David Korten on living earth theory8 min read

Earth from satellite

The Short Version

  • Environmentalism is rooted in sentimentality. We save the pandas, because they are cute and because we want to be able to enjoy them, not because they are fundamental to our well-being. Environmentalism has failed to engage the unprivileged.
  • The Living Earth concept asks us to view our planet as a whole superorganism of which we are a part, not just a big rock with life on it.
  • From this view, we begin to learn that humanity’s well-being is inextricably linked to that of the pandas and that of Earth. We learn to protect the environment for our own sake. We learn that we are the Earth, the cutting edge of its evolution with the greatest potential to shape its trajectory forward.

Going deeper

Environmentalism is dead

Environmentalism as we’ve typically known it centers on this little guy.

Panda

 

The panda is cute and cuddly. We can see ourselves in its eyes. We think of forests being cleared and the pandas killed in the mayhem, and we grow despondent. Why should the poor panda suffer because we want wood? How can the evil logging companies do something like that just for a quick buck?

This line of thought has been the basis for environmentalism.

Environmentalism has largely been about saving the panda (and other similar charismatic megafauna).

This is great. We all want to save the panda. It is a noble goal.

But it’s also a narrow – and perhaps even privileged – goal. Traditional environmentalist priorities have appealed largely to folks who aren’t themselves coping with poverty, injustice, or violence. Do you know anyone who shows deep compassion for the panda, yet seems to turn a blind eye to the billions of humans living in squalor? I do.

Because of this, environmentalism has failed to broaden its appeal. It has failed to bring us together and engage us in a more universal discussion. It has become just another special interest.

Seventy-five percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 support government action to fight climate change (Monmouth). Yet, only 32% of Millennials consider themselves “environmentalists” – fewer than Gen X’ers, Boomers, and the Silent Generation (KPBS).

We want to help Earth more than ever. But don’t call us environmentalists.

Asking us to be ashamed of ourselves

Perhaps one reason environmentalism as we have known it has largely failed is that it asks humans to be ashamed of themselves. How can we save the planet from the virus of humanity? How do we keep as much of the world as possible uncontaminated by our human wickedness?

Those are the questions of environmentalism as we’ve known it.

Crazy that we haven’t been more inspired by this story!

But thinking of humanity as the problem is not only uninspiring; it is an incomplete and even shallow way of looking at the challenges that we face.

It hasn’t created a story that brings us all together. It doesn’t drive us to action.

Earth as an organism

The concept of a “Living Earth” – similar and related to the Gaia hypothesis – changes all of that.

At its most fundamental level, Living Earth asks us to see our planet not as a big rock on which plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and other life have sprung up. Rather, Living Earth asks us to view the entire planet – and everything on it – as one big, living organism.

All life – animals, plants, bacteria, even humans – are like cells in the human body. They are distinct individual entities, yet also inherently linked to and dependent on one another. Together, they create something larger and beyond any of them as individuals.

If the greater being becomes ill – as Earth is today – then all other individuals within it become threatened as well. Likewise, individuals within it have an inherent interest in the well-being of the whole and find ways to support it.

More simply: the Earth is one, huge system. We do best when we manage for the overall well-being of the system, rather than parts within it.

A broader perspective

The Living Earth concept is a potent alternative to environmentalism as we’ve known it.

It asks us not just to consider isolated destruction: decimated panda populations, dirty water, smog, etc. It asks us to consider all of these issues from a broader perspective:

  • How does our behavior affect how the whole planet functions as a system?
  • Can we gauge the health of that system?
  • How do we begin to heal that system?
  • What is our place as humans within that system?

Think of the implications!



Through this lens, we are no longer saving pandas because they are cute and cuddly and it makes us feel good. We are saving the panda AND the ecosystems they live within AND the network of ecosystems in which they exist.

We are saving them because they are all essential to our own survival. They are in fact, part of us, inextricably connected to us.

Earth as an evolving organism

In our old view, Earth is fully formed. It is the way it should be and we are simply trying to preserve what already is. Our end goal is to make sure we don’t destroy it.

In this new view, our planet is an organism that has evolved and continues to evolve. Our goal is not just to keep it alive, but to nurture that evolution.

How can we as humans foster Earth’s evolution intentionally and in alignment with our highest selves?

Where environmentalism casts humans as the enemy, Living Earth asks us to see humans as a beautiful part of our planet, perhaps even the leading edge of it’s evolution. Humanity holds the most capacity for intelligence, creativity, self-reflection, and love of any creature to ever exist on Earth. It has the most potential to nurture and support Earth’s well-being.

Of course, humanity is also the single biggest threat to Earth’s well-being as well. It more than any other species has the potential to to bring the Earth system dramatically out of balance. That can’t be denied or understated.

But humanity has also itself created the values of peace, equity, and justice. Humanity has brought great beauty to Earth and can continue to do so.

Humanity isn’t separate from the Earth. It isn’t a virus or parasite. It is literally part of the Earth. It is Earth. And so are all other living beings here.

Cutting to the core

This idea has some pretty profound implications – for spirituality, philosophy, and science alike. You could write entire books on it – and many have.

But perhaps most essential here is simply that we rethink our reasons for saving the planet and how we relate to Earth.

Yes, we feel bad for the pandas and want to save them. They are worth saving.

Yes, we should be critical of the impact humanity is having on Earth and all of life on it. That awareness is critical to our and others’ survival.

But there is a bigger story.

Our need to protect the planet goes far beyond saving the panda. Protecting the planet is protecting ourselves. It is investing in the very basis and origin of our life. It is accepting that we -all living beings on Earth – are inextricably linked to one another.

This doesn’t pit environmentalism against a thriving economy or poverty alleviation. It shows that our economy and society are dependent on a healthy planet. It gives us all a reason to care and to take action.

Environmental protection is not about lessening humanity’s impact on Earth. It is about transforming and harnessing our influence. It is about embracing ourselves as the brilliant cutting edge of Earth’s evolution. It is about asking ourselves the essential question: How can we as humans foster Earth’s evolution intentionally and in alignment with our highest selves?

Perhaps when we fully appreciate the Living Earth, we will not only be concerned about our planet’s survival. Perhaps we will focus on its growth and emergence.

Recommended reading

Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth

by David Korten

Korten offers a Sacred Life and Living Earth story grounded in a cosmology that affirms we are living beings born of a living Earth itself born of a living universe. Our health and well-being depend on an economy that works in partnership with the processes by which Earth’s community of life maintains the conditions of its own existence—and ours.

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author avatar
Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.