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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/12/10

The New Economy Challenge: Implications for Higher Education

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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 living.

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 reorganize.
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 larger whole.

Rebecca AdamsonAge-Old Wisdom for the New Economy Indigenous peoples have learned a few things about making it through hard times. What did traditional economies do to foster abundance, sharing, and harmony with Mother Earth?

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.

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David Korten is co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network. This article draws from his newly released book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Go to for book excerpts, related (more...)
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