What Would a Down-to-Earth Economy Look Like?

David Korten, YES! Magazine

The most recent YES! Magazine is entitled What Would Nature Do? This latest issue is filled with thought provocative articles looking at our lives and culture through the lens of the question “What would Nature do?”.

Co-founder David Korten raised poignant question in his article:  What Would a Down-to-Earth Economy Look Like?  Clearly this is a pivotal question for our times and for our advocacy for recognizing the Rights of Nature.

A Human Economy Based on Nature

Nature surrounds us with expressions of the organizing principles that make possible life’s exceptional resilience, capacity for adaptation, creative innovation, and vibrant abundance.

Organizing Principle

Wall Street


Defining valueMoneyLife
Primary performance indicatorsGrowth, financial returns, flows, and assetsLife’s abundance, health, resilience, and creative potential
Primary dynamicCompetition to maximize self-interestCooperation to optimize self- and community interest
Decision-making powerGlobal, top-down, centralized, and concentratedLocal, bottom-up, and distributed
Time frameImmediate returnSustained yield
Local characterUniformDiverse
Resource controlMonopolizedShared
Resource flowsGlobal, linear, one-time use from mine to dumpLocal, circular, perpetual use, zero waste
Deficits of concernFinancialSocial and environmental
Measure of efficiencyReturns to financial capitalReturns to social and natural capital
GrowthInfinite growth of money and material consumptionA stage in life’s endless regenerative cycles of birth, growth, death, and rebirth

If nature were in charge of creating an enduring human economy, she would surely apply the same principles she applies in natural systems. Her goal would be a global system of bioregional living economies that secure a healthy, happy, productive life for every person on the planet in symbiotic balance with the non-human systems on which we humans depend for breathable air, drinkable water, fertile soils, timber, fish, grasslands, and climate stability. Each bioregional economy would meet its own needs for energy, water, nutrients, and mineral resources through sustained local capture, circular flow, utilization, and repurposing. Decision making would be local and the system would organize from the bottom up. Diversity and redundancy would support local adaptation and resilience.

It takes humility to recognize that what we’ve called progress isn’t always for the better. Sometimes nature’s original idea was a better one.

This should be our goal and vision. With the biosphere as our systems model, we would design our economic institutions and rules to align with nature’s rules and organizing principles. We would replace GDP as the primary measure of economic performance with a new system of living system indicators that assess economic performance against the outcomes we actually want—healthy, happy people and healthy, resilient natural systems. These indicators might be based on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. We would redirect the time, talent, and money we currently devote to growing GDP, material consumption, securities bubbles, and Wall Street bonuses to producing the outcomes we really want.

We would favor local, cooperative ownership and control. Organizing from the bottom up in support of bioregional self-reliance, our economic institutions would support local decision-making in response to local needs and opportunities. Cultural and biological diversity and sharing within and between local communities would support local and global resilience and facilitate life-serving system innovation.

The result would be an economy based on a love of life that honors the original instructions and conforms to the organizing principles of nature, real markets, and true democracy. The challenge is epic in its proportion and long overdue.

We are Earth’s children; she is our mother. We must honor and care for her as she loves and cares for us. Together we can forge an integral partnership grounded in the learning and deep wisdom of her 3.8 billion-year experience in nurturing life’s expanding capacities for intelligent self-organization, creative innovation, and self-reflective consciousness.

Read the article in Yes Magazine at   What Would a Down-to-Earth Economy Look Like?

David Korten wrote this article for What Would Nature Do?, the Winter 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. David is board chair of YES! Magazine. He holds MBA and Ph.D. degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. His books include Agenda for a New Economy and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.