The superrich have profited from a broken system – and their money alone won’t fix it

Giving back requires humility. It will be a true test of learning new skills.

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SOURCEYES! Magazine
Image credit: iStock

Congratulations, you won – you are the last and richest person on Earth. In the security of your sunless underground bunker, you will be the last to die in a dying Earth’s paroxysm of fire and flood.

In a recent column for YES! Magazine, Chuck Collins, “born on third base” social activist and commentator, has a message for the superrich who are buying “bug out” survivalist escape homes in Kansas missile silos, mountain fortresses in the Rockies, and getaway farms in New Zealand: Your money won’t save you from the social and environmental collapse now unfolding. Join with other members of your class who are investing in “community, regional, and global efforts to address the climate crisis and extreme inequalities.”

Once Earth’s environmental systems collapse, the consequences will be permanent – at least within any realistic human time perspective. Seeking refuge in an abandoned missile silo with a store of emergency rations and a suitcase full of money misses that key point.

For far too long, our economic and political institutions have managed the economy to grow consumption and the financial assets of the rich. Worldwide, many well-meaning people joined the game under the implied promise that as economies grew, one day everyone willing to work would have an opportunity to join the ranks of the affluent middle class.

For a time, most of us with a voice bought into the myth. Far from making everyone rich, however, the system we created is destroying Earth’s capacity to support life while concentrating ownership of what remains in the hands of a few hundred people competing for the top spot on the Forbes Magazine list of the world’s richest people. The image of the winner as humanity’s last survivor facing a slow and lonely death in an underground bunker dramatically exposes the mindlessness of the competition – and the system that drives it.

Hope for the human future lies with the spreading realization that hope for any of us depends on our acting together as a global community to:

  1. Heal the Earth as we reduce our human consumption to bring it into balance with the planet’s generative capacity.
  2. Eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty and secure for every person access to the essentials of a healthy life.

These two goals properly frame all public and private investment strategies going forward. They are the exact opposite of the strategies that have led us to the brink of disaster.

The great personal investment success stories of the past 50 years almost universally involved profiting from one or more of the following: consumer deception, monopoly power, government subsidies and tax breaks, extraction of nonrenewable environmental resources, usury, poverty-wage jobs, speculating on asset bubbles, playing financial games with derivatives and other fictitious securities, promoting material extravagance, and poisoning the Earth’s air, water, and soil.

Such profits represent uncompensated private takings of both public and private assets.

But in this moment of extreme crisis, personal blame is not the primary issue. To those who played and won, that was then. Now is now. Mostly, the winners acted in ways consistent with accepted norms and reward systems of the institutions in which they worked. Likely many believed they were, as Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, once famously observed, “doing God’s work.”

Our time to act is fast running out. The transition to a viable human future depends on a cultural and institutional transformation to an economic system that values and rewards choices that support the two essential outcomes outlined above.

The time has come for the very rich to engage in giving back not only with their money, but also with their total personal commitment to replacing the system that so benefited them. It is called philanthropy.

Giving back will require significant humility and will be a true test of learning new skills. Turning money into healthy, living social and environmental systems is a very different – and far more difficult task – than turning once healthy living systems into money.

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David Korten
David Korten wrote this article for his new series of biweekly columns on the “Living Earth Economy” for YES! Magazine. David is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, president of the Living Economies Forum, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, and the author of several influential books, including When Corporations Rule the World and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife Fran lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.

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