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Nature Is Not A Commodity: The Path to Rio+20

David Korten: Indigenous wisdom reveals a path to the future that does not include a buy-out of the earth’s natural systems.

Photo Credit: Franco Rabazzo


 With these three words, Karma Tshiteem, Secretary of the Bhutan Gross National Happiness Commission, ended his brief description of  Bhutan’s distinctive approach to economic development. It caught my attention because of the striking contrast to our common Western phrase, “Time is money.”

“Time is life.”

The event I was attending was a small international gathering primarily of indigenous environmental leaders. I was privileged to be among the few nonindigenous writer-activists invited to join them.

Tshiteem was seated to my left.  Winona LaDuke, program director of Honor the Earth and a celebrated Native American environmental author and activist, was on my right.  Tom Goldtooth, global environmental leader and executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, sat directly across from me. Next to him was Pablo Solón, former Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations. Pablo was a principal driver behind the  2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Herman Daly, the father of ecological economics, has aptly observed, “There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.”

We were there to share perspectives on the work of building green economies based on the principles of indigenous wisdom. Several of the participants are involved in bringing an indigenous voice to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June—the 20-year follow-up to the 1992 UN Earth Summit.

Our venue was Pocantico, the former New York estate of John D Rockefeller, the legendary icon of ruthless capitalist expansion and extraction. We enjoyed the irony of meeting in the setting of this grand estate in our search for a different path.

A Prophetic Choice

On the plane I had read LaDuke’s report  Launching a Green Economy for Brown People. Its opening paragraph set the frame for our discussions:

“Ojibwe prophecies speak of a time during the seventh fire when our people will have a choice between two paths. The first path is well-worn and scorched. The second path is new and green. It is our choice as communities and as individuals how we will proceed.”

Recognizing the need for a new path, indigenous peoples around the world are revisiting the wisdom teachings of their respective traditions as a guide to their survival in a world dominated by institutional forces that have long sought to wipe those teachings from our collective memory.

We, the peoples of modern Western societies, face the same choice referred to in the prophecy. Some among us are realizing that we, too, have much to learn from the traditional indigenous understanding of what Goldtooth referred to as “ The Original Instructions.”

Our deliberations at Pocantico brought into sharp relief the contrast between money-centered Western and life-centered indigenous views of the proper purpose and structure of a high-performing economy.

The Original Instructions call us to recognize Earth as our living mother and to honor and care for her as she cares for us. In the West we have forsaken the Original Instructions in favor of an economic theory that calls us to treat Earth’s resources as saleable commodities.

Rio +20

A number of the Pocantico participants were involved in negotiations leading up to Rio+20, a UN global environmental conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They informed us that the document being prepared for approval by the world’s governments in Rio will fall far short of identifying and addressing the source of global environmental failure. Rather it will recommend that to save our Earth mother, we must put an estimated price on her waters, soils, air,  forests, fisheries, and gene pool and offer them all for sale on the thoroughly disproven theory that whomever is able to pay the highest price for her will have a natural incentive to care for her.

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