We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

12 10 2018

Jeremy LentJeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.


In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than doubleby mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecologypractices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.




14 responses

12 10 2018

Sigh…. Totally agree we need a new ecologically oriented civilisation. But the ‘climate change’ is a nonsense. People chatter on about ‘x degrees’ of global warming. Nobody publishes the error limits or dispersion of the vast suite of numbers taken by different methods at different sites. My guess is that the estimates (which is all they are) of global temperature probably have a 90% spread of greater than 1-2 degrees, which are the sort of numbers people talk about when predicting future global temperatures. If so, the forecasts are within the error band of measurements.
When we are citing such luminaries as Al Gore, Michael Bloomberg, and Jerry Brown as authorities on climate we have well and truly lost the plot.

12 10 2018
Brendon Crook

He makes a lot of good points but lets face it……………..nothing is going to change.

All the “what if we do this or that” won’t change anything because the 10000 years of civilizations indoctrinated disease of disconnection will let it be so.
It’s now so far gone as to be another rather cosy but tiring bedtime story every time someone writes one of these essays.

We are all locked into this quicksand of deception, a quagmire that is going to drag us all into its depths. There are no “if we do this or do that” situations that will take us away from the reality that we are an essentially spent species that has had its fun in the sun wrecking the joint due to a warped narcissistic bent & now to go the way of the dinosaurs as the saying goes.

I used to believe in an ecological future, an ecological epoch that would carry humanity from here to there but I’ve seen too much & now know too much to believe this will ever happen.

Most people that write such essays come from rich countries where they can sit on their sofas with their PHD’s & foretell a world from their own cheerful imaginations. I wish I had their visions, it must make the pain rather soothing instead of knowing what is in reality unfolding……………….

We in this culture have lost the most valuable thing we ever knew, we have lost our heartfelt connection to that about us.
We have lost our once deeply held connection to the sacredness of nature…………………without that there is nothing else.

Everything else is trying to keep the illusion of human superiority going as it’s increasingly seen for what it is……………….an alien culture upon the earth.

13 10 2018

Nailed it, Brendon.

13 10 2018
may hem

i agree brendon. some of us try to retain our connection to Nature, realising that we are a part of Nature, but sadly, there are too few aware/connected humans on this planet. most disasterous is the illusion that we are in any way superior!

12 10 2018
Paul Harris

We accepted the first two epochal revolutions because, on the whole, they made our lives better by allowing us to become richer by useing more energy.
The ecological revolution will never take hold as it promises to make us poorer. Not enough of us will accept that, even when it’s staring us in the face, see the first comment.

12 10 2018
Charmian Larke

It is a shame to see all negative comments here. I for one long to live in an ecological society where the sea is clean and full of fish, where power is local and I can buy local food knowing it is clean and healthy. This kind of society will be much more interesting and vibrant than the present –comatose in front of the TV wanting more stuff –way we are now.

13 10 2018

Great essay, really good. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. However… we are dealing with a moral problem more than anything else.

“The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.”

The problem here is that enough people already know full well the destructive nature of our current culture and where it is leading us to, but they will not budge.

To put this into perspective: How many of the original authors of The Limits of Growth stopped driving their cars? How many of the 187 scientists who wrote that report have stopped driving their cars? How many of us commenting here have given up our cars? How many of the famous climate change documentary makers and essay writers have given up their vehicles? So, if they are not prepared to do it, how can they (we) expect the rest of the world to do so? Yet, if as many people as possible refrain from using or buying vehicles the climate warming targets can be met easily, because a huge reduction in emissions will occur. The issue, therefore, lies very close to home. People will NOT give up their cars. Very, very, very few people will do so – and that is a moral (and ego) issue, nothing else – and that’s also why discussing it is avoided. The idea of giving up cars is a taboo. It will of course also have a severe impact on auto manufacturers and the economies of the countries involved + major job losses, so politically no-one will touch it!

Another taboo is globalization… Yet, only through localized economies can countries and nations return to local sustainable living and revert to living withing their means in relation to population numbers and local carrying capacity.

So, as I have pointed out in my own essay (“There are no limits to growth”) – we will only change course when we have no choice left. We will go over the cliff and into the wall at the same time first and then only try to revert to something like described in this essay. Will it be too late? Only time will tell.

If we are very, very lucky lucky indeed, there is a fail-safe mechanism built into our president paradigm that we will allow us to escape our self-imposed fate.

In the mythology of ancient civilizations the earth was destroyed at least 3 times in the distant past and humans wiped themselves out every time, with only a very small number remaining in the end in each case – can we avoid it this time?

13 10 2018

When I can grow enough food to feed myself without going to the supermarket, I’ll give up my car. It’s all I use it for.

13 10 2018
Brendon Crook

I own 2 vehicles, a 2001 gas guzzling Ford sedan & a 2001 utility (pick up). Neither do much mileage & I can only drive one at a time. I currently work where there is no public transport at all.
When I lived in Sydney I did without a car for 8 years but the public transport consisted of buses & electric trains powered by coal fired power stations & the food I bought from the shops I walked to was brought there by trucks that were maintained via the whole industrial death cult so there is no way of really escaping this culture short of becoming a hunter-gatherer again which is pretty much out of the question for most of us.
Living simply for me isn’t so much about trying to save the planet, as she’s not far off kicking us off anyway, but more about not succumbing as much as possible to the self absorbed culture that has caused such misery & sadness to the human & non human world.

13 10 2018

I walk or take public transport, but I live in a medium sized city with a reasonably well connected bus network to reach more or less anywhere if I want to or have to. On the odd occasion I use taxi’s. I have never owned a car (mainly due to spending time in foreign countries as a backpacker – still abroad right now) and so never got used to one. Used to own a couple of motorcycles a couple of decades ago. Somewhere along the line I made a conscious decision to not own/buy a car specifically due to the impact it would have on the climate.

I can’t say for certain that I would have been able to give up my car if I got used to one in the first place. It’s probably like any comfort that you get used to – once you have it, it becomes like an extension of yourself. Like Smartphones. I don’t have one of those either as I don’t want to be dependent on technology. I do meet the odd person every once in a while that has given up his or her car for the environment’s sake, so there are people who are prepared to bite the bullet on this. Saving the planet and humanity is not such hard work, it’s the giving up of vices and comforts that’s the hard work. Granted of course that people who live in rural areas and on farms cannot give up their cars, it’s simply not possible for them.

13 10 2018

Unfortunately, no individual actions will make any difference, I’ve proven that beyond doubt..!

13 10 2018

Agreed Mike, best is to brace for impact. BUT… those who are already living lives based on simplicity and have their feet squarely on the ground – as you do – will be in a better position to survive. The Zombie Apocalypse will be real…

15 10 2018

IMO … if / when things go pear shaped, we will all go down together. All those fruit trees, goats, etc will start to look very attractive for many ppl.

When ya start thinking ya know what’s gunna happen you’re more likely to be wrong. Ouch!

It’s always a case of it ‘depends’.

15 10 2018

Another thing. I think the above story gives the right answers to the wrong question. IMO we will first have to ask how we will get through the very long and painful process or perpetual decline.

How long will that take? History would suggest a few hundred years. Yet as Twain says ‘history tends to not repeat itself, but rhyme.

IMO … the rich have the ability to kick the can down the road a few more times before the ‘real’ pinch starts to be felt by all.

In the mean time we might as well enjoy what we can.

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