We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

Lent, Jeremy | December 6, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Photo by Allena Lang

Photo by Allena Lang

In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecology practices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System Project, The Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

The Patterning Instinct thumbnail_Lent_bookcover

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Richard Blaber

    While I wouldn’t go quite so far as Jason G. Brent, I would point out that the author doesn’t mention the subject of population, or population control, & that is absolutely vital, if his ‘ecological civilisation’ is to work. As I have said before, & will reiterate just once more, in the forlorn hope that someone, at least, will take some notice: we either control our population ourselves, voluntarily, or ‘Mother Nature’ will do it for us, through the Gaia feedback mechanism. We won’t like the latter process, which will take the form of a random & drastic cull, entailing billions of deaths. It’s entirely our choice.

  • Jason G. Brent

    The answer is very simple— put a bullet in the back of the head of anyone who fathers a second child or mother who produces a second child. Since humanity will not follow that advice, our species will go extinct most likely before 2100 and definitely before 2050.

  • I am a profound pessimist about the future because biologically we are a rapacious species ( as is every other, otherwise it wouldn’t have survived) and with our highly developed brains imagining and creating all sorts of new “pleasures” and “wants”, we are incapable of stopping our freight train of destruction of the planet before it’s too late. I do do my little part with http://www.34millionfriends.org of the U.N. Population Fund. Look it up.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    WOW! How fabulously naive. The negative human impact on the organization of and numbers of other animals on the planet is the direct result of TOO DAMN MANY HUMANS! We are now nearly 3,000 times more populous than our ecologically balanced hunter-gatherer ancestors of 12,000 years ago, before the agricultural revolution led to a population explosion and urbanization, as well as beginning ecological imbalances and environmental decline. They lived in that state of balance for tens of thousands of years but at the same population levels: 2.6M total. We are the species most talented in the fine art of self delusion and denial, as this crap from the appropriately named author Lent. Where’d I put my lent brush? Oh, there it is. Now, I feel cleaner. Stress R Us

  • “We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production.”
    This sentence is one version of the core appeal/demand of many who understand that the character of our Modern/Industrial form of civilization is now a path to death.
    I agree that this is the path we Moderns are on and that if we carry on that we will take much of the rest of the world with us.
    The interesting question is, “Why don’t they (we) listen, understand and change?” (If you already a response to this question which satisfies you, you can stop reading.)
    I cut into this question in a place that is much neglected. I note:
    1. The 1st Enlightenment deemed there to be an unbridgeable gulf between “the objective natural world” and “human beings as observers” of the natural world.
    2. Since environmental sciences arose within our Modern world on the basis of 1st Enlightenment ways of knowing, it accepted this division and still perpetuates it.
    3. It follows that ecologists would have us see ourselves simply as one biological species among many others. For environmentalists the categories, mental models and logic of biology determine all else. The signs read, “Down with naive anthropomorphism.”)
    4. For good and ill, the claim that human persons are biological creatures is true. Yes, naive anthropomorphism has to go. So far, so good.
    5. But there is more. Every one of us knows that as persons there is more to us than can be stuffed into and accounted for by biological metaphors.
    6. And so, “they” as persons get it that the future offered to them by the environmental movement has no more of a place for humans as persons than does the mechanistic world of Newtonian physics.
    7. Maybe the core gut reason why so many are not attracted to a “ecological civilization” is the intuition that such a world has no place for us as persons.
    8. In this gut hunch they would be quite right. We who care about the environment have not yet figured this out.
    9. If we want more traction with ordinary folks (which clearly we do), we must move beyond the 1st Enlightenment ways of knowing, imagining, thinking things through and acting in the world. Only so will we be able to make our fellow citizens an offer of a future that honours them as persons. Until we do, they experience us as dissing them. Not a good start to a relationship.
    10. Until we too, as persons, aspire to become a community of persons who are co-creating “an ecological-personal” form of civilization, most of those we try to prod along with objective science-based facts will (rightly) continue to ignore us.
    11. The transformation we seek in them, must also be our experience as we seek to become the kind of persons we would have others be.
    12. Besides, the dirty secret that ecologists refuse to face is that we need what Paul Ricoeur used to call “a second order” anthropomorphism. In the Anthropocene we are stuck governing ourselves and evolution for the foreseeable future. This will require a far deeper humanity, including humility, than biology knows or can know.
    13. Many folks are more ready than we know for leaders who not only understand this profound shift in stance towards reality, but are themselves living examples of persons struggling to live it. Sadly, even tragically, there is not enough life in 1st Enlightenment ways of knowing and being to nurture this revolutionary evolution.

  • Heartlander11

    As I have several times on this MAHB site I challenge the academic and scientific communities to lead by example. How much plastic waste is generated by laboratories every day? How much of this work would be better served by studying nature in situ or by acquiring shared data? How many square feet of new buildings have appeared on campuses in the past decade? There is plenty of existing/public spaces that could have shared uses with academia. I recently visited a new building on a campus that was essentially an edifice and an atrium. How much water, food, and carbon is consumed unsustainably each and every day by colleges, universities, and institutes? Perhaps it is time to stop writing, writing, writing, and talking, talking, talking? Maybe it is time for demonstrating, sacrificing, and leading.

    • Joshua M. Rosenau

      The time has come for anyone working in the areas of climate change and mass extinction to see that if they truly believe this problem to be real, then they must leave the false safety of their offices, classrooms, homes and cars. They must come to the view that what was once the “normal way of doing things” is now a threat.

      They must see that the only way to achieve the changes that will reduce future harms is by agitating, getting arrested and using the threat of civil disobedience to bring the holders of power to embrace reforms.

      The time for persuasion has ended. The time for non-violent disruption has begun.

      If you agree, please join Extinction Rebellion.

  • Joanna Wilkie

    If wishes were fishes. I wish you well,Jeremy,but have a look at where we are now. Trump.Bolsonaro. An Australian prime minister who carries a lump of coal into parliament and
    declares it is harmless to humanity. We are in an age where most people are ecologically clueless. We have run out of time to change the institutions of a civilisation on its way to termination. Just today I came across this article by a fruitcake who is an associate professor of
    geography. It would be difficult to find an essay which is wrong about just about everything it discusses,but there it is. As I was reading it,I thought this is like Julian Simon’s ramblings, and then read at the end that he has won a Julian Simon prize. Never mind. I have read your book,
    and wish you all the best . If the link doesn’t post,go to quillette.com . The article is ‘The one-sided worldview of ecopessimists’.

    comment by david higham.