Photo: James Emery/flickr/cc

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 LentMatthew FoxJohn 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.

Dr. David Korten is the author of Agenda for a New EconomyThe Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a member of the Club of Rome. He holds MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

Originally  published by YES! Magazine

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Subscribe to our Telegram channel



  1. Jim Miles says:

    “To destroy life only so that the financial assets of billionaires can grow is a monumental act of collective stupidity.” Don’t blame just the billionaires – it is our consumer oriented lifestyle buying, buying, buying more and more stuff that is part of the problem. Until we all change our lifestyles and consumer habits not much will happen. Perhaps a transition away from the US$ will aid in the process of change.

  2. Not impressed by this essay which doesn’t call for system change to halt climate change but instead offers the usual legislative and life-style reforms rather than a socialist society

    Jim, have you asked why we try to mimic the conspicuous consumption of our ruling class? One is that we have a psychological need to feel empowered. There is also in capitalist society a tendency for individuals to seek to validate their sense of worth through the accumulation of possessions.

    Another there is a huge industry urging us to buy, buy ,buy.

    Capitalism drives us to consume and it has created an entire advertising industry devoted to the psychological manipulation of our desires. It does not matter how modest one’s real needs may be or how easily they may be met; capitalism’s “consumer culture” leads one to want more than one may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this hierarchal culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation. What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy and that will be unsustainable as more peoples are drawn into alienated capitalism.

    In socialism, status based upon the material wealth at one’s command, would be a meaningless concept. The notion of status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services . Why take more than you need when you can freely take what you need? In socialism the only way in which individuals can command the esteem of others is through their contribution to society, and the stronger the movement for socialism grows the more will it subvert the prevailing capitalist ethos, in general, and its anachronistic notion of status, in particular.

    Sociaism is the replacement of exchange economy by common ownership and basically what would happen is that wealth would cease to take the form of exchange value, so that all the expressions of this social relationship peculiar to an exchange economy, such as money and prices, would automatically disappear. In other words, goods would cease to have an economic value and would become simply physical objects which human beings could use to satisfy some want or other.

    Socialists are seeking ultimately to establish a “steady-state economy” or “zero-growth” society which corresponds to what Marx called “simple reproduction” – a situation where human needs were in balance with the resources needed to satisfy them.

    • Sally Dugman says:

      Here are some of the problems that I have with this analysis by David Korten. In fact, his perspective just doesn’t fit with mine.

      First off, does he really think that flying around the world to give lectures to mostly educated people is going to change the population trajectory of humanity? Besides, it will keep rising until calamity strikes. His talks mean little other than his being confirmed and confirming a small set of people.

      He also jet travels. Jet travel accounts for 8% of global warming. What right does he have to add to the load rather than just work out of his phone and the internet?

      I, myself, do not jet travel. I keep my house cold in winter and hot in summer. I have driven my elderly Prius zero miles this year. … I have three vices: an elderly cell phone — an ECO-phone — that only does phone and messages — no internet, one computer and one TV. … My orientation is by choice as a matter of conscience and I do get angry at people who choose not to follow suit.

      I also have a number of friends with strong credentials in their fields. One is even involved with Club of Rome Canada. And if I were to share this article with them, they would maybe get annoyed since the upbeat perspective in it definitely goes against their own understandings ,,, and mine.

      Indeed, this sort of thinking by Binu is way more on the mark over the optimistic outlook of David Korten, which gives a sense of artificial relief, but no real solutions. Meanwhile, the problems that Binu mentions continue to grow.

      Humans Do Not Have Any Special Rights
      by Binu Mathew — 4 comments

      This is a speech I prepared to deliver at the Solidarity Media Awards This award was bestowed upon and me for the courageous interventions in human rights and citizen’s rights. Let me make it very clear, I do not have any such claims. I’m doing whatever little I can in my limited capacity for humanity and other species on[Read More…]