Newsletter – July 20, 2023
(For more Newsletter Essays, visit HERE…)
Our June 17 newsletter announced the world premiere of the 30-minute film, “For the Love of Life: Finding Our Way to An Ecological Civilization,” produced and directed by Audrey Kitagawa, my longtime friend, colleague, and world interfaith leader. The film features the story of my life engaging the world’s diverse cultures in a quest to end global poverty and the defining lessons of that experience. It launched on June 22 as a plenary session of World Unity Week, drawing hundreds of enthusiastic viewers from around the world. If you missed the event, you can view the film and my post-screening conversation with Audrey HERE.
I grew up assuming that as my family’s eldest son, I would one day own and manage the family music and appliance store. What brought tears to my eyes as I watched the film was its reminder of the truth my dad continuously repeated to me as I was growing up. “If you are not in business to serve your customers, you have no business being in business.”
It was his way of saying that the only legitimate purpose of any business is to serve the community in which it does business. It sometimes feels like the life I chose, traveling the world engaging with the extraordinary diversity of its people and places, led me to abandon my father and the life for which he prepared me. Watching the film I realized for the first time in my 85 years, how much my life has been devoted to bringing his message to the world. An extraordinary confirmation that I am my father’s son.
The defining message of the film is amazingly simple. We face a choice between a love of life and a love of money. One leads to wellbeing for all – a healthy planet, strong communities, and people with fulfilling lives. The other leads to self-extinction for humans and a potential setback of millions—even billions—of years for life’s evolutionary unfolding on this extraordinary and distinctive planet.
The course of our common future will largely depend on which purpose our institutions serve. Currently, our defining institutions are transnational corporations dedicated to maximizing financial returns to the world’s richest owners. It’s an absurd and destructive purpose. What must we do to get our purpose right? The following essay is my brief search for answers to this question. — David Korten
Getting Our Purpose Right
David Korten |July 20, 2023
To find our way to a viable human future, we must heal and care for Earth while meeting the essential material needs of all people in ways that provide everyone with the opportunity for a meaningful and satisfying life. Success will require institutions that support us in providing loving care for one another and Earth through our labor.
Money may sometimes be a useful tool in this quest. But money alone cannot get us there because there is no life without labor. The fantasy of lives without need for work is just that. A fantasy.
We currently have our institutions badly wrong because of a flawed story that embraces three illusions: the wealth illusion; the illusion of economic progress; and the illusion that institutions dedicated to growing the fortunes and power of the already obscenely rich benefit us all.
We begin with the wealth illusion, the illusion that money is wealth and the ticket to our human well-being and happiness. Money is just a number. We use it as a unit of exchange to buy things of actual value, such as food, water, land, labor, and ideas. Not to mention war, politicians, and Supreme Court decisions. Not all are desirable uses, but in every instance the value resides not in the money, but in what the money buys.
The wealth illusion is reinforced by the economic progress illusion and the myth that economic growth is steadily improving the lives of all the world’s people. The products of that growth have indeed created extraordinary opportunities for as much as 20 percent of the world’s people. But it has also resulted in exclusion and hardship for far too many of the rest.
Ever more of us are experiencing lives with ever fewer meaningful relationships of mutual love and caring, resulting in growing distrust and violence. The world’s growing population of the excluded includes the homeless, the refugees desperately seeking to escape from violence and environmental collapse, prisoners (including the unjustly confined), itinerant agricultural and sweatshop workers separated by thousands of miles from home and family. It also includes massive populations of slum dwellers struggling to survive amongst filth, violence, and deadly pollution. In addition, the U.S. and Great Britain, two of the world’s “wealthiest” countries report recent declines in life expectancy.
We lack definitive statistics, but it is quite possible that a majority of the world’s people now experience lives that are less happy and meaningful than the typical life experience of our pre-modern ancestors.
This takes us to the third illusion, the Illusion of the legitimacy of the profit-maximizing, limited-liability corporation. All human institutions are human creations. Their only legitimate purpose should be to serve the public good.
But the actual defining purpose of the monopolistic, profit-maximizing, limited liability corporation is to further enrich the already richest among us while shielding them from personal liability for the harms to people and Earth resulting from their greed. This does not increase human wellbeing. Therefore, it is not a legitimate public purpose.
Every healthy community has needs for essential services provided by a variety of public and private institutions—including businesses. These include food, water, energy, health care, eldercare, childcare, education, news, housing construction, home repair, tools and appliances, management and accounting, travel, recreation, electricity, and the construction and maintenance of all the various forms of public infrastructure. Obviously, all the businesses that contribute to meeting these needs must make a modest profit to be financially viable.
Beyond that, most of us prefer to purchase from businesses that take pride in the quality of their products and services—not those seeking to extract maximum profit at the expense of people and Earth. Businesses that qualify will most likely be those owned and managed by people who recognize that their own wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the communities on which the wellbeing of all the world’s people ultimately depends. These are likely to be local businesses owned, managed, and staffed by workers who live in the community they serve and whose own wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of that community.
This will require significant restructuring of the institutions of business and a redefinition of the rights and responsibilities of ownership. Leadership for the needed institutional transformation will not come from within the established institutions of business and government that bear responsibility for the current systemic failure. It will require an intergenerational social movement of we the people who recognize the imperative for deep transformation.
We have enormous human potential for hatred and violence, as demonstrated by our experience with what we erroneously call civilization. And most living beings depend on other living beings as food sources. The drama of the related violence tends to stand out in our minds, making it easy to conclude that life is inherently violent.
But life’s deeper story, as we see in the ”For Love of Life” film, is one of extraordinary mutual caring and cooperation. Furthermore, my experience with people of many different cultures and classes makes it clear that our defining human nature is to love and care for human and non-human life.
Does our human experience have a purpose in relation to the larger story of creation? I believe we best know that purpose through scientific observation of creation’s unfolding over billions of years. We can observe a consistent pattern to its flow toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility.
I see our intended human purpose as being support for life’s contribution to the continued unfolding of creation. It is a grand and wonderful purpose to which we humans bring distinctive potential—but only if we choose the love of life over the love of money.
The recording of “For the Love of Life,” including the follow-on discussion, can be found with any of these links:
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Noteworthy… Happy Birthday, David!
Speaking of life on purpose…
David marks his 86th birthday on July 30. In the recent “For Love of Life” film, he reflected on his life experiences and some of the people, including his father, whose influence he deeply felt while working on this film project. His purpose and current work still draw on the wisdom imparted to him over the years.
In The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community” (2006), David wrote this dedication:
My paternal grandmother, Lydia Boehl Korten, who taught me that every person has a sacred purpose.
My parents, Ted Korten and Margaret Korten, who made it possible to honor the call.
My brother, Robert Korten, who assumed the family responsibilities I abandoned.
Thomas Berry, Riane Eisler, and Joanna Macy, on whose inspiration, analysis, and language I have drawn freely in framing the human choice at hand.
Timothy Iistowanohpataakiiwa, who initiated me into elderhood on my sixty-fifth birthday and helped me see with greater clarity the path of my elder years.
That elder initiation ceremony 21 years ago led to The Great Turning; Agenda for a New Economy; Change the Story, Change the Future; and the 20th Anniversary (3rd) edition of When Corporations Rule the World, as well as a long list of articles, essays, and presentations. David’s ongoing leadership and innumerable contributions to the global conversations continue to frame the global narrative and influence the movement toward the Ecological Civilization.
For more of David’s story, visit our website….
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