In Partnership with the Biosphere:
Reframing the Debate on Limits
By David Korten
In 1972, the Club of Rome (CoR) published a report spelling out the obvious, but neglected, truth that perpetual growth of consumption on a finite planet leads to system collapse. The report called for a global effort to achieve “system equilibrium”—a condition of balance between humans and nature.
The report attracted widespread public attention and helped launch the global environment movement. Unfortunately, the subsequent public discussion focused on limits rather than balance and was never taken seriously by economists, politicians, and other architects of the global economy.
Economists denied the concept of limits, argued that ending growth would consign billions of people to perpetual poverty, and decried potential restraints on market freedom. Politicians focused on the cost of adapting to limits and debated who should pay. Wall Street interests declared war against environmental regulation as a constraint on economic growth, consumption, and corporate profits. They countered with a global campaign to consolidate Wall Street’s control of markets, resources, and public policy.
The Wall Street economy, which favors speculation over productive investment, prospers. Main Street economies, which serve human needs and build community wealth, have been decimated. Nature, working people, and democracy pay a heavy price. System collapse plays out more or less as forecast by the CoR report.
The challenge before us is to navigate the transition to a New Economy that supports:
- Ecological balance between humans and nature,
- Shared prosperity to assure every person access to the essentials of a healthy, happy life, and
- Living democracy to secure the rights and voice of every person in the decisions that shape their lives.
Success depends on a human awakening to the reality that life exists only in community and depends on the active engagement of every living being in the capture, exchange, and sharing of energy, nutrients, and water. Rogue species learn to get with the program or expire. We humans are living beings and we too survive and prosper in the long-term only as cooperating members of Earth’s community of life—the biosphere.
The biosphere is an exquisitely complex planetary-scale fractal structure comprised of countless trillions of individual organisms. Three and a half billion years in the making, it self-organizes in a dynamic, constantly evolving, global system that is locally rooted everywhere with an extraordinary capacity to adapt to local conditions to optimize the sustainable use of nutrients, energy, and water to the benefit of all.
This incredible system continuously repurposes and recycles all resources. Nothing is wasted. Redundancy and diversity optimize local adaptation, resilience and creative potential—all without the equivalent of money, global corporations, or any other central decision-making institutions. It has the potential to meet the essential material needs of every living person in perpetuity—so long as we humans limit population growth, waste, and extravagance.
In denial of our relationship to the living Earth, Western societies have propagated a cultural belief that humans have the right, even the obligation to subdue nature and expropriate its bounty to our exclusive benefit. To this end, we expend Earth’s nonrenewable store of fossil energy to dominate and control the biosphere’s living systems and expropriate its wealth.
Confusing money with wealth, we yield control of the economy to Wall Street institutions that value the biosphere only as a means to grow the financial assets— numbers on computer hard drives—of the wealthiest one percent of the world’s people. We celebrate growth in GDP as progress and ignore the by-products, including climate chaos, soil depletion, falling water tables, dry rivers, collapsing fisheries, species extinction, toxic contamination, and air pollution.
Confusing individual autonomy with personal liberty we create economies that reduce caring human relationships to soulless financial exchange and structure our physical space around buildings and auto-dependent transportation systems that wall us off from one another and the non-human natural world.
We must now rediscover the truth that has defined the values of high functioning indigenous societies from the beginning of time: The living Earth is sacred, beyond price, and not for sale. Rather than seeking to suppress, dominate, and exploit it, we must align ourselves in integral partnership with its structure and dynamics.
Compared to the biosphere, the institutional system of the Wall Street global economy is a model of short-sighted waste and inefficiency. Rather than everywhere tapping into the constantly renewing energy flowing from the sun, the Wall Street system draws down Earth’s non-renewable energy store and leaves us all dependent on long, fragile, energy intensive global supply chains for our energy, nutrients, and much else. It centralizes power in anti-democratic /anti-market institutions that value only financial gain and deny responsibility for the social and environmental consequences of their actions. It strips people, communities and Main Street economies of the power and ability to engage in the locally adaptive self–organization required to steward and utilize local resources in response to changing local needs and circumstances. In its single-minded pursuit of financial gain for the world’s ruling oligarchy, it self-organizes toward suicidal social and environmental system imbalance and collapse.
There is nothing inevitable about this systemic pathology. It is the product of human choices. We can just as well choose to create a planetary system of self-reliant bio-regional living economies that align with the biosphere’s underlying system structure. Each bio-regional economy would function as a subsystem of its local ecosystem. Power would reside with Main Street institutions that have a natural commitment to optimizing the long-term well-being of the people, communities and natural systems of the bio-region in which they are located.
Dependent on their local resources for their means of living, the people of each bio-region will have substantial incentive to invest in restoring and enhancing the regenerative capacity of ecosystems on which their own well-being and that of their children depend. Each bio-region will have the option to trade its surplus with its neighbors in return for that which it cannot reasonably produce for itself, so long as it maintains imports and exports in balance—a basic principle of classical trade theory.
The challenge before the Club of Rome is to reframe the environmental debate to shift the focus from limits, loss, and who will pay, to framing a vision of human possibility—a human future of real and sustained prosperity for all people in integral partnership with a vibrant and resilient biosphere.
David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES!Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, president of the Living Economies Forum, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and a member of the Club of Rome. His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. This blog was written for the Club of Rome.