Economics, Earth, & Personal Truth

Sacred Earth, a New Economy and the 21st Century University


By David C. Korten  [PDF format]

University of BritishColombia

April 4, 2013,

New Economy Summit

I’m thrilled to be a part of this student initiated, student led gathering and of the larger movement you are spearheading. I had all but given up hope that our universities might become relevant to the extreme challenges humanity faces in the 21st century. I had not considered the possibility that students might provide the leadership needed to drive the transformation of higher education.

You are society’s canaries in the mineshaft and you are organizing to sound the alarm and demand change. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You offer hope for the human future.It makes perfect sense. No one is more aware of the failure of our institutions of higher learning than you, their students, are. They send you out into a failing 21st century world with a 20th century education that prepares to serve corrupted institutions we must now put behind us burdened with student debts that may keep you in bondage to the old system for the rest of your lives. You have good reason to rebel.

Institutional Failure

To get us all on the same page, let me begin with a quick overview of state of our 21st century world. You might think of it as a list of issues our universities are failing to address.

1.      We face a global economic crisis created by an unstable financial system that favors speculation over real investment, drives continuing cycles of boom and bust, mires people and governments in debts they cannot pay, and holds national governments hostage to the interests of global financiers.

2.      We face a global social crisis of extreme and growing inequality. The enormous disparities feed violence by undermining institutional legitimacy, human health, and the social fabric of families and communities.

3.      We face a global environmental crisis of climate chaos, loss of fertile soil, shortages of clean freshwater, disappearing forests, and collapsing fisheries. This crisis is reducing Earth’s capacity to support life and creating large-scale human displacement and hardship that further fuel social breakdown.

4.      We face a governance crisis in the seeming incapacity of any of our major institutions, including universities, to come to terms with and address the three afore mentioned economic, social, and environmental crises.

Life and Earth are sacred….Money is just a number.

These four crises are interlinked, self-imposed, potentially terminal, and a direct consequence of institutional structures that value money more than life and that allocate power to those least likely to use it in service to the common good. We the people, allow this travesty to play out because we live in a cultural trance induced by stories that lead us to accept beliefs and values at odds with reality—a condition for which our academic and media institutions bear a major responsibility.

This was the opening keynote presentation to the New Economy Summit at the University of British Colombia, Vancouver BC, April 4-6, 2013—one of 14 such university summits organized by students at major U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities as part of a Campus Network initiative of the New Economics Institute. A PDF version is available here.

Your student movement is part of a larger human awakening to the foundational reality that we humans are living beings that survive and thrive only as members of a Sacred Earth community of life. Life and Earth are sacred—meaning they are entitled to reverence and respect. Money is just a number.

We must build from the bottom up the institutions of a new system that aligns with this reality. If that sounds like a serious challenge, you hear correctly.

We will not get out of our current mess by tinkering at the margins of a failed system to make it slightly less destructive.

A Personal Wakeup Call

I devoted some thirty years of my professional life to international development, including twenty-one years living and working in Africa, Latin America, and Asia on a mission to end world poverty. I originally assumed that the work of international development was to support the people of impoverished countries in learning to use their talents and natural wealth more efficiently and effectively to meet their needs and achieve healthy happy lives. Over time, I realized that what was really happening was very different.

As GDP grew, life for the majority became less secure and more desperate.

Yes, I witnessed growth in GDP, expansion of the middle class, and the accumulation of huge fortunes by a fortunate few.

I also, however, observed that as GDP grew, life for the majority became less secure and more desperate. Slums spread. Families and communities disintegrated. Once beautiful cultures, survived mainly as tourist attractions. Rivers died. Once vibrant coastal corals and verdant hillsides became barren wastelands.

Eventually, I realized that in the name of helping the poor, rich countries were loaning poor countries foreign currency to invest in growing their economies. Because foreign currency is only good for buying things from abroad, this created dependence on foreign goods and technology purchased with loans that could be repaid only by selling their national labor and assets to foreigners.

When payment came due, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank stepped in like mafia debt collectors with baseball bats ready to break legs.

Separated from nature, we of modern society have lost our sense of what is truly sacred.

They told indebted countries they must restructure their economies, not to better meet the needs of their own people, but rather to repay the debt. Reduce your spending on health and education, they said. Sell your land and natural resources to private foreign corporations. Set up duty free zones with cheap nonunionized labor with no rights or benefits to produce goods for export to foreign consumers.

Debt, dependence, and deprivation for the many. Outsized profits for the few.

You may recognize a familiar pattern, something of a preview of the dynamic that now plays out in varied forms here in Canada, the United States, in Europe, and all around the world.

In Search of the Sacred

Why do we tolerate it? We humans crave meaning and purpose. This leads us to place great stock in shared cultural stories that lend purpose, meaning and direction to our lives and relationships. Political demagogues have long recognized that those who control these stories control the society. During the 20th century, corporate PR and advertising specialists became masters of the arts of cultural manipulation to create an individualistic culture of profligate material consumption that serves well the short-term interests of the financial oligarchy, but now threatens the survival of all.

Of our many influential cultural stories, the most important are those that define what we hold to be sacred [entitled to reverence or respect]. When we get the sacred wrong, we entangle ourselves in a collective web of self-destructive, even suicidal, self-deception—as our current situation demonstrates.

Separated from nature, we of modern society have lost our sense of what is truly sacred. Losing sight of the truly sacred, we fill the breach with a familiar story constantly affirmed in the public mind by pundits and economists schooled in what Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has called a faith-based religion. Call it our Sacred Money story.

Time is money. Money is wealth. Those who make money are society’s wealth creators. Poverty is a sign of personal failure. Consumption is the path to happiness. Individualistic greed and competition are human virtues that the invisible hand of the free market directs to ends that create opportunity and prosperity for all. Those who would deprive society’s wealth creators of the fruits of their labor engage in envy—a mortal sin. Maximizing financial gain is a moral and legal duty of business—indeed of each individual. Earth is a rock in space useful as source of free resources and a convenient waste dump.

False on every point, [the Sacred Money story] perverts our sense of values and leads to the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of a financial oligarchy.

Over the past few decades this has become the story by which we define the purpose, meaning, and direction of society and of our individual lives and relationships. In its thrall, we embrace money as a sacred object of veneration and the measure of our human worth and accomplishment, banks as our temples, consumption as our solace, economists as our moral authorities, and free [unregulated] markets as a superhuman controlling power that rewards the faithful and torments the unfaithful.

The Sacred Money story frames the moral and intellectual foundation of a Sacred Money economics, otherwise known as neoliberal or market fundamentalist economics. This is the economics taught as an objective values free science to business and economics students in virtually all the world’s colleges and universities.

False on every point, it perverts our sense of values and leads to the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of a financial oligarchy. It is neither a true science nor a true religion. It is an immoral, anti-democratic political ideology at odds both with the moral teachings of all the world’s great religions and the findings of contemporary science.

The immoral and intellectually false premises of the Sacred Money story sets us up to measure economic performance by financial metrics like GDP and stock price indices like the Dow Jones Average.

GDP is in substantial measure an indicator of the rate at which we are monetizing relationships previously based on mutual caring. This process destroys the natural bonds of family and community, while increasing our dependence on obtaining money controlled by global finance to purchase goods and services offered for sale by global corporations that serve global finance.

With a similar bias in favor of financial interests, stock price indices are primarily an indicator of the rate at which the inflation of financial assets is increasing the power of those who own financial assets relative to the power of those who do not.

Contrast the Sacred Money story of Sacred Money economics with this very different and more truthful Sacred Earth story. Imagine how different our world would be if this were the foundational story underlying the design and management of our economic institutions.

Time is life. Life is the most precious of the many forms of wealth. As living beings, we survive and prosper only as contributing members of a living Earth Community evolving toward ever-greater beauty, complexity, self-awareness, and possibility. Making time for life—to experience and serve—is the path to happiness and well-being. Equality, community, and connection to nature are essential foundations of human health and happiness. It is our human nature to care and to share. Earth is our sacred mother. As she loves and nurtures us, we must love and care for her. The institutions of business, government, and civil society exist for only one purpose—to serve as vehicles through which we cultivate and express our true nature and create our means of living in service to the Earth Community to which we all belong.

Fortunately, new communications technologies that connect nearly all  the world’s peoples make it possible for the first time in our history to rethink and choose as a species the stories by which we will live together in a shrinking and interdependent world—and to do so with extraordinary speed. It is thus within our means to change the human course as a conscious collective human choice.

To succeed, however, we need a shared sacred story of the origin, nature, and purpose of creation—a cosmology—that reflects the fullness of our current human knowledge, gives us a reason to live, and provides the frame for a new economy that supports healthy, life-serving relationships with one another and a living Earth.

A Reason to Live

In 1992, my wife Fran and I returned to the United States from Asia and settled in New York City. While writing When Corporations Rule the World, I frequently gave talks pointing out that we humans are on a path of our own creation to potential species extinction, I often got a response something like:

“Yes, it may be true we are on a suicidal course, but changing our ways would be expensive and inconvenient. And if the doomsayers turn out to be wrong, we will have ended the party for nothing.”

I was stunned and dismayed. Then I chanced upon Thomas Berry’s book Dream of the Earth in which he observes:

“For people generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.”

Bingo: To care about our common future, we need a story of the origin, nature, and purpose of creation that reflects the fullness of our current human knowledge, gives us a reason to live, and serves as our guide to forming healthy, mature relationships with one another and a living Earth.

Three Defining Creation Stories

Three story candidates have established currency in Western culture: the Distant Patriarch, the Grand Machine, and the Integral Spirit. The first two are instantly familiar, but inadequate to the needs of our time. Only the third serves the needs of our time, but lacks a defined public presence and institutional sponsorship. Here is a quick review.

Distant Patriarch

The Distant Patriarch story is most commonly associated with the institutions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It views creation as the work of an all-knowing, all-powerful God who, from his home in a separate, sacred dimension called Heaven observes and judges our obedience to His commandments as handed down to us through sacred texts and interpreted by His anointed religious authorities. This story focuses our attention on our individual relationships with a personal but distant God and on access to the afterlife as our primary purpose in our present life.

Because all that happens in this life is by God’s will, it logically follows that those who possess great wealth and power in our present life are His favored and thereby poses divine authority. The economy is a vehicle for producing our sustenance until death releases us from the burden of Earthly labor.

I once heard a woman on a radio call in show say that she thinks of her life on Earth as nothing more than a short stay over in a cheap hotel on the way to Heaven. That is her story. No way can we expect her to accept responsibility for the upkeep of the cheap hotel or concern herself with the plight of its less fortunate residents.

Grand Machine

The Grand Machine is standard story of Newtonian physics and classical evolutionary biology commonly associated with science and the secular academy.

By the reckoning of this story, we live in a clock works universe in which only the material is real. Life is merely an accidental outcome of material complexity and has no meaning. Only the material is real. Consciousness and free will, or agency, are illusions.

Our fate thus depends on forces beyond our ability to influence or control in reality without meaning, purpose, or moral foundation.

Life evolves through a brutal competition for survival, territory, and reproductive advantage much as the global corporations we depend on as the drivers of economic progress. Earth is only a pool of cheap resources and a place to dispose our wastes.

In a desperate search for meaning, or at least a distraction from terrible loneliness of a life without meaning in an uncaring universe, we turn to the pursuit of money and material indulgence as our source of solace and sacred purpose. We assess the economy’s performance accordingly. Having a bad day? Go shopping.

For more than six centuries, science and religion have engaged in mortal combat for recognition as the primary story keeper of Western civilization. Yet each contributes to the intellectual and moral foundation of the suicidal Sacred Money economy that drives our self-destruction.

Integral Spirit

To the extent that we accept our human responsibility to and for the well-being and continued creative unfolding of the whole, our lives take on profound meaning and purpose.

The Integral Spirit story has ancient roots and is affirmed by our inner awareness, indigenous wisdom, the teachings of the prophets, the findings of science, and our daily experience. It is the story that I believe resides in some form in the heart of every person, even though it lacks institutional support and public visibility. If this assessment is correct, we need only provide a source of public affirmation to bring it to the fore of public consciousness as a shared story of humanity.

By the reckoning of this story, all of creation is the expression of an integral spiritual intelligence engaged in a sacred journey to discover and actual­ize its possibilities through an ongoing process of be­coming. In this story of God as spirit rather than patriarch, the material universe of our experience are more than God’s creation—it is God made flesh. God is in the world and the world is in God, yet they are not identical.

We come to know the nature, purpose, and intention of this divine force through both our inner experi­ence and our observation of its physical manifesta­tion. All beings, stars, planets, humans, animals, plants, rocks, and rivers are expressions of this di­vine force—each with its place and function in the journey of the whole. Through its lens, we view the beauty and vastness of a self-organizing constantly evolving cosmos with a sense of awe, wonder, and profound meaning.The spirit is both imminent and transcendent; a concept referred to by reli­gious scholars as panentheism.

Far from being alone in an uncaring cosmos, we are all deeply and irrevocably interconnected. To the extent that we accept our human responsibility to and for the well-being and continued creative unfolding of the whole, our lives take on profound meaning and purpose.

Our obligation to love and care for our Earth mother as she loves and cares for us, becomes self-evident. We come to recognize our species as creation’s bold experiment in the capacity of a species with a highly advanced capacity for self-aware consciousness and choice to contribute to the creative journey of the whole.

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