A Great Turning to an Ecological Civilization cannot be led or imposed by institutions created to secure the relationships of an Imperial Civilization. Leadership must come from We the People. With no precedent or model to guide us, we must learn as we go, sharing the lessons of our experience as we withdraw our support from the institutions of the old economy and live into being the institutions of a New Economy that aligns with Ecological Civilization’s vision of possibility.
The Great Turning is a possibility: not a prophecy. The choice is in our hands.
The imperative and the possibility of this moment are best understood in the deep historical context of our human turn away from our Earth mother and the violence and oppression of the Imperial Civilization of our species adolescence.
Out from Eden
Originally, we humans organized as tribes. Moving with the seasons, we lived as one with each other and nature, and honored the Earth mother who to this day births and nourishes us. The Abrahamic religions recall these as the days of Eden.
The Turn to Empire
Somewhere around 3,000 BC, the more ambitious among us discovered they could use the tools and abilities developed during the initial separation from Eden to dominate nature and their fellow humans. Kings and emperors organized great empires under their personal rule. They expropriated nature’s gifts and the surplus of human labor beyond bare subsistence to feed great armies to suppress the many and live in self-glorification. Some ruled in the name of a god. Others claimed to be gods.
The ruling classes then and now, expropriated the wealth created by nature and human labor and squandered it on wars, opulent luxuries, and the military and police power and prisons by which they secure their privilege.
An Epic Choice
The ruthless domination and exploitation of Imperial Civilization have reached the limits of what the living systems of Earth and society can and will endure. We face an epic choice.
We join in common cause to transition to an Ecological Civilization of peace, sufficiency, equality, and partnership for the well-being of all. Or we perish together in a final grand display of violence, excess, oppression, and exploitation.
Earth’s collapsing environmental systems provide the imperative to reverse humanity’s current course. A now seamless global communications web provides us the means. This convergence creates a brief moment of opportunity to birth an Ecological Civilization that brings people and planet into balance, nurtures innovation and creative expression, and provides to all an opportunity for material sufficiency and spiritual abundance.
Life as Purpose
Put in simple terms, we face a classic choice between life and money as society’s defining value. One will be the master; the other the servant.
Traditional societies obtained their food, energy, shelter, and other essentials of life directly from the land through their shared labor. There was no need for money. They in turn honored and served the Earth mother who birthed and nurtured them. The had little or no need for money.
In our current money driven world, our access to the food, water, shelter, and other essentials of living depends on money. The money driven corporations that now control our access to these essentials, demand payment in money. We can get that money, however, only by selling our labor to these same or other money driven corporations for whatever wage they offer or by borrowing in it at whatever interest those corporations demand.
Reduced to servitude to money, money becomes our obsession and our life purpose. Pope Francis calls it the idolatry, the worship, of money. He reminds us that money is not itself evil; evil is the worship of money at the expense of life. Earth is sacred; money is just a number.
The political tension is growing between the majority of the world’s people who seek to make a living and the minority who seek to make a financial killing. As living beings, our health and happiness depend on our ability to organize as communities through which we create and maintain our essential means of living. Money can be a beneficial servant. It must never be the economy’s purpose or its master.
Community as an Essential Foundation of Real Prosperity
Society is defined by relationships—most particularly the economic relationships on which we depend for our means of living. These relationships are shaped by shared cultural beliefs and supported by institutional rules and rewards to create a societal guidance system that aligns the diverse and often competing interests its people into a coherent outcome.
Get the cultural and institutional guidance system right and the society prospers. Get it wrong and a society can destroy itself.
We humans are now a global society of more than seven billion people dependent on the shrinking resources of a finite planet. We are now awakening to the dark truth that:
- Our growth in consumption is killing Earth. Rather than increasing our burden on a finite living Earth, we must reduce our existing burden, accept our stewardship responsibility to the living community on which we depend, and learn to live within the limits of Earth’s regenerative systems.
- An unconscionable wealth gap is shredding the social fabric. Rather than concentrating the power of financial asset ownership in the hands of the few, we must distribute it equitably among all who share Earth as our common heritage.
- Money driven political and economic institutions place the human future at risk. Rather than yielding our sovereignty to money seeking corporations, We the sovereign People must change the rules to hold governments democratically accountable to our interests as living beings and hold corporations accountable to the governments that issue their charters.
The power of the institutions of empire rests on their control of our access both to money and to the means of living that we depend on money to buy. It is the ultimate tyranny because the means of control is far less visible than armies and police battalions.
Defining progress by GDP growth leads us to treat the monetization of human relationships as a contribution to human well-being. At this point, our health and well-being depend on restoring the caring relationships of healthy living communities. Money will continue to have an important role as a medium of exchange, but it must be restored to its proper role as servant.
Sharing an Authentic Narrative
We fail to recognize the tyranny for what it is because we live in a trance state induced by a Sacred Money and Markets cultural narrative that shapes our collective understanding of our world and our choices as a species. It is based on two foundational assumptions:
- Because we humans are by nature self-centered, materialistic, and inherently competitive, the wealth of the society is best maximized by channeling these natural instincts to beneficial ends through unrestrained market competition.
- There is no limit to the total wealth of a society. The affluence of the winners is their just reward for their contribution to the well-being of all. If the needs of some are not being met, simply accelerate growth to bring up the bottom.
Both assumptions are critically flawed. An authentic narrative is emerging grounded in three truths essential to our time:
- As living beings, we are by nature dependent on our ability to organize as healthy communities that create and maintain the conditions essential to our well-being.
- We humans shape our behavior by cultural and institutional choices. These can support individualism, gluttony, violence, and competition. They can support communitarianism, frugality, peace, and cooperation. And most everything in between.
- We depend on the generative capacity of a finite living Earth and must learn to meet our needs within these limits. Wealth distribution is an essential concern.
For thousands of years the institutions of Imperial Civilization pit us one against another in a competition for the positions of privilege that favor the few at the expense of the many. The dominator hierarchy of corporate rule and its legitimating cultural narrative are extensions of Imperial Civilization and the sociopathic behavior the Sacred Money and Markets story would have us believe defines our inherent nature.
Once we recognize the deception, the trance is broken. To change the future, change the story.
Securing Health and Happiness
For all our many varied identities, psychologically healthy humans—the substantial majority—are caring, cooperative, and thrive on being of service to others. And we mostly want the same things: happy healthy children, families, and communities; a vibrant, health natural environment; and opportunities to serve and create. The healthy communities of an Ecological Civilization will cultivate, facilitate, and reward these expressions of the possibilities of our higher nature.
There will be difficult adjustments, but mostly we must give up wasteful or actively destructive forms of consumption to free up resources for uses that actually increase our happiness and well-being. It involves, for example, reallocation from:
- Instruments of war to health care and environmental rejuvenation.
- Automobiles to public transportation.
- Suburban sprawl to compact communities and the reclamation of forest and agricultural land.
- Advertising to education.
- Financial speculation to local entrepreneurship.
Far from acts of sacrifice, these are transitions from the self-destruction of the suicide economy to the intelligent living of a living Earth economy.
A Three-Part People’s Strategic Agenda
Imperial institutions—neither corporations nor states—do not democratize through voluntary internal reform. The transition to an Ecological Civilization depends on the actions of We the People to embrace our interdependence with one another and Earth and reach out across the identities that now divide us to create new ways of living supported by a new cultural and institutional system of our creation. This agenda has three interrelated elements:
- Change the defining stories of the mainstream culture. Every great transformational social movement begins with a conversation about a new idea that challenges and ultimately changes a prevailing cultural story. The civil rights movement changed the story on race. The environmental movement changed the story about the human relationship to nature. The women’s movement changed the story on gender. Our current task is to change the prevailing stories by which we understand the nature of wealth, the purpose of the economy, our relationship to a living Earth, and the possibilities of our human nature. Through public presentations, books, magazines, talk shows, and the Internet’s many communications tools, millions of people are spreading and engaging in conversation around stories of New Economy possibilities.
- Create a new economic reality from the bottom up. The new stories are lived into being from the bottom up through dynamic self-organizing social learning processes. Millions of people around the world are already engaged in building strong local living economies in their communities. They are establishing and supporting locally owned human-scale businesses and family farms that create regional self-reliance in food, energy, and other basic essentials. They are moving their money to local banks and credit unions, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, and changing land-use policies to favor compact communities, reduce auto dependence, and reclaim agricultural and forest lands.
- Change the rules to favor the emergent new reality. The rules put in place by Wall Street lobbyists put the economic rights of global financiers and corporations ahead of the economic rights of ordinary people, place-based communities, and even nations. As we change the story and build appropriate institutions from the bottom up, we gain the experience and political traction needed to change the rules through the power of our numbers to support democratic control and self-determination at the lowest feasible level of systems organization.
Learning by Living
No one has been where we now must go. As we live to learn, we learn to live as a global species aligned with the organizing principles of an Ecological Civilization and the potentials of our human nature. Millions of people throughout the world are joining together to rebuild their local economies and communities. They support locally owned human-scale businesses and family farms, develop local financial institutions, restore the healthy vitality of farm and forest lands, advance land use policies that concentrate human populations in urban centers and compact rural communities, reduce automobile dependence, retrofit buildings to conserve energy, and work toward local self-reliance in food, energy, and other essentials.
We now have a previously unprecedented communications capability to connect and share our learning with our local and global neighbors as we live into being the new local and global cultures and institutions of a new civilization into being.
We the People have the right, the means, and the power. We are the ones we have been waiting for. And the time is now. The window of opportunity is fast closing.
The Earth Charter (2000)
“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.”
“Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning.”
“History is governed by those overarching moments that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe. Creating such a movement might be called the Great Work of a people. . . . The historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human—at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life-systems.”
“All societies are patterned on either a dominator model—in which human hierarchies are ultimately backed up by force or the threat of force—or a partnership model, with variations in between.”
DAVID KORTEN is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.
Photo by Wylly Suhendra on Unsplash