John and Peter in Conversation with David Korten
In partnership with the Common Good Collective ~ June 16, 2020
About every six weeks for the last six years, John and Peter have hosted conversations with community-building social innovators as their guests. Their June 16, 2020 guest was David Korten, founder and president of the Living Economies Forum and co-founder and board chair emeritus of YES! Magazine. Their dialog centered on how our common future depends on a New Economy in which the power and responsibilities of ownership of the means of living are distributed equitably among the people who depend on them.
Founder and president of the Living Economies Forum and co-founder and board chair emeritus of YES! Magazine David Korten talks with John and Peter about how our common future depends on a New Economy in which the power and responsibilities of ownership of the means of living are distributed equitably among the people who depend on them. Up to some 200 other social innovators joined them from the field.
Welcome everyone, we will get started shortly. We have 250 people registered for this session. We, the team from the Common Good Collective, are grateful that you have chosen to spend an hour of your time here. My name is Wilhelmina. I’m an assistant registrar at a small liberal college here in California, but why I’m here is because I’m a member of Common Change, and Common Change is a group that seeks to eliminate economic isolation. I’m thrilled to welcome you here to this hour-long exploration with David Korten and the social innovators of Common Good Collective.
I feel this conversation about economy is more than important, is needed more than ever. Hashtag current events. So those of us at Common Good Collective are working hard to have these conversations not be passive webinars. So, our hope is that everyone will actively connect with others in a way that sparks our collective imagination. We’re here together to create this. It may not be perfect, and it may not be what you want it to be but our hope is that together we create something that is both intimate and inspirational, so for those of you have not attended our past conversations, we combine poetry, small group conversations––you’ll get that experience soon––and reflections on the insights from our guests. So, we’re going to begin with a poem from Daniel Hughes.
Daniel: Thank you, Wilhelmina.
Forget everything you thought you knew,
who you were, what you wanted.
I am here now,
and it’s all over.
Peter: Thank you for being here. Daniel, that’s beautiful. And I agree with you. It is all over. How we fill that void is a huge question that you and I and others will give our lives to. That was beautiful. So, part of what’s over is the idea that somebody knows and other people don’t. Somebody’s in charge and other people aren’t. What’s over is the conversation of work versus life, work-life balance. What’s over is the idea that trying harder and more training is going to change the world.
Something more fundamental is in play, and one of those fundamentals is our capacity to connect with each other despite the connecting technology. That as our ease and convenience in contacting each other has grown, we’ve become more isolated.
Peter: So, we want to begin this gathering with something to help end, at least for the moment, our isolation. We want to break into small groups now. The best small groups are with strangers. The best small groups are randomly put together, whether God has a hand, I’m not sure about God’s technological skill, but I know His presence is here.
So, when you go in a small group, question… what’s over is the question of methodology, what’s present is the question of purpose. I’d like you to answer to each other, what was it that made it important for you to be in this conversation? What was it that made it important for you to be in this conversation? None of you are here by accident. So, let’s break into groups and if you don’t understand the question well it was designed for ambiguity.
Charles: Courtney, just while we’re waiting a moment, just want to acknowledge that we’ve had a few what we would call Zoom bombers dropping in for the chat. Apologies for what’s showing up there. We’re doing our very best in the background to both mute and manage what’s showing up in the chat. So hopefully we’re able to mute enough of the microphones, Courtney, for you to share some reflections with us. Welcome.
Courtney: Thank you all for having me. My name is Courtney Napir. I’m a writer, journalist, and the editor of the Common Good Collective Reader. I want to reflect on an important exchange that happened between a reporter and his subject during the current uprising. It takes place in a wealthy part of Raleigh, North Carolina, and the subject of the interview is a white man who lives in the neighborhood. The National Reserve has tanks parked in front of a luxury shopping center which can be seen in the background. The reporter asks his subject what he thinks about the current uprising. “Well, it’s 300 years in the making,” he replies, almost shyly. He explains that the legacy of slavery has never been properly reckoned with, and it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
Then the reporter asks, “What do you think it will take for the city and the country to heal from all this?” The gentleman is silent for 13 seconds. Finally, he says, as one who is compelled to answer, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, “I don’t think it can be healed. Some things are just too egregious to be fixed.”
After watching the interview, I was reminded of the parable of the rich young ruler. This man was a good man who understood how to treat people, at least from an individualized standpoint. He followed the commandments to a letter, but then when Jesus gave him a new commandment, an invitation, sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor and follow me, there was I assume a long pause. Ultimately, the rich young ruler hangs his head and is saddened. He walks away because he owned much property.
Charles, I turn to you as the host of the rest of the session today.
Charles: Courtney, thank you so much for sharing both that, the new story that struck you as well as an incredibly powerful parable. In preparing for this conversation, I really appreciated the conversation that you and Wilhelmina and I had in which we started to explore the messages in that parable, and there are so many. Wilhelmina really touched me when she said he turned away in sadness, recognizing the cost that Jesus was suggesting was required.
I just so connect to the nature of our conversation, David, that I would like to explore and take us into. I’m not going to read off a list of all of David’s books and background, I think his reputation precedes him. I think you’re here in part, all of you, because of the work David does, and what’s going to happen for the next 20 minutes or so is a conversation between David, myself, John and Peter. We invite you into exploring what’s on the fore of David’s mind right now as relates to this question of ownership in a future that works for all.
So, David, let’s begin with what’s on the fore of your mind right now and what struck you as you’ve heard some of the reflections and thoughts, including the poem, coming into this conversation?
David: You’re asking a very big question, Charles. Of course, my mind currently is really focused on the most fundamental questions relating to the human future and growing out of a recognition that because of a combination of the social breakdown from extreme inequality and the over consumption of humans in terms of our relationship with Earth, that we are actually a species on a path to self-extinction. And the warnings we have from science indicate that we have very, very little time left to essentially rediscover the deeper essence of who we are, the foundations of our existence and wellbeing and navigate the most incredible transformation that humans have ever been able to imagine. Indeed, I think we’re still not quite capable of imagining, even people like myself that have spent much of our lives working on it. But what’s happening now, with the various crises between COVID and the George Floyd incident, is opening up the way to the deepest conversations that I’ve ever been part of in my lifetime, and I think is opening the readiness to ask the deep questions that are essential to our future.
Of course, this parable about giving up property is very foundational to the whole thing because we’ve organized society around the concentration of ownership, and it has been very biased, particularly by race and also by gender, and it’s very easy to get focused on those differentiating qualities. But I think what we’re working up to ultimately is that we are all a common species that is comprised of many colors and many genders, but we have for a very long time been organizing by what I would call an imperial structure, with a few people on top and many people on the bottom. Then you get into the question, well who’s going to be on top, who’s going to be on the bottom? Our challenge at this point is to move to a totally different society in which there is no top and bottom: we just recognize we are all humans, we are all living beings dependent on the health and wellbeing of a living earth and with our ability to function as communities.
Our challenge at this point is to move to a totally different society in which there is no top and bottom: we just recognize we are all humans, we are all living beings dependent on the health and wellbeing of a living earth and with our ability to function as communities.
Fundamental to that is learning to organize those communities in a way that’s been known to many humans, particularly more indigenous people, but now must be done within a context of the fact that we’re a global species, that a few of us have been over-consuming to the extent that we’re destroying our capacity to support life. We have to come together in a wholly new way, and the ownership issue that we’re going to be concentrating on today is foundational to it. And it’s not a matter of charity, of giving up your assets to the poor, it’s a matter of fundamentally restructuring ownership so that every person in the world has an ownership stake and the means of creating their livelihood. We recognize that this ownership comes with responsibilities to maintain the health and integrity of the whole in terms of the natural and the human community.
It’s a huge conversation, yet the thing so stunning to me is that the fundamentals are so obviously true that I haven’t yet run into significant pushback when discussing. Maybe I set myself up for an exception today but I don’t really expect it.
Charles: Can you speak to those fundamentals, David?
David: I mean it’s basic…we humans are living beings, and we’re born of and nurtured by a living earth. Within that, is the truth that as we come to understand life, as science understands it, as traditional people understand it and so forth. The fundamental character of life is that it can only exist in communities that self-organize to create and maintain the conditions of their own existence. I was introduced to that in terms of our human body. A brilliant woman, a microbiologist Mei-Wan Ho, of Chinese descent. She pointed out to me, she said, “David, each of our bodies are comprised of tens of trillions of individual living cells. Some are microorganisms, some are integral cells to the body, but our very existence, the crucible of our consciousness and the instrument of our agency, the human body, is created through the cooperative organization, the synergistic organization of those tens of trillions of cells. And if they ever stop that, then we’re dead.”
Who knows where we go, but you begin to think about that, that is an analogy for the way life organizes in every respect.
It actually brings us back to the African frame of Ubuntu. I am because you are. It’s a frame written large that our very existence depends on the existence of you and the existence of the whole and depends on our ability to organize together in communities that meet all our needs. And as a human species more or less the past 5000 years, the dominant cultures, the dominant societies have been working pretty much in denial of that fundamental truth. And yet, I don’t imagine that anybody here is going to jump up and say but my body doesn’t have tens of trillions of cells, and they’re not organizing cooperatively. That’s what blew my mind at the time. It’s totally obvious, and yet I’d never heard that before. And so then we get into the implications.
So that’s why we’re here today because it has huge implications for how we think about ownership and the rights of ownership, issues of common property, all of the frames around cooperatives and so forth. And then the question, which I frankly have very little answer to, how do we get from this extreme inequality that we have now to the place where we want to get? I think it’s very analogous to our discussions about police because for many it’s a shock, get rid of the police? Wow. Then you think about it, well what is the real nature of the police as an institution? Yeah, that’s just not the institution we want. But in a sense we have to go through that same discussion with virtually all our conversations, including the institutions of finance and global corporations.
How do we get from this extreme inequality that we have now to the place where we want to get?
Charles: David, you’ve mentioned the importance of community a number of times, and we have Peter Block and John McKnight with us, who have pretty much dedicated their lives to this question of community. John, Peter, I’d like to invite you into this with reflections or questions for David.
John: David has a couple times talked about the importance of being organized in order to achieve any of the ends that he’s describing. I started as a neighborhood organizer in Chicago’s neighborhoods in 1956, and have been connected to neighborhoods since then, and everything that I’ve seen tends to indicate that our connections have decreased and decreased and decreased at the local level. So, we have, I think, a serious question of change if we don’t have any ways of being together that enable us to act powerfully.
Second thing is that you said at one point, I love this, that there is no top or bottom, and there is a way of always assuring there will be a top or bottom, and it’s called competition. And I’m wondering, David, where you see the kind of world that you’re looking to, and a culture where I would say competition is one of the sacred beliefs.
David: The focus on competition as we know it is very much born of the Western focus on individualism. It was fascinating to me when my wife and I lived for 15 years in Southeast Asia and being introduced into cultures where the focus was on community, not on the individual. Now, when you get in a community, you focus on cooperation. On the other hand, life is very complex, life does compete and it competes sometimes in very ugly ways, and it’s part of the overall process. That’s part of the complexity that we’ve got to come to deal with. But on a very simple level, one of the things I learned many years ago that you can compete to dominate your rival or even to destroy your rival, but there’s also an element of competition for excellence. And there is a place for competition in the world that we’re living in now but a totally different competition than the one we know.
Imagine a world in which every community is competing to be more successful at living within its own means, of restoring the health and vitality of its particular place in the global ecosystem. Restoring that health, competing to be the most generous and effective at sharing new ideas and useful technologies. A totally different kind of frame of competition. I hadn’t even thought of this before, but maybe we need a new term that kind of combines competition and cooperation. Or maybe what we’d call synergy, maybe it’s somewhere in there.
Imagine a world in which every community is competing to be more successful at living within its own means, of restoring the health and vitality of its particular place in the global ecosystem.
Our language barely gives us the tools to even discuss these more complex concepts. Clearly the world in which the goal…we’re taught that the goal is to compete, to destroy our rivals, to strip them of their assets and leave them helpless is so obscene as to be absolutely bizarre. How did we as a presumably intelligent species ever get sucked into this in the first place? That’s a long story in itself.
Peter: I learned a lot from Tim Gallwey in the Inner Game. He asked me, “Why do you play tennis? To win or to find out how good of a player your body can become?” That’s what you’re talking about. I also love, David, you’re an economist kind of, among other things.
David: I used to give the hex sign and consider it a huge insult and I now accept that I’m an economist.
Peter: I think it’s beautiful that you’re reframing and remembering that economics is household management, and you’re putting land on the table, which most social services don’t….the affordable housing movement doesn’t put ownership of the land on the table. They just let you live cheaply until it appreciates. That’s a powerful political stance or this is a real alternative economics. One of the prices we’ll have to pay is the idea of upward mobility. There’s nothing more insidious than the question will your children make more money than you did. And the answer is no, thank God.
The third thought I had, you say how do we get there? We’re there already in every community. In Cincinnati there are seven land cooperatives, but we don’t call them news, we just call them charming. I think the question I have is how do we decide what constitutes news, and the future always exists in the present, it’s just been marginalized, and what you’re doing is de-marginalizing our authentic future. Your voice and what you’re saying is very powerful, and you’re not afraid of fundamentals, and you’re not afraid of complexity. How are you feeling about how your voice is landing on the world?
David: Well, that’s a difficult question. I find there’s a growing interest. It’s complicated because one of the things I’ve come to learn is that this has to be a collective process of learning. What the world doesn’t need is new gurus. What the world needs is communities that are learning together. Basically that now has to happen on a global scale. We have to be a world of communities of people, who are learning together. That I think is one of the lessons of my life.
What the world doesn’t need is new gurus. What the world needs is communities that are learning together.
When you think about this in the context of Western individualism, so much of our thought about education is you put a student in a room and you essentially get them memorizing, learning information from textbooks. Where we have to go now is where humans have never been. Certainly there have been a few communities like yours that have got pieces of the truth. Indigenous communities had very important pieces of the truth, but they were also in a world in which, as most communities, they lived in isolation. We’re now in a situation in which we must consciously and actively organize as a now global species. We’ve a dominant position on an earth in which no species can be dominant. Just as we have to be in synergistic relationship with other humans, humans must also recognize humans are part of nature, not apart from nature. Our wellbeing depends on nature’s wellbeing, so we work as a whole. No human has ever been there on this scale before, so none of us knows how to get there, and anybody who’s sure they know how to get there clearly doesn’t understand the problem.
I think we’re in a moment now of questioning, of opening, that gives us the chance to begin to learn in that way and on that scale.
Peter: I think that’s great. I think anybody who knows how to get there is trying to sell me something. You mentioned that learning together. I saw somebody, a virtual teacher when the school was closed, who had the courage to ask her students, “Well, how was this virtual learning?” And they huddled together and came back and said, “It’s been really hard, but it’s not as bad as the classroom.” I think when Daniel says, “It’s over,” part of it’s over is the notion of the school as a place for learning. The way you said it was beautiful. It’s a place to babysit and memorize.
David: Here’s another piece of it I think is very relevant to this group. One of the most difficult things we have to get beyond are the systems of oppression, the systemic oppression. The people who understand those systems best are the people who have borne their consequences.
One of the most difficult things we have to get beyond are the systems of oppression. The people who understand those systems best are the people who have borne their consequences.
Peter: You said it all in that sentence.
David: The true leadership has to be from those people. It also has to be within the frame of recognition that this is a transformation of the whole for the benefit of the whole because the way we’ve structured the system, it’s very easy to interpret it as I’ve been on the bottom, it’s now my right to be up there with the rest of the people at the top. How do I remove the barriers to get to the top? That’s very different…that will continue if the same fundamental system is driving us toward mutual self-extinction. The leadership we need is the leadership for the transformation of the whole so that the system works for the whole. So again, there is no top or bottom. We’re a community.
Peter: Thank you, we’re going to take a break now, and we’re going to go back into small groups as an expression of what David is talking about. It strikes me that in this time of racial turmoil, the New York Times always chooses to interview Blacks at the top and tell us how you got there. And that’s what I mean, if we consider that interesting, then we’re just participating in the existing system as it’s the goal as an African American is to run things, and that’s such a demeaning aspiration, it’s a small aspiration.
So, we’d like to go back into groups. The question, which is the question every moment, is what’s shifted in response to listening to David and John and Charles. What’s shifting? Are we ready to break into groups there?
Charles: We’re going to have 10 minutes, Peter. Ten minutes in the small groups. We’re all set to go.
Peter: Of course the time’s not long enough. That’s the elitism inherent in our design, so go into small groups.
Charles: Welcome back, everybody. We all hope that your conversations were informative. John, you were in a breakout group. I’d like to just invite you in to reflect on what happened in your group, what struck you. We’ll hear a couple further comments from David as we move into wrapping our hour together.
John: I think that some of the participants felt that what’s been happening is really hopeful, and I think implicit it is that we are at a new place in our society’s willingness and ability to change. One person there said something that struck me especially. She said that, “I feel a part of what’s happening, but I’m surrounded by family and friends who aren’t talking about what we’re talking about.” That made me think that deepening and broadening this discussion probably is critical. We can see the enthusiasm on the streets, but what’s happening with our family and our neighbors that they can become part of that discussion. I think that’s the next step if we want to have power.
David: It’s interesting…when you say that we can have power. It’s kind of a contradiction if we’re really focused on a system that’s not organized around power in the sense that we have understood it. I’m trying to think back to the two extraordinary leaders during my earlier lifetime, which were Martin Luther King and Gandhi, both of whom were proponents of the idea that the victory ultimately comes through nonviolence, which makes a lot of sense because nonviolence is the outcome that we seek. I don’t think we can get to the outcome we seek through means that are contrary to that end. Now, King and Gandhi in a way lost, but only within a fairly narrow view of the arc of history. That process is still underway, and we’re maybe at the most defining moment in that process. I suspect the breakthrough is going to come the way the peaceful protests are organized and with their intent. In a way it is taking power, but it is essentially inviting everybody to join in that process, so there is a shared power, it is a community power.
John: Exactly what I meant. It is the power to be a community rather than a bunch of individuals.
Charles: I’m going to hit our time button there, and it’s also a beautiful point given that we want to finish at the top of the hour. I noticed that Meech and Chanterelle from Hella Tea in Oakland are in this conversation with us, and John, to your point about the importance of creating a local conversation, a local discussion, I thought it might be nice to…Chanterelle and Meech if you’d be prepared to just share a brief couple comments about what you’re doing locally around the conversation around what we’ve been talking about here?
Meech: Oakland itself is losing its identity, and my wife Chanterelle just thought that through a business model, that how do we make sure that people maintain a connection in a sense of a place that’s important, not only to us, but important to others that helped build this culture, who helped build this sense of community in Oakland. So through her company we just thought about how would it look for residents of Oakland to take pride in the place that they’re from, and then begin to think of ways to encourage other entrepreneurs, other people, to instead of focusing on moving somewhere else, let’s build some abundant community, some common good here in our own city.
I believe that not only through her vision, but through her passion for tea, we could find ways to create those conversations, to invite people in to opportunities to invest, opportunities to begin to look in their own cities, look in their neighborhoods. There may be other entrepreneurs who just simply need resources, and it’s not always just financial resources. Sometimes it’s the resources of information, of knowledge and to be able to invest in other people, is something that I believe is what that abundant community looks like. It’s finding others, helping them to discover that they have agency, that they have ideas, that they have opportunities to build.
I believe even in your cities, there are people who just simply need to be connected to something else, something that gives them hope, something that gives them possibility. They’re in the wilderness, we’re in there together, we’re trying to get out, and we only get out of there together. We get out of that wilderness of poverty, we get out of that wilderness of hopelessness by us working together. That’s what we envision. Instead of complaining about the problems in our city, my wife just said, hey let’s come up with a way, even a business model, that looks at hiring young people, that looks at being able to say, instead of making excuses, let’s create something that’s making change.
Chanterelle: We’re different from your traditional tea company because we reintroduce an international product to the hip hop culture and its generation. We name teas after people who make the Bay area unique. For example, I have here Chamo-LA Harris, which is a chamomile named after Senator Kamala Harris, and also I have Huey Tea Newton named after Huey P. Newton. This is a peppermint tea. All of our teas pay homage to the Bay area and its uniqueness. That’s why we’re different from any other tea company.
Charles: Chanterelle, Meech thank you so much. Thank you. We’re going to close with a poem from Daniel, but before we do, David, just final reflection or word before we close with a poem?
David: I think that was a beautiful story of community and that process of building opportunity from within is exactly where we need to go.
Charles: David, thank you for being here. John and Peter, thank you. Daniel, over to you.
Daniel: Thank you, Charles. I must say, this is an evolutionary moment for me, I’m not a poet. The COVID times have just created something, and things are bubbling up. These poems have come out of my lived experiences, and this is what I’m experiencing right now, and so I share with you. The next one I’m going to read is entitled I Am Us, and you all help me to give it a title. That term was presented to me by a friend who’s a colleague and a pastor here. She’s from the Congo, and she said that is a term that comes out of her village, “I am us.” So here it is.
I am US
E pluribus unum; out of many, comes one
One love, 1 hate, 1 cry, 1 hope, 1 fear, 1 faith,
Then my final one is:
Everybody wants freedom.
Freedom ain’t free. Everybody wants freedom,
but freedom ain’t free.
So who’s going to pay?
I’ll pick up the check this time.
Charles: Thanks Daniel. Thank you everyone. That’s our hour.
- Wellbeing versus GDP (Korten)
- A New Economy: The System (Korten)
- Forget (Hughes)
- I am US (Hughes)
- I’ll Pick Up the Check (Hughes)
Home page image: Pilottage