When I ask an audience, “Who believes we are on a path to self-extinction?” nearly every hand goes up. It’s a sign of a growing awareness that humanity is on a path to self-imposed environmental and social collapse. For me, that awareness is a source of hope. I recently discovered an even deeper source of hope on a trip to South Korea. There I was involved in a remarkable series of international discussions on the transition to “ecological civilization.” I had the privilege of keynoting a conference on the transition hosted by Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, and joined him in an interview with one of Seoul’s daily newspapers. The concept is gaining traction elsewhere as well. China has embedded its commitment to ecological civilization in its constitution.
Last week, I explored the idea of an ecological civilization in a lively discussion with the Metropolitan Democratic Club of Seattle. Next week I join four leading contributors to the ecological civilization dialogue—Jeremy Lent, Matthew Fox, John B. Cobb Jr., and my wife, Fran Korten—to explore the idea at the Parliament of the World’s Religions conference in Toronto. I find the term “ecological civilization” especially well-suited to the changes we must achieve to have a viable future. “Ecological” focuses our attention on the active interdependence of all living organisms and their ability to self-organize into diverse, symbiotic communities. “Civilization” evokes the depth of the cultural and institutional transformation required to create a human future of peace, justice, and environmental health that is truly civil. The vision of an ecological civilization is related to terms used elsewhere. Latin Americans speak of buen vivir and sumac kawsay (good living), a commitment now enshrined in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador. Africans speak of ubuntu (humanity), often translated as “I am because we are.” Ecological civilization embraces both of these frames and more. A transformation to ecological civilization is both possible and essential to the future of humanity. It’s spurred by growing awareness of the extent to which past cultural, institutional, and infrastructure choices disrupt our connections to one another and Earth to serve the interests of the very rich at the expense of the well-being of everyone else. This now poses an existential threat to our future. But evidence that this awareness is spreading gives me a renewed hope that humanity can and will rise to the challenge of the transition.
We humans now have the knowledge and technology to move beyond the violence, fear, and daily struggle for survival that besets the lives of so many. We have the capacity to secure a world of peace, beauty, diversity, creativity, material sufficiency, and spiritual abundance for all people, and have all that in balance with Earth’s ecosystems. Achieving such a goal requires that we make this vision our common goal and transform our cultural narratives, institutions, and infrastructure accordingly—a steep but imperative challenge. Success requires leadership from all levels of society, including from people everywhere working to grow community-facilitating cultural values, institutions, and infrastructure in the places where they live. Together we need to achieve four conditions critical to the transition.
1. Earth balance. We must reduce humanity’s total environmental burden to bring us into sustainable balance with the capacity of Earth’s generative systems. This requires immediate action to eliminate nonessential consumption—including fossil fuels and weaponry. Longer-term action is needed to create institutional and physical structures that make doing the right thing easy and enjoyable—for example, designing urban environments to make the essentials of daily living readily accessible by biking, or walking in safe and pleasant neighborhoods connected by convenient mass transit.
2. Equitable distribution. We must achieve an equitable distribution of wealth and power. Immediate action is required to stop the further concentration of wealth while advancing equitable cooperative ownership, restoring the commons, and connecting the rights of ownership with corresponding responsibilities.
3. Life-serving technologies. We must advance technologies that strengthen rather than impair life’s regenerative capacity. Immediate action is required to roll back use of harmful technologies, including the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and our dependence on carbon and nuclear energy. Longer-term action is needed to develop and apply technologies that better meet human needs while simultaneously restoring the environment, such as developing greener agricultural practices and creating buildings designed for natural heating and cooling.
4. Living communities. We must rebuild relationships of people to one another and to nature to create strong, healthy, deeply democratic living communities. This will involve reducing dependence on money while encouraging sharing and mutual self-help in the places where people live. Immediate action is required to block further concentration of corporate power, while taking longer-term steps to break up existing concentrations, secure the accountability of governments to the people, advance equitable participation in local cooperative ownership and shared housing, and establish rules that assure the accountability of businesses to the communities in which they operate.
The transition will test the limits of human creativity, social intelligence, and commitment to collaborate in the face of relentless establishment opposition. We now equate money to wealth and see making money as the key to well-being and happiness. In doing so, we ignore the reality that we are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth. Money is merely a number that has no intrinsic value. To destroy life only so that the financial assets of billionaires can grow is a monumental act of collective stupidity. Forward-looking communities around the world are engaged in advancing these transformations on both micro and macro scales. Their activities must become the norm everywhere, with all peoples and governments freely sharing the lessons of their efforts to develop proven, deeply democratic approaches to local self-reliance and liberation from corporate rule. The well-being of people and planet will rise, as corporate profits fall. It is time to unite as families, communities, and nations in our common identity as members of an ecological civilization, with a commitment to creating the possible world of our shared human dream.
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.