By David Korten

NW Natural Products Association
Seattle Convention Center. Saturday October 19, 2013

Perhaps the greatest threat to our common future is a combination of extreme individualism and extreme arrogance, as we deal with proposals to expand – through the genetic engineering of species and the geo-engineering of Earth’s climate – our domination of forces of nature of which we have only the most superficial understanding. The turning we humans must navigate to a viable future depends on a profound awakening to our nature as spiritual beings and our responsibility for the consequences of our choices and our relationships with one another and a living Earth. Join Dr. Korten for an enlightening and engaging presentation that affects each and all of us as inhabitants of our planet Earth.

Delighted to be here with you this morning. As you know if you have read the description for this session, we will discuss some serious topics. I’m going to put our current human crisis in a very big picture context and then explore practical implications for you and the National Products Association. I hope the conversation will inspire you to great deeds.

As I talked with Jessica [Perkins Miller] about this presentation and the NPA, I found myself asking, “I wonder whether these folks recognize the significance for the human future of what they are up to?” My purpose this morning is to assure that you do.

NPA Northwest describes itself as a non-profit professional trade association dedicated to the natural/organic foods and products industry that supports health and wellness. That sounds harmless enough.

Then I got to your vision statement, which says you aspire to realize a responsible, informed, thriving marketplace for natural products that support the wellbeing of people and planet. This is beginning to sound subversive.

Didn’t you folks get the memo from Milton Friedman that says it is the moral responsibility of business to maximize profit?

Let’s do a little check. Question. How many of you are in the natural products business because you believe it is a great opportunity to turn a quick buck and get fabulously rich? [No hands go up] How many of you are in this business because of a personal commitment to make a positive contribution to the health and well-being of people and planet? [All hands go up]

That is the answer I hoped for and the reason I’m delighted to be here with you this morning. We have the same objective. Replace a failed system.

Failed Institutions of the Global Economy

These four crises are interlinked, self-imposed, potentially terminal, and a direct consequence of economic institutions that value money more than life and allocate power to those least likely to use it in service to the common good.

You have surely noticed that as a species, we humans aren’t doing so well. Here is a quick overview of state of our 21st century world.

1.      We face a global economic crisis created by an unstable financial system that favors speculation over real investment, drives continuing cycles of boom and bust, mires people and governments in debts they cannot pay, and holds national governments hostage to the interests of global financiers.

2.      We face a global social crisis of extreme and growing inequality. The enormous disparities feed violence by undermining institutional legitimacy, personal security, human health, and the social fabric of families and communities.

3.      We face a global environmental crisis of climate chaos, loss of fertile soil, shortages of clean freshwater, disappearing forests, and collapsing fisheries. This crisis is reducing Earth’s capacity to support life and creating large-scale human displacement and hardship that further fuel social breakdown.

4.      We face a governance crisis in the seeming incapacity of any of our major institutions to come to terms with and address the three afore mentioned economic, social, and environmental crises.

These four crises are interlinked, self-imposed, potentially terminal, and a direct consequence of economic institutions that value money more than life and allocate power to those least likely to use it in service to the common good. I refer specifically to global corporations that march to the tune of global financial markets that value only money. These include the corporations of Big Chem, Big Pharma, Big Ag, and Big Retail that seek to cripple or eliminate the natural products industry or to control and corrupt it.

Given their internal structure, the dominant institutions of the Old Economy are incapable of self-correction toward life-serving outcomes.

It should be self-evident that when control of cultural reproduction and access to the essential means of living reside with global corporations answerable only to global financial markets, the economy will organize to maximize private, short-term financial gain to those in positions of power. One result is an economy that severely limits our choices as individuals as to how we achieve our means of living—irrespective of our personal preferences. Extreme wealth concentration, exclusion, and environmental devastation are nearly inevitable consequences.

Old paradigm culture and institutions are now so deeply corrupted that as a global society, we have come to actively celebrate the destruction of life to make money for the few as progress.

Human cultures and institutions are human creations. What humans create, humans can change. The needed change will not, however, come easily.

Given their internal structure, the dominant institutions of the Old Economy are incapable of self-correction toward life-serving outcomes. Those who work within the system, even at the highest levels of power, are subject to enormous pressure to conform and are handsomely rewarded for compliance. Those who question the purpose and legitimacy of the system from within are quickly and routinely isolated and expelled.

Sacred Money and Markets

[W]e have come to live by stories that maintain the illusion we humans have the right and the means to dominate and live apart from nature.

Why, as a society, do we yield power to institutions that value money more than life? And why do we find it so difficult to see the truth?

Let me suggest that it is because of a sacred story, by which I mean a story that defines what we hold to be most important and worthy of our respect. I call our current story the Sacred Money and Markets story. It frames the underlying narrative of virtually every discussion of the economy. By the reckoning of this narrative:

Time is money. Money is wealth. Those who make money are society’s wealth creators. Poverty is a sign of personal failure. Money and consumption are the path to human happiness. Individualistic greed and competition are human virtues that the magical invisible hand of the free market directs to ends that create opportunity and prosperity for all. Those who would place restrictions on market freedom are the enemies of progress and prosperity. Those who would deprive society’s wealth creators of the fruits of their labor engage in envy—a mortal sin. Maximizing financial gain is a moral and legal duty of business—indeed of each individual. Earth is a rock in space, useful as a convenient source of cheap resources and a place to dump our wastes.

As a global society with a corporate dominated global economy, we have come to live by stories that maintain the illusion that we humans have the right and the means to dominate and live apart from nature. These stories further give credence to flawed economic theories that:

1.      Value life only as a means to make money,

2.      Actively celebrate the behavior and ethics of the psychopath as a cultural ideal, and

3.      Assure us we are getting richer even as we destroy the real wealth of cooperative, caring human communities and Earth’s natural living systems.

These stories are constantly repeated by corporate-dominated media, academics, and politicians, and are seldom subject to public challenge. Consequently, most people take them for granted, even though they deny our evident capacity for caring and sharing and contradict both logic and experience. In our cultural trance, we accept an economic system that drives instability, spiraling inequality, environmental devastation, and political corruption.

Sacred Life and Living Earth Community

Reflect for a moment on this idea. What would an economy look like if it were based on these four self-evident truths

1.      Time is life.

2.      Earth is a living being and the mother of life.

3.      It is our human nature to cooperate and share as members of caring communities.

4.      Money is just a number. [Repeat – slowly]

…the only true wealth is living wealth.

A truly prosperous human future begins with a new story that embodies these truths. I call it the Sacred Life and Living Earth Community story.

Time is life. Life is the most precious of the many forms of real wealth. As living beings, we survive and prosper only as contributing members of a living Earth Community evolving toward ever-greater beauty, complexity, self-awareness, and possibility. Making time for life—to experience life and to serve life—is the path to happiness and well-being. Equality, community, and connection to nature are essential foundations of human health and happiness. It is our human nature to care and to share. Earth is our sacred mother. As she loves and nurtures us, we must love and care for her. The institutions of business, government, and civil society exist for only one purpose—to serve as vehicles through which we cultivate and express our true nature and create our means of living in responsible co-productive partnership with other members of the Earth Community to which we all belong. Life and Earth Community are sacred. Money is just a number.

Life exists and evolves only in …community. 

In our embrace of a false story, we forget as a society that the only true wealth is living wealth, pay more attention to financial deficits than social and environmental deficits, and assume that the economy and business exist to make money rather than to serve life. The real wealth cost is huge and payment is coming due.

Once we acknowledge that we belong to a complex, evolving, self-organizing Earth Community within a complex evolving, self-organizing cosmos, it becomes self-evident that to survive and thrive we best look to nature as our partner and teacher. This foundational insight then provides a guiding beacon for our transition to a life-serving economy supported by institutions that align, integrate, and collaborate with the structure and dynamics of the biosphere. If we succeed, it will be a natural products economy.

In this New Economy, the values and logic of life will prevail over the values and logic of finance. The locus of decision-making will be local rather than global. The rights of nature, community, and living people will prevail over the rights of corporations.

Earth’s Biosphere as Organizing Model

To get ourselves out of our current mess, we need to look to Earth’s biosphere as our model and learn to organize as life has learned to organize over billions of years. I’ll turn to the practical implications in a few minutes. But first I want to put it all in the context of a yet bigger picture—including the most grand of all epic stories.

Let’s start with some basic truths. Life exists and evolves only in active relationship to a diverse and active community of life in which countless interconnected organisms continuously interact to optimize the capture, organization, and sharing of Earth’s energy, water, and nutrients. Acting in community, they continuously regenerate Earth’s soils, rivers, aquifers, fisheries, forests, and grasslands.

The most dynamic and vibrantly healthy biosystems are those with the greatest variety of diverse species that function as cooperative self-organizing communities in which no species has a dominant presence to the exclusion of others.

Any species that establishes a dominant position for itself to the exclusion of others threatens the health and well-being of the community and thereby ultimately its own health and well-being. Usually such threats are posed by an invasive species alien to and thereby unadapted to an unfamiliar bio-community into which it has been introduced.

Sometimes, however, an otherwise beneficial species will turn rogue even within a biosystem to which it has previously adapted. We humans are a prime example.

Throughout human history, there have been examples of imperial civilizations that destroyed themselves by the exercise of excessive dominance and in so doing have destroyed the natural systems within their territorial domain and collapsed. It has only been within the past fifty to a hundred years, however, that growth in human numbers, per capita material consumption, reliance on sequestered carbons for energy, and industrialization of agriculture have made the human species a threat to the viability of Earth’s entire biosphere.

As we diminish Earth’s generative capacity, the competition in which the rich hold most all the cards for control of what remains of Earth’s natural wealth becomes more intense.

The World Wildlife Federation estimates that it now takes Earth 1.5 years to regenerate fully the renewable resources that we humans use each year. The result is an unsustainable downward spiral in the capacity of Earth’s generative systems to support human life. As we diminish Earth’s generative capacity, the competition in which the rich hold most all the cards for control of what remains of Earth’s natural wealth becomes more intense. Inequality spirals as ever more people descend into a desperate struggle for survival, the rich dominate the political system to their own advantage with ever-greater ease, and we all feel increasingly insecure.

In the Old Economy, money comes first because that works well for those who control the creation and allocation of money. In the New Economy, life comes first—specifically Earth’s community of life. It is simple logic. Without the generative systems of a healthy living Earth community, humans don’t exist. Without humans, money doesn’t exist.

Now let’s expand the context further by turning to the greatest of all epic stories—the story of creation.

The Grandest of All Epic Stories

By the current reckoning of science, our human story began 13.8 billion years ago when a new universe suddenly flared into being in a massive burst of energy that dispersed tiny energy particles across the vastness of space. With the passing of time, these particles organized into atoms that swirled into great clouds that coalesced into hundreds of billions of galaxies each comprised of hundreds of billions of stars, star systems, and planets.

The cataclysmic energies unleashed by the births and deaths of trillions of suns, converted simple atoms into more complex atoms that in turn joined to form yet more complex molecules—each step transcending the step before in definition and creative potential.

It took 10 billion years to prepare the way for the seed of life to gain a foothold on a solitary planet we now call Earth. To this day science knows not from whence the seed of life came. Nor do we know whether life has gained and maintains a foothold on any other body in the vastness of the universe.

Microscopic in size, the earliest ancestors of Earth life were single-celled bacteria so simple they lacked even a cell nucleus. They had a capacity, however, to learn and evolve. The planet’s first chemists, they learned to build new kinds of proteins, including new enzymes. They invented new molecules and engaged in a cooperative exchange of genetic material through their cell walls to share their learning with one another.

As the fruits of life’s learning multiplied, individual cells evolved to become more complex and diverse. New bacteriological strains emerged as individual cells cultivated specialized skills and lifestyles to exploit new ecological niches. They discovered the arts of fermentation, photosynthesis, and respiration, with individual strains specializing in one or another niche as they learned to share food and resources as a community in ways that served to create and maintain the diversity essential to the community’s capacity for adaptation and resilience.

Each new discovery allowed the whole to gain greater advantage from the available resource base and prepared the way for the emergence of yet more complex organisms of still greater potential.

Eventually some among these early living cells merged to create super-cells that combined the abilities of individual strains. Over a period of roughly a billion years, these complex multi-ability yet still single cell organisms rearranged the materials of Earth’s crust and transformed and stabilized the chemical composition of the entire planet’s atmosphere to open the way for yet more extraordinary organisms to emerge. Adapting to and working with the forces of Earth’s geology, they filtered excess carbon and a vast variety of toxins from Earth’s air, waters, and soils and sequestered them deep underground.

[T]hese organisms turned a once toxic rock in space into a vibrant living tapestry of life of astonishing variety, beauty, and ever-growing capacity for intelligent choice.

This critical step prepared the way for the emergence, roughly 900 million years later, of the first multi-celled plant and animal life in the form of seaweed, jellyfish, and flatworms. These species in turn prepared the way for all the varieties of plant and animal life that followed. As this ever more complex community of life grew in scale, diversity, and capacity, it converted ever more of the dead matter of Earth’s surface into living, intelligent, choice making organisms—each experimenting, interrelating, creating, and contributing to the evolving web of life.

Over billions of years, these organisms turned a once toxic rock in space into a vibrant living tapestry of life of astonishing variety, beauty, and ever-growing capacity for intelligent choice.

This prepared the way for creation’s bold experiment with the creative potential of a species with a capacity to reflect on its own consciousness, experience with awe the beauty and mystery of creation, discern and share organized bodies of knowledge of the history and inner workings of creation, compose great symphonies, build grand cathedrals, and anticipate and chose its future with conscious collective intent.

The earliest human like species, the hominids, appeared only four million years ago. They were followed 1.4 million years later by Homo habilis, larger-brained species that developed skills in hunting and in using stone tools. Modern humans, homo sapiens, emerged 2.4 million years later. That was a mere 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, a blink of the cosmic eye.

War against Earth Mother

The early homo sapiens recognized their dependence on nature and honored Earth as sacred mother. Many contemporary indigenous peoples still do.

Consumed by hubris, alienated from nature, and inclined to view Earth as a machine rather than an organism, we who consider ourselves to be more modern humans are engaged in an all-out war against our Earth Mother. That war began some 5,000 years ago, but didn’t show serious signs of threatening the biosphere until only some hundred years ago.

Prior to the mid-1700s, windmills and watermills were the primary sources of energy for the modest industries of the time, mainly milling flour, sawing wood, and pumping water. Wood and peat were the primary sources of domestic heating. Natural soil fertility and pest control were the basis of agriculture.

As the industrial revolution gained momentum, however, we turned to fossil fuels, first coal, then petroleum, and now natural gas as our predominant energy sources for agriculture, industry, heating, lighting, and transportation.

After World War II, In the name of economic development, we began a serious push to accelerate economic growth on a global scale by industrializing the world. There was an explosion in human populations and material aspirations.

In an effort to feed a growing population and free up labor for factory work, we converted to industrial agriculture, which displaced massive numbers of people who previously created their own livelihoods from the land in partnership with nature. We replaced the displaced people with fossil fuel dependent machines and massive applications of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides that destroy species diversity and natural soil fertility, disrupt natural pest control, kill off beneficial insects like bees, and promote the evolution of harmful super weeds, insects, and bacteria. Short-term yield increases came at the expenses of natural processes essential to long-term productivity.

The greater the damage to nature the greater our dependence on the ever more rapid extraction and release of sequestered carbons and toxins to compensate for the loss of natural productivity as our numbers continue to grow and our culinary preferences move up the food chain. The consequences for Earth’s species diversity and climate stability are increasingly devastating.

We are living as if our goal is to reverse the evolutionary processes of nearly 4 billion years and restore Earth to its original condition as a dead rock.

In 1950, the global human population was 2.5 billion people. Annual carbon emissions were 1.6 billion metric tons. Earth’s population now stands at 7 billion people. Our annual carbon emissions total 9 billion metric tons per year.

In the 1980s, global corporations began advancing trade agreements that facilitated consolidation of their global monopoly control of the production of food and other essentials of daily living. As this consolidations plays out, people and communities become increasingly isolated from the lands and water that previously were their source of livelihood. Relationships that were once direct and based on mutual caring are now mediated by money and supply chains controlled and managed by corporations to maximize the extraction of profit.

Our current life-destructive, climate-disruptive, but financially profitable expansion of tar sands oil extraction, deep-sea oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and mountaintop removal for coal represents a desperate terminal effort to sustain the unsustainable by exploiting those carbons that a living Earth rendered least accessible accessible for a very good reason. Their release could permanently destabilize Earth’s climate and set back life’s evolutionary processes by a billion years or more.

We now risk a further acceleration of the disruption of Earth’s natural processes at the hands of misguided technophiles whose solutions to our plight center on manipulating the genetic structures of life and geo-engineering Earth’s atmosphere and climate by dumping yet more toxic substances into Earth’s oceans and upper atmosphere.

The most absurd proposal of all is that we make a new start on Mars, which is a dead rock.

One current proposal calls for replacing what remains of Earth’s forests with artificial trees designed to capture carbon from the air and sequester it underground. Another calls for pollinating crops on factory farms with mechanical bee drones as a substitute for the living bees that chemical pesticides are killing off at an alarming rate. Most such “solutions” further disrupt natural systems of which we have minimal understanding.

With proper care and respect, Earth can provide a high quality of life for all people in perpetuity. Yet we devastate productive lands and waters for a quick profit, a few temporary jobs, or a one-time resource fix. We are living as if our goal is to reverse the evolutionary processes of nearly 4 billion years and restore Earth to its original condition as a dead rock.

The most absurd proposal of all is that we make a new start on Mars, which is a dead rock.

Design for a New Living Earth Economy

Just as nature organizes by resource self-reliant bioregions, so too will a life-serving living Earth economy. The people of each bioregion will strive to live within the generative capacity of their bioregion’s self-organizing generative systems. They will allocate their resources with awareness that their well-being depends on the continuing health and natural generative vitality of the living system in their care. They will recognize that all beings have a right to contribute to and benefit from the bounty of the whole that they create and maintain together.

They will reconnect people with the sources of their food, energy, and other essentials of daily life, and they will restore the direct human relationships essential to human health and happiness.

Self-reliant bioregions will exchange their respective surpluses in fair and balanced trade and they will freely share information, culture, knowledge, and beneficial technology—the kind of trade that Adam Smith and David Ricardo actually had in mind. As each bioregional community comes into balance with its own living generative systems, the human species will come into overall system balance with the generative capacity of Earth’s biosphere.

An economy is more than a collection of individual enterprises.

It is a bold vision. Its actualization requires a profound transformation of cultural values, institutional power, and our ways of living. We must shift the economic system’s defining value from money to life, its locus of decision-making power from global corporations and financial markets to local people and communities, and its defining purpose from growing profits by fueling profligate consumption to supporting healthy, joyful living. This is not your standard Chamber of Commerce agenda. It embodies four foundational principles:

Ownership is power and the self-defined interests of those who own the enterprise will determine its purpose.

  1. First, business exists to serve the community. A healthy economy is comprised of locally rooted and accountable enterprises that are in the business of contributing to the creation of living community wealth and that treat profit as a means and a reward—not a defining purpose.
  2. Second, ownership matters. Ownership is power and the self-defined interests of those who own the enterprise will determine its purpose. Local owners who have a direct engagement in the enterprise as employees, customers, suppliers, and members of the community it serves naturally seek a living return from its operation, which includes the benefits of living in a vibrant caring community with a healthy natural environment.
  3. Third, the individual living enterprise is most likely to prosper and contribute to community wealth building when it functions as part of a local living economy comprised of like-minded community serving enterprises.
  4. Fourth, economic transformation is best advanced through a process of emergence and displacement—a concept from forest ecology. We build the new living economy from the bottom up through citizen action to give people new choices as to where they shop, work, and invest that better align with their true values, aspirations, and well-being. In so doing, we unleash the creative life energy of the community and accelerate the transition from old to new values and old to new institutions and relationships.

Strategy for Change

Advancing this transition from the failed, money serving Old economy to a life-serving New Economy involves a change strategy with three primary elements:

  1. Change the defining stories of the mainstream culture. This is foundational to our mission at YES! Magazine. We have observed that every transformational social movement begins with an idea that spreads through a combination of conversation and action to challenge an outdated and destructive story and replace it with a new story of unrealized possibility. 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. Economic transformation begins with changing the prevailing stories about the nature of wealth, the purpose of the economy, and the possibilities of our human nature.
  2. Create from the bottom up a new economic reality of bioregional living economies. Communities that sustain themselves within the means of their regional ecosystems have no need for war to expropriate the resources of their neighbors and have significant incentive to maintain the health and vitality of their natural systems. The work includes reorienting land-use patterns and transportation systems to reduce auto dependence by concentrating population in walkable, energy-efficient, multi-strata communities; retrofitting buildings for energy and water efficiency; and rebuilding local productive capacities based on closed-loop production and consumption systems that reduce long-distance shipping, eliminate waste, increase energy efficiency and build local self-reliance in the production life’s essentials. Advancing the transition to natural products is an essential part of this process.
  3. Change the rules: As you have probably noticed, current laws and public policies at local, national, and global levels consistently favor Wall Street corporations over community rooted Main Street businesses—the big players over the small players—unnatural products over natural products. The NPA campaign in support of GMO labeling is a key example of an important leading edge initiative in favor of natural products. Monsanto and its ilk are fighting this with every means available, because they know that if people know which products are natural and which are not, they will favor the natural product.

Expanding and Deepening the Role of the National Products Association

The big picture I’ve just outlined provides a framework for expanding and deepening the work of the NPA. Your focus on healthy natural foods, supplements, and personal and household care products clearly positions you as important contributors to the transition to an economy that deals only in natural products.

An economy is more than a collection of individual enterprises. It is a system of enterprises that interconnect in countless ways to provide a continuing flow of goods and services essential to daily life. Through the National Products Alliance, you actively connect suppliers, retailers, and consumers engaged in providing healthy natural foods, supplements, and personal and household care products. You favor human scale, locally owned enterprises devoted to the health and wellbeing of their customers. You are active in policy advocacy and the promotion of accurate and informative product labeling.

This is a strong foundation on which to build a growing NPA contribution to economic transformation.

I urge you to become increasingly aggressive in communicating the essential place of natural products at the leading edge of the transition to a New Economy. Look deeply at the supply chain issues involved in the production, processing, and marketing of natural foods, supplements, and personal and household care products.

Locally grown natural foods are currently the leading edge of the New Economy movement.

Natural foods are a logical initial focus. Locally grown natural foods are currently the leading edge of the New Economy movement. Local food is reconnecting us to the land, raising our consciousness of the connection between healthy food and healthy bodies, and a natural focus for rebuilding community. The public support for GMO labeling is indicative of an increasing desire to know what is in our food. Large numbers of young people are taking up farming. Local farmers markets are flourishing. The leading restaurants proudly feature local organic natural foods.

Natural foods markets and restaurants need convenient and reliable sources of supply of fresh, properly grown and prepared natural foods. Local organic farmers need suppliers of the natural products required to grow natural foods. There is a need for natural-food hubs and processing facilities to eliminate the need for natural foods producers and retailers to risk exploitation at the hands of large corporate suppliers and marketers. With rare exception, the big corporate retailers, processors, and wholesalers are not your friend. They march to the tune of Wall Street money managers.

There are many opportunities here for new businesses, including food coops and producer owned branding/marketing/processing cooperatives. Aspiring farmers need access to land and credit and farmer friendly regulations. Related processing, distribution and marketing businesses also need credit and a supportive regulatory environment.

There is a significant role here for the Natural Products Association as facilitator, connector, certifier, and lobbyist.

You might look at each of your other market segments—supplements and personal and household care products—from this same systems perspective. You might expand into providing natural products support for natural gardens and natural homes. The later might include locally sourced natural paints, floor and wall coverings, and furnishings—even natural building materials. There might be an opportunity here for alliances with groups like the Seattle based Cascadia Green Building Council, which is taking Green Building standards to a new level.

* * * * * *

We humans are engaged in a monumental work of reinventing our societies and ourselves. I believe it is the most exciting intellectual challenge and creative opportunity in the whole of the human experience. You are among the company of those at the leading edge.

Thank you for your commitment and contribution. The future of humanity lies in the balance. I find hope in the fact that we stand beside millions of people the world over who are rising to this great challenge. Now is the hour. We have the power. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. Thank you.


David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and a founding board member emeritus of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). His books include Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World.