Great Turning

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David Korten. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. 2006


Discussion site at


By David Pollard at

"Korten describes two forms of civilization:

  • Empire, the destructive, hierarchical, unsustainable and inherently brutal form of civilization that, as Ronald Wright and Jared Diamond have explained, defines every civilization in human history, and
  • Earth Community, its antithesis, a collaborative, sustainable, caring, egalitarian form of civilization that, Korten argues, is possible.

Earth Community would be a response to and implementation of the Earth Charter, which Korten had a hand in drafting, and the Charter is certainly inspiring:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

What is precipitating the apocalypse, he says, is a 'perfect economic storm' with four components:

  • The End of Oil
  • Global Warming
  • Imminent US Dollar Collapse
  • New, Asymmetric Warfare

And the Internet provides us with a unique and urgent opportunity to respond to this storm by creating Earth Community through a "global awakening".

Parts 2 & 3 of the book provide an extensive history, first, of ancient and modern civilization ("Empire") and its "sorrows" and the difficulty of breaking free from them, and then of the rise and pending fall of US Empire. The highlight of this is an interesting (if somewhat self-serving) "story" of Imperial Prosperity and Imperial Security. In this excerpt of The Great Turning in Yes!, Korten summarizes these as follows:

The imperial prosperity story says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that create barriers to accumulating wealth. We must also eliminate welfare programs in order to teach the poor the value of working hard at whatever wages the market offers.

The imperial security story tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists, and enemies. The only way to insure our safety is through major expenditures on military and police to maintain order by physical force.

Korten uses the familiar Thomas Berry quote to incite us to create a new story: "The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation". He could have added this additional Berry quote that I have used: "We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story."

So I was pumped for Parts 4 & 5, where I expected Korten to expand beyond the wise advice to dismantle the excessive power and privilege of corporations he proffered in When Corporations Rule the World, and tell us precisely how to go about achieving this "global awakening" and creating Earth Community. He recognizes that this must be done "from below" (with encouragement or at least non-interference from a political and economic system with post-Empire sensibilities). But I looked in vain for a practical discussion of how to create models, intentional communities, sustainable natural enterprises, peer-to-peer sustainability information exchanges and personal sustainable living programs. You know, community-building stuff. Real what you can do stuff. I guess I'm just too far ahead, and this will appear in Korten's next book.

This book does contain a set of principles for Living Economies and Living Politics, and these are intriguing and useful. The principles (detailed in the book) are:

Economic Principles:

  • Economic democracy (economic egalitarianism and local ownership)
  • Local preference (buy local)
  • Human scale (corporate size limits)
  • Living indicators (driven to optimize well-being not wealth)
  • Fair-share taxation
  • Responsive markets (driven by need, not advertising)
  • Responsibility for harms caused (including externalities)
  • Patient capital (no more absurd ROI expectations)
  • Generational jubilee (full redistribution of accumulated estates on death)
  • Information & technology sharing (open source, peer production etc.)
  • Economic self-determination (end of foreign control of resources and trade)
  • Fair and balanced trade

Political Principles:

  • Right to vote
  • Public financing of elections
  • Voting integrity (no Diebold)
  • Nonpartisan election administration (duh)
  • Direct election
  • Equal media access
  • Open debates
  • Equal representation (proportional representation, instant runoff voting)
  • Political rights for people (i.e. not for corporations)

I like Korten's roadmap. Unfortunately, you can't get there from here." (


John Michael Greer:

"The craving for unearned power that has afflicted intellectual idealists since Plato’s time has cropped up tolerably often in the last few decades of green activism; the substantial popularity of David Korten’s profoundly antidemocratic The Great Turning is only one sign among many. Still, there’s a difference of some importance. It takes a careful reading of Korten’s book to notice how his division of humanity into “developmental stages,” which just happen to equate to political opinions, morphs into a claim that political power ought to be monopolized by those who share Korten’s own background and views. Equally, The Great Turning is as coy about the methods Korten’s would-be elite will use to enforce their power as it is about the reasons why giving that elite unchecked authority will solve the world’s problems." (

Note from Michel Bauwens: in view of the above political principles, this would seem a particularly unfair critique?


Joanna Macy on the Great Turning:

"The Great Turning is occurring on three simultaneous levels or dimensions. Recognize how they are gaining momentum through your own life. On the most visible level are holding actions in defense of Earth, including all the political, legislative, and legal work required to slow down the destruction, as well as direct actions-blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of refusal. Work of this kind buys time. It helps save biological and cultural systems, and the gene pool, for the sustainable society to come; but it is insufficient to bring that society about.

This first level is wearing. You can get stressed out of your mind, by both the urgency and increasing violence against activists. In point position, you take a lot of punishment; and when you step back to take a breather, you often feel as if you are abandoning ship. But to the extent you still care what's happening to the world, you're probably just slipping back to continue the work of the Great Turning in another form -- the way the head goose, when she's tired, slips back and flies in the windstream of others, and another flyer takes her place.

The second or middle level of the Great Turning addresses structural causes of the global crisis, and creates sustainable alternatives. Only a couple of years ago, it was hard slogging to raise any opposition to, or even interest in GATT (the Global Agreement on Trade and Tariffs); people's eyes glazed over. But now they are rapidly becoming aware of the rape of the world, and the attack on democracy, built into corporate privilege. Novel types of teach-ins demystify economics, engage the practical imagination. At the same time new social and economic arrangements are mushrooming, from local currencies to local marketing and consumer cooperatives, from eco-villages to renewable, off-the-grid energy generation. They may look fringe, but they hold the seeds of the future.

These nascent institutions cannot take root and survive, however, without values to sustain them. They must mirror what we want, and think we are. That paradigmatic shift -- at the third, most basic level of the Great Turning -- is happening all around us. Some choose to see it as an influx of spirit from above, others as "hitting bottom" in our doomed and addictive society. Either way, we are opening our senses to the web of relationships, the deep ecology, in which we have our being. Like our primordial ancestors, we begin again to see the world as our body, and (whether we say the word or not) as sacred.

We hardly have words for the cognitive, spiritual, and perceptual revolution that is occurring now at a stunning rate of speed."


More Information

David Korten on the Great Turning in History