The World We Want: The Big Picture II

By David Korten | Great Turning website

Read more posts in The World We Want series.


The second piece of the big picture of the human confrontation with the limits of our Mother Earth is an unraveling of the social fabric of civilization that is a consequence of extreme and growing inequality. A world divided between the profligate and the desperate cannot long endure. It intensifies competition for Earth’s resources, undermines the legitimacy of our institutions, and drives an unraveling of the social fabric of mutual trust and caring essential to healthy social function.

In 2005, Forbes Magazine counted 691 billionaires in the world. This year, only three years later, it counted 1,250, nearly double, and estimated their combined wealth at $4.4 trillion. These are the people who get the big tax breaks. According to a United Nations study, the richest 2% of the world’s people now own 51% of all the world’s assets. The poorest 50% own only 1%. That is why we call them poor, because they don’t own any assets. When the rich own everything, there is nothing left for the poor to own.

A poor family wants a small plot of land to grow some food. A billionaire wants that land for a 20,000-square-foot vacation home he may reside in for no more than a few days a year. Can you guess who gets the land? They tell us economic growth is essential to lift the poor to prosperity. All too often economic growth lifts the yachts and swamps the naked swimmers.

Most growth in consumption in recent years has not been at the bottom where it is needed. It’s been at the very top among the already super wealthy. Our real resources are shrinking, and whatever resources are left, the rich can easily buy them. Speaking of billionaires and their yachts, I love the quote from one clueless billionaire commenting on the rising price of gas. “Last year it cost me $30,000 for a tank of diesel for my yacht. Now it costs me $60,000. It’s no big deal.”

For the super rich, if we run out of oil, there is always ethanol. Meanwhile, desperate mothers watch helplessly as their babies die for lack of food.

We cannot grow our way out of poverty. The only way to end poverty and heal our social divisions on an already overstressed planet is through a redistribution of resources from rich to poor and from nonessential to essential uses. Ooops. Can’t you just hear the right wing windbags? Hey, that Korten guy, he’s talking about equity. He must be a communist.

Actually, I’m a proud American patriot. I grew up with the patriotic story that the United States is a middle-class democracy without the extremes of class division that characterize other societies. That story once made us proud and the envy of the world. Of course, it was never quite accurate, but it expressed a beautiful, widely shared human ideal that we must now reclaim. Equity is an essential foundation of true democracy and of our national ideal and self-image. Equity can even be defended on the grounds of rightful inheritance and property rights. Think about it.

Natural wealth was created by our Earth Mother and is, therefore, a common heritage of all her children, including all non-human species. None of us has a right to abuse that wealth or to monopolize it to the exclusion of our sisters and brothers.

More next Tuesday…

© 2008 David Korten. All rights reserved.