By David Korten*
Our present course puts humans on track to be among the species that expire in Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction. In my conversations with thoughtful people, I am finding increasing acceptance of this horrific premise.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with climate change, drives home the lesson that we must honor and care for Earth. The increasing frequency of the appearance of deadly viruses reminds us of the consequences of disrupting the natural systems by which life on Earth organizes to create and maintain the conditions essential to both its own existence and ours.
It’s is a time for learning and conscious collective choice like no other in the human experience. Defining lessons are coming from a variety of “teachers,” including the pandemic and climate change, protests against systemic racism, and oddly enough, Donald Trump.
Perhaps we can now recognize and accept the limits of Earth’s regenerative systems and our need to help Earth heal from the damage of our recklessness. The Earth is strong, but also vulnerable. As Earth cares for us, we either care for her or bear the consequences of our recklessness.
The pandemic may be seen as a not-so-subtle warning to humanity that we may be sacrificed, if necessary, to protect the health of the planet. On the path to human extinction, the most vulnerable will go first, but there will be no human winners.
COVID-19’s attack also exposes the culpability of the economic system that bears major responsibility for our assault against Earth and each other. We now see with ever greater clarity the disconnect between two economies. One is a financial economy devoted to generating unearned profits for monopolists and speculators. The other is an economy of Earth’s regenerative systems and humans doing work essential to the wellbeing of people and planet. We can get along just fine without financial speculation, and labor devoted to wasteful or destructive purposes to make money for rich people. We cannot survive without the regenerative systems of a living Earth and the beneficial labor of both human and non-human beings.
We also see more clearly the devastating consequences of concentrating power in the hands of the financial elite. For example, the pandemic has exposed the long and vulnerable supply chains that only serve the interests of exploiters who locate industry where wages and taxes are lowest and environmental regulations are most lax to produce consumer goods for the world’s affluent. Disruptions of those supply lines led to shortages of critical products, such as nose swabs and face masks, that we’re only now realizing can be more quickly and securely obtained through local producers—assuming we still have some that can take on the job.
Another lesson we’re learning involves the nature of money. COVID-19 prompted the U.S. Congress and Federal Reserve to create trillions of dollars in instant money for purposes both good and bad. Never has it been so clear that money is just a number that national governments can create from nothing. Consequently, lack of money should never be a society’s defining constraint so long as idle or misdirected resources are available for new money to put to work meeting real needs.
Of course, meeting essential needs is very different from creating money to keep stock prices inflated and to bail out businesses, such as the corporate travel industry that electronic communication may have rendered obsolete. Too much of the money instantly created by Congress and the Fed was aimed at propping up financial markets while the real economy floundered. Therein lies another lesson: Follow the money and know its purpose, which takes us to the lessons of the Trump disaster.
With his perpetual deceptions, his assaults on the integrity and competence of government, and his persistent denial of responsibility for their devastating consequences, Trump reminds us of how much we depend on honest and functioning government at all system levels. He is forcing state and local governments (and also other nations) to take on new responsibilities because they know they cannot wait for leadership from his feckless administration.
In sending unidentified Department of Homeland Security officers to impose his will on the people of Portland, Oregon, and other cities, Trump is reminding us of the dangers of tyranny and the importance of having political leaders who are honest, intelligent, of sound mind, and committed to a strong democracy. We are becoming ever more conscious of the fatal error of electing politicians who believe government is inherently burdensome and best minimized.
These are all lessons essential to the future we seek and to our choices in the upcoming election.
During a July 23 webinar hosted by YES! Media that I took part in, Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the System Shift Lab and research fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, noted that the emergence of the new depends on the disintegration of the old. While many of us have been eager to welcome the new, we are not always so ready to accept the disintegration of the old. Yet the point that Nafeez drove home in our webinar is that both are part of the process of transformation.
As the institutions of the imperial civilization of our past disintegrate, it exposes the extent to which their power has rested on a foundation of war, racism, and violence devoted to enforcing mass servitude and securing the rights of property owners. Succumbing to the enticements of money worship, we celebrate the successes of a miniscule super-wealthy minority, and the fiction that we might one day join them.
Let us welcome the growing recognition that returning to business as usual is neither possible nor desirable. We must accept our current mission to birth a new civilization devoted to the wellbeing of people and Earth: A civilization in which money is just a tool, and nurturance of life is the prime purpose.
*David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.
This article was first published on YES! Magazine on 30 July 2020