Will they speak in anger and frustration of the time of the Great Unraveling, when profligate consumption exceeded Earth's capacity to sustain and led to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remained of the planet's resources, and a dramatic dieback of the human population? Or will they look back in joyful celebration on the time of the Great Turning, when their forebears embraced the higher-order potential of their human nature, turned crisis into opportunity, and learned to live in creative partnership with one another and Earth?
A defining choice
We face a defining choice between two contrasting models for organizing human affairs. Give them the generic names Empire and Earth Community. Absent an understanding of the history and implications of this choice, we may squander valuable time and resources on efforts to preserve or mend cultures and institutions that cannot be fixed and must be replaced.
Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.
Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative co-operation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. Supporting evidence for the possibilities of Earth Community comes from the findings of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and religious mysticism. It was the human way before Empire; we must make a choice to re-learn how to live by its principles.
Developments distinctive to our time are telling us that Empire has reached the limits of the exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and an imbalanced U.S. economy dependent on debts it can never repay is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. We have the power to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity. The Great Turning is not a prophecy. It is a possibility.
A turn from life
According to cultural historian Riane Eisler, early humans evolved within a cultural and institutional frame of Earth Community. They organized to meet their needs by cooperating with life rather than by dominating it. Then some 5,000 years ago, beginning in Mesopotamia, our ancestors made a tragic turn from Earth Community to Empire. They turned away from a reverence for the generative power of life-represented by female gods or nature spirits-to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword-represented by distant, usually male, gods. The wisdom of the elder and the priestess gave way to the arbitrary rule of the powerful, often ruthless, king.
Paying the price
The peoples of the dominant human societies lost their sense of attachment to the living earth, and societies became divided between the rulers and the ruled, exploiters and exploited. The brutal competition for power created a relentless play-or-die, rule-or-be-ruled dynamic of violence and oppression and served to elevate the most ruthless to the highest positions of power. Since the fateful turn, the major portion of the resources available to human societies has been diverted from meeting the needs of life to supporting the military forces, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage for retainers and propagandists on which the system of domination in turn depends. Great civilizations built by ambitious rulers fell to successive waves of corruption and conquest.
The primary institutional form of Empire has morphed from the city-state to the nation-state to the global corporation, but the underlying pattern of domination remains. It is axiomatic: for a few to be on top, many must be on the bottom. The powerful control and institutionalize the processes by which it will be decided who enjoys the privilege and who pays the price, a choice that commonly results in arbitrarily excluding from power whole groups of persons based on race and gender.
Herein lies a crucial insight. If we look for the source of the social pathologies increasingly evident in our culture, we find they have a common origin in the dominator relations of Empire that have survived largely intact in spite of the democratic reforms of the past two centuries. The sexism, racism, economic injustice, violence, and environmental destruction that have plagued human societies for 5,000 years, and have now brought us to the brink of a potential terminal crisis, all flow from this common source. Freeing ourselves from these pathologies depends on a common solution-replacing the underlying dominator cultures and institutions of Empire with the partnership cultures and institutions of Earth Community. Unfortunately, we cannot look to imperial powerholders to lead the way.
History shows that as empires crumble the ruling elites become ever more corrupt and ruthless in their drive to secure their own power-a dynamic now playing out in the United States. We Americans base our identity in large measure on the myth that our nation has always embodied the highest principles of democracy, and is devoted to spreading peace and justice to the world.
But there has always been tension between America's high ideals and its reality as a modern version of Empire. The freedom promised by the Bill of Rights contrasts starkly with the enshrinement of slavery elsewhere in the original articles of the Constitution. The protection of property, an idea central to the American dream, stands in contradiction to the fact that our nation was built on land taken by force from Native Americans. Although we consider the vote to be the hallmark of our democracy, it took nearly 200 years before that right was extended to all citizens.
Americans acculturated to the ideals of America find it difficult to comprehend what our rulers are doing, most of which is at odds with notions of egalitarianism, justice, and democracy. Within the frame of historical reality, it is perfectly clear: they are playing out the endgame of Empire, seeking to consolidate power through increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic policies.
Wise choices necessarily rest on a foundation of truth. The Great Turning depends on awakening to deep truths long denied.
The Great Turning begins with a cultural and spiritual awakening-a turning in cultural values from money and material excess to life and spiritual fulfillment, from a belief in our limitations to a belief in our possibilities, and from fearing our differences to rejoicing in our diversity. It requires reframing the cultural stories by which we define our human nature, purpose, and possibilities.