David Korten on Lowe

Subject: Re: Ernie Lowe's Critique
Date: Thursday, 16 Aug 2001 
From: David C. Korten 

Dear Ernie:

Thank you for sending such a thoughtful and extensive critique of the "Living Economies" essay. 

It seems we agree on the seriousness of the global crisis facing humanity and the destructive role of a pathological economic system. As you know, much of my work centers on understanding why the structure and dynamics of the institutions and culture that drive the decision making processes of this system lead to such destructive consequences. The critique is now well honed, as you so thoughtfully noted.

With time, however, I’ve learned that it is not enough to critique the system. We must identify and articulate alternatives. Inspired by the work of biologists such as Elisabet Sahtouris, Janine Benyus, Mae-Wan Ho, and Lynne Margulis I’ve come to the conclusion that we have much to learn from studying the structures and dynamics of healthy living systems to better understand the possibilities for human communities.

My work on these lines is in fact in part a reaction against the simplistic and erroneous interpretations of social Darwinists in the ideological defense of capitalism that have contributed to much to the problem. It is exactly the more contemporary understanding of scientists and thinkers such as the above that I am attempting to draw on to help correct some of the simplistic biological interpretations underlying the suicide economy. Of course in the process of attempting to reduce complex processes to ideas that can be quickly grasped by lay audiences in brief papers and presentations the more subtle nuances are easily lost.

As you might imagine, I do not accept the idea you attribute to some ecologists that non-specialists should not attempt to draw insights from ecology for the improvement of human systems any more than I am willing to accept the claims of professional economists that non-economists should not presume to make judgments about economic policy and systems. Most significant problems cross disciplinary boundaries and, as Elisabet points out, if there is to be a human future we need to draw insights from where ever we can find them. Obviously you share that point of view, or you would have long ago heeded the admonition of the ecologists and abandoned the field of industrial ecology.

I trust you are aware that I’m not attempting to reinvent industrial ecology. My work deals only incidentally with the process design and technology issues that are central concerns of industrial ecology. My concern is rather with the structures and cultures of the decision making systems by which human economic systems set priorities and allocate resources — and not incidentally commonly determine the actual —as contrasted to the environmentally desirable — design of production-consumption systems. Perhaps I should also clarify that in drawing the analogy between ecological systems and human systems, my focus is on institutional and cultural "species" and the characteristics that differentiate the more "healthy" institutional and cultural species of the living economy from the "pathological" institutions and culture of the suicide economy.

Of course, this brings us directly to the contradiction to which you correctly point in my use of the biological succession analogy. The aggressive, competitive species of a Type I ecosystem are in fact life serving within their context, as they are creating conditions conducive to the needs of more cooperative, stable, and energy efficient species of a Type III system. This is not the case for the predatory institutions of our current Type I economy, as they are actively destroying the conditions essential not only to human — and thereby their own — survival, they are virtually reversing the evolutionary processes of life on our planet by destroying the conditions essential to the survival of most of the planet’s more recently evolved species. Your comments helped me realize that I perhaps need to be explicit about this distinction between the healthy species of a Type I ecosystem and the pathological Type I institutions and cultures of the suicide economy.

From a species perspective we humans are presently emulating a pathologically destructive Type I species — which I take to be the basic thrust of your comment that we are setting the stage for a new wave of "pioneering" species to rebuild the living capital base that we have destroyed. I repeat, however, that my focus here is not on conventional species succession, but on institutional and cultural succession. I am presuming here that as humans we have a broad range of potentials far beyond those of most other species and that the challenge before us is to start making more conscious and informed choices regarding our institutions and cultures. As Elisabet points out, we are living beings that must learn to function in a healthy relationship to the living systems of the planet. At the same time we have, as you note, an emergent quality of self-consciousness that gives us an extraordinary adaptive capacity beyond even that which our own species has manifest throughout our prior history.

There is no question that the forces of the suicide economy are marshaling massive forces of repression and will resist efforts to live a living economy into being with every weapon at their command. So are we to do nothing? Or confine ourselves to offering up to the system such technologies as we can identify that will increase their bottom line while temporarily reducing some environmental burden, e.g. the Amory and Hunter Lovins version of Natural Capitalism? The latter may delay our ultimate demise and thereby give us more time to achieve the deeper changes needed, but it also serves to legitimate the institutions we must ultimately displace is not in itself going to save us.

There is good reason to believe that efforts that assume the necessary changes can be achieved through internal reform are futile. We must do what we can to challenge and weaken the institutions of the suicide economy to open the space for alternatives to take root and flourish. Our best hope for change will be a strategy of walking away from the institutions and cultures of the suicide economy — withdrawing legitimacy and our life energy from them and redirecting our energy to the task of living into being the institutions and cultures of the living economies we want — at least that is the lessons I see emerging. It is a lesson I see affirmed by the processes of biological succession.

I thank you for your challenging critique as it is helping me to think these issues through with greater clarity. I especially appreciate your list of "ecosystem strategies" in your piece on "Industrial Ecosystems." These include some brilliant insights that I hope to bring into a future revision of the essay — along with clarification and elaboration on some of the points noted above.

With best regards.

David C. Korten

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 Minor revisions posted September 3, 2001. Originally posted August 16, 2001


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