"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" (pg. 1).
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. 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 capitalism1, 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. (32).
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" (25). 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 thirteen severe events in the 1950s. By comparison, seventy-two such events occurred during the first nine years of the 1990s" (59-60). 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"³ (67). 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, who 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. (32). These values are elaborated to describe a counter-force 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" (33). 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" (70-71). 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" (342-45). 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" (304).
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" (68). 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 made 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, recieve 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" (297-98).
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 forwards. 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" (54). 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 St. 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).