"The problem is we have tried to tell the human story without telling the Earth's story."|
-- Thomas Berry
The Wake-up Call
What an astonishing thing it is to watch a civilization destroy itself
because it is unable to re-examine the validity, under totally new
circumstances, of an economic ideology.
-- Sir James Goldsmith, London Times, Feb 1994
Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that
the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the
spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open
and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe,
is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.
-- George Soros, Atlantic Monthly, Feb 1997
When globalized capitalism's leading players themselves warn us of the
dangers of the system in which they have gained their enormous wealth,
we had better pay attention. They are telling us clearly that the
current course of economic globalization cannot continue without threatening the very survival of humanity.
Will our seriously imbalanced civilization survive?
Historian Arnold Toynbee studied twenty-three past civilizations,
looking for common factors in their demise. The two most important
ones, it seems, were the extreme concentration of wealth (George Soros'
warning) and inflexibility in the face of changing conditions within and
around them (Sir James Goldsmith's warning).
We cannot go on playing global Monopoly when a cooperative game is
called for by our obvious global problems. In 1994, Robert Kaplan warned
that anyone who thought things were still going well was ignoring
three-fourths of the world. His cover article ("The Coming Anarchy," Atlantic Monthly,
February 1994) was illustrated by a burning globe. This year, same
month, same weathervane magazine, the cover featured George Soros'
article telling us that global corporate and financial capitalism is at
The central problem at present is that the "democratic" congresses of
some seventy nations including the United States, have voted away the
sovereignty of their nations by agreeing to uphold the provisions of
the World Trade Organization (WTO), which can meet in secret and
challenge any laws made at any level in member nations (including their
provinces, states, counties or cities) if they are deemed to conflict
with its interests.
How could this happen? In the United States, the story goes back at
least as far as the first few decades following World War II, a heady
time in which we still believed in "life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness" while gradually our Congresses were bought off by corporate
As Paul Hawken pointed out, "Washington D.C. has become a town of
appearances and images, where sleight of (political) hand has largely
replaced the clumsy system of payoffs, outright bribes and backroom
deals of old....One per-cent of American society owns nearly 60 percent
of corporate equities and about 40 percent of the total wealth of this
nation. These are the plutocrats who wield the power and control this
pre-eminent "company town" while trying to convince the other 99 percent
of the citizenry that the system works in our best interests, too." (The Ecology of Commerce, Harper Collins, NY 1993, p. 111)
In the course of the Cold War, had we been paying adequate attention, we
would have seen that both communist and capitalist systems were
subjugating local interests (individual and community) to national and
global interests, however much we in the West were ideologically taught
that our individual wellbeing was primary and our democracy good for
our communities. Practice did not bear out theory; to wit:
unemployment, poverty, crime, unsafe streets, drugs, unsafe foods,
polluted air and water, ill health, spiritual crisis, despair and even
rapidly increasing child suicide and murder.
Similarly, megacorporations, now globally legitimized by the WTO, the
GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the pending MAI
(Multilateral t Agreement on Investment), are overriding the interests
of nations, local communities and individuals. (See Appendix B for more details.) As Ralph Nader points out, "Under WTO rules, for example, certain *objectives*
are forbidden to all domestic legislatures... including [objectives
such as] providing any significant subsidies to promote energy
conservation, sustainable farming practices, or environment-ally
To understand this situation and to see what we can do to alter the
course of events toward a healthy future for all humanity, we need to
look at the inherent contradictions between these current economic
developments and the democratic, ecologically sound economic system we could develop.
As a biologist, I find that the easiest way to
comprehend this contradiction is by looking at humanity as a whole in
its natural context, thus recognizing ourselves as a living system
and comparing our current unhealthy economic situation with the
economics of healthy living systems. In doing so we will see clearly
why the "Wake-up" call is being sounded and how to respond with the
biological resilience that is our evolutionary heritage, privilege and
Therefore, I will discuss in some detail the natural organization of
living systems, with their endlessly negotiated "political economies"
as we are only now coming to under-stand them. If you bear with me in
this discussion, a new and coherent understanding of our global crisis
and its solutions will emerge very clearly. The challenge of crisis
confronts us; our opportunity lies in responding positively and
The human being of the West has abandoned being human and has turned himself into an individual... community has died in them.
-- Nicolas Aguilar Sayritupac, Aymara Indian, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
To think of ourselves as a living system, we must see ourselves in
community with all other people at local, national and global levels.
While this may seem superficially easy, it is actually not. Western
culture, now globally dominant, has systematically trained us, as
Sayritupac accurately observed, to think and act as though we are
separate individuals, often in competition with each other for scarce
resources of one sort or another, primarily money, which has be-come the
perceived means to all we want and need in life.
From the vantage point of an evolution biologist watching the human
species, it's encouraging to see that community and community values are
at last coming back to life in Western culture. Not as an alternative
to individualism, which was an important human development, but to
complement it in a healthy balance.
The new swell of interest in, even fervor for, a global human community
with equitable and ecologically sustainable economics is vitally
important for our species survival. Words such as "community" and
"communal values" were consciously or unconsciously suppressed in our
culture during the Cold War because of their linguistic similarity to
"communism." Happily they are back in our vocabulary now that the
Soviet stigma has been removed from them. We have, in fact, suffered
greatly from their absence. The big question is whether we can restore
community and communal values to our globalization process before all is
The globalization of our species is not a choice; it is a natural,
inevitable evolutionary process that began when humans settled on all
continents. Human empire building over the past few thousand years
continued the process by merging cultures over ever larger areas. In
modern times, this empire-building process has been shifting from
imperial nations with colonial empires to corporate cartels and other
global corporate entities with economic empires which, in some cases,
now dominate or overrule national political structures.
Yet, simultaneously, nations have joined in a United Nations effort with
remarkable success in negotiating cooperative global systems such as
telephone, postal and air travel networks, as well as the initiation of
other global agreements on electronic/ satellite communications,
oceans, etc. that are less democratic and of programs that seriously
attempt to implement global health, education and peace. Because these
efforts at the democratization of humanity conflict with the
concentration of wealth and power, the United Nations is continually
under intense pressure.
Thus we see that it is not globalization per se that is
undesirable. The cause of the enormous crisis we face is the manner in
which the most central and important aspect of globalization, its
economics, is currently organized. For this reason, we must
become more conscious participants in the process of globalization, to
avoid letting a handful of powerful players lead us all to doom.
First and foremost, we must recognize globalization as a biological
process -- something that is happening to a natural living system we
Then we can see how an economics that violates the fundamental
principles by which living systems are organized currently threatens
the demise of human civilization.
Fortunately life is resilient, and we are witnessing a growing storm of
protest rising from calmer discussions of economic globalization. These
are healthy reactions that can help lead us to survival, for they
indicate increasing recognition and concern that communal values have
been overridden in a dangerous process that sets vast profits for a tiny
human minority above all other human interests.
Most people looking at problems of "market-driven capitalism" are
becoming aware on some level that the measure of human success must
shift from money to wellbeing for all. To do this, communal values must be reclaimed and acted upon in a way that ensures a balance of global interests with local interests and with the interests of all other species.
The evolutionary process is an awesome improvisational
dance that weaves individual, communal, ecosystemic and planetary
interests into a harmonious whole.
Biological research of the past few decades, on the evolution of
nucleated cells, multicellular organisms and mature ecosystems as
cooperative enterprises, is updating our ingrained view of antagonistic
competition as the sole driving force of evolution--a Darwinian view
that was adopted as the rationale for an unjust dog-eat-dog world of
antagonistic capitalist competition and ultimately the fascist
holocaust. As Soros says, "there is something wrong with making the
survival of the fittest a guiding principle of civilized society. This
social Darwinism is based on an outmoded theory of evolution."
As the more enlightened view gains prominence -- that life is far too
intelligent and naturally cooperative to proceed simply by blind
accident and dominance struggles--it will be increasingly translated,
to our collective benefit, into a more enlightened view of our human
society in all its social, economic, political and cultural
My purpose is to help with that translation, for we humans, no matter
how spiritual, are inescapably biological creatures, and the solutions
we seek are readily available in nature's experience. We are a living
system embedded in a larger living system, and we could benefit greatly
from the lessons already learned in the five-billion-year dance of our
Lessons of Nature
The only myth that's going to be worth thinking about in the immediate
future is one talking about the planet -- not this city, not these
people, but the planet and everybody on it. -- Joseph Campbell
We can see more clearly what is going on if we look more closely at the
individual, the community, the nation and global human society as living
systems embedded within each other like Russian nested dolls or Chinese
boxes. Arthur Koestler coined elegant terms for this concept: holons in holarchies (Janus: A Summing Up, Pan Books, London 1978). Each relatively self-contained system, such as a cell, an organism, a family or an ecosystem, is a holon, while holarchy refers to their interdependent embeddedness within each other, and was intentionally derived but distinguished from the term hierarchy to avoid its value implications of relative superiority.
Take the living system most intimately familiar to all of us: the human
body. We've long known that our bodies behave as a community of cells,
which are organized into organs and organ systems. The central
nervous system functions as the body's government, continually
monitoring all its parts and functions, ever making intelligent
decisions that serve the interest of the whole enterprise. Its economics
are organized as an equitable system of production and distribution,
with full employment of all cells and continual attention to their
wellbeing. The immune `defense' system protects its integrity and health
against unfamiliar intruders. It can be thought of as a kind of global
political economy with organs as bioregional units, their different
tissues as communities, cells as families or clans, and the organelles
within cells as individuals (which many of them once actually were, as
we will see shortly).
More recently, microbiology has revealed the relative autonomy of cells
and their organelles in ever more exquisite detail: every cell
constantly making its own decisions, for example, on what to filter in
and out through its membrane, how to adjust its local production and
distribution economics, which segments of DNA to reorganize or copy from
its nuclear gene library for use in maintaining its cellular welfare,
etc. Hardly the automatons we had thought them to be!
Physiologically we can see that the needs and interests of individual
cells, their organs and the whole body must be continually negotiated to
achieve the body's dynamic equilibrium or healthy balance. Cancer is
an example of what happens when this balance is lost, with the
proliferation of a particular group of cells ignoring the needs of the
whole, multiplying wildly at the expense of the body holon, ultimately
defeating their own purposes by destroying it.
On the whole, our bodies work in remarkably harmonious health. But
imagine what would happen if our bodies tried to implement an economic
system such as we humans practice in our world at present:
How would your body fare if the raw material blood cells in bones all
over your body could be mined as resources by more powerful "northern
industrial" lung and heart organs, transported to their production and
distribution centers where blood is purified and oxygen added to make it
a useful product? Imagine it is then announced that blood will be
distributed from the heart center only to those organs that can afford
it. What is not bought is thrown out as surplus or stored till the
market demand rises. How long could your body survive that system? Is
it an economic system that could keep any living entity healthy?
Can we turn the United Nations into a governing body as dedicated to
service as is our central nervous system? When will human diversity be
recognized to be as necessary and creative as the diversity of our cells
and organs? When will we be as concerned with the health of every
local bioregion in our global body as our individual body is, or
practice its cellular full employment policy? When will we implement
its efficient and universally beneficial kind of economics?
Obviously metaphors have their limits and I do not for a moment suggest we slavishly emulate body models. But they are
examples of living systems with healthy politics and economics, and we
all have them in common, regardless of our worldviews, or of our
personal, political or spiritual persuasions. Surely body metaphors are
preferable to outdated and unrealistic mechanical metaphors of perfect
societies that were supposed to run permanently and smoothly as
well-oiled machines once we got them built correctly. The whole Cold
War was rooted in competition over which side had that perfect social
The evolution of cooperation:
Our bodies are multicelled creatures which actually evolved from an
earlier evolutionary phase of "multicreatured" cells, whose story was
pieced together by microbiologist Lynn Margulis. (Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, 1981; Early Life, 1982). The story of their evolution holds an extremely important lesson for humanity today.
In brief, it goes like this: Ancient bacteria, some two billion years
ago, had blanketed the Earth by themselves, inventing all the ways of
making a living still employed today (mainly fermentation,
photo-synthesis, respiration) and devouring its "resources" with
downright human thoroughness.
Finding themselves in crisis, they began to invade each other for new
resources in a phase I call bacterial imperialism, which we humans
echoed so much later in our ignorance of their experience. This phase
led to renewed crisis, because their early attempts at "globalization"
into huge colonies were based on competitive exploitation of each other
with no concern for all participating members' wellbeing.
Many such colonies died, until somehow they finally managed to evolve
the cooperative scheme we call the nucleated cell: a huge bacterial
community with a peaceful division of labor, which we call the nucleated
All this was achieved, of course, without benefit of brains, in time to
avoid the extinction of Earthlife eons ago. In fact, their "invention"
of these huge cells is what makes you and me possible, for each of our
cells, as well as those of all organisms larger than bacteria, is one of
their descendent cooperatives. (For details of this story, see
"An Inspirational Tale of Ancient Times", below.)
Life, as this story shows, is resilient and creative.
Some of the greatest catastrophes in our
planet's life history have spawned the greatest creativity! And
therein lies my hope for humanity.
It is worth looking at this cooperative evolutionary process up close.
What is it that prevents your cells, or your organs, from pursuing their
self-interest competitively such that relatively few "win" and most
The superficial answer is that they are part of a cooperative community
in which the health of every level in the body's holarchy promotes the
health of individual cell and organ holons. But what is it that makes
our individual cells and organs behave communally? If we can
answer this critical question biologically, we will gain important
insight for applying the lessons of nature to our human affairs.
Holarchic negotiations evolve:
One definition of the word evolution is the flow of interwoven
steps in an improvisational dance. Although it comes from dance
terminology, it actually fits biological evolution very well, since we
can now see it as an ongoing process of interweaving, self-organizing
holons in holarchy. The dance is not always smooth. Nature sometimes
stumbles as it improvises, making crude moves, especially on the part of
young aggressive species, such as our own, that attempt to take over
the whole dance.
In fact, one can discern in evolution a repeating pattern in which
aggressive competition leads to the threat of extinction, which is then
avoided by the formation of cooperative alliances, as in the bacterial
To show how this works, let me introduce a concept of simultaneous self-interest at all levels of living systems holarchy,
a concept I have not yet encountered among other evolution biologists.
Darwin, as we well know, held the competitive individual to be the
driving force of evolution (as we have applied this theory socially, it
could be called the capitalist version of evolution), while later
biologists countered with the alternative of species
self-interest, wherein individuals within species demonstrated altruism
and self-sacrifice for the common good (the communist version) but
species as wholes were competitive with each other.
Richard Dawkins, refuting both these views, claimed they were in error because
competition among selfish genes drove evolution (micro-capitalism?). But what if all these evolutionists are right in sum, rather than individually? That is, what if every level of organization in nature looked out for its self-interests simultaneously?
An Inspirational Tale of Ancient Times
In studying the Earth's evolution, the most fascinating story I know is
that of ancient beings who created an incredibly complex lifestyle, rife
with technological successes such as electric motors, nuclear energy,
polyester, DNA recombination and worldwide information systems. They
also produced--and solved--devastating environmental and social crises
and provided a wealth of lessons we would do well to consider.
This was not a Von Daniken scenario; the beings were not from outer
space. They were our own minute but prolific forebears: ancient
bacteria. In one of his popular science essays, Lewis Thomas, estimating
the mitochondria that are descendants of ancient bacteria in our cells
as half our dry bulk, suggested that we may be huge taxis they invented
to get around in safely (Lives of a Cell, 1974).
From whatever perspective we choose to define our relationship with
them, it is clear we have now created the same crises they did some two
billion years ago. Further, we are struggling to find the very solutions
they arrived at--solutions that made our own evolution possible and
that could now improve the prospects of our own far distant progeny, not
to mention our more immediate future. I owe my understanding of this
remarkable tale to microbiologist Lynn Margulis, whose painstaking
scientific sleuthing traced these events back more than two billion
The bacteria's remarkable technologies (all of which still exist among
today's free-living bacteria) include the electric motor drive, which
functioned by the attachment of a flagellum to a disk rotating with ball
bearings in a magnetic field; the stockpiling of uranium in their
colonies, probably to heat their communities with nuclear energy;
perfect polyester (biodegradable, of course), elaborate cityscapes we
can only now see under the newest microscopes and their worldwide
communications and information system, based on the ability to exchange
(recombine) DNA with each other--the first World Wide Web!
Yet, like ourselves, with our own proud versions of such wondrous
technologies, the ancient bacteria got themselves deeper and deeper into
crisis by pursuing win/lose economics based on the reckless
exploitation of nature and each other. The amazing and inspirational
part of the story is that entirely without benefit of brains, these
nigh invisible yet highly inventive little creatures reorganized their
destructively competitive lifestyle into one of creative cooperation.
The crisis came about because respiring bacteria (breathers) depended on
ultraviolet light as a critical component in the creation of
their natural food supply of sugars and acids, while photosynthesizing
bacteria (bluegreens) emitted vast quantities of polluting oxygen which
created an atmospheric ozone layer that prevented ultra-violet light
from reaching the surface of the Earth. Cut off from their food supply,
the hi-tech breathers, with their electric motor rapid transport, began
to invade the bodies of larger more passive fermenting bacteria
(bubblers) to literally eat their insides -- a process I have called
The invaders multiplied within these colonies until their resources were
exhausted and all parties died. No doubt this happened countless times
before they learned cooperation. But somewhere along the line, the
bloated bags of bacteria also included some bluegreens, which could
replenish food supplies if the motoring breathers pushed the sinking
enterprises up into brighter primeval waters. Perhaps it was this
lifesaving use of solar energy that initiated the shift to cooperation.
In any case, bubblers, bluegreens, and breathers eventually contributed
their unique capabilities to the common task of building a workable
society. In time, each donated some of their "personal" DNA to the
central resource library and information hub that became the nucleus of
their collective enterprise: the huge (by bacterial standards) nucleated
cells of which our own bodies and those of all Earth beings other than
bacteria are composed.
This process of uniting disparate and competitive entities into a
cooperative whole--a multi-creatured cell, so to speak--was repeated
when nucleated cells aggregated into multi-celled creatures, and it is
happening now for a third time as we multi-celled humans are being
driven by evolution to form a cooperative global cell in harmony with
each other and with other species. This new enterprise must be a
unified global democracy of diverse membership, organized into locally
productive and mutually cooperative "bioregions," like the organs of our
bodies, and coordinated by a centralized government as dedicated in its
service to the wellbeing of the whole as is the nervous system of our
bodies. Anything less than such cooperation will probably bring us
quickly to the point of species extinction so that the other species
remaining may get on with the task.
Adapted from Elisabet Sahtouris'
The Evolution of Governance,
IN CONTEXT, #36, Fall 1993
This would necessitate ongoing negotiations among individual parts and
levels of organization, and this is exactly what seems to be happening.
Moreover, Nature's dance seems to be energized by the
conflicting self-interests of various parts and levels, and
choreographed by the compromises it has made in the course of evolution,
and continues to make in every day of the present. At its best, the
dance becomes elegant, harmonious, beautiful in its dynamics of
non-antagonistic counterpoint and resolution.
The repeating pattern of evolution is the sequence from unity to
diversification, which produces conflict that instigates negotiations,
resulting in resolution leading to cooperation, and thus back to unity
in the form of a higher level of organization.
The most important lesson learned in the course of its evolution, often
the hard way, is that no level of holarchy may be sacrificed without
killing the whole!
Let's explore this driving dynamic as it plays out in our everyday human
experience. The Greek playwright Aristophanes said of marriage partners
a long time ago: Can't live with 'em; can't live without `em.
Look at this familiar situation anew: A couple is a holon in which two
individual holons (the partners) are embedded. This is thus a
two-level holarchy, the levels being that of couplehood and that of the
individuals. The couple will survive in good health only if eachof
the three holons' self interest is negotiated with the other two! Once
you see this, then extrapolation to family is easy. Now try community.
My favorite creation myth from India tells that the cosmos began as a
vast sea of milk in which a tiny wavelet formed, and was torn ever after
between wanting to be itself and longing to merge back into the sea. Is
this not another metaphor for individual and community in the
endlessly creative dialog and metalog of self-expression, already
re-cognized in ancient times? What matters in this dialog is that the
contradictions do not become antagonistic.
A mature ecosystem--say a rainforest--is a complex ongoing
process of negotiations among species holons and between individual
species and other parts and levels of the self-regulating holarchy
comprised by the various micro and macro species along with air, water,
rocks, sunshine, magnetic fields, etc. As Soros pointed out in the Atlantic Monthly, "Species
and their environment are interactive, and one species serves as part
of the environment for the others. There is a feedback mechanism..." among levels.
Let us now look at a fuller complement of the principles by which these
interwoven living systems operate, so that we may get on with analyzing
our global human crisis more effectively.
The Principles of Living Systems
Anyone who knows how to run a household, knows how to run the world
-- Xilonem Garcia, a Meshika elder in Mexico
Xilonem Garcia, in this statement, expresses her intuitive knowledge that anyone who understands the principles of living systems can apply them to any holon at any level of its holarchy.
If we think about it, we can all be aware of such principles operating
in our bodies. And we seem to intuit and practice them reasonably well
at the family level. Not many people starve three of their children to
overfeed the fourth, for example, or beautify one corner of their garden
by destroying the rest of it. At the level of our local communities or
towns, we begin to lose sight of those principles, and when we consider
our nations or the world, we seem to have forgotten them entirely,
despite the fact that these are living systems, too.
Let us look, then, at a list of the main features and principles of all
healthy living systems or holons, be they single cells, bodies,
families, communities, ecosystems, nations or the whole world (see above).
By understanding these principles, we can assess the health of any
particular living system and see where it may be dysfunctional. This in
turn will give us clues to making the system healthier.
I leave it to the reader to consider this list in detail, and to choose a
familiar living system, such as an organization or community, to
analyze for its adherence to each principle in turn. Our purpose here
is to learn to do such analyses in order to understand in what ways our
living systems are healthy and in what ways they are not. We want
especially, in this discussion, to apply there principles to the process
of political, economic and cultural globalization--of forming our new
"body of humanity."
As soon as we begin checking this list, we see that while globalization
of humanity is bringing about a complex, self-organizing process and is
embedded within our ecosystems (1,2,3), it does not meet most of
the other requirements because only a relatively small part of humanity
is involved in decisions and has the power to serve its own interests,
often at the expense of other parts.
We must question how well it knows itself (4), for the process to
date has not been fully conscious, at least among the vast majority of
humans. Most of us feel swept along by its tides with far less than
real knowledge of what the process is all about.
We have not adequately taken into account our embeddedness in and
dependence upon the Earth holon with all its various sustaining
ecosystems. As a result, our self-regulation is woefully inadequate.
To wit, the input of matter and energy from our ecosystems into our
human systems (7) has been unsustainably rapacious, transforming
them to our use as though they were simply resources put there for our
benefit. Our output back into those ecosystems has further despoiled
them rather than restored them.
While our human system certainly has the complexity and diversity of
parts common to all living systems, we have not recognized that as an
asset. Rather, we have tried to make the system's human components as
uniform as possible by imposing a Western consumer ethic and other
Western cultural patterns of industrialization, education, fashion, etc.
on the world as a whole.
We had better take into account that monoculture is a very strange
concept we humans have introduced into Nature and that it does not make a
lastingly workable living system. Monoculture fails in agriculture as
in social culture, in economics as in religion. Social monoculture is
rooted in an outmoded and ignorant fear of difference and of scarcity.
It is time we learned to respect and cherish our human diversity as the
creative source of harmonious complexity.
As we continue through the list it is readily apparent that our
worldwide system of humanity is not functioning well as a living system.
The system neither empowers nor employs all humans (9). While our communications (10) are technologically impressive, we do not use them to coordinate parts and functions (11) in ways that foster a balance of interests at all levels (12)
of the human system (individuals, families, communities, bioregions,
nations, world), nor is there yet an intent for reciprocity in mutual
contribution and assistance (13). As for conservation (14) and creative change (15),
we are entirely unused to seeing that both are necessary parts of a
single system because of our pervasive either/or syndrome, which I would
like to discuss in some detail.
The "either/or" syndrome:
The capitalist/communist drama that played out for most if not all of
our lifetimes reveals a fundamental dramatic flaw: an odd and ultimately
impossible ideological choice: to build society on the basis of
individual interest or on the basis of communal interest.
Throughout the Cold War, our global alignment presented nations with
this either/or choice between "left-wing" communism and "right-wing"
capitalism. One simply could not be "for" both capitalism and
communism, both left and right.
Even within our political democracies we divide ourselves into radical
and conservative parties of various hues, and ask, or require, ourselves
to make the choice to vote for one or the other of their left or
right political programs. In essence, "right" is conservative, "left"
is radical (and still "tainted" by association with communism).
In nature, no living system chooses between conservation and
radical change as a way of life. Some living systems, such as squids
and sharks, cockroaches and certain lizards, have functioned so well
despite dramatic changes in their environments that they have survived
virtually unchanged over eons, rather like bicycles in the jet age.
Others, such as our own human species, have virtually leaped into
change. But they have not taken their particular directions from some
unflinching commitment to either conservation or change; they have
simply done what was called for depending on circumstances. Most
species combine conservation and change as circumstances demand. Fifty
years of laboratory evidence shows that when they change, they do so by
rearranging their DNA intelligently in response to circumstances in the
environment (Sahtouris, E. A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us, Wiley, New York 1998).
Thus Nature interweaves conservation and change to protect what
works and change what doesn't. And we would do well to adopt that
strategy, as Alvin Toffler suggested some time ago in urging us to stop
looking left and right, but rather to assess any idea in terms of
whether it will lead us forward or backward (Toffler, A. The Third Wave, Wm. Collins, London, 1980).
In practice, it turns out, there was more in common between capitalism
and communism than their professed either/or ideologies indicated.
Alvin Toffler was the first author I recall talking about parallels
between the Soviet East and the Capitalist West. Both, he pointed out,
were unfairly exploiting the Third World to support their large
industrialist economies. Now David Korten goes further, telling us " a
modern economic system based on the ideology of free market capitalism
is destined to self-destruct for many of the same reasons that the
Marxist economy collapsed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet
Union." (Mander & Goldsmith, editors. The Case Against the Global Economy and For a Return to the Local, Sierra Books 1996). He spells out these common features as:
- The concentration of economic power in unaccountable
and abusive centralized institutions (state or transnational
The destruction of ecosystems in the name of progress;
The erosion of social capital by dependence on disempowering mega institutions;
Narrow views of human needs by which community values and spiritual connection to the Earth are eroded.
Note that all of these illustrate systems in which the "top" level is empowered by disempowering
local and individual levels. We are accustomed to understanding this
about communist systems, but we have ignored the erosion of our own
democratic principles in the process of capitalist globalization.
A another example of the either/or syndrome, the USA's President Clinton's Commission on Sustainability,
in its initial meetings, actually argued whether discussions of
ecological sustainability need involve economics. The debate occurred
because we have created yet another apparent either/or situation: economics versus ecology--sometimes
epitomized in the United States as "jobs versus spotted owls." In the
brief time I was given to address this Commission, I pointed out that ecology in Greek is the logos or organization, of the oikos (society as "household"), and ecology the "household's" nomos
or rules. Thus, they can hardly be at odds in any healthy society.
The problem is not whether they need be linked, but that we separated them
in the first place! (Recall here Xilonem Garcia's earlier quoted
comment that "Anyone who knows how to run a household, knows how to run a world.")
Our latest version of the either/or syndrome seems to be in a growing debate on globalization versus localization, as is implied, for example, by the title just cited: "The Case Against Globalization and Toward Local Economy." While most authors of this recent IFG (International Forum on Globalization) book are really only opposed to the way in which globalization is happening, considerable numbers of people actually are arguing this situation in classical and ultimately unrealistic either/or fashion.
A balance of all levels:
It is of the utmost importance that we not let economic globalization
override the interests of people and their local economies and
ecosystems, for this would be a grave violation of the principles of living systems, as we have just seen. Local economies are holons within the global human holarchy, and must have the power to negotiate effectively, in their own self-interest, with other levels of that holarchy.
The solution to our currently imbalanced globalization is not to oppose globalization; it is to do globalization better.
We can easily see that balance among the interests of the global holon
and those of the regional and local holon economies it comprises is as
important as the balance between the interests of any local economy (as a
holon) and those of the individual people and non-human species which
Thus the appropriate response to the world corporate interests that
railroaded the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the WTO
(World Trade Organization) into existence under the rubric of "economic
liberalism" without in fact giving it a democratic vote after adequate
information, is clearly the strengthening of self-sufficient local
economies, as David Korten,
Herman Daly, Edward Goldsmith and other members of the IFG have
explained. It is also to launch a sufficiently strong movement to
demand change in the GATT and /WTO themselves, and in the United Nations
which spawned them as it earlier spawned the World Bank and the IMF
(International Monetary Fund).
Taking our cues from our bodies, or from the Earth itself, with its
diverse ecosystems, we can see that bioregionalism--basic local
self-sufficiency economics which takes all species, including humans,
into account -- is as necessary and important an aspect of healthy
globalization as are equitable international trade relations. Certainly
no one part of a healthy globalized economy will be able to exploit
another. That means local economies will have to protect
themselves against unfair trade and strong economies will have to permit
that protection in their own interests of seeing a healthy global
Soros points out in his Atlantic Monthly article that in nature, "Cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition" and again, "The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest." But unless self-interest is "tempered by a recognition of a common interest," the society, on which the market rests, "is liable to break down." This is an excellent example of understanding living systems principles.
That is, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" by all people must be possible within the global economy
Dynamics of Natural Democracy
My tradition helps us learn that individual and group needs must be met
in ongoing ways for the People to survive as a People... As we try to
consciously and conscientiously fit economics and business back into a
holistic approach to life and living; there is much that can be learned
from societies and communities that have never forgotten that
wholeness;... communities that understand Life as flows of energy,...
[in which] everyone receives basic support.... everyone contributes...
no part is separate from any other part... the health of the whole
enables the health of any part thereof... sickness of the smallest part
impacts the whole. -- Paula Underwood, World Business Academy Journal,
vol. 10 no 4, 1996
In historic terms, capitalism and communism are human social systems
experiments that looked good in theory but proved problematic in
practice. One has failed; the other is still being tested. Both have
imbalanced the interests of individual and community by making one
subservient to the other, rather than putting them in balance with each
It is of considerable interest that both capitalism and communism were
in part inspired by the democratic political economy and social
structure of the Native American Haudenosaunee, a union of native nations that the Europeans called Iroquois.
Ben Franklin, influential with the other founding fathers of the USA,
on the one hand, and Friedrich Engels, who influenced Karl Marx, on the
other, were inspired by this unique democracy. Unfortunately, neither
the capitalist nor the communist systems inspired by the Haudenosaunee really understood her tradition as Paula Underwood describes it above.
It is still a lesson to be learned from many native cultures that
humankind is but one holon within the Earth holarchy. In such
awareness, we all would see clearly the advantage in negotiating (not
eliminating) our human differences, and we would also cease and desist
immediately our denial of planetary interests and our profligate
destruction of the ecosystems sustaining us with ever more difficulty.
If we were an intelligent species--and that
remains to be demonstrated, given our knowing destruction of our own
life support system and our rather juvenile antagonisms over what
belongs to whom--we would look to the planet that spawned us for
guidance in human affairs, as was the original purpose of natural and
political philosophy in ancient Greece. It would then become obvious
that human affairs have reached the danger level at which cooperation must restore the imbalances of aggressive competition and hoarding if we are to survive.
What's to be done?
Survival means the survival of humankind as a whole, not just a part of
it.... If the South cannot survive, the North is going to crumble. If
countries of the Third World cannot pay their debts, you are going to
suffer here in the North. If you do not take care of the Third World,
your well-being is not going to last, and you will not be able to
continue living in the way you have been for much longer.
-- Thich Nat Han, "The Heart of Understanding"
The global wave of protests against the unfair advantage of huge
corporations and bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) that
represent their interests, as I said at the outset, is a healthy
reaction necessary to rebalancing holarchy in our species is to survive
the current crises. We have seen that globalization is the natural
next phase of evolution. We are not entirely in control of this process
and it is beyond our power to stop. We have already globalized
transportation, communications, money, industries, food, weapons,
pollution and other aspects of human culture, many of them peacefully.
Sir James Goldsmith, one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time, was quoted in a London Times article of 1994 (March 5). He said: "What
an astonishing thing it is to watch a civilization destroy itself
because it is unable to re-examine the validity, under totally new
circumstances, of an economic ideology." That ideology is now questioned and discussed ever more openly.
The main problem is being identified as imbalance in our global
economics. All the WTO's member states authorize the WTO to do their
business negotiations and all are bound by its decisions. They can be
forced to change any of their own present or future laws if, as the WTO
provisions read , "the attainment of any [WTO] objective is being
impeded" by its existence. The trade dispute panels of the WTO and NAFTA
do not guarantee members' economic disinterest. Further, they keep all
their proceedings, documents and transcripts secret. There cannot be
any media or citizen participation, and no review or appeal is
This constitutes a loss of sovereignty among the member nations, whose
agreements to join were railroaded through congresses with inadequate
discussion. But it is not too late to redress these severe imbalances
as the world's people wake up to them.
Under present WTO practices, Thailand has been told it cannot refuse to
import US cigarettes for health reasons, and Indonesia may not keep the
rattan it needs for domestic use. Neither children nor adults are
protected from exploitative and unhealthy conditions of labor, and no
member country may make any effort to protect its local industry and
employment against erosion by unfair competition in the world market.
Self-sufficient organic farming is literally outlawed, while poisonous
chemicals are forced on countries, destroying the health of people,
crops, land, air and water for the sake of short-term profits in high
places. The US, after long grassroots efforts resulting in bans on tuna
fish caught without ensuring the safety of dolphins, is now being
forced to import it again. Europe fights hard against forced imports of
genetically altered foods.
As each injustice comes to light, people become informed and active. The good news is that we don't have
to do our economics inequitably to globalize. It is possible, as Hazel
Henderson has pointed out for decades, to do win/win, rather than
win/lose, economics. (Paradigms in Progress: Life Beyond Economics, 1991; Building a Win/Win World, 1996).
As Henderson points out, the UN's most powerful nations commandeered the
World Bank and the IMF, then dominated the GATT discussions and set up
the WTO together with corporations and financial institutions. Yet the
UN's special agencies, during the same timespan, formed agreements and
treaties on nuclear proliferation (IAEA), air traffic rules (IATA) and
postal rates (GPU), also working doggedly on health, education and
security issues, as well as accepting a great deal of criticism and
recommendations for UN restructuring, which is now an official process.
Obviously the UN can only be as good as its member states will make it
and as NGO (Non-Government Organizations) can push it to be.
Polls show clearly that the people of the United States support the UN
overwhelmingly, while their presumably representative government does
not pay its dues and periodically threatens to quit. Interesting global
power shifts would happen if it did. Henderson recommends a new UN
funding structure by a tiny tax (.003%) on international currency
transactions, global commons use fees, "sin taxes" on polluters, drug
traffic fines and taxes on arms sales, to avoid the problems created by
non-payment of dues by its members.
The UN, whatever its problems and whatever our view of it is, remains,
as Henderson points out, "the world's major networker, broker, and
convenor of new global negotiations." All the new problems of
globalization are centered in its spinoffs, especially the newer GATT
and WTO. So we must also see as a sign of hope the relentless popular
pressure of NGOs that is proving itself increasingly an agent of
In 1995 the UN World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, covered
by two thousand journalists, discussed replacing GNP measures with a
people centered and ecologically sustainable "new development paradigm."
The 1996 UN Habitat II Summit in Istanbul hosted a World Business
Forum that set up a process for Global Standards. Inside the World
Bank, its own staff is now in the process of creating significant
progressive changes. Now, in 1999, NGOs are sponsoring the Hague Appeal
In addition to such NGOs, labor organizations, religious organizations
such as the United Religions Initiative and others devoted to interfaith
peace and alliances, various conscious investment and pension funds,
meetings such as the annual Gorbachev Foundation sponsored State of the
World conferences and grassroots movements are all playing a role in
global awareness and the restructuring of human society. These are just
a few of many examples showing that we are growing wiser as a species
in our self-organization at the global level.
Some capitalist entrepreneurs are uniting with each other to work out
ways of doing alternative and responsible-to-community capitalism in
organizations such as The World Business Academy, Business for Social
Responsibility, the Social Ventures Network and the Conscious Business
Alliance. Certain corporations are moving toward stakeholder ownership,
very serious recycling, and holarchic decision making. Role models
such as the Body Shop, Interface and Ben and Jerry's show us the
possible future of all business enterprises.
The picture of globalization and the needs and aspirations of the human
community are clarifying now and we can get on with the task of insuring
our civilization against demise. We can prove ourselves a mature
species, ready to learn from our parent planet's four and a half billion
years of experience in evolving workable living systems.
The beloved American author Mark Twain tells the story of a young man
returning from his first forays out into the world, amazed on hearing
his father speak--surprised at all his father has learned while he was
gone. It is of course a characterization not of new learning in the
father, but in the son. The son's budding maturity lies in his new
ability to listen to an elder's accumulated wisdom.
When we humans, after all a very young species, drop our adolescent
arrogance of thinking we know it all and read the wisdom in our parent
planet's accumulated experience of living systems design, we too will
mature as a species, to our own benefit and that of all other species,
as well as the planet itself.
About the Author
Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D. is an American/Greek evolution biologist,
futurist, business consultant, event organizer and UN consultant on
indigenous peoples. She is a popular lecturer, television and radio
personality, author of EarthDance,
Biology Revisioned co-authored with Willis Harman and
A Walk Through Time: From Stardust To Us (with prologue by
Brian Swimme and epilog by Sidney Liebes).
Dr. Sahtouris has taught at the Univ. of Massachusetts, M.I.T. and
was a science writer for the NOVA/ HORIZON TV series. She has lived
extensively in Greece and the Peruvian Andes. Her vision is the
sustainable health and well-being of humanity within the larger
living systems of Earth and Cosmos.
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