Living Economies for a Living Planet

Part I: Introduction

By David C. Korten

Having reached the limits of an Era of Empire, humanity is compelled to accept responsibility for the consequences of its presence on a finite planet, make a conscious collective choice to leave behind the excesses of its adolescence, and take the step to species maturity. This is the most exciting moment of opportunity in the history of the species. 

The Era of Empire embraced competition and domination as its organizing principles, hierarchy as its favored organizational form, and ultimately chose money as its defining value. It has led to the emergence of a global suicide economy  — otherwise known as the corporate global economy — that is rapidly destroying the social and environmental foundations of its own existence and threatening the survival of the human species. It is the Era's final stage. 

The global corporations that are the ruling institutions of the suicide economy are required by law, structure, and the imperatives of global finance to maximize financial returns to absentee owners without regard to the consequences for people or planet. In short, they are programmed to behave like cancers that seek their own unlimited growth without regard to the consequences. As these pathological institutions have consolidated their power, the imperatives of global finance have come to dominate the economic, political, and cultural lives of people, communities, and nations everywhere.

The human future depends on moving beyond the self-limiting and ultimately self-destructive ways of Empire to live into being a new Era of Community in which life is the defining cultural value, cooperation and partnership are society's organizing principles, and networking is the predominant organizational form. The culture and institutions of the global suicide economy must be replaced by the culture and institutions of a planetary system of living economies that  mimic the behavior of healthy living organisms and ecosystems.  

The cultural and institutional transformation that this will require presents a profound evolutionary challenge and opportunity. Theologian Thomas Berry calls it The Great Work — a creative, life-serving work to create a more creative, vibrant, and fulfilling human future.

The imperative for transformation comes from the deepening social and environmental crisis provoked by the pathological institutions of the suicide economy. The opportunity for transformation flows from the elimination of geographic barriers to communication made possible by the communications technologies that are one of the more beneficial products of the suicide economy and from the awakening of major segments of humanity to a new cultural and planetary consciousness. The nexus of imperative and opportunity has given birth to a global civil society, spurred the growth of a powerful resistance movement, and set the stage for the emergence of a planetary system of living economies. 

Resistance is essential to slow the juggernaut of the suicide economy. It may even force incremental reforms that blunt the worst excesses of the suicide economy's pathological institutions. Ultimately, however, the restoration of the economic and social health of human societies depends on eliminating the cancer. The successful change strategy will weaken the malignant institutions that are leading us toward self-destruction while simultaneously growing living webs of relationships among life-serving enterprises to bring into being the healthy living economies that ultimately will displace the malignant institutions and eliminate them from the body of society. 

The present essay develops the framework for an economic succession strategy from a global suicide economy to a planetary system of living economies. Its basic thesis can be summarized as follows:

Cultural Awakening. Advocates of corporate globalization maintain that individualism, greed, and ruthless competition without regard to the consequences for others are hard wired into the genes of the human species. In other words, they would have us believe that all people are inherently sociopathic and it is unrealistic to expect more of ourselves. Yet the larger sweep of human experience suggests that the social pathology so prevalent in modern societies is more cultural and institutional than it is genetic in origin — nurtured and rewarded by the institutions of the suicide economy. Human societies have long accepted the values and world view of their own culture as valued truths not subject to examination. Those who dared to challenge prevailing cultural norms and assumptions were often subject to harsh sanctions. This is now changing. Humanity is awakening, as if from a deep cultural trance, to the long unconscious process by which culture shapes behavior. This profoundly significant evolutionary step to a new cultural consciousness that opens the way to previously unimaginable possibilities — including the possibility of living a new planetary-scale human civilization into being as an act of conscious, collective human choice.

Natural Succession. The institutions of the corporate global economy function within a complex emergent system of mutually reinforcing values and institutional structures that largely preclude consequential reform from within. Any attempt to respond to community and environmental needs that reduces profits can trigger a hostile takeover, or change of leadership to reinstate a single minded focus on maximizing short-term financial gain. For this reason, an economic transformation strategy that depends on voluntary reforms from within may make marginal differences in individual corporations, but has virtually no prospect of placing humanity on a healthy course. Justice and sustainability demand that the culture and institutions of the global suicide economy must be replace by the culture and institutions of a global system of living economies that mimic healthy living systems. The most promising strategy is to mimic the process by which the patient, slow reproducing, cooperative, frugal and deeply rooted species of a forest ecosystem's mature stage gradually succeed and displace the fast growing, fast reproducing, opportunistic, aggressively competitive, profligate, and transient species of its colonizing stage.   

Living Economies. A living economy is comprised of fair-profit [in contrast to profit maximizing] and not-for-profit living enterprises that are place-based, human-scale, stakeholder-owned, democratically accountable, and life-serving. In contrast to the publicly-traded, limited-liability corporation, which is best described as a pool of money dedicated to its self-replication, living enterprises function as communities of people engaged in the business of creating just, sustainable, and fulfilling livelihoods for themselves while contributing to the economic health and prosperity of the community. Millions of such living enterprises already exist throughout the world. Many have been around for generations. Many people already have a preference for patronizing such enterprises. Although the foundation of a planetary system of living economies already exists, it remains for these enterprises to recognize and value the potentials they embody and to consciously advance the formation of living economies by growing new webs of relationships among themselves as they walk away from the pathological culture and institutions of the suicide economy. 

As living economies become established and recognized as viable and attractive alternatives to collective suicide, they will become a favored choice — of the culturally conscious for employment, shopping and investment —  attracting ever more life energy away from the suicide economy and to themselves. The process will accelerate as living economies offer an increasing and ever more visible variety of viable, beneficial options. Ultimately, the culture and institutions of economic pathology will give way to those of economic health.  

Negotiating the transition from the Era of Empire to an Era Community will test the limits of human creativity and resolve. Electronic technologies that virtually eliminate geographical distance as a barrier to communication, a worldwide awakening to a new cultural consciousness, and the emergence of a global civil society committed to life and democracy create the possibility. Now begins the real work of living into being a new civilization grounded in life-serving values and institutions that bring the human species into a mutually beneficial relationship with itself and the living planet.

 

NOTES
In its present form this essay assumes the reader is familiar with the evidence and the argument that humanity is in deep crisis and that the legal institutional form of the publicly traded, limited liability corporation bears major responsibility. Readers who seek further documentation and analysis on these underlying premises are referred to David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalismand other documents and archive materials available on this website. 

For other resources on living economies see The Path to Living Economies, a collaborative essay prepared by a working group of the Social Ventures Network (SVN). The website of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a new organization launched by SVN in late 2001 is a particularly important resource  — especially for those seeking to organize living economies in their own communities. YES! A Journal of Positive Futures is also a rich source of material on economic alternatives and will publish a special theme issue on living economies in Fall 2002.

 

Part II: Corporate Pathology and the Suicide Economy
Part III: Natural Succession and the Step to Maturity
Part IV: Awakening Consciousness and the Human Possible
Part V: Mature Communities and Living Economies
Part VI: Living the Future into Being

NEXT: Corporate Pathology

See also The Path to Living Economies
A collaborative working document of the Social Ventures Network

Last revised March 24, 2002.