Tuesday, January 1, 2008

We are the ones we have been waiting for: The work of David Korten and WiserEarth

I recently came across the work of David Korten which I find well worth reading. Korten, who has a BA in psychology from Stanford University and MBA and Ph.D. degrees from the Stanford Business School, taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business. He then worked in developing countries in Asia and Africa for the US Development Agency USAID from the late 1970s until the 1990s, when he realised that many of the issues facing developing countries, such as "deepening poverty, growing inequality, environmental devastation, and social disintegration" were also becoming increasingly prevalent in developed countries such as the US.

Korten is the author of the bestseller "When Corporations Rule the World". His latest book, "The Great Turning." was published in 2006. In an article written for the 2007 autumn edition of Yes! Magazine, Korten argues that we have been conned by "empire stories" which are designed to make us all believe that it is beneficial for everybody if the rich get richer, although this really comes at great cost to the rest of society and the environment. Korten believes that the three major challenges of our time, namely climate change, peak oil and a collapse of the value of the US dollar, are now converging on us. We have two choices - we can continue on our path of destruction led by the "Empire" proponents, or we can start building a better world for us all.

When you actually look at what Korten describes as "the prevailing narratives of the 'Empire Prosperity Story'", you quickly realise that this is indeed the mantra of "economic rationalism" that has permeated Australian society throughout the Howard years. Some of the main "narratives" are:

"- Economic growth fills our lives with material abundance, lifts the poor from their misery, and creates the wealth needed to protect the environment.
- Money is the measure of wealth and the proper arbiter of every choice and relationship.
- Prosperity depends on freeing wealthy investors from taxes and regulations that limit their incentive and capacity to invest in creating the new jobs that enrich us all.
- Unregulated markets allocate resources to their most productive and highest value use.
- The wealthy deserve their riches because we all get richer as the benefits of the investments of those on top trickle down to those on the bottom.
- Poverty is caused by welfare programs that strip the poor of motivation to become productive members of society willing to work hard at the jobs the market offers."

According to Korten, "[t]his money-serving prosperity story is repeated endlessly by corporate media and taught in economics, business, and public policy courses in our colleges and universities almost as sacred writ."

Korten then makes the observation that "[f]ew notice the implications of its legitimation of the power and privilege of for-profit corporations and an economic system designed to maximize returns to money, that is, to make rich people richer. Furthermore, it praises extreme individualism that, in other circumstances would be condemned as sociopathic; values life only as a commodity; and diverts our attention from the basic reality that destroying life to make money is an act of collective insanity. In addition to destroying real wealth, it threatens our very survival as a species."

But instead of simply moaning that the rich get richer and the poor pay for it, Korten proposes a revolutionary concept, quite simple, but very compelling, namely to counter the "Empire Story" with what he calls the "Earth Community Prosperity Story":

"-Healthy children, families, communities, and ecological systems are the true measure of real wealth.
- Mutual caring and support are the primary currency of healthy families and communities, and community is the key to economic security.
- Real wealth is created by investing in the human capital of productive people, the social capital of caring relationships, and the natural capital of healthy ecosystems.
- The end of poverty and the healing of the environment will come from reallocating material resources from rich to poor and from life-destructive to life-nurturing uses.
- Markets have a vital role, but democratically accountable governments must secure community interests by assuring that everyone plays by basic rules that internalize costs, maintain equity, and favor human-scale local businesses that honor community values and serve community needs.
- Economies must serve and be accountable to people, not the reverse."

Korten calls this the "Earth Community Prosperity Story" because it "evokes a vision of the possibility of creating life-serving economies grounded in communities that respect the irreducible interdependence of people and nature. Although rarely heard, this story is based on familiar notions of generosity and fairness, and negates each of the claims of the imperial prosperity story that currently shapes economic policy and practice."

(All quotes above are from Korten's article Living Wealth: Better Than Money, published in Yes! Magazine. Another keynote address where expands on those points can be found at freespeech.org. A great interview with David Korten was published in the September 2007 edition of The Sun Magazine.

That all may sound very lofty but it is not. Korten is dead-serious when he says that "We are the ones we have been waiting for", meaning it is up to each of us to bring about change for a better future. Among the many ways to achieve a positive outcome are local and grassroots organisations. These, however, need to come together in a global movement to be more effective, and that is indeed happening.

Thanks to the Internet, people power can actually become reality, and an over-arching, open-source website called WiserEarth provides a focus point for a growing number of community organisations from around the world. WiserEarth currently lists close to 108,000 organisations that have signed up to the site. I noticed that the Australian democracy movement GetUp is also represented here.

I am really pleased I found the articles by David Korten and the WiserEarth website. It is so easy to get depressed about the state of the environment, climate change, social unrest and political upheaval around the world, the often exhausting and unsatisfying pace of life in Western countries, and all the other challenges we face, and just give up. In fact, a number of people I have spoken to recently have expressed feeling highly pessimistic about our future and that they thought there was not much they could do about it. I find it empowering and refreshing to find organisations and people that not only want to do something positive on an individual level but who are able to draw in so many individuals and groups in a global movement.


  1. Thank you for mentioning WE

    On top of being a global directory of nonprofits/ngos, WiserEarth.org is also an organizing tool for orgs and individuals to connect based on common interests. Check out the Groups feature or Discussion forums to find active users on the site!

    Let me know of any questions or comments you may have!

  2. Thanks for summarising this work. Interesting and important. I agree strongly that individuals have to make their own decisions about how they are going to change the way that they live for their to be change in the impact of our societies. I will come back and take a look at the material later.

    Having just bought a house, we are discussing a number of ways that we can do something. Some are possible now. Other later. Some cheap. Some more expensive.