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.

Saul: Nice.

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?

Saul: Yup.

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.”

Korten: Yeah.

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.

Korten: Hugely.

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.

Anderson: Right.

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.

Korten: Yeah.

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.

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: Exactly.

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.

Saul: Sure.

Anderson: But that’s cer­tain­ly not the win­ning nar­ra­tive in a glob­al sense right now.

Saul: So, I’ve got a ques­tion for you.

Anderson: Alright.

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.

Saul: Right

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?

Saul: Right.

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.

Saul: Right.

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?

Saul: Aha.

Anderson: And I’m drop­ping com­plex­i­ty fore­shad­ow­ing for our next con­ver­sa­tion.

Saul: You’ll be talk­ing to Joseph Tainter at Utah State University?

Anderson: Yup.

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.

Saul: yes.

Anderson: That was David Korten, record­ed July 5, 2012 on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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