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Navigating the Great Turning

General Assembly 2007 Event 3057

"A small group of people can change the world," author David Korten said to a packed room of several hundred Unitarian Universalists Friday afternoon. "This is not a few people."

Korten's talk, Navigating the Great Turning, was one of several at the 2007 General Assembly based around the theme of the Great Turning, including Thursday's Choices that Matter—We the People—Choosing Democracy, by Air America radio host Thom Hartman, Spiritual Practices for the Great Turning on Sunday by Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy, Saturday's Change the Story, Change the Future by Rev. Kurt Kulwald and William Scarvie, and the panel discussion UUs Articulating and Accelerating the Great Turning by the UUs for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC) which followed Korten's presentation Friday.

"The Great Turning" is a term popularized by several authors, including Korten himself in his 2005 book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, as a way to refer to an envisioned global turning away from relationships based on domination to relationships based on partnership. Korten's talk largely followed the outline of his book.

"The Day of Reckoning has arrived," Korten proclaimed, citing global warming, the end of cheap oil, exhaustion of the Earth's fresh water, global financial instability, and social disintegration as signs that "we have come to the end of a deeply destructive era." He said that we face a choice between two futures: a suicidal competition for the Earth's waning resources or a cooperative sharing of them. The competitive future he views as a continuation of the five-thousand-year reign of Empire, and the cooperative one he named Earth Community. The key to making this change must begin with culture, and radiate from there to politics and economics. "Humans live by stories," he said. "To change the human course, change the stories."

Prior to The Great Turning, Korten was best known for his 1995 book When Corporations Rule the World. But in the wake of 9/11 and the U. S. government's response to it, he saw that his previous economic/political analysis was inadequate and he searched for the deeper cultural roots of the domination patterns that he saw playing out. He describes The Great Turning "my report on this exploration."

Introduced by the Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community's Marcia Meyers as "the Great Assimilator," Korten presented his vision as the work of many people. He credited Joanna Macy with popularizing the term "the Great Turning" and traced the term "Earth Community" to the Earth Charter. ("Empire," he joked, was inspired by George W. Bush.) He credited Riane Eisler for her insights into the five-thousand-year history of Empire and the partnership-based societies that she believes preceded it, and Thomas Berry for recognizing the importance of stories in maintaining Empire's support.

But Korten has not abandoned his previous views on corporations, only supplemented them. Friday he described a corporation as "a pool of money with an artificial legal personality, required by law to behave as a sociopath." Global corporations have pushed to create an international legal system in which "money has more legal protections than people or nature."

Korten's predicted "day of reckoning" will end the cheap transportation of goods, turning much of the current economic infrastructure into "stranded assets." In its place, Korten foresees a need for local supply chains and local sources of food and energy. Resources will need to be reallocated from weaponry to health care and the environment, from private autos to public transportation, and from suburban sprawl to compact communities. Each of these changes, Korten says, will increase the real quality of life, which depends more on the quality of our relationships than on flawed measures of economic well-being like the GDP. "This is not about sacrifice," he said.

Using a metaphor of how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly (a disturbing and traumatic period for the caterpillar's "worm nature") Korten called on his audience to become the "organizer cells" that will rebuild global society into a beautiful new form that "lives lightly on the Earth."

The beginning of this transformation is to change the fundamental stories that we tell about ourselves and our society. He picked out three important stories, which he called the Prosperity Story, the Security Story, and the Meaning Story. Today, he said, our culture's "story-telling function has been taken over by propagandists and advertisers" whose stories "cut us off from the Earth" and tell us that in order to fill the resulting gap we need to "submit to elite rule." To create real change, we need to replace these Empire stories with Earth Community stories.

"The imperial prosperity story says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. Economic growth requires wealthy people who are able to invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, for the good of society, we must free wealthy people from the taxes and regulations that limit their ability to accumulate substantial fortunes." Korten charged that in reality we need "reallocation, not growth. Measures of economic growth actually measure the rate at which the resources of the poor are expropriated by the rich and converted to garbage. The health of our children, families, and communities are the true measures of wealth."

"The imperial security story tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists, and foreign enemies who must be controlled or removed by strong police and military forces." Korten proposes instead an Earth Community security story in which "crime and war indicate failed relationships" and "strong communities are the foundation of security."

During most of Korten's talk the audience was vocal and enthusiastic, but during his discussion of meaning stories the room went silent. He presented two imperial meaning stories, each based on a different creation story: one religious and the other secular. In the religious story the creation of the world by God defines a hierarchical order that justifies dominance relationship and promises rewards to the submissive in the next life. In the secular story "matter is the only reality" and life evolves through a competitive struggle in which the fittest survive and the weak perish. Each story "cuts us off from the Earth."

Instead he proposes an Earth Community story which celebrates an integral spiritual intelligence from which all being manifests" and in which "life is a cooperative enterprise" and humans are "co-creators of a conscious self-organizing cosmos."

Korten quoted polling data to make the case that "We are not a fringe minority. We are the leading edge of a new national super-majority." Ninety percent of Americans, he reported, believe that "big companies have too much power." With many similar statistics he argued that large majorities support people over profits, spiritual values over financial values, and international cooperation over international domination.

He closed with a call for action and commitment. "The spiritual force of creation is calling us to take the step to a greater spiritual maturity. Leadership must come from people like us. Together we'll turn this world around."

Reported by Doug Muder; edited by Pat Emery.