These are not happy times. We have entered the third year of what science tells us will be humanity’s decisive decade. Unless we navigate a global course change before 2030, we risk doing such irreversible damage to Earth’s regenerative systems that our species is unlikely to survive. Record heat, storms, floods, droughts, fires, and the COVID pandemic affirm the danger is real and immediate.
I’m often struck in conversations with friends and colleagues by the number who feel that humans may not have a future. They find comfort, however, in their belief that Earth will ultimately recover. This suggests that the depth of our love for Earth exceeds our concern for ourselves and our own species. Perhaps we are coming to consider our anticipated human fate to be a fitting punishment for the sins that we, in our anthropocentric arrogance, have committed against one another and the Earth that birthed and nurtures us.
Humans have become like an invasive species.
In Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton notes that as humans have become like an invasive species, Earth has begun to respond as living organisms do. Reject the invader.
He goes on to suggest that humans may be disrupting Earth’s living systems beyond their capacity for self-healing. More startling—but equally plausible—is Hamilton’s suggestion that Earth’s survival as a living organism may depend on humans transitioning from our role as Earth exploiters to a role as facilitators of Earth healing.
Herein lies a potentially game-changing insight. Earth has recovered before from extreme shocks and mass extinctions, but there is no guarantee it can do so again. Earth may now need us as much as we need Earth.
Earth is breathtakingly special. Among the now estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, scientists have yet to identify another planet with the water, soils, atmosphere, and climate required to sustain complex life. Earth may be a unique miracle in the vastness of creation.
Our actions represent a breach of cosmic proportion.
I find it impossible to acknowledge Earth’s distinctive beauty and wonder without being overwhelmed by unbearable grief and despair at what humans—in our anthropocentric arrogance—have done to this cosmic miracle. Our actions represent a breach of responsibility to creation and to Earth of cosmic proportion.
As individuals, most humans regularly demonstrate an extraordinary capacity for love and caring—sometimes to the extent of sacrificing our own lives for others. This, for me, shows the positive potential of our nature. As societies, however, we have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for violence and mutual oppression at the expense of ourselves and Earth.
It appears our nature is defined by neither love nor violence, but rather by our ability to choose between sharply contrasting and deeply conflicting paths. We exercise that choice both as individuals and, through our culture and institutions, as a global species.
Disgusted by our long history of violence and abuse against one another and Earth, we humans seem ready to abandon hope for ourselves. But what about our hopes for Earth? Might our love for the planet hold the key both to its salvation and to ours? Might we, by willful choice, transition from Earth exploiters to Earth healers? If we recognize Earth’s uniqueness, its need for our help, and our responsibility to respond, might we, as a now intimately interconnected global species, unite in a common cause? Might we muster sufficient commitment to serve as loving healers to two of creation’s most extraordinary miracles—a living planet of spectacular beauty, and a species with a unique capacity for creative conscious choice?
An ancient truth now confirmed by science.
I’ve been privileged over my 84 years to engage in global conversations about human possibility with some of the world’s most extraordinary minds—conversations that transcend the varied identities that have so long divided us. Recently, these conversations have become an experience in rapid learning, creativity, and commitment beyond anything I’ve previously experienced.
Shortly before the COVID pandemic, I visited South Africa with Fran, my wife and life partner. We were guests of Mamphela Ramphele, a leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. She spoke of the ancient African concept of ubuntu, which translates to “I am because you/we are.” It is a foundational truth, recently affirmed by science and elaborated as follows:
Life is a fundamentally cooperative enterprise that depends on diverse communities of living beings self-organizing to create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and mutual existence.
Humans are distinctive among Earth’s many species in our ability, through our conscious choices, to shape Earth’s future, and thereby our own. It is a powerful gift. But when we get our choices wrong, we become an existential threat to that which should be the objects of our care.
We have our current choices badly wrong because of a misguided love affair with money and the institutions that control our access to it. As a society we have allowed a love of money to trump our love of Earth. Valuing Earth only for its market price, we yielded ever more power to the institutions of business to control the institutions of government based on a promise that we would receive ever growing material affluence in return.
The enormous tragedy and suffering caused by the disruptions of the climate emergency and the COVID pandemic have been brutal reminders of our love for and responsibility to the living Earth and one another. We have begun to recognize and confront the full implications.
It is my hope that this recognition creates an epic opportunity.
Our step to an ecological civilization.
The theme of the Spring 2021 issue of YES! magazine was, “Toward an Ecological Civilization.” YES! Executive Editor Zenobia Jeffries Warfield framed the online edition with this simple and unsettling truth:
“The path toward an ecological civilization moves us from an uncivilized society based on selfish wealth accumulation to one that is community-oriented and life affirming.”
This truth is an essential part of letting go of institutions and policies devoted to growing the fortunes of billionaires in disregard of such consequences as growing millions of homeless refugees and the destruction of Earth’s capacity to sustain life.
We face a clear choice with daunting implications. Which do we love more, money or life?
To move from the money-serving world we have created to the ecological civilization on which our future depends, we must imagine, and then create together, the future we want.
The basics are obvious. Such a civilization must support peaceful sharing, environmental health, and a secure and meaningful means of living for all people. The details of getting to these outcomes are breathtakingly complex.
There are many among us with essential insights. The YES! issue is one effort to pull together such insights into a coherent frame. Another is a 2021 white paper, “Ecological Civilization: From Emergency to Emergence” that I wrote for the Club of Rome.
As we work our way through this pandemic, there must be no return to business as usual. Hope lies in letting go of our deeply troubled past as we embrace the opportunity now at hand to build back better. This is our opportunity to let go of our ruthless competition for money and embrace our responsibilities as living beings devoted to loving care for life.
These are illustrative features of that future:
War will be confined to history books.
Power will be shared within and among deeply democratic, bio-regionally self-reliant local communities.
Government and business will be accountable to the people they serve.
Material needs will be met by local circular supply chains.
Education will prioritize development of learning skills to prepare us to adapt and contribute to an ever-evolving world.
Most meetings will be electronic.
Tools, appliances, and devices will be designed for easy repair and recycling.
All children will be wanted by a family, and a village dedicated to their care and full development.
Cities will be designed to meet needs for personal transport by walking, cycling, and electrified public transit.
These features will increase human well-being while supporting the recovery of Earth’s regenerative systems. We need sacrifice only that which is uncivilized and dehumanizing. As a species we will have less money and more life.
Engaging countless millions of people in deep conversations and local experiments leading to an ever more compelling, coherent, and actionable vision of our collective future is a defining human challenge for 2022. We each have our role in meeting this challenge—especially those of us in our Third Act years. We each bring the skills, experience, and wisdom of a lifetime. Many of us also have the discretionary time and income afforded by retirement. This gives us the freedom, as elders of the human tribe, to apply these assets in our final years as a gift in support of the youngsters who must lead in creating what will follow.
I cannot know the specifics of your distinctive contribution. What I do know` is that if enough of us get together behind a shared vision of a living world of love, we have the potential to create that world together.
Start an Ecological Civilization Discussion Group
Who would you like to invite for a conversation about healing the planet and making the world a better place, for everyone, everywhere?
David Korten’s Ecological Civilization white paper can be freely downloaded and shared as a basis for discussion. Link to it at https://www.clubofrome.org/blog-post/korten-eco-civilisation/. Here are some suggested discussion questions to share with your group or book club:
What is your vision of a world that works for everyone, everywhere?
How did we get to this time of multiple global crises? How do we change course to heal our relationships with Earth and each other to support well-being for all?
Where does the power reside to make the kinds of major changes we need?
As an elder, how do the crises we face affect you and those around you? What life skills, knowledge, wisdom, experience, and/or resources can you contribute to help advance the movement toward an ecological civilization?
Choosing a path to a future of well-being for everyone and our living Earth is no small, short-term task. Everyone everywhere will need to pitch in, with elders taking a special role. Starting now, what special skills and resources can you offer, and how will you influence and participate in making the necessary changes to help pave the way for the next generations?
What would it look like to be a truly interdependent species?
What would an ecological civilization look like?
David Korten is co-founder of YES! magazine, 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, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, 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. This is an expanded and updated version of an article by the same name previously published in YES!