The Great Turning Initiative

David Korten

February 24, 2006

The PCDForum Great Turning initiative brings together the ideas of Thomas Berry, Riane Eisler, Joanna Macy, Nicky Perlas, Vandana Shiva and many other leading thinkers. It takes as its point of departure the prophetic opening words of the Earth Charter:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future….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.


In July 2002 PCDForum advisor Vandana Shiva visited the PCDForum office on Bainbridge Island. The Bush administration had launched an invasion of Afghanistan and was threatening preemptive military action against Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Influential policy analysts were debating the merits of American Empire, and documents were circulating in which key administration officials openly advocated imposing a Pax Americana on the world by the unilateral application of U.S. military power in the manner of the ancient Roman Empire.

During our conversations, Vandana noted that the critique underlying global civil society’s increasingly effective resistance against corporate globalization did not address the even graver threat to liberty and democracy of classic forms of empire imposed by naked military force. Corporate globalization can be traced back, at most, four hundred years to the chartering of the British East India Company. Classic empire imposed by military force traces back 5,000 years to the initial rise of empire in Mesopotamia, the land we now know as Iraq.

This opening of the mind brought into focus the relevance of the work of another colleague, cultural historian Riane Eisler. In her classic work The Chalice and the Blade, Eisler placed the conflict between dominator and partnership models of organization in deep historical context and brought to bear the lens of gender analysis to illuminate the deeper roots of our contemporary political struggles for justice, peace, and environmental stewardship. By her reckoning, the dominator systems of Empire have been playing out for some five thousand years at every level of human organization, from relations among states to relations among family members. Once we made this connection to Eisler’s we could see that we were dealing with issues that have far deeper historical roots than addressed by most critiques of corporate globalization.

Vandana and I invited Nicky to join us in preparing the above mentioned discussion paper to enlarge the framework. We each subsequently proceeded to draw the underlying insights into our individual books. Nicky published Shaping Globalization: Civil Society: Cultural Power and Threefolding in 2003. Vandana published Earth Democracy: Justice Sustainability, and Peace in 2005.

Framing Ideas

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community defines the choice now before the human species in terms of two contrasting models for organizing human affairs referred to generically as Empire and Earth Community. Failing a well grounded understanding of the history and implications of this choice, progressive movements may squander valuable time and resources on futile efforts to preserve or mend the cultures and institutions of a system that cannot be fixed and must be replaced.

Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. For five thousand years, Empire has brought fortune to the few, condemned the majority of humanity to misery and servitude, suppressed the creative potential of the species, and appropriated much of the productive surplus of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.

Earth Community, by contrast, features organization by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative cooperation, and gives priority in allocating the productive surplus of society to growing the generative potential of the whole. Supporting evidence comes from sources as varied as evolutionary theory, developmental psychology, and religious teachings.

The Great Turning makes the case Empire has reached the limits of the social and environmental exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and unsustainable U.S. trade deficits will bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. It is ours to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity.

One of the book’s more distinctive conclusions is that the real power of Empire lies not in its instruments of physical violence, but rather in its ability to control the stories by which we live to perpetuate the myths on which the legitimacy of the dominator relations of Empire depend. The foundation of this conclusion is the profound insight of Nicky Perlas that political and economic power ultimately rest on the foundation of cultural power — the power to control stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities. We humans live by stories. To change the human future, change our defining stories of the dominant culture, most of which are imperial myths.

Examples of the imperial myths exposed by The Great Turning.

  1. Myth: Civilization, history, and human progress began with the formation of the first empires in Mesopotamia and Egypt 5,000 years ago.
    Truth: The most significant human social and technological advances were achieved either prior to the emergence of the earliest empires or followed the decline of monarchy and the partial democratization of government in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  2. Myth: The United States was founded as a democracy and has led the way in bringing freedom and democracy to the world.
    Truth: The United States was founded by white men of property as a plutocracy to secure their power and privilege and has become the most powerful and dangerous imperial nation in human history. Selfless rulers did not gift elementary rights to working people, women, and people of color. These rights were won through long and difficult struggle against the determined and violent opposition of imperial power holders.
  3. Myth: Money is wealth and the market economy rewards those who create wealth in proportion to their contribution.
    Truth: Money is an accounting chit and a system by which a few people who control its creation and allocation are able to expropriate wealth from others they had no part in creating.
  4. Myth: Economic growth is the key to ending poverty and securing the environment.
    Truth: Economic growth as we have known it enriches the few at the expense of the many while destroying the families, communities, and natural systems essential to real human security and prosperity. Concentrate on growing strong and healthy families and communities. Security and prosperity will follow.
  5. Myth: Our only choice is between socialism, rule by an all-powerful state, or capitalism, rule by all-powerful corporations and financial markets. Socialism is tyranny. Capitalism is freedom and democracy.
    Truth: Both socialism and capitalism create concentrations of dominator power that undermine freedom and democracy. There is a third option of decentralized, rule-based, market economies accountable to governments of, by, and for the people.
  6. Myth: Technology will save us from our folly.
    Truth: Technology will contribute to our salvation only if we find the collective wisdom to use it wisely.
  7. Myth: Humans are by nature self-centered, greedy, and violent.
    Truth: Humans have many potential natures and it is within our means to choose among them.”

The Book Launch

The launch in May will feature a speaking and media tour organized in cooperation with partner organizations across the United States and Canada. PCDForum is developing a website as a supporting resource linking the various Great Turning partner initiatives. The secretariat has contracted the half time services of Neva Welton, a leading Bainbridge organizer, to coordinate these efforts.                                         

We are framing the launch as part of a larger support effort for initiatives springing up around the country to engage conversations of growing scope to address the imperative and opportunity now before us. These conversations take many forms and go by many names. We call them Earth Community Dialogues as they are generally grounded in the framing principles and values of Earth Community as spelled out in the Earth Charter. They share in common an underlying commitment to turning an impending crisis into an opportunity to create a world that affirms the deeper values most humans share. The overarching goal of this effort change turn the U.S. national conversation away from the frame of Empire and to the frame of Earth Community.

The launch will gain special impetus from a special 10th anniversary issue of YES! magazine devoted to the theme of the Great Turning. My lead article for this YES! issue will outline key themes from the book. YES! is developing special joint book/magazine promotions with bookstores around the United States. It is also developing a Great Turning section of


The PCDForum has served from its inception as a catalyst organization, making a conscious choice to focus on supporting the development of independent cause oriented institutions rather than on building itself as a permanent institution. This has allowed us to respond more quickly to changing circumstances than is possible for organizations burdened by more developed institutional infrastructure. The PCDForum’s institutional development initiatives center on three organizations: the Positive Futures Network, which I continue to serve as board chair; the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, which I serve as a member of the board and the board executive committee; and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, which I serve as a board member.

Positive Futures Network

The Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES! magazine is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The magazine is reaching an ever growing readership with its stories of people who are bringing a new era of human possibility into being. YES! now has nearly 26,000 paid subscribers, a newsstand draw of 8,000, and total circulation of 50,000. Through the YES! education connection program, it is now reaching 4,500 educators and 70,000 students. The YES! editorial staff are redesigning the magazine to make it more attractive and readable and the organization is gearing up to expand its audience through audio and a more sophisticated use of the Web and e-mail. I’ve noted above some of the key elements of the partnership between PFN and PCDForum on the Great Turning initiative.

Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE)

BALLE is on a roll as the idea of growing people, nature, and community friendly local living economies catches hold. It started with a few highly activist local business leaders and attracted the energy of substantial numbers of community activists. Now the idea is spreading to more mainstream local business leaders and, of particular significance, to local and state governments. California, in particular, is afire with new organizing activity. BALLE now has 22 chapters in the United States and Canada.

Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI)

The Bainbridge Graduate Institute is a small, but highly visible and enterprising management institute at the cutting edge of a wave of emerging interest across the United States in education for the management of Green businesses. It is growing rapidly in enrollment and reputation at a time when larger and more conventional business are experiencing a drop in applications and enrollment. Because of the importance of its leadership roll in defining this newly emerging thrust in business education, I agreed to join the BGI board in 2005.