How to Restore Our Relationship to Earth
By David Korten
December 27, 2017
To have a viable human future on this overstressed planet, it is essential that we build a solidarity economy that seeks material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all in balance with a living Earth. We must join in common cause to build local relationships of caring and equitable sharing across the lines of race, religion, and class. Strong and healthy local relationships, however, are only one element of the larger economic transformation required to rebalance our relationship to Earth and achieve a radical redistribution of access to and control of the essentials of living.
Three key statistics reveal the current grim reality:
1. According to the Ecological Footprint Network, we humans currently consume at a rate 1.7 times what Earth's generative capacity can sustain -- and the gap is growing. Consumption at a rate above one further depletes Earth's capacity to support life.
2. According to Oxfam International, the financial assets of the world's eight richest individuals now exceed those of the poorest half of humanity, 3.8 billion people. These eight people have ever-growing power to engage in obscene displays of self-indulgent consumption, dictate political outcomes that favor their further enrichment, undermine the legitimacy and credibility of governing institutions, and deprive billions of respect and essential means of living.
3. Our current population of 7.5 billion people is expected to stabilize at 11.2 billion in 2100 -- a 50 percent increase. All will need food, water, shelter, energy, and other essentials, further intensifying competition for Earth's dwindling resources and condemning additional billions to lives of desperation.
As drought, storms, floods, fires, and rising sea levels render more areas of Earth uninhabitable, we face a virtually certain future of death, displacement, and growing waves of desperate refugees, threatening the future of every person irrespective of class, color, gender, or religion.
Throughout history, as empires have risen and fallen, people have experienced immense suffering from similar patterns of excess and exclusion. But it always has been more contained by geography. Never have we faced species extinctions and natural systems collapse on anything like the current scale. So dire is this situation that we now face the possibility that we might become the first species knowingly responsible for its own extinction.
A different course requires corrective action equivalent to the scale of the problem we have created. Success requires education and organizing to make the politically impossible politically unstoppable.
The basics are straightforward. We must reduce our burden on Earth's regenerative systems by approximately 40 percent. And we must share what remains of Earth's generative capacity to meet the essential material needs of all people: food, water, clean air, housing, energy, transport, and more. We must simultaneously limit the growth of our numbers by making family planning services freely available to all and encouraging their use.
We all depend on the health and productivity of living Earth systems that none among us created. We earn our right to use them by fulfilling our responsibility to care for and restore them to full health and productivity. No one has a right to more than they need so long as others' needs go unmet.
Here are some of the actions required to simultaneously restore human -- Earth balance and redistribute the human share of Earth's wealth.
Our most urgent need is to replace our use of coal, oil, and gas with wind and solar energy, and switch from farming methods that destroy the soil and deplete water sources to ones that restore soil fertility, clean water, and sequester carbon. We can do this in part with market mechanisms by taxing coal, oil, and gas extraction at the source and distributing the proceeds equally to everyone. Similar measures might apply to the extraction of all other nonrenewable resources.
A society without safety nets creates a powerful incentive for people to hold on to excess assets. No one knows how long they will live or what health or other misfortunes might befall them or their loved ones. Thus, no one knows how much money they may need. Public programs that guarantee health care and retirement security for all reduce uncertainty and, by extension, people's hoarding mentality.
Some people truly earn their fortunes by making significant contributions to societal well-being. Most, however, involve expropriation of resources of the commons, public subsidies, monopoly profits, financial manipulation and fraud, and/or political corruption.
Those individuals who make unusual contributions to the common good may merit some level of extra material reward, but this doesn't need to pass on to their heirs in perpetuity. In the tradition of jubilee, every death should be a time for celebratory wealth redistribution to fund educational and livelihood opportunity trust funds for every young person.
In addition to giving to nonprofits, individuals could gift their estates to finance worker and community cooperative-owned enterprises or land trusts. Of course, a sharply progressive income tax would reduce excessive accumulation from the beginning, which is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy.
Organizing as a world of democratically self-governing communities has long had popular appeal. Imagine a world in which each community bears responsibility for living within the means of its own natural land and water endowments, creating a clear community incentive to see to their care and to limit reproduction and nonessential consumption.
And how should we deal with corporations and the excessive power they currently wield? Corporations are creations of government. The only legitimate reason for a democratic government to create a corporation is to serve a beneficial public purpose. Once created to serve that purpose, the corporation must be transparent to the public and accountable to the government of the electorate that chartered it. A corporation has no inherent right to exist or operate beyond that government's jurisdiction.
As we face challenges unprecedented in human experience, we must rise to the occasion in global solidarity. We share an equally unprecedented interest in a deep cultural, social, and institutional transformation that recognizes our common humanity, fulfills our need to share and care for Earth and one another, and fills the lives of all with an abundance of love and joy.
David Korten is cofounder and board chair of YES! Magazine and cochair of the New Economy Working Group. He is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is principal author of How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule, which shows how the US can restore economic health and financial integrity by rebuilding a system of accountable local financial services institutions much like the one that financed the achievements that made the US the envy of the world.