherence and integrity, however, is cultural: the mindful sense of mutual respect, responsibility, and accountability integral to an awakened cultural and planetary consciousness. This is but one of the reasons why the awakening of a new consciousness is so important to the human transition from Empire to Community.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to taking a positive step forward to a living economy is the belief that the only alternative to the suicide economy is a primitive world of hardship and deprivation. Ardent proponents of the corporate status quo have even given it a name:  “TINA,” which stands for “There Is No Alternative.”  It is a rather pessimistic view given the billions of people marginalized or excluded by the suicide economy and the fate that all of humanity will eventually suffer if the predatory institutions of the suicide economy continue to have their way.

It is true, however, that as global corporations continue to consolidate their control over the production and marketing of basic goods and services it becomes ever more difficult for those of us fortunate enough to be on the winning side of the suicide economy’s unjust allocation of the world’s resources to imagine a world without them. Common questions include : “How would we earn our living?” “Where would we get our food?” “Who would finance the research to discover new drugs?” “How would we finance our retirement?” Even, “Who would build our airplanes?”

Important questions, with important answers:

  • Jobs. For all their economic power, the number of jobs provided by global corporations relative to the world’s workforce is trivial. Sales of the world’s 200 largest corporations are equivalent to 27.5 percent of world GDP, but they employ only 0.78 percent of the world’s workers. A phased opening of the economic spaces monopolized by these corporations will open a multitude of opportunities for living enterprises that can more than make up the employment loss.
  • Food. The corporate food system leaves a substantial portion of the world’s population hungry, seriously malnourished or near starvation, depends on unsustainable energy subsidies, pollutes the world’s water supplies, poisons farm workers, destroys rural communities, and depletes the fertility of the world’s soils to provide ample, but often nutritionally deficient, toxic laden, genetically modified foods to the relatively affluent. It is highly profitable for the few agribusiness corporations that control it, but it is otherwise inefficient, unjust, unsustainable, unhealthy, and socially and environmentally destructive. Before a combination of intentional public policy and corporate monopolization of food marketing and distribution forced most independent farmers into bankruptcy, small farms were the backbone of rural communities and the primary suppliers of food. Smaller independently managed farms using environmentally sound organic agricultural practices are far more efficient in the use of scarce land than are corporate factory farms. Localizing production to reduce the distance between farm and market means fresher, more nutritious food, and major energy savings.
  • Drug Research. If development of copy-cat drugs is excluded, most basic research on new drug treatments is publicly funded and much of it is carried out in universities. It would be much the same in a living economy. For all their claims that monopoly pricing is necessary to recover research costs, drug companies spend far more on marketing than on research toward the discovery of new drugs.
  • Retirement. A stock bubble can enrich the few at the expense of the many, but it will not feed, house, and cloth an aging population. Preparing to meet the future needs of an aging population requires real investment in the human and physical capital that will be needed for their support and care and it requires the willingness of a future generation of working people to support a future generation of retired people as part of an intergenerational social contract. The structure of the present U.S. social security is an important positive example. The suicide economy is de-capitalizing the human and physical infrastructure needed to support young and old alike in favor of short term financial gains and eroding the social contract. One of the living economy’s difficult challenges will be to rebuild the social contract and the living capital and physical infrastructure the suicide economy has destroyed.
  • Airplanes. Air travel has contributed a great deal to bringing the world together. It is, however, an extremely inefficient and environmentally destructive means of communication and it imposes extreme physical and emotional stress on the millions of people whose jobs in the global economy demand constant air travel. In a more settled world of living economies there will be far less need for air travel than in the frantic, transient world of the suicide economy. Furthermore, there are a variety of ways to organize airplane production that democratize ownership and support local enterprises. Even now, most airplane components are produced by sub-contractors, often human-scale enterprises. The central design, assembly, and marketing functions could well be owned by what are now dependent, captive contractors. If it turns out that certain essential goods and services can reasonably be provided only by larger than human-scale firms, these larger firms can still be owned by workers, community members, and other engaged stakeholders of their component businesses.

The step ahead to a living economy will require significant changes over time in the ways we live, work, and invest. There is reason to believe that with proper care and a just distribution of the planet’s sustainable bounty, the world’s six billion plus inhabitants will be able to live full and dignified lives and that hardship and material deprivation can be banished from the Earth. But this will necessarily mean less, not more, material consumption for the world’s favored few. It will required concerted citizen effort to regain control of the political process to hold corporations accountable for the harms they inflict on people and nature, to create a bias in favor of living enterprises, to dismantle the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization in favor of democratic institutions dedicated to rolling back the power of the suicide economy in the favor of a planetary system of strong local and national economies. And it will require a conscious effort by people everywhere to live life-serving economies into being. It can be a win-win step to a better, more conscious, more satisfying way of living for everyone.

Imagine a world in which virtually everyone has an opportunity for secure and satisfying employment at a living wage. A world of conscious and mindful consumers freed from deceptive and manipulative advertising. A world that moves at a more relaxed pace with time for family, community, cultural expression, and spiritual practice. A world of clean air and water, fresh, flavorful, healthful, toxin free foods, durable products, and secure returns from long-term investments. A world that rejoices in its cultural and racial diversity, cultures that nurture strong friendships, stable families, caring communities, and global cooperation based on trust and respect. A democratic world in which every person has a voice and an opportunity to be creatively engaged in contributing toward a better future for all — starting with their children and their local communities.

Such a world can be available to all, not just a fortunate few. This, for most of the world’s people, is a vision of progress and opportunity.

Like the mature ecosystem it mimics, a living economy cannot be centrally planned or created by fiat; nor can it spring into existence overnight. Like all living systems, it must be lived into being by its participants through an emergent self-organizing process of mutual learning, negotiation, and adaptation involving hundreds, thousands, millions, and ultimately billions of people. The process begins when the countless life-serving enterprises that function as communities of people who have the freedom and inclination to walk away from the dysfunctions of the suicide economy begin to reach out to one another to strengthen relations among themselves toward the building of community and the relationships of a living economy.

This is not a pie in the sky fantasy. It is what millions of culturally awakened people the world over are already doing.

RESOURCES: Stuart Cowan, who directed the conservation economy project at Ecotrust, developed what he calls a pattern language for a conservation economy. His website provides a map of many of the essential variables of a living economy that complements and extends the framework presented here. Go to and click on “Patterns of A Conservation Economy.” Useful resources for practitioners can be found at Coop AmericaNew RulesIvy Sea, Inc. (see especially the book by Jamie S. Walters, Big Vision, Small Business, which is a handbook for entrepreneurs who want to keep their enterprises small and life serving); and Sustainable Communities Network (see especially the link to “Growing a Sustainable Economy”).

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