Terry Fowler

From Empire to Earth Community: David Korten’s Vision

“We humans,” writes David Korten, “live by the stories that define our origins and our nature.” In his book, The Great Turning, he suggests that we are locked into a his-story that speaks of the inevitability, and the naturalness, of hierarchical societies. Much of his book is devoted to showing how conventional history has been distorted by power elites in order to buttress their power.

One of the defining features of this column on science and ecology has been to question mainstream history, especially the history of science itself. I’ve tried to show in a number of articles how conventional accounts of the rise of rationalism and mechanistic science in the 17th century overlook the historical context of mechanistic science’s quest for certainty. These accounts claim that 17th century science and its much-praised scientific method emerged as a clearly superior form of knowledge out of the brilliant minds of a few remarkable men such as Descartes, Newton, Bacon, and Leibniz. Mechanistic science spread, we are told, because of its obvious superiority to medieval epistemologies such as alchemy.

A growing number of historians of science have shown that the spread of this science was pursued because its vision of an ordered universe following absolute laws actually supported the growing power of absolutist monarchs on the continent and of the newly reconstituted elite structure in England. While mechanistic science’s achievements have been remarkable, its destructive impact on the biosphere and its failure to explain a large number of important phenomena suggest that its spread may not be explained by its obvious superiority to other epistemologies.

The enthusiastic proselytizing of mechanistic science by political and religious elites in the 17th and 18th centuries ties its history neatly into Korten’s account of 5000 years of what he calls dominator cultures. While more usual explanations of the environmental crisis we now face point to consumerism, industrial expansion, and rapacious corporations (the subject of a previous book by Korten), he traces that crisis way back to the human propensity for Empire. This propensity manifested itself thousands of years ago, he claims, when male-dominated pastoral tribes conquered goddess-worshiping agricultural communities that lived peaceably in partnership with each other.

The first section of Korten’s book centers on the theme that humans are not determined and can choose – both individually and collectively – alternative paths of action. He gives examples of self-conscious choices that contradict the inevitability of top-down change. Relying on some developmental psychologists, he outlines a theory of human maturity. “Imperial Consciousness” characterizes eight- to ten-year-olds, who have discovered there is some order to the world. This discovery “opens possibilities for controlling what once seemed a fluid and unpredictable reality.” Morality is definitely not a consideration. Someone with a dominator mentality is someone who got stuck in his development somewhere about that age.

While individual humans are capable of social, cultural, and – at the highest level – spiritual consciousness, collectively we have remained under the control of “ethically challenged” elites, who are basically nine years old, out to get what they can for themselves.

Five Thousand Years of Domination

Summarizing material familiar to all readers of this journal, Korten notes that the human species is at a crossroads, because 5000 years of Empire have brought us to a place where we face extinction by our own hands. Climate change, oil depletion, the powerlessness of state-run military forces against grassroots terrorism, and the imminent breakdown of the US economy (and everything which that implies) have all the indications of sending us into a Great Unraveling.

However, he maintains, there are many positive signs flying below the radar of corporate-controlled media. He documents the appearance of millions of so-called Cultural Creatives, who value “social inclusion, environmental stewardship, and spiritual practice.” He sees great promise in the thousands of NGOs that are challenging governmental and corporate dominance at conferences such as the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the World Trade Organization at Seattle in 1999 and after.

The middle section of the book is a masterful summary of world history with emphasis on the theme of dominance – leaders over followers, men over women, priests over laypersons, emperors and kings over subjects, and so forth. Korten gives ample evidence that humans have never created a truly democratic system, including Athenian democracy. He stresses that large scale organizations cannot be democratic, a theme I return to below. From Mesopotamia to Rome to England, he documents – tirelessly and a bit tiresomely – the idiocy of autocrats, the rapacity of nobles and merchants, and the constant subjugation of the poor by the rich and powerful.

The heroic explorers of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, who sailed out from England, Spain, Holland, and France are nicely exposed as greedy brutes who slaughtered civilized natives and robbed them of their gold and silver. All this was carried out with the express approval of equally greedy sponsors at home – kings and merchants who formed themselves into limited liability corporations foreshadowing the rapacious giant multinationals of today. One chapter deftly summarizes the rationale behind the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO as the new, post-World War II face of colonialism – control of Third World nations by means of financial dependence (debt) disguised as “foreign aid.”

Also in the middle of the book are five more detailed – but sweeping – chapters on the dark history of the United States, where authentic democracy has never made an appearance. In a stirring passage, Korten describes how for a brief, exciting decade in the 1770s, Americans simply rejected the authority of the British and “walked away from the king.” This is how he envisages the emergence of decentralized “earth communities” in the 21st century. However, shortly after the American Revolution, plutocrats solidified their hold on the economy and on federal and state governments, in spite of sporadic grassroots initiatives opposing the dominance of Empire. In particular, the US’s power elite was guilty of an aggressive imperialism throughout the world.

Stories as Tools of Control

Korten ends his 150 pages of rewritten history with a summary of what he calls the “stories” perpetrated by Empire. The first story is that prosperity comes from free market economies presided over by capitalists and their large corporations, who ensure that economic growth with will benefit more and more people over time. Another story is that “evil enemies who hate us” require strong leaders with massive military force and police powers, bringing democracy and free markets to oppressed nations around the world and prosecuting opponents of the regime within our borders.

Finally, Empire offers two contrasting stories to explain the meaning of life. The first one, based in religion, says that our life “is but a way station to the afterlife.” Nevertheless, in this way station, God rewards “the obedient with wealth and power.” The rest of us have obviously disobeyed God in some way and are therefore not only sinful but also poor. An opposing story, based in mechanistic science, denies the existence of God and tells us that the only reality is physical matter and that “life is the accidental outcome of material complexity.” Humans have evolved through a competitive struggle called survival of the fittest. He argues that modern physics and ecology have exposed the false divide between spirit and matter and thus transcended the antagonism between hierarchical religion and mechanistic science.

Now that matter can be described as empty space structured by interdependent waves of energy, it has acquired a distinctly spiritual aspect. Similarly, Korten’s examples of the intricate interdependencies of ecosystems illustrate how the results of scientific research border on the inspirational. He ends the section with what he calls “Stories for a New Era”, to counter Empire’s anachronistic ones.

While I am in agreement with much of Korten’s message and admire most of his analysis, the new stories he advances made my eyes glaze over. With respect to security, the Empire tells us we have evil enemies. That’s short and to the point, even if it is false. The Earth Community tells us, he writes, “Strong families and communities that build relationships of mutual trust and caring and that support all people in realizing the potentials of their humanity are the best guarantee of human security.” I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t grab me, even if it is true.

Part of the problem here is the misuse of the word story, a misuse that hardly started with Korten. Stories are indeed wonderful ways to learn. However, they need a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need a plot, even good guys and bad guys, for that’s how stories engage the listener. Korten’s “stories” have none of these features – they resemble party platforms. To give him credit, he urges his readers to make up their own stories. Here is a wonderful and important challenge to take up. My wife Shelly and I organized circles of extemporaneous storytelling for years and each meeting was invariably profound and energizing.

The lies of dominators are documented in this book, but the most egregious ones are ignored or uncritically repeated. Sources listed on GHQ’s Web site will show that the Reichstag was burned by Hitler’s men in order to create the crisis that led to his accession to power. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just assassinated; he was killed by the FBI. Pearl Harbor was not a surprise attack but the method used by the US to get us into World War II. Hundreds of mainstream scholars and engineers have shown that it is impossible for the 9/11 attacks not to have been planned from within the US government. Korten repeats the myth that Osama bin Laden planned and executed the attacks, but no one has ever come close to proving that fact.

“Leading from Below” and “Building a Political Majority” are two chapters whose titles explain themselves. To summarize a very rich final 40 pages, Korten tells us that our strategy must be to “make the life-affirming values of Earth Community the values of the prevailing culture.” (341) The stress is on principles and policies that support the local and the small scale: businesses, organizations, and decentralized cultural initiatives. In spite of this focus, many of his prescriptions sound suspiciously like proposals for national public policy.

There is a disconnect here, though. The more Korten gets into his policy pronouncements, the more it seems as if he is assuming some sort of national or international authority in the background. However, his Earth Community vision does not say anything directly about such an authority. We may be supposed to walk away from the king, but we seem to be dragging something like him along behind us for reassurance. It would be interesting to have a chapter on how Earth Communities will relate to each other and on what issues.

Democracy Is Not Just Elections

It would be foolish of me to expect there to be more material in what is already a long book, but Korten makes a couple of insightful points that I would like to expand on.

One of these points has to do with the nature of politics itself. “Democracy,” writes Korten, “is more about a way of community life than it is about elections.” Further, “those who control the processes of economic and cultural choice ultimately control political choice.” (345) This is key. It tells us of course that turning things around does not hinge so much on gaining control of dominator institutions, as in walking away from them. Daniel Quinn makes a similar point in his book Beyond Civilization, advising those of us who want real change to “walk away from the pyramid builders.”

However, there is another message in this point that bears stressing. Decentralization of power is possible by doing all we can to withdraw support from dominator institutions. The first stage, as Korten says, is awareness that our lives are woven into patterns of support for these institutions, awareness that their immensity often hides their destruction of both human and nonhuman capital. More people need to know, for example, that WalMart is predatory and sucks a community’s life blood. That first blossoming of awareness is usually enough. It is essential, in any case, to making mindful choices about where we shop, what we eat, and where we live and to undertaking thoughtful participation in initiatives in local self-reliance.

It is in this sense that eating, as Wendell Berry puts it, is a political act. So is choosing to make one’s own music and tell one’s own stories instead of remaining a passive consumer of industrialized agriculture and culture. Democracy involves participation in all dimensions of our humanity, not just in the so-called political system. This insight is empowering, because it illustrates the crucial point that it doesn’t matter where we start.

The Scale of Things

In one or two places Korten notes that dominator cultures arise because tribes and organizations get too big. He writes that the larger a tribe, or firm, or public institution, the more pressure there is to centralize. With the exception of a few people such as Kirkpatrick Sale and John Papworth no one pays much attention to this tendency of dominator humans. As businesses and organizations get bigger, their leaders revel in this false indicator of success but struggle to maintain control.

Nature provides thousands of examples of how colonies of everything from termites to primates “hive off” to form new groups when the old one gets too large. Dominator humans are too stupid to see the sense of this strategy. We allow our cities to spread out until they are insanely dysfunctional. A few dozen elites create a federal system of sovereign but united states when their total population is less than four million (still a huge number of people). Over two centuries later, Americans are congratulating themselves that their constitution still works for 300 million people. It doesn’t.

The larger the organization, the more distant top leaders are from everyone else. This principle helps to explain why the opinions of the people are so often completely at odds with government policy and action – a fact handsomely documented by Korten. The larger the organization, the easier it is for insiders and “leaders” to get away with covert operations, with financial and other kinds of fraud and especially with lies about what they are really doing.

Scale is deceptive, though. The planet Earth is, by human standards, immense. Furthermore, it functions as a whole – some even say as a single organism. Korten illustrates, in his section on the miraculous way ecosystems and their organisms fit together, that these huge systems function because each part of them, from a forest to a squirrel to a tiny cell, is simultaneously a self-conscious individual (yes! even cells) and a working member of countless interesting systems and communities.

Inescapably, humans act both as individuals and as members of different communities. But humans, uniquely, have a problem with their dual role. We argue and write philosophical tomes about the “rights” of individuals in opposition to the imperatives of community. Worse, we have developed complex rules and submitted ourselves to dominating leaders that dictate our behavior and roles within the community, as if we were incapable of discerning what our own behavior and roles should be.

Why is this the case? My own hunch is that, having the sensation that we could observe nature as something outside of ourselves – even though we are embedded in it – we started to feel separate from nature. (Paul Shepard, in Nature and Madness, argues that children from eight to ten have a biological need to bond with nature but are frustrated in this need by our culture. Could this be a link to Korten’s argument that so many of our dominator rulers got stuck at the age of nine in the maturation process?) This sense of separateness has in turn promoted a sense of insecurity. Our first instinct was to develop mythologies of fickle and unpredictable gods and of a natural world that can wreak havoc on us at any moment.

Later, some men began to deal with their insecurity by seeking to dominate women and then other men. But, as Korten shows, human leaders turned out to be as fickle and stupid as the gods that we had created for ourselves. In response to a particularly vicious era of mayhem and bloodshed, some philosophers in the 17th century came up with a worldview that described nature as a vast – but ultimately predictable – machine.

This mechanistic worldview was comforting, but it was also extremely useful to the European elites of the 17th and 18th centuries. Even as the philosophers claimed that the new science gave humans new freedoms, it was in fact used to legitimate the existing unequal distribution of power and underpinned powerful new military and other control technologies. In other words, Newtonian science only strengthened the dominators.

“From Empire to Earth Community: David Korten’s Vision,” (David Korten, The Great Turning) Green Horizon Quarterly, No. 15 (Spring 2007), 21-24