David Korten began his professional life as a professor at the Harvard Business School on a mission to lift struggling people in Third World nations out of poverty by sharing the secrets of U.S. business success. Yet, after a couple of decades in which he applied his organizational development strategies in places as far-flung as Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and the Philippines, Korten underwent a change of heart. In 1995, he wrote the bestseller When Corporations Rule the World, followed by a series of books that helped birth the movement known as the New Economy, a call to replace transnational corporate domination with local economies, control, ownership, and self-reliance.
This month, Korten, who is also the co-founder and board chair of YES!, publishes a new book challenging readers to rethink their relationship with Earth—indeed, with all creation, from the smallest quantum particle to the whole of the universe. The world needs “a new story,” he says. “If most species, including Homo sapiens, are to survive, we must recognize Earth as a living being.” Korten talked about his ongoing metamorphosis with YES! Executive Editor Dean Paton.
Dean Paton: Tell me how somebody who was an organizational management specialist, and then a new-economy thought leader, made this leap into what is as much a spiritual proposition as it is a political one—that Earth is a living organism, that we all are essentially a part of this one big life form.
It comes back to this: Are we a part of nature? Or apart from nature?
David Korten: It’s not that hard, actually—once you get into the living-Earth frame—to see that Earth is essentially this organization of living organisms creating and maintaining the conditions essential to life. If you’re an organizational expert, or theorist, that raises a really fascinating question: How do these millions of organisms work in concert to maintain life?
Paton: As if everything has an intelligence and everything has a purpose? How is that relevant to your new book, Change the Story, Change the Future?
Korten: The new book sets up the juxtaposition between the old “Sacred Money and Markets” story and an emerging “Sacred Life and Living Earth” story. They’re two totally different frames that lead to two totally different ways of thinking about organizing society. You either see life as a means to make money, or you see money as simply a number useful for keeping accounts in service to life, but of no value in itself. Buying into the “Sacred Money and Markets” story that money is wealth and the key to happiness locks us into indentured servitude to corporate rule.
Paton: You’re saying it’s the traditional development model, or transnational capitalism, that damages Earth as a living community, including not just humans but all life forms. Yet we all depend on money, on the market economy. Do you really think we can just stop that dependence?
Korten: We will still use money and markets, but strip away Wall Street’s control of money’s creation and allocation. There was a time in the United States when most of our financial institutions were local. Which essentially meant that local communities were able to create their own credit, or their own money, in response to their own needs. We still depended on banks, but it was a much more democratic process.
Paton: Like George Bailey’s building and loan in It’s a Wonderful Life.
We humans live by stories.
Korten: Exactly. If more of our money circulated in our communities rather than the Wall Street casino, it would facilitate people organizing locally to meet more of their economic needs with local resources. Control of money is the ultimate mechanism of social control in a society in which most every person depends on money for the basic means of living—food, water, shelter, heat, transportation, entertainment. This leads us into the voluntary simplicity movement: The less I’m dependent on money, the freer I am. Realize that the only legitimate purpose of the economy is to serve life, is to serve us as living beings making our living in co-productive partnership with living Earth.
Paton: How does that translate into actions? If we get a thousand people to say, “I’m a living being born of and nurtured by a living Earth,” how does that stop fracking? How does that stop the Russians from pumping all the oil out of Kazakhstan and selling it around the world?
Korten: It makes very clear that destroying the natural living systems on which our existence depends, in order to get a quick energy fix or a quick profit, is literally insane.
Paton: So if we’re all living beings “born of a living Earth,” as you say, where does that start to show up in our lives?
Korten: A big piece of it has to do with recognizing the implications of our dependence on money. This goes back to development as a process of separating people from their means of subsistence production. The more people become alienated from their self-production, the more they become dependent on money—and the more they become dependent on the people who control the creation and allocation of money.
Paton: You mean when I’m dependent, I accept fracking.
Korten: Yeah, you say, “I need that money. They’re going to pay me to frack my property.”
Paton: Do you really think Americans are going to be able to cast off the belief that money is king?
Korten: I’d say a lot of people are casting it off.
Paton: Most of us respond to a 10-dollar bill. Or a bonus at work. Or a new car.
Korten: But we respond to that because we accept the “Sacred Money and Markets” story that money is wealth, a fabrication that is literally killing us.
Paton: So you say that our choice is between working with Earth and working against her?
Korten: It comes back to this: Are we a part of nature? Or apart from nature?
Paton: Why do you insist we adopt this “Living Earth” story?
Korten: Because we humans live by stories.
Paton: And that means…?
Korten: It means that to organize as ordered societies, we need a shared framework—basic values and assumptions—so that when I relate to you, I’ve got some idea of how you’re going to respond, because we share our basic story.
Paton: Do we have a choice?
Korten: Yeah, change or die. Quite literally. You really can’t grasp the new story—as a society—and continue to live the way we live. First you begin to move toward more voluntary simplicity, which is, literally, reducing your dependence on money. You start doing more things yourself. You pay much more attention to your relationships, to the gift economy. You perhaps get a deeper sense of being part of and a contributor to a living universe evolving toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. What would that mean for society, and then what does it mean for how I live? What is my contribution to the change society needs? I have a responsibility to be part of this change—which begins by changing the story.