The Wisdom of Our Ancestors by David Korten

From the surviving early cultures of Africa, the human birthplace, comes a foundational insight into life and our distinctive human nature and responsibility. It goes by different names in different places. It is perhaps best known by non-Africans as ubuntu, which translates: “I am because you are.”

In its fullest meaning, ubuntu acknowledges the individual’s dependence on the whole of life: “I am because we are.” The Ubuntu Principle takes it the next step to its simple, yet profound, implication: “I do best when we all do well.” It leads us from asking, “How can I make a difference?” to “How can we make a difference?” We all lose when it’s about my money. We all win when it’s about our wellbeing.

The Quechua peoples of the South American Andes refer to this principle as sumac kausay, which translates into Spanish as bien vivir and into English as good living. Bolivia and Ecuador have written this principle into their respective constitutions.

The recognition of life’s interdependence is foundational to family/community-centric cultures throughout Asia. China has inserted a commitment to Ecological Civilization into its constitution.

The Earth Charter, which has been endorsed by over 7,000 organizations and 50,000 individuals, affirms:

“The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.”

Most religions call us to love and care for our neighbors and all that the eternal spirit has created. In 2015, the Parliament of the World’s Religions issued a Declaration on Climate Change that closed with these words:

“The future we embrace will be a new ecological civilization and a world of peace, justice, and sustainability, with the flourishing of the diversity of life. We will build this future as one human family within the greater Earth community.”

The frontiers of science now give us an ever-deepening understanding of the interdependence of life. Quantum physics tells us that relationships, not particles, are the foundation of what we experience as material reality. Biology is finding that intelligent life exists only in diverse communities of choice-making organisms that together maintain the conditions essential to their individual and collective existence. The social sciences find that humans get their greatest satisfaction from mutually caring relationships with other living beings. These ideas are foundational to the insight that evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson calls prosocial, a recognition that we all do better together than alone.

Far from calling us to sacrifice for the wellbeing of Earth, the Ubuntu Principle calls us to embrace our current challenges as a win-win opportunity to actualize our human desire to love and to care for one another and Earth. For example, much of the need to reduce total human consumption can be met by relieving ourselves of the dehumanization imposed by war, oppression of the masses, obsessive materialism, planned obsolescence, predatory employment conditions, and cities designed to accommodate cars and office space rather than people relating to one another and nature to secure human wellbeing with minimal environmental burden.

Corollaries relating to purpose, power, and procreation follow directly from the Ubuntu Principle to provide a three-part framework for action.


The purpose of a functional economy is to provide all people with material sufficiency and spiritual abundance while supporting the wellbeing, beauty, and creative unfolding of Earth’s community of life.

Ego-nomics makes GDP growth the economy’s defining purpose. It assumes that advances in the wellbeing of people and Earth will follow. Occasionally such advances occur. Usually, they do not.

GDP measures the market value of that which is exchanged in the market. It ignores our most valuable  exchanges, those based solely on our caring for one another, such as caring for our children and our elderly relatives for love rather than for money. GDP takes no account of what the market exchange involves, who benefits, or what may be its impact on the community’s social and environmental health. In our current context the most certain beneficiaries of most market exchanges are those who claim the profits of the corporations that control the exchange.

A major portion of GDP growth comes from growing human numbers, monetizing relationships once based on mutual caring, frivolous extravagance, dysfunctional infrastructure such as automobile-dependent cities and suburbs, and preparations for and conduct of war. GDP growth serves us as a defining indicator of economic performance only if our purpose is to grow short-term corporate profits and the fortunes of our wealthiest billionaires in disregard of the long-term social and environmental consequences.

Living beings grow physically, but only within life’s continuing cycles of birth and death. If our human body continues to grow past adolescence, it generally means we need to change our diet and get more exercise.

GDP may grow in the process of society’s modernization, but that does not make growing GDP a legitimate purpose. Once improvements in health care and secure housing and diets are achieved, sustained GDP growth is likely an indicator of economic dysfunction that needs correction.

Take the analogy of flying an airplane. Suppose it is a dark cloudy night. The airplane has only an airspeed indicator and you chose to maximize your speed in the hope this will hasten your arrival. The plane will achieve its maximum speed by heading toward Earth. You will quickly crash and die. A safe flight requires multiple indicators, including airspeed, altitude, and direction. And a map with airport locations. Managing a modern economy well is a much more difficult balancing act, requiring even more complex indicators.

Kate Raworth, the acclaimed author of Doughnut Economics, suggests that managing a modern economy requires setting performance boundaries defined by two indicator panels. One panel keeps us focused on assuring that all people can fulfill the essential needs of a full and satisfying life. The other tracks the health of Earth’s regenerative systems. Our wellbeing and the fulfillment of our human responsibility to the larger community of life depend on our learning to maintain the human economy within the limits of the inner and outer boundaries of the doughnut. The doughnut thus provides a foundational frame for the metrics by which an eco-nomics will guide us in assessing the economy’s performance.


The economy best fulfills its purpose when we organize as communities of place in which people are empowered to fulfill their responsibility to and for themselves, one another, and Earth.

There is no universal design for local living community economies. The people of each place must adapt to their distinctive and often dramatically different circumstances presented by meadow, mountain, jungle, desert, arctic and other features of their territories. The relevant differences extend to water sources, soil quality, and sunlight availability that vary even down to micro differences on small garden plots. Life best thrives through micro-adaptation to these variations that can be achieved only by adaptive local choice-making.

To deal with its distinctive needs and opportunities while caring for its place on Earth, each community must be able to control human access to the resources in its territory, while caring for and living within their regenerative limits. So long as each local community meets its needs through its own labor in self-reliant balance with its local ecosystems, Earth’s community of life remains in healthy balance with itself and Earth. In an Ecological Civilization, securing local communities against colonization by predatory neighbors and corporations that fail to embrace their responsibility to and for the whole will be a defining responsibility of governing bodies at higher system levels.

We must accept the limitations of our human ability to control nature. We have ample evidence of the consequences of our arrogance in such efforts. Rather than controlling nature, our current priority must be to control ourselves as we facilitate the healing of the living Earth’s community of life. This in turn raises profound questions about ownership rights and responsibilities in relation to Earth.

Earth is life, the literal ground of our being. None of us created it. We all depend on it.

For thousands of years, humans have organized their dominant societies around the ownership of land and the rights that ownership conveys. In common practice, there have been few limits on what an individual can own, or the right of the owner to deny others access and to contaminate and otherwise disrupt the land’s natural processes.

As ownership becomes ever more concentrated and ever more people are denied access to a means of living, rethinking rights of access to and responsibilities for its proper care become among the most foundational issues facing humanity. We have barely begun to frame the essential questions, let alone adequate answers.

In our emerging vision of an Ecological Civilization, power is best localized and equitably distributed. And the benefits of productive labor should go primarily to those who provide it. That all points to a preference for local, cooperative ownership.

Unless it receives a public subsidy, a business must have profits sufficient to remain viable and provide a fair and modest return to investors commensurate with risk. When ownership is local, part of the return to the owners comes from the business’s contributions to the wellbeing of the community in which the owners live. When the business is owned by its workers, workers get the full return on the value of their labor. As owners, they also benefit from the contribution of the business to the wellbeing of the community in which it does business. They also enjoy the well-earned respect of neighbors who appreciate the services their business provides. Local owners usually plan to operate for the long-term, thus aligning their interests with the long-term wellbeing of the community. It is a win-win act of cooperation.

A market economy can best be counted on to serve the community interest when decision makers live in and are known to that community. When decision makers are distant, faceless, and seek only to maximize quick profits, the essential link between business and community is broken. If the delinked business also possesses monopoly power, it can become a mortal threat.

The charter of the limited-liability, for-profit corporation is a legal instrument that, in its current form, supports the unlimited concentration of economic power delinked from accountability to the communities in which the corporation does business. Such an institution has no legitimate place in a 21st century Ecological Civilization. Far preferable are local family businesses and worker/community owned cooperatives. The Mondragon worker coops in the Basque region of Spain are among the most successful currently existing examples of large-scale cooperative businesses.

Equally obsolete is the current system of monopolistic, private, for-profit banks that create money by issuing interest-bearing debt. In aggregate, that debt can only be repaid if new loans are putting sufficient new money into the system to pay the interest and repay the principle on outstanding debt. It is a system designed to crash if the money in the system does not continuously grow.

Yet the new money accrues to people in proportion to their existing financial assets, thus widening the gap between rich and poor. The drive for ever-greater monetary growth generates investments in activities harmful to people and the living Earth. It is a process that dehumanizes rich and poor alike and ultimately produces only losers. The truth is hidden by misleading language. Speculators seeking instant unearned financial gains are called investors, and money created from nothing is called capital.

Because money is just a number and the financial system is a purely human creation, if the system is not working for us, we have both the right and the means to change it. That does not mean the changes will be easy. Not only have we organized our lives around and become dependent on the predatory system. We have also put in place laws designed to protect that system. Of course, the laws are also human creations and are also ours to change, but only by difficult-to-achieve collective choice.

Money creation in a viable human future must be transparent, accountable, and supportive of productive investments that put underutilized labor and other regenerative resources to work meeting unmet needs of people and Earth.

We must organize around what makes communities most healthy rather than what makes corporations most profitable. And we must use money as a tool to serve the community. Money must never again be allowed to become an instrument of speculation and control by the few to exploit the many. These are issues for which a fully developed eco-nomics will provide maps to guide us.


To fulfill our responsibilities to one another and Earth, it is essential that we manage our human numbers and distribution while continually learning and evolving as individuals, families, and communities.

Life replenishes and renews itself through continuing cycles of conception, birth, maturation, adulthood, death, and rebirth. These cycles are essential to life’s resilience, regeneration, and continuing evolution toward ever-greater diversity, beauty, awareness, and creative potential.

Life’s resilience and creativity depend on maintaining its species diversity. The greater its diversity, the greater its ability to recover from disruptions like meteors, volcanoes, and rogue species. And the greater its potential to evolve.

Diversity depends in turn on keeping individual species numbers in balance. Normally life depends on predators to maintain that balance, as for example, wolves culling deer populations.

In earlier times, human population growth was checked by famine, disease, and large mammals. As we learned to protect ourselves against such threats, including through improved food security, diet, sanitation, and immunization, growth in our numbers and consumption exploded. We have now become an increasing threat to Earth and thereby to ourselves.

We will prosper as a species only as we get our numbers and relations right with one another and Earth. As Earth’s now dominant species, we must assume responsibility for ourselves—our reproduction, distribution, consumption, and care for Earth’s community of life.

A key to balancing our numbers resides in evidence that population growth slows when women are provided with education, attractive employment opportunities, and the means of fertility control.

The more daunting challenge is dealing with population redistribution as we render ever more of Earth’s places socially and environmentally unlivable. Here the key is knowing that most people prefer to live in the place they know as home if that is a viable option. We will all benefit from cooperative efforts to restore livability wherever that is possible. When such restoration is not possible, such as disappearing islands, we must achieve an orderly redistribution and resettlement of the people displaced through no fault of their own.

Our future depends on a dramatic transformation in our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with one another and Earth. It begins with getting our reproduction right and taking seriously the truth that “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The human family has more than enough abused and neglected children. What we lack is adequate attention to the care and development of all our children to assure that they achieve their full potential as intelligent, responsible contributors to the wellbeing of the whole. Imagine a world in which every child is a wanted child, and all children are loved and supported by a caring family and a caring community.

It isn’t just about childhood. We never outgrow our need for learning, nor our need for a caring community. Our need from birth is to learn to live and learn together. Conventional textbook education is distinguished by its isolation from the experience of living, its fragmentation of knowledge, and its preparation of our young for a future that mostly never was and never will be.

The children of early humans learned by participating in the daily life of their tribe or village. Modern education confines our children to regimented classrooms, separated from the life of community and from members of generations other than their own. Classroom activity centers on memorizing information printed in specialized textbooks, each devoted to an isolated and distinctive discipline mostly irrelevant to the student’s real world non-school experience.

It is no wonder that we become so susceptible to media manipulation. Much of our childhood is devoted to conditioning us to accept without question what we are told by experts and authority figures. It is a setup for our misdirection by books and experts promoting the fictional maps of ego-nomics, as well as by unprincipled political extremists. Social advances depend on challenging established ideas and frameworks. We must continuously and accurately assess our maps both old and new. An adequate modern education will include development of critical thinking skills.

This excerpt is the current version of a continuing work in progress from which others are free to draw with or without attribution. It may be freely shared, reproduced, and reposted in whole or in part for so long as there is no restriction on further free distribution.

Originally published in Kosmos Journal, Summer Edition 2021 and republished here with kind permission.

David C. Korten is an American writer, lecturer, engaged citizen, student of psychology and behavioral systems, a prominent critic of corporate globalization, and an advocate of Ecological Civilization. He is founder and president of the Living Economies Forum and an active member of the Club of Rome, a member of the International Advisory Council of the International Academy for Multicultural Cooperation, and an Ambassador of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. Co-founder and former board chair of YES! Magazine (now YES! Media), he is the author of numerous influential books, including the international bestselling When Corporations Rule the World and The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. His other books include: Change the Story; Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth; Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth; and The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalism. He holds earned MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, served on the facilities of the Harvard Business School and Harvard School of Public Health, and worked for thirty years in international development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Header Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash