and Business Resources
The Biology of Globalization
Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.
adapted from first publication in
Perspectives in Business and Social Change
The Globalization of
humanity is a natural, biological, evolutionary process. Yet we
face an enormous crisis because the most central and important aspect
of globalization -- its economy -- is currently being organized
in a manner that so gravely violates the fundamental principles
by which healthy living systems are organized that it threatens
the demise of our whole civilization.
for further information please contact:
Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.
1477 Floribunda Ave, Suite 204
Burlingame, CA 94010 USA
Lessons of Nature:
All living systems self-organize and maintain themselves by the
same biological principles, which we can identify and abstract.
Among the principles essential to the health of living systems are
empowered participation of all parts and continual negotiation of
self-interest at all levels of organization.
Humanity constitutes a living system within the larger living system of our Earth.
Essential to the health of humanity is empowered participation of
all humans and negotiated self-interest among individual, local and
global economies as well as the Earth itself.
The problem is we have tried to tell the human story without telling the Earth's story.
The Wake-up Call
What an astonishing thing it is to watch a civilization destroy
itself because it is unable to re-examine the validity, under totally
new circumstances, of an economic ideology.
--Sir James Goldsmith, London Times, Feb 1994
Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear
that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and
the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our
open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I
believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.
--George Soros, Atlantic Monthly, Feb 1997
When globalized capitalism's leading players themselves warn us of
the dangers of the system in which they have gained their enormous
wealth, we had better pay attention. They are telling us clearly that
the current course of economic globalization cannot continue without threatening the very survival of humanity.
Will our seriously imbalanced civilization survive?
Historian Arnold Toynbee studied twenty-three past civilizations,
looking for common factors in their demise. The two most important
ones, it seems, were the extreme concentration of wealth (George Soros'
warning) and inflexibility in the face of changing conditions within
and around them (Sir James Goldsmith's warning).
We cannot go on playing global Monopoly when a cooperative
game is called for by our obvious global problems. In 1994, Robert
Kaplan warned that anyone who thought things were still going well was
ignoring three-fourths of the world. His cover article ("The Coming
Anarchy," Atlantic Monthly,
February 1994) was illustrated by a burning globe. This year, same
month, same weathervane magazine, the cover featured George Soros'
article telling us that global corporate and financial capitalism is
The central problem at present is that the "democratic"
congresses of some seventy nations including the United States, have
voted away the sovereignty of their nations by agreeing to uphold the
provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which can meet in
secret and challenge any laws made at any level in member nations
(including their provinces, states, counties or cities) if they are
deemed to conflict with its interests.
How could this happen? In the United States, the story goes
back at least as far as the first few decades following World War II,
a heady time in which we still believed in "life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness" while gradually our Congresses were bought off
by corporate interests.
As Paul Hawken pointed out, "Washington D.C. has become a
town of appearances and images, where sleight of (political) hand has
largely replaced the clumsy system of payoffs, outright bribes and
backroom deals of old....One per-cent of American society owns nearly
60 percent of corporate equities and about 40 percent of the total
wealth of this nation. These are the plutocrats who wield the power
and control this pre-eminent "company town" while trying to convince
the other 99 percent of the citizenry that the system works in our best
interests, too." (The Ecology of Commerce, Harper Collins, NY 1993, p. 111)
In the course of the Cold War, had we been paying adequate
attention, we would have seen that both communist and capitalist
systems were subjugating local interests (individual and community)
to national and global interests, however much we in the West were
ideologically taught that our individual wellbeing was primary and our
democracy good for our communities. Practice did not bear out theory;
to wit: unemployment, poverty, crime, unsafe streets, drugs, unsafe
foods, polluted air and water, ill health, spiritual crisis, despair
and even rapidly increasing child suicide and murder.
Similarly, megacorporations, now globally legitimized by the
WTO, the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the pending
MAI (Multilateral t Agreement on Investment), are overriding the
interests of nations, local communities and individuals. (See Appendix B for more details.) As Ralph Nader points out, "Under WTO rules, for example, certain *objectives*
are forbidden to all domestic legislatures... including [objectives such
as] providing any significant subsidies to promote energy conservation,
sustainable farming practices, or environment-ally sensitive
To understand this situation and to see what we can do to alter
the course of events toward a healthy future for all humanity, we need
to look at the inherent contradictions between these current economic
developments and the democratic, ecologically sound economic system we could develop.
As a biologist, I find that the easiest way to
comprehend this contradiction is by looking at humanity as a whole in
its natural context, thus recognizing ourselves as a living system
and comparing our current unhealthy economic situation with the
economics of healthy living systems. In doing so we will see clearly
why the "Wake-up" call is being sounded and how to respond with the
biological resilience that is our evolutionary heritage, privilege and
Therefore, I will discuss in some detail the natural
organization of living systems, with their endlessly negotiated
"political economies" as we are only now coming to under-stand them.
If you bear with me in this discussion, a new and coherent
understanding of our global crisis and its solutions will emerge very
clearly. The challenge of crisis confronts us; our opportunity lies in
responding positively and actively.
The human being of the West has abandoned being human and has turned himself into an individual... community has died in them.
--Nicolas Aguilar Sayritupac, Aymara Indian, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
To think of ourselves as a living system, we must see ourselves in
community with all other people at local, national and global levels.
While this may seem superficially easy, it is actually not. Western
culture, now globally dominant, has systematically trained us, as
Sayritupac accurately observed, to think and act as though we are
separate individuals, often in competition with each other for scarce
resources of one sort or another, primarily money, which has be-come
the perceived means to all we want and need in life.
From the vantage point of an evolution biologist watching the
human species, it's encouraging to see that community and community
values are at last coming back to life in Western culture. Not as an
alternative to individualism, which was an important human development,
but to complement it in a healthy balance.
The new swell of interest in, even fervor for, a global human
community with equitable and ecologically sustainable economics is
vitally important for our species survival. Words such as "community"
and "communal values" were consciously or unconsciously suppressed in
our culture during the Cold War because of their linguistic similarity
to "communism." Happily they are back in our vocabulary now that the
Soviet stigma has been removed from them. We have, in fact, suffered
greatly from their absence. The big question is whether we can restore
community and communal values to our globalization process before all
The globalization of our species is not a choice; it is a
natural, inevitable evolutionary process that began when humans settled
on all continents. Human empire building over the past few thousand
years continued the process by merging cultures over ever larger areas.
In modern times, this empire-building process has been shifting from
imperial nations with colonial empires to corporate cartels and other
global corporate entities with economic empires which, in some cases,
now dominate or overrule national political structures.
Yet, simultaneously, nations have joined in a United Nations
effort with remarkable success in negotiating cooperative global
systems such as telephone, postal and air travel networks, as well as
the initiation of other global agreements on electronic/ satellite
communications, oceans, etc. that are less democratic and of programs
that seriously attempt to implement global health, education and
peace. Because these efforts at the democratization of humanity
conflict with the concentration of wealth and power, the United Nations
is continually under intense pressure.
Thus we see that it is not globalization per se that is
undesirable. The cause of the enormous crisis we face is the manner in
which the most central and important aspect of globalization, its
economics, is currently organized. For this reason, we must
become more conscious participants in the process of globalization, to
avoid letting a handful of powerful players lead us all to doom.
First and foremost, we must recognize globalization as a biological
process -- something that is happening to a natural living system we
Then we can see how an economics that violates the fundamental
principles by which living systems are organized currently threatens
the demise of human civilization.
Fortunately life is resilient, and we are witnessing a growing
storm of protest rising from calmer discussions of economic
globalization. These are healthy reactions that can help lead us to
survival, for they indicate increasing recognition and concern that
communal values have been overridden in a dangerous process that sets
vast profits for a tiny human minority above all other human
Most people looking at problems of "market-driven capitalism"
are becoming aware on some level that the measure of human success must
shift from money to wellbeing for all. To do this, communal values must be reclaimed and acted upon in a way that ensures a balance of global interests with local interests and with the interests of all other species.
The evolutionary process is an awesome improvisational
dance that weaves individual, communal, ecosystemic and planetary
interests into a harmonious whole.
Biological research of the past few decades, on the evolution of
nucleated cells, multicellular organisms and mature ecosystems as
cooperative enterprises, is updating our ingrained view of
antagonistic competition as the sole driving force of evolution--a
Darwinian view that was adopted as the rationale for an unjust
dog-eat-dog world of antagonistic capitalist competition and ultimately
the fascist holocaust. As Soros says, "there
is something wrong with making the survival of the fittest a guiding
principle of civilized society. This social Darwinism is based on an
outmoded theory of evolution."
As the more enlightened view gains prominence -- that life is
far too intelligent and naturally cooperative to proceed simply by
blind accident and dominance struggles--it will be increasingly
translated, to our collective benefit, into a more enlightened view of
our human society in all its social, economic, political and cultural
My purpose is to help with that translation, for we humans, no
matter how spiritual, are inescapably biological creatures, and the
solutions we seek are readily available in nature's experience. We
are a living system embedded in a larger living system, and we could
benefit greatly from the lessons already learned in the
five-billion-year dance of our planet.
Lessons of Nature
The only myth that's going to be worth thinking about in the
immediate future is one talking about the planet -- not this city, not
these people, but the planet and everybody on it.
We can see more clearly what is going on if we look more closely at
the individual, the community, the nation and global human society as
living systems embedded within each other like Russian nested dolls or
Chinese boxes. Arthur Koestler coined elegant terms for this
concept: holons in holarchies (Janus: A Summing Up, Pan Books, London 1978). Each relatively self-contained system, such as a cell, an organism, a family or an ecosystem, is a holon, while holarchy refers to their interdependent embeddedness within each other, and was intentionally derived but distinguished from the term hierarchy to avoid its value implications of relative superiority.
Take the living system most intimately familiar to all of us:
the human body. We've long known that our bodies behave as a community
of cells, which are organized into organs and organ systems. The
central nervous system functions as the body's government, continually
monitoring all its parts and functions, ever making intelligent
decisions that serve the interest of the whole enterprise. Its
economics are organized as an equitable system of production and
distribution, with full employment of all cells and continual attention
to their wellbeing. The immune `defense' system protects its integrity
and health against unfamiliar intruders. It can be thought of as a
kind of global political economy with organs as bioregional units,
their different tissues as communities, cells as families or clans, and
the organelles within cells as individuals (which many of them once
actually were, as we will see shortly).
More recently, microbiology has revealed the relative autonomy
of cells and their organelles in ever more exquisite detail: every cell
constantly making its own decisions, for example, on what to filter in
and out through its membrane, how to adjust its local production and
distribution economics, which segments of DNA to reorganize or copy
from its nuclear gene library for use in maintaining its cellular
welfare, etc. Hardly the automatons we had thought them to be!
Physiologically we can see that the needs and interests of
individual cells, their organs and the whole body must be continually
negotiated to achieve the body's dynamic equilibrium or healthy
balance. Cancer is an example of what happens when this balance is
lost, with the proliferation of a particular group of cells ignoring
the needs of the whole, multiplying wildly at the expense of the body
holon, ultimately defeating their own purposes by destroying it.
On the whole, our bodies work in remarkably harmonious health.
But imagine what would happen if our bodies tried to implement an
economic system such as we humans practice in our world at present:
How would your body fare if the raw material blood cells in
bones all over your body could be mined as resources by more powerful
"northern industrial" lung and heart organs, transported to their
production and distribution centers where blood is purified and oxygen
added to make it a useful product? Imagine it is then announced that
blood will be distributed from the heart center only to those organs
that can afford it. What is not bought is thrown out as surplus or
stored till the market demand rises. How long could your body survive
that system? Is it an economic system that could keep any living
Can we turn the United Nations into a governing body as
dedicated to service as is our central nervous system? When will human
diversity be recognized to be as necessary and creative as the
diversity of our cells and organs? When will we be as concerned with
the health of every local bioregion in our global body as our
individual body is, or practice its cellular full employment policy?
When will we implement its efficient and universally beneficial kind of
Obviously metaphors have their limits and I do not for a moment suggest we slavishly emulate body models. But they are
examples of living systems with healthy politics and economics, and we
all have them in common, regardless of our worldviews, or of our
personal, political or spiritual persuasions. Surely body metaphors
are preferable to outdated and unrealistic mechanical metaphors of
perfect societies that were supposed to run permanently and smoothly as
well-oiled machines once we got them built correctly. The whole Cold
War was rooted in competition over which side had that perfect social
The evolution of cooperation:
Our bodies are multicelled creatures which actually evolved from
an earlier evolutionary phase of "multicreatured" cells, whose story
was pieced together by microbiologist Lynn Margulis. (Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, 1981; Early Life, 1982). The story of their evolution holds an extremely important lesson for humanity today.
In brief, it goes like this: Ancient bacteria, some two billion
years ago, had blanketed the Earth by themselves, inventing all the
ways of making a living still employed today (mainly fermentation,
photo-synthesis, respiration) and devouring its "resources" with
downright human thoroughness.
Finding themselves in crisis, they began to invade each other
for new resources in a phase I call bacterial imperialism, which we
humans echoed so much later in our ignorance of their experience. This
phase led to renewed crisis, because their early attempts at
"globalization" into huge colonies were based on competitive
exploitation of each other with no concern for all participating
Many such colonies died, until somehow they finally managed to
evolve the cooperative scheme we call the nucleated cell: a huge
bacterial community with a peaceful division of labor, which we call
the nucleated cell.
All this was achieved, of course, without benefit of brains,
in time to avoid the extinction of Earthlife eons ago. In fact, their
"invention" of these huge cells is what makes you and me possible, for
each of our cells, as well as those of all organisms larger than
bacteria, is one of their descendent cooperatives. (For details of this story, see "An Inspirational Tale of Ancient Times", below.)
Life, as this story shows, is resilient and creative.
Some of the greatest catastrophes in our
planet's life history have spawned the greatest creativity! And
therein lies my hope for humanity.
It is worth looking at this cooperative evolutionary process up
close. What is it that prevents your cells, or your organs, from
pursuing their self-interest competitively such that relatively few
"win" and most "lose?"
The superficial answer is that they are part of a cooperative
community in which the health of every level in the body's holarchy
promotes the health of individual cell and organ holons. But what is
it that makes our individual cells and organs behave
communally? If we can answer this critical question biologically, we
will gain important insight for applying the lessons of nature to our
Holarchic negotiations evolve:
One definition of the word evolution is the flow of
interwoven steps in an improvisational dance. Although it comes from
dance terminology, it actually fits biological evolution very well,
since we can now see it as an ongoing process of interweaving,
self-organizing holons in holarchy. The dance is not always smooth.
Nature sometimes stumbles as it improvises, making crude moves,
especially on the part of young aggressive species, such as our own,
that attempt to take over the whole dance.
In fact, one can discern in evolution a repeating pattern in
which aggressive competition leads to the threat of extinction, which
is then avoided by the formation of cooperative alliances, as in the
bacterial story above.
To show how this works, let me introduce a concept of simultaneous self-interest at all levels of living systems holarchy,
a concept I have not yet encountered among other evolution biologists.
Darwin, as we well know, held the competitive individual to be the
driving force of evolution (as we have applied this theory socially, it
could be called the capitalist version of evolution), while later
biologists countered with the alternative of species
self-interest, wherein individuals within species demonstrated altruism
and self-sacrifice for the common good (the communist version) but
species as wholes were competitive with each other.
Richard Dawkins, refuting both these views, claimed they were in error because
competition among selfish genes drove evolution (micro-capitalism?). But what if all these evolutionists are right in sum, rather than individually? That is, what if every level of organization in nature looked out for its self-interests simultaneously?
An Inspirational Tale of Ancient Times
In studying the Earth's evolution, the most
fascinating story I know is that of ancient beings who created an
incredibly complex lifestyle, rife with technological successes such as
electric motors, nuclear energy, polyester, DNA recombination and
worldwide information systems. They also produced--and
solved--devastating environmental and social crises and provided a
wealth of lessons we would do well to consider.
This was not a Von Daniken scenario; the
beings were not from outer space. They were our own minute but
prolific forebears: ancient bacteria. In one of his popular science
essays, Lewis Thomas, estimating the mitochondria that are descendants
of ancient bacteria in our cells as half our dry bulk, suggested that
we may be huge taxis they invented to get around in safely (Lives of a Cell, 1974).
From whatever perspective we choose to define
our relationship with them, it is clear we have now created the same
crises they did some two billion years ago. Further, we are struggling
to find the very solutions they arrived at--solutions that made our own
evolution possible and that could now improve the prospects of our own
far distant progeny, not to mention our more immediate future. I owe
my understanding of this remarkable tale to microbiologist Lynn
Margulis, whose painstaking scientific sleuthing traced these events
back more than two billion years.
The bacteria's remarkable technologies (all of
which still exist among today's free-living bacteria) include the
electric motor drive, which functioned by the attachment of a flagellum
to a disk rotating with ball bearings in a magnetic field; the
stockpiling of uranium in their colonies, probably to heat their
communities with nuclear energy; perfect polyester (biodegradable, of
course), elaborate cityscapes we can only now see under the newest
microscopes and their worldwide communications and information system,
based on the ability to exchange (recombine) DNA with each other--the
first World Wide Web!
Yet, like ourselves, with our own proud
versions of such wondrous technologies, the ancient bacteria got
themselves deeper and deeper into crisis by pursuing win/lose economics
based on the reckless exploitation of nature and each other. The
amazing and inspirational part of the story is that entirely without
benefit of brains, these nigh invisible yet highly inventive little
creatures reorganized their destructively competitive lifestyle into
one of creative cooperation.
The crisis came about because respiring bacteria
(breathers) depended on ultraviolet light as a critical component
in the creation of their natural food supply of sugars and acids,
while photosynthesizing bacteria (bluegreens) emitted vast quantities
of polluting oxygen which created an atmospheric ozone layer that
prevented ultra-violet light from reaching the surface of the Earth.
Cut off from their food supply, the hi-tech breathers, with their
electric motor rapid transport, began to invade the bodies of larger
more passive fermenting bacteria (bubblers) to literally eat their
insides -- a process I have called bacterial colonialism.
The invaders multiplied within these colonies
until their resources were exhausted and all parties died. No doubt
this happened countless times before they learned cooperation. But
somewhere along the line, the bloated bags of bacteria also included
some bluegreens, which could replenish food supplies if the motoring
breathers pushed the sinking enterprises up into brighter primeval
waters. Perhaps it was this lifesaving use of solar energy that
initiated the shift to cooperation. In any case, bubblers, bluegreens,
and breathers eventually contributed their unique capabilities to the
common task of building a workable society. In time, each donated some
of their "personal" DNA to the central resource library and information
hub that became the nucleus of their collective enterprise: the huge
(by bacterial standards) nucleated cells of which our own bodies and
those of all Earth beings other than bacteria are composed.
This process of uniting disparate and
competitive entities into a cooperative whole--a multi-creatured cell,
so to speak--was repeated when nucleated cells aggregated into
multi-celled creatures, and it is happening now for a third time as we
multi-celled humans are being driven by evolution to form a cooperative
global cell in harmony with each other and with other species. This
new enterprise must be a unified global democracy of diverse
membership, organized into locally productive and mutually cooperative
"bioregions," like the organs of our bodies, and coordinated by a
centralized government as dedicated in its service to the wellbeing of
the whole as is the nervous system of our bodies. Anything less than
such cooperation will probably bring us quickly to the point of species
extinction so that the other species remaining may get on with the
adapted from E.Sahtouris' "The Evolution of Governance"
IN CONTEXT, #36, Fall 1993;
This would necessitate ongoing negotiations among individual parts
and levels of organization, and this is exactly what seems to be
happening. Moreover, Nature's dance seems to be energized
by the conflicting self-interests of various parts and levels, and
choreographed by the compromises it has made in the course of
evolution, and continues to make in every day of the present. At its
best, the dance becomes elegant, harmonious, beautiful in its dynamics
of non-antagonistic counterpoint and resolution.
The repeating pattern of evolution is the sequence from unity to
diversification, which produces conflict that instigates negotiations,
resulting in resolution leading to cooperation, and thus back to unity
in the form of a higher level of organization.
The most important lesson learned in the course of its evolution,
often the hard way, is that no level of holarchy may be sacrificed
without killing the whole!
Let's explore this driving dynamic as it plays out in our everyday
human experience. The Greek playwright Aristophanes said of marriage
partners a long time ago: Can't live with 'em; can't live without `em.
Look at this familiar situation anew: A couple is a holon in which two
individual holons (the partners) are embedded. This is thus a
two-level holarchy, the levels being that of couplehood and that of the
individuals. The couple will survive in good health only if each of
the three holons' self interest is negotiated with the other two! Once
you see this, then extrapolation to family is easy. Now try community.
My favorite creation myth from India tells that the cosmos
began as a vast sea of milk in which a tiny wavelet formed, and was
torn ever after between wanting to be itself and longing to merge back
into the sea. Is this not another metaphor for individual and
community in the endlessly creative dialog and metalog of
self-expression, already re-cognized in ancient times? What matters in this dialog is that the contradictions do not become antagonistic.
A mature ecosystem--say a rainforest--is a complex ongoing
process of negotiations among species holons and between individual
species and other parts and levels of the self-regulating holarchy
comprised by the various micro and macro species along with air, water,
rocks, sunshine, magnetic fields, etc. As Soros pointed out in the Atlantic Monthly, "Species
and their environment are interactive, and one species serves as part
of the environment for the others. There is a feedback mechanism..." among levels.
Let us now look at a fuller complement of the principles by
which these interwoven living systems operate, so that we may get on
with analyzing our global human crisis more effectively.
The Principles of Living Systems
Anyone who knows how to run a household, knows how to run the world
--Xilonem Garcia, a Meshika elder in Mexico
Xilonem Garcia, in this statement, expresses her intuitive knowledge that anyone who understands the principles of living systems can apply them to any holon at any level of its holarchy.
If we think about it, we can all be aware of such principles
operating in our bodies. And we seem to intuit and practice them
reasonably well at the family level. Not many people starve three of
their children to overfeed the fourth, for example, or beautify one
corner of their garden by destroying the rest of it. At the level of
our local communities or towns, we begin to lose sight of those
principles, and when we consider our nations or the world, we seem to
have forgotten them entirely, despite the fact that these are living
Main Features and Principles of Living Systems
- Self-creation (autopoiesis)
- Complexity (diversity of parts)
- Embeddedness in larger holons and dependence on them (holarchy)
- Self-reflexivity (autognosis--self-knowledge)
- Self-regulation/maintenance (autonomics)
- Response ability--to internal and external stress or other change
- Input/output exchange of matter/energy/information with other holons
- Transformation of matter/energy/information
- Empowerment/employment of all component parts
- Communications among all parts
- Coordination of parts and functions
- Balance of Interests negotiated among parts, whole, and embedding holarchy
- Reciprocity of parts in mutual contribution and assistance
- Conservation of what works well
- Creative change of what does not work well
Let us look, then, at a list of the main features and principles of
all healthy living systems or holons, be they single cells, bodies,
families, communities, ecosystems, nations or the whole world (see above).
By understanding these principles, we can assess the health of any
particular living system and see where it may be dysfunctional. This in
turn will give us clues to making the system healthier.
I leave it to the reader to consider this list in detail, and
to choose a familiar living system, such as an organization or
community, to analyze for its adherence to each principle in turn.
Our purpose here is to learn to do such analyses in order to understand
in what ways our living systems are healthy and in what ways they are
not. We want especially, in this discussion, to apply there principles
to the process of political, economic and cultural globalization--of
forming our new "body of humanity."
As soon as we begin checking this list, we see that while
globalization of humanity is bringing about a complex, self-organizing
process and is embedded within our ecosystems (1,2,3),
it does not meet most of the other requirements because only a
relatively small part of humanity is involved in decisions and has the
power to serve its own interests, often at the expense of other parts.
We must question how well it knows itself (4), for the
process to date has not been fully conscious, at least among the vast
majority of humans. Most of us feel swept along by its tides with far
less than real knowledge of what the process is all about.
We have not adequately taken into account our embeddedness in
and dependence upon the Earth holon with all its various sustaining
ecosystems. As a result, our self-regulation is woefully inadequate.
To wit, the input of matter and energy from our ecosystems into our
human systems (7)
has been unsustainably rapacious, transforming them to our use as though
they were simply resources put there for our benefit. Our output back
into those ecosystems has further despoiled them rather than restored
While our human system certainly has the complexity and
diversity of parts common to all living systems, we have not recognized
that as an asset. Rather, we have tried to make the system's human
components as uniform as possible by imposing a Western consumer ethic
and other Western cultural patterns of industrialization, education,
fashion, etc. on the world as a whole.
We had better take into account that monoculture is a very
strange concept we humans have introduced into Nature and that it does
not make a lastingly workable living system. Monoculture fails in
agriculture as in social culture, in economics as in religion. Social
monoculture is rooted in an outmoded and ignorant fear of difference
and of scarcity. It is time we learned to respect and cherish our
human diversity as the creative source of harmonious complexity.
As we continue through the list it is readily apparent that
our worldwide system of humanity is not functioning well as a living
system. The system neither empowers nor employs all humans (9). While our communications (10) are technologically impressive, we do not use them to coordinate parts and functions (11) in ways that foster a balance of interests at all levels (12)
of the human system (individuals, families, communities, bioregions,
nations, world), nor is there yet an intent for reciprocity in mutual
contribution and assistance (13). As for conservation (14) and creative change (15),
we are entirely unused to seeing that both are necessary parts of a
single system because of our pervasive either/or syndrome, which I
would like to discuss in some detail.
The "either/or" syndrome:
The capitalist/communist drama that played out for most if not
all of our lifetimes reveals a fundamental dramatic flaw: an odd and
ultimately impossible ideological choice: to build society on the
basis of individual interest or on the basis of communal interest.
Throughout the Cold War, our global alignment presented nations
with this either/or choice between "left-wing" communism and
"right-wing" capitalism. One simply could not be "for" both capitalism
and communism, both left and right.
Even within our political democracies we divide ourselves into
radical and conservative parties of various hues, and ask, or require,
ourselves to make the choice to vote for one or the other of their left or
right political programs. In essence, "right" is conservative, "left"
is radical (and still "tainted" by association with communism).
In nature, no living system chooses between conservation
and radical change as a way of life. Some living systems, such as
squids and sharks, cockroaches and certain lizards, have functioned so
well despite dramatic changes in their environments that they have
survived virtually unchanged over eons, rather like bicycles in the
jet age. Others, such as our own human species, have virtually leaped
into change. But they have not taken their particular directions from
some unflinching commitment to either conservation or change; they have
simply done what was called for depending on circumstances. Most
species combine conservation and change as circumstances demand. Fifty
years of laboratory evidence shows that when they change, they do so by
rearranging their DNA intelligently in response to circumstances in the
environment (Sahtouris, E. A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us, Wiley, New York 1998).
Thus Nature interweaves conservation and change to
protect what works and change what doesn't. And we would do well to
adopt that strategy, as Alvin Toffler suggested some time ago in urging
us to stop looking left and right, but rather to assess any idea in
terms of whether it will lead us forward or backward (Toffler, A. The Third Wave, Wm. Collins, London, 1980).
In practice, it turns out, there was more in common between
capitalism and communism than their professed either/or ideologies
indicated. Alvin Toffler was the first author I recall talking about
parallels between the Soviet East and the Capitalist West. Both, he
pointed out, were unfairly exploiting the Third World to support their
large industrialist economies. Now David Korten goes further, telling
us " a modern economic system based on the ideology of free market
capitalism is destined to self-destruct for many of the same reasons
that the Marxist economy collapsed in Eastern Europe and the former
Soviet Union." (Mander & Goldsmith, editors. The Case Against the Global Economy and For a Return to the Local, Sierra Books 1996). He spells out these common features as:
the concentration of economic power in unaccountable
and abusive centralized institutions (state or transnational
the destruction of ecosystems in the name of progress;
the erosion of social capital by dependence on disempowering mega institutions;
narrow views of human needs by which community values and spiritual connection to the Earth are eroded.
Note that all of these illustrate systems in which the "top" level is empowered by disempowering
local and individual levels. We are accustomed to understanding this
about communist systems, but we have ignored the erosion of our own
democratic principles in the process of capitalist globalization.
A another example of the either/or syndrome, the USA's President Clinton's Commission on Sustainability,
in its initial meetings, actually argued whether discussions of
ecological sustainability need involve economics. The debate occurred
because we have created yet another apparent either/or situation: economics versus ecology--sometimes
epitomized in the United States as "jobs versus spotted owls." In the
brief time I was given to address this Commission, I pointed out that ecology in Greek is the logos or organization, of the oikos (society as "household"), and ecology the "household's" nomos
or rules. Thus, they can hardly be at odds in any healthy society. The
problem is not whether they need be linked, but that we separated them
in the first place! (Recall here Xilonem Garcia's earlier quoted
comment that "Anyone who knows how to run a household, knows how to run
Our latest version of the either/or syndrome seems to be in a growing debate on globalization versus localization, as is implied, for example, by the title just cited: "The Case Against Globalization and Toward Local Economy." While most authors of this recent IFG (International Forum on Globalization) book are really only opposed to the way in which globalization is happening, considerable numbers of people actually are arguing this situation in classical and ultimately unrealistic either/or fashion.
A balance of all levels:
It is of the utmost importance that we not let economic
globalization override the interests of people and their local
economies and ecosystems, for this would be a grave violation of the principles of living systems, as we have just seen. Local economies are holons within the global human holarchy, and must have the power to negotiate effectively, in their own self-interest, with other levels of that holarchy.
The solution to our currently imbalanced globalization is not to oppose globalization; it is to do globalization better.
We can easily see that balance among the interests of the global
holon and those of the regional and local holon economies it comprises
is as important as the balance between the interests of any local
economy (as a holon) and those of the individual people and non-human
species which comprise it.
Thus the appropriate response to the world corporate interests
that railroaded the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and
the WTO (World Trade Organization) into existence under the rubric of
"economic liberalism" without in fact giving it a democratic vote after
adequate information, is clearly the strengthening of self-sufficient
local economies, as David Korten, Herman Daly, Edward Goldsmith and
other members of the IFG have explained. It is also to launch a
sufficiently strong movement to demand change in the GATT and /WTO
themselves, and in the United Nations which spawned them as it earlier
spawned the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund).
Taking our cues from our bodies, or from the Earth itself,
with its diverse ecosystems, we can see that bioregionalism--basic
local self-sufficiency economics which takes all species, including
humans, into account -- is as necessary and important an aspect of
healthy globalization as are equitable international trade relations.
Certainly no one part of a healthy globalized economy will be able to
exploit another. That means local economies will have
to protect themselves against unfair trade and strong economies will
have to permit that protection in their own interests of seeing a
healthy global economy.
Soros points out in his Atlantic Monthly article that in nature, "Cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition" and again, "The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest." But unless self-interest is "tempered by a recognition of a common interest," the society, on which the market rests, "is liable to break down." This is an excellent example of understanding living systems principles.
That is, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" by all people must be possible within the global economy
Dynamics of Natural Democracy
My tradition helps us learn that individual and group needs must be
met in ongoing ways for the People to survive as a People... As we try
to consciously and conscientiously fit economics and business back into
a holistic approach to life and living; there is much that can be
learned from societies and communities that have never forgotten that
wholeness;... communities that understand Life as flows of energy,...
[in which] everyone receives basic support.... everyone contributes...
no part is separate from any other part... the health of the whole
enables the health of any part thereof... sickness of the smallest part
impacts the whole.
--Paula Underwood, World Business Academy Journal,
vol. 10 no 4, 1996
In historic terms, capitalism and communism are human social
systems experiments that looked good in theory but proved problematic
in practice. One has failed; the other is still being tested. Both have
imbalanced the interests of individual and community by making one
subservient to the other, rather than putting them in balance with each
It is of considerable interest that both capitalism and communism
were in part inspired by the democratic political economy and social
structure of the Native American Haudenosaunee, a union of native nations that the Europeans called Iroquois.
Ben Franklin, influential with the other founding fathers of the USA,
on the one hand, and Friedrich Engels, who influenced Karl Marx, on the
other, were inspired by this unique democracy. Unfortunately, neither
the capitalist nor the communist systems inspired by the Haudenosaunee really understood her tradition as Paula Underwood describes it above.
It is still a lesson to be learned from many native cultures
that humankind is but one holon within the Earth holarchy. In such
awareness, we all would see clearly the advantage in negotiating (not
eliminating) our human differences, and we would also cease and desist
immediately our denial of planetary interests and our profligate
destruction of the ecosystems sustaining us with ever more difficulty.
If we were an intelligent species--and that
remains to be demonstrated, given our knowing destruction of our own
life support system and our rather juvenile antagonisms over what
belongs to whom--we would look to the planet that spawned us for
guidance in human affairs, as was the original purpose of natural and
political philosophy in ancient Greece. It would then become obvious
that human affairs have reached the danger level at which cooperation must restore the imbalances of aggressive competition and hoarding if we are to survive.
What's to be done?
Survival means the survival of humankind as a whole, not just a part
of it.... If the South cannot survive, the North is going to crumble.
If countries of the Third World cannot pay their debts, you are going
to suffer here in the North. If you do not take care of the Third
World, your well-being is not going to last, and you will not be able
to continue living in the way you have been for much longer.
--Thich Nat Han, "The Heart of Understanding"
The global wave of protests against the unfair advantage of huge
corporations and bodies such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) that
represent their interests, as I said at the outset, is a healthy
reaction necessary to rebalancing holarchy in our species is to survive
the current crises. We have seen that globalization is the natural
next phase of evolution. We are not entirely in control of this
process and it is beyond our power to stop. We have already globalized
transportation, communications, money, industries, food, weapons,
pollution and other aspects of human culture, many of them peacefully.
Sir James Goldsmith, one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time, was quoted in a London Times article of 1994 (March 5). He said: "What
an astonishing thing it is to watch a civilization destroy itself
because it is unable to re-examine the validity, under totally new
circumstances, of an economic ideology." That ideology is now questioned and discussed ever more openly.
The main problem is being identified as imbalance in our global
economics. All the WTO's member states authorize the WTO to do their
business negotiations and all are bound by its decisions. They can be
forced to change any of their own present or future laws if, as the WTO
provisions read , "the attainment of any [WTO] objective is being
impeded" by its existence. The trade dispute panels of the WTO and
NAFTA do not guarantee members' economic disinterest. Further, they
keep all their proceedings, documents and transcripts secret. There
cannot be any media or citizen participation, and no review or appeal
This constitutes a loss of sovereignty among the member
nations, whose agreements to join were railroaded through congresses
with inadequate discussion. But it is not too late to redress these
severe imbalances as the world's people wake up to them.
Under present WTO practices, Thailand has been told it cannot
refuse to import US cigarettes for health reasons, and Indonesia may
not keep the rattan it needs for domestic use. Neither children nor
adults are protected from exploitative and unhealthy conditions of
labor, and no member country may make any effort to protect its local
industry and employment against erosion by unfair competition in the
world market. Self-sufficient organic farming is literally outlawed,
while poisonous chemicals are forced on countries, destroying the
health of people, crops, land, air and water for the sake of short-term
profits in high places. The US, after long grassroots efforts
resulting in bans on tuna fish caught without ensuring the safety of
dolphins, is now being forced to import it again. Europe fights hard
against forced imports of genetically altered foods.
As each injustice comes to light, people become informed and active. The good news is that we don't have
to do our economics inequitably to globalize. It is possible, as Hazel
Henderson has pointed out for decades, to do win/win, rather than
win/lose, economics. (Paradigms in Progress: Life Beyond Economics, 1991; Building a Win/Win World, 1996).
As Henderson points out, the UN's most powerful nations
commandeered the World Bank and the IMF, then dominated the GATT
discussions and set up the WTO together with corporations and financial
institutions. Yet the UN's special agencies, during the same timespan,
formed agreements and treaties on nuclear proliferation (IAEA), air
traffic rules (IATA) and postal rates (GPU), also working doggedly on
health, education and security issues, as well as accepting a great
deal of criticism and recommendations for UN restructuring, which is
now an official process. Obviously the UN can only be as good as its
member states will make it and as NGO (Non-Government Organizations)
can push it to be.
Polls show clearly that the people of the United States
support the UN overwhelmingly, while their presumably representative
government does not pay its dues and periodically threatens to quit.
Interesting global power shifts would happen if it did. Henderson
recommends a new UN funding structure by a tiny tax (.003%) on
international currency transactions, global commons use fees, "sin
taxes" on polluters, drug traffic fines and taxes on arms sales, to
avoid the problems created by non-payment of dues by its members.
The UN, whatever its problems and whatever our view of it is,
remains, as Henderson points out, "the world's major networker, broker,
and convenor of new global negotiations." All the new problems of
globalization are centered in its spinoffs, especially the newer GATT
and WTO. So we must also see as a sign of hope the relentless popular
pressure of NGOs that is proving itself increasingly an agent of
In 1995 the UN World Summit on Social Development in
Copenhagen, covered by two thousand journalists, discussed replacing
GNP measures with a people centered and ecologically sustainable "new
development paradigm." The 1996 UN Habitat II Summit in Istanbul
hosted a World Business Forum that set up a process for Global
Standards. Inside the World Bank, its own staff is now in the process
of creating significant progressive changes. Now, in 1999, NGOs are
sponsoring the Hague Appeal for Peace.
In addition to such NGOs, labor organizations, religious
organizations such as the United Religions Initiative and others
devoted to interfaith peace and alliances, various conscious investment
and pension funds, meetings such as the annual Gorbachev Foundation
sponsored State of the World conferences and grassroots movements are
all playing a role in global awareness and the restructuring of human
society. These are just a few of many examples showing that we are
growing wiser as a species in our self-organization at the global
Some capitalist entrepreneurs are uniting with each other to
work out ways of doing alternative and responsible-to-community
capitalism in organizations such as The World Business Academy,
Business for Social Responsibility, the Social Ventures Network and the
Conscious Business Alliance. Certain corporations are moving toward
stakeholder ownership, very serious recycling, and holarchic decision
making. Role models such as the Body Shop, Interface and Ben and
Jerry's show us the possible future of all business enterprises.
The picture of globalization and the needs and aspirations of
the human community are clarifying now and we can get on with the task
of insuring our civilization against demise. We can prove ourselves a
mature species, ready to learn from our parent planet's four and a half
billion years of experience in evolving workable living systems.
The beloved American author Mark Twain tells the story of a
young man returning from his first forays out into the world, amazed on
hearing his father speak--surprised at all his father has learned while
he was gone. It is of course a characterization not of new learning in
the father, but in the son. The son's budding maturity lies in his new
ability to listen to an elder's accumulated wisdom.
When we humans, after all a very young species, drop our
adolescent arrogance of thinking we know it all and read the wisdom in
our parent planet's accumulated experience of living systems design, we
too will mature as a species, to our own benefit and that of all other
species, as well as the planet itself.
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