25 November 2009

BOOKS / The Great Turning : From Empire to Earth Community

The Great Turning:
Moving in a radical new direction

By Alex Knight / The Rag Blog / November 25, 2009

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.

-- The Earth Charter.
David Korten, long-time global justice activist, co-founder of Yes! Magazine, and author of such books as When Corporations Rule the World, lays out the fundamental crossroads facing the world in his 2006 book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community [Berrett-Koehler, 2007; paperback, 402 pp.].

In response to global climate change, war, oil scarcity, persistent racism and sexism and many other mounting crises, Korten argues we must recognize these as symptoms of a larger system of Empire, so that we might move in a radically different direction of equality, ecological sustainability, and cooperation, which he terms "Earth Community."

This is a powerful and important book, which excels in overviewing the big picture of threats facing our ecosphere and our communities at the hands of global capitalism(1), and translating this into the simplest and most accessible language so we might all do something about it. It’s pretty much anti-capitalism for the masses. And it has the power to inspire many of us to transform our lives and work towards the transformation of society.

Capitalism and Empire

Of course, Korten has made the strategic decision to avoid pointing the finger at “capitalism” as such in order to speak to an American public which largely still confuses the term as equivalent to “freedom” or “democracy.” In fact the “C” word is rarely mentioned in the book, almost never without some sort of modifier as in “corporate capitalism” or “predatory capitalism," as if those weren’t already features of the system as a whole.

Instead, Korten names “Empire” as the culprit responsible for our global economic and ecological predicament, which is defined as a value-system that promotes the views that “humans are flawed and dangerous," “order by dominator hierarchy," “compete or die," “masculine dominant," etc.

Korten explains that Empire, “has been a defining feature of the most powerful and influential human societies for some five thousand years, [and] appropriates much of the productive surplus of society to maintain a system of dominator power and elite competition. Racism, sexism, and classism are endemic features."

In this way the anarchist concept of the State is repackaged as a transcendent human tendency, which has more to do with conscious decision-making and maturity level than it does with political power. While this compromise does limit the book’s effectiveness in offering solutions later on, it does speak in a language more familiar to the vast non-politicized majority of Americans, and may have the potential to unify a larger movement for change.

Whatever you want to call the system, the danger it presents to the planet is now clear. Korten spells out the grim statistics: “Fossil fuel use is five times what it was [in 1950], and global use of freshwater has tripled... the [Arctic] polar ice cap has thinned by 46 percent over twenty years… [while we've seen] a steady increase over the past five decades in severe weather events such as major hurricanes, floods, and droughts. Globally there were only 13 severe events in the 1950s. By comparison, seventy-two such events occurred during the first nine years of the 1990s." If this destruction continues, it’s uncertain if the Earth will survive.

This ecological damage is considered alongside the social damage of billions living without clean water or adequate food, as well as the immense costs of war and genocide. But Korten understands that the danger is relative to where you stand in the social hierarchy -- the system creates extreme poverty for many, and an extreme wealth for a few others. He explains how the system is based on a deep inequality that is growing ever worse, “In the 1990s, per capita income fell in fifty-four of the world’s poorest countries… At the other end of the scale, the number of billionaires worldwide swelled from 274 in 1991 to 691 in 2005."

The critical point that these few wealthy elites wield excessive power and influence within the system to stop or slow necessary reform could be made more clearly, but at least the book exposes the existence of this upper class whose members are usually quite effective at hiding from public scrutiny and outrage over the suffering they are causing.(2)

Earth community: Growing a revolution

Standing at odds with the bastions of Empire is what David Korten calls “earth community,” a “higher-order” value system promoting the views of “cooperate and live,” “love life," “defend the rights of all," “gender balanced," etc. These values are elaborated to describe a counterforce to the dominant paradigm of society that seeks to replace it. “earth community, which emphasizes the demonstrated human capacity for caring, compassion, cooperation, partnership, and community in the service of life, assumes a capacity for responsible self-direction and self-organization and thereby the possibility of creating radically democratic organizations and societies."

It’s immediately obvious that these values stand in direct opposition to the self-interested, competitive, and top-down capitalist order that now stands over the entire planet.

In an era when “TINA -- There Is No Alternative” (to capitalism)(3) remains the dominant political-economic viewpoint, at least in the U.S., it’s this clear contrast between the two fundamental directions of Empire and Earth Community which is the book’s main strength. The crisis-laden society we live in today is rightfully understood as not a result of destiny, but merely one possibility that we have the power to overturn through our individual and collective actions.

Actually, Great Turning does one better and puts forward the controversial, though I think certainly correct, argument that the “corporate global economy” (capitalism) is facing unprecedented disruptions which will likely spell the end of its worldwide dominance, “forc[ing] a restructuring in favor of local production and self-reliance." The conditions bringing about this potentially monumental paradigm shift are pinpointed as peak oil,(4) global warming, the decline of the U.S. Dollar, and the ineffectiveness of standard military strategy.

As the editor of endofcapitalism.com, it makes me glad to see others writing about the limits to capitalist expansion, both ecological and social. However I would have hoped that as a veteran of the global justice movement Korten would have added to this outline of obstacles to global capitalism at least a broad description of how organized communities are consciously resisting and making progressive change possible.

From labor to environmentalists to students to feminists to people of color to queer and trans communities and far beyond, everyday people everywhere are involved in an active struggle to restore their dignity and create a better world. And despite a steady stream of propaganda to the contrary, in many ways these movements are winning.(5) We must give thanks and honor their successes, and their failures, so that we may grow a wiser movement for change.

The Great Turning also lays out a vision for what a future society organized around the values of Earth Community would look like, from culture to economy to spiritual values and more. Economically, the proposals are put forward under the heading “Local Living Economies," and include such common-sense but radical ideas as “Economic Democracy," “Human Scale," “Information and Technology Sharing," and “Fair and Balanced Trade.” It must be noted that Korten advocates the use of markets as “an essential and beneficial human institution," but only if they are thoroughly regulated to “assure an equitable distribution of ownership and income."

Another key insight is the distinction made between the “fictional wealth” of bank accounts, stocks, bonds, derivatives and so forth which are the obsession of our current economy, and what Korten calls “real” wealth: “Real wealth consists of those things that have actual utilitarian or artistic value: food, land, energy, knowledge, technology, forests, beauty, and much else. The natural systems of the planet are the foundation of all real wealth, for we depend on them for our very lives."

By flipping the idea of wealth on its head, Korten shows that social and ecological benefit should be primary considerations in all economic decision-making. For the author, and for myself, the goal is to create a system that seeks to maximize these real forms of wealth, not the profits of a few large corporations and wealthy investors. Investing in this form of wealth would allow for dramatically different economic outcomes, for example after surveying the poverty and immense pollution created through mountain-top coal removal, we might decide that it makes more sense to use sites such as Coal River Mountain, West Virginia, to produce wind energy instead.(6)

Korten outlines the society we are working towards in such vivid language that it’s worth quoting from him at length:
We will know a society has succeeded when it matches the following description:
  • There is a vibrant community life grounded in mutual trust, shared values, and a sense of connection. Risks of physical harm perpetrated by humans against humans through war, terrorism, crime, sexual abuse, and random violence are minimal. Civil liberties are secure event for the most vulnerable.
  • All people have a meaningful and dignified vocation that contributes to the well-being of the larger community and fulfills their own basic needs for healthful food, clean water, clothing, shelter, transport, education, entertainment, and health care. Paid employment allows ample time for family, friends, participation in community and political life, healthful physical activity, learning, and spiritual growth.
  • Intellectual life and scientific inquiry are vibrant, open, and dedicated to the development and sharing of knowledge and life-serving technologies that address society’s priority needs.
  • Families are strong and stable. Children are well nourished, receive a quality education, and live in secure and loving homes. Rates of suicide, divorce, abortion, and teenage pregnancy are low.
  • Political participation and civic engagement are high, and people feel their political civic participation makes a positive difference. Persons in formal leadership positions are respected for their wisdom, integrity, and commitment to the public good.
  • Forests, fisheries, waterways, the land, and the air are clean, healthy, and vibrant with the diversity of life. Mother’s milk is wholesome and toxin free, and endangered species populations are in recovery.
  • Physical infrastructure -- including public transit, road, bridge, rail, water and sewerage systems, and electric power generation and transmission facilities -- is well maintained, accessible to all, and adequate to demand.
This kind of vision for the society we want is all too rarely discussed, but it should inform all our decisions -- otherwise we can too easily be confined to false choices and distractions from the way forward. In its best moments, this book acts as a beacon, illuminating the path we need to walk.


In a book as ambitious as The Great Turning, there are bound to be parts that don’t succeed. Perhaps the most problematic ideas in the book come from the section on “Culture and consciousness.” Here David Korten lays out a system of five “orders” of consciousness, from the lowest, “Magical Consciousness," up to the “Fifth Order: Spiritual Consciousness." This hierarchy of consciousness is used to explain that those who favor Empire tend to think in terms of either fantasies or in simple power terms, while those favoring Earth Community are much more complex thinkers, incorporating concern for others and concern for the future into their decisions.

It’s an analysis that appears relatively benign at first, but in the end is sadly limited by the problematic liberal belief that we must win a “culture war” against the other half of society which is perceived as hopelessly ignorant. This line of thought fits in nicely with Red-State/Blue-State politics and the essentially classist stereotype that Southerners and rural Americans are backwards and uneducated. As long as progressives allow politicians and the media to convince us of the enormity of this “cultural divide," forward motion on the path to a just and sustainable world will be held hostage by partisan bickering.

Another direction, based on overcoming differences and emphasizing unity of interests is far more strategic. This can be made much easier by dropping the obsession with “culture and consciousness” and talking specifically about class, wealth, and power. Not that necessary and potentially divisive issues like race, gender, or sexuality should be left unraised! But when we begin to study the ways that most everyone, including the vast majority of Americans, are being victimized by capitalism, it becomes much easier to locate the true enemy.

For one example, recall that upwards of 95% of calls, emails and faxes to Congress in advance of the vote on the $700 billion Wall Street bailout last September were strongly negative. Here we can find an immediate rallying point against entrenched financial elites (who were able to buy the politicians into passing the bailout package over public opposition).

The “five orders of consciousness” analysis is further weakened by its apparent ageism. It’s bad enough to suggest that supporting the values of Earth Community is a function of “maturity," which implies that education and age are prerequisites for human decency. But the book goes one step further and actually assigns age numbers to each of the five levels of the consciousness ladder. Level 4, “Cultural Consciousness," which is associated with having “the capacity to question the dysfunctional cultural premises of Empire,” is specifically declared the domain of adults.

“A Cultural Consciousness is rarely achieved before age thirty,” he states on page 46, in direct contradiction to Abbie Hoffman’s warning not to trust anyone older than the big three-oh. Speaking as someone under thirty, I have to question the notion that older folks are more inclined to support justice than my generation. Ageist statements like this have the effect of invisiblizing youth and student activism, which has always been at the forefront of progressive change. At this very moment, hundreds of students in California are organizing rallies and occupations of their school buildings in order to save public education from unprecedented tuition increases.(7) I’d like to see the over-thirty crowd take such inspiring action for change!

A final limitation of the book is the lack of strategy it puts forward for achieving the “Great Turning” itself. As described by Korten, this enormous transformation will occur mostly by people elevating their consciousnesses and living differently -- “a turning from relations of domination to relations of partnership based on organizing principles discerned from the study of healthy living systems."

But what steps must be taken to transform these relations is not adequately explained. Instead there are vague passages such as the following: “As communities of congruence grow and connect, they advance the process of liberation from the cultural trance of Empire and offer visible manifestations of the possibilities of Earth Community. Individually and collectively they become attractors of the life energy that Empire has co-opted -- thus weakening Empire and strengthening Earth Community in an emergent process of displacement and eventual succession." It sounds good, but how is that supposed to actually happen?

If history is any guide, Empire doesn’t just fade away when something better comes along. Overcoming the system will require confronting the real forces of power that dominate our lives, and taking power back for our communities. The Civil Rights Movement remains the most inspiring and instructive example of democratic change in America. Black folks in the South had been struggling for freedom since before slavery ended and continued to resist Jim Crow laws through the 1960s, when legal segregation was finally defeated (though de facto segregation and racism continue today).

It wasn’t enough to set up separate Black-owned schools or restaurants as refuge from the white supremacist realities of America, although this helped and is a positive step. Taking down legal segregation required direct confrontations with power -- sit-ins at “whites only” restaurants, the legal action which brought about Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, voter registration drives, and many, many other manifestations of mass-based popular struggle.

To take down global capitalism and U.S. imperialism, the actual institutions behind what Korten calls Empire, any viable strategy will require a worldwide and multi-faceted, long-term movement for democratic change. This movement already exists, thankfully, so let’s celebrate it and talk about how to strengthen it to achieve our common goals!

Conclusion: Giving thanks for life and struggle

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community is a much-needed book which accomplishes a surprising amount despite its limitations. We can all be thankful that David Korten has compiled such wisdom from many different sources of inspiration in order to present a holistic vision of the world we need to lose and the world we want to gain. By translating anti-capitalist and anarchist concepts into everyday language, Korten widens the appeal of the fundamental transformation of society that is needed.

Moreover, he points towards a common-sense, radical politics by highlighting the strong majority of Americans supporting progressive change. For example, he quotes from various polls to show that, “Nearly nine out of 10 U.S. adults (87 percent) believe we need to treat the planet as a living system and that we should have more respect and reverence for nature... Seventy-six percent of Americans reject the idea that the United States should play the role of world police officer, and 80 percent feel it is playing that role more than it should be... Eighty-eight percent distrust corporate executives, and 90 percent want new corporate regulations and tougher enforcement of existing laws.”

And, “More than two in three would like to see a return to a simpler way of life with less emphasis on consumption and wealth (68 percent)." This is the common ground held by Americans that should be seen as the base for moving in the direction of "earth community." If the United States can transform itself, than surely other nations will follow.

This Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for our friends, families and communities, as well as our spiritualities for enriching our lives. And let us be grateful for the planet which sustains all that we do and all that we work towards. But let us also give thanks for those who speak and act boldly for justice and sustainability.

From the generations that came before us and won so many victories, like ending segregation so that we might strive for unity, to the new generation currently struggling to save education in California and clean energy in Appalachia, millions have been struggling so that we might continue working towards a future worth living in. By giving thanks, we honor that challenge.

  1. I’ve tried to summarize the main features of capitalism in my essay "What is Capitalism?
  2. The “ruling class” is exposed in simple but compelling terms by Paul Kivel in his 2004 book You Call This a Democracy? Who Benefits, Who Pays and Who Really Decides.
  3. Right-wing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher coined the TINA phrase.
  4. For a good introduction to the concept of “peak oil” see Energy Bulletin’s "Peak Oil Primer.”
  5. Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has written about the surprising success of grassroots movements for change in his essay “The Shock of Victory.”
  6. See Coal River Wind for background on this choice, and Mountain Justice for ongoing news from the struggle to stop mountaintop removal.
  7. After the UC Board of Regents passed a 32% tuition increase and similar measures were taken across the state, students have fought back by building an enormous movement to save affordable education. A recent compilation of links and information regarding the California student struggle can be found here (although it’s all over the internet).
[Alex Knight is an organizer and writer in Philadelphia. He is currently organizing with Philly Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the People's Caravan, which recently completed a story-listening and action trip to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. He also maintains the website endofcapitalism.com and is in the process of writing a book called The End of Capitalism. He can be reached at activistalex@gmail.com]

Find The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community at Amazon.com.

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