A Good Time To Speak For Change

Seattle, Responsible Wealth Conference March 8, 2003

It is a wonderful thing in these troubled times to have the privilege of meeting with so many bright and able friends working for positive change. I love Responsible Wealth, because through the work and fellowship of this organization, we let the world know that not all people of wealth are consumed by greed and the pursuit of personal power. There are people of wealth — perhaps even a majority as it turns out — who recognize that the privilege of freedom and influence that comes with our good fortune brings as well a special responsibility to devote our lives to the cause of creating a better world for all.

My wife, Fran, and I attended the January 28 gathering here in Seattle at which Bill Gates, Sr. and Chuck Collins spoke on the Responsible Wealth campaign against Estate Tax repeal, much like our session last night. As we were leaving, Fran said, “I am so inspired to see our side doing something so important in such a savvy way.”

I recall Bill saying during the January event how much fun he is having doing the right thing. That's the wonderful thing about being alive at this particular moment in history — so many opportunities to have fun doing what is right.

This Conference and its chosen theme, “Using Our Voices for Positive Change,” has proven more timely than any of us could possibly have known when it was first announced. Events of just the past few weeks suggest that this is a profound moment of opportunity to make a difference without precedent in the human experience. And it comes none too soon.

Structural change is not just a good idea. It is an imperative. Let's start with the big picture. I'll return in a moment to what makes this moment so extraordinary.


The graph on this overhead addresses a very basic question. “How many planets endowed with an area of biologically productive land and sea equivalent to that of earth would it take to support current levels of human consumption of food, materials, and energy on a sustainable basis. This graph indicates we passed beyond the limits of what this planet can sustain sometime around 1980. As a species we are now consuming at a rate of about 1.2 planets.

Unfortunately, since we don't have another two tenths planet we are making up the difference by depleting natural capital, both non-renewable capital, like fossil fuels, and the renewable capital of our forests, fisheries, soils, water and climatic systems. About 85% of what remains is expropriate the more fortunate 20% of the world's population to support our often wasteful patterns of consumption. The least fortunate 20 percent of the world's people struggle to survive on slightly more than 1 percent. Some of you may recall reference to the need for three or four planets. That refers to what would be required to support all of the world's people at a Western European level of consumption.

Unfortunately, most people miss the implication of inequality because we are in the habit of thinking of money as wealth — which it isn't. Money is a claim on wealth. It's just a number that exists only in our head. [See Money vs. Wealth] This next overhead helps us see the deeper implications of this reality.


empre vs community slide

The graph on the top represents world stock market capitalization — the total value of all the stocks traded on the world's stock exchanges. I want to thank Leslie Christian of Progressive Investment Management for tracking down these figures. They are extremely difficult to find, and what we've tracked so far only goes through 1999, so the graph doesn't show the more recent down turn. Bear in mind here that although some 50 percent of Americans own some stock, the richest 1 percent of households owns nearly 50 percent of the value of all stocks owned by Americans. Globally the ownership of stocks is far more concentrated. Surely less than 1 percent of all households in the world participate in stock ownership in any consequential way.

The bottom half of this overhead presents the Living Planet Index —a measure of the health of the world's forests, freshwater, ocean, and coastal ecosystems. This represents the life support system of the planet, the living capital that is ultimate source of all wealth. The index has declined by 37% in the past 30 years. From the perspective of the planet, the good news is the species that bears the responsibility for this devastation will be gone well before the index reaches zero. It's not especially good news, however, for us humans.

Money is a claim on wealth. Money can grow virtually without limit, but its growth is increasing the claims of the few against the real resources on which we all depend to live. In a full world, equity becomes an essential condition of a healthy, sustainable society.

Here we confront two bogus arguments about the economy of the sort Julianne Malveaux warned us about yesterday. Keep these in mind, because they are among the fallacies we must use our voices to expose. I should mention here that the truth behind these and other bogus arguments put forward to justify the wealth gap is nearly self evident to any person of average intelligence who takes time to think about it. We've been encourage, however, not to question what the experts tell us and to believe that if we don't understand it is because we lack the intellectual capacity to grasp complex subjects like economics. The reality is that when an economic argument presented to us by an “expert” seems a bit fishy, it is often because it is false.

We are told, for example, that those who make money are creating wealth that adds to the pie of society's total wealth. No one loses, so no one should begrudge the wealthy their proper reward for their contribution to the increased well-being of all.

Of course it's a bogus argument. Inflation of the financial bubble increases the claims of the holders of those assets against the world's shrinking real wealth. The fortunate few enjoy multiple vacation homes, private jets, and exotic foods, while others are displaced from their homes and farmlands and condemned to lives of homelessness and starvation. The gap between glutinous extravagance and dehumanizing deprivation grows in proportion to the financial gap. Furthermore, as the corporate scandals of the past couple of years have made so glaringly evident, many fortunes are based on fraud, theft, and the destruction of human and natural capital.

This brings us to another bogus argument. We are told that economic growth is the key to ending poverty and that environmental protection harms the poor. Growth in economic output accelerates depletion of the natural wealth on which all life depends and intensifies the competition for what remains — a competition the poor invariably lose. The only way to end poverty is to redistribute how we use the available, sustainable wealth of the planet. To do that, we must redistribute financial wealth. In summation: To end poverty we must address both equity and sustainability. We must use our voices to speak these truths.


empre vs community slide

We confront a defining evolutionary moment for our species. We have very little time to accomplish the following:

  • Bring the material consumption of our species into balance with the earth.
  • Realign our economic priorities to assure all persons have access to an adequate and meaningful means of living for themselves & their families.
  • Democratize our institutions to root power in people and community.
  • Replace the dominant culture of materialism with cultures grounded in life affirming values of cooperation, caring, compassion, and community.
  • Integrate the material and spiritual aspects of our being to become whole persons

. We could respond to this daunting agenda with a sense of fear and despair: It's impossible. Hopeless. All is lost.

Or we can say, “What a wonderfully exciting creative opportunity. How privileged I am to live at this particular moment — especially as a person of wealth with the freedom and influence to help my species take the step to a new maturity. Whatever did I do to deserve so much fun?

How many of you are familiar with the Earth Charter? It is a remarkable document, a product of consultations over a period of several years with thousands of persons of virtually every nationality, race, religious, and ethic 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."


empre vs community slide

Each day we see that choice being defined with every greater clarity between a dominator world of economic and military empire or a partnership world of what the Earth Charter calls Earth community. The framing that follows is inspired by Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade.

The dominator relationships of empire follow naturally from fear — 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 arises from a fear of life itself and gives rise to 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. Unfortunately, as I will elaborate in a moment — this is the worldview of those presently in control of the U.S. government.

Fear 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 that is destroying the foundations of its own existence and of human survival and in vision that drives America's ruling junta of an American Imperium imposed by overwhelming military force.

The partnership relations of Earth community flow, by contrast, from a perception of the world as inherently nurturing, compassionate, and overflowing with creative abundance and opportunity. From the Earth community 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 the sacred spirit of creation. 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 community find eloquent expression in living economies and global civil society — two other themes on which I will elaborate in a moment.

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 — the title of the new book I've just started writing. The time has come to replace cultures and institutions grounded in a fear of life with cultures and institutions grounded in a love of life.

We necessarily and appropriately work on many fronts — including peace, civil rights, democracy, economic justice, and the environment — for in the end they are all the same struggle against predatory and undemocratic economic and political systems that value power more than life.

The work ahead includes replacing the existing politics of fear, hate, and division with a new politics of hope, love, and healing and to replace a global suicide economy that is destroying life to make money for rich people with a new American economy devoted to the service of life.


empire vs community slide

The suicide economy features absentee ownership, monopoly, and the concentration of power delinked from obligations to people or place. Its defining institution is the publicly traded, limited liability corporation, an institutional form designed to concentrate virtually unlimited power to the sole purpose of enriching absentee owners who bear no liability for the social or environmental consequences of the actions taken in their name.

It is within our means to replace the suicide economy with living economies based on locally rooted ownership and deeply held American ideals of equity, democracy, the rule of law, fair markets, and personal responsibility. Consider: the vast majority of all enterprises are not organized as publicly traded corporations. They are human-scale, owned by real people, and many are committed to paying their workers a living wage, offering quality products and services at a fair price, and being good citizens. These enterprises provide the vast majority of employment, and account for most innovation. Under the present system they function at the fringes of the suicide economy dependent on its dominant corporate predators. Imagine the possibilities if these healthy enterprises were to free themselves from their dependence on the suicide economy and grow webs of business relationships with one another to create corporate free, living economies that give us new choices as to where we shop, work, and invest.

Imagine a world in which every person has an ownership stake in the assets on which their livelihood depends and has a say in their management — creating a foundation for equity, democracy, and a true market economy. It's more than a dream. People are already working to bring it into being and there is a national support organization called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). Check it out in the “Living Economies” issue of YES! magazine at our exhibit table. Also join our living economies Workshop this afternoon where I will join Michelle Long, co-coordinator of BALLE, and Fran Korten, the Executive Director of YES! magazine. We'll talk more about what is happening and discuss implications for our investing and our advocacy work.

Of course we do face some interesting obstacles. Consider the new language that has entered the political discourse here in America in only the past few months. We used to talk about American democracy and the checks and balances of the American system. Now media pundits talk openly of American Empire and the ruling American oligarchy.

Shortly after last November's election Bill Moyers interviewed Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine on his Friday evening PBS television show. Asked who won the election, Lapham told Moyers the election was a victory for America's ruling oligarchy — which he defined as the frightened rich who think that the democratic experiment has served its purpose, run its course, gone far enough — and are now intent on protecting their power and privilege behind gated communities, steep income differences, an invincible army, and an invincible homeland security department.

You might say the mission of Responsible Wealth is to provide aid and comfort to the class traitors who have defected from this ultimately self-destructive cause and are committed to a very different vision. This is a timely moment for that mission, because events are conspiring to spark a new political awareness in America.

First, a stolen election revealed the fragility of our democracy. Next a stock market meltdown unmasked the reality of a bubble economy. Then the 911 terrorist attacks shocked us out of a deep complacency regarding America's relationships to the world. A wave of corporate scandals revealed the deep corruption of the system of corporate rule. The gap between the policies of the administration in power in America and what America and the world need grows wider and becomes more visible by the day.

  • We need greater equality and greater purchasing power for low income people. The administration seeks to eliminate taxes on dividends, capital gains, and estates, thus seeking to shift the entire the tax burden to people who do honest work and to institutionalize a permanent heredity ruling aristocracy in America. In so doing it has in a mere two years turned a historic budget surplus into a historic budget deficit.
  • We need to bring our consumption into balance with the planet. The administration seeks rule changes to accelerate depletion of environmental resources.
  • We need international cooperation and strengthened rule of law. The administration repudiates international agreements, holds itself above international law, and makes clear that it will disregard any UN resolution not to its liking. In a year and a half it has turned a world united in support of America to a world united in resistance against the war aims of America's rogue administration.
  • We face a threat from invisible international terrorist networks that requires effective and cooperative international police work. The administration gives priority to unilaterally launching pre-emptive wars against whole nations of people based on a preconceived blueprint for the consolidation of U.S. military empire.
  • The world needs peace. The administration drops bombs.
  • In the name of securing freedom in America, the administration seeks to impose a military-police state.
  • To stop genocide in Iraq the administration plans to launch 3,000 bombs and missiles on Iraq in a forty eight hour campaign of shock and awe that some sources say is intended to eliminate virtually every facility in the country essential to the support of human life.

America has for too long been consumed by a politics of greed and meanness. These are not the values of the majority of Americans.

Polling data make clear that the vast major of Americans embrace life values. They want a healthy environment, peace, economic justice and security for all, freedom, and democracy. And they have no interest in imposing a military empire on the world. To get within half million votes of his opponent the man the Supreme Court appointed to be America's president had to present himself as a compassionate conservative who would work for ordinary people, be fiscally responsible, leave no child behind, protect the environment, and pursue a peaceful, cooperative, and non-belligerent foreign policy respectful of the rights and interests of others. These were major themes of his campaign. They are what we need. They are what most Americans want. People are beginning to notice that his actions don't fit his words.

This administration deserves credit for one thing. It is sparking a positive and long overdue national political awakening. Reckless tax cuts at a time of record budget deficits are drawing sharp criticism even from conservative corporate executives and economists. Libertarians are lining up against him on the rollback of civil liberties. There are signs some in the corporate media are awakening to their traditional and essential watchdog role. There are even signs of life in the Democratic Party. All across America people are engaging in discussions about the gap between American ideals and American reality. They are asking important questions: What does it mean to be an American? What is America's appropriate role in the world? What is patriotism? Who has the right to declare war, and on what grounds? People who a short time ago were feeling so depressed that they were tuning out the world and the news are participating in protests and getting engaged in their communities. We see the opening of a national global dialogue focused on serving the needs of society rather than the greed of the individual.

Incidentally, if you are looking for a source of hope that change is possible and for a wealth of ideas on how to become engaged in creating the world that can be, I urge you to subscribe to YES! magazine. We cover these positive developments and tell the stories of people working for deep change.

Now let's turn to the extraordinary global events of the past few weeks — a profound convergence of social forces without precedent in the human experience. I speak of the global peace and justice movement that has formed in resistance against war in Iraq. Consider the magnificence of what happened on February 15. On that day some 10 to 11 million people of every nationality, religion, race, and class marched in solidarity in a planetary call for peace and justice in nonviolent demonstrations in cities and towns large and small all around the world. It was the largest and most broadly international protest action in human history and a defining moment in a rapid unfolding of a global realignment of power and perception.

Two million marched in Rome, 1.5 million in London, 1.3 million in Barcelona, half a million in New York — and so it went. Commenting on the demonstrations and their impact the New York Times observed that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”

This event came together within a space of weeks as a spontaneous self organizing process of planetary-scale with no charismatic leader. No financial sponsor. No organizing committee. Some people put out an idea. It spread like a wildfire as it captured the imagination of growing numbers of people. And the global political context began to shift. You could feel it. You could see it.

George Bush may place himself above accountability to public opinion and international law, but politicians all around the world took note. The world's people want peace and reject the bogus arguments for war against Iraq. This unprecedented demonstration surely contributed to the Turkish parliament's decision to tell the ruling junta in Washington that Turkey is not for sale. It surely influenced the Pope's decision to send his personal emissary to the White House to appeal for peace. It surely had something to do the alliance of France, Germany, China, and Russia as the nucleus in the United Nations Security Council of opposition to unilateral U.S. militarism. The UN Security Council debates I heard on the radio yesterday morning suggest an overwhelming rejection of Bush plans for the invasion of Iraq. The world's people, acting as planetary conscience, are shifting the political tide. Bush promised to bring us together — and he has — but surely not in the way he intended.


politics of hope

Global civil society is an extraordinary planetary social organism new to human evolutionary experience. It is giving birth to a new politics of hope, love, and healing and a new economy of loving service to life. Rather than mobilizing around an ideology or charismatic leader, it is converging around the emergent values consensus articulated in the Earth Charter and similar citizen declarations. Each of its 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 deep within our being.

Global civil society is giving 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 Community? That choice is now very much before us. Generations ago our forbears rejected the institutions of monarchy in favor of the institutions of representative democracy. 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.

I believe the values of Earth community 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 — a new political context — of hope, love, and healing that embodies the values of the world we seek to create.


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 to one another and to the planet that go with our collective presence on the living jewel of life called Earth. The time is now. The choice is ours. The work starts here. This is our time to speak. Our time to act. We're the one's we've been waiting for.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.