We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

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. 

Reprinted in: EcoWatch | Common Dreams | Resilience | Open Democracy

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.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

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.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

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.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

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. And the core principles of an ecological civilization have already been set out in the Earth Charter—an ethical framework launched in The Hague in 2000 and endorsed by over 6,000 organizations worldwide, including many governments. 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.

Watch Jeremy Lent’s talk on “Living into an Ecological Civilization”

Presented at Civana House, San Francisco, October 3, 2019

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.

84 thoughts on “We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

  1. an ecological civilization requires a different morality.

    I detail oversurvival in the chapter, The Birth of Evil, in my book, For a Future (www.forafuture.com). I believe I sent you a copy but if you are not aware of having received it I can send you another one.


      1. Yes, except that the poor in Africa, around 20% of the world’s population, produce only two to three percent of all pollution while the richest 20% of the world’s population living privileged energy-intensive lifestyles produce most of the pollution. It is the carbon footprint that matters and as long as that is not addressed, there is little hope that humanity gets it right. We don’t want to look in the mirror but living as we do in the US, Europe or Japan requires the renewable resources of 4-5 planets the size of Earth (overshoot day). The problem is the renewable resources used and the fossil fuels burnt to support lifestyles that most people can’t imagine living without. The problem, of course, is that the other 4/5th of the world’s population wants to live privileged energy-intensive lifestyles. That is the primary problem, raw overpopulation is also a problem, but on a different order.


      2. Choosing a minimalist lifestyle would be good choice to make.
        Live simply so that others may simply live.


      3. It’s an essential first step, Sharon. It may well be that, only after the devastating consequences of anthropogenic climate change and the resultant reduction in human populations, will the penny finally drop for the species homo sapiens sapiens. 🙂


  2. Yes, an ecological human lifeway would be good for all life on this planet. It’s already too late for many species, habitats and ecosystems, though, given a chance, habitats and ecosystems can revive. Extinction is forever.

    How can an unecological society transform itself into an ecological society, when all of the dominant cultural systems are unecological? We cannot change an existing society into something it is not; cultural inertia is far too strong.

    We can however follow Bucky Fuller’s suggestion and build an alternative that makes the status quo obsolete. I see that as what you are attempting with Liology, a path parallel to my own Way of Nature .

    As right as this feels, I don’t see it taking hold until the present dominant culture declines in its own internal contradictions. I feel that Morris Berman’s Monastic Option is the best we can do for now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sorry, but just how do you propose to convert the world’s people — at least those who have been converted to the modern industrial way of life — to your vision of an ‘ecological civilization’? What’s your strategy?

    We NEED growth at present. There are at present simply too many genuine human needs that depend on it to be met: food, water, a roof above our heads, you name it. The continued supply of resources required for answering these needs itself requires the engine of growth to continue running. Ask Gail Tverberg. That’s how much we’ve already committed ourselves to the whole ideology of growth. Do you propose simply to uproot the whole thing and start anew? How many livelihoods are going to be ruined in the process? Or do you seriously think enough people will become enlightened enough to see the truth of your words for us to change course voluntarily? Hey, tell me what you’ve been smoking.

    Of course, continued growth is also going to lead to a very sorry state of affairs for us all; I don’t doubt that at all. But is the choice between growth and no growth a choice between damnation and redemption, as you seem to think it is? Sorry, I think it’s instead a choice between a rock and a hard place. It’s really a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t situation. End growth? We collapse NOW. Continue growth? We collapse a few years later.

    And do you prefer that we collapse now or a few years later? And what do you think most of us are going to prefer?


    1. I agree with Emma’s comment. We can either begin to make changes now to lessen the impact or have it forced on us. Either way it’s going to happen, whether we want it or not.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Nothing can grow forever NOTHING Sooner or later it will collapse, explode or die. The choice is not between growth and no growth it is between growth and sustainable stability. We need to recognise that we have been living off earth’s capital for far too long. There IS no Plan(et) B. When the resources are gone they are gone – and so are we. For a start we could stop wasting so much of what we have and what we grow. No need to return to living in mud huts, as some people accuse environmentalists of advocating; but most of us in the Western world could live more simply if we thought about it. Putting things off for a few years just dumps the problem on our children


    3. That comment summarizes the status quo very well. First, people want ENOUGH food and shelter, not infinite growth; that is just the capitalist system, to which there are alternatives. Look at Cuba, the government simply allowed people to grow their own food and it flourished (granted, the political order and suppression on the island is terrible); Transformation starts with the belief that a better world is possible (read Charles Eisenstein’s book “a better world our hearts know is possible”). Also read Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics. Also read Derrick Jensen’s Myth of human supremacy. Also read Post-Capitalism and Prosperity without growth. Read read read.

      Imagine you are a small business owner. You need a loan for your business and family to survive. You need money to pay the bills, you think you need “growth”. You don’t. If only other members of your local community team up with you, create a coop. Read about microfinance, about women in Kerala or Bolivia, about commons movement. Read, read, read.

      It all depends, as mr. Lent writes, on the ideas available to people. And the destructive infinite-growth idea has proven too darn strong.

      That is our challenge right there.


  4. I propose this quote to be the motto for the Ecological Civilization…….
    “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty
    of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
    Aldo Leopold

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For a future, you’d have to get rid of wealth, certainly the infinite accumulation that we have in the world today. Ecological societies need to be poor, happy and not imperialistic. It will be impossible to get there if the values don’t reflect that. The problem is that not even the liberals are eager to part with their piece of the rock.


  5. Hello,

    In a few years it will be a runaway climate, unless we are able to extract CO from the atmosphere and convert it to a harmless substance, and our society will terminate itself.

    The best way to do this quickly and affordably is with mass tree planting. It absorbs CO and water and makes the planet cooler… Why are politicians so corrupt they only think of economy and jobs when our environment is the most valuable asset we have on this planet?


    1. Environment is not an asset that WE have. The environment on this planet supports all life, not just human beings.

      There is no evidence to suggest that it will be a runaway climate in a few years. This is wild, alarmist speculation that does nothing to help us find solutions to the ills of our unsustainable civilization. We must, right here at home, learn to live as one among many species on this planet, in cooperative interdependence.

      This cannot be accomplished from the top down. We must lead from the soil and the grass roots, become the change we wish to see in the world.


      1. I suggest you read the latest UN report on climate change. The evidence is now incontrovertible. We are heading for extinction within our children’s lifetime.


      2. For social changes that require institutional and systemic society-wide action, individual grass roots changes are not enough, and are usually even prevented by governments and industry (e.g. laws against solar panels, rainwater catchments, living off the grid, etc.). ‘Becoming the change we want to see’ is not possible without top down support.


    2. It is questionable whether the billions of trees currently being planted – good as that is – are able to keep pace with the billions being chopped down. Trees are only one of many ways of absorbing and reducing carbon, = regenerating the soil, restoring wetlands, growing such things as hemp, encouraging certain mosses, ALL those ideas are already being followed, but they need to become mainstream; as do things like permaculture, and the many more natural ways of farming animals such as silvopasturing,


    3. Everywhere people and even governments are planting trees – many of them believe that that is all they need to do and all will be well. BUT they are tiny slips, and hundreds do not survive, and it will be some years before they start soaking up carbon in any useful amount. There are several other carbon sequestering actions – holistic grazing, seaweed plantations, growing hemp or agave are just a few. But dealing with carbon will be running to stand still if we do not also massively reduce the amount we are producing. We need to turn off the tap as well as bail out the bath
      There is evidence that an increasing number of individuals and groups are doing all they can; but while governments are run by self serving oligarchs, supported by big business, whose only concern is money, then we stand no chance – UNLESS they can be persuaded that there is more money to be made from “green” activities. Many are doing their best to divest from earth damaging activities and putting their money into eco friendly businesses – which is great. However that then leaves the door open to those who move in to fund the “bad guys”
      Some think that if we ignore governments and just work hard from the bottom – a huge groundswell – we could accomplish what is required, and I see lots of evidence of so many projects doing fantastic work. I swing wildly from optimism to pessimism – but ultimately I am afraid I will not live to see the renaissance the earth requires.


  6. I have indeed studied the latest UN report on climate change. It does not contain evidence, merely a rehash of old alarmist claims that are not supported by contemporary observation. There is no evidence to sugest human beings are headed for extinction in your childrens’ (I have none) lifetime… alas.

    None of this means we shouldn’t work diligently to reduce human impacts on critical habitat and sensitive species, all species, in fact. This means bringing an end to what human hubris glorifies as civilization, and building a way of life in harmony with natural cycles and ecological relationships.

    Either we do it by choice, or Nature will do it for us.


  7. That’s why I would like to share the idea of GRADIDO, a path to worldwide prosperity and peace in harmony with nature.
    GRADIDO is an elaborate System which might put an end to the cause of all our urgent problems.
    For more information and a free ebook: gradido.net


    1. if gradido is elaborate then i do not fancy its chances We need something simple enough to be understood and accepted and actioned by everyone. Currently the urgent need is to drastically reduce emissions (CO2 and Methane) while soaking up the excess of what we have already produced. There are many many possible actions – all of which need to be done starting NOW. Project Drawdown has listed 100 things which will contribute to reduction of CO2 and improve global welfare All of them are perfectly possible, given the will, and not even particularly costly


  8. Some quibbles:

    “Ecological civilization” I dislike this term. “More sustainable”, “Low Footprint”, “Non-consumer oriented” ok. People use ecological as if it were a good thing. They use it like “natural” or “organic” It is a neutral word.

    There will be an ecology. We may or may not have a place in it. It may be a much simpler, less diverse ecology.

    Our society does need a new field: “ecological engineering” The art of constructing and modifying ecologies. We have a science of ecology. Unfortunately it is not yet mature enough to predict the effect of modifications. But smiths practiced metalurgy long before it was a science.


    This is not an existential crisis for humanity. I consider it very unlikely that we will become extinct. Humans are too adaptable.

    This doesn’t mean that civilization as we know it will be around. I fear it will mean a much lower population. (My current guess is that world population will be below a billion by 2100. North America and Europe will do somewhat better, perhaps only losing 2/3 of their present population. If you want to pick a safe place move to a place on a coast with prevailing on-shore winds, 250 feet above sea level with current annual rainfall of between 30 and 40 inches that has a population density of under 40 people per square mile, and is a net food producer.)


    1. I just love the way you think everyone can move to a place such as you describe – especially the bit about it being sparsely populated. It would soon become packed and over populated if even a small fraction of humanity did that. And how many places in the world have all the characteristics you describe ? In fact the world will have to deal with a vastly increasing number of climate refugees, desperate for water and somewhere that food will still grow.


  9. Bravo! I’m reminded of Bayo Akomolafe’s entangled, co-emergent world. Harari soothes and muffles me. I love the big picture and focus on fictions instead of the stone dumb grind of populism. But I knew something was missing. This sheds light on that. Stones aren’t dumb. They are alive.


  10. yes. we get the message loud and clear. my issues are the following: 1) in the minds of many, an idea for something beautiful is not the same as an exact economically etc realistic proposal for how to create it. unfortunately, so ideas tend to get rejected out of hand. however, in order for any of these ideas to get realized, they need many multiple people to really consider them seriously, decide whether they -seem- worth making happen, and from there, making them happen. so you have to be willing to listen, to give your attention to, the -concrete- proposals of others, to the extent that they are specifically proposals for how to solve the problem. 2) people presenting these proposals need to get credited, and rewarded, for having thought them up. what guarantee is there that the ideas won’t be stolen? time and effort and work goes into creating such proposals. as such, they are worth something. I am working on such a proposal. I do not feel like my work or ideas have ever gotten the recognition they deserve. can anybody propose a solution to this conundrum?


    1. Actually, stealing ideas is a good thing. This speeds up the spread.

      Generally the idea is cheap. Turning it into a workable plan takes some work. Executing it is difficult.

      An SF writer receives tons of ideas in the mail. Some good, some awful, most just distracting.

      If you turn it into a real proposal, you have your name all over it.

      Any real solution however:

      * Has to be economically viable. It’s no good saying that all your industry has to use only renewables if the result is they all go broke.

      * Has to have predictable consequences for individuals. For this reason, I support a carbon tax instead of a carbon pollution market. The tax tells you what your heating bill is going to be in 2025.

      * Has to be affordable with today’s technology. This doesn’t mean that a mitigation step can’t be, “Improve Tech X”

      * Has to be implementable at a rate that allows for the tech infrastructure to ramp up. E.g. Making ICE cars illegal next Tuesday won’t work.

      * Ideally leaves room for innovation. E.g. the CAFE standards force vehicle makers to reduce their CO2 output. Doesn’t say how to do it.

      Starting off with a 20 to 40 buck/ton carbon tax, that increases by 10% per year gives lots of people incentives to innovate.


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