David Korten

A better world needs better economics

Science warns us that the 2020s will be humanity’s last opportunity to save itself from a climate catastrophe. Decisive action must begin this year. Climate change, however, is just one of the many crises telling us that business as usual is not an option. We must not delay action to create the world we actually want.

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You can’t put capitalism over sustainability—and other lessons from China

I just returned from a conference of influential decision-makers in China, where I presented on economics for an ecological civilization in the 21st century. China and the United States are very different, but when it comes to current threats and missed opportunities, we share a great deal more than we may realize.

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Here's why Capitalism vs Socialism is a false choice

Economic power is—and always has been—the foundation of political power. Those who control the peoples’ means of living rule.

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The great American myth: The founders of the US have the society they wanted — one that keeps people like them in power

We grow up in the United States proud of our nation’s historic role in leading humanity’s transition from monarchy to democracy. We rarely ask, however, whether the system we have truly fits the definition of democracy.

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How Bitcoin and Amazon Are Ravaging the Middle Class

As 2017 drew to an end, it was perhaps fitting that Congress chose to close out the year with the passage of a tax bill that does more to redistribute wealth to the already wealthy than any other piece of legislation since the Gilded Age.

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Mayor’s Unflinching Honesty About Confederate Monuments Gives Me Hope

I’ve rarely been so moved by a political speech. If you haven’t heard it, don’t miss it.

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With More Americans Going Far Left (And Right), an Anti-Corporate Agenda Takes Shape

A recently released study by four leading economists of voting in U.S. congressional races uncovered an important pattern. According to a New York Times report on the study, “Areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left politically.” Job losses, especially to China, the authors noted, lead voters to strongly favor either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

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This Earth Day, Listen Up: Mother Earth Is Calling Us Back

April 22 is Earth Day 2016. Each Earth Day marks another milestone in a profound human reawakening to the truth that we are children of a living Earth who survive and prosper only as contributing members of a living Earth community.

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Will Americans Ever Realize That a Good Life Is More Important Than Money?

The political debate in the United States and Europe has focused attention on public financial deficits and how best to resolve them. Tragically, the debate largely ignores the deficits that most endanger our future.

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When Bankers Rule The World

The tell-all defection of Greg Smith, a former Goldman Sachs executive, provided an insider’s view of the moral corruption of the Wall Street banks that control of much of America’s economy and politics. Smith confirms what insightful observers have known for years: the business purpose of Wall Street bankers is to maximize their personal financial take without regard to the consequences for others.

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Six Ways To Get America Out From Under The Thumb Of Wall Street

How is it that our nation is awash in money, but too broke to provide jobs and services? David Korten introduces a landmark new report, "How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule."

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Freeing Ourselves From the Corporate-Ruled Global Economy

At a recent conference, I saw the potential for blending two of the most exciting emerging movements of our time -- the living building and the living economies movements. A vision of the combination of these two movements energized me with renewed hope that we humans can end our isolation from one another and from nature -- that we can move forward to achieve a prosperous, secure, and creative human future for all.

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Replacing Our Failed Economy Is Long Overdue and We Have the Power to Change It

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of the 2nd edition of David Korten's Agenda for a New Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

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This Is a Huge Moment of Opportunity We Need a Vision of Economic Possibility

The election is over. Republicans, as expected, are celebrating a sweeping victory. Democrats are licking their wounds. Meanwhile, record numbers of people are still contending with the hardships of unemployment and foreclosure with no relief in sight. And the nation braces for deepening political gridlock.

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Coming to Terms with Climate Change and the Economy

As the climate changes, the consequences for poor people in low-income countries -- those who have had no part in the profligate consumption that created the problem -- will be particularly devastating. This fact is bringing climate justice to the fore of the agenda for many progressive groups that deal with international issues. But even among those groups, all proposals for dealing equitably with the climate crisis are not equal. The differences between them highlight an important contrast between Old Economy and New Economy perspectives.

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The Last Superpower and an Opportunity to End War

Cheap oil provided an energy subsidy that defined the wars, economies, settlements, values, and lifestyles of the 20th century. The result was a century of wasteful extravagance and inefficiency that encouraged us to squander virtually all Earth's resources -- including water, land, forests, fisheries, soils, minerals, and natural waste recycling capacity. We are now waking up to the morning-after consequences of a brief but raucous party. These include depleted natural systems, unsustainable economies, an obsolete physical infrastructure, and a six-fold increase in the human population dependent on the diminished resources of a finite planet.

Cheap oil also fueled a zero sum global competition for access to resources -- particularly cheap oil -- and for the military superiority required to secure that access. The United States combined the global projection of military power with the global projection of economic and cultural power to achieve unchallenged global dominance as the sole reigning superpower.

Cheap oil is no more and the global projection of military and economic power it made possible is no longer viable. In May 2008 the price of oil hit a new high of $135 a barrel in contrast to the historic inflation adjusted price of $27.00. We are only beginning to awake as a nation to the reality that our reign as a global superpower is coming to an abrupt end. (See the summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine.) If we hold to business as usual, we will exhaust what remains of our power and credibility in a bloody and violent no win-competition to consume the last tree, fish, drop of oil, drink of potable water, and breath of clean air -- sealing our own fate as well as that of our species.

A Defining Challenge

According to the scientific consensus, to avoid driving Earth's system of climate regulation into irrevocable collapse we humans must achieve at least an 80 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050 and possibly sooner. Less noted is the corresponding imperative that to avoid irrevocable social collapse, we must simultaneously achieve an equitable allocation of allowable emissions to meet the essential needs of every person on the planet.
This presents a particular challenge for the United States. As the world's leading producer of green house gases, our emissions reduction must be closer to 90 percent.

There is no place in this equation for war or the global projection of military power. Beyond the fact that military planes, ships, and vehicles are gluttonous consumers of oil, the central activity of warfare is to kill and maim people and destroy critical infrastructure to impair capacity for normal life. The collateral damage includes massive scale toxic and radioactive environmental contamination that renders growing portions of our crowded planet uninhabitable. The more we humans war the more certain our ultimate collective demise.

The Last Superpower

The United States is well positioned to take the lead among nations in renouncing war as an instrument of national policy and dismantling the means of conducting war. We account for roughly half of world military expenditures and our military expenditures account for more than half of the U.S. federal discretionary budget to the neglect of major education, health, infrastructure, and environmental needs.

Yet the only military threat to our domestic security is from a handful of terrorists armed with box cutters and a willingness to die for their cause. We face a greater danger from our own children brandishing guns in our schools than from any opposing army. If a band of terrorists were to attack us with an atomic weapon, it would likely be delivered in a suitcase or packing crate. Such threats share in common the simple fact that even the mightiest military force in the world offers no protection. The solutions depend more on strengthening our families and communities, than on increasing military budgets.

Military science has long recognized that the use of conventional military force against an unconventional enemy that blends in with the civilian population is futile, even counterproductive, because the inevitable collateral damage fuels resentment and increases the numbers and commitment of the enemy. In the case of the United States, it drains our resources, divides us as a nation, weakens our moral standing in the world, and creates more unconventional enemies -- as our fruitless occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan currently demonstrates.

Getting Smart

The greatest threats to U.S. security come from weather chaos, oil dependence, disruption of food supplies, water scarcity, domestic gun violence, profligate borrowing, and a collapsing dollar -- threats increased by our current military security policies.

This is the moment for a pragmatic turn from military security to smart security. Among the potential starting points, two stand out as particularly promising. The first is a call by establishment insiders like George Shultz, who was U.S. Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, to dismantle all the world's nuclear weapons (see Sarah van Gelder's interview with George Shultz).

The second is an emergent social movement calling all the world's parliaments to adopt the principles of Article 9 added to the Japanese Constitution following World War II. In the official translation it reads:

Keep reading... Show less

Will the Last Superpower Recognize In Time What We Must Do to Save the Planet?

Cheap oil provided an energy subsidy that defined the wars, economies, settlements, values, and lifestyles of the 20th century. The result was a century of wasteful extravagance and inefficiency that encouraged us to squander virtually all Earth's resources -- including water, land, forests, fisheries, soils, minerals, and natural waste recycling capacity. We are now waking up to the morning-after consequences of a brief but raucous party. These include depleted natural systems, unsustainable economies, an obsolete physical infrastructure, and a six-fold increase in the human population dependent on the diminished resources of a finite planet.

Cheap oil also fueled a zero sum global competition for access to resources -- particularly cheap oil -- and for the military superiority required to secure that access. The United States combined the global projection of military power with the global projection of economic and cultural power to achieve unchallenged global dominance as the sole reigning superpower.

Cheap oil is no more and the global projection of military and economic power it made possible is no longer viable. In May 2008 the price of oil hit a new high of $135 a barrel in contrast to the historic inflation adjusted price of $27.00. We are only beginning to awake as a nation to the reality that our reign as a global superpower is coming to an abrupt end. (See the summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine.) If we hold to business as usual, we will exhaust what remains of our power and credibility in a bloody and violent no win-competition to consume the last tree, fish, drop of oil, drink of potable water, and breath of clean air -- sealing our own fate as well as that of our species.

A Defining Challenge

According to the scientific consensus, to avoid driving Earth's system of climate regulation into irrevocable collapse we humans must achieve at least an 80 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050 and possibly sooner. Less noted is the corresponding imperative that to avoid irrevocable social collapse, we must simultaneously achieve an equitable allocation of allowable emissions to meet the essential needs of every person on the planet.
This presents a particular challenge for the United States. As the world's leading producer of green house gases, our emissions reduction must be closer to 90 percent.

There is no place in this equation for war or the global projection of military power. Beyond the fact that military planes, ships, and vehicles are gluttonous consumers of oil, the central activity of warfare is to kill and maim people and destroy critical infrastructure to impair capacity for normal life. The collateral damage includes massive scale toxic and radioactive environmental contamination that renders growing portions of our crowded planet uninhabitable. The more we humans war the more certain our ultimate collective demise.

The Last Superpower

The United States is well positioned to take the lead among nations in renouncing war as an instrument of national policy and dismantling the means of conducting war. We account for roughly half of world military expenditures and our military expenditures account for more than half of the U.S. federal discretionary budget to the neglect of major education, health, infrastructure, and environmental needs.

Yet the only military threat to our domestic security is from a handful of terrorists armed with box cutters and a willingness to die for their cause. We face a greater danger from our own children brandishing guns in our schools than from any opposing army. If a band of terrorists were to attack us with an atomic weapon, it would likely be delivered in a suitcase or packing crate. Such threats share in common the simple fact that even the mightiest military force in the world offers no protection. The solutions depend more on strengthening our families and communities, than on increasing military budgets.

Military science has long recognized that the use of conventional military force against an unconventional enemy that blends in with the civilian population is futile, even counterproductive, because the inevitable collateral damage fuels resentment and increases the numbers and commitment of the enemy. In the case of the United States, it drains our resources, divides us as a nation, weakens our moral standing in the world, and creates more unconventional enemies -- as our fruitless occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan currently demonstrates.

Getting Smart

The greatest threats to U.S. security come from weather chaos, oil dependence, disruption of food supplies, water scarcity, domestic gun violence, profligate borrowing, and a collapsing dollar -- threats increased by our current military security policies.

This is the moment for a pragmatic turn from military security to smart security. Among the potential starting points, two stand out as particularly promising. The first is a call by establishment insiders like George Shultz, who was U.S. Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, to dismantle all the world's nuclear weapons (see Sarah van Gelder's interview with George Shultz).

The second is an emergent social movement calling all the world's parliaments to adopt the principles of Article 9 added to the Japanese Constitution following World War II. In the official translation it reads:

Keep reading... Show less

How Do We Go from Empire to Earth Community?

Editor's note: The following is a transcript of David Korten's presentation on The Great Turning to the Seattle Green Festival, April 13, 2008.

... We are all well aware of the crisis unfolding around us. The day of reckoning for our reckless human ways that many of us have for decades warned would be coming is here. The future is now. Peak oil, climate chaos, financial collapse, and spreading social disintegration are all consequences of deep cultural and institutional dysfunction. The imperative to address them presents us with an epic test of our human intelligence and creativity.

When I was a student in business school my professors always told us. Go for the Big Picture. If you find a problem, don't just treat the symptoms. Look up stream to find and deal with the cause. Although we face a daunting variety of problems, the big picture of the human confrontation with the reality of our Mother Earth becomes crystal clear once we step back and take a look upstream. This big picture has three critical elements.

The first element is environmental collapse driven by our relentless growth in consumption and population. From the perspective of our Earth Mother our human excesses have for millennia been little more than the normal nuisance one expects from children.

Somewhere around 1970 we passed a threshold. Our human consumption became more than a nuisance, it began to exceed what our Mother could bear and began to threaten her very life. We see the results in climate chaos, depletion of fresh water and fertile soils, the collapse of fisheries, the erosion of denuded forest lands and melting ice caps. We are building up toxics in the water, soil, and air. We are killing our mother and thereby ourselves. We must grow up fast and accept our adult responsibilities. The implications are pretty straight forward.

Remember those scenes in Star Trek.

Scotty to Captain Kirk: Life support is failing.

Kirk to Scotty: Shut down all nonessential systems and direct all available resources to life support.

There it is -- the order for our time. No resources for war or extravagance. Focus all attention on the health of the crew and the life support system.

No more throwaway stuff. No more economic growth for the rich. Our priority must be to grow our well-being rather than our consumption. Invest in peace, education, and health care rather than war. Invest in compact communities rather than suburban sprawl. Invest in local economies and environmental rejuvenation rather than in shipping toys around the world and speculating in the global financial casino. Invest in sidewalks, bicycles, bicycle paths, and public transportation rather than cars and highways. Invest in education for living rather than advertising to get us to consume more.

Here is the kicker. We must eliminate exactly those forms of non-essential production and consumption that our economic and political systems are designed to promote.

How many of you have watched Annie Leonard's video The Story of Stuff I must have watched it a dozen times. It's a brilliant exposition of the consequences of an economic system designed to make money for rich capitalists without regard for human or natural consequences. I'll return to this in a minute.

The second piece of the big picture is an unraveling of the social fabric of civilization that is a consequence of extreme and growing inequality. A world divided between the profligate and the desperate cannot long endure. It intensifies competition for Earth's resources and drives an unraveling of the social fabric of mutual trust and caring essential to healthy social function. In 2005 Forbes Magazine counted 691 billionaires in the world. This year, only three years later, it counted 1,250, nearly double, and estimated their combined wealth at $4.4 trillion. These are the people who get the big tax breaks. According to a United Nations study, the richest 1% of world's people now own 51% of all the world's assets. The poorest 50% own only 1% assets. That is why we call them poor, because they don't own any assets. When the rich own everything there is nothing left for the poor to own.

A poor family wants a small plot of land to grow some food. A billionaire wants that land for a 20,000 square foot vacation home he may reside in for no more than a few days a year. Can you guess who gets the land? They tell us economic growth is essential lift the poor to prosperity. All too often economic growth lifts the yachts and swamps the naked swimmers.

Most growth in consumption in recent years has not been at the bottom where it is needed. Its been at the very top among the already super wealthy. Our real resources are shrinking, but whatever resources are left, the rich can easily buy them. Speaking of billionaires and their yachts, I love the quote from one clueless billionaire commenting on the rising price of oil. "So it used to cost me $30,000 to fill the tank on my yacht. Now it costs me $60,000. Its no big deal."

For the super rich, if we run out of oil, there is always enthanol. Meanwhile desperate mothers watch helplessly as their babies die for lack of food.

We cannot grow our way out of poverty. The only way to end poverty and heal our social divisions on an already over stressed planet is through a redistribution of resources from rich to poor and from nonessential to essential uses. Ooops. Can't you just hear the right-wing wind-bags? Hey, that Korten guy, he's talking about equity. He must be a communist.

Actually I'm a proud American patriot. I grew up with the patriotic story that the United States is a middle-class democracy without the extremes of class division that characterize other societies. That story once made us the envy of the world. Of course it was never quite accurate, but it expressed a beautiful widely shared human ideal that we must now reclaim. Equity is an essential foundation of true democracy and of our national ideal and self-image. Equity can even be defended on the grounds of rightful inheritance and property rights. Think about it.

Natural wealth was created by our Earth mother and is therefore a common heritage of all her children, including all non-human species. None of us has a right to abuse that wealth or to monopolize it to the exclusion of our sisters and brothers.

This brings us to the third element of the big picture: the governing institutions to which we give the power to set our priorities and our collective course. We might wonder how such injustice could happen in a world governed by democratically elected governments. The answer is simple and alarming. Our world is not governed by democratically elected governments. It is ruled by global financial institutions in the service of financial speculators who exchange trillions of dollars daily in search of instance unearned profits to increase the fortunes -- and the power -- of the richest people on the planet. They bring down governments that displease them, and buy and sell the largest corporations like commodities. By design and law the defining priority and obligation of these governing institutions is to generate financial profits to make rich people richer, in short to increase inequality in a world in desperate need of greater equity. To this end, the corporations rise or fall at the pleasure of the speculator, assault of our eyes and ears with advertising messages intended to get those of who are already have more stuff that we need -- to buy more stuff.

So what does this big picture overview tell us about what we need to do? How much suffering will changing our ways impose? Well, we need to grow strong caring communities in which we get more of our human satisfaction from caring relationships and less from material goods. We will need to end war as a means of settling international disputes and dismantle our military establishment. We need to reclaim the American ideal of being a democratic middle-class nation without extremes of wealth and poverty. And we need to encourage and support the rest of the world in doing the same. To do all this we will need create democratically accountable governing institutions devoted to the well-being of people and nature.

There can be no trade offs between justice, sustainability, happiness, and democracy. They are all inseparably linked.

Does any of this agenda sound like unbearable hardship? And exactly how is a more just distribution of resources going to hurt the poor? I'm going to say a lot more about fabricated cultural stories that obscure our ability to see the possibilities before us. The story that protecting the planet will impose unbearable hardship is one of those fabricated stories.

Now. Think about this. Wouldn't it be nice if it turned out the choices we must make together to survive together are the same as the choices we need to make to create the very world everyone wants? If that were true, they we should be able to just get together and make it happen. Wouldn't that be cool? Maybe we should start a conversation to find out to find out what people truly want.

Actually that conversation started quite some time ago. One of the most profound experiences of my life was participating in the civil society portion of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. I was part of a gathering of some 15,000 people representing the vast variety of humanity's races, religions, nationalities, and languages. Our discussions centered on defining the world we wanted to create together.

These discussions were chaotic and sometimes contentious. But at one point it hit me like a bolt of lightening. For all our differences, we all wanted the same thing: healthy children, families, and communities with healthy natural environments living in peace and cooperation -- and not just for ourselves. We wanted it for everyone. Out of our conversations grew our shared dream of a world in which people and nature live in dynamic, creative and ultimately cooperative and balanced relationship. The Earth Charter, which is the product of a continuation of this discussion, calls it Earth Community. I've lived in a lot of exotic places: Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Indonesia, the Philippines, even California, Florida, and most exotic of all: Washington, DC. I've experienced a lot of different kinds of people. As I reflect back on that experience I realize that for all our differences, with the exception of a relatively few people who suffer from some debilitating psychological dysfunction, we are a lot more alike than we generally realize. Most of us want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. We want tasty nutritious food uncontaminated with toxins. We want healthy, happy children, loving families, and a caring community with a beautiful healthy natural environment. We want meaningful work, a living wage, and security in our old age. We want a say in the decisions our government makes. We want world peace. This doesn't seem excessive.

But, you say, what about here in the United States? What about our division between red states and blue states?

It turns out that tor all the talk of red states and blue states, polling data indicate we have substantial agreement on many key issues even here. We are more purple than we realize. For example, eighty-three percent of us believe that as a society the United States is focused on the wrong priorities. Supermajorities of more than 80 percent want to give higher priority to the needs of children, family, community, and the natural environment. Seventy-two percent of us agree that big companies have too much power. Put it together and we find out that Americans want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of international domination. Note that none of these are distinctively conservative or liberal values. They are widely shared human values. What if all of us who live in this country were to wake up one morning and recognize that we are one nation yearning for healthy children, families, communities, and natural environments.

So where do those of us here stand? Let me see some hands. Do you believe that as a society we are focused on the wrong priorities? Do you yearn to see greater priority given to the needs of children, family community, and nature. Do you think big business has too much power? Look at that. A room full of psychologically healthy people who want a healthy world that works for all. And I bet that some of you came in here believing that you are part of a fringe minority. In fact, we are the leading edge of a national and global supermajority and it is appropriate for us to speak and act accordingly.

I want to note something else here that I find significant. The idea that beneath the surface of our wondrous cultural diversity most humans want the same thing is consistent with recent scientific findings that our human brains are wired for compassion, caring, altruism, and cooperation. It turns out that most people everywhere, irrespective of their skin color, religion, nationality, or language are happiest when they are being helpful, loving, peaceful, generous, and cooperative. Isn't that stunning? Think of the possibilities.

So what's our problem? Why are we in such a mess? Why didn't we long ago just get together to create the world we really want -- the world that stimulates our bliss hormone -- the hormone released when we are being cooperative and generous -- or having good sex?

What are the real barriers to creating the world in which we measure our progress against a national happiness index rather than by an index of how fast we are turning stuff into garbage? Corrupt politicians and greedy corporate executives come to mind.

These folks certainly demonstrate that there are some seriously morally and psychologically challenged people in the world. Part of our problem is that they are the ones who most often capture the headlines, because they are the one's most inclined to engage in the ruthless competitive struggle required to claim positions of great power.

And then there are also those dysfunctional institutions we mentioned devoted to the concentration of wealth and power. These institutions tend to recruit ethically challenged leaders who share the values the institutions are devoted to advancing.

Our biggest problem, however, is neither bad people nor bad institutions. The problem way up there at the source of the stream is a bad story that keeps running on an endless loop in our heads telling us to get real, because the world of our dreams is nothing more than a naïve fantasy forever beyond our reach. You know the story. Its probably been running in your head all the time I've been speaking.

It is our human nature to be fearful, violent, greedy, and individualistic. Our wellbeing in this life depends on strong leaders with the will to use their police and military power to protect us from criminals, terrorists, and rogue dictators who threaten our way of life. We depend on the competitive forces of a free unregulated market to channel our individual greed to constructive ends. There is no alternative. It's in our nature. Our only hope for salvation is the promise that if we obey those whom God has appointed to rule in this life, God will reward us with paradise in the afterlife in a place where people live in peace, harmony, and eternal bliss.

The discipline and competition necessary to achieve order in this life may bring pain and hardship to some, but it is all for the good, because the brutal competition of war and the unrelenting pursuit of individual profit builds character, drives innovation, and leads to greatness. This competition, violent and destructive as it may sometimes be, has been the key to human success since the beginning of time and ultimately works to the benefit of everyone.

Have you ever heard this story? How often do elements of this story run in your head telling you that the world you long for really isn't possible?

This debilitating story is self-affirming, because our media bombard us with stories of the violent, the greedy, and the individualistic -- including many politicians and corporate CEOs celebrated for their political and financial success. We easily conclude that such people are representative of the best of our human nature, rather than pathological exceptions to the healthier human norm.

I call this story the Empire story, because it is the foundation of 5,000 years of organizing ourselves into hierarchies of domination and abuse. It legitimates the oppression of Empire and denies the higher order potentials of our human nature -- the potential, which if cultivated, that makes it possible for us to do things differently. The elements of this narrative are embedded in the stories most commonly heard from a great many economists, scientists, preachers, politicians, and historians -- among others. We heard them in school. We hear them in church. We hear them on the media. Their constant repetition creates a kind of cultural trance from which we are now just beginning to awaken.

The trance isn't new. It has held us captive to the most reptilian aspects of our nature for the past 5,000 years. It drives the endless imperial cycle in which one Empire vanquishes another and obliterates its accomplishments. The success of those who achieve imperial dominion over their neighbors gives rise to monumental hubris and material self-indulgence until the reigning empire is so weakened by its own excesses that the more disciplined warriors of another tribe or nation easily vanquish it.

Does anything here sound familiar? Where exactly is the United States in this cycle.

Throughout human history, each imperial cycle of violence, triumph and decay has brought yet more death, ruined lives, and physical devastation.

The fall of the American empire country seems destined to come not from any military invasion across our borders but rather from our growing foreign debt and the purchase of our assets by the foreign sovereign wealth funds that hold thw debt. It will be a rude awakening indeed when we one day wake up to realize that we, the democratic Christian capitalist rulers of the world have been reduced by our own hand to an economic colony of the Chinese Communist Party and a group of Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East.

No one in power even seems to notice, perhaps because their attention is focused on promoting wars in the Middle East and bailing out the high rollers who lost their shirts gambling on sub-prime mortgages.

Change begins with a new story that celebrates the best rather than the worst of what we are and can be. Its pretty straight forward. If we convince ourselves that we are innately brutal, greedy beings and that this is all for the good, then we set ourselves a goal of perfecting our capacity for greed and violence, thus perpetuating the world of our nightmares.

It is time to start filling our heads instead with the story that it is our nature to be caring and giving and that this is all for the good, and therefore we properly set our sights on perfecting our capacity for love and caring and create the world of our dreams. It isn't a particularly new story. A young fellow named Jesus got famous for preaching it to large crowds of adoring fans some 2,000 years ago. Some of our most revered heroes, for example Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the same message and built powerful social movements.

OK. I know the question you are about to ask. Hey, you look at me and say "Didn't this guy Korten just say its been this way for 5,000 years. They crucified Jesus and they assassinated Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Why should we expect things to change now? Its over. The ice caps are melting. We're cooked."

Here is the key to why now. For the first time since the first empires were formed in the lands we now call Iraq and Egypt we have both the means and the imperative to liberate our selves from the story in our heads, break the cycle of domination, and live Earth Community into being. It is the Great Work of our time. Some of us call it the Great Turning.

The communications capabilities of the Internet provide the means to hold the global conversation needed to awaken ourselves from our cultural trance and create global alliances for change that bring together people from all levels of society. It starts with local conversations that grow and merge through the Internet into global conversations.

The global scale collapse of social and environmental systems provides the shared imperative to have that conversation, a conversation now already well underway. For the first time since our earliest human like ancestors walked the earth millions of years ago, we humans have the means and the imperative to engage this conversation on a global scale.

So far so good, but if we are really going to get the Empire story out of our heads, we need to know how it got there so we don't find it sneaking back in -- like that troublesome file on my computer that keeps reinstalling minutes after I thought I had deleted it.

We weren't born with the Empire story in our heads. Its not in our genes. It got there because it is a constantly reoccurring theme of the cultural stories we turn to for answers to our most basic questions about ourselves and our possibilities. It got there from the economic, political, and religious institutions that perpetuate it and reward those who serve its values by showering them with financial success and promoting them to positions of unaccountable power.

Profound social change takes place when an important cultural story changes -- and the impetus to challenge imperial rule rarely comes from within the institutions of Empire. Democracy took hold when we replaced the story of the divine right of kings with the story that the powers of government derive from the will of the people.

People of color and women won recognition of their full human rights only as the civil rights and women's movements successfully exposed the fallacy of the story that people of color and women are less than fully human. Recognizing the full humanity of all peoples opens us to a deeper understanding of what it truly does mean to be human in all the rich potentials that our human nature embodies.

The environmental movement is replacing the story that nature is a dark and evil threat to be subdued, vanquished, and used for whatever purposes please us with the story of Earth as a living being, the mother of life, a living spaceship.

We are still working on many of these new stories, but those of my generation have experienced the enormous societal shifts that these changes in our cultural stories have wrought. In each instance a new story has contributed to the yet larger process of the Great Turning of the human course from the dominator path of Empire to the partnership path of Earth Community.

The propagandists of Empire who propagate Empire stories work at an inherent disadvantage, because their success depends on suppressing our natural desires for community, justice, and liberty. That is why Empire has to pay them handsomely for their service. The results they seek do not come naturally.

The power of authentic stories is the source of civil society's ultimate power advantage. The stories of Earth community acknowledge and express our genuine desire to love and be loved and to live in creative caring communities with peace and justice for all beings.

Corporations command economic power. Governments command the coercive power of the police and military. The power of authentic stories, however, ultimately trumps all the other forms of power, because these other forms of power depend on the stories that lend them legitimacy. Unlike the fabricated stories of Empire, the authentic stories of Earth Community resonate with what we know deep in our being to be true. Once we are clear that there is an alternative to the violent domination of Empire and it is the world of our dreams, we can together reclaim the power we have yielded to Empire and redirect it to the work of growing Earth Community.

Without our acquiescence, the dominator structures of Empire collapse, as the Marcos Regime in the Philippines collapsed, as the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed without a shot fired. Progressive Talk show host Thom Hartmann calls this process walking away from the king.

How does it happen? It starts with a conversation. A while back Cecile Andrews, our local Seattle author of The Circle of Simplicity explained to me how the women's movement changed the story on gender, and unleashed the long suppressed power of the feminine. It started with discussion circles in which women came together to share personal stories. As each woman spoke her truth, a larger truth was revealed for all to see. The prevailing story that the key to a woman's happiness is to find the right man, marry him, and devote her life to his service -- was not true.

Absent the discussions that encouraged the sharing of their true stories, women whose experience failed to conform to the prevailing cultural story held themselves responsible for the failure. They assumed they were simply different, and thus in some way deficient. By breaking the silence to share their stories they ended their isolation and rose above self-doubt as they came to realize that they were in the very good company of a great many other wonderful women. Many then lent their voices to a growing chorus of women engaged in changing the cultural stories by which society had long defined women and their roles.

Cecile noted to me that the same process is involved in the voluntary simplicity movement. Through sharing stories about what makes us truly happy, we come to see the fallacy of the advertising story that material consumption is our source of happiness. Once this fallacy is seen for what it is, we can enthusiastically share our stories of how we are improving the quality of our lives by reducing the quantity of our consumption and gaining control of our time to do more of the things that make us feel fully alive.

The power of authentic stories told and retold by millions and ultimately billions of people can trump the power of Empire. It begins with a conversation.

The Green Fest, Coop America, Global Exchange and every organization exhibiting here are all involved in advancing the conversation that is challenging and changing the economic story that serves the predatory institutions of Empire.

The economic story we are working to change rests on false representations about our human nature, the public interest, economic growth and money that promote false priorities and distract our attention from the possibility of creating the world we truly want and that we must now create to save our Earth Mother -- and ourselves.

In everything you do, share the story of our human possibility and of our right and responsibility to create for ourselves and for future generations, the world of our shared dream. Our distinctive human capacity for reflection and intentional choice carries a corresponding moral responsibility to care for our Mother Earth and for one another. We must now test the limits of the individual and collective creative potential of our species as we strive to become the change we seek.

In these turbulent and frightening times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment of creative opportunity in the whole of the human experience. The future is in our hands. Now is the hour. We have the power to turn this world around. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Thank you.

We Can Build A Healthy Global Society

By what name will future generations know our time?

Will they speak in anger and frustration of the time of the Great Unraveling, when profligate consumption exceeded Earth's capacity to sustain and led to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remained of the planet's resources, and a dramatic dieback of the human population? Or will they look back in joyful celebration on the time of the Great Turning, when their forebears embraced the higher-order potential of their human nature, turned crisis into opportunity, and learned to live in creative partnership with one another and Earth?

We face a defining choice between two contrasting models for organizing human affairs. Give them the generic names Empire and Earth Community. Absent an understanding of the history and implications of this choice, we may squander valuable time and resources on efforts to preserve or mend cultures and institutions that cannot be fixed and must be replaced.

Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.

Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative co-operation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. Supporting evidence for the possibilities of Earth Community comes from the findings of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and religious mysticism. It was the human way before Empire; we must make a choice to re-learn how to live by its principles.

Developments distinctive to our time are telling us that Empire has reached the limits of the exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and an imbalanced U.S. economy dependent on debts it can never repay is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. We have the power to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity. The Great Turning is not a prophecy. It is a possibility.

According to cultural historian Riane Eisler, early humans evolved within a cultural and institutional frame of Earth Community. They organized to meet their needs by cooperating with life rather than by dominating it. Then some 5,000 years ago, beginning in Mesopotamia, our ancestors made a tragic turn from Earth Community to Empire. They turned away from a reverence for the generative power of life -- represented by female gods or nature spirits -- to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword -- represented by distant, usually male, gods. The wisdom of the elder and the priestess gave way to the arbitrary rule of the powerful, often ruthless, king.

The peoples of the dominant human societies lost their sense of attachment to the living earth, and societies became divided between the rulers and the ruled, exploiters and exploited. The brutal competition for power created a relentless play-or-die, rule-or-be-ruled dynamic of violence and oppression and served to elevate the most ruthless to the highest positions of power. Since the fateful turn, the major portion of the resources available to human societies has been diverted from meeting the needs of life to supporting the military forces, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage for retainers and propagandists on which the system of domination in turn depends. Great civilizations built by ambitious rulers fell to successive waves of corruption and conquest.

The primary institutional form of Empire has morphed from the city-state to the nation-state to the global corporation, but the underlying pattern of domination remains. It is axiomatic: for a few to be on top, many must be on the bottom. The powerful control and institutionalize the processes by which it will be decided who enjoys the privilege and who pays the price, a choice that commonly results in arbitrarily excluding from power whole groups of persons based on race and gender.


Herein lies a crucial insight. If we look for the source of the social pathologies increasingly evident in our culture, we find they have a common origin in the dominator relations of Empire that have survived largely intact in spite of the democratic reforms of the past two centuries. The sexism, racism, economic injustice, violence, and environmental destruction that have plagued human societies for 5,000 years, and have now brought us to the brink of a potential terminal crisis, all flow from this common source. Freeing ourselves from these pathologies depends on a common solution -- replacing the underlying dominator cultures and institutions of Empire with the partnership cultures and institutions of Earth Community. Unfortunately, we cannot look to imperial powerholders to lead the way.


History shows that as empires crumble the ruling elites become ever more corrupt and ruthless in their drive to secure their own power -- a dynamic now playing out in the United States. We Americans base our identity in large measure on the myth that our nation has always embodied the highest principles of democracy, and is devoted to spreading peace and justice to the world.

But there has always been tension between America's high ideals and its reality as a modern version of Empire. The freedom promised by the Bill of Rights contrasts starkly with the enshrinement of slavery elsewhere in the original articles of the Constitution. The protection of property, an idea central to the American dream, stands in contradiction to the fact that our nation was built on land taken by force from Native Americans. Although we consider the vote to be the hallmark of our democracy, it took nearly 200 years before that right was extended to all citizens.

Americans acculturated to the ideals of America find it difficult to comprehend what our rulers are doing, most of which is at odds with notions of egalitarianism, justice, and democracy. Within the frame of historical reality, it is perfectly clear: they are playing out the endgame of Empire, seeking to consolidate power through increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic policies.

Wise choices necessarily rest on a foundation of truth. The Great Turning depends on awakening to deep truths long denied.

Empire's true believers maintain that the inherent flaws in our human nature lead to a natural propensity to greed, violence, and lust for power. Social order and material progress depend, therefore, on imposing elite rule and market discipline to channel these dark tendencies to positive ends. Psychologists who study the developmental pathways of the individual consciousness observe a more complex reality. Just as we grow up in our physical capacities and potential given proper physical nourishment and exercise, we also grow up in the capacities and potential of our consciousness, given proper social and emotional nourishment and exercise.

Over a lifetime, those who enjoy the requisite emotional support traverse a pathway from the narcissistic, undifferentiated magical consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive, and multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder. The lower, more narcissistic, orders of consciousness are perfectly normal for young children, but become sociopathic in adults and are easily encouraged and manipulated by advertisers and demagogues. The higher orders of consciousness are a necessary foundation of mature democracy. Perhaps Empire's greatest tragedy is that its cultures and institutions systematically suppress our progress to the higher orders of consciousness.

Given that Empire has prevailed for 5,000 years, a turn from Empire to Earth Community might seem a hopeless fantasy if not for the evidence from values surveys that a global awakening to the higher levels of human consciousness is already underway. This awakening is driven in part by a communications revolution that defies elite censorship and is breaking down the geographical barriers to intercultural exchange.

The consequences of the awakening are manifest in the civil rights, women's, environmental, peace, and other social movements. These movements in turn gain energy from the growing leadership of women, communities of color, and indigenous peoples, and from a shift in the demographic balance in favor of older age groups more likely to have achieved the higher-order consciousness of the wise elder.

It is fortuitous that we humans have achieved the means to make a collective choice as a species to free ourselves from Empire's seemingly inexorable compete-or-die logic at the precise moment we face the imperative to do so. The speed at which institutional and technological advances have created possibilities wholly new to the human experience is stunning.

Just over 60 years ago, we created the United Nations, which, for all its imperfections, made it possible for the first time for representatives of all the world's nations and people to meet in a neutral space to resolve differences through dialogue rather than force of arms.

Less than 50 years ago, our species ventured into space to look back and see ourselves as one people sharing a common destiny on a living space ship.

In little more than 10 years our communications technologies have given us the ability, should we choose to use it, to link every human on the planet into a seamless web of nearly costless communication and cooperation.

Already our new technological capability has made possible the interconnection of the millions of people who are learning to work as a dynamic, self--directing social organism that transcends boundaries of race, class, religion, and nationality and functions as a shared conscience of the species. We call this social or-ganism global civil society. On February 15, 2003, it brought more than 10 million people to the streets of the world's cities, towns, and villages to call for peace in the face of the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They accomplished this monumental collective action without a central organization, budget, or charismatic leader through social processes never before possible on such a scale. This was but a foretaste of the possibilities for radically new forms of partnership organization now within our reach.

We humans live by stories. The key to making a choice for Earth Community is recognizing that the foundation of Empire's power does not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire's ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities in order to perpetuate the myths on which the legitimacy of the dominator relations of Empire depend. To change the human future, we must change our defining stories.

For 5,000 years, the ruling class has cultivated, rewarded, and amplified the voices of those storytellers whose stories affirm the righteousness of Empire and deny the higher-order potentials of our nature that would allow us to live with one another in peace and cooperation. There have always been those among us who sense the possibilities of Earth Community, but their stories have been marginalized or silenced by Empire's instruments of intimidation. The stories endlessly repeated by the scribes of Empire become the stories most believed. Stories of more hopeful possibilities go unheard or unheeded and those who discern the truth are unable to identify and support one another in the common cause of truth telling. Fortunately, the new communications technologies are breaking this pattern. As truth-tellers reach a wider audience, the myths of Empire become harder to maintain.

The struggle to define the prevailing cultural stories largely defines contemporary cultural politics in the United States. A far-right alliance of elitist corporate plutocrats and religious theocrats has gained control of the political discourse in the United States not by force of their numbers, which are relatively small, but by controlling the stories by which the prevailing culture defines the pathway to prosperity, security, and meaning. In each instance, the far right's favored versions of these stories affirm the dominator relations of Empire.

The imperial prosperity story says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that create barriers to accumulating wealth. We must also eliminate welfare programs in order to teach the poor the value of working hard at whatever wages the market offers.

The imperial security story tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists, and enemies. The only way to insure our safety is through major expenditures on the military and the police to maintain order by physical force.
The imperial meaning story reinforces the other two, featuring a God who rewards righteousness with wealth and power and mandates that they rule over the poor who justly suffer divine punishment for their sins.

These stories all serve to alienate us from the community of life and deny the positive potentials of our nature, while affirming the legitimacy of economic inequality, the use of physical force to maintain imperial order, and the special righteousness of those in power.

It is not enough, as many in the United States are doing, to debate the details of tax and education policies, budgets, war, and trade agreements in search of a positive political agenda. Nor is it enough to craft slogans with broad mass appeal aimed at winning the next election or policy debate. We must infuse the mainstream culture with stories of Earth Community. As the stories of Empire nurture a culture of domination, the stories of Earth Community nurture a culture of partnership. They affirm the positive potentials of our human nature and show that realizing true prosperity, security, and meaning depends on creating vibrant, caring, interlinked communities that support all persons in realizing their full humanity. Sharing the joyful news of our human possibilities through word and action is perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Work of our time.

Changing the prevailing stories in the United States may be easier to accomplish than we might think. The apparent political divisions notwithstanding, U.S. polling data reveal a startling degree of consensus on key issues. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe that as a society the United States is focused on the wrong priorities. Supermajorities want to see greater priority given to children, family, community, and a healthy environment. Americans also want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of international domination. These Earth Community values are in fact widely shared by both conservatives and liberals.

Our nation is on the wrong course not because Americans have the wrong values. It is on the wrong course because of remnant imperial institutions that give unaccountable power to a small alliance of right-wing extremists who call themselves conservative and claim to support family and community values, but whose preferred economic and social policies constitute a ruthless war against children, families, communities, and the environment.

The distinctive human capacity for reflection and intentional choice carries a corresponding moral responsibility to care for one another and the planet. Indeed, our deepest desire is to live in loving relationships with one another. The hunger for loving families and communities is a powerful, but latent, unifying force and the potential foundation of a winning political coalition dedicated to creating societies that support every person in actualizing his or her highest potential.

In these turbulent and often frightening times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of the human experience. We have the opportunity to turn away from Empire and to embrace Earth Community as a conscious collective choice. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

BRAND NEW STORIES