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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.

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At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the leadership for a new green path came not from global corporations and the official delegates who aligned with corporate interests, but rather from the representatives of global civil society... Rio+20 appears destined to repeat that pattern.

In the 1990s I was deeply involved in the global resistance against multilateral trade agreements through which global corporations sought free reign to colonize the world’s natural resources, markets, and technology. The 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protest focused global attention on this assault against the human future. The massive demonstrations that followed all around the world largely stymied the use of multilateral agreements to circumvent democracy and popular sovereignty in a global drive to divide up control of the world’s markets and resources among the ruling corporate oligopolies.

During our Pocantico conference it became evident that corporate interests have concluded that the best current hope for advancing their agenda is to play on the world’s concern for the environment, using multilateral environmental agreements as their new vehicle to get local communities and national governments to relinquish control of the natural wealth within their borders.

As alert citizen groups are pointing out, the proposals being advanced would result in the ultimate commodification and  financialization of nature for the short-term benefit of the same global profiteers who created the mortgage bubble that brought down much of the global economy in 2008.

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.” If Rio+20 goes according to the apparent Wall Street plan, it will lay the groundwork for Earth’s ultimate going out of business sale.

There is good reason why the wisdom at the heart of the traditional indigenous worldview strikes a deep and appealing chord in the human psyche.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the leadership for a new green path came not from global corporations and the official delegates who aligned with corporate interests, but rather from the representatives of global civil society who drafted alternative NGO treaties presenting a people’s vision of a just, sustainable, and democratic human future. Rio+20 appears destined to repeat that pattern, with citizen groups already working on  People’s Sustainability Treaties that align with the Original Instructions and give voice to the vision and values of the rest of us. Hopefully, the resulting contrast between the corporate and people’s visions of the human future—one grounded in the contemporary Western worldview and the other in the traditional indigenous worldview—may help us all see more clearly the choice between the two paths of the Ojibwe prophecy.

Competing Worldviews

Those indigenous people who maintain their cultural identity view the world through a very different lens than do those of us who view the world through a Western cultural lens. The implications of the difference are profound.

The summaries below represent my understanding of the contrasting Western and indigenous worldviews regarding our perception of time, relationships, and place. The Western lens leads further down the scorched Earth path we are currently on. The indigenous lens leads to the path to a viable and prosperous human future. For clarity, I’ve intentionally emphasized the differences.

Contemporary Western Worldview

  • Time: Time is money and plays out in an exponential unidirectional growth in financial assets, consumption, and the market value of economic activity. Decision-making properly gives priority to maximizing financial gain to grow the economic pie and thereby improve the lives of all. Indices like Gross Domestic Product that assess economic performance based on the rate of flow of money through the economy and stock price indices like the Dow Jones average that track the value of financial assets are natural and logical metrics for assessing economic performance.
  • Relationships: Individual liberty and economic efficiency are paramount and are maximized by basing human relationships on financial exchanges in which each individual seeks to maximize his or her individual financial gain. This in turn maximizes the general well-being and improves the lives of all. Nature exists for the benefit of humans, who rightfully control and dominate it.
  • Place: Earth is a resource to be owned, valued by the price it will fetch in the marketplace, and exploited for maximum financial return. Our individual identity is defined by the brands we consume. Our individual worth is determined by the price we command in the marketplace and our accumulated financial assets. We maximize our personal economic efficiency by minimizing our individual connection and commitment to any place, person, or community and maximizing our readiness to move on when presented with greater financial opportunity elsewhere. Property rights are properly treated as individual, total, and freely tradable if the price is right.

The affirmation and celebration of extreme individualism, instant self-gratification, and alienation from one another and nature characteristic of the contemporary Western worldview resonates with the primitive core of the human brain, commonly known as the reptilian brain. This is the site of our most basic, individualistic, and predatory hide, fight, or flight survival instincts unmediated by the more highly evolved mammalian brain that is the source of our human capacity for compassion and bonding and the neocortical brain where our distinctive human capacity for self-awareness and reason resides.

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