Conservative. That’s the word David Korten uses to describe his upbringing. He grew up in the forties and fifties in the Pacific Northwest town of Longview, Washington, where his father owned a music-and-appliance store. In college Korten became active in the Young Republicans and planned, upon graduation, to return home and run the family business. “I had little interest in travel,” he writes, “beyond visiting the mountains and nearby seashore . . . and found it a bit odd that anyone blessed with U.S. citizenship would want to venture beyond our national borders.”
His plans would soon change. In 1959, during his senior year at Stanford University, Korten took a class in modern revolutions. Upon learning that communist uprisings grew out of the “desperation of the poor,” Korten decided to dedicate his life to spreading the U.S. model of capitalism abroad. He envisioned a world in which impoverished peoples “could all be rich, happy consumers like us.” He went on to get a PhD from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and, after serving as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, Korten spent nearly three decades working in international development in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
His time overseas slowly transformed his view of his nation’s role in the world; he saw firsthand the negative impact U.S. business practices and foreign policies had on the economies, political systems, and environments of other nations. As his dismay at the U.S.-led “aid” system deepened, Korten decided to return home to share with Americans the lessons he’d learned. In 1992 Korten and his wife, Fran, moved to New York City. There, in the shadow of the New York Stock Exchange, he wrote his bestseller When Corporations Rule the World (Berrett-Koehler and Kumarian Press), which is now required reading in many college-level business and politics courses.
While writing that book, Korten helped form the International Forum on Globalization, a group of activists who opposed trade agreements that benefited transnational corporations and disenfranchised the poor. Though the agreements were promoted as spreading global cooperation, as Korten and others saw it, they actually put every person and community on the planet in competition with one another for the economic means of survival. Corporate lobbyists called the process “globalization.” A powerful global resistance emerged that became known to its participants and the public as the “antiglobalization” movement. Korten sees the use of this name by many in the movement as a tactical error, because it allowed globalization proponents to brand the movement as regressive and isolationist. In fact the movement favors building inclusive global relationships; it just rejects the globalization of corporate power.
These days Korten lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington. His experience growing up as the son of a local businessman serves him well in his position as a board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. He also founded the People-Centered Development Forum, of which he continues to serve as president, and is cofounder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes the magazine YES! (www.yesmagazine.org). His other books include The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalism (Berrett-Koehler and Kumarian Press). In 2001 Worth magazine listed Korten as one of “one hundred people who have changed the way Americans think about money.”
In his newest book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (Berrett-Koehler and Kumarian Press), Korten describes humanity as having arrived at a crossroads (www.greatturning.org). The earth’s carrying capacity is reaching its limit, he says, pushing us to a crisis point. “We either transform our social relationships in the direction of community and partnership,” he writes, “or we continue on a basically suicidal path of social and environmental disintegration.” He believes that the key to the turning is to change our cultural narrative — the archetypal stories that define a society’s values.
Cooper: You’ve long been an opponent of corporate globalization. In The Great Turning you’ve broadened your critique to include all forms of capital-E “Empire.”
Korten: Corporate globalization is a contemporary manifestation of a system of Empire that was introduced about five thousand years ago, when the city-state began to take form and, according to Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, the human race went from more egalitarian, peaceful, and gender-balanced societies to ones built on patriarchy, domination, and war. Eisler’s analysis helps us see how, when you move into a structure of domination at a national level, it is mirrored at all levels, including in relationships among people.
Cooper: What led humanity along that path?
Korten: Eisler says it began with the invasion of settled agricultural societies by more-nomadic warrior cultures. She doesn’t go into great detail, but Toronto author Brian Griffith, in his book Gardens of Their Dreams, provides an extraordinary analysis of how that transition probably took place. What’s fascinating to me is the connection with the environment. You see, most of the deserts in the Middle East were once fertile, habitable land. But, Griffith explains, a combination of climate change, misuse of the soil, and overpopulation brought a transformation from lush savanna to desert. Societies built on natural abundance became forced to adapt to scarcity and hardship. In the abundance societies, we think women played significant roles in agriculture and religion, as evidenced by the worship of fertility and earth goddesses. But as the desert spread, farming became less productive, and the men had to venture farther and farther on hunts. Ultimately this led to raids on societies that had maintained their abundance around oases or along rivers, and then to the conquest and occupation of those areas. Griffith shows how similar dynamics in other regions of the world also led to patriarchal societies based on domination.
Cooper: What got you thinking about the deeper roots of the problem?
Korten: In the nineties the global-justice movement was primarily concerned with free-trade agreements, the outsourcing of jobs, outrageous CEO compensation packages, and so on. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, the Bush administration successfully branded any kind of resistance or opposition to trade as support for terrorism. This threw the movement into disarray and created the need for a new organizing framework.
In the summer of 2002 I met with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva. We were talking about the turmoil within the movement. What the Bush administration had done after 9/11 was go back to the use of naked military force to impose order and promote U.S. interests. This strategy was hardly new, but it was not part of the organizing framework of the global-justice movement, which had arisen in opposition to global free trade. Since the movement had begun, the military had operated largely in the background, and economic domination had been the primary tool for consolidation of imperial power. Shiva noted that, in response to this new development, we were beginning to hear explicit talk of U.S. empire among influential policy analysts. That made me think of Eisler’s book.
Cooper: You use the word empire a little differently than historians do. What is your definition?
Korten: I use Empire as a generic label for the dominator model of organizing human affairs — any system in which one person, people, or nation dominates another. It is a way of thinking and being that has held human societies in an insidious trap for the past five millennia. Andrew Schmookler, in his book Parable of the Tribes, says you may have twelve peaceful societies living in harmony with one another, but if you have a thirteenth that mobilizes to dominate its neighbors, it upsets the whole balance. The others have to adapt or die.
The competition inherent in the dominator system creates a hierarchy in which you have a few on the top and a majority on the bottom. If you’re on top, it works out very nicely; you can simply deny the humanity of those on the bottom by defining them as lesser beings who are therefore not entitled to positions of power.
Cooper: But we have evolved since those days.
Korten: We have evolved, but a whole lot less than our history books would have us believe.
Another trait of the dominator society is that it expropriates the majority of its resources to maintain the systems of domination: military, police, symbols of power, and so forth. For most of recorded human history, monarchy or its functional equivalent was the favored system of governance. Then came the American Revolution, and the Founders created the prototype of a modern democratic state. But the original Constitution — which didn’t include the Bill of Rights and other later amendments — was written by white males of the owning class, and they created a document that institutionalized the power of white, male property owners. The legalization of slavery was written into the Constitution, for example. Women didn’t get to vote until 1920.
The Declaration of Independence had been a revolutionary document, appealing to the masses, who had already begun a rebellion. But when it came time to write the Constitution, which would dictate how the country would be run, the Founders built in safeguards to protect a privileged ruling class. For example, they left decisions regarding the process of selecting senators and representatives and electors, who would choose the president, in the hands of the state legislatures, most of which limited the vote to white males with property. Our history since then has been a long struggle to undo those inequalities. We’ve made progress, but we need to get rid of the myth that we started out with a perfect democracy. Much of the limited democracy we have now has been achieved only through persistent popular struggle. One good thing George W. Bush has done is rub our noses in just how limited and fragile our democracy remains to this day.
The Founders did make two extraordinary contributions to democracy by ending monarchy and theocracy. Most of the original North American colonies were founded as theocracies — governments whose laws are based on religion. The law in many of these colonies called for the execution of those who failed to observe prescribed religious practices, like attending church on Sunday. When the Right says we were founded as a “Christian nation,” they are really referring to this early colonial experience. They generally neglect to mention the execution part.
Cooper: Did you grow up believing the myth that the U.S. is a model of democracy?
Korten: I sure did. In the years following World War II, it was easy to believe that we had the key to prosperity in this country. The U.S. had a growing middle class, within which there was relative equality, and this image gained us the admiration of the world. Years later, when I was out peddling the American way of economic development, the image of the U.S. in the 1950s still lingered and gave the story some credibility. But, starting in the late sixties and gaining momentum in the seventies and early eighties, the far Right mounted an attack on middle-class society. They developed a carefully orchestrated plan to take control of the political system and roll back the gains of the previous decades by giving tax breaks to the rich, cutting government programs, and promoting trade agreements that undermine democracy and outsource most of our well-paying blue-collar jobs to countries where workers are paid a pittance and have no rights.
We need to turn this around, and the change must come from the bottom up, for two reasons. One is that the institutions of Empire are unlikely to transform themselves. The other is that we have to move beyond the old twentieth-century method of revolution through armed conflict. Using violence to compete for power replicates the dominator dynamic we are trying to eliminate.
Cooper: So this notion that one group of people must dominate another is so deeply ingrained within us that even the revolutionaries fall prey to it. How do we undo it?
Korten: First, we have to convince people that it can and must be undone, and that the most appropriate way to undo it is to create new cultures and institutions from the bottom up. We can’t use violence, because the means have to be consistent with the end. Nonviolence is the only path to a nonviolent world.
What we’ve so often seen is that, even if an armed revolution is successful, the imperial system remains, because the people who lead revolutions generally are not the most egalitarian among us. Once the new rulers get into power, they are sitting on the same old throne, and to stay in power they have to maintain those imperial structures. Sometimes they act benevolently, but more commonly they are as ruthless as the despots they replaced.
We need to get rid of the myth that we started out with a perfect democracy. Much of the limited democracy we have now has been achieved only through persistent popular struggle. One good thing George W. Bush has done is rub our noses in just how limited and fragile our democracy remains to this day.
Cooper: But we have to have leaders, don’t we?
Korten: Of course, but rather than one leader, we need millions of them acting together through dynamic, cooperative processes of self-organization. The global-justice movement, which is self-organizing, with many thousands, even millions of local leaders, demonstrates the possibilities.
The most dramatic manifestation of this was the February 15, 2003, demonstration against the Iraq War. Anywhere from 10 to 30 million people participated in a unified protest action all around the planet. It was the result of innumerable individual leaders acting independently, but within a framework of shared values.
You could say the demonstration was a failure because it failed to stop the war, but this would reveal a serious lack of historical perspective. A pattern of domination and violence five thousand years in the making and deeply embedded in our cultures and institutions is not going to go away simply because 10 million people took to the streets on a particular day. Change will come only as “we the people” displace the institutions of Empire. We are just beginning to learn how to self-organize and cooperate on a global scale.
Cooper: It sounds like an almost organic process.
Korten: It certainly mimics what I understand to be the dynamics of healthy living systems. When I was first looking for a model for a new economics, I looked to biological systems for the needed organizing principles. Our conventional understanding of living systems is the Darwinian theory of ruthless competition. Modern biologists, however — particularly female biologists such as Janine Benyus, Mae-Wan Ho, Lynn Margulis, and Elisabet Sahtouris — have discovered that living systems are fundamentally cooperative. Obviously there are competitive dimensions; Darwin didn’t make that part up. But life can exist only in cooperative, sharing relationships with other life. Energy is constantly flowing back and forth among organisms, just as it is among the cells of a single organism.
Scientific estimates of the number of cells in the human body range from 30 to 70 trillion. All these individual decision-making cells come together in this extraordinary cooperative enterprise that has potential far beyond that of any one cell. We have the ability to move energy almost instantly from one part of us to another, wherever it’s needed, through processes we don’t fully understand. For the body to work, each cell needs to maintain its integrity as an independent being, yet be devoted to the health of the whole. So it’s constantly balancing the individual interest with the collective interest.
I think this is an apt metaphor for a healthy society. In my generation we were raised to believe that we were limited to a choice between two extremes for organizing human societies: a capitalist system based on extreme individualism, which denies a community interest; and a communist system based on extreme collectivism, which denies individual rights and interests. But healthy living organisms and ecosystems are constantly balancing individual and collective needs. Each depends on the other. That’s how we need to function in societies, and I think it’s the dynamic that’s arising in the new global-justice movement.
And thanks to breakthroughs in electronic communication, we now have the potential to connect every person on the planet in a seamless web of cooperation. Technology has given us the means to build a worldwide movement grounded in universal human values that transcend the barriers of nationality, race, gender, and religion. Back in the early eighties, even domestic long-distance phone calls were a significant expense, and the cost of international phone calls was prohibitive. Now we can telephone around the world for pennies. If we prefer to meet face to face, affordable airfares have made that easier, too. Add the Internet, and the joining of ordinary people in a collective struggle to create a more cooperative global structure becomes a real possibility for the first time in the whole of human experience.
Even if an armed revolution is successful, the imperial system remains, because the people who lead revolutions generally are not the most egalitarian among us. Once the new rulers get into power, they are sitting on the same old throne, and to stay in power they have to maintain those imperial structures.
Cooper: You titled your 1995 book When Corporations Rule the World. Are we facing corporate rule right now?
Korten: It surely appears that way, although that title is actually a misnomer. In truth it’s not the corporations that rule the world; it’s the global financial markets that play the tune to which corporations march.
Part of what is so pernicious about publicly traded corporations is that their only real accountability is to impersonal financial markets for which the only measurement that matters is instant profits. Trillions of dollars flow around the world each day, looking for a quick return. That system, in which speculators — euphemistically called “investors” — buy and sell corporations like commodities, has no capacity to recognize any value other than financial gain. Human and environmental costs are totally ignored, as is any other long-term consideration.
Cooper: Robert Hinkley, whom I interviewed for this magazine [“Twenty-Eight Words That Could Change the World,” September 2004], is working on an initiative to change the corporate code so that it reads, “The duty of directors henceforth shall be to make money for shareholders, but not at the expense of the environment, human rights, public health and safety, dignity of employees, and the welfare of the communities in which the company operates.”
Korten: Changing the rules to say profits should not come at the expense of public interests is an important step forward. By most accounts, current law requires corporate CEOs to make decisions that maximize short-term profits for shareholders in disregard of consequences for people and nature. It’s a murky area of law, because there’s not a specific piece of legislation that establishes this principle; it’s more an accumulation of court precedents. Still, most CEOs operate under the assumption that they’re legally bound to maximize profits. Hinkley’s plan is a step beyond conventional “corporate responsibility” initiatives, which press corporations to change specific social and environmental practices, but don’t change a pernicious legal structure that leaves do-gooder corporations at risk of shareholder lawsuits.
Another moral disability of the publicly traded corporation is absentee ownership. Its shares are traded in public share markets, which means they become instruments of speculation by traders, who are simply betting on future price movements and have no interest beyond quick financial gain. Most of the outstanding shares are held by financial institutions, which means the real owners often have no idea what companies they own or what those companies are doing. All they know is whether the value of their portfolio is going up or down, and the sole demand they communicate to managers is to increase share price. The result is an extreme form of absentee ownership that separates the rights and powers of ownership from any personal responsibility or values. We need to move toward the elimination of absentee ownership.
Then there’s the issue of monopolies. One of the most basic market principles is that no enterprise should have sufficient market power to extract monopoly profits by setting the market price, yet the unregulated market system drives companies to create monopolies wherever possible, because that’s the way to extract maximum profit. Antitrust laws, designed to prevent the consolidation of corporate power, have largely been forgotten. We are concentrating economic power without accountability. It will take a great number of institutional changes to democratize corporate power and link decision-making authority to consequences once more.
Cooper: Hinkley says, “Too many activists think that corporations pursue profits at the expense of public interest because corporate executives are greedy.” Do you think greed plays a significant role?
Korten: You don’t have to read much of the business press to know that a great many CEOs are obscenely greedy; that’s what’s behind these inflated compensation packages we read about. And, of course, some executives are going off to jail for defrauding investors in an attempt to claim an ever-larger share of the spoils. There’s a Fast Company article that actually compares the personality profiles of a number of corporate CEOs to the profile of a psychopath, a person who is totally self-centered and incapable of concern for the well-being of others. They match up beautifully. And these aren’t just the CEOs who have gone to jail.
All too often, the corporation as an institution actively rewards psychopathic behavior. It is entirely logical that institutions dedicated solely to shareholder return would actively recruit executives psychologically capable of firing thousands of employees, selling defective products, engaging in monopoly pricing of lifesaving drugs, denying essential medical services to insurance policyholders, and releasing toxic substances into the air and water without hesitation or regret. Prosecutors might send a few of them to jail, but due to the substantial immunity from prosecution that corporate criminals enjoy, the risk of jail is minuscule, and the rewards of corporate crime are lavish.
I used to focus on the need to change the system, as opposed to the people within the system. In The Great Turning, however, I delve into both the institutional and the psychological realms. George W. Bush played a key role in changing my outlook — his administration has been so venal and dishonest that I couldn’t explain it purely in terms of structural dysfunction.
It is important to see the potential for good in each person. At the same time, we must recognize that there are those among us who lack a capacity to function as responsible adults. Compassion dictates that we provide them with proper care, but that does not extend to putting them in positions of power in which the acting out of their unresolved childhood fears and fantasies can place the very survival of the species at risk.
We have leaders, both in government and in business, who are not capable of doing what’s right because of their psychological dysfunction. This is due in part to our imperial institutions, which actively suppress the maturing of human consciousness by celebrating psychological dysfunction and denying our capacity for healthy functioning. For example, our imperial universities have economics departments staffed by economists whose research and teaching are grounded in the premise that humans evaluate every decision solely in terms of financial gain. By teaching that unmitigated greed is the defining characteristic of humanity, and that this actually leads to maximizing the well-being of society, these universities engage in a celebration of psychological dysfunction. A healthy, mature consciousness sees the world and human nature as fundamentally cooperative. It is not self-centered and egocentric, but identifies with a larger whole and has a complex understanding of reality.
Cooper: But not all people in positions of power are psychologically dysfunctional.
Korten: No. Fortunately, the ranks of politicians and corporate executives include mature individuals committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards, but they often find themselves at a disadvantage in a system that forces them to continuously compete for their positions against those unburdened by conscience or compassion.
There are also many people in positions of power who are capable of moral behavior but have adapted to the established reward system. In healthy human development we begin to recognize during our teen years that other people have needs and that, to live in a functioning society, we have to abide by certain rules. That is called the “socialized” consciousness. It’s the consciousness of the good citizen, who picks up the values of the prevailing culture and tries to live by them. But the downside is that the good citizen is subject to manipulation by whoever controls the cultural values. This can put us in a cultural trance that blinds us to our higher human potential. The manipulators may be advertisers, political demagogues, religious extremists, or economists devoted to creating an intellectual justification for greed.
We need to move beyond the socialized consciousness and recognize that culture is a construct, not an absolute reality. This is another way in which the increase in global communication is helpful: as we come into greater contact with different cultures, we become conscious of a wider breadth of cultural constructs and beliefs, and also their consequences. It encourages us to assume responsibility for our own values, rather than simply absorb received values that may or may not be beneficial.
My life is a somewhat extreme example of how increased global communication awakens us to culture as a construct. In the small town where I grew up, I rarely saw a person of a different race. I also never met a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Hindu. The exotic people in our town were the Catholics. It was beyond imagination that as an adult I would reside for twenty-one years in East Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, building close friendships that transcend the barriers of geography, nationality, race, and religion. Needless to say, I became highly conscious of cultural choices and their implications.
Cooper: Isn’t casting the capitalist system as “bad” and cooperative systems as “good” mimicking the “us versus them” dominator paradigm you lament? Is this evidence that your own thinking is subject to the values endemic to the competitive model?
Korten: It is a bit of a paradox. We must see the good in every person. At the same time, as a society, we cannot allow psychopathic personalities to control our most powerful institutions. To remove them we must name them. Similarly, we must recognize the irreconcilable choices before us. We must choose between concentrated and distributed wealth. We must choose between violence and nonviolence. We must choose between rule by the few and rule by the many. To deny these choices is to deny our responsibility for our future.
Cooper: Have you seen Bill McKibben’s latest book, Deep Economy?
Korten: Yes, I enjoyed reading it. He takes on the economic-growth model directly and argues that, instead of demanding growth, we need to strengthen community and consider everyone’s needs. The question is: How can we allocate our resources to meet these needs efficiently and equitably?
Increasingly, our need is less for growth than for reallocation: shifting resources from war and the military to housing, food, clothing, and so on. There is an enormous misallocation of resources in almost every sphere of society. Too much of our wealth goes to maintaining the systems of domination and providing obscene luxuries for a tiny percentage of the population.
The good citizen . . . picks up the values of the prevailing culture and tries to live by them. But the downside is that the good citizen is subject to manipulation by whoever controls the cultural values. This can put us in a cultural trance that blinds us to our higher human potential.
Cooper: Yet, rather than feel resentment, many people in the lower classes strive to attain those luxuries.
Korten: The system of domination has created its own self-legitimizing culture, and we’re all conditioned to buy into it. This is why it’s so important to change the stories that define our culture, which include stories about our past, about human nature, and about why we’re here. The stories we have now reflect the values of Empire and ignore our fundamentally cooperative nature. As people mature in consciousness, however, they will begin to recognize the possibilities that these stories deny. Changing our defining stories is the key to breaking the self-replicating patterns of Empire.
Cooper: You say the U.S., among all nations, is “most challenged” when it comes to moving away from Empire and toward community. Why?
Korten: We’re the biggest overconsumers, dependent on using more than our share of the world’s resources. We also have the strongest commitment to the neoliberal economic ideology of unlimited growth and ever-increasing consumption. This is perpetuated by a national narrative that equates consumption with happiness, values money more than life, and legitimizes policies that make rich people richer by maximizing returns on financial speculation.
And we suffer from the self-righteousness of a national story that says the United States represents the ultimate expression of democracy in the world, and that our foreign policy is driven by a selfless commitment to promote democracy and freedom. Sure, our country has been at the forefront in some areas, but the deeper, more pervasive story — the real story — is one of an empire ruled by a plutocracy, a government of the rich. That story is a huge blow to our self-image, and we don’t like to think about it. But we can’t become a true democracy until we realize that we have never been a democracy. We can’t become a truly benevolent nation, devoted to living in cooperation with other nations, until we recognize that our predominant foreign policy has been to use our military power to consolidate corporate control over the resources and territory of other nations and peoples.
Cooper: Would you say these stories have been created intentionally, or did they simply arise out of a natural process?
Korten: I’d say it’s both. Once a society gets into the structure of Empire, the system becomes self-replicating. The design of the corporation creates pressure to increase profits, which means it must increase the demand for its products. So corporations create an advertising industry to condition people to the idea that material products are the key to satisfaction. Juliet Schor’s book Born to Buy chronicles advertisers’ relentless pursuit of children as consumers; she found that the average American kindergartner can identify more than three hundred corporate logos. The effort to create a culture of limitless material desire arises out of the natural dynamic of the system. It is also intentional. The advertisers are highly trained in the techniques they employ and know exactly what they are doing.
Most of our stories about the nature of prosperity and how it is achieved serve the cause of concentrating power, not meeting actual needs. Similarly, our stories about the nature and source of security legitimize military and police powers, which serve to maintain the structure of Empire. Our prevailing religious and scientific stories, too, tend to legitimize the existing system of domination.
I’m trying to help people recognize that these stories are not reality, and also to articulate alternative stories that promote the idea of the planet as an interconnected community. Globalization doesn’t have to be based on making money for rich people. It can be based on building community, which is the real source of prosperity and security, and sharing knowledge and resources to enhance the well-being of all.
To build a worldwide community, we need direct participation at a citizen level. Citizens everywhere have to mobilize to restrain the imperial impulses of their governments and begin to form direct relationships. The recent breakthroughs in communications technology have given us the opportunity. But with climate change and overpopulation pushing the planet to its limits, the question becomes: Do we have time? I don’t know, but I believe we have to act as if we do, because any other choice creates a self-fulfilling prophecy by guaranteeing system failure.
When I wrote the epilogue to the first edition of When Corporations Rule the World, I was struggling with a response I often got to my assertion that we were headed down a path toward self-destruction. People would say, “That’s true, but it would sure be expensive and inconvenient to change.” [Laughter.] The attitude is “Last one out, turn out the lights.” I realized we need a reason to change that’s deeper than mere survival, because survival by itself is devoid of meaning. In some of our most prevalent religious stories, the goal is to get out of here on a fast track to heaven. By the reckoning of our scientific stories, life is merely an accident, and there’s no reason for our existence in the first place.
The anthropomorphic image of God also tends to set up a competition between my God and your God, which is the basis of all religious wars. But if you think of creation as the manifestation of a unitary spiritual intelligence, . . . the perception of competing gods evaporates.
Cooper: In your book you quote religious scholar Marcus Borg: “Tell me your image of God, and I’ll tell you your theology.” How does that relate to our culture’s “meaning” story — the one about why we’re here?
Korten: If you read the Bible, you’ll see two different metaphors relating to God. One is the anthropomorphic God, who talks to people, hears their prayers, and has emotions. This metaphor brings to mind the image of God as an old man with a gray beard and flowing white hair. And, of course, he’s white. [Laughter.] That’s the symbol of racist patriarchy, and it’s deeply embedded in much of our religious belief.
The other image is of God as a spirit that’s integral to all creation, and to me that image is more consistent with the findings of science and the idea of an unfolding universe moving toward ever-greater complexity, consciousness, and potential. The anthropomorphic God conveys a sense of the Creator as a master clockmaker who stands apart from his creation. The spirit image of God conveys a spiritual intelligence that is manifest in every aspect of creation. By this understanding, creation and Creator are inseparable; they are one and the same. This integral intelligence seeks to know itself through a process of creative self-discovery as it explores its unfolding possibilities.
Science is one means by which we come to know creation. Perhaps we are one of the instruments through which creation comes to understand itself. Many religious people I come into contact with agree that scientific findings reveal a great deal about the process of creation. But sometimes science gets caught up in its own ideology, which accepts only mechanistic models and random chance as valid explanations. Fortunately, many scientists are recognizing that there is more to creation than that. Willis Harman, the former president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, was among them until he died of brain cancer. He was also my teacher and mentor. These scientists have concluded that to understand the how and the why of creation, we need to recognize that there is something much deeper going on, that intelligence is real and pervasive.
Our images of God are an attempt to understand that intelligence. In the clockmaker model, we think of ourselves as the end products of creation, put here to harvest the world’s resources, to exploit and dominate the planet. In the spirit model, the function of every being is to participate as co-creator in our collective discovery. When we see ourselves in those terms, we see our responsibility to the larger whole, whereas if we think of ourselves as the end product, then we have no particular responsibility to try to make this a better world. Some fundamentalist Christians view the earth as a sort of halfway house where we are staying until we get into heaven. They’re waiting for the Rapture, which will be preceded on earth by disasters and chaos. So from this point of view, the worse things get, the better, because it means we’re getting closer to the Rapture.
The anthropomorphic image of God also tends to set up a competition between my God and your God, which is the basis of all religious wars. But if you think of creation as the manifestation of a unitary spiritual intelligence, the interconnectedness of all beings comes to the fore, and the perception of competing gods evaporates. We see the literal face of God in every human being and every tree, flower, and grain of sand.
Cooper: What role, if any, do you see organized religion playing in the effort to build a worldwide community?
Korten: Instead of teaching received wisdom and rote memorization of texts, churches need to become institutions of spiritual learning and exploration, drawing on the whole of human experience and knowledge to deepen our understanding of our human nature and our relation to the cosmos. We are starting to see this happen. Perhaps it’s occurring more in seminaries than in churches, but some ministers are encouraging such inquiry within their congregations, drawing insights from science and from the rich variety of the world’s religious traditions.
Quantum physics suggests that even physical systems are fundamentally cooperative and connected in ways that go beyond the material plane. Whereas Newtonian physics says that only matter is real, quantum physics says that matter is essentially an illusion: only relationships and energy are real. Particles go in and out of existence, but somehow the underlying relationships remain reasonably stable, creating the illusion of material solidity and stability. I like what physicist Sir James Jeans said: “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.”
Cooper: How do you envision a world devoted to community?
Korten: We must learn to organize societies based on the partnership model. As in any healthy living system, such societies will strive for a dynamic balance between cooperation and competition. A degree of competition, particularly competition for excellence, is necessary for vitality. Life’s deeper story, however, is one of cooperation, which requires a mature consciousness. Cultivating the mature human consciousness is an essential priority for a healthy human society. There will be markets, which are wonderful mechanisms for organizing many — but not all — human activities, as long as we remember that markets are composed of people who live together on one planet and need to care about one another’s welfare. As in any aspect of public life, markets need rules to assure fair dealing and protect community interests from the behavior of people who lack the maturity to act responsibly. Firms can compete to offer the best-quality products or the best customer service, but they wouldn’t be focused on trying to destroy other firms to create a monopoly. Take Judy Wicks’s White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, for example. She started working with local farmers and featuring local foods both to support the local economy and to give herself a competitive advantage. Then she realized that if she’s really serious about rebuilding agriculture in her area, she should encourage other restaurants to do what she was doing. So she reached out to them. This is a completely different perspective than the cowboy capitalism where you destroy your competition and put your restaurant on every street corner in an effort to become a monopoly.
Cooper: You’re trying to convince the elderly to take an active role in building a global community. A few years ago you turned sixty-five yourself. What was that like?
Korten: I wasn’t very excited about it at first. [Laughter.] But my wife and the staff of YES! organized a party, part of which was a simple Native American ceremony of initiation into elderhood. It involved some discussion of what it means to become an elder of the tribe and how the years ahead would be a time of significant responsibility and contribution. It totally turned my head around on the meaning of turning sixty-five. I’d been thinking about getting my will in order and preparing to move out of my role as board chair YES! [Laughter.] But after the ceremony I dug into writing The Great Turning and embarked on the most intensive speaking tour of my life. I’m still adjusting to being an elder; it’s a different kind of role, but it’s a terribly important one, and I have a lot of work left to do. I didn’t bat an eye at turning seventy and figure I have at least another ten — and possibly twenty — productive years ahead.
We need to change the story on aging. As the baby boomers move into their elder years, I want them to recognize that they have a great responsibility not to go away, but to make use of their experience, financial independence, and discretionary time to advance the Great Turning. Our mission at YES! magazine — which I continue to chair — is to tell the stories of the people and organizations doing this. It’s a whole lot more fun than sitting around waiting for the Grim Reaper. There are enormous opportunities out there for everyone to engage in this work.
One thing I’ve realized is that, as we move into our elder years, our culture tells us that we’re supposed to go away. This supports the cause of Empire, because elderly people are most likely to have arrived at the higher levels of consciousness and to be relatively immune to manipulation by the propaganda machine. Empire doesn’t want awakened elders out in public talking to people still living in the cultural trance.