An Awakened Civil Society

excerpted from the book

When Corporations Rule the World

by David C. Korten

published by Kumarian Press, 1995


January 1, 1994, was the inaugural day of the North J American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an agreement intended to complete the integration of the economies of Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Business leaders throughout North America welcomed the new opportunities for corporate expansion afforded by the merger. The indigenous peoples of Chiapas state in southeastern Mexico took a strikingly different view. They had for generations endured similar economic "advances," each time losing more of their lands and finding their livelihood opportunities ever more limited. Calling NAFTA a death sentence for the people of Chiapas, some 4,000 Indians launched an armed rebellion against the Mexican government.

Mexican political analyst Gustavo Esteva has called the Chiapas rebellion the "first revolution of the twenty-first century." Whereas the revolutions of the twentieth century were contests for state power, the struggle of the Chiapas people was for greater local autonomy, economic justice, and political rights within the borders of their own communities. They did not call on their fellow Mexicans to take up arms against the state but rather to join them in a broad social movement calling for the liberation of local spaces from colonization by alien political and economic forces. Their battle cry-"Baste!" (Enough!)-was picked up by popular movements all across Mexico and resonated around the world.

Each day, more people are saying no to the forces of corporate colonialism, reclaiming their spaces, taking back responsibility for their lives, and working to create real-world alternatives to the myths and illusions of economic globalization.

Saying No

Journalist Dai Qing is a courageous and outspoken opponent of the Three Gorges dam in China that threatens to displace 1.2 million people, flood 100,000 hectares of the country's most fertile agricultural land, inundate a magnificent stretch of canyons, and destroy the habitat's endangered species. In her words, "The highest expression of dignity can be summed up in the single word 'No!"

The democratic legitimacy of the institutions to which we yield power derives from (1) being duly constituted by and accountable to the sovereign people, (2) conducting their operations according to an appropriate code of morals and ethics, and (3) producing desirable consequences for the whole. Most are failing on all three counts, not because the individuals who head them are corrupt, but because these institutions have become too big, too distant, and too captive to special interests. Capturing state power, whether by election or revolution, does not change this. Nor do reforms that simply chip away at the edges of the current structure. This is why elections have become meaningless. We must transform the system itself by reclaiming the power that we have yielded to the corrupted institutions and taking back responsibility for our own lives-exactly what growing millions of people are doing at this moment everywhere on the planet. As this process progresses, we redefine the relationships of power between the global, the national, and the local, and the power of once seemingly invincible institutions evaporates.

In 1986, the Philippine people took to the streets in massive demonstrations to say no to the hated and corrupt Marcos dictatorship. The military sided with the people, Marcos fled the country in disgrace, and democracy was restored with scarcely a shot fired. The world saw an even more dramatic demonstration of this truth in 1989 in Eastern Europe, and in 1991 in the former Soviet Union.

In India, Tasmania, Canada, Thailand, France, Hungary, and elsewhere, people are joining Dai Qing in saying no to dam projects that threaten their homes, livelihoods, and wild places. The women of India's Chipko movement are wrapping themselves around threatened trees to save them from loggers; Penan tribal people of Sarawak, Malaysia, are blockading logging roads with their bodies; and the 1 million strong Future Forest Alliance is organizing protest demonstrations and media campaigns in Canada.

People are mobilizing to protect mangroves in the Ivory Coast, reef systems in Belize, and wildlife in Namibia. They are opposing toxic dumping in the United States and campaigning to protect Antarctica as a natural preserve. Japanese citizens are pressuring Japanese logging companies to change their practices abroad. Germans are calling for an end to foreign aid that destroys primary forests. Indigenous pocket miners, farmers, and fisherfolk in the Philippines are mobilizing to challenge the right of a few powerful mining corporations to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people.

The ideologues of corporate libertarianism tell us that environmentalism is a middle- or upper-class issue-a luxury that the poor cannot afford. Yet we find with increasing frequency that the most heroic actions to save the environment are being taken by the poor, who know the costs of allowing the plunder of the natural resources upon which their existence depends.

Indigenous peoples are often at the forefront. In Ecuador, they have organized to reclaim their lands, protect the Ecuadorean rain forests from foreign oil companies, and block a government agricultural modernization program that would drive them off their farms. In Peru, they have formed a 300,000-member alliance to initiate projects that combine environmental and indigenous land objectives. National Indian organizations from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia have formed an international alliance representing over a million people to press for Indian land rights. Native Americans blocked a Honeywell corporation plan to create a nuclear weapons testing site in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and rejected offers from AMCOR Company to build a 5,000-acre landfill and incinerator on tribal lands. In southern Panama, indigenous peoples have organized to prevent the completion of the Pan-American highway through the tropical forests of their homelands-well aware that the highway would lead to the devastation of their forests, the expropriation of their lands, and the destruction of their culture.

In the Philippines and Colombia, people are saying no to violence, declaring their villages to be zones of peace and telling both government and insurgent combatants to fight their wars elsewhere. The Women's Action Forum in fundamentalist Islamic Pakistan has brought women out from the seclusion of their homes and veils to join in mass public demonstrations to say no to the curtailment of women's rights.

There are costs to saying no. Many of the nonviolent warriors of the Ecological Revolution have suffered public ridicule, threats, loss of jobs, bankrupt businesses, imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of those who do not share their vision of life-centered societies. They bear the burdens of the political and spiritual awakening that must precede the transformational changes on which our collective future depends.

Creating alternatives, the building blocks of healthy societies, is an important part of saying no. The women of Kenya's Greenbelt movement have set up 1,500 grassroots nurseries and planted over 10 million trees. Other African women are following their lead. The fisherfolk of Kerala state in India have organized to protect their coastal fisheries resources. In the United States the Quinalt Indians on the west coast of Washington State are buying back the lands of their reservation acre by acre to carry out plans for their sustainable management. Nearby, the people of Willapa Bay, a major salmon and oyster fishery, have formed an alliance of environmentalists, loggers, local businesspeople, government, fisherfolk, landowners, and members of the Shoalwater Bay Indian tribe to regenerate their once dynamic and biodiverse ecosystem as the foundation of a prosperous, diversified, and sustainable local economy. In Seattle, Washington, a group of citizen leaders has formed Sustainable Seattle to pioneer the development of indicators of progress toward sustainability.

Japanese women operate a 200,000-household Seikatsu Club Consumers' Cooperative that works with suppliers to assure that they provide safe and healthful products and treat workers and nature properly. The 23,000 members of the Spanish Mondragon Cooperatives grossed $3 billion in sales in 1991 and provide the world with a model of the potential of dynamic worker-owned, community-based enterprises. In hundreds of communities in Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere, people are creating their own community currencies-known variously as LETs, green, or time dollars-to free themselves from colonization by the global financial system, revitalize their communities, and build economic self-reliance. Over 7,500 households representing some 20,000 people in thirteen European and North American countries participate in Global Action Plan International (GAP) to support one another and monitor their individual and joint progress toward more sustainable lifestyles. Students in the United States have organized to make their schools advertising-free zones. Five hundred Philippine citizen organizations have formed a National Peace Conference to develop a national peace agenda to end the long-standing armed conflict in their country. In Israel, the Re'ut Sadaka Jewish Arab Youth Movement encourages Arab end Jewish youth to live and study together.

Each such initiative reclaims previously colonized space, advance the rebuilding of human communities and natural ecosystems, and serves as an inspiration for others.

The Power of Citizen Networking

When citizen volunteers organize to oppose powerful institutions the command billions of dollars and access to the most privileged inner sanctums of political power, it seems a highly uneven contest. The institutions of transnational capital are highly visible, their power is concentrated in an identifiable corporate core, and they command enormous amounts of money. Yet their ability to command the life energies of people diminishes quickly if their money flows are restricted. Citizen activists are learning to turn these characteristics into vulnerabilities.

The power of civil society rests with its enormous capacity to rapidly and flexibly network diverse and dispersed individuals and organizations that are motivated by voluntary commitments. Effective citizen networks have many leaders-each able to function independently of the others. The diversity and independence of their members allow them to examine problems from many different perspective and bring diverse abilities to bear. Their use of the same electron) communications technologies-phone, fax, and computer-that corporations have used to extend their global reach allows them to move quickly and flexibly in joint actions at local, national, and global level'

The lack of defined structure can make the actions of citizen networks incoherent and difficult to sustain, but it also gives them the ability to surround, infiltrate, and immobilize the most powerful institutions. These same characteristics make them virtually imperviou to attacks by the more centralized, money-dependent global instititions of business and finance. Any one node in the network can be immobilized and isolated-key actors have even been assassinated-but a functioning network is able to adjust almost instantaneously. It much like a hologram that can be reconstructed from any of its part Indeed, attacks on citizen networks expose the ill will of the perpetrators, offend moral sensibilities, increase the network's visibility, attract new recruits, and strengthen resolve.

There are many contemporary examples of the ability of such networks to make a difference at both national and global levels. In the former Soviet Union, grassroots environmentalists held the government accountable for widespread environmental degradation and built a movement that helped spark the region's democratic transformation. These groups are now allied under the politically powerful SocioEcological Union to advance a broad environmental and human rights agenda. In South Korea, the Citizen Coalition for Economic Justice helped establish democratic rule and now works for economic justice and environmental sustainability. In Finland, 2,300 committees of the Village Action Movement have affected the lives of some 500,000 people and restored rural areas to a central place in national life.

A social movement in Sweden called the Natural Step is building a national consensus around a commitment to make Sweden a model of sustainability by achieving near 100 percent recycling of metals, eliminating the release of compounds that do not break down naturally in the environment, maintaining biological diversity, and reducing energy use to levels of sustainable solar capture. Some 10,000 professionals, business executives, farmers, restaurateurs, students, and government officials are active in sixteen specialized networks developing and carrying out action plans. Forty-nine local governments, members of the Swedish Farmers Federation, and twenty-two large Swedish companies are now working to align themselves with these rigorous objectives.

A broadly based U.S. citizens' alliance of farmer, consumer, environmental, animal welfare, religious, labor, and other public-interest organizations is working on a broad agenda to transform U.S. agriculture to restore small farms, eliminate the use of toxic chemicals, and make land management practices sustainable. New initiatives in the U.S. Iabor movement-largely spearheaded by women and minority groups-have more of the community-oriented, participatory, and open quality of social movements than conventional hierarchically organized craft or industrial unions and are seeking alliances with small farmers and small business owners who share a stake in strong local economies. Local African American groups are reclaiming their power and taking back responsibility for their communities by mobilizing to steer their young men away from drugs and guns and build more economic opportunity for African American people.

One of the most dramatic national-scale citizen initiatives is Citizenship Action against Misery and for Life-Brazil's grassroots hunger movement spearheaded by Herbert "Betinho" de Souza of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE). It is an outgrowth of the broadly based Brazilian citizen movement that led to the 1993 impeachment of Fernando Collor, the Brazilian president whose corruption grew to exceed even the tolerance of Brazil's jaded middle and upper classes. Once the new government was installed, de Souza capitalized on his own reputation as a leader of the impeachment movement and the resulting sense of civic empowerment to mobilize Brazil fans behind a national commitment to end a national disgrace-3 million of Brazil's 156 million people living in perpetual hunger o incomes of less than $120 a year in a country with one of the world most modern and dynamic economies. A 1994 survey estimated some 2.8 million Brazilians, roughly 10 percent of the population of sixteen years old, were active participants in neighborhood hunger committees made up of workers, students, housewives, businesspeople, artists, and others. Roughly a third of Brazil's adult population has mad some kind of personal contribution to the campaign.

Three key elements make the Brazilian hunger movement distinctive:

1. The problem is broken down into manageable pieces. Members of the middle and upper classes were admonished to go into their immediate neighborhoods, find one person who was hungry, and do something about it. An individual feels overwhelmed and disempowered by the hunger of 32 million people, but doing something about the hunger of one or two people who live within a block of home is possible-and deeply fulfilling. Each individual has the empowering experience of being able to make a difference. When millions of people share this experience, it can create a new civic culture.

2. It involves direct human engagement. People are not asked to send money to a relief agency so that professional hunger workers can feed the needy in some safely distant place. They are challenged to go into their own neighborhoods and build human relationships, to allow themselves to be touched by the life of a poor and hungry person whom the system has excluded, to hear that person's story and share in the burden of his or her suffering, and to serve as a bridge to make society whole again.

3. It guilds toward a new political and spiritual consciousness. People are encouraged to reflect on the act of befriending and improving the life of a hungry person as both a political and a spiritual experience and as a source of insight into the source of the dysfunctions of Brazilian society. Through media presentations and local meetings, citizens are led to a growing awareness of the dynamics of inequality and exclusion that flow from the concentration of economic power in a few giant corporations.

International citizen advocacy has come into its own in the past twenty to thirty years. Global alliances such as Amnesty International have long been at the forefront of the international struggle to recognize basic human rights. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the International Planned Parenthood Federation led a global transformation in attitudes toward family planning and a woman's right to birth control.

In the 1980s, while U.S. President Ronald Reagan was characterizing the Soviet Union as the evil empire and Soviet leaders were characterizing Americans as barbaric monsters, thousands of private American and Soviet citizens were engaged through groups such as the Institute for Soviet-American Relations, the Esalan Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Context Institute in building foundations for peace, mutual understanding, and democratization. The Philippine Development Forum, with offices in Washington and Manila, has helped block multilateral funding of destructive energy projects, expose toxic wastes at U.S. military bases, and advance creative new funding mechanisms to promote sustainable development in the Philippines. A coalition of Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. groups formed to oppose NAFTA is coordinating citizen proposals for people-centered economic cooperation among the countries of North America. When Honeywell and General Electric fired union organizers at their plants in Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico, unions in the United States and Canada representing workers employed by these multinationals joined to act against these companies in support of their Mexican counterparts.

In 1979, Malaysian consumer activist Anwar Fazal, then president of the International Organization of Consumer Unions (IOCU), convened the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), an international alliance of citizen advocacy groups, to boycott Nestle products. Responding to evidence that bottle-feeding was causing thousands of infant deaths each year in poor countries, the boycotters demanded that Nestle stop the aggressive promotion of its infant formula product as a modern and nutritious substitute for breast-feeding. Nestle launched a vicious counterattack, which spurred the rapid growth of IBFAN into a coalition of more than 140 citizen groups in seventy countries. As a result of the IBFAN efforts, the World Health Organization issued a code of conduct in 1981 governing the promotion of baby formula, and Nestle made a promise-subsequently dishonored-to follow the code.

Building on the IBFAN experience, the IOCU regional office in Penang, Malaysia, launched other citizen networks to counter threats to human health, safety, and pocketbooks from the activities of transnational corporations dealing in pharmaceuticals, tobacco, toxic wastes, chemical agriculture, biotechnology, and food irradiation. The Third World Network, an important Southern citizen advocacy group led by former university professor Mohammed Idris, was also born in Penang-making this coastal city a global focal point of citizen resistance to the new colonialism.

The way in which citizen networks with modest resources are able surround and infiltrate the most powerful international institute is demonstrated by the "Fifty Years Is Enough" campaign organ)' by citizen groups on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of t World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Bank and the IMF command massive financial resources, leverage the worlds largest financial markets, and virtually dictate the policies of ma governments. They can mobilize thousands of highly paid staff to generate statistics and policy papers favoring their positions, buy me' reach through the world's most prestigious public-relations firms, a co-opt influential nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with off of grants, contracts, and foreign travel.

Citizen groups in nearly every country in which these two institutions operate rose to the challenge of this highly unequal contest, even eliciting cooperation from sympathetic staff within these secret institutions. The Bank and the IMF now are never certain what sec internal documents will find their way into citizen hands and publications or where protest banners, mass demonstrations, op-ed piece advertisements, and special issues of citizen journals and newsletter will appear challenging their claims of effectiveness and calling for c' in their funding. No more than three years ago, the suggestion that the World Bank should be shut down seemed naive and even a bit frivolous. Now the Bank's funding replenishments are in jeopardy, and closure is discussed as a serious proposal.

This is only a small illustrative sampling of the countless initiatives being undertaken by ordinary people everywhere. Together they r. resent the awakening of civil society and the emergence of the social and political forces of the Ecological Revolution.

Globalizing Consciousness

Global citizen networking is a crucial part of the process of creating new globalized human consciousness. In countless forums, people from every corner of the world are meeting to share their experiences w an errant global system and build a cooperative agenda. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 was a defining moment in the global citizen dialogue. While the official meetings were going on in the grand and heavily guarded Rio Centro convention center, some 18,000 private citizens of every race, religion, social class, and nationality gathered in tents on a steamy stretch of beachfront on the other side of town for the NGO Global Forum to draft citizen treaties setting agendas for cooperative voluntary action.

The two gatherings could hardly have been more different. The official meetings were tediously formal and tightly programmed; they largely affirmed the status quo and carefully avoided most of the fundamental issues, including planetary limits to economic growth, unaccountable corporate power, and the consequences of economic globalization. The citizen deliberations were chaotic, free-floating, and contentious. They directly confronted the fundamental issues and called for sweeping transformational change. In the end, it was evident that behind the cacophony of discordant voices were important elements of consensus manifesting a new global political, environmental, and spiritual consciousness.

At UNCED, citizen organizations worked largely at the periphery of the official discussions, but the citizen treaty process made a major contribution to putting in place the foundation of a citizen consensus and helped prepare the way for more substantive input to future global meetings. Key elements of the Consensus were synthesized in "The People's Earth Declaration: A Proactive Agenda for the Future" (see the appendix). At subsequent official international conferences, citizen groups have become more familiar with and skilled in dealing with official UN processes-especially key organizations within the women's movement, such as Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era (DAWN) and the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). By the time of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the women's movement demonstrated that it was the first among the citizen movements to truly master the UN meeting process. Working with and through national governments and the UN secretariat, women's groups set the basic frame of the official conference document. Dissenting governments and the Catholic Church were the ones placed in the position of seeking adjustments in the nuances of phrases to which they objected. Bearing a disproportionate share of the human burden of the global human crisis, women are now taking the leadership in crafting a new gender-balanced human development agenda to benefit all people. The women's movement is rapidly emerging as the political vanguard of the Ecological Revolution.

Doing the Possible

We live in an era in which the potential for rapid change on a global scale far exceeds that of any previous period in human history. In a single year, 1988, the environment, which previously had been a issue only for hard-core environmentalists, broke into global consciousness. Environmental concerns became a major issue in a U.S. presidential election, and Time magazine named the endangered earth the media event of the year. Four years later, in June 1992, the largest gathering of heads of state, other political leaders, corporations, and citizen organizations in human history took place in Rio de Janeiro t complete agreements protecting the global environment.

Consider the ridicule that would have been heaped on the visionary prophet who dared even in 1988 to predict that by 1991 the Soviet Union would peacefully dissolve itself, Germany would be reunite' the Berlin Wall would be gone, and the leadership of the former "evil empire" would be inviting the United States to help dismantle its nuclear arsenal. What if this same prophet had predicted that in 1993 the Israelis and Palestinians would sign a peace accord? And that in 1994 Nelson Mandela would be elected the president of South Africa in an open multiracial election? Perhaps even more remarkable the fact that these events occurred at all is that fact that we already take most of them for granted, quickly forgetting what extraordinary events they were and how rapidly impossible dreams are becoming accomplished fact.

Now let's consider a number of possible contemporary predictions line with the agenda of the Ecological Revolution. Most of us would conclude that anyone foolish enough to predict that any of the following might occur within the next five years had taken leave of his or h, senses. Yet in each case, ask just one question before jumping to the conclusion: is it any more preposterous to suggest that this event m, occur by the year 2001 than it would have been to suggest the possibility of any of the above-mentioned events happening even as little as three years before their actual occurrence?

* International arms sales will be banned and the world's major armies dismantled in favor of a small unified UN peacekeeping command.

* Japan, the United States, Canada, Germany, and a number of other European countries will levy a 50 percent tax on advertising to finance consumer education on the merits of frugality and research on how to eliminate the growth imperative from the national economy.

* Current national income accounting systems based on returns to business enterprises will be replaced by systems that measure economic performance on the basis of human needs met and the enhancement or depletion of a country's human, social, and natural capital stock.

* A rigorous international antitrust agreement will be signed by the world's nations, and aggressive implementation of its provisions-combined with a rash of community and worker buyout initiatives-will break up most of the world's larger transnational corporations and convert their components into community- and employee-owned enterprises serving predominantly local markets.

* Massive agrarian reform initiatives will break up corporate and other large agricultural holdings nearly everywhere and convert them into family farms serving local markets, using biointensive agricultural methods and recycling organic wastes. Ninety percent of the debts of low-income countries will be repudiated or forgiven, and long-term international borrowing will be sharply curtailed.

* A drastically downsized World Bank will be converted into a technical assistance agency melded into the United Nations Development Program to function under UN auspices as an advisor to countries on how to become less trade dependent and localize their economies.

* The IMF and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - World Trade Organization will be replaced by UN agencies under the authority and supervision of the UN's Economic and Social Council and will be engaged in rewriting international finance and trade policies to support economic localization within a framework of global cooperation.

* Several thousand indigenous cultures previously on the verge of extinction will be revived and flourishing.

* The industrial countries will reduce their per capita consumption of nonrenewable energy by 50 percent, and sales of new gasoline-powered automobiles will fall in the industrial countries by 75 percent with the phase-in of solar conversion and the redesign of urban habitats to facilitate walking, bicycling, and public transit.

* The world's major fisheries will be well on their way to recovery under regimes of sustainable management carried out by resource management cooperatives made up of small-scale family fishing enterprises.

* An international agreement will make the patenting of life forms illegal, and an international authority will be established, funded by a tax on international capital movements, to purchase rights to the most socially and environmentally beneficial technologies, place them in the public domain, and facilitate access to them by anyone in the world who wish put them to beneficial use.

* A number of national and international business organize representing many of the world's largest corporations voluntarily accept codes of conduct that include capping executive salaries at a level no greater than twenty times the lowest paid worker anywhere within a firm's global auction network, reducing nonrenewable energy use t percent of 1995 levels by 2010, and achieving 90 percent product life-cycle recycling by the same year.

* Most countries will eliminate taxes on incomes and basic gumption up to the levels required for a comfortable subsistence in favor of taxes on resource extraction, internal movements of money, luxury consumption, upper-level incomes, and inheritances.

* More than half of the world's countries will have policies convert the productivity gains of mechanization and automation into a twenty-hour workweek and a guaranteed income. Most exclusionary fundamentalist religious sects preach fear and intolerance will fall into obscurity in the face ecumenical movement born of the widespread inner spiritual awakening to the unity of life and consciousness.

* Most women and men will be sharing equally in household and voluntary community duties.

* All but 500,000 of the world's refugees will be permanently and peacefully resettled-most in their countries of origin.

* Most of the world will embrace the norm of the two-child family, with the endorsement of the Catholic Church and major religious bodies.

* Political party structures will be realigned in most countries and grassroots political movements born of concern for democratic accountability, social justice, and environmental sustainability will be flourishing-with many people from ordinary walks of life contesting and winning election to both local and national office.

Absurdly unrealistic? Yes, but no more so than many of the advances of the past few years. Am I offering these as predictions? No, but they are among the possibilities that we may wish to include on our agenda for change.

When Corporations Rule the World