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Wealth, Demographics, and the Transition to Ecological Civilization

September 25, 2016 

Human beings must move into ecological civilization.

There is a subtext to this. Civilization began with Neolithic villages 10,000 years ago. Early civilization was based on agriculture and it continued this way until the industrial revolution. During this period, the period of Agricultural Civilization, the classical civilizations arose—the Sinic, the Indic, the Islamic, the Western, Sub-Saharan African, etc.

The industrial revolution began in the West in the 18th century and this brought about major shifts in thinking. The industrial mode of development and modern Western thought and values have spread throughout the world so that there is now a kind of meta-industrial-economic-Western civilization—Industrial Civilization—interacting with the classical civilizations and traditional or indigenous ways of life. Industrial Civilization, while making huge advances (and, for many, causing intense suffering), no longer offers a viable future for humanity or nature. Humans are consuming resources and producing waste at a rate that exceeds 150% of the carrying capacity of Earth. If everyone had the ecological impact of an average person in the United States, it would require five Earths, yet most nations have made this their goal.

This makes it sound like all people of the world are engaged in gross overconsumption and are complicit in the exploitation of Earth. This is not, however the case. A generally accepted analysis is that 20% of the world’s people are consuming 80% of the resources devoted to human use.

Here are three charts, which show the outsized impact of the top 20%. (Most of the people in the United States are in the top 20% globally.) The first, dated 2008, concerns consumption. The second, dated 1989, and the third, dated 2011, concern income. While the 1989 chart is not current, it is the best image I came across to show global income inequality. That it still reflects income distribution is shown in World Bank’s 2011 chart.World Share of Consumption 2005

Global Income Distribution

Global Income Distribution 2

Global Income Distribution

Perhaps even more surprising is the analysis by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic who asserts, that the global median income is $1,225 per person and it takes just an annual income of just $34,000 per person to be in the top 1% globally. According to Mr. Milanovic, anti-inequality protesters should be more concerned with wealth disparity across the globe than within any one country. By his calculation America is the 1% and half of the world’s richest 1% live in the US:

World's Richest 1%

There is a link between wealth and environmental impact. Oxfam’s research finds that

  • the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions; and
  • The average footprint of the richest 1% globally could be as much as 175 times that of the poorest 10%.[1]
  • To put the second bullet point into perspective, this means, with the bottom 10% being about 700 million in number (10% of 7 billion), that it would take 122.5 billion people living at the level of the poorest 10% in the world to have the ecological impact of the top 1% who number about 70 million (1% of 7 billion).

The world’s ecological problems clearly do not primarily concern poverty, they primarily concern wealth. They also clearly are not primarily about population.

In thinking about ecological civilization, it is also important to understand where the people of the world live and the demands that they are making and will make for justice, equity, inclusion, and difference.

Here is a map of the world in scale according to human population[2]:

Map Scale to Population

This map shows astonishingly that there are more people living in the circle below than outside of it.

More People in Circle

This is a map of the world based on human population growth between 1990 and 2010[4]:

Population Growth 1990-2015

Below are the most recent (2015) population projections by the UN Population Division showing world population surpassing 11 billion people by the end of the 21st century.[5]

Population Surpassing 11 Billion

Where those people are likely to reside, according to same UN Population Division report, as shown in a table from that report shown below, closely matches the cartogram above on population growth between 1995 and 2010:

Population 2015 2030 2050 2100









More than 90% of future population growth will take place in low-income countries.

Yet, more developed nations are laying claim to the resources of these low income countries.

How Many ChinasHow Many UK US




Moreover, all this taking place against the background of the great acceleration in all aspects of the economy and resource consumption.

The Great Acceleration (1750-2010)[6]The Great Acceleration

Will this world-in-the making support the lifestyles of the Global North in the future? Are these lifestyles secure? Are they viable? Can they be secured as neo-nationalists seek to do in the way they seek to do so by “keeping the world out”?

The wealthy take the resources they use not only from their home countries, but from all over the world. Gustavo Estava argues that the issue people in the Global North need to concern themselves with is not how much they give to the Global South, but how much they take from the Global South. The wealthy express concern over poverty, but offer a development path that often results in creating poverty rather than reducing it, for example by land grabbing and pushing people out of subsistence economies into cities and the monetary economy. This development path is also oblivious to local cultures and ways of life and the need for cultural difference. It focuses on individual achievement and rights and not on the rights of communities.

Development, economic assistance, and technology, at least in their present form, are not the answers to the problems of the world, they are the source of the problems. The greater the world’s development in the present mode, the worse the ecological crisis will become and the worse the living conditions for the world’s people and other species will become.

We must believe that this need not be the case, but turning things around would be a massive undertaking. The term “ecological civilization” may hold the promise that things can be different, but the term is not self-actualizing or even self-explanatory. There are a lot of ideas about what needs to happen, but I don’t know of any well-thought-through ones that address the complexity and scale of the issues. Some of the ideas are downright goofy, like a “happiness index.”

As I see it, no group has had the courage and the ability to take on the nature of the changes that will be required to move to ecological civilization. Sustainable development has been strategically and intentionally compromised from the beginning—sustainability was to be achieved through inclusive economic growth.[7] This has brought everyone to the table, but the table is bare. There is a need for some group to take on the true changes that are needed.

The most radical statement of the transition that humans are going through was given by Thomas Berry. He wrote that for the first time in human history we are experiencing a change in geo-biological periods of Earth’s history—we are moving from a terminal Cenozoic era to, if we are to have a viable future, an emerging Ecozoic era. This is more than a disturbance in human affairs like a World War or a Great Depression. It is a change in the functioning of Earth itself.

The transition from economic-industrial civilization to ecological-cultural civilization is the second most radical statement of the transition, but it is probably the largest statement that can be communicated on a sufficiently wide basis to bring about action on the scale needed. It correctly points to the magnitude of the change involved—a change in civilization, not reform. If ecological civilization is realized, it will be as different from industrial civilization as modern Europe is from medieval Europe. This will take a considerable period of time. Imaginatively, I say it will take 200 years. Civilizational change is not the same as solving an immediate issue. In the present global situation where immediate needs are apparent, such as keeping CO2 in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million and reducing the concentrations to 350 parts per million, the issue that concerned people must ask is whether immediate issues can be solved without civilizational change. If they can be, then it’s better to take a reform-within-the-present-civilization approach.

What is the hope?

The ecologist David Orr wrote:

The news about climate, oceans, species, and all of the collateral human consequences will get a great deal worse for a long time before it gets better. The reasons for authentic hope are on a farther horizon, centuries ahead when we have managed to stabilize the carbon cycle and reduce carbon levels close to their preindustrial levels, stopped the hemorrhaging of life on Earth, restored the chemical balance of the oceans, and created governments and economies calibrated to the realities of the biosphere and to the diminished ecologies of the postcarbon world. The change in our perspective from the nearer to the longer term is, I think, the most difficult challenge we will face. We have become a culture predicated on fast results, quick payoffs, and instant gratification. But now we will have to summon the fortitude necessary to undertake a longer and more arduous journey. Rather like the builders of the great cathedrals of Europe, we will need stamina and faith to work knowing that we will not live to see the results. Orr Down to the Wire, xiii.

We are at a point of civilizational change. Don’t expect the future to be like the last 250 years. The human world is changing and the geo-biological functioning of Earth has changed. The life systems that operated in the Cenozoic era no longer support life as humans have known it throughout human history and especially in the Holocene epoch of the last 11,700 years of Earth’s history.

Thomas Berry called the next period the Ecozoic era. “Ecozoic” comes from two Greek words meaning household and life. Developing an ecozoic mindset and way of living means understanding Earth as a house of life.

We might think of civilization as having three great periods.

  • A period based on agriculture—agricultural civilization
  • A period based on industry, technology and economics—industrial civilization
  • A period based on ecology and community—the planetary phase of human development or ecological civilization

To move to ecological civilization, there is a need for transformational leadership in these five areas:

(i)     creating a new theoretical, practical, historical and philosophical framework for the world of the future (with an emphasis on the importance of the cultural dimension of life and of strengthening this dimension);

(ii)    dealing with the intimate relationship between people and the natural environment,

  • providing uncommon clarity about our best economic and energy options;
  • helping people understand and face what will be increasingly difficult circumstances; and
  • fostering a vision of a humane and decent future.

[1] Oxfam Briefing Paper #210, “An Economy for the 1%.”

[2] http://www.worldmapper.org/display.php?selected=2, July 17, 2016).

[3] http://brilliantmaps.com/population-circle/, July 17, 2016.

[4] http://www.viewsoftheworld.net/?p=1853, July 17, 2016.

[5] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140918-population-global-united-nations-2100-boom-africa/, July 17, 2016. This is a rendering by the National Geographic Society of a chart presented in United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects the 2015 Revision: Key Findings and Advance Tables (New York: United Nations, 2015), 2, https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Publications/Files/Key_Findings_WPP_2015.pdf, July 17, 2016.

[6] W. Steffen et al, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review: 2(1) (2015), 81-98, http://anr.sagepub.com/content/2/1/81.full.pdf+html (accessed November 27, 2016).

[7] The term “sustainable development” came into widespread usage following the UN’s Brundtland Commission Report of 1987. The chairwoman of the commission who issued this report gave the following statement (with emphasis added) in her foreword to the report:

Many critical survival issues are related to uneven development, poverty, and population growth. They all place unprecedented pressures on the planet’s lands, waters, forests, and other natural resources, not least in the developing countries. The downward spiral of poverty and environmental degradation is a waste of opportunities and of resources. In particular, it is a waste of human resources. These links between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation formed a major theme in our analysis and recommendations. What is needed now is a new era of economic growth – growth that is forceful and at the same time socially and environmentally sustainable.

The need for inclusive economic growth has been repeated in all UN documents on sustainable development since that time. In 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted Sustainable Development Goals for the period 2015-2030. The 8th goal is “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”