A Story Teller for a New Economy

A September 2009 Interview with David Korten from Trim Tab Magazine

I met David Korten over a decade ago when I was involved in youth environmental work leading summer camps all around North America. Since then, he’s become an informal mentor and elder in not only my life – but much of the movement. I’ve rarely met anyone so deft at seeing the big picture and figuring out uplifting ways to reframe our current cultural story.

For decades, economic visionary and author David Korten has been tirelessly working to redirect the human course away from the destructive patterns of global corporate rule.

Led by the belief that those who control prevailing cultural stories control society, Korten is striving to rewrite the human story and reframe our shared understanding of a prosperous future to that of a life-serving economy that is ruled not by dominating corporations and establishments, but by communities and a mature consciousness.

Korten’s lauded books are fueling the movement to reconstruct our economy and society. His international best-seller, when Corporations Rule the world (1995), has helped to frame the resistance against corporate globalization.

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (2006), and his most recent, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom wealth to Real wealth (2009), unveil the fictitious sense of prosperity and resulting harm generated by an Empire Culture and wall Street economy, and illustrate his vision for the new human story through the framework of the Earth Community and a Main Street economy.

A believer in the transformative power of engaged citizens, Korten has also been instrumental in the founding and development of numerous citizen groups that are working to shift the story of humanity through honest dialogue and the promotion of living economies, such as the People-Centered Development Forum (PCD Forum), Positive Futures Network, business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and yes! Magazine.

His most recent, the New Economy working Group, is a partnership between the Institute for Policy Studies, YES! Magazine, BALLE, and the PCD Forum, whose goal is to reframe the economic policy debate to put the focus on improving the health of human, social, and natural capital, rather than the growth of profits and economic throughput.

Korten explains to Trim Tab his vision for the new human story and how building professionals can participate in the movement to rewrite it.

TRiM TAb: You’ve spent several decades pushing back against status quo thinking. With books like When Corporations Rule the World, you helped ignite a movement of people thinking differently about the economy. What got you started down this path?

DAVID KORTEN: For some thirty years I worked as part of the foreign aid establishment on a commitment to end global poverty, and for twenty-one of these years I resided overseas in low income countries, specifically Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Philippines, and Indonesia. I gradually came to realize that the development models being promoted by the official aid system were increasing the gap between rich and poor, pushing billions into ever more desperate poverty, destroying forest and coastal ocean ecosystems, and disrupting once rich cultures that supported a strong sense of responsibility to family and community.

As I looked upstream for the source of this dysfunction, I found that the economic policies favored by most official aid agencies, and particularly by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, favored the interests of global corporations over the interests of people and communities. Eventually, I realized that these same market fundamentalist policies were accelerating social and environmental breakdown in high income countries as well, including the United States.

TT: Can you briefly summarize the major differences between the Era of Empire and Earth Community, cultural models which you present in The Great Turning, for our readers?

dK: As Riane Eisler noted in her classic Chalice and the Blade, there are two basic models for organizing human activity. One is the hierarchical model of domination. The other is the non-hierarchical model of partnership. I refer to the one as Empire and the other as Earth Community. Earth Community features shared power, mutual accountability, and cooperative self-organization in the manner of healthy ecosystems. Life naturally organizes, by nested “system” hierarchies, as distinct from hierarchies of domination or central control. The nearest equivalent in nature to contemporary economic systems centrally controlled by powerful global financial institutions for the exclusive benefit of their top managers is a cancer that seeks its own unlimited growth without regard to the consequences for the body on which its own existence ultimately depends.

TT: Do you feel like we are making strides towards the Great Turning, or does it seem that Empire Culture is still prevailing in shaping people’s reaction to the economy and the recent political shake-up?

dK: There has been a tension between the forces of domination and the forces of partnership throughout human history that for thousands of years were resolved decisively in the favor of domination. This began to change as the Enlightenment and the American Revolution spread the idea that every person has the right to a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Over the past half century, we have seen a spreading awakening from the cultural trance of Empire. Many of those who experience this awakening have formed what I call liberated cultural spaces in which to explore the possibilities of Earth Community. The green building and local living economies movements are leading examples of the creation of liberated cultural spaces as a change strategy.

That said, the Empire culture, which is actively cultivated by corporate media and deeply embedded in our educational systems, continues to frame political debate and rule- making regarding our economic institutions. This has been painfully evident in government’s response to the Wall Street financial crash. As different as their intellects and values are, the responses of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been virtually identical—both have sought to restore irreparably corrupted financial institutions to their former state of function by pouring in trillions of dollars— public outrage against Wall Street notwithstanding.

The Wall Street system doesn’t need to be fixed. It needs to be replaced with a new money system designed to serve people and nature.

TT: Many of our readers are ready to make the big shift— what do you tell such people? How do they begin their transformation?

dK: We each contribute to the Great Turning when we act to:

1. Change the framing stories of the culture through honest conversation.
2. Create a new reality through bottom up initiatives to create living economies and living buildings.
3. Change the rules of the game through political action to favor a just and sustainable New Economy.

Changing the framing stories of the culture is foundational; for example, the story that it is our human nature to be individualistic, greedy, and violent—which is a foundation of the idea that dominator systems of organization are inevitable and beneficial. Similarly, the story that Earth is an open frontier of limitless resources free for the taking is a foundation of the idea that advertising to drive consumption to generate profits for the already wealthy is the key growing prosperity for all.

The contrasting Earth Community stories recognize that extreme individualism, greed, and violence are pathologies that manifest the dysfunctions of the immature human. Our capacity for love, cooperation, and service manifests the potential of our mature nature. We can choose to cultivate the latter and thereby learn to share the resources of a finite living Earth to secure the long- term well-being of all.

TT: Are you encouraged or discouraged by what you’ve seen from the Obama administration so far? What advice would you give to President Obama to help him shift the nation to an Earth Community?

dK: Barack Obama may be the most able and dedicated leader to ever serve as U.S. president. That said, the forces of corporate rule have sown social and political divisions so deep as to make the United States nearly ungovernable. They have convinced much of the public that government can’t work and the only alternative to a system of rapacious corporate greed is the stifling bureaucratic oppression of socialism.

I would love to have the opportunity to share with President Obama the vision of an Earth Community economy of rule based markets and strong caring communities as outlined in Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. In the end, however, he is a politician facing enormous pressures from Wall Street power holders. We the people must mobilize to create an irresistible countervailing political force to strip Wall Street of its economic and political power and complete, the great historical transition to true democracy.

TT: What advice would you give to a building professional (e.g. architect, engineer, developer, etc.) to help him/her shift the industry and their communities to an Earth Community?

dK: Be true to your values and vision, as they represent the values and vision that most people share in their heart of hearts, even though they are rarely reflected in the corporate controlled public discourse.

TT: You say repeatedly that people all over the world share the dream of happy and healthy children, families, communities and natural systems. How would you then explain how we have allowed the Empire Culture and Wall Street to prevail? How can we begin to realign ourselves with our shared dream?

dK: The empire keeps us separated and conditions us to avoid the conversations we must have to discover that our private dreams of a world that works for all align with the dreams of the vast majority of humanity. Honest conversation is the most powerful of revolutionary actions.

TT: Can you summarize your vision for a new economy based on Main Street instead of Wall Street?

dK: More community, caring relationships, creative expression, cultural exchange, and authentic communication. More equality, leisure, material frugality, durability, and local closed-loop production cycles. More local control, ownership, and self-reliance in food, energy, and construction materials, with everyone participating as both worker and owner. Less consumption, waste, commuting, auto-dependence, air travel, and long-haul shipping. More peace, less war. More life, less money.

TT: How do we begin to declare and obtain independence from Wall Street and begin building this new economy?

dK: Every decision we make as workers, consumers, investors, and politically active citizens to favor local independent businesses over Wall Street corporations and to strengthen the relationships of caring communities contributes to building the New Economy. For your readers who are looking for guidance on the steps they can take, I recommend Yes! Magazine, which tells the stories of what countless people are already doing.

TT: How do standards such as the Living Building Challenge play a role in the shift to the new economy?

dK: They require turning from the machine to the organism as the framing metaphor. The New Economy is a living economy and requires that we learn to think like living organisms functioning as nodes in living ecosystems. The Living Building Challenge places the building industry at the forefront of this transition.

TT: What new initiatives are on the horizon for you?

dK: I will soon turn my attention to preparing an updated and expanded edition of Agenda for a New Economy.My priority remains much the same as it has been for more than two decades: to reframe the public debate on economy policy in ways consistent with the imperatives and opportunities of the 21st century. I have learned a lot in the interim and it is no longer the lonely work it once was, but I expect that this priority will keep me busy for a few more years.

T T : Amid a deteriorating economy, society and environment, what gives you hope?

dK: The fact that so many people are awakening from the cultural trance of Empire and embracing the living economy/living building challenge.


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