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“We will prosper together in pursuit of life, or we will perish together in pursuit of money. The choice is ours,” David Korten, American author, prominent critic of globalisation, and an advocate of Ecological Civilisation.

Thank you for inviting me to share some ideas about the urgent questions concerning the sustainability of our planet. Congratulations to all of you at Penn State University for keeping a strong focus on sustainability as demonstrated by the investments the University continues to make in the Sustainability Institute. The pace and extent of planetary emergencies upon us, demand that we raise our levels of ambition to halt the decline into greater catastrophes, and to pave pathways towards emergence of civilisational shifts that signal our choice of life over materialism.

I would like to dedicate this Colloquium to making the case for us to make the choice for Life and take the necessary steps to usher in the emergence of an Ecological Civilization. I have the privilege of being a member of the Club of Rome through which I met David Korten, a fellow member, who is credited with organising the 2000 mass protests against the Breton-Woods Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Finance) in Los Angeles that forced these institutions to rethink their dominance of the global economic system. Korten is working with many dedicated to championing a departure from the current unsustainable consumption driven global socio-economic model, towards pathways to an Ecological Civilisation.

Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club of Rome, then CEO and Chair of Fiat auto maker, was a man ahead of his time. He had enormous insight as far back as the late 1960s when he commissioned a study by the MIT that led to the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972. What dismayed Peccei was the human gap defined as the difference between the growing complexity in our world, and humanity’s capacity to address it. Whilst millions of copies of LtG were read and distributed, there were no significant mindset and policy shifts appropriate to averting what the MIT models showed would be disastrous consequences. Gregory Bateson, a contemporary of Aurelio Peccei, put it even more succinctly: “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works, and how humans think.”

Planetary emergencies foretold by the MIT model of the worst-case scenarios in the LtG, are now evident across the globe. What’s to be done?

We Need a Human Revolution

The current dominant civilisation has such anthropocentric and self-permitting cultural underpinnings that human beings are practically given the freedom, whenever convenient, to shun the principles based on a whole body of spiritual, ethical and moral virtues and values. Our future depends on our tapping into our huge spiritual reserves to find alternatives to our current consumption patterns as many indigenous communities around the world continue to do. Despite the huge risks they face in protecting critical ecosystems such as the Amazons, they continue to hold the line against ecocide. Casting aside fear that holds us back from making the right choices, is the only way to liberate ourselves from the temptations to chase after ‘having’ more, instead of focusing on ‘being’ more human.

Both Aurelio Peccei and Gregory Bateson, called for a human revolution - a call for us to return to the essence of what it means to be human. We are an interconnected interdependent species nested in the web of life. We are part of nature, not outside it. Learning anew what it means to be human entails that each one of us look deeply into ourselves to understand the essence of being human. In Africa we call it Ubuntu/Omenala/Iwa/Suban, in the various languages of our continent. Unleashing our authentic selves in this self-liberating process would enable us to be the shapers of the futures we desire and can proudly bequeath to future generations.

It is now increasingly accepted that transformation of our current civilisation which has spawned planetary emergencies (climate change, pandemics, inequities, conflicts and wars fuelled by insatiable greed and over-consumption), requires the inner transformation of each of us to liberate ourselves. Such inner transformation would enable us to work collaboratively across boundaries that often constrain us from effecting the outward transformation essential to catalyse emergence into a new civilisation – an ecological civilisation.

Scientists across the globe are getting to increasingly accept that sustainability of life as we know it requires us to tap into scientific knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, including indigenous science, that has thus far been neglected. The August 2023 UN Declaration of the Decade of Sciences for Sustainability is a manifestation of the emergence of new ways of doing science to facilitate the emergence of a new ecologically sound civilisation. The CoR together with eminent scientists across the world are exploring how the Decade of Sciences for Sustainability could be utilised to catalyse the human revolution required to sustain life as we know it and better.

Leen Gorrisen, in her 2020 book: Building the Future of Innovation on Millions of Years Nature’s Intelligence, concludes with a quote from an Australian indigenous leader, Bob Randall, that we need to find our way home by ‘Becoming Indigenous again’. Our ancestors understood what we need to learn and relearn - that the land owns us - we do not own the land. We are obligated to tread lightly on the land and leave it to posterity better than we found it.

The Club of Rome in a seminal paper published on our website, New Narratives of Hope, challenges the current global system of dominance by the Western culture and philosophy, urging humanity to return to the source of wisdom of our African ancestors. It challenges the universalist assumptions of epistemology, and the extractive value system that has driven humanity away from privileging Being over Having, contrary to the wisdom of Ubuntu, Omenala/ Iwa/Suban. Pluriversal approaches to knowledge and the definitions we use for human development, culture, progress and what is of value, would enable us to leverage diversity to enrich our understanding of who we are, and how we can work together to tackle our complex problems.

A human revolution is what it would take to return to our essence and to recognise and pay due reverence to our being as interconnected and interdependent beings within the web of Life. This would address the gap between how we think and how nature works. The envisaged future is one on greater global equity for a healthy planet.

How to catalyse the Emergence of an Ecological Civilisation?

The journey starts with recognition that to be human is to be connected to other human beings, and with all living things within the web of life. Such recognition is what has driven our ancient ancestors to due reverence for life. Becoming indigenous again is to return home to who we are. It is within this understanding that the choice David Korten challenges us to make becomes pretty clear – Life above all else. In case we have forgotten, let us remind ourselves of how the COVID pandemic pushed us against the wall of our materialism to recognise that nothing matters more than Life, and that Life is relational within all ecosystems.

Making the choice of Life over Money entails the following civilisational shifts:

  • Acknowledgement of the limits of the generative capacities of the Earth’s community of life,

  • Committing ourselves to the equitable sharing of what remains within our living planet,

  • Joining in a shared commitment to restore Earth to full health, while reconnecting us to one another and nature to secure a good life for all people for all generations to come.

The above commitments challenge the academy, here at your great institution, and elsewhere in the world, to reimagine the epistemological basis for teaching, learning, research, and service to communities we engage with. We need to challenge the traditional disciplinary silos that undermine our ability to learn from Mother Nature who demonstrates that everything is connected to everything else. We need to challenge historical narratives that have yawning silences about our pasts and undermine our capacity to appropriately address and redress the legacies of multigenerational traumas and inequities.

A few practical examples of doing academia differently would include the following:

  • Reframing Economics from the archaic Econ 101 to embrace emerging wisdom that Economics should be refocused on being a discipline that explores how best to organise and regulate the exchange of Goods and Services to promote wellbeing for all at community, society and global levels. Such a reframing requires a move away from GDP as the only measure of success and progress towards a focus on real concrete benefits to citizens bottom up: meeting basic needs for all; promoting the development of the full potential of each person to be enable them to contribute to the sustainable prosperity of all; creating regenerative enterprises and production systems that protect and promote healthy ecosystems; etc.

  • Rethinking Finance which has become largely disarticulated from the real value of goods and services which it was originally intended to reflect as a tool of exchange. As of mid-2023 the value of the world’s financial assets is estimated at US 1 quadrillion. The USA financial assets are now estimated at 10 times USA GDP. These are mainly fictitious assets created by corporations not sovereign nations, and many are hidden in tax havens across the globe.

  • Challenging the Global Financialised Economic System that has created a monopoly system of Value and Valuation that are at variance with the Values that support Life as we know it. It is a system that is designed to enrich a few and subordinate the many by internalising all profits real or fictitious, and externalising all costs to be carried by the public purse. Think about the numerous financial systems crashes over the last decades. More crises will come with the added incentives of the cryptocurrency markets.

  • We the People must challenge this globalised monopoly game and transform regulatory systems to protect the many against the monopoly game that benefits a few.


The global community through the adoption of the Earth Charter by the UN in March 2000 committed itself to an ecological civilisation. The Earth Charter’s Preamble puts this commitment beautifully: “We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of the Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

Do we have a choice other than Life?

Thank you.

Mamphela Ramphele

Co-President of the Club of Rome

10th October 2023

Penn State University


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