A New Day’s Coming

Civil society is awakening to imagine the unimaginable

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 14
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Mexican political analyst Gustavo Esteva has called the Chiapas rebellion the "first revolution of the 21st century." Whereas the revolutions of the 20th century were contests for state power, the struggle of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas State in southeastern Mexico was for greater local autonomy, economic justice, and political rights within the borders of their own communities. They did not call on their fellow Mexicans to take up arms against the state, but rather to join them in a broad social movement calling for the liberation of local spaces from colonization by alien political and economic forces.

Their battle cry – "Basta! Enough!" – was picked up by popular movements across Mexico, and resonated with people around the world.

The people of Chiapas are not alone. Each day more and more people are saying "no" to the forces of the new colonialism, reclaiming their spaces, taking back responsibility for their lives, and working to create real world alternatives to the myths and illusions of economic globalization.

Taking Back the Power

The legitimacy of the world’s dominant mega-institutions – both public and private – is at a near historic low. These institutions are so big, so distant, so beholden to special interests and so costly to maintain that they are simply unable to respond in any useful way to the broader human interest – no matter who stands at their helm.

This explains why elections have come to seem so meaningless to so many people, even in the world’s great democracies. Reforms that simply chip away at the edges of a dysfunctional system are not an adequate answer. Nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the institutions that define the relationships of power between the global, the national, and the local will suffice.

To achieve this transformation we must first overcome the single most powerful barrier to its success – the belief that saying "no" to the forces advancing economic globalization is futile. Yet to do so we need only acknowledge a fundamental truth: we, the people, are the source of the power of all human institutions. Human institutions are created and sustained only by our life energies. Their only power is the power we choose to vest in them. If we choose to take back that power, even the seemingly most invincible institutions virtually disintegrate.

The people of the Philippines demonstrated this truth to the world in 1986 when they simply said "Enough" to the hated and corrupt Marcos dictatorship. The world saw an even more dramatic demonstration of this truth in the period from 1989 to 1991 as the peoples of Eastern Europe and Eurasia took back their power from the institutions of the Soviet Empire, and that Empire disintegrated before our eyes.

Creating Building Blocks

Important as it is to take a stand by saying "no," people are not simply resisting the forces of exclusion. They are also taking back responsibility and creating building blocks toward the construction of life-centered societies.

  • The women of Kenya’s Greenbelt movement have set up 1,500 grassroots nurseries and planted over 10 million trees. Their efforts have inspired women in other African countries to similar initiatives.
  • The fisherfolk of Kerala State in India have organized themselves to protect their coastal fisheries resources.
  • The Quinalt Indians on the west coast of Washington state have begun buying back the lands of their reservation acre by acre so that they may manage the forests and fisheries of their national territory in trust to provide sustainable livelihoods for their people and community.
  • Nearby, the people of Willapa Bay, a major salmon and oyster fishery, have formed an alliance of environmentalists, loggers, local business people, government, fishers, landowners, and members of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe to regenerate their once biodiverse ecosystem as the foundation of a prosperous, diversified, and sustainable local economy.
  • The 23,000-member Spanish Mondragon Co-operatives grossed $3 billion in sales in 1991 and serve as an inspiration to people everywhere regarding the possibilities for creating dynamic worker-owned, community-based enterprises (see IC #32).
  • In hundreds of communities in Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and elsewhere people are creating their own community currencies – known variously as LETS, green, or time dollars – to free themselves from colonization by the global financial system, revitalize their communities, and build economic self-reliance.
  • Five hundred citizen organizations in the Philippines have formed a National Peace Conference to develop a national peace agenda addressing the underlying economic, cultural and social roots of the long-standing armed conflict in their country.
  • Students in the United States have organized to make their schools advertising-free zones.
  • In Israel, the Re’ut Sadaka Jewish Arab Youth Movement, a student initiative, is bringing together Arab and Jewish youth to live and study together to build bonds of peace and mutual respect for human rights.

Each such transformative initiative reclaims for people a piece of previously colonized space and advances the process of rebuilding human communities and natural ecosystems. Each one in turn contributes to the foundation of broader national and global movements.

Transforming Nations

Many initiatives are more than local in their scope and consequences.

In the former Soviet Union, grassroots environmentalists called the government to task for widespread environmental degradation and built a movement that helped spark the democratic transformation of the region. These same organizations now function through the Socio-Ecological Union as a powerful citizen alliance committed to holding Eurasian governments accountable to a broad environmental and human rights agenda.

In Sweden a citizen movement mobilized by Natural Step is working to turn Sweden into a model of the sustainable society (see IC #28). Natural Step began by working with Sweden’s leading scientists to arrive at a consensus regarding the nature of sustainability. Their conclusions were distributed to every household and school in Sweden with a letter from the King. Forty-nine local governments, members of the Swedish Farmers Federation, and 22 large Swedish companies are now working to align themselves with these rigorous principles.

A number of initiatives in the United States also have potential national-scale implications. For example, a broadly based citizen alliance has been holding grassroots workshops around the country to develop a consensus on legislative proposals aimed at transforming US agriculture. Their goal is to create a sustainable food system that provides people with nutritious foods sustainably produced by family farms without use of toxic chemicals.

Some leaders of the African-American community in the United States are shifting their focus from racism to self-empowerment based on taking back responsibility for their own lives and communities while reaching out to form new alliances with other people of all races who are similarly suffering economic and political exclusion. Hugh P. Price, as newly elected president of the National Urban League, said in a speech in Indianapolis, "We must not let ourselves, and especially our children, fall into the paranoid trap of thinking that racism accounts for all that plagues us. The global realignment of work and wealth is, if anything, the bigger culprit."

Groups in Los Angeles, frustrated by a lack of government action to rebuild their communities after the 1992 riot, have launched a "buy black" campaign to encourage blacks to spend their dollars with black-owned businesses and to deposit their savings with black banks that invest in local black businesses. Some view this as a move toward separatism. Alternatively, it might simply be considered an appropriate and responsible move by an excluded and shattered community to reclaim control of its own economy and rebuild its pride and social fabric.

One of the most remarkable and dramatic national scale civic initiatives is the grassroots hunger movement in Brazil – Action of Citizenship Against Misery and for Life – spearheaded by Herbert "Betinho" de Souza. (See The Politics of Hope in this issue for the full story.)

Betinho is very candid about his agenda for this national mobilization against hunger. While immediate action is taken to meet the needs of the hungry, an equally significant purpose of the campaign is to get middle and upper class Brazilians talking to the poor, getting to know them as people, identifying with their plight, and engaging in a national Socratic dialogue. As committees become active, Betinho asks a series of basic questions.

Betinho: "Why are people in Brazil hungry?"

Committee members: "They have no money."

"Why do they have no money?"

"Because they have no jobs."

"Then find them a job."

"We have tried, we have even created jobs, but there are not enough. "

"Why are there not enough jobs in our thriving technological economy?"

Eventually people arrive at a conclusion similar to that of this article: "Because the big corporations are automating to increase their profits by eliminating jobs and they control the resources and markets."

Betinho has turned Brazil into a living classroom in which the upper and middle classes have become engaged in an expanding and unfolding national dialogue about the most fundamental issues regarding the nature and structure of the global economy.

This is only a tiny illustrative sampling of the countless, mostly undocumented initiatives being undertaken by ordinary people everywhere. Individually they are heroic but futile gestures of defiance against seemingly overwhelming systemic forces. Together they reveal the awakening of civil society and the emergent growing power of the forces of the Ecological Revolution.

Doing the Possible

We must constantly remind ourselves that we are already in a new era of global communication in which social innovations can emerge and spread in what from a historical perspective would seem to be impossibly brief periods of time.

Fundamental to this temporal compression of social innovation is the increasingly seamless web of nearly instantaneous communication that links the human species into a global consciousness. Significant issues come to the foreground of the public mind and views converge toward consensus at a speed that by historical standards is blinding. This species consciousness is a fundamentally new aspect of human existence and evolutionary potential.

It is useful to remind ourselves of some of the more dramatic examples that demonstrate just how rapidly the processes of fundamental social and political change are being played out. In a single year, 1988, the environment broke into global consciousness with a vengeance. For the first time ever, environmental concerns emerged as a major issue in a US presidential election, and Time magazine named the endangered Earth the media event of the year. Only four years later, in June 1992, the largest gathering of heads of state, other political leaders, corporations and citizen organizations in human history took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to seek agreements protecting the global environment.

Consider the ridicule that would have been heaped on the visionary who might have dared even in 1988 to predict that by 1991 the Soviet Union would peacefully dissolve itself, Germany would be reunited, the Berlin Wall would be gone, and the leadership of the former "evil empire" would be inviting the US to help dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

What if this same prophet had predicted that in 1993 the Israelis and Palestinians would sign a peace accord and that in 1994 Nelson Mandela would be elected the president of South Africa in an open multi-racial election? Perhaps even more remarkable than the fact that these events occurred at all is the fact that we already take most of them for granted, quickly forgetting what extraordinary events these were and how quickly impossible dreams are becoming accomplished fact.

Now let’s consider a number of possible contemporary predictions in line with the agenda of the Ecological Revolution. Most of us would conclude that anyone who predicted that any of the following might occur within the next five years had taken leave of his or her senses. Yet in each case, ask yourself this: Is it any more preposterous to suggest that this event may occur by the year 2001 than it would have been to suggest the possibility of any of the above mentioned events happening even as little as three years prior to their actual occurrence?

  • International arms sales will be banned and the world’s armies dismantled in favor of a small unified UN peace-keeping command;
  • Japan, the US, Canada, Germany and a number of other European countries will have levied a 50 percent tax on advertising to finance consumer education on the merits of frugality and research on how to eliminate the growth imperative from the national economy;
  • Current national income accounting systems based on returns to business enterprises will have been replaced by systems that measure economic performance on the basis of human needs met and the enhancement or depletion of a country’s human, social, and natural capital stock;
  • A rigorous international anti-trust agreement will have been signed by the world’s nations, and aggressive implementation of its provisions – combined with a rash of community and worker buyout initiatives – will have broken up most of the world’s larger transnational corporations and converted their components into community and employee-owned enterprises serving predominantly local markets;
  • Massive agrarian reform initiatives will have broken up corporate and other large agricultural holdings nearly everywhere and converted them into family farms serving local markets using bio-intensive agricultural methods and recycling organic wastes;
  • The IMF and the GATT, which will have become UN agencies under the supervision of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, will be engaged in rewriting international finance and trade policies to support economic localization within a framework of global cooperation;
  • The industrial countries will have reduced per capita consumption of nonrenewable energy by 50 percent, and sales of new gasoline automobiles will have fallen in industrial countries by 75 percent with the phase in of solar conversion and the redesign of urban habitats to facilitate walking, bicycling, and public transit;
  • The world’s major fisheries will be well on their way to recovery under the care of resource management cooperatives comprised of small-scale fishing enterprises;
  • An international agreement will have made the patenting of life forms illegal. An international authority will have been established – funded by a tax on international capital movements – to purchase rights to the most socially and environmentally beneficial technologies for anyone who wishes to put them to beneficial use;
  • A number of national and international business organizations representing many of the world’s largest corporations will have voluntarily accepted codes of conduct that include capping executive salaries at a level no greater than 15 times that of the lowest paid worker anywhere within a firm’s global production net, reducing non renewable energy use to 25 percent of 1995 levels by 2005, and achieving 95 percent product life cycle recycling by the same year;
  • Several countries will have implemented a guaranteed income, and most others will have eliminated taxes on incomes and consumption up to the levels required for a comfortable subsistence in favor of taxes on resource extraction, international movements of money, land, luxury consumption, upper-level incomes, and inheritances;
  • More than half of the world’s countries will have instituted policies that convert the productivity gains of mechanization and automation into a 20-hour workweek and a guaranteed income, freeing billions of hours of human energy, which is being devoted to rebuilding family and community life and meeting a wide range of human needs outside the market;
  • Most fundamentalist religious sects preaching fear and intolerance will have fallen into obscurity as growing numbers of people experience an inner spiritual awakening to the unity of life and consciousness;
  • Women and men will be sharing equally in household and community voluntary duties;
  • Old political party structures will have crumbled, and grassroots political movements born of concern for democratic accountability, social justice, and environmental sustainability will be flourishing – with many people from ordinary walks of life contesting and winning election to both local and national office.

Absurdly unrealistic? Yes, but no more so than many of the unlikely advances of the past few years.

Am I offering these as actual predictions? No, only as options within the realm of possibilities and choice. Steps are already being taken by citizen groups toward each of these and countless other outcomes. Civil society is awakening. The Ecological Revolution is underway.

This article is excerpted from David Korten’s forthcoming book, When Corporations Rule the World, to be published by Kumarian Press, Inc., 630 Oakwood Ave. West Hartford, CT 06110 in September 1995. David Korten is president of the People Centered Development Forum and an IN CONTEXT contributing editor.

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