The world is abuzz over Brexit, the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union (EU). Is it a victory for freedom, democracy, and national integrity? Or is it a racist retreat into xenophobia and isolationism? Will the EU itself survive or is this the beginning of its disintegration? As I reflect on these questions, I realize they raise essential issues that have profound implications far beyond Europe about how we set and manage boundaries.
We are only beginning to come to terms with the reality that we are a global species dependent on one living Earth. Consequently, we now must deal with a far greater degree of interdependence than ever before. We have only begun to recognize, let alone address, the implications of the boundaries within which we manage these relationships.
This lack of understanding is evident in the shallowness of the public debates about Brexit and international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These debates center on national boundaries and a choice between extremes. Should national boundaries be erased, as the European Union does with trade, migration, and investment? Or should they be marked by impenetrable walls with armed guards at designated entry points, as Donald Trump proposes?
Let’s start with basics. Life’s ability to self-organize depends on boundaries. At the lowest system level, a living cell manages a constant flow of water, information, nutrients, and energy within itself and in constant exchange with its environment. To maintain the integrity of its internal processes and its essential exchange with its environment—including neighboring cells—it must maintain a permeable and managed cell wall. If that wall becomes either impermeable or is breached in ways that imperil the cell’s integrity, the cell dies.
The need for permeable, managed boundaries repeats at each system level. For the human body, the skin manages the boundary; natural barriers such as mountains, shorelines, and deserts manage the boundaries of ecosystems, and the atmosphere manages Earth’s boundary with outer space.
As humans learn to live as conscious and responsible members of a living Earth community, we must learn to structure and manage boundaries in ways consistent with our needs as living beings dependent on the generative health and vitality of Earth. This requires that the geographical boundaries that define governmental jurisdictions such as states, counties, and municipalities within which we organize to protect and manage the resources and social services essential to our health and well-being must be primary. Unless all other consequential legal boundaries, including corporate boundaries, are subordinate to the boundaries of the nation state, sovereignty becomes a fiction.
We now must deal with a far greater degree of interdependence than ever before.
There was a time when most corporations organized within national boundaries and were subject to the laws of and taxation by the nation in which they were chartered and did business. Now, however, the boundaries of transnational corporations in large measure supersede national boundaries. The more these corporations gain monopoly control of the real assets on which the livelihoods of all depend, the less jurisdictional control communities have over those assets within their borders. This reduces their members to lives of servitude to the corporations.
The health of Earth’s living communities depends on managing boundaries to make the private financial interests of corporations subordinate to the livelihood interests of the communities in which they do business.
International agreements like NAFTA and the proposed TPP strengthen legal boundaries that shield corporations from taxation, regulation, and—through intellectual property-rights guarantees—from competition. They simultaneously weaken the boundaries that allow communities to self-organize through democratic processes to defend, care for, and utilize in perpetuity for the benefit of their members the resources within their legally defined territorial boundaries.
The EU, which initially prioritized community boundaries and interests, has gradually shifted to corporatist neoliberal/free market policies that advance the same ends as these neoliberal trade agreements.
Rather than disband the EU, it should be renegotiated, as should existing “free” trade agreements, to subordinate corporate boundaries and interests to community boundaries and interests. This is an essential step on the path to a living Earth economy. Widespread electoral rebellion is opening political space that makes this a realistic possibility.
David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.