Yes! Magazine  [Printer-friendly version]
July 15, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: David Korten says we face a defining choice
between two contrasting ways of organizing human affairs: Empire vs.
Earth Community. Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from
relations among nations to relations among family members. 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. Which will it be?]

by David Korten

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?

A defining choice

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

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.

A turn from life

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.

Paying the price

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.

Troubling truths

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.

Beyond denial

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.

Cultural Turning

The Great Turning begins with a cultural and spiritual awakening -- a
turning in cultural values from money and material excess to life and
spiritual fulfillment, from a belief in our limitations to a belief in
our possibilities, and from fearing our differences to rejoicing in
our diversity. It requires reframing the cultural stories by which we
define our human nature, purpose, and possibilities.

Economic Turning

The values shift of the cultural turning leads us to redefine wealth
-- to measure it by the health of our families, communities, and
natural environment. It leads us from policies that raise those at the
top to policies that raise those at the bottom, from hoarding to
sharing, from concentrated to distributed ownership, and from the
rights of ownership to the responsibilities of stewardship.

Political Turning

The economic turning creates the necessary conditions for a turn from
a one-dollar, one-vote democracy to a one-person, one-vote democracy,
from passive to active citizenship, from competition for individual
advantage to cooperation for mutual advantage, from retributive
justice to restorative justice, and from social order by coercion to
social order by mutual responsibility and accountability.

Global awakening

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

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.

Break the silence, end the isolation, change the story 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.

Story power

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

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

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.

For More Charts Click Here

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.

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures

This article draws from his newly released book, The Great Turning:
From Empire to Earth Community. Go to
for book excerpts, related articles, David's talks, and resources for

Copyright 2004-06 Yes!
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