Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: So I’m about to jump on the ferry over to Bainbridge Island and talk to David Korten.
Micah Saul: It’s an excellent little boat ride. And Bainbridge is actually a really cool town.
Anderson: I’ve never been there, so this’ll be the first… I’m going to look forward to exploring and maybe heading over to Olympic National Park afterwards.
Anderson: Because you know…you gotta edit in scenic locations.
Saul: Exactly. So let’s talk about David Korten.
Anderson: Where shall we start? There’s a lot to say about David Korten.
Saul: So, he’s an economist. He’s an author. He writes a lot about empire.
Anderson: He’s taught at Harvard. He’s a member of The Club of Rome.
Saul: As we were doing research, he was a name that just kept popping up.
Anderson: There are a lot of possible directions this conversation can go, and trying to decide what are the most fruitful areas is of course going to be a big challenge.
Saul: What’re your thoughts right now?
Anderson: Really, what I want to do is I want to take a lot of the elements that I was talking about with Laura and bring them into the conversation I’m going to be having with David. Specifically, a critique of the present economic system. Discussing what is an economic system for? David has spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly do we want an economy to do? What are the moral reasons we want an economy to serve people in different ways? And then to actually get into some real brass tacks and talk about okay, in the future let’s say we were able to rebuild an economic model. How do we do that? What do we want this to do?
Saul: If our economy right now is failing us, how do we build an economy that won’t?
Anderson: And what sort of quality of life does that lead to?
Anderson: Questions of the good infuse everything here.
Saul: That’s a lot to talk about in an hour.
Anderson: Yes, it is.
Saul: So, as always, good luck.
Anderson: Thanks. I’m sure I will need it.
David Korten: Well, I grew up in a fairly small town and it was a very conservative town. I grew up very conservative. After graduation, I went down to Stanford to study business. In my senior year at Stanford, we had to take a special course outside our major. So, the only thing I saw that looked at all interesting was a course on modern revolution, which was interesting because as a conservative young Republican I was very concerned about the threat that the Communist revolutions posed to our American way of life.
In that, I learned that these revolutions were caused by the frustrations of poverty. And that was one of these critical decisions in my life. Rather than go back on the family business, I would continue my plan to go to business school but would focus on a career bringing the secrets of US business success to the rest of the world.
That led to roughly a thirty-year career in international development. My wife and I lived in Ethiopia, set up a business school at Haile Selassie University. I was later Harvard Business School Advisor to the Central American Management Institute in Nicaragua. And later on we spent fifteen years in Asia working with the Ford Foundation USAID and a variety of non-profits. And in the course of that came to realize that rather than solving the issues of poverty, what was happening was the economic models that were being developed and implemented around the world were creating increasing inequality, pushing more people into deep desperation, at the same time destroying the environment. And, in places like Asia that have this extraordinary traditional strength of community and family, was basically undermining the cultures that are the foundation of community and responsibility and bringing people together.
So that started an ever-deepening inquiry into why is this system functioning so badly? And began to track back some of the things that I’d learned in business school about the nature of the corporation to what was happening in the world, and how the dysfunctions related to the institutional structure of the economy. And as I began to get a little deeper into that, one of my Haitian colleagues at one point sat me down and said, “We know that you and Fran came out here to help us. We appreciate that. But we think you are beginning to understand what our real problem is.” And of course what he meant was the US role in the world and exactly the economic models that I had been devoting my life to us to advancing.
Anderson: What was that transition like? I mean, this is like the moment of, you’ve learned something your whole life and you’ve been practicing it, and suddenly you start to realize that that model is…
Korten: Yeah, that was not an abrupt process. It was just gradually seeing what works and what doesn’t work. And part of what we saw that did work was activities that actually strengthened local control of their own resources (their water, their soils, their fisheries, forestries, and so forth) in ways that improved and increased the security of their means of livelihood.
Aengus Anderson: Okay.
Korten: Not extravagant lifestyles but just, you know—
Anderson: So sort of moving the conveyor belt the opposite direction from globalization.
Korten: Exactly. The opposite direction from globalization, and in many respects the opposite direction of consumerism and GDP growth. The difference between managing an economy to make money versus managing an economy to create a better life. Which of course also involves recognizing what are the true sources of our well-being, our happiness, personal satisfaction, and meaning. Which it turns out has very little to do with money, except of course that we’ve created a society in which our relationships so depend on money. That’s a total deep distortion of our values. We get focused on money as the objective rather than life.
And that plays out in all sorts of ways in our economic theories, in our economic institutions, the way we make resource allocation decisions, and so forth. And you begin to see that at the deeper level, we’ve got economies essentially designed to convert the real capital of human capacity, of community, of the natural world, into money, [to] put it simply in the accounts of Wall Street bankers.
The ultimate[?] insanity of this history, when you recognize that money in fact is nothing but numbers on a computer hard drive. It has no substance, no intrinsic worth or value. But somehow we feel the more numbers we’ve got on these hard drives that we can’t even see, the richer we are and the more resources we have to end poverty and to heal the environment.
Anderson: Do you ever feel like you’re in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and you’re one of the only people who sees the aliens walking around everywhere?
Korten: That’s exactly what it feels like. [laughs]
Anderson: It’s just what came to mind to me. It’s sort of the sense of like, you’re walking around in this land of fiat currency and everyone’s grabbing onto it as if it’s solid.
Korten: It’s so amazing because you know, I like to think that we are an intelligent species. I mean, actually the people that often get this most quickly are the people who are poorest, because they know the system doesn’t work. But so many of our supposedly brightest people pick this up and don’t question it. And then we have the all the whole field of economics, which is an ideology built on assumptions that if you examine them are absurd. Because you know, economists simply look at the economy as a pricing system. They’re not system thinkers. Part of the cause our crisis is that we’re not educated to think in terms of systems.
Anderson: Explain that to me more, because I think as you say that, I think “that’s a big idea there.”
Anderson: But it takes some vocabulary.
Korten: Well, if you look at academia, where we go to supposedly develop our intellectual talents, knowledge is broken down into tinier and tinier silos. So, you become more and more expert in less and less. But most of the issues that we face fall in the cracks between these silos, their understanding systems. You know, the whole of creation and life is about systems. If you’re not thinking about systems, you’re just thinking about the crack. Is the economy growing? And maybe are more people getting education or whatever.
But what you don’t see is the underlying dynamic that we are living beings, that our whole existence is connected to the biosphere of a finite planet that has potentially extraordinary capacity, but we are actually managing our economy to destroy that capacity. The continued deterioration of our soils, the collapse of our climatic systems, the collapse of our fisheries, the destruction of forests. We basically built a whole economic system that not only is turning real resources into money, but it depends on using a fossil fuel subsidy to maintain systems that work in direct opposition to the dynamics of the biosphere.
And we become more and more dependent on that fossil fuel subsidy. So we go to ever more reckless extremes. You know, the tar sands extraction, the mountaintop removal, coal mining, the fracking to get the gas. And in each of those we’re doing massive devastation to the biological resources that could sustain our species in perpetuity to get out a one-time instant energy fix that disappears almost as soon as we get it out of the ground.
Anderson: I always have to ask, can this system go on in perpetuity, spreading outward and outward and outward? Thomas Malthus was proven wrong when we got coal and suddenly we could start tapping into reserves of power that we never had access to in the organic economy. And there’s this assumption like we’re going to do that again.
Korten: This is a part of magical thinking. It’s the same thing, that we don’t have to bear responsibility for actions because God will save us. Or if you talk to an economist, the invisible hand of the market will somehow magically save us. And then usually there’s an element of technology. So that’s where the economists converge with the scientists, that somehow magical discovery, zero point energy or something will solve our problem and essentially we can dematerialize. I don’t think that’s a very safe assumption to base our current behavior on.
Anderson: Our conversation is coming right on the heels of my conversation with Laura Musikanski at The Happiness Initiative. And our conversation, we talked a lot about how that critiques the current economy.
Anderson: Hugely, right. And in our conversation we didn’t get into how you take is and then get to ought. She’s interested in is. Are we happy? What’re we looking at now? But the next step, what we do about it?
Korten: Well, that’s interesting. One of the most important elements of happiness is your relationships with people and nature. I was fascinated by a happiness study done some years ago. And it identified four groups as tied for the most happy. Now, one of them was the Forbes 400 list, all billionaires. I was actually a little surprised because it doesn’t seem to me that billionaires are particularly happy. But it does seem to suggest yeah, money makes a diff—if you have enough of it. But the other three groups… One was the Amish. The other were the Inuits. And the Masai in Kenya.
Now, these are all groups that have a very strong sense of place and community. So okay, you can maybe get along without place and community if you have enough billions. But at the more basic level it’s about a sense of connection, of meaning in the deepest sense in our lives.
Anderson: And this economy disrupts that?
Korten: Oh, absolutely. You know, a key piece of it is the extreme inequality. There’s an epidemiologist in Britain, Richard Wilkinson, who has put out of what I think is kind of the defining book on equality. Essentially it’s a massive collection of studies of health and happiness, physical and mental well-being. And at every instance, the more unequal a society, the worse the health, both physical and mental health indicators, are.
Anderson: I guess I’m kind of wondering does thinking about happiness or setting that up as a goal, say in place of something like GDP, is happiness sort of an unattainable?
Korten: I think a key part of it is the conversation about what are the true sources of happiness. Because of course we’re not talking about happiness ha ha ha ha ha.
Korten: We’re talking about something far deeper. You know, it’s more a sense of feeling satisfied with one’s life. Now, we’re taught by economists, economic man, that we’re wired to be competitive, to be selfish. Because Darwin said it’s all about competition of the most ruthless. What’s not mentioned is actually those are the characteristics of the psychopath. Brain science is finding that the healthy human being is wired to bring us satisfaction when were engaged in a caring relationship, when we’re being of service to another person for no reason other than just doing it.
Anderson: We’re almost getting validation from science for something that seems to be enshrined in old morality.
Korten: Yeah. And something that any really healthy, mature people simply knows in their being. You know, as a species over the last five thousand years, we’ve got into a pattern of organizing our societies around dominator hierarchies. Which means a few people on the top, and most people on the bottom. And so we have developed our religions, our philosophies, our economic theories, all kind of around justifying that system. Partly because those inquiries are funded by the people at the top if and you’re more likely to get your funding or your support if you’re legitimating the system that gives these people their particular privilege and advantage.
Anderson: With five thousand years of this sort of accretion of hierarchical systems, how do we start to break that down? I mean, that seems like a real Sisyphean task, of like pushing the rock up the hill.
Korten: It’s a huge challenge. The interesting piece is that it starts with changing our stories. The framing stories by which we define ourselves. Or you know, at a very simple level how we define happiness and our understanding of what are the sources of our happiness. And then understanding how does that relate to the way the economy functions. And such very simple basic ideas as do we want organize the purpose the economy to make money, or is it to provide a more satisfying or secure means of living for all the world’s peoples? And that actually ultimately leads into a conversation about well, if it’s really about life, that’s sort of rediscovering that we humans are living beings, which is something we have forgotten. And that living beings exist only as members of the earth community, or the biosphere.
The basic insights are so obvious and so simple once you get to them, but we are caught in [these] intellectual frameworks, our corporate media and so forth, so that the stories we hear are almost all denying the basic reality of our existence. And so that shapes our behavior in ways ultimately self-destructive.
Anderson: So, how do we reconfigure stories to remind ourselves that we are a social animal?
Korten: The two kind of dominant framing stories, and these are creation stories, of our society. One is the science story, and it’s a kind of Newtonian science story, that only the material is real. Life is simply an accidental outcome of material complexity, and consciousness is an illusion. It’s very useful in relation to the scientific method, because it really disciplines the mind to try to deepen our understanding of the physical mechanisms which are very much a part of our reality.
But when people say well that’s the story, that only the material is real, they forget no, that’s an assumption that science made because it’s very useful to its method. And as long as you separate, okay, but that’s not necessarily the whole story. And if you really immerse yourself in that belief system then it sets you up for creating exactly the kind of economy we have, based on materialism and individualism.
But also, the source of happiness is to get so distracted by your materialism that you lose sight of the terror of this existential loneliness of, of—
Anderson: Ah, I was hoping we’d get to existential loneliness.
Korten: That there is no meaning to this.
Anderson: Right. Because that’s terrifying, right?
Korten: Yeah, it is truly terrifying. Now see, on the spirit side, our defining story, called the Distant Patriarch story, that yes there is consciousness in the universe. And it is in the form of a human patriarch who lives someplace in another dimension and who created all that we know and with whom it’s very important that we build a personal relationship, follow his commandments if we can figure out what they are, so we can earn points to get a good place in the afterlife.
That story brings in spirit, but it also is very individualistic. There’s no collective salvation. It’s a purely personal relationship. Now, it’s a very different spirit story, which leads to a very different frame. But it has very little organized constituency. No institutional base, no particular intellectual credibility, and you don’t hear it in the public discourse like you hear the debates between the evolutionists and the creationists. But this is the story that the ground of all being is spirit.
I mean, this actually comes out of quantum physics, that the material is actually an illusion. The reality is relationships. If you think of it in terms of what we experience in the material world as a manifestation of the spirit that is seeking to know itself through becoming, through discovering and actualizing its possibilities, that is when you have the sense of all of creation being interconnected. Of every being being a participant in this ongoing adventure of discovery.
Fitting within the new biology interpretation of evolution that says those species that ultimately survive and thrive over the longer term are those that find their place of service to the whole. To the whole of the biosphere. In the larger picture. To the whole of this creative journey. That then comes back to the question of well, what is our distinctive human place of service to this unfolding? Which most likely relates to the special qualities of our reflective consciousness and the capacity that that gives us for truly deep choice about how we relate to the larger story.
If you take this a little bit further, you see how this plays out as a distributed intelligence throughout the whole of creation. It allows you to see the biosphere through this ongoing process is continuously learning and evolving toward higher levels of potential, of possibility, of intelligence, of consciousness.
Anderson: So sort of the idea of a superorganism in a way.
Korten: Yeah, it’s very much a superorganism. Very much a superorganism. You know, one of the most extraordinary examples of this capacity to self-organize is the human body, which is comprised of trillions of individual living cells. Each of those is an individual decision-making unit. All of those are cooperating together to create this extraordinary organism with capacities that go so far beyond the capacity of any individual cell.
We have a consciousness that we experience that is foundational to our self, our experience, and so forth. It’s kind of the metaconsciousness of the body. All this other stuff is going on totally beyond our awareness. It’s direct cellular intercommunication and decision-making.
Now, if you think in terms of perhaps there is a god consciousness, of Earth, or the cosmos, would it be aware of us as individuals any more than our consciousness is aware of our cells? Which would suggest that the idea of an individual, sort of direct communication or conversation with God might be—
Anderson: Almost impossible by definition.
Korten: Almost impossible by definition. One of the profound implications of this… Part of our consciousness is well, we’re doing all these dumb things, and you know, we’re destroying the biosphere, and so forth. But He’ll take care of us, ultimately. Well, Daddy may not even be aware of us as individuals.
Now, this does not necessarily mean loneliness, because we’ve got all this other companionship. But it does say it’s our responsibility. And it’s responsibility for ourselves but also for one another, and for the whole of the biosphere and the Earth’s place in the cosmos. Yeah. Different story.
Anderson: So we’ve just put science and religion, these totally different institutions in my mind, as kind of working in the same world, and this other story threatening both.
Korten: They both direct our attention away from the dynamism, the spiritual foundation of the world of our experience. And they also lead toward a very individualistic kind of framing, of our reality and our individual relationship to it. So it’s amazing the commonalities, just like…you know that’s what in a way is such a source of joy for me. It’s so simple. I mean, we just wake up and get it. But it’s also a source of deep depression. Of like, God…
Anderson: What if we don’t wake up and get it?
Korten: Yeah. And why… What is it about our current state that we are so deep into what in a sense is a kind of a hypnotic trance?
Anderson: So, if we follow in this trajectory, and it’s not a good bet to bet on the sort of scientific silver bullet, we end up facing economic problems, or environmental problems. We kind of know what those are.
Anderson: What’s the other route look like? What does a sustainable economy look like?
Korten: It brings us back to the biosphere. The foundation is that we need to learn to live as members of that Earth community.
Anderson: That seems like a very biocentric sort of… These other things have value in and of themselves?
Korten: Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t have to get quite that ethereal, because at a more foundational level, they have basic value to us in a very utilitarian sense. Doesn’t even have to be deeply spiritual, it’s just…duh. But you know, in terms of the true meaning of course it is that larger dynamic of evolution and continuing creation.
Now, to start with, the biosphere has this incredible capacity to self-organize. But the fundamental organization takes place not at the central level but at the local level. It’s kind of a fractal structure that organizes upward into an ever more comprehensive system, ultimately the global biosphere.
Anderson: We’re going somewhere metaphorical here.
Korten: So you begin to think of your economy in the same terms, and it gets pretty practical really fast. The biosphere organizes in essentially bioregions. The bioregions, all the way down to the most micro level, are highly self-reliant in terms of organisms learning to maintain themselves and to make their contribution to whole, using locally available energy, water, and nutrients. Same with the economy.
Okay. How do we build our local economies to accomplish that? In traditional practice, we use these fossil fuel subsidies to wall ourselves off from nature and from one another. The whole Living Building thing is to create buildings, starting with the individual home or office building, that actually captures all its own energy, water, nutrients, and ideally recycles them so that it produces more energy than it consumes. That it collects and gives off more clean water than it uses. That in terms of nutrients, instead of growing our food again on the other side of the world, bringing it and running it through our bodies, and then sending our excrement out into the nearest river or ocean, we have composting toilets, and our waste products go into living walls or into our local gardens. Our water is repurified with natural systems on-site, or with a neighborhood or district. And then we keep thinking about living neighborhood, living district, living city, living bioregion, and ultimately living planet.
And from a system standpoint, and it’s again so simple but so extraordinary, that if each of us is in balance within our particular place on Earth, the overall system is in balance.
Anderson: Here in more industrialized countries, we’re used to being able to go out and buy a computer, go out and buy a car. You have command of a huge amount of resources that come from all over the planet. And in a more local system, what do people have to give up to live sustainably?
Korten: Wasteful extravagance. I mean this is where the happiness comes back in. What are the things that’re really important us?
Anderson: Yeah, defining waste, right? Is the second car waste? Is the extra laptop waste?
Korten: Yeah. I mean, here’s here’s where it gets into a certain complexity. In our current society, for most families, the second car is not waste it’s an absolute essential. But that’s only because of the way we’ve organized our economy. Because for most of us, if we’re going to shop or go to work or whatever, there’s no alternative to having a car. One of the things that shaped my understanding of this was living for five years in New York City without a car. Most of the places I needed to go within my neighborhood, I could walk. If I want to go someplace else in the city, this amazing subway system, bus system…and if I really need specialized transportation there’s always a cab.
Anderson: So there’s all this stuff that can be addressed physically. These are giving us greater and greater amounts of efficiency in how use resources. But can that model alone address the underlying logic of expansion?
Korten: Well, first of all we’ve got to to get beyond the logic of expansion. One of the huge issues that is a forbidden issue, that it’s almost impossible to talk about it, is population growth. I mean, ultimately we have to share what’s available, so it’s a simple matter of division. The larger the number of people, the the lower the average consumption if we create an equitable world. And if we don’t, the whole social fabric disintegrates.
Anderson: You have plenty of other problems.
Korten: Yeah, plenty of other problems. The scary part to me is that shuts down conversation. In the 1970s, I actually worked as an advisor to some of the world’s largest family planning programs around the world. And eventually I backed away from it, for a variety of reasons. One, I realized that the major factor in whether the people control the reproduction is whether they have control in other areas of their lives. So that gets into all this much larger set of issues.
But the other was that if you’re talking about population growth as an issue, that becomes the only subject of conversation. And that’s become far worse since the 1970s, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. You can make your choice. You can focus on the population issue, or you can engage conversation on these, well…all the issues we’ve been talking about. I mean, once we come into the framework of we need to figure out how to live here in balance with our own ecosystem, then the population thing becomes a natural focus.
Anderson: I think it’s always an interesting tension between larger environmental and social issues, where we have to think “we,” and then other things that we’re often very sympathetic to where individual rights, the “I,” you know. And it’s like how do you often balance those things?
Well, something I like to touch on before the conclusion is you know, this project is sort of built on the premise that at different historical moments, great minds have come together, usually because of some kind of crisis, and talked about the fundamental issues of their day and dreamed up new normals. Do you think this is a moment that needs that?
Korten: Absolutely, it’s a moment that needs it.
Anderson: Do you think it’s happening?
Korten: I keep hoping it’s happening. And I become very conscious that most any time that you’d ask me that question I would say yes. I do think I’m seeing something that’s going deeper right now. A lot of people on the progressive side have become aware that the corporate interests, which got stymied in substantial measure on the the misuse of international trade agreements to push their agenda, are now turning to environmental agreements to push their agenda. And the basic frame is if we’re going to save nature we have to value her, which means putting a price on her, and in a sense selling her off to the Wall Street interests so that they can commodify, securitize, and make them the foundation of a whole new wave of speculation comparable to what they did around the mortgage situation.
Within the dominant economic paradigm, that’s the way to save nature. As people have gotten focused on that, it helps to focus the mind. And it really pushes you know, what’s wrong with that argument? And so I started hearing a major movement developing internationally on the rights of nature, but it’s also connected to a conversation about Earth as sacred. Which is a language I have not heard before within progressive circles.
I’m a part of some other conversations. I’m a member of The Club of Rome, which was the group that published the original Limits to Growth study. We’re just starting a new initiative, a number of new initiatives, but one of them is around a global conversation on values, which I think potentially leads right into a discussion of the kind of things we’ve been discussing.
One of the figures that’s involved with this Club of Rome initiative heads an international group on religion and environment, and is connected in with all the faith communities around the world. There’s a discussion just starting with one of the key players in the World Academy of Art and Sciences about a really deep look at the nature of money and money systems.
Now, some of these are very flickering, embryonic, new conversations. But they’re happening coincidentally, at a speed that never in my life or experience have I seen happening. So, we may be having an opportunity to have this conversation that is desperately needed. Part of being my age is having lived through these enormous transformations of the the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement. And those all started with conversations. Conversations that challenged a prevailing story that proved to be a false story.
The advantage of a conversation based on truth is that people do tend to recognize it. There’s some that have a deep stake in not recognizing it, and they will be somewhat resistant. But the majority of people have a stake in recognizing the truth. So if you’re telling lies, you have to keep repeating them. You have to really have control of the media and the educational system. But if you’re speaking truth, it can break through in amazing ways. And it’s ultimately around our stories that we live and organize. So, that to me is our hope.
Aengus Anderson: So my brain is swimming with ideas.
Micah Saul: Yes. Mine, too. That was awesome.
Anderson: David is just an amazing synthesizer of different concepts, in the same way that…this really made me think of my conversation with Tim Morton.
Saul: Absolutely. It was another one that just, you could draw comparisons to…well, every single conversation we’ve had so far.
Anderson: And, not only does it synthesize, but he brought in some very impressive new ideas which I think are going to help out our thinking about the Conversation. The first one that jumps to mind is storytelling.
Saul: I knew you were going to say that. Yes, his concept of just…the way you affect change is you change the story, because the story is what affects how we think about the world. That was just really, really cool to me.
Anderson: He breaks us down into like three big types of stories.
Saul: Yes. One of them, which is the story that he would suggest we’ve been following for well, millennia I think, is a sort of anthropocentric individualist hierarchical story that started with a religious story but has sort of morphed over the years, and the capitalist consumerist story is actually the same story, he argues.
Anderson: Which reduces us down to two stories.
Anderson: One of which is either religious, or capitalist and secular. And then another one, which is very different.
Saul: Right. This is the story that he views as being the story that would get us out of our current fix.
Anderson: And it’s interesting in that the story that gets us out for him is the biocentric story, and the other two stories are the anthropocentric stories.
Saul: Yes. Again with sort of a Morton connection, right. It’s the sooner we accept our role in the larger system, the sooner we can fix our own personal problems.
Anderson: The difference here between Tim and David is that Tim is much more interested in acquiescence and sort of accepting all of these other things in a more abstract sense, whereas David—
Saul: David takes a far more…active role.
Anderson: Yes. That’s a good distinction to point out.
Anderson: In a way, that actually really made me think of Chris McKay.
Saul: Yes. I hadn’t made that connection.
Anderson: And I didn’t either when I was talking to David, but now that we’re talking about it I think oh, that’s actually very similar to Chris McKay’s attitude about discovering life on Mars. You take a both anthropocentric and biocentric standpoint. You encourage the life to develop along its own lines to the best of your ability as a person. And I think there’s definitely a little resonance there.
Saul: So, actually that’s sort of interesting. How does that jibe with the non-hierarchical nature of that new story? Because in some ways, that’s still putting us above, isn’t it? I guess this is the same concern we had with Chris McKay.
Anderson: And maybe you have to do a little philosophical singing and dancing to kind of get through this, but perhaps you have to say well, to the best of our knowledge we’re the only creature we can communicate with in sort of the same reflective systems management way. So even if everything is equal in terms of its value, we still have a unique role in terms of our ability to influence? I don’t know.
Saul: I’m thinking of the common description of the environmental movement of being shepherds of the Earth.
Anderson: And so you are always trapped in that, in the paradox of like, you can never be outside of yourself. So how do we change the stories? We’ve got a great critique that they are sort of these ur-narratives, but going up against one that is so old, I feel like, my God, David has his work cut out for him, if it’s changing the narrative.
Saul: Absolutely. You know from advertising. Fundamentally changing the story is very very hard.
Anderson: And in the world of advertising, what you do is you’re a parasite on other narratives that people already have.
Anderson: But this is a really big shift. It’s a narrative that some people have. You know, I think you could find different indigenous groups that would have had a very similar narrative to his.
Anderson: But that’s certainly not the winning narrative in a global sense right now.
Saul: So, I’ve got a question for you.
Saul: Say we succeed in changing the narrative, and we now live in this world that he foresees, this biocentric or even post-biocentric world in which it’s community-based, it’s localized, it’s non-hierarchical. That sounds great. And you touched on this in the interview, but I don’t think went very far with it. What do we give up to get there?
Anderson: I think that’s a big question. And this makes me think of Lundberg. If you are facing on one hand a collapse, or on the other hand kind of scaling back and a localization, Lundberg’s willing to say you have to give up a lot.
Anderson: You know, he’s willing to say in some ways you’re going, in some ways, back to the land. Or maybe in his case there’s still a significant level of technology with sale transport and things like that. But you’re giving up a lot. If you go localized and sustainable, can you have a semiconductor factory?
Anderson: And this actually made me think of Gabriel Stempinski’s conversation, in which it seems like David points us in a direction that’s far more localized and efficient, but can you tackle the underlying issues without really giving up a lot of technology and quality of life?
Saul: Right. Without heavy metals from China, can you have a computer in New York?
Anderson And I think that’s one of the things. If you’re thinking about changing the narrative to one that encourages the sort of biocentric egalitarianism and localized communities, it’s hard to change the narrative if part of that is telling people what they’re going to have to give up is not just waste but is also a lot of things they consider necessary.
Anderson: And that’s a hard sell.
Saul: It really is. Just in case changing the narrative wasn’t hard enough.
Anderson: Then you are doing exactly what we’re interested in in the Conversation. You’re tackling fundamental values or fundamental assumptions of normality. In the more affluent parts of the world, there’s an assumption that a certain level of material wealth is normal, and a certain level of technology is normal. And the idea that you might achieve a society that’s sustainable and give those things up, people would see that as actually a step backward or completely antithetical to what we’re doing on the planet.
Saul: Right. As we’ve seen in so many conversations. There’s a sort of ingrained notion of progress, and technological progress, and that being good. Or moving towards a greater good. That seems to be a fairly common belief, not just with our conversations but with just people in general. And asking people to change that viewpoint? That’s really hard.
Anderson: I think you’ve brought up the biggest question about my conversation with David. Does having sustainable society mean giving up a certain level of technology? Is that a given? We don’t, obviously, know. But is talking about it, is that game over? Like, is there no way that he can advocate for the world he wants, and talk about the idea that it might involve a reduction in the level of complexity in our society?
Anderson: And I’m dropping complexity foreshadowing for our next conversation.
Saul: You’ll be talking to Joseph Tainter at Utah State University?
Saul: He is a historian and anthropologist who’s really interested in how and why societies collapse. And for him, the central idea of all of this is complexity.
Saul: Excellent. But again, David Korten. That was just a lot of things to think about, and that was that was excellent.
Anderson: High five to David Korten.
Anderson: That was David Korten, recorded July 5, 2012 on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.