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The New Economy Challenge: Implications for Higher Education

A new economy requires a new approach to education. David Korten discusses how we can rethink our goals, reskill ourselves, and teach Spaceship Management 101.
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On January 29, 2010, David Korten addressed the Education for Sustainable Development Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. His remarks follow.


Library, photo by Thomas Hawk

Photo by Thomas Hawk

We humans are in the midst of a potentially terminal economic, social, and environmental crisis of our own making. Our economic systems are unstable, extreme inequality is tearing apart the social fabric, and Earth’s critical living systems are collapsing. We have gathered for this conference, not to debate the seriousness of our situation, but rather to explore how our educational institutions can contribute to the solution.

Building an Earth Community

I want to start by quoting from the preamble of The Earth Charter, a document that grew out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It is a summation of conversations over several years involving thousands of persons representing the grand diversity of the world’s people and cultures. Its opening words frame the work at hand:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth Community with a common destiny.

The Earth Charter preamble goes on to make clear that we must not only recognize that we are one Earth Community, we must restructure our institutions in ways that allow us to function as a global Earth Community, a community of life. And it tells us why:

The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.

The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living.

Institutional change is perhaps the most important and yet most neglected of the crucial changes we must navigate. If we humans are to adapt to 21st century reality, we must restructure or replace the economic institutions of the 20th century, which lock us into a dynamic of perpetual economic growth, with institutions designed to support ecological balance, shared prosperity, and living democracy—terms I will define in a few minutes.

This presents an unprecedented challenge for institutions of higher learning organized to prepare young graduates to succeed in a world that we must now put behind us. They are ill-equipped to prepare people of all ages for their necessary roles in creating and staffing the institutions of a new civilization. They must rethink, retool, and reorganize.

Contextualizing the Problem

The truly epic nature of the challenge is best expressed by placing it in its deeper historical and evolutionary context. For the past 5,000 years, we humans have been living in a cultural trance of our own making that alienates us from the land, our true human nature, and our human place in the cosmos.

So who are we humans? From where did we come? For what purpose? And how did we get ourselves in such a mess? Here is how I understand the new story based on the data of science, the wisdom of indigenous peoples, and the teachings of Jesus and other mystics.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the integral spiritual intelligence that expresses itself through what we know as creation embarked on a bold and risky experiment in reflective consciousness by bringing forth a species able to step back and to reflect on creation in awe and wonder and to participate as a conscious co-creator in the continued creative unfolding. We humans are that species.

Our reflective consciousness gives us the capacity to choose our future with conscious collective intent. It was a risky experiment, however, because the capacity for self-awareness gives us an ego that can run out of control if it forgets that it exists only as part of a larger whole.

Rebecca AdamsonAge-Old Wisdom for the New Economy Indigenous peoples have learned a few things about making it through hard times. What did traditional economies do to foster abundance, sharing, and harmony with Mother Earth?

As our human consciousness was first awakening, our capacities for conscious self-direction grew. We learned to communicate through speech, master fire, domesticate plants and animals, and construct houses of skins, wood, stone, and dried mud. We developed the arts of pottery, painting, weaving, and carving. We undertook vast continental and transcontinental migrations to populate the planet and adapted to vastly different physical topographies and climates. We created complex languages and social codes that allowed for life in larger communities.

In our earliest days, we humans raised our children collectively in the clan, tribe, or village, initiating them to the ways of life and teaching them the need to serve the community and to care for our Earth Mother as she, in turn, cares for us.

Then some 5,000 years ago, something went terribly wrong: We turned from the ways of Earth Community to the ways of Empire. It was a time of separation and forgetting. Community, partnership, and the celebration of life gave way to domination and violence.

The few expropriated the wealth of the many. The masculine drove out the feminine. We worshiped our Sky Father, but turned against our Earth Mother. We came to value the power to kill and destroy more highly than the ability to create and nurture life.

Conquest became the measure of greatness. Economies came to be based on servitude. With a few on the top and the many on the bottom, everyone was placed in competition with everyone else for the favored positions; the bonds of caring and sharing were broken. Money and power became the prime arbiters of relationships. The creative energy of the species was redirected from securing the well-being of the tribe and Mother Earth to advancing the technological instruments of war and the social instruments of domination.

Resources were expropriated by the winners to maintain the system of domination. The positions of power too often went to the most ruthless and psychologically damaged members of society.

If this discussion of Empire sounds familiar, it is for good reason. Although kings and emperors have been replaced by corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers, we are still living in the Era of Empire. Our institutions have evolved to grow the power and wealth of a small ruling class that in some respects lives even further beyond the reach of public accountability than the kings and emperors of an earlier time.

In the past 100 years, we humans have achieved a technological mastery beyond the imagination of previous generations. Yet, lacking in the wisdom of place and community that is the heritage of indigenous peoples, the consumer culture fabricated by the institutions of Wall Street has led us to forget what it means to be human and to deny our connection to the web of planetary life. The result is an ecological and social crisis that threatens the very survival of the species. The time has come to rediscover our humanity, reclaim the power that Wall Street institutions and their global counterparts have usurped, and bring ourselves back into balance with one another and with Earth—our living home.

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