The Great Turning

The How to Save the World ‘What You Can Do’ list

David Korten’s book When Corporations Rule the World is on my How to Save the World reading list. I summarized it this way:

The need to get corporations out of politics and create localized economies that empower communities within a system of global cooperation, overcoming the myths about economic growth and the sanctification of greed, and focusing instead on overconsumption, poverty, overpopulation, and reining in untrammeled corporate power.

So when his new book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community was announced to considerable fanfare, I rushed to grab a copy. For those early in the journey to realization that civilization has entered its final century, this book could be illuminating — it contains useful histories of civilization’s early and more recent failings, their causes, and the resulting crises threatening it today. But for those well along in that journey, alas — for those who are Too Far Ahead — this book really has nothing new to say.

Most of the books on my aforementioned reading list talk about our civilization, singular, global, brilliantly successful and fatally flawed, and the need to prepare for life after what global warming scientists and End of Oil strategists are now calling an apocalypse. That terrible-sounding word means nothing more than Great Discovery, and is surely accurate, if not an understatement. But in order not to sound too negative and turn readers off, Korten describes two forms of civilization:

  • Empire, the destructive, hierarchical, unsustainable and inherently brutal form of civilization that, as Ronald Wright and Jared Diamond have explained, defines every civilization in human history, and
  • Earth Community, its antithesis, a collaborative, sustainable, caring, egalitarian form of civilization that, Korten argues, is possible.

Earth Community would be a response to and implementation of the Earth Charter, which Korten had a hand in drafting, and the Charter is certainly inspiring:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

What is precipitating the apocalypse, he says, is a ‘perfect economic storm’ with four components:

  • The End of Oil
  • Global Warming
  • Imminent US Dollar Collapse
  • New, Asymmetric Warfare

And the Internet provides us with a unique and urgent opportunity to respond to this storm by creating Earth Community through a “global awakening”.

Parts 2 & 3 of the book provide an extensive history, first, of ancient and modern civilization (“Empire”) and its “sorrows” and the difficulty of breaking free from them, and then of the rise and pending fall of US Empire. The highlight of this is an interesting (if somewhat self-serving) “story” of Imperial Prosperity and Imperial Security. In this excerpt of The Great Turning in Yes!, Korten summarizes these as follows:

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 military and police to maintain order by physical force.

Korten uses the familiar Thomas Berry quote to incite us to create a new story: “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation”. He could have added this additional Berry quote that I have used: “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”

So I was pumped for Parts 4 & 5, where I expected Korten to expand beyond the wise advice to dismantle the excessive power and privilege of corporations he proffered in When Corporations Rule the World, and tell us precisely how to go about achieving this “global awakening” and creating Earth Community. He recognizes that this must be done “from below” (with encouragement or at least non-interference from a political and economic system with post-Empire sensibilities). But I looked in vain for a practical discussion of how to create models, intentional communities, sustainable natural enterprises, peer-to-peer sustainability information exchanges and personal sustainable living programs. You know, community-building stuff. Real what you can do stuff. I guess I’m just too far ahead, and this will appear in Korten’s next book.

This book does contain a set of principles for Living Economies and Living Politics, and these are intriguing and useful. The principles (detailed in the book) are:

Economic Principles:

  • Economic democracy (economic egalitarianism and local ownership)
  • Local preference (buy local
  • Human scale (corporate size limits)
  • Living indicators (driven to optimize well-being not wealth)
  • Fair-share taxation
  • Responsive markets (driven by need, not advertising)
  • Responsibility for harms caused (including externalities)
  • Patient capital (no more absurd ROI expectations)
  • Generational jubilee (full redistribution of accumulated estates on death)
  • Information & technology sharing (open source, peer production etc.)
  • Economic self-determination (end of foreign control of resources and trade)
  • Fair and balanced trade 

Political Principles:

  • Right to vote
  • Public financing of elections
  • Voting integrity (no Diebold)
  • Nonpartisan election administration (duh)
  • Direct election
  • Equal media access
  • Open debates
  • Equal representation (proportional representation, instant runoff voting)
  • Political rights for people (i.e. not for corporations)

I can picture John Gray groaning as he reads this book, however. Where John Gray’s Straw Dogs deconstructed the naivety and magical thinking of humanism, Korten attempts to put it back together again, and make it do the heavy lifting in creating Earth Community. While Korten talks about a humanist liberal-conservative “inclusive” coalition, his principles and approaches are definitive progressive-humanist philosophy. Conservatives will be unimpressed at the re-framing, a thinly-disguised attempt to win them over to progressive, even liberal, principles.

You know what I think about new enlightenments, “second superpowers”, collective human consciousness and spontaneous collaboration, humanism’s self-fulfilling wishfulness. Self-help writ large. It’s a great idea, and I’d really like to believe. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. There is no time or energy left for what’s needed to save the world, even if we can agree on what that is.

I like Korten’s roadmap. Unfortunately, you can’t get there from here.

Postscript: Korten’s book does talk about the work of BALLE, and this is an organization I can get into — real grassroots enterprise and community-building. Coincidentally, Chris Corrigan and I were just Skyping about BALLE (Chris is an adviser to the Vancouver chapter). More on this later.

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3 Responses to The Great Turning

  1. Peter says:

    We have tried to have a discussion on Korten’s book for a couple of months now at my forum. Ran Prieur called it “Final Empire for Dummies” in reference to Kotke’s classic “Final Empire.” He maybe right. It’s probably what’s needed. What I have discovered in trying to run the discussion thread is that this view of history is so opposed to how most people see the world, that it simply “does not compute” with them. Even the few that do grasp it, just shrug their shoulders to indicate “Well, it’s always been like that. What can you do? Nothing really.” They then try to change the topic. Anyone who brings this stuff up is easily dismissed as a crackpot or anarchist nutter.So what can you do about it?A few years ago I first discovered your blog when doing research into the power of story telling. Therein lies part of the solution. Instead of lectures that make people feel as if they are being scolded, you need stories and art to show them that there’s another way to live. One of the best examples of this can be found here: We also need someone to redo the 1975 British sitcom The Good Life about a couple that decides to quit the rat race and get off the grid. The original series feel dated now but a good remake would resonate with many people ( ).

  2. evenstar says:

    “We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. There is no time or energy left for what’s needed to save the world, even if we can agree on what that is.Ah, yes… it’s so unfortunate it’s so often true…Been reading your blog for ages now – you do great work. Thanks, Dave.

  3. spy for sanity says:

    hey there,i just found you today. good regards to “We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, then we do what’s fun. There is no time or energy left for what’s needed to save the world, even if we can agree on what that is”…this made me think of those of us who are inclined to think about saving the world. we’re no different than anyone else but in some ways it must be more neccessary, easier (perhaps because years of necessity have translated to a degree of skill), and more fun (the enjoyment of acting in accordance with, rather than denying, our nature) for us to be this way. we are acting in accordance with our wiring as would anyone else, but our wiring leads us to this place. perhaps we could just as easily be wired for power, cruelty, or vanity…just that somehow what is easy and fun to others (most of which falls under the catagory of either cruelty or fakery) is often wrenchingly difficult and torturous for us (i presume “us”, but if not then i speak for myself).so then i thought, if others are just acting out their wiring (their particular brand of what is neccessary, easy, and fun) we must then try to “package” world-saving as neccessary, easy, and fun in order to obtain, if not cooperation with, at least toleration of, proposed solutions…anyway, i am working with a small group on proposed amendments to the money system aimed at dismantling profiteering. as you say, there may not be enough for everyone with the current levels of consumption (largely resulting from the profiteering ethic), but in a more sane society there could be. i will send you our efforts when they are ready to be shared. thank you for your work and dedication.kf

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