On January 29, 2010, David Korten addressed the Education for Sustainable Development Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. His remarks follow.
We humans are in the midst of a potentially terminal economic,
social, and environmental crisis of our own making. Our economic
systems are unstable, extreme inequality is tearing apart the social
fabric, and Earth’s critical living systems are collapsing. We have
gathered for this conference, not to debate the seriousness of our
situation, but rather to explore how our educational institutions can contribute to the solution.
Building an Earth Community
I want to start by quoting from the preamble of The Earth Charter,
a document that grew out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It is a
summation of conversations over several years involving thousands of
persons representing the grand diversity of the world’s people and
cultures. Its opening words frame the work at hand:
"We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time
when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly
interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and
great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a
magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human
family and one Earth Community with a common destiny."
The Earth Charter preamble goes on to make clear that we must not
only recognize that we are one Earth Community, we must restructure our
institutions in ways that allow us to function as a global Earth
Community, a community of life. And it tells us why:
"The dominant patterns of production and consumption are
causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a
massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The
benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between
rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent
conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An
unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and
social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened.
These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.|
The choice is
ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or
risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life.
Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of
Institutional change is perhaps the most important and yet most
neglected of the crucial changes we must navigate. If we humans are to
adapt to 21st century reality, we must restructure or replace the
economic institutions of the 20th century, which lock us into a dynamic
of perpetual economic growth, with institutions designed to support
ecological balance, shared prosperity, and living democracy—terms I
will define in a few minutes.
This presents an unprecedented challenge for institutions of higher
learning organized to prepare young graduates to succeed in a world
that we must now put behind us. They are ill-equipped to prepare people
of all ages for their necessary roles in creating and staffing the
institutions of a new civilization. They must rethink, retool, and
Contextualizing the Problem
The truly epic nature of the challenge is best expressed by placing it in its deeper historical and evolutionary context. For the past 5,000 years,
we humans have been living in a cultural trance of our own making that
alienates us from the land, our true human nature, and our human place
in the cosmos.
So who are we humans? From where did we come? For what purpose? And
how did we get ourselves in such a mess? Here is how I understand the
new story based on the data of science, the wisdom of indigenous
peoples, and the teachings of Jesus and other mystics.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the integral spiritual
intelligence that expresses itself through what we know as creation
embarked on a bold and risky experiment in reflective consciousness by
bringing forth a species able to step back and to reflect on creation
in awe and wonder and to participate as a conscious co-creator in the
continued creative unfolding. We humans are that species.
Our reflective consciousness gives us the capacity to choose our
future with conscious collective intent. It was a risky experiment,
however, because the capacity for self-awareness gives us an ego that
can run out of control if it forgets that it exists only as part of a
As our human consciousness was first awakening, our capacities for
conscious self-direction grew. We learned to communicate through
speech, master fire, domesticate plants and animals, and construct
houses of skins, wood, stone, and dried mud. We developed the arts of
pottery, painting, weaving, and carving. We undertook vast continental
and transcontinental migrations to populate the planet and adapted to
vastly different physical topographies and climates. We created complex
languages and social codes that allowed for life in larger communities.
In our earliest days, we humans raised our children collectively in
the clan, tribe, or village, initiating them to the ways of life and
teaching them the need to serve the community and to care for our Earth
Mother as she, in turn, cares for us.
Then some 5,000 years ago, something went terribly wrong: We turned
from the ways of Earth Community to the ways of Empire. It was a time
of separation and forgetting. Community, partnership, and the
celebration of life gave way to domination and violence.
The few expropriated the wealth of the many. The masculine drove out
the feminine. We worshiped our Sky Father, but turned against our Earth
Mother. We came to value the power to kill and destroy more highly than
the ability to create and nurture life.
Conquest became the measure of greatness. Economies came to be based
on servitude. With a few on the top and the many on the bottom,
everyone was placed in competition with everyone else for the favored
positions; the bonds of caring and sharing were broken. Money and power
became the prime arbiters of relationships. The creative energy of the
species was redirected from securing the well-being of the tribe and
Mother Earth to advancing the technological instruments of war and the
social instruments of domination.
Resources were expropriated by the winners to maintain the system of
domination. The positions of power too often went to the most ruthless
and psychologically damaged members of society.
If this discussion of Empire sounds familiar, it is for good reason.
Although kings and emperors have been replaced by corporate CEOs and
hedge fund managers, we are still living in the Era of Empire. Our
institutions have evolved to grow the power and wealth of a small
ruling class that in some respects lives even further beyond the reach
of public accountability than the kings and emperors of an earlier time.
In the past 100 years, we humans have achieved a technological
mastery beyond the imagination of previous generations. Yet, lacking in
the wisdom of place and community
that is the heritage of indigenous peoples, the consumer culture
fabricated by the institutions of Wall Street has led us to forget what
it means to be human and to deny our connection to the web of planetary
life. The result is an ecological and social crisis that threatens the
very survival of the species. The time has come to rediscover our
humanity, reclaim the power that Wall Street institutions and their
global counterparts have usurped, and bring ourselves back into balance
with one another and with Earth—our living home.
Think of this as our final examination to determine whether we are a
species worthy of survival. If there is to be a human future, we must
reinvent ourselves and our institutions—and do so with all possible
speed. This is the challenge with which our educational institutions
must now engage.
We need a new vision for the human future that goes
far beyond current policy proposals for adjustments in technology and
market incentives. The values and institutions of the 20th century that
led us to recklessly squander Earth’s abundance for the benefit of the
few were shaped by an economic mindset that reduces all values to
financial values and all human exchanges to financial transactions for
private financial gain. This mindset gave us collapsing environmental
systems, unconscionable inequality, and rule by global corporations that operate beyond the reach of democratic accountability.
Ecological Principles for the New Economy
The economic systems and institutions of the 21st century must be
designed to serve three very different outcomes: ecological balance,
shared prosperity, and living democracy. We properly turn to
ecologists, not economists, for guidance. The underlying principles of
the new economy are ecological principles. They are central to the
ecologist’s intellectual frame, but alien to the financial frame of
most professional economists.
1. Ecological Balance: I call this spaceship
management 101. The defining human imperative of our time is to bring
ourselves into balance with Earth’s biosphere. This requires shrinking
global GDP, starting with the most profligate nations while creating a
planetary-scale economic system that mimics the structure and behavior
of Earth’s biosphere. Listen closely, because the following is key: Earth’s
biosphere is segmented into countless self-organizing local ecosystems,
each locally rooted, locally self-reliant, and exquisitely adapted to
its particular place on earth to optimize the use of locally available resources
in service to life. We must similarly organize our human economies as
subsystems of local ecosystems. To the extent that each local economy
is in balance with its local ecosystem, the biosphere itself will be in
2. Shared Prosperity: As we act to
reduce aggregate consumption and rebuild local economies that integrate
with local ecosystems, we need to recognize that Earth’s bounty is the
shared birthright of all living beings and learn to share it equitably
for the benefit of all. It is the right thing to do and essential to
our survival. It is also a necessary path to increasing human health
and happiness. According to a massive body of public health research,
societies that share wealth equally are healthier, have stronger
families and communities, less crime and violence, and healthier
natural environments than do less equal societies. Inequality creates
psychological and emotional stress, including for those at the top,
discourages sharing, and increases insecurity. Societies that
distribute wealth equitably also tend to be more democratic and more resilient in the face of crisis.
>3. Living Democracy:
In living democracies, popular sovereignty is integral to the fabric of
community life. Living democracy is a daily practice of civic life.
Living democracies celebrate and affirm diversity within a framework of
individual rights, community responsibility, and mutual accountability.
Their political and economic institutions support local decision making
within a framework of cooperation and mutually agreed rules. Shared
power, shared resources, and shared prosperity go hand in hand.
Redesigning the System
The defining structural characteristics of economies organized to
support ecological balance, shared prosperity, and living democracy
will be near mirror opposites of the structures of power and privilege
that the current economy supports. Here are three key system design
1. Indicators. We currently use gross domestic product (GDP)
and corporate stock share price indices as the primary indicators
against which we evaluate economic performance, and we manage our
public policies to maximize their growth. GDP is basically a measure of
the rate at which we are turning useful resources into garbage and
stock price indices are basically a measure of the rate at which rich
people are getting richer relative to the rest of us while doing no
We get what we measure, so we should measure what we want
by assessing economic performance against non-financial indicators of
the health of people, community, and nature. Indicators like the Living
Planet Index and the Ecological Footprint promoted by the World Wide
Fund for Nature are an excellent place to start.
2. Money system. Our present economic system
centralizes and monopolizes control of the creation and allocation of
money in the hands of a very few private banks that use this power to
finance socially destructive speculation, asset bubbles, loan pyramids,
and corporate buyouts, and to force working people and productive Main
Street enterprises into debt slavery. The official money system is the
operating system of the economy. It can and should be decentralized, localized, and managed as a public utility
comprised primarily of locally rooted nonprofit or publicly owned
community banks and credit unions providing basic financial services
and funding productive local investment. Financial speculation should
be eliminated either by legal prohibition or through the imposition of
confiscatory taxes. For all the attention given to financial analysis,
the money system is one of the least understood aspects of modern
society and it gets little attention in university programs. Understanding money as a system of power
and the implications for society should be considered an essential
foundation of education for responsible citizenship to which every
student should be exposed.
3. Business Enterprises.
The global economy is organized under the control of global
mega-corporations with internal economies larger than those of most
countries, which are accountable only to absentee owners whose sole
interest is financial return. The living economies of the future are
properly organized around locally owned small and medium-sized living enterprises that root economic decision making in the community,
treat profit as a means rather than an end, and define their purpose in
terms of meeting community needs. Large corporations must be broken up
and restructured as smaller worker- or community-owned businesses.
Business schools that prepare managers to serve the financial bottom
line of large corporations will need to reorganize to prepare managers
for living enterprises.
When Money Rules
Modern money is perhaps the most mysterious of human inventions. It
is nothing but a number of no substance or intrinsic worth. Yet in
contemporary societies, money determines our access to virtually every
essential of life. The decisions of those who control the creation and
allocation of money determine the fate of nations and shape the booms
and busts of economic life They determine who among Earth’s people
will have food, shelter, education, and health care—and who will not.
It is all just numbers and creative accounting, but the system that
generates and allocates these special numbers is the most effective and
undemocratic of tyrannies, because its inner workings are largely
invisible and therefore difficult for ordinary people to challenge. We
may express outrage against the bankers who abuse the power the system
gives them, but we generally take the system itself for granted.
The money system largely defies understanding, because it is based on illusions, beginning with the illusion that money itself is wealth and that people who make money are thereby creating wealth.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith once famously observed that the process by which money is created
is “so simple it repels the mind.” When you take out a loan from a
bank, the bank opens an account in your name and enters the amount of
the loan in its ledger. That becomes a liability on the bank’s
accounts, offset by the corresponding asset of your promise to repay
with interest. Two simple accounting entries and money magically
appears from nowhere. This simple fact makes banking a very profitable
business and is the key to the ability of the institutions of global
finance to rule the world.
Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty,
once famously said, "Permit me to issue and control the money of a
nation and I care not who makes its laws."
Money created out of nothing, unrelated to the creation of anything of corresponding value, is phantom wealth.
In the United States, Wall Street has built a whole industry devoted to
creating phantom wealth. They call it financial innovation. It is a
form of theft and should be treated as such. Understanding how this
works is essential to fulfilling one’s civic responsibility in a
democratic society, yet it is rarely addressed in existing university
Real wealth has intrinsic value: land, labor, food, and knowledge
are all examples. The most valuable of all forms of wealth are those
that are beyond price: love; a healthy, happy child; a job that
provides a sense of self-worth and contribution; membership in a
strong, caring community; a healthy, vibrant natural environment;
peace. None of these has any place on corporate balance sheets or in
our calculations of gross domestic product. Consequently, many of our
ruling economic institutions have become highly efficient in converting
real living wealth into phantom financial wealth.
From the standpoint of society, money is properly treated as a
means, not an end. Rather than directing money to financial speculators
and scam artists devoted to creating phantom wealth for personal gain,
we must create new official money systems designed to effectively link
underutilized resources to unmet needs to improve the health of our
children, families, communities, and the natural environment. Such
systems will necessarily be highly decentralized and publicly
accountable to local people and communities.
Unfortunately, most students who graduate from our institutions of
higher learning—even with degrees in economics—have no idea how the
money system operates and no intellectual tools to address such
Educating for a Sustainable World
Although I’m sometimes called an economist, I view the economy
through the lens of an organizational systems designer. As a Harvard
Business School professor in the early 1970s, I taught the art of
structuring human relationships in corporations to maximize profit.
Partly, it involved getting the incentives right; it was also about
culture, authority, communication flows, and a host of other influences
subject to management intervention.
The same intellectual tools can be used to design the institutional
structures of whole societies either to consolidate the power of ruling
elites or to share power and facilitate creative, democratic
self-organization directed to enhancing community well-being.
Understanding the nature and implication of such choices is
essential to anyone who is going to provide effective leadership in
creating the institutions of the future. Yet I am not aware of any
place within our universities where the necessary skills are taught,
except in business schools that teach their application for purposes
contrary to the purposes our new institutions must be designed to serve.
This suggests something of the magnitude of the implications for our
educational institutions. For the most part, our existing educational
programs and institutions are preparing their graduates for jobs in
institutions destined to fail or be replaced. Not only must future
graduates be prepared to serve institutions, for which we now have few
models, that support ecological balance, shared prosperity, and living
democracy, they must be prepared to create such institutions. It isn’t
just about young people. The entire society must be retooled and reskilled—immediately.
Few of our existing educational institutions, including our
institutions of higher learning, are prepared for what they are now
called upon to do. They are organized around narrowly defined academic
disciplines, some of which bear major responsibility for promoting the
cultural beliefs and institutional arrangements that got us into our
The academic programs of the future must produce citizens who think
and act in terms of systems, not disciplines—and most particularly,
citizens who think and act in terms of the needs, potentials, and
dynamics of living systems.
A Three Part Strategy
Such a dramatic transformation of an institutional system so
powerful and so deeply entrenched as the complex of economic power that
is driving the neoliberal agenda would be unimaginable, except for the
fact that millions of people are already engaged in making it happen. YES! Magazine,
for which I serve as board chair, is devoted to telling the stories of
these initiatives. The more intentional we are about the desired
outcome and the change strategy by which we pursue it, the greater our
prospect for success.
The emerging change strategy features three elements:
1. Change the defining stories of the mainstream
culture. It is a simple, but rarely noted truth. Every transformational
social movement begins with a conversation that challenges a prevailing
cultural story with a new story of unrealized possibility and
ultimately displaces the old story. The civil rights movement changed
the story on race. The environmental movement changed the story about
the human relationship to nature. The women’s movement changed the
story on gender. Our current task is to change the prevailing stories
about the nature of wealth, the purpose of the economy, and our human
nature. Examination of our old and new versions of these stories should
have a prominent place in the curriculum.
2. Create a new economic reality
from the bottom up, as millions of people the world over are doing in
their efforts to rebuild local economies and communities. They are
supporting locally owned human-scale businesses and family farms,
developing local financial institutions, reclaiming farm and forest
lands, changing land-use policies to concentrate population in compact
communities that reduce automobile dependence, retrofitting their
buildings for energy conservation, and otherwise working toward local
self-reliance in food, energy, and other basic essentials. This is the
work, for example, of the Transition Towns Movement. In the United States, I serve on the board of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
(BALLE), which is building a national support system for such efforts.
People involved in these efforts are learning to create the
institutions of the New Economy by doing it. Our universities should
develop the capability to facilitate this process through the creation
of community-based social learning centers.
3. Change the rules:
Current law and public policy largely favor the self-serving and deeply
destructive corporate-led global economy. That works well for the
interests of big money. People and the planet are better served by rules and policies that support local control and protect community interests. University programs in public policy can and should develop public policy programs that address this need.
Here are some other specific implications for our universities:
1. Take down the walls that separate the university from the community. Engage university faculty and students in the social learning processes
by which locally rooted human communities are learning to align
themselves with the structures and processes of their local ecosystems.
Place less focus on degree programs and more focus on continuing,
2. Break down the disciplinary barriers and reorganize as interdisciplinary teams engaged in the study and design of critical institutional systems.
3. Teach history as an examination of large forces that have shaped history, in search of insights into how large-scale social change happens.
4. Replace existing economics departments with departments of ecology. Include
ecological economists in these departments, but put the focus on the
ecology. Invite the conventional economists who currently staff most
university economics programs to retire, retrain as ecological
economists, or be assigned to teach economics as one of a number of
courses on the intellectual history of the 20th century and where it
5. Feature courses on human developmental psychology
that explore how the pathways to a fully mature human consciousness are
shaped by differing cultural and institutional experiences.
6. Replace the metaphor of the machine with the metaphor of the living organism
as the defining intellectual frame. Staff biology departments with new
biologists who strive to understand life on its own terms rather than
through the dead-world lens of Newtonian physics.
We humans are engaged in a monumental work of reinventing our
societies and ourselves. It is the most exciting intellectual challenge
and creative opportunity in the whole of the human experience. We have
the power to turn this world around for the sake of ourselves and
children for generations to come. It requires rethinking and
reorganizing our institutions of higher learning in the most
fundamental ways. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Thank you.