A New Story for a New Economy: To Find Our Human Place in a Living Universe

[David Korten] Economists debate whether the economy is recovering from the financial crash of 2008. Scientists debate whether Earth will recover from an economy that is destroying Earth’s capacity to support life. An unconscionable gap between rich and poor – between the profligate and the desperate – grows at an alarming rate. Economists assure us that faster economic growth will provide the technology and financial resources to heal the environment and create jobs to end poverty. Most politicians agree with the economists.

Meanwhile corporations in the business of supplying fossil fuels to grow energy intensive economies resort to technologies increasingly destructive of Earth’s soils and waters. Competition for food and fresh water intensifies in the face of extreme drought and flooding.

Some among a confused and desperate public respond with denial. Some pray for divine intervention. Some look for ways to profit from the crisis. Some, inspired by an emerging new vision of human possibility, work to heal our human relationships with one another and nature in a bold effort to turn the human course.

We humans pride ourselves on being an intelligent species. Yet we seem incapable as a global society of confronting the reality that we are making bad economic choices that threaten the Earth’s capacity to support life and relegate billions of people to lives of desperation.

I believe that we are indeed an intelligent species. Among Earth’s many intelligent species, we are distinctive in our propensity to organize around stories and our deep need for a sense of the sacred – of what is most important, most worthy of our respect and care. Far more that we may recognize or acknowledge, our human course is shaped by the sacred stories that frame our understanding of nature and purpose of Creation, our human nature, and our human role in Creation. Herein lies both our possibility and our vulnerability.

If we, as a species, get our sacred story wrong, we can be terminally self-destructive and a threat to the whole of Earth’s community of life – the community on which our own existence and well-being depend. We currently have our story terribly wrong. We are in desperate need of a shared story of the nature and purpose of Creation and our human place in Creation’s continued unfolding that is consistent with our current state of knowledge and adequate to the needs of our time.

I believe we each hold the essential elements of the needed story in our heart. Without clear public articulation and affirmation, however, an unarticulated, interior story does not fulfill our societal need. To fill the cultural void left by our lack of an authentic and broadly shared sacred story, we have turned as a global society to a Sacred Money and Markets story that legitimates and frames the structure of an economic system that destroys life to make money of those who already have money far beyond any reasonable need. We experience at every hand the devastating consequences.

This essay is my effort to bring together the elements of a New Story for a New Economy that embodies the entirety of current human knowledge and understanding, honors our independent relationships with one another and nature, recognizes our human agency, gives our lives meaning, and guides our path to a just, sustainable, and deeply democratic human future.

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A Living Earth Community Economy

Scientists debate whether Earth conforms to all the elements of the scientific definition of a living organism. I honor their intellectual rigor and their invaluable contribution to our ever-deepening understanding of how life organizes. I am not inclined, however, to wait for them to come to terms with the need to update their own story.

For those of us engaged in defining and bringing forth a New Economy based on a new human relationship to Earth, there is compelling practical reason to acknowledge Earth as a living super-organism – a self-organizing, self-regulating, continuously adapting, evolving community of life on whose health and well-being our own health and well-being depend – now and forevermore. Indeed, we must look tot he structures and processes of Earth’s community of life as a model for the living human economy to which we must now transition. [Note that I use the terms New Economy and Living Earth Community interchangeably.]

To Do as Nature Does

Life exists and evolves only as a diverse community. Continuously interacting to optimize the capture, organization, and sharing of Earth’s energy, water, and nutrients, Earth’s countless trillions of organisms create and maintain the conditions essential to the whole of Earth’s community of life on which they each in turn depend.

Although the biosphere self-organizes on a global scale and is subject to EArth’s geologic forces, the locus of decision-making is everywhere local. The dynamic consequences of local choice-making play out throughout the biosphere’s structure and create global dynamics that in turn shape local choice making. There is, however, no central decision maker or control mechanism.

The most dynamic and vibrantly healthy biosystems are those with a diversity of species functioning as cooperative, self-organizing communities. No species dominates to the exclusion of others, which would threaten the health and well-being of the whole and ultimately, the health and well-being – even survival – of the dominant species.

The introduction of a new and particularly aggressive species not adapted to a bio-community may upset the established balance. Eventually, either the community will mobilize to constrain the errant species or that species will erode the conditions essential to its own survival and expire – but likely as a terrible cost to the rest of the community.

Sometimes an otherwise beneficial species turns rogue even within a biosystem to which it has previously adapted. We humans are a prime example.

Throughout the 5,000 years of recorded human history, there are numerous examples of imperial civilizations that destroyed themselves because, in their quest for dominance, they depleted the natural systems within their territorial domain to the extent that those systems could no longer support the existing human population. It is, however, only within the past hundred years that growth in human numbers, per capita material consumption, reliance on sequestered carbon for energy, and industrial agriculture have combined to pose a threat to the viability of Earth’s entire biosphere and therefore to the human species. Our future depends on learning to organize in co-productive partnership with Earth’s biosphere. That means we must restructure our economic institutions to mimic, align with, and integrate with Earth’s natural systems as we bring our aggregate numbers and consumption into line with the generative capacity of those systems. We are only beginning to sense the full implications of this imperative.

Local Self-Reliance, Global Balance

Our transition to co-productive participation in a living Earth Community begins with awareness that as living beings our human well-being depends on the continuing vitality of living Earth’s generative systems. Contributing to the maintenance and enhancement of the vitality of those systems must therefore be our foremost priority in every human endeavor…

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