The Great Turning from Empire to Earth Community

By David Korten



To get right into the spirit of this book here is a vignette about terrorism:


     “In the case of the United States, terrorists hate us not for the freedom bestowed on us by democratic institutions, but rather for our frequent use of economic and military power to arbitrarily oppress and humiliate other nations and peoples. Terrorists must be brought to justice, but this can be achieved only through international cooperation among nations working together in the spirit of trust and respect.  A counterterrorism strategy based on launching unilateral preemptive wars against weak nation-states is counter productive, because it weakens the moral authority of the invader, undermines the systems of international cooperation needed to bring actual terrorists to justice, squanders military resources in no-win conflicts, swells the ranks of terrorist organizations with rage-filled recruits.

      In regard to keeping the public safe from more ordinary criminals, the United States has the highest per capita rate of incarceration of any country in the world—an indicator of significant social breakdown.  Instead of dealing with the breakdown, the imperial elites use prisons to treat its symptoms…….” (page 245)


Early in the book the author defines Empire and Earth Community:


    Note that throughout The Great Turning I use the term Earth with the capital E as a label for the hierarchical ordering of human relationships based on the principle of domination.  The mentality of Empire embraces material excess for the ruling classes, honors the dominator power of death and violence, denies the feminine principle, and suppresses realization of the potentials of human maturity.

      Similarly I use the term Earth Community as a label for the egalitarian democratic ordering of relationships based on the principle  of partnership.  The mentality of Earth Community embraces material sufficiency for everyone, honors the generative power of life and love, seeks a balance of feminine and masculine principles, and nurtures a realization of the mature potential of our human nature……………..


     The human species is entering a period of dramatic and potentially devastating change as a result of the forces of our own creation that are now largely beyond our control.  It is within our means, however, to shape a positive outcome if we choose to embrace the resulting crisis as an opportunity to lift ourselves to a new level of species maturity and potential.

     The outcome will depend in large measure on the prevailing stories that shape our understanding of the traumatic time at hand—its causes and its possibilities.  Perhaps the most difficult and yet essential aspect of this work is to change our stories.

     If we succeed, future generations may look back on this as a time of profound transition and speak of it as the time of the Great Turning.  If we fail, our time may be instead be known simply as the tragic time of the Great Unraveling.

      Histories written by the victors of Empire’s endless wars, intrigues, and deceits have greatly exaggerated Empire’s accomplishments while neglecting the costs and lost opportunities.  Current attempts by the world’s imperial elites to salvage the power and privilege of Empire are accelerating the collapse of critical social and environmental systems and threatening the survival of human civilization, if not the human species.

      We now have the means to end the five thousand years of Empire that has reproduced hierarchies of domination at all levels of human organization.  A Global cultural and spiritual awakening is building momentum toward the birthing of a new era of Earth Community based on a radically democratic partnership model  of organizing human relationships.  This awakening gives us cause for hope.” (page 20)


Here are some intriguing details:


     “Real wealth consists of those things that have actual utilitarian or artistic value: food, land, energy, knowledge, technology, forests, beauty, and much else.  The natural systems of the planet are the foundation of all real wealth, for we depend on them for our very lives.  Without these natural systems, none of the other forms of wealth, including human labor and technology, can exist.

     Money by contrast has no intrinsic utilitarian or artistic value.  It is only a number on piece of paper or an electronic trace in a computer file.  It is an accounting chit that has value only because of social convention people are willing to accept it in exchange for things of real value.  Money, however, bestows enormous power and advantage on those with the power to create and allocate it in societies in which access to most everything of real value requires money…..(page 68)

   ……This awakening commonly leads to a deep disconnect between the realities of family, work, and community life grounded in the previously unexamined values and the examined, authentic values of a maturing consciousness.  This disconnect confronts the individual with the often painful choice between conformity and authenticity……

….. The individuals undergoing this transition may at times feel like creatures from outer space in the midst of a family gathering or class reunion.  With time, however, they find others, even among their immediate family, friends and associates, who are feeling a similar sense of tension and isolation and join with them to create…a community of congruence……In the civil rights movement, these communities of congruence commonly formed within African American churches.” (page 84)


      On the other side of Rio de Janiero from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 18,000 private citizens (later known as global civil society) met and reached a consensus summarized as the Peoples Earth Declaration, a proactive  agenda for the future.  Here is the final paragraph of that document as quoted in Korten’s book.


“We, the people of the world, will mobilize the forces of transnational civil society behind a widely shared agenda that bonds our many social movements in pursuit of just, sustainable, and participatory human societies.  In so doing we are forging our own instruments and processes for redefining the nature and meaning of human progress and for transforming those institutions that no longer respond to our needs.  We welcome to our cause all people who share our commitment to peaceful and democratic change in the interest of our living planet and the human societies it sustains.” (page 86)


     This document is often referred to as a a Declaration of Interdependence of “global civil society” which grew to field 50,000 demonstrators in Seattle in 1999 successfully disrupting the Third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization.


      Here is a vignette from the book on the decline of the middle class in America.


      “Historically, rejection of the democratic ideal in America has coalesced around one or both of two fundamentalisms.  Plutocrats, heirs to the vision of Alexander Hamilton, embrace the market fundamentalism that legitimates unaccountable rule by persons of financial means.  Theocrats, heirs to Calvinist vision of John Winthrop, embrace a religious fundamentalism that legitimates unaccountable rule by those of a prescribed faith and celebrates wealth and power as a mark of God’s favor.  Although plutocrats give priority to material values and theocrats to spiritual values, their shared drive for dominator power and aversion to democracy make them allies of convenience.” (page 219)


     On page 330 begins nearly two pages of “the imperial propensity story” which is so fair minded that I am not quoting it—only in its entirety does the story thoroughly pillory itself.


      As I began reading The Great Turning I came across a passage where the author seemed to unduly demonize depleted uranium.  (The reality is that it is just another toxic heavy metal—somewhat less toxic than lead.  Its radioactivity is negligible by comparison.)  I was reminded of my reaction to reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in The New Yorker before its publication in book form.  I was offended by her demonizing DDT without even mentioning that it had rid whole tropical islands such as Jamaica of malaria.  I have come to realize the enormous positive contribution of Silent Spring to conventional wisdom about chemical contamination.  Now that indoor spraying of DDT in Africa has been resumed, I have no sense of satisfaction that my initial criticism of her has been vindicated.  As a writer I can hope that my readers can occasionally rise above some similar misallocation of emphasis in my efforts.


       I close with more quotes from this book while hoping it becomes a modern Silent Spring.


     I once heard a woman on a call-in show observe that she considered her time on Earth as nothing more than a brief layover in a cheap hotel.  What irony that a person who considers herself a believer can proudly dismiss the whole of God’s glorious Creation as so much cheap trash unworthy of her tender sensibilities……

       It is our responsibility to contribute to bringing forth human culture and institutions that support all Creation’s children in fully realizing their potentials.  Those who wait for a distant God to intervene miss the point.  We are not here to obey a God jealous of his authority, but to engage with Creation as partners in a grand adventure.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.”  (page 262), italics added.    


 John A. Frantz, MD

November 29, 2006