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7,000,000,000 Humans on One Planet? How Does That Work?

It happened somewhere in October, 2011. A baby homo sapien was born and she or he became the seven billionth member of that species alive at that moment. As recently as 1940, the year I was born, homo sapiens totaled a “mere” 2.3 billion. We tripled our numbers in my lifetime!

“With seven billion of us now inhabiting our planet, it is time to reflect on our current path.” So says the introduction of the United Nations report prepared by its Panel on Global Sustainability. That report, “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing,” has been released in anticipation of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held this summer on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Conference where U.S. President George H.W. Bush said that the U.S. lifestyle was not negotiable. The report makes 56 recommendations for sustainable development and says “we need to change direction dramatically, beginning with how we think about our relationship to each other, to future generations, and to the eco-systems that support us.”


But I’m putting my money on the activists who recently gathered in Port Alegre, Brazil. They, too, were preparing for a conference on the 20th anniversary of Rio. Their People’s Summit will be a counterpoint to the UN Summit. The People’s Summit is far more likely to identify the “dramatic change” that the UN report calls for than is the UN Conference. The reason is that the UN Conference relies too heavily on the global corporations to design the green economy. Because the ruling corporations are committed first to their own profits, not the planet or people, their greening of global capitalism cannot make the sharp turn Earth now requires. Unless the U.S. lifestyle becomes negotiable in 2012, 20 years after Rio, the unequal distribution of Earth’s resources assures a system that will careen off the path for living in right relationships on one planet. As of this moment, there is NO turning from such planetary disaster. The breakdown of the current corporate-driven system in 2008, and the extreme weather episodes it accelerates, will multiply like breakdowns of an overloaded, 30 year old jalopy tagged with a sign “California or Bust.”

The People’s Summit, by contrast, will be resilient, flexible, and driven by scientific information, life-changing commitment, and love. They will decide democratically and act on the hardwiring in us for cooperative ventures that improve the wellbeing of all life in our regions.

Coincident with the time of these summer gatherings, the One Earth Project that I’m part of will be promoting my book about living on one Earth. There I detail how we, the people—the majority of the seven billion—long to live in right relationships with one another and all animal and plant species of our regions. We have the skills to create the economic structures that fit Earth’s resources. At the moment, governments, captured by corporations that are void of democracy and life-sustaining wisdom, make far more policies to hinder us than help us. When will our people’s work reach the tipping point when governments are forced to change and love the people and planet more than the money of corporations?

With 7,000,000,000 billion of our aggressive species now roaming the planet, love compels us to reflect deeply and to act justly and compassionately for one another and all life. Profit compels no such thing.


Austerity?! Let's Talk about Abundance for All

By now we see that all the talk about austerity in these economic hard times does not apply to the wealthiest whose wealth has increased as their taxes remain low  It does not apply to military spending or the budgets of the intelligence community.  It does not apply to the bankers in the too-big-to-fail banks. It does apply to those with no jobs, low-paying jobs, and insecure jobs. It does apply to students in state universities, to people without health insurance, and to many who can no longer self-identify as middle class.

If truth were the reigning norm instead of ideology, the word “austerity” could come from the lips of our president, Congress, financial and corporate leaders only with embarrassment. More significantly, the word is an insult to Creation who continues to offer abundance intended for all. If the ones talking about austerity would use an economic model of sustainability instead of unlimited growth, Creation’s abundance would be finding its way to the tables of families. Energy would be low-carbon or no-carbon, decentralized in its distribution, and increasing quality of life in countless places.

Consider the following paragraphs on abundance from my upcoming book on “The Eden We Can Choose: Moving to a One-Earth Economy and the Stories That Get Us There” —at least that’s the working title.


In a culture where more is better, where more means progress, where more grows the  economy, “Enough!” is heard by many as quitting or as agreeing to be marginalized.  The business and organization proverb, “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying,” goes even further by regarding “Enough!” as economic suicide.  But in a one-Earth economy, “Enough!” is the strong word that reveals the very order of Creation.  It defines the limits in which all of life can thrive, or, if ignored, decline and die.  Creation’s order includes limits such as gravity, distance, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and high-velocity wind storms.  These are unforgiving and yet vitally beneficial to Earth’s gifts of rich, livable habitat.  

In a multi-Earth economy, “More!” is the goal to which imaginations and most daily efforts bend.  Limits?  Regulations?  These are to be circumvented or undone.  “Enough” cannot be defined in a model of economics that serves empires. But in an economic model that serves all Earth’s life, “Enough!” stirs our generative and creative powers in a model of abundance that has the astonishing capacity to cooperatively distribute the resources of the planet for all her life forms.

Much as we humans can rebel against imposed limits, real limits give us precisely the structures in which we can live freely, justly, and interdependently.  It is the real limits inherent in nature that give us the structures within which to work.  They are not government regulations, state control, or institutional policies.  Nor are they corporation contracts for resources and labor that give greater priority to wealth accumulation than to a better life for all.  They are the order of Creation, what makes Creation work.  They are evolutionarily exciting, and gift us with the stability that sustains life.  Creation’s order is revelatory, informing us of limits that are recognized by commonsense.

The after-Egypt manna gatherers in the wilderness learned to imitate nature’s life-giving limits.  They learned to use self-restraint by gathering only enough for each day, literally, daily bread.  Any more would rot.  And if they practiced greed instead of repeated actions of self-restraint, they would rot the entire sharing economy. That’s what the multi-Earths global economy has done.  Instead, the daily achievement of the manna-gatherers was not only sufficiency for their household, but to assure the common good—two high ideals in their post-imperial consciousness.

All of the learnings involved in the manna story, all of its power to help us go feral, nonetheless, do not, guarantee that we will not again be attracted to the civilization story requiring multi-Earths.  Our choice to live a one-Earth story is made again and again, each day.  Each choice deepens our conversion from the scarcity worldview of empire to an abundance-with-limits worldview.

Only in a one-Earth economy where abundance is real and has limits—both!—can we experience the feeling of an abundance that is sufficient, sharing, and loving.  Multi-Earths economies have created a legacy of capturing a lot of Creation’s generosity, but with limited consciousness or structures for sharing.  One-Earth economies, by learning from nature how she does it, have created a legacy of claiming as much of Creation’s generosity as is needed, and also growing the consciousness and structures for sharing.  It is the recognition by one-Earth, jubilee economies that nature is a wise teacher, a revealer of how to live, that makes one-Earth living so well-adapted for Earth’s style of abundance.


Putting Ourselves in the Geological Epochs

Here is another excerpt from an early chapter of an upcoming book on an economy that fits our one planet, Earth.

The revelatory aspect of the ecological age finds expression in the ecological archetype which finds its most effective expression in the great story of the universe.

—Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p. 34

What time is it in Earth’s story? Thinking in terms of geological epochs, we currently live in the Holocene epoch, a subcategory of the Pleistocene Era. The Holocene dates from 12,000 years ago, or 10,000 BCE. That is when the last epoch of glaciation across the northern hemisphere receded and temperatures began to moderate globally. All of what we call the “history of civilization” has happened within this Holocene period (Wikipedia) —a period of relative climate stability. The story of homo sapiens goes back well before civilization to 200,000 years ago. That puts the emergence of our homo sapiens ancestors in the latter part of the Pleistocene epoch which measures back to 1.8 million years ago.

The appearance of civilization, so recent in the human story, begs the question of how our ancestors embraced or resisted the big changes that evolved with the emergence of the civilization project. Because saying “yes” or “no” to what the process of civilization calls progress continues today, we can project ourselves into those same debates of our ancestors 12,000 years ago.

As temperatures moderated in the Holocene epoch, changes began to accelerate and the debates inevitably followed. What was good about the changes? What was not? Was a more sedentary lifestyle really better than a migratory or nomadic one? Not for many whose migratory patterns became blocked by settlements. Settling in a location became more and more possible as humans learned to select seeds and grow grains with nutrition and greater yield. Previously, humans had necessarily followed migratory herds and food sources that changed with seasons and weather cycles. Only in the Holocene epoch did homo sapiens accelerate the development of agriculture, exchange of resources, trade, and language skills. Transportation, writing, standards of measurement, art, contracts—all these and other components to “civilize” life evolved.

The advance and progress these capacities brought, organized humans in new ways. Advance and “progress” did not automatically empower all equally. Power and wealth concentrated among some even at the expense of others and of nature herself. Occupations increased in specialization. Villages became towns; towns became cities. Huge ambivalences regarding justice emerged. Contradictory views on good and evil emerged and expanded throughout civilization as its story unfolded over millennia to the present (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization).

In time, rules for owning land privately and making economic exchanges through money greatly accelerated the civilization story, a story that became more and more a story of economic domination, and more and more a story of the domination of the homo sapiens species over all others. The good and evil in this evolving story is staring us down today—12,000 years from its beginning, just a staccato note in the music of Earth and Cosmos.

Today, it is common for humans to function with amnesia regarding the recentness of our presence as part of Earth’s majestic trajectory. For that reason, putting ourselves in the geological timeline adjusts the lens we use for seeing how we fit in with Earth herself. It gives us a perspective that the human civilization story does not. The geological timeline reveals important truth missed by the civilization story, namely, that for hundreds of thousands of years homo sapiens lived WITHIN the story of a single planet. For all those years on Earth, we humans did not threaten the carrying capacity of Earth to sustain and regenerate life. We fit.

Despite this important revelation, most modern human beings will not find much in this evolutionary timeline to excite us for living today. After all, have we not evolved to a higher level of consciousness and capacity than those primitive peoples? Are primitive peoples not dying out, a relic of past times? What is there for us to aspire to among the uncivilized? Do they not need to be brought into the modern world? None of us wants to be a hunter or gatherer today.

Today, words like “primitive” and “uncivilized” are used to emphasize the inferior status of these early humans compared to us. They had not yet evolved to our advanced brain capacities or cultural complexities. Against this usage, and in light of how modern humans exceed Earth’s carrying capacity, I want to emphasize that “primitive” also means first, primary, primal or foundational; and “uncivilized” also refers to capacities that all of us have to this day which we can use to undo or resist “civilizing” influences that we determine to be unhealthy for us and our planet.


Earth, Our One-Planet Home, Evolves Her Story

Here is excerpt #4 from the forthcoming book and media project on one-Earth living, namely, an economic model that fits within the resources of our one-planet home and how we can practice that now. Please offer your critiques to these excerpts.

Earth is our one-planet home. Whatever economy we design and use, sooner or later Earth will require it to fit her magnificent order.

Spinning and orbiting around a thermonuclear star every year, she holds us close in her gravitational love. Her mystery and math awaken our sense of the sacred. Divine Presence speaks and teaches through her, alternating explosive drama with silence and space. Her birth, about 4 billion years ago, brought forth a magnificent miracle in our universe. Since her birth, she has continued to create. Her evolution has not waned. Her capacities for abundance generate endless, varied cycles of life and death and life again…. As some forms wane and die, new forms emerge. Her patient, persistent generativity has overcome large extinctions as her deep sources to birth new creations reconfigure over millennia. Neither the language of science or poetry can say what she says in language older than words.

Homo Sapiens Emerge and “Fit in”

So where do we humans fit in? Pardon the ego-centric nature of the question. Yet, “fitting in” is what we humans have recently, meaning the past several millennia, done poorly. As wealth has increased, we humans have been very dissatisfied with Earth’s wardrobe. Her desire to clothe all has not matched the desires of humans with more power and affluence to be clothed in privileges amassed for themselves. We often behave more as misfits than good fits. So, “fitting in” is a universal issue for humans in the 21st century. Are we inside of Earth’s four billion year awe and wonder? Or, during this current geological epoch, have we used rational thinking to construct a platform outside of her truth? Have we now put our trust in a story of progress full of improvements on her evolutionary genius?

Earth’s story proceeds for over 3.5 billion years before it comes to the chapter in which humans evolved. Homo sapiens, the first human ancestors with anatomies like ours, emerged perhaps 200,000 years ago in the Omo River valley of what is today Ethiopia, though some students of fossil records propose the emergence happened in multiple areas, not only one. Either way, we humans do have a long story, but it is much shorter than the 4 billion year story of Earth. Even shorter is the time when what we call “culture” first appeared. Tool use is one of the indicators anthropologists use to determine that cultures were forming. Though in use for 2.5 million years, well before homo sapiens emerged, tool use increased greatly beginning about 50,000 years ago, or 150,000 after the emergence of homo sapiens. Verbal language, a very important indicator of culture, does not appear in the fossil record, of course, but it presumably was used a long time before the written languages that appear 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

Geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists continue to read the text of Earth written in a language older than words. Their careful and self-correcting readings and interpretations of Earth’s story, lavishly shared through many web articles, continually reveal the intricate interconnecting dynamics to all of us who want to know more about our one planet home.


The Earth Story and the Civilization Story

Here is excerpt #3 from the forthcoming book and media project on one-Earth living, i.e., what is the economic model that fits within the resources of our one-planet home and how we can practice that now. Please offer your critiques to these excerpts.

There are two large stories, not one, underway in our lives. The one we hear most about is the story of human civilization; the unfolding story of world events, life in our community, and how we and our immediate circle of relationships participate in this story. This story so occupies what we call “news” that the second large story seems only for specialists who study it. It is the story of the Earth, our planetary home. This story, studied and told by life scientists, geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists, is really the much larger, older, and dynamic of the two stories. It is, in fact, the larger context in which the human story happens. But for the majority of us, it is a secondary story—like a specialty shop for the few rather than a supermarket for the many.

Or so it was!  But no longer.

Today the Earth story is getting in our faces. It’s not just the meteorologists telling us about extreme weather. Nor the scientists telling us about new stars or new surprise discoveries of fossils or buried artifacts that fill gaps in the story. It is also insurance companies defining limits on which natural disasters they will cover as changes in climate are greatly increasing the number of disasters. It is the U.S. military planning for how to respond to conflicts arising from migrations caused by the exhaustion of mineral and oil resources, or by land that has been farmed for centuries turning to desert, or by low lands and shorelines becoming submerged by rising waters. It is people needing to change careers because their fishing business that has extended over several generations is no longer providing a living due to the collapse of marine species.

The Earth is speaking with increasing volume and frequency. Many of us are hearing her now; many are not. Still deaf. Or hearing, they rush to secure their privileges, power, and assets, not yet believing that Earth’s story holds the remaining trump cards. Or in a different metaphor some use, Earth bats last.

After reading this Section, look anew at the “news.” Which story is being talked about? We humans have been shaped to think that the story of human history is the only one, or at least the only one that really matters. The ego-centrism of that way of thinking contains within it the seed of its own destruction. That seed sprouted some time ago and is now bearing fruit. This Section says plainly why that way of thinking has been wrong all along. The two-story way of thinking is not only rooted in the truth of the Cosmos, it also gives us the story that we can live by if we can bring ourselves to choose it. Many already have. But as of this moment, the human civilization story continues its irrational pursuit of endless “progress” and unlimited growth. In this it behaves like cancer cells which grow and grow, outflanking the immune system, until they kill their host.  Is there still time to intervene? Is there still time, if we choose the Earth story to live by, for Earth’s immune system to gobble up the cancer cells and still offer humans and all species inhabitable Earth space? These are the questions we are living. The answers are not now known.


The Inherent Spirituality of a One-Earth Story and Economy

The following is from the “Preface” of an upcoming book on an economy focused in the wellbeing of our planet and all her inhabiting species.

Each religious tradition, through various spokespersons, speaks of living faithfully within Earth’s majestic, evolving story. Similarly, each religious tradition has voices critiquing economic behaviors and systems that exceed what Creation’s orders can handle. The story of Earth and the cosmos of Creation impact us in all those ways that we cluster in such words as “spiritual,” “sacred,” and “holy.” That impact evokes in us awe, wonder, reverence, worship, caring, love, and great inquisitiveness. Our curiosity is expressed in both everyday observations and in refined scientific inquiry.

This inherent spirituality in the story of the Earth and cosmos is expressed also in the economy of creation. That economy is neither capitalism nor socialism. It is an economy for the common good. Primitive peoples copied this economy. The traditional practices of Indigenous peoples worldwide continue to co-create with nature those economic practices that express a one-Earth abundance. The Hebrew Scriptures, evolving Indigenous practices of their early peoples, express this economy in their practices of Sabbath day, Sabbath year, and Jubilee year. Christians invoked the same kind of caring economy, seeking the koinonia or solidarity that distinguished their practices as followers of The Way from the practices of Rome’s empire economics. (See our pamphlet, Sabbath Economics In Brief.) Economics, until recently in the human story, was spiritual practice. It was not so much a matter of behaving ethically in economic transactions as it was of actually practicing the way of the Spirit.

Throughout these chapters, a similar kind of holistic economics integrates Spirit with economic structures, systems, and practices. Because of my familiarity with the Hebrew and Christian traditions, I refer most to them, but never with exclusive intent. Nicolas of Cusa, a Christian theologian of the 15th century, expressed such non-exclusive holism or universal connection with this simple sentence: “Divinity is the enfolding and unfolding of everything that is.” No one tradition can corner the market on divinity. It is everywhere; inherent in the Earth, the cosmos, and a one-Earth based economy. The current ecological-economic moment is too big for any one theology or spirituality to assume superiority. All are needed. We may have our preferences, even confessional convictions, but all are needed to function at their most converted levels of consciousness. In addition to all the religious traditions are the many who define their spirituality outside of those traditions, or define themselves without any spirituality at all. I hope that much in these pages is worthy of contributing to the conversation that is underway and which needs to increase among us all.


Is There a One-Earth Story to Live By?

More and more of us are finding that parts of the story we’ve been living aren’t working. When we talk about what we are doing, some words that flowed and described our activity before now stick in our throat, or somewhere. In our gut or heart or head, other voices are saying, “But it’s not working. You need to change.”

This story which is now failing, I call the multi-Earths story because it takes multiple Earths to sustain it. The endless wars and ruthless competition for the resources of our one planet expose this story as utterly inadequate to fit within the carrying capacity of our planet. That the multi-Earths story is a weakling story is further revealed by its reliance on and animation of lower human capacities such as greed and fear. Its frailty to address such realities as radical inequalities of resources and power, species dieoff, and a rapidly expanding population all convince us that we humans are capable of a far better story.

That better story is both as old as homo sapiens and as young as its latest version. It is seasoned by centuries and millennia of previous versions. Contributing to such an updated narrative and helping one another live it, is the mission of the “One-Earth Project.” You can flip to the last chapter and read a version of such a story compiled from the details of the other chapters. It is a story that joyfully fits one Earth.

Early chapters in this “One-Earth Project” describe the story on which the leadership on our planet bases their behaviors. It gives us their version of how to be an economic success as a person, business, or nation. But it has now outlived its viability. Stay with it and it will kill us. So we need to exodus that story with its economy in favor of one that the Earth herself has been telling. That’s what the middle and later chapters are about. In this story, we will experience more about our interconnectedness with all of Creation. Our desire to align our lives and the structures we use with the rest of the Earth Community will be better met. We will feel our solidarity as full participants with all species in the evolutionary processes of one, sustainable Earth, our joint home.

I call this story the one-Earth story. The economics that expresses this story fits with one planet. It builds on perceiving Earth’s abundance and commits itself to the structures by which all, people and species, have enough.

The narrative of the new story has a four part outline.

  1. The problem—Civilization continues to design economies that concentrate wealth and power in a succession of empires of various kinds. These require multiple Earths if they are to serve all. But they don’t. For 12,000 years the civilization project has continually generated wealth for a relative few countries and people while great majorities have had their poverty increased or sustained. Now this civilization project has come face-to-face with a challenge it is ill-equipped to adapt to: Earth, our only home, can no longer sustain the project.
  2. Our participation in the problem—Whether by choice, coercion, or the inability to see a viable alternative, most people of the Earth have been included to a greater or lesser degree in the civilization project. Most of us have not realized that the models we have developed take multiple planets to resource them, not just the one planet we have. Alternative models have been marginalized or ignored but have never gone away. They are rooted in creation and continue to exist and reassert themselves, but they have not so far become a way of healing and salvation for the earth. Earth’s controlling powers shun them for fear of losing their control as they have arranged it. It’s true; they would —just as spiritual wisdom in all religious traditions and outside those traditions has said. Even so, consciousness is changing.
  3. Our turning toward solutions with promise—Now, as Earth herself holds civilization accountable for our economic models, Creation extends anew her invitation to live within her life-giving order. Responding to this gracious invitation is the great work of our time. The best motivators for our turning from the status quo to solutions are love of Creation and Creator, wonder and reverence for the sacred mystery and wisdom shining throughout Creation, and caring for Earth’s entire community, from the millions of microbes in a cubic foot of soil to gigantic sequoias, ivory-tusked rhinos, and the diverse human species. Reconnecting with the state of mystery in the presence of Earth’s many wonders is a major need in our time; meeting that need is within our reach and will result in wisdom unavailable to rational analysis or planning.
  4. The promise—Embedded in Earth’s grand promise is the challenge to join in her move from the Cenozoic Era to the Ecozoic Era (Thomas Berry’s language in his book, The Great Work). Some will call it re-inventing civilization, but the promise is best expressed by creation herself. It lies in her continuously evolving story. Despite the savagery of “civilization’s” economies which result in extinctions, eco-raping, taming, and loss of biodiversity, nature continues to have a wild side, an unconquerable mystery, and teaches us day and night to follow her into a new era of Earth Community for all.

Putting our faith in a one-Earth story may feel risky or daring. But the risks of the multi-Earth story, when accurately perceived, raise much greater alarm. Shifting our faith to a one-Earth story, though not without risk, places our faith in a more dynamic and assured story. First, I emphasize again that it is the story of Earth and the cosmos—a very old story continually evolving into perpetual newness. Also, it is, truly, the only story that our commonsense affirms, given we have only one planet to live on. Furthermore, our basic sense of fairness and love get that the resources of this planet are to be shared with all—not only all humans, but all species. And beyond our commonsense, fairness, and love, many of us have made a spiritual commitment or sacred vow to our Creator to live according to the design of this magnificent Creation.

Each of us needs to be able to tell a version of this story—one that feels compelling to us. The version we tell will testify to why we live our lives as we do, both flaws and triumphs. Our story will give examples of which economic structures we use and why; it will describe the kind of Earth communities we aspire to be part of. The final chapters give broad contours and essential concepts of a one-Earth economy.

I want to emphasize, then, that a one-Earth story is marked by abundance within the creational order, not by scarcity and fear. It is an exciting story because it releases all of our higher capacities to work in our lives and for the common good. It is a story filled with “ah-hahs” because its evolution never stops and perpetually generates newness in ways that surprise us. Why would we not commit ourselves, mind, heart, soul, and strength to love and live such a holy and human story?

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