We humans have a brief window of opportunity to navigate the passage from a 5,000 year Imperial Civilization of domination and violence against life to an Ecological Civilization characterized by peaceful partnership with one another and Earth. This passage to a new level of species maturity promises a more secure and fulfilling life for all.
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.
Our departure from Eden began around 10,000 B.C., as we settled into agricultural communities and began to develop the material and social technologies distinctive to our species. We learned to domesticate plants and animals, store food for the lean times, design and construct buildings, weave clothing and baskets, make pots, design and construct buildings, and organize under institutions of law, government, and religion. This set the stage for the Imperial Civilization that prevails to this day.
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 one another. 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.
Since the turn to Empire, the economic relationships of Earth’s dominant societies have been structured and managed not to improve the lives of all, but to secure the power and privilege of the few. 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.
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. Our now common fate presents us with a choice.
We stand together in common cause to advance the 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 mutual oppression, anger, and violence.
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.
Our Choice: Life and Money
Put in simple terms, we face a classic choice between life and money as society’s defining value. No economy can serve them both.
Traditional societies obtained their food, energy, shelter, and other essentials of live directly from the land and their shared labor. There is no need for money. They honored and served the Earth mother who birthed and nurtured them. As societies turned away from nature, financial exchange increasingly define our relationships with one another and Earth.
We Have It Badly Wrong
Human societies are defined by relationships—most particularly the economic relationships on which we depend for our means of living. Human society’s organize these relationships through shared cultural beliefs and values supported by institutional rules and rewards to create a societal guidance system that aligns the diversity of 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.
In our current money driven world, our access to the food, water, shelter, and other essential 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 what ever wage they offer or borrowing in it at whatever interest they 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
As We the People awaken to this truth the political tension grows between the majority who seek to make a living and the minority who seek to make a killing.
And Need a Dramatic Change of Course
The guidance system of the old economy defines economic success by growth in human consumption and the financial assets of the rich and powerful. By that measure, it is highly successful.
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, and learn to live within Earth’s limits.
- 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.
Defining progress as a growing GDP, we have set ourselves on a path to collective suicide. We must reverse course. The goal is not to return to some fanciful past. Rather it is to facilitate Earth’s healing as we move forward in a new direction, toward a living democracy and a New Economy that meets the needs of all in balanced relationship with a finite living Earth.
Narrative Holds the Key to Power
The power of the institutions of empire rests in substantial measure in their ability to control the cultural narrative that shapes our collective understanding of our world and our choices as a species. Defenders of corporate rule aggressively promote the narrative that we humans are by nature self-centered, materialistic, and driven to violent winner-take-all competition. Coercive hierarchy and unrestrained market competition are therefore necessary to maintain social order and channel our energy to productive ends.
It represents an insidious self-affirming deception, Because the hierarchical organization of imperial institutions pit us one against the other in a competition for the few positions that favor the few at the expense of the money. It is a game of rule or be ruled that favors the sociopathic behavior that Empire’s story tellers would have us believe defines our inherent nature.
Once we recognize the truth that Empire stories deny, the trance is broken. To change the future, change the story.
Who We are and What We Want
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 all want essentially the same things: happy healthy children, families, communities, natural systems, 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.
Organizing Principles for an Ecological Civilization
Navigation of the transition must be guided by these foundational organizing principles of an Ecological Civilization:
- We humans are living beings born of and nurtured by a finite living Earth and are dependent on the generative product of her living systems;
- Life exists only in living communities that self-organize to create and maintain the conditions essential to their own existence.
- Our human health and happiness depend on the relationships of strong and healthy families and communities in which we share responsibility for the well-being of the whole.
- The economy’s only legitimate purpose is to support living communities that share Earth’s finite life sustaining resources equitably to support every person in living a healthy happy, and productive life of material sufficiency and spiritual abundance.
- Societies that equitably share wealth and work enjoy greater physical and emotional health, stronger families and communities, less violence, greater resilience, and a healthier natural environment.
- Money is just a number useful in facilitating exchange, but of no intrinsic value or existence outside the human mind.
- On a living planet, financial assets confer power; on a dead planet they are worthless.
A Three-Part People’s Strategic Agenda
Imperial institutions do not democratize through voluntary internal reform. The transition to an Ecological Civilization as individuals and communities embrace there 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 to support them. 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. As we use our global communication technologies to connect and share our learning with our local and global neighbors, we can together live new local and global cultures and institutions into being appropriate to our need.
We have the right, the means, and the power. But the window of opportunity is fast closing.
We are the ones we have been waiting for. And the time is now.
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 movements 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.”
Additional Great Turning Resources
Here are some additional Great Turning Resources on this website.
- Imperial Civilization. Further background into the origin, nature, and consequences of Imperial Civilization.
- Ecological Civilization. Further information on the frontiers of thought and action on Ecological Civilization.
- Story Power. How our defining cultural narratives shape our perceptions of and responses to the world, our place in it, and our response to the challenges of daily life.
- Origin of the Term. How the Great Turning became a name of choice for describing the transition to a new civilization.
These are other useful resources:
David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future and discussion guide. A short and easy to read guide to moving beyond partial, dated narratives that distort our values, strip our lives of meaning, deny our agency, and threaten our future. It frames an emerging creation story that draws from the many sources of human knowledge to point us toward a future that works for all.
David Korten The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community and discussion guide. Places the current transformational imperative in deep historical context to address the psychological, cultural, institutional dynamics at play in our relationships with one another and Earth as we navigate the turning to Earth Community and an Ecological Civilization.
The discussion guide is designed for five, two-hour sessions, which are aligned with each of the five parts in the book. Each session includes: a synopsis of the major ideas within the chapters, whole group discussion questions to explore intellectually, and questions for small groups and dyads (groups of two) to explore more personally.
The Earth Charter. A declaration of universal responsibility to and for one another and Earth. It sets out four overarching principles of Earth Community: (1) respect and care for the community of life; (2) ecological integrity; (3) social and economic justice; and (4) democracy, nonviolence, and peace.
Duane Elgin, “The Living Universe,” Kosmos. Duane is a leading voice at the forefront of those who acknowledge that conscious intelligence is integral to the material universe and essential to understanding ourselves and our place in creation. This article is a beautiful summary of key insights and their societal implications. See also his book The Living Universe.
Declaration on Climate Change. This 2015 declaration by the world’s leading interfaith alliance of religious leaders presents a call for a global commitment to an Ecological Civilization and frames the challenge at hand.
Finding Our Power in the Great Turning
A public conversation between Joanna Macy and David Korten on the Great Turning at the Seattle Unity Church before 450 people on April 25, 2008. The event was organized by For the Grandchildren and moderated by Victor Bremson. Available in audio only.