David Korten: The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community


Richard Moore

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YES! Magazine Summer 2006 Issue:  5,000 Years of Empire

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community
by David Korten

By what name will future generations know our time?

       Silenced by Empires: Delphi was inhabited since 1400 B.C. by
       people who worshipped the Mother Earth deity.  Early goddess
       worship at Delphi gave way to the Greek worship of Apollo.
       In 191 B.C. the sanctuary fell to the Roman Empire. Photo by
       Ben van der Zee. Illustration by Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn

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.

Troubling truths

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 

Beyond denial

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.

Cultural Turning

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.

Economic Turning

The values shift of the cultural turning leads us to redefine 
wealth-to measure it by the health of our families, communities, and 
natural environment. It leads us from policies that raise those at 
the top to policies that raise those at the bottom, from hoarding to 
sharing, from concentrated to distributed ownership, and from the 
rights of ownership to the responsibilities of stewardship.

Political Turning

The economic turning creates the necessary conditions for a turn from 
a one-dollar, one-vote democracy to a one-person, one-vote democracy, 
from passive to active citizenship, from competition for individual 
advantage to cooperation for mutual advantage, from retributive 
justice to restorative justice, and from social order by coercion to 
social order by mutual responsibility and accountability.

Global awakening

Empire's true believers maintain that the inherent flaws in our human 
nature lead to a natural propensity to greed, violence, and lust for 
power. Social order and material progress depend, therefore, on 
imposing elite rule and market discipline to channel these dark 
tendencies to positive ends. Psychologists who study the 
developmental pathways of the individual consciousness observe a more 
complex reality. Just as we grow up in our physical capacities and 
potential given proper physical nourishment and exercise, we also 
grow up in the capacities and potential of our consciousness, given 
proper social and emotional nourishment and exercise.

Over a lifetime, those who enjoy the requisite emotional support 
traverse a pathway from the narcissistic, undifferentiated magical 
consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive, and 
multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder. The 
lower, more narcissistic, orders of consciousness are perfectly 
normal for young children, but become sociopathic in adults and are 
easily encouraged and manipulated by advertisers and demagogues. The 
higher orders of consciousness are a necessary foundation of mature 
democracy. Perhaps Empire's greatest tragedy is that its cultures and 
institutions systematically suppress our progress to the higher 
orders of consciousness.

Given that Empire has prevailed for 5,000 years, a turn from Empire 
to Earth Community might seem a hopeless fantasy if not for the 
evidence from values surveys that a global awakening to the higher 
levels of human consciousness is already underway. This awakening is 
driven in part by a communications revolution that defies elite 
censorship and is breaking down the geographical barriers to 
intercultural exchange.

The consequences of the awakening are manifest in the civil rights, 
women's, environmental, peace, and other social movements. These 
movements in turn gain energy from the growing leadership of women, 
communities of color, and indigenous peoples, and from a shift in the 
demographic balance in favor of older age groups more likely to have 
achieved the higher-order consciousness of the wise elder.

It is fortuitous that we humans have achieved the means to make a 
collective choice as a species to free ourselves from Empire's 
seemingly inexorable compete-or-die logic at the precise moment we 
face the imperative to do so. The speed at which institutional and 
technological advances have created possibilities wholly new to the 
human experience is stunning.

JUST OVER 60 YEARS AGO, we created the United Nations, which, for all 
its imperfections, made it possible for the first time for 
representatives of all the world's nations and people to meet in a 
neutral space to resolve differences through dialogue rather than 
force of arms.

LESS THAN 50 YEARS AGO, our species ventured into space to look back 
and see ourselves as one people sharing a common destiny on a living 
space ship.

IN LITTLE MORE THAN 10 YEARS our communications technologies have 
given us the ability, should we choose to use it, to link every human 
on the planet into a seamless web of nearly costless communication 
and cooperation.

Already our new technological capability has made possible the 
interconnection of the millions of people who are learning to work as 
a dynamic, self--directing social organism that transcends boundaries 
of race, class, religion, and nationality and functions as a shared 
conscience of the species. We call this social or-ganism global civil 
society. On February 15, 2003, it brought more than 10 million people 
to the streets of the world's cities, towns, and villages to call for 
peace in the face of the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They 
accomplished this monumental collective action without a central 
organization, budget, or charismatic leader through social processes 
never before possible on such a scale. This was but a foretaste of 
the possibilities for radically new forms of partnership organization 
now within our reach.

Break the silence, end the isolation, change the story

We humans live by stories. The key to making a choice for Earth 
Community is recognizing that the foundation of Empire's power does 
not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire's 
ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our 
possibilities in order to perpetuate the myths on which the 
legitimacy of the dominator relations of Empire depend. To change the 
human future, we must change our defining stories.

Story power

For 5,000 years, the ruling class has cultivated, rewarded, and 
amplified the voices of those storytellers whose stories affirm the 
righteousness of Empire and deny the higher-order potentials of our 
nature that would allow us to live with one another in peace and 
cooperation. There have always been those among us who sense the 
possibilities of Earth Community, but their stories have been 
marginalized or silenced by Empire's instruments of intimidation. The 
stories endlessly repeated by the scribes of Empire become the 
stories most believed. Stories of more hopeful possibilities go 
unheard or unheeded and those who discern the truth are unable to 
identify and support one another in the common cause of truth 
telling. Fortunately, the new communications technologies are 
breaking this pattern. As truth-tellers reach a wider audience, the 
myths of Empire become harder to maintain.

The struggle to define the prevailing cultural stories largely 
defines contemporary cultural politics in the United States. A 
far-right alliance of elitist corporate plutocrats and religious 
theocrats has gained control of the political discourse in the United 
States not by force of their numbers, which are relatively small, but 
by controlling the stories by which the prevailing culture defines 
the pathway to prosperity, security, and meaning. In each instance, 
the far right's favored versions of these stories affirm the 
dominator relations of Empire.

THE IMPERIAL PROSPERITY STORY says that an eternally growing economy 
benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who 
can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the 
wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that 
create barriers to accumulating wealth. We must also eliminate 
welfare programs in order to teach the poor the value of working hard 
at whatever wages the market offers.

  THE IMPERIAL SECURITY STORY tells of a dangerous world, filled with 
criminals, terrorists, and enemies. The only way to insure our safety 
is through major expenditures on the military and the police to 
maintain order by physical force.

  THE IMPERIAL MEANING STORY reinforces the other two, featuring a God 
who rewards righteousness with wealth and power and mandates that 
they rule over the poor who justly suffer divine punishment for their 

These stories all serve to alienate us from the community of life and 
deny the positive potentials of our nature, while affirming the 
legitimacy of economic inequality, the use of physical force to 
maintain imperial order, and the special righteousness of those in 

It is not enough, as many in the United States are doing, to debate 
the details of tax and education policies, budgets, war, and trade 
agreements in search of a positive political agenda. Nor is it enough 
to craft slogans with broad mass appeal aimed at winning the next 
election or policy debate. We must infuse the mainstream culture with 
stories of Earth Community. As the stories of Empire nurture a 
culture of domination, the stories of Earth Community nurture a 
culture of partnership. They affirm the positive potentials of our 
human nature and show that realizing true prosperity, security, and 
meaning depends on creating vibrant, caring, interlinked communities 
that support all persons in realizing their full humanity. Sharing 
the joyful news of our human possibilities through word and action is 
perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Work of our time.

For More Charts Click Here

Changing the prevailing stories in the United States may be easier to 
accomplish than we might think. The apparent political divisions 
notwithstanding, U.S. polling data reveal a startling degree of 
consensus on key issues. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe 
that as a society the United States is focused on the wrong 
priorities. Supermajorities want to see greater priority given to 
children, family, community, and a healthy environment. Americans 
also want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values 
ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of 
international domination. These Earth Community values are in fact 
widely shared by both conservatives and liberals.

Our nation is on the wrong course not because Americans have the 
wrong values. It is on the wrong course because of remnant imperial 
institutions that give unaccountable power to a small alliance of 
right-wing extremists who call themselves conservative and claim to 
support family and community values, but whose preferred economic and 
social policies constitute a ruthless war against children, families, 
communities, and the environment.

The distinctive human capacity for reflection and intentional choice 
carries a corresponding moral responsibility to care for one another 
and the planet. Indeed, our deepest desire is to live in loving 
relationships with one another. The hunger for loving families and 
communities is a powerful, but latent, unifying force and the 
potential foundation of a winning political coalition dedicated to 
creating societies that support every person in actualizing his or 
her highest potential.

In these turbulent and often frightening times, it is important to 
remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting 
moment in the whole of the human experience. We have the opportunity 
to turn away from Empire and to embrace Earth Community as a 
conscious collective choice. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network.

This article draws from his newly released book, The Great Turning: 
 From Empire to Earth Community. Go to 
www.yesmagazine.org/greatturning for book

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