Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

David Korten: The Time for Postponing Climate Action Is Over

Humanity is reawakening to a basic truth understood by earlier humans, by many Indigenous people today, and now confirmed by the leading scientists: We are born of and members of a living Earth community.

In 1962, Rachel Carson warned us, with the publication of Silent Spring, that the indiscriminate use of pesticides was disrupting critical ecosystems and causing severe damage to human health.

Her message led to a ban on the use of DDT in the United States and eventual restrictions on its use in much of the world. Her warning also helped launch the environmental movement and its call to humanity to accept responsibility for the consequences of our impact on Earth.

Ten years later, in 1972, the book The Limits to Growth, by an MIT research team led by Donella and Dennis Meadowsagain focused global attention on humanity’s environmental responsibility. Presented as a report to the Club of Rome, the book used computer modeling to demonstrate that sustained economic growth on a finite planet would lead to environmental and economic collapse in the early- to mid-21st century. It sold more than 3 million copies in some 35 languages.

The book stirred significant public debate at the time and had a defining influence in shaping the lives and thinking of many members of my generation. It came under withering critique, however, from a corporate establishment that profits from growth, and from neoliberal economists who provided intellectual cover for the establishment. To the detriment of people and planet, and unlike Carson’s book, The Limits to Growth had no discernible impact on public policy.

Yet, over the next 20 years, concern for the growing human threat to Earth’s essential living systems gained in status to become the dominant scientific consensus. In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a proclamation, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” signed by more than 1,700 scientists, including a majority of the then-living Nobel Laureates in the sciences. Its message was clear and unambiguous:

“The earth is finite…. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.”

In November 2017, exactly 55 years after Silent Spring, 45 years after the Limits to Growth, and 25 years after the “Warning to Humanity,” the Alliance of World Scientists issued a new proclamation: “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” This one was signed by more than 20,000 scientists in 184 countries. It concluded:

“We face deforestation, ocean acidification, diminishing fresh water supplies, the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, exponential human population growth, overconsumption and a climate system veering outside of the conditions within which human civilization developed.”   

Less than a year later, in October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report calling for dramatic action on climate change along with specific targets required to avoid catastrophic and irreparable consequences. The New York Times summarized the key findings and recommendations:

“To prevent 2.7 degrees [Fahrenheit] of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. It also found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.”

BBC environmental correspondent Matt McGrath pointed out last July that to achieve the UN’s initial target of a 45% cut in carbon emissions by 2030 will require decisive global action by the end of this year—2020. His point is that reaching that initial target in just 10 years will require massive changes. So, if we don’t get going immediately, we will not make it. 

Humanity is reawakening to a basic truth understood by earlier humans, by many Indigenous people today, and now confirmed by the leading scientists: We are born of and members of a living Earth community.

We are now awakening to the responsibilities that come with our distinctive ability to consciously create our future. The environmental consequences of our neglect of this responsibility have been known for more than half a century, but for many people, the urgent need to act is just now sinking in.

Science is significantly advancing understanding of how this community works. We now know, for example, that Earth’s early microorganisms sequestered Earth’s excess carbons and toxins deep underground to create surface conditions that later would support more complex life forms, including humans.

In the arrogance of our quest to bend the living Earth to our will, we have organized much of our economy around extracting these carbons and toxins and releasing them back into Earth’s air, waters, and soils. This, and many other human assaults on the planet’s regenerative systems, demand immediate remedial action.  

As we awaken to the consequences of our self-destructive relationship to Earth, we confront a fundamental truth of our past 5,000 years of history: The past civilizations we have celebrated as affirmations of the greatness of human accomplishment centralized power to exploit people and nature to benefit the rulers at the expense of everyone else. Each of these civilizations collapsed—and our present one is headed in that direction, too—imposing yet more suffering on massive numbers of people over the course of history.

Now, for the first time in the human experience, we are a global species with an interdependent global civilization. But the basic pattern of imperial domination continues. The dominant institutions are now corporations rather than governments and the dominant rulers are financiers and corporate CEOs rather than kings and emperors.

The basic dynamic remains much the same, however, and the consequences are playing out on an unprecedented scale, rendering ever more of Earth’s once-livable places unlivable, and driving millions of people from their homes. Current events are only a foretaste of what lies ahead if we continue to hold to our current path.

With luck and collective determination, we may have time to avoid self-extinction and even create a world of joy and meaning. But that will happen only if we prioritize healing over consuming, and cooperation over competition; embrace our individual and collective responsibilities to one another and the Earth; and remake our culture, institutions, technology, and infrastructure in recognition that we are part of a living Earth community. We have just entered humanity’s decisive decade. This is our time to step up to the challenge of our age and to create a future consistent with our reality as living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth.


DAVID KORTEN is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.

First published in Yes! Magazine and included in Vox Populi under a Creative Commons License.

In January 2020, brushfires continue to burn in Australia. (Photo: NY Times)

One comment on “David Korten: The Time for Postponing Climate Action Is Over

  1. Robert Zwilling
    January 29, 2020

    The Time for Postponing Climate Action is Over
    The time for debating who is responsible is over
    The time for debating what is responsible for climate change is over
    It started a long time ago.
    We are not leaving a world of neglect to the children but instead we birthing the children into a world of neglect.

    I think it’s classic too little too late. We can do things that make our lives sustainable. But first we have to start
    putting together emergency response procedures that includes financing and putting together the physical items
    required to do this or at least creating a service on paper that can instantly draw what’s needed from existing
    stocks.

    We went straight from awareness to having to respond to what is happening now. We skipped the change our
    ways step as a means of preventing what is already happening.

    For any number of reasons the size of the events are bigger and expand faster than in the past. A fire storm out of control in a city hasn’t happened yet. An out of control deadly viral outbreak hasn’t spread through a country yet. Ebola hasn’t made the front pages in a long time. The Australian fires are no longer front page news. Floods are still happening every day.

    The news works like a skyrocket. It shoots up the latest news into plan sight high over head and then the story
    falls back down into an ocean of spent news articles, most are ongoing events but treated as one offs, they are
    never connected to show the big picture. Perhaps the news isn’t the place to keep things current, perhaps it’s
    only function is to alert one to an event and then something that doesn’t exist yet is supposed to publicly
    correlate and relate to past events and form conclusions as to what is happening in the long run.

    How big would a publication have to be to keep track of what is currently happening connected to what has
    already happened. There are still people without shelter that was equal to what they had before a flood or storm
    hit in most locations. That list is growing longer everyday. Anywhere the climate is warm most of the time the number of people less well off is even greater. These people are possible future refugees in their own countries. What is the word for being a refugee in
    your own country. Technically refugees are people who have been displaced out of their country. The term for
    people who have been displaced out of their own communities is called displacement. It is not a new word and started out as a result of changing economic conditions.

    Climate change, or for those in denial, the weather is now officially responsible for changing economic
    conditions for businesses and world economies. It will be only be a matter of time before the daily weather
    determines everyone’s daily activities, just like the way the article starts off. It was always news, but for most of
    us, we just forgot about it. For some people that has always been true and for others it is a new found
    reality.Hardly anything new is created, it is usually just a case of rediscovering the past.

    The UN has made plenty of proclamations about what needs to be done and it is just that, a proclamation of
    intent that action needs to be taken, but the follow through doesn’t happen.

    Warning people doesn’t change the big picture. It can work but only if the messages are picked up by people
    whose actions actually control the actions of millions of people.

    Everyone is invested one way or another in what is happening. It is more than just investing in something. We are also invested in and are part of the investment. Everyone is. Until we can get out of betting the future is
    going to turn out alright instead of insuring it is going to turn out alright, things are too far along to change by
    themselves in ways that are beneficial except as short term monetary gains. For most people that is enough of a hedge to bet against an uncertain future.

    “With luck and collective determination, we may have time to avoid self-extinction and even create a world of
    joy and meaning. But that will happen only if we prioritize healing over consuming, and cooperation over
    competition; embrace our individual and collective responsibilities to one another and the Earth; and remake our culture, institutions, technology, and infrastructure in recognition that we are part of a living Earth community. We have just entered humanity’s decisive decade. This is our time to step up to the challenge of our age and to create a future consistent with our reality as living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth.”

    That will happen eventually as Nature continues to box us in. But not until a lot more damage happens.

    Ecowatch published an article about how hurricanes exert so much pressure on the Earth that they can cause
    undersea earthquakes called stormquakes. It would have been better to discover the storms were doing less
    damage, rather than more damage than we previously thought. Everything is turning out to be more powerful
    than previously thought. We are still playing catch up.

    The beginning of the article puts the whole picture into perspective. “Humanity is reawakening to a basic truth
    understood by earlier humans, by many Indigenous people today, and now confirmed by the leading scientists…”

    —and now confirmed by scientists…scientists sleeping in caves, living isolated lives, not questioning the
    implications or consequences of anything they do…”We’re not responsible for what people do with our
    discoveries”…The more things scientists discover that show what is really happening in this whole Natural Earth
    Machine, I think the less likely they will be able to take such unresponsible positions with a grain of salt…Part of
    the job…Goes with the territory…

    The modern fossil fuel industry has been created by scientists and engineers. Eventually a majority of them will switch from enjoying the money to wondering how they are going to be able to sleep at night.

    We are strip mining the future to fuel the ever increasing expectations of the present. This means we are digging
    the holes we are falling into before we even get there. Someone should make a reality show that shows how
    nothing is working out as planned anymore.

    I wonder if it was the lower ranks or the upper ranks that first realized that jet plane couldn’t fly straight. The
    answer could explain why the world is in the state it is in. RCA was a pioneer in the technology that eventually
    created flat screen TVs, yet they walked away from it. They use to be leaders in the leading edge of world wide
    technology. By not accepting what the future looked like based on their own work in the field, they missed out
    big time. Perhaps that is how our futures will change, as the companies now in the leading edge fail to
    understand what the future looks like, and their size and dominance slowly fades away over time.

    Liked by 2 people

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