Some ideas hit us in a way that is hard to shake. Last year that happened to me. I was in a public conversation with my friend and colleague, theologian Matthew Fox, when he made this observation: “Humans might be the first species to knowingly choose self-extinction.”
Most people recognize that our situation is serious, and many realize it is a choice, not a foreordained destiny. Yet the clarity and finality of Matt’s observation keep it ringing in my ears, along with the profound questions it raises.
Are we an inherently flawed species? Have we for some reason suppressed the higher potentials of our nature? If we have the means to choose our future, why are we on the path to a disastrous one? Might we have choices that would lead not only to survival, but as well to truly joyful lives for all? How might Earth’s 7.6 billion people come to agree on those choices?
This set of questions led me to the following thought experiment, based on three key assumptions:
- That we have the ability to choose our common future within the natural limits of Earth’s generative capacity.
- That we have the collective means to intentionally transition from competing for a declining base of Earth’s resources to cooperating to increase and share the capacity of Earth’s generative systems.
- That after the death of our physical body, our consciousness is reborn in a random infant body in the same world we just left.
These assumptions provide us with a natural incentive to join in common cause to create a world in which everyone, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, can look forward to a full and satisfying life now and in future rebirths. This contrasts starkly with our current situation, where, given our current trajectory, a future life might be anticipated only with dread.
The next step in the thought experiment is to examine three questions:
- Why does current global culture and its dominant institutions strip so many people of the opportunity for a fulfilling life that could and should be everyone’s birthright?
- What are the essential elements of a cultural and institutional transformation needed to assure that every person has that opportunity?
- How might we collectively advance that transition away from cultural and institutional systems that now fail so many so badly?
What is striking to me is how obvious the answers are. Yet we are far from engaging—or even seriously discussing—the kinds of changes that would create a world into which we might hope to be reborn.
So why does the current system deprive so many of opportunity? Our prevailing cultural choices favor extreme individualistic competition for material goods. Our institutional choices reward the destruction of Earth’s capacity to support life and concentrate control by fewer and fewer people over what remains of that capacity. The many are thus pressed into lives of desperate servitude to the few.
The obvious alternative begins with the recognition that individually and collectively, we survive and thrive only as interdependent, sharing, and mutually contributing members of Earth’s community of life. We are better served by working together to create a world that works for all, rather than competing for what remains of a shrinking pool of real wealth.
Transformation begins with clarity on the nature of the choice and its cultural and institutional implications. Our defining cultural value must become cooperation. And we must transfer power from institutions that reward predatory competition to ones that facilitate and reward cooperation in service to the common good.
I’d love to see interested groups begin conversations based on these assumptions and questions. Such conversations are essential to the deep transformations so needed at this time.
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.