I had just arrived in Beijing—my first-ever visit to China—when I learned that Hillary Clinton had conceded the U.S. presidency to Donald Trump. My first reaction was one of existential despair. The dangers of this time of dramatic system unraveling hit me full force.
U.S. job and wage declines, rising living costs, and a sense of cultural displacement by a marginalized White working class combined to strip away public confidence in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. That handed the presidency to Donald Trump, who ran as an outsider and promised to bring back jobs and reemploy American workers.
I had to remind myself that the deep unraveling presents not only extreme danger. It as well presents an unprecedented opportunity to envision and actualize the possibility of a living future, an ecological civilization, that works for all. That I happened to be in China at this moment of political turmoil in the U.S. gave me a perspective I otherwise surely would have missed.
I went to China at the invitation of China’s Institute of State Governance to deliver an opening plenary presentation on “A Living Earth Economy for an Ecological Civilization” at a high-level national conference on green development and global governance. The Chinese government first officially used the term “ecological civilization” in 2007 to underscore its commitment to action on a strong environmental agenda.
I had to remind myself that the deep unraveling presents not only extreme danger.
My visit included meetings with and presentations to the senior editorial board of Xinhua, the official Chinese News Agency, and senior scholars of the Academy of Marxism at the China Academy of Social Sciences, and students and faculty of Renmin University. Environmental and social issues were at the forefront of every discussion. Severe air and water pollution are daily reminders of environmental system failure in China. And there is underlying concern that extreme and growing inequality threatens social and political stability in China—much the same as we now experience in the U.S.
My basic message in China will be familiar to readers of this column. It received a warm reception everywhere I went, and one of my hosts observed that my thinking is nearly identical to that of President Xi and his vision for China’s future:
We humans are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Life exists only in community. As a global species, we must choose between organizing economic life to maximize the health and happiness of living communities or the profits of transnational corporations. Systemic social and environmental failures are a direct consequence of the wrong choice. Our common future requires that the people of each country regain control of their own resources to meet their own needs in balanced relationship to the regenerative biosystems of their place.
What I heard back from my hosts emphasized the effects of China’s embrace of the Western neoliberal economic model. It took food from farmers in the countryside to feed low-paid factory workers in the cities. U.S. capitalists jumped on the opportunity to have their goods produced by far cheaper labor, and moved production to China to produce goods for export to the U.S. and other wealthy countries. This created a loss of U.S. jobs and pushed down U.S. wages while growing corporate profits and driving inequality in both countries.
As China imported our jobs, it also imported the pollution that went with them. Our air quality improved as the air in China’s cities became life-threatening. To meet the resource demands of the products it exported, China colonized the resources of other countries—following in the footsteps of colonizers through the ages, most recently the U.S. This increased global environmental burdens and social instability around the world—especially in poor countries.
In the U.S., we paid China for our imports with debt that we repaid in part by selling off our assets to wealthy Chinese. This in turn contributed to the skyrocketing price of housing in major U.S. cities and has fueled a global financial asset bubble that could collapse at any moment. The primary beneficiaries in both China and the U.S. have been the financial elites who reap the corporate profits generated at each step along the way.
We need to put our people to work meeting our needs with our own resources.
I sense a potential convergence here between a natural suspicion of transnational capitalism on the part of China’s Marxist leaders and President-elect Trump’s promise to bring U.S. jobs back home. This emphasis on the national interests of China and the United States from the perspective of the well-being of their people could paradoxically create the basis for a cooperative relationship with a positive outcome for humanity.
What I saw in China underscored for me a potentially hopeful positive alignment between the interests of both China and the United States. In the United States, we need to put our people to work meeting our needs with our own resources. China needs to do the same for its people so that its workers reap the rewards of their own labor. It makes no sense for Chinese people to work for a pittance generating life-threatening pollution and resource extraction to produce goods for export while their own needs go unmet.
Let the wise words of John Maynard Keynes be our guide:
Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel—these are things which should in their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and above all let finance be primarily national.
We need international exchange to build mutual understanding and cooperation. We need to freely share ideas, knowledge, art, and culture. But the free international movement of physical resources, goods, and money is a different matter.
We need international exchange to build mutual understanding and cooperation.
The people of sovereign nations best secure their well-being by maximizing their national self-reliance. This potentially eliminates foreign debt, the use of military force to secure access to the resources of other nations, and dependence on stateless corporations to manage material and financial dependence and resource flows between nations. Such national self-reliance increases overall system resilience. It reduces needless long distance transport of physical resources and manufactured goods and the related carbon burden on Earth’s atmosphere. And it increases the incentives for each nation to manage its own resources sustainably. The result would likely be a blow to corporate profits. It would be a boon to people and nature.
Making such self-reliant national economies work for everyone requires three key steps:
1. Shifting the defining purpose of the economy from growing consumption and financial assets to securing the health and happiness of all people for generations to come;
2. Shifting institutional power from global corporations to the people of self-governing, self-reliant nations by breaking up transnational corporations into national corporations, each owned by and accountable to people in the nation.
3. Shifting production-consumption systems from global linear one-time use-and-dispose resource flows to local circular resource flows, which continuously renew and reuse materials, soils, water, and nutrients, and rely on noncarbon energy sources.
Every economy needs markets and businesses. But to serve the interests of living communities, markets need rules. When businesses are owned by those who live where they operate, the owners have a natural interest in running them for the well-being of the community and its natural systems. They may be independent businesses, partnerships, cooperative businesses, and public-purpose corporations. The underlying commonality is that they are owned by real people who live in the community and have an incentive to balance profitability with community well-being.
No country should be dependent on trade to provide its own people with the essentials of daily life.
There is also a place for trade in material goods. No country, however, should be dependent on trade to provide its own people with the essentials of daily life. Consistent with the principles of classic trade theory, we can each trade those things in which we have a natural surplus for those things we cannot readily produce for ourselves—and we can easily do it without need for transnational corporate middlemen.
An intellectually and morally bankrupt neoliberal economic ideology and the institutions of global corporate rule have driven a deeply destructive competition among nations for what remains of Earth’s resources and affluent markets. The credibility of this ideology and those institutions—and the political establishments that served them—is crumbling.
If we turn away from this deadly competition and join in cooperation for the good of all, this terrifying moment could mark the beginning of the end of the human era of empire. We could see instead the birth of an emergent ecological civilization for all of humanity in which we humans learn to live in balanced, co-productive relationship with one another and Earth.
China and the United States are poised as the dominant players. The outcome of the relationship between them will likely depend on a key choice: compete with each other for global dominance or cooperate with each other in pursuit of an ecological civilization that embraces the goal of health and happiness for the whole of humanity and the Earth mother, who births and nurtures us.
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.