It goes back at least to Zoroaster, the Central Asian prophet who lived some 1,400 years before Christ, whose prophecy of a coming battle between good and evil became the official religion of the Persian Empire. Known as millenarianism, prophecies of social upheaval find fertile ground in periods of uncertainty and often center on specific dates associated with the turn of a century or millennium.
As the year 2000 draws near, we witness a swelling of the ranks of prophetic Protestant Christian sects, whose new recruits in Latin America and the Far East number in the millions. The Branch Davidians, Heaven's Gate, and the Aum Shinrikyo sect that spread terror in Tokyo's subways may be only the tip of the iceberg of extreme apocalyptic cults inspired in part by this thousand-year turn of the calendar.
The hardheaded skeptic notes with justification that 2000 is nothing more than a date, no different than any other, on an arbitrary Western calendar. Yet there is ample evidence that in the human experience, numbers and anniversaries possess a mythic power difficult to fully dismiss. New Year's Day is no less arbitrary than the turn of the millennium and a whole lot less consequential as it comes once each year. Nonetheless, for many it's a time for reflecting on the year that has passed and for making resolutions for the year ahead. We should expect no less, and perhaps a good deal more, from an anniversary of a thousand years.
End of an Era
We have no reason to fear a simple calendar change, even one that turns four digits. However, by exquisite coincidence, this thousand-year anniversary happens to coincide with a deep crisis that marks the end of an era. Violent fluctuations in climate, disastrous gyrations in the world's interlinked financial markets, massive global unemployment, an unconscionable gap between rich and poor, an industrial system awash in unused productive capacity, more than a billion people languishing in absolute deprivation, disappearing soils and forests, and collapsing fisheries all cry out that Armageddon is at hand.
It is as if the global ecosystem has conspired with the global economy to send us a message so powerful we could not possibly ignore it. Yet our feckless leaders seem like little children who believe that if they close their eyes tightly enough, the scary things will go away.
The collapse of many of Asia's much-touted "miracle economies" in the latter part of 1997 revealed the extent to which their prosperity was built on a feeble foundation of reckless financial speculation, foreign borrowing, and domestic bank lending. In November 1997, the heads of state of the Asia-Pacific countries met in Vancouver, British Columbia under the banner of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation Group (APEC). US President William Clinton, as the meeting's dominant voice, urged Asian leaders to respond to their calamity by accelerating deregulation, borrowing from the IMF to entice the speculators to return, and opening their financial sectors to greater participation by Wall Street's high roller financial houses.
In December, representatives from 150 nations gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to address the problem of human-induced climate change that threatens to submerge island nations, flood coastal cities, disrupt global agriculture, bring violent storms, and cause massive species extinctions. Again the United States played the leading role. Besieged by powerful corporate lobbyists intent on scuttling any agreement, but mindful of strong public support for firm action, the politicians took the expedient course and set a timetable that places the promised commitments well beyond the terms of their present administrations. In the United States, big business and the Republican Party immediately condemned the agreement as harmful to the economy and promised to block Senate ratification.
Meanwhile, the world's automobile manufacturers were cheering record sales in the United States of high-profit, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, minivans, and pickups that circumvent US pollution and mileage standards and are significantly increasing our greenhouse gas emissions.
Leaders for a New Era
We are gripped in the tumult of a dying era. Yet those who head our most powerful institutions are so captive to the old era's ways of thinking, so absorbed in advancing and protecting their own short-term political and economic fortunes, that they can only prescribe more of the medicine that is killing us.
Fortunately, there are real leaders amongst us in these chaotic times, and they are not waiting for the institutions of a dying era nor a savior descending out of the heavens to guide us to the promised land. Far beyond the halls of power and outside the media spotlight, these extraordinary, ordinary citizens are moving ahead with optimism and commitment to put in place the foundations of the new era in an atmosphere of experimentation, creativity, compassion, love, and passion for life.
They are building new political parties and movements, deepening their spiritual practice, building networks of locally rooted businesses, certifying socially and environmentally responsible products, practicing voluntary simplicity, restoring forests and watersheds, promoting public transportation, defining urban growth boundaries, protecting watersheds, directing their investments to socially responsible businesses, organizing recycling campaigns, and demanding that trade agreements protect the rights of people and the environment.
They are present in every country. They come from every race, class, religion, and ethnic group. They include landless and illiterate peasants, retired executives, ranchers, teachers, housewives, small business owners, farmers, local government officials, inner city kids, loggers, wealthy intellectuals with fancy academic credentials, and reform-minded gang leaders. The majority are women. And together they number in the millions. Fed up with the failures of elitist leadership and distant bureaucracies, they are demonstrating the power of truly democratic populist forms of leadership through which people take direct responsibility for their communities and their futures.
Of course, few of these new leaders see themselves as the architects and builders of a new era. They simply do what they believe is right and necessary to create decent lives for themselves, their families, and their neighbors in the midst of a troubled world. In so doing, however, they sow the seeds of a revolutionary power shift and lead us across the millennial threshold to a new era. Herein lies the significance of the millennium.
The Millennium Institute, under the leadership of futurist Gerald Barney, has designated the three-year period 1999 through 2001 the Millennium Moment - "a shared moment when together we - humanity - begin doing the wide range of things that we know we must do to begin a new period of responsible living on Earth." It is an appropriate moment to consciously choose what of our past we shall leave behind and what we shall carry forward - both individually and as a global society of the whole. The success of the Millennium Moment will depend on the extent to which each and every one of us reaches into our inner being for insights into the potentials we believe the new era can and should express.
Making Money, Destroying Wealth
Many among us believe we now live in a time of unprecedented prosperity and that we have scarcely begun to tap into the potentials of a global consumer economy. While it is true that some 20 percent of us have enjoyed a brief period of unprecedented consumption, it is a false prosperity. We have made a grievous error akin to that of the profligate son who inherits a large forest and deludes himself into believing that the faster he cuts it down and spends the proceeds on self-indulgences, the richer he becomes. Absorbed in the admiration society bestows on the successful, he may even be a bit disdainful of others who have not been similarly favored.
We now face our moment of reckoning. We who live in the industrial era have in a mere century consumed a major portion of the natural capital it took evolution millions of years to create. We are also drawing down our social, institutional, and human capital. Yet, rather than setting ourselves straight, we have compounded our problem by handing the control of our natural patrimony to the institutions of global capital - global corporations and financial institutions - that see life only as a means to the end of making money. And they are making lots of money.
Unfortunately, money isn't wealth in any real sense. It's just a number that we accept as a claim on real wealth. And here is where we get into trouble.
Since 1980, in the Northern industrial countries, financial assets - a form of money - have been growing roughly twice as fast as growth in gross domestic product (GDP) - our most widely used indicator of economic output. This means that claims on economic output are growing twice as fast as the actual output of the economy, as shown in Figure 1. (For an explanation of how the rich are increasing their claims over production without contributing to it, see my article "Money vs. Wealth
," in YES! #2, Spring 1997.)
But the problem goes deeper, because much of the output that GDP measures is actually harmful, such as the sale of guns and cigarettes to children. Other portions are defensive expenditures that attempt to offset the consequences of the social and environmental breakdown caused by harmful growth. Examples include expenditures for security devices and environmental cleanup. GDP further distorts our reality by the fact that it is a measure of gross domestic product. The depreciation or depletion of natural, social, human, institutional, or even human-made capital is not deducted. So when we cut down our forests, the sale is counted as pure benefit. There is no accounting for the loss of the trees and related ecosystem functions.
In each country where economists have adjusted GDP to arrive at a figure for net beneficial economic output, they have concluded that the economy's net contribution to well-being has actually been declining over the past 15 to 20 years.
Yet even the resulting index of net beneficial output is misleading; it doesn't reveal the extent to which the economy's base of living capital assets is being reduced as our forests, soils, fresh water, and fisheries are depleted faster than they can regenerate, our social fabric unravels, our educational standards decline, and our leading institutions lose their legitimacy. The available data suggest that the rate of depletion of our living capital is even greater than the rate of decline in beneficial economic output.
Consider the implications. Our policy makers focus their attention on financial asset and GDP indicators, which create the illusion that their policies are making us richer - when in fact they are making us poorer. Unfortunately, the indicators that would reveal the truth are neither compiled nor reported.
Furthermore, the financial assets that constitute claims over declining real wealth are becoming ever more concentrated in a very few hands - in 1996 the financial assets of 447 billionaires exceeded the annual incomes of the poorest half of humanity. Those whose financial assets are growing seemingly without limit see no problem, for in a global economy they find it increasingly easy to access the best of whatever remains of the Earth's living capital wherever it has survived. Indeed, as Paul Hawken points out, it is the success of industrialism both in expanding its throughput of resources and extending its reach across the globe that has caused it to reach its limits so quickly and has created a crisis for people and nature. Those in charge see only the success.
We are running out of time. The human population is projected to reach 8 billion by the year 2025. We are feeding our present population of just under 6 billion only by drawing down nonrenewable capital stocks of cheap oil used to produce petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers and to fuel heavy farm equipment and long-distance transport.
Meanwhile, climate change induced by our increasingly extravagant use of carbon fuels threatens to disrupt existing agricultural production everywhere on the planet. We are as well accelerating the depletion of our soils, water sources, fisheries, and forests. One ominous indicator of what lies ahead is the growing number of countries dependent on food imports to feed their own populations - the most troubling, because of the numbers involved, being China.
The widening gap between rich and poor continues to grow, increasing social tensions and undermining the legitimacy of our institutions. A highly unstable and overextended global financial system captive to financial speculators appears poised at the verge of collapse.
Our leaders, lulled into complacency by the "Don't worry, be happy" crowd of industry-funded scientists, appear to have no clue as to how to deal with any of these problems. Yet, as an optimistic guess, we may have at best a 20-year window of opportunity following the year 2000 to negotiate a basic change in direction (see Hardin Tibbs' article on page 24). It depends on us, the ordinary citizens of planet Earth, to make it happen.
A deadly tale
The task before us is no less a challenge than transforming a life-consuming global economy into a system of life-nurturing local economies. It is a task that calls us to examine some of our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of life and reality. As Thomas Berry suggested in Dream of the Earth
, we will need a new story to guide us.
The story that shaped the scientific-industrial era goes something like this:
The universe is like a giant clockwork. It was set in motion by a master clockmaker at the beginning of creation and left to run down with time as its spring unwinds. In short, we live in a dead and wasting universe. Matter is the only reality, and the whole is no more nor less than the aggregation of its parts. By understanding the parts, we understand and can control the whole. Through science, we gain dominion over nature to bend it to our ends. Consciousness is an illusion, life only an accidental outcome of material complexity. We evolved through a combination of chance genetic mutations and a competitive struggle by which those more fit survived and flourished as the weaker and less worthy perished. Neither consciousness nor life has meaning or purpose.
Competition for survival and territory is the basic law of nature. We cannot expect humans to be or become more than brutish beasts driven by basic instincts to survive, reproduce, and seek distraction from existential loneliness through the pursuit of material gratification. A primary function of the institutions of civilized societies is to use the structures of hierarchy and markets to channel our dark human instincts toward economically productive ends.
While it has outlived its usefulness, in its time, this story played a constructive role in human history; it launched the scientific revolution that gave legitimacy to learning through empirical observation and liberated Western societies from the intellectual tyranny of the Church. It focused attention on mastering the material world and gave rise to extraordinary advances in scientific knowledge and technology, brought previously unimaginable affluence to some 20 percent of the world population, and gave us the ability to project ourselves into space.
On the dark side, however, this story's underlying Hobbesian philosophy led us to create the oppressive mega-institutions of the state and the corporation, and a stratified economic system that honors and rewards the most greedy among us. It has become a deeply alienating story that denies our spiritual nature and leads us on a suicidal course.
A new story for a New Era
We do truly need a new story that honors our advancing knowledge and nurtures our development as fully human beings. We are in fact creating a new story drawing inspiration from many sources - including the world's richly varied and often ancient religious traditions and recent findings of contemporary physical and life sciences.
This new story is taking shape through its telling by many creative minds and it goes something like this:
The universe is a self-organizing system engaged in the discovery and realization of its possibilities through a continuing process of transcendence toward ever higher levels of order and self-definition. Modern science has confirmed the ancient Hindu belief that all matter exists as a continuing dance of flowing energies, yet is able to maintain the integrity of its boundaries and internal structures, much as the cells of a living organism maintain their own integrity and individuality even as they function coherently as parts of a larger whole. This implies some form of self-knowledge at each level of organization in both "inert" matter and living organisms. Perhaps self-aware intelligence, or consciousness, takes many forms and is in some way pervasive and integral even to matter. Perhaps what we know as life is not an accident of creation, but rather integral to it, an attractor that shapes the creative unfolding of the cosmos.
We have scarcely begun to imagine, much less experience, the possibilities of our own capacity for intelligent, self-aware living. Nor have we tested our potentials for self-directed cooperation as a foundation of modern social organization. Evolution, though it involves competitive struggles and the renewing cycles of life and death, reveals many qualities of a fundamentally intentional, cooperative, and intelligent enterprise.
There is substantial evidence indicating that it is entirely natural for healthy humans to live fully and consciously in service to the unfolding capacities of self and community. Nurturing the creative development of the capacity of each and every person for fully conscious living should be a primary function of the institutions of civilized societies. It is time to create institutions that recognize both the complexity and depth of human nature.
Unlike the dead universe story, this story calls us to deepen our understanding of life's self-organizing processes and of our own conscious intelligence, and to master the art of living at both individual and societal levels. It further calls us to embrace life as society's defining value -- to give birth to a culture that values sufficiency, cooperation, love, and stewardship; to create self-regulating, nonhierarchical organizations that liberate and celebrate our higher potentials; and to build economies that motivate creative contribution, provide everyone access to an adequate and fulfilling means of livelihood, and nurture the living systems of the planet.
Twenty years is a brief time for six to nine billion people to learn new ways of living and of relating to one another and to the planet. But what an exciting challenge! As we glimpse the potentials within our grasp, we begin to see there are good reasons to look to the task with genuine enthusiasm. We have the opportunity to bring our species to a new level of maturity defined by ever-higher levels of consciousness, collective intelligence, freedom in coherent service to the whole, and social and spiritual prosperity.
Endowing this millennial point of the Western calendar with special significance might be viewed as a superstitious behavior unworthy of the rational mind. Yet it is evident that our continued growth as a species requires that we engage in periodic processes of collective assessment and renewal. Never in our history has there been a greater need. If the turn of a millennium calls us to engage in collective reflection, then let us rejoice in our good fortune and use the opportunity to full advantage. For it happens to be at this instant that we need to work together to create and give life to a new story for humanity.
David C. Korten is board chair of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES!, author of When Corporations Rule the World (Berrett-Koehler and Kumarian Press, 1995) and president of the People-Centered Development Forum. His most recent book, Globalizing Civil Society: Reclaiming our Right to Power, is part of the Seven Stories Press Open Media Pamphlet Series (1-800/596-7437).This article draws in part from the manuscript of his forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Envisioning a Post-Corporate World, to be released in January 1999.