David Korten: Capitalism, Socialism… Or A New Story?

by Jerry Alatalo

aaa-33Alphabet David Korten is 77 years-old. His most recent book “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth” (February 2015) is available for purchase on amazon.com:


After referring to David Korten’s 1994 book “When Corporations Rule the World” in comments on articles about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for the book’s and Mr. Korten’s prophetic nature, it seemed possibly beneficial to find any recent talks by him. Fortunately a 1-hour, 20-minute talk on Earth Day April 22, 2015 at Seattle University was found on Todd Boyle’s YouTube channel, and that is the topic of this post.

Mr. Korten is one of the founders of Yes! Magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org


A partial transcript/description of David Korten’s talk at Seattle University on the 45th Anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 2015, followed by the video…

“…turning to a living economy, for living human beings, on a living Earth. (On the) 45th anniversary of Earth Day, we live under corporate rule in a suicide economy bent on destroying itself.” Mr. Korten finds the current problematic global condition the result of choices made with respect to the religious saying “(one) cannot serve both God and money”. He points out that a transformation has become necessary from a system which exploits life to make money for a handful of rich people to one which encourages life and community.

He points to recent comments by Pope Francis about “idolatry of money, truly lacking in purpose” and noted that it’s not money by itself that is “evil” but “worship, love of money (that) is the root of all evil”. According to David Korten, “it comes down to simple principles, principles that live in the human heart”. The difficulty is that fundamental truths are “opposite to what we’re taught”, that it’s necessary to awaken a new reverence for life, and that the challenge is coming up with a new “sacred story” drawing from indigenous wisdom, traditional religious/spiritual traditions’ teachings, and scientific discoveries.

“Defining aspect of human nature is that we can choose our nature. (It’s) impossible to live together unless we have an authentic, common story.” Without authenticity, humanity has come to corporate rulership, serving money at the expense of life in situations around the world. Mr. Korten shares a statement he heard from a friend “Tell me your image of God, and I will tell you your politics”, and then illustrates two options in that regard: 1. God created in our image, an elder male who demands a hierarchical system of domination over women, children, and even including the rich and powerful, OR 2. A God of connection, inter-relation, true community, spirit.

He talked about a March 2012 meeting of indigenous leaders he attended where he heard opposition to privatization, commoditization, selling the Mother Earth, and the belief that “we must protect and maintain her (Mother Earth)” He contrasts the phrase “time is life” with “time is money”, and suggested through questioning whether time is for living or for “organizing our lives around accumulating accounting chips, destroying life to make money”.  Mr. Korten then told the audience that “we still have to prove humans are an intelligent species”.

At this point in the talk, David Korten lists the corporate “truths” taught in schools and universities:

time is money

money is wealth

making money creates wealth

making money is the defining purpose of people, business, and the economy

the rich are society’s wealth creators

affluent lifestyles are their fair and just reward

material consumption drives prosperity and the path to happiness

the Earth belongs to us

it is our human nature to be individualistic, competitive, and acquisitive

driven by the free market, creativity drives technologies to eliminate humanity’s dependence on nature

the community interest is simply an aggregation of individual private interests of its individual members

corporations are groups of persons, engines of wealth creation, and entitled to the same rights as any person

we all do our best when focused on maximizing our own individual private interest

Mr. Korten then asked the audience: “Did you notice anything in these statements that was true? Every element of that story is either false or grossly misleading”.

“Maximizing returns to money absolutely guarantees an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and an ever-growing gap between those who control great wealth and those who don’t, increasingly excluded as those on the top monopolize, control access to means of living. Control access to means of living and you control society”.

“So, why do we accept this obviously false story?” According to David Korten it comes to out-dated cosmologies (cosmology: the theory or metaphysics of the universe as an ordered integration or whole). He then lists three types of cosmology (story) current:

distant patriarchy story

grand machine story of science

story of mystical unity

Distant patriarch story All agency resides with patriarch (God) who lives apart (heaven). If things aren’t going well here on Earth, the obvious solution is to pray to God to fix it. Get on God’s side to get a good place in the afterlife. Relieves us of responsibility

Grand machine story The universe is like a giant machine or clockwork, and maybe there was a God or clock maker who set it up, set it in motion. Basically, (the universe) is just a mechanism winding down to death as its spring unwinds. Literally, there is no agency, and absolutely no meaning. Here, David Korten added, “that is depressing, I think I’ll go shopping…”

Mystical unity story The only true reality is mystical unity – spirit, that what we perceive as reality is simply an illusion created by the ego, and “that is the cause of our depression and separation”. Meditation becomes practiced with the goal of getting rid of the ego, merging into oneness, and escaping from “all this pain”. Korten sees no particular meaning to existence in that story.

The three stories, each partial, none of which offers a true guide to addressing the realities of the failures of society according to Mr. Korten, when we begin to put them together,  offer a “very interesting synthesis”.

There is intelligence and consciousness essential for the unfolding of the universe. Science, mechanism and chance are part of material existence, giving us an insight/lens into the deepest structure of reality and creation. Mystical unity/spirit is the ground of all creation; that all creation is a manifestation of spirit. “So, put these all together for an emerging new story”.

David Korten views the beginning is spirit – the spirit that has in a sense driven humans to understand/know the meaning and purpose of our lives. He suggests that perhaps spirit longed for that same knowledge, and asks “how does it know itself, when there is nothing else? By becoming, by expressing, by exploring its possibilities…” “It burst forth” in this cloud of energy particles as science describes it. Of the billions and billions of galaxies, on one planet – Earth, organisms organized as community and transformed conditions “on Earth unlike anywhere in the universe”.

“You also see in the total pattern of this unfolding of creation a consistent arrow, always (moving) toward increasing complexity, greater beauty, greater awareness, and greater possibility. And every being, every organism, whether simple-cell or complex humans, whether a grain of sand or great mountains, or great galaxies; each is contributing to the continuing unfoldment of the whole. Each has its place in creation”.

What is our human place in creation?

The New Framing Story: The Sacred Life and Living Earth story replaces the Sacred Money and Market story:

time is life

real wealth is living wealth

money is just a number, useful as a medium of exchange and well-regulated markets

we humans are living beings, born of and nurtured by living Earth, itself born out of a living universe, and that changes everything

life exists only in community

we are part of nature, not apart from nature

Earth does not belong to us, we belong to Earth

our health and prosperity depends on Earth’s health and prosperity

our human nature calls us to care and share for the benefit of all, brain science has discovered this is wired into our brains

serving the living community that sustains us is essential to community health, and that service is our source of greatest happiness

Here Mr. Korten interjects: “Now this one is really interesting”.

individualistic greed, ruthless competition, and violence against life are indicators of serious psychological and societal dysfunction

“They are the characteristics of the psychopath, the sociopath, and yet we set it up as the ideal for economic behavior. Wow”.

poverty in reality is the consequence of a lack of opportunity

the proper purpose of any human institution, whether business, government, or civil society is to support people as productive, contributing, sharing members of a vibrant and prosperous living Earth community

corporations that seek to monopolize resources and decision-making power in the pursuit of purely financial ends have no place in a healthy society

“We have the foundation for creating a living economy that organizes as life organizes to maintain and enhance the conditions for life. Environmentalism isn’t about some do-gooder cause – it’s about survival. It’s about discovering our true nature and our true purpose. All around the world, in communities almost everywhere, increasing numbers of people are organizing to bring forth the living economy. They are rebuilding their local economies, their communities; they are engaging in organic agriculture, young people going back to the soil; creating farms to feed themselves and their neighbors”.

David Korten sees no institutional structure on Earth devoted to the study of our fundamental human story.

Q+A segment:

What advice can you share with young people?  What can they do?

“Work on creating, bringing forward, the new. Be open and explicit that what you are doing is part of a new, essential vision”. Mr. Korten spoke of education’s failure in the sense of training young men and women to work for “social predators”, and through student debt, a lifetime of work to repay as corporations and the wealthiest could pay their share of taxes and make life easier for university students. Speaking to the students in the audience, he admits “your generation (is) faced with ‘one hell of a mess’ left by my generation”.

David Korten asks the audience if anyone has moments where they feel depressed or hopeless, and shared that he has low moments like those as well.  He sometimes gets asked, “do you think there’s any possibility that we can really change?”

“Well, if I look at it as an objective academic observer, we haven’t got a chance in hell of getting out of this – it’s already too late; we’re in too deep. Then I remind myself that if we take that as our assumption, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It becomes absolutely certain – that outcome. And that is an intolerable outcome; it’s an unacceptable outcome. So I have to do everything I can, based on the assumption that it’s not too late, based on the assumption that it is possible to change – to create a new reality”.

“Now, another piece of that is it’s a whole lot more fun getting together with friends, creating the new reality, than it is sitting around becoming cynical (and) depressed. Also, at 77 years-old, I’ve lived through a bit of history, and I’ve seen some incredibly dramatic changes take place – very quickly. You know, racism, racial segregation, racial domination goes way, way, way back, again to the beginning of empire. The suppression of women goes back to the beginning of empire”.

“If you’re going to have a hierarchy, a dominator system, you’ve got to have most people at the bottom, so who are you going to put at the bottom? Skin color, gender, and so on, they’re all on the bottom, and that makes it a whole lot easier for us white guys at the top. Oh my, the changes that have happened in my lifetime in terms of gender relations and race relations… Huge”.

“We saw the Soviet Union collapse in the blink of an eye. We saw the end of apartheid in South Africa. Going back to just after World War II, India, totally dominated by the British, inspired by Gandhi the Indians freed themselves from the most powerful empire in the world. It all happened very quickly. As the forces for change build, it’s like tectonic plates, and then there’s a sudden shift. It all has to do with a moment of readiness”.

“Did the WTO (World Trade Organization) demonstration, did it have any impact? It had an enormous, enormous impact. First of all, it developed awareness all around the world of the insidious nature of these trade agreements and what ‘free trade’ is really about. But also, following the Seattle WTO demonstrations – which literally shut-down the negotiations, shut-down the meeting – prevented any progress toward further consolidation of corporate rights. That inspired people around the world. For the next two years every place the elites met to conspire, to roll back democracy and human rights in favor of corporate rule, hundreds of thousands, in some instances millions of people, came out to stop that”.

“Now, what happened?”

“Well, it actually all got disrupted by 9/11. Our government came forward and said any act of dissent is terrorism – siding with the terrorists. There were all sorts of crackdowns around the world, and it scattered the movement. The movement was also built around a focus on those economic issues and specifically corporate rule, but our government at that time, they were talking about a ‘Pax Americana’; about American empire imposing democracy by military force, if you can imagine anything more contradictory”.

 “That had the impact of essentially shutting down the movements. We also realized that another part of that is we had created a story around which people could organize. They knew who the enemy was, they knew what to attack, what to respond to, in terms of the corporate rule and this process of globalizing corporate power. Partly what happened was a deflecting of energy. A great many of us turned away from street protests and turned into these initiatives of rebuilding from the local; creating the new rather than resisting the old”.

“We’ve got to come back and do both at the same time. That is possible and, certainly from my perspective, being very much part of the movement that led up to the WTO protests and beyond, WTO protests had a huge impact, even though it was not sufficient”.

“Everything must change. We have many initiatives. We need to continue with those, both the initiatives and the pro-action, but we also have to bring it together into a larger framing story so that we each see how our individual contributions connect to the contributions of others”.

“Coming back to the issue of the story, the thing I’ve learned is that timing is everything. There is a moment around each of our issues where there is a readiness in society for deep change and for a new conversation. And, I’m getting all sorts of signals that this is the time for a discussion about the deeper story. And it may sound like it’s kind of a diversion, it’s a little ‘woo-woo’, we’ve got to get (the story) out on the street”.

“But the power of the story… We got a group of some forty people redefine that story (trade deals are great, etc.), took it out into the world, people mobilized on a massive scale, because there was a readiness at that point in time for a new story and action. People everywhere are realizing that the current system doesn’t work; the old stories make absolutely no sense. If you lay out the Sacred Money and Market stories as I did tonight everybody ‘gets it’ instantly. Well, there’s a few people that don’t, but…”

“The readiness for this deeper examination – what is the purpose of our lives, why are we here, what is the nature of our reality? , how do we pull together all those findings of the leading edge of science to make sense of it in a larger way? If there was ever a moment in human history for that, it is right now”.

Americans enjoy watching a stupid game more than having a meaningful conversation about our lives… What happened to Occupy?

“Occupy is a very interesting example. It put inequality on the map. It brought that into the conversation when it was never there before, and it’s still there, because inequality’s getting even worse. But… we need to keep this deeper perspective in mind. If you understand the history of 5,000 years of empire, it took us literally 5,000 years as a species to get into the mess we’re in. It’s not going to end with a single demonstration. And it gets back to the story”.

“Essentially, the Sacred Money and Market story is the guise of economic science. A lot of my insights about the deeper story actually came from the experience of living in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Indonesia (In the past, David Korten has lived on various continents for several years), and the immersion into the Asian culture and that deep sense of connection to the Earth, and to family, and to community. Particularly in my earliest trips to Asia around 1961, and seeing in those rice-based cultures the melding of humans into nature, this connection with the seasons, people working in community in the fields as their ancestors had for thousands of years”.

“Not affluent, not rich, but basically very healthy, strong, deep communities, and that’s part of my own awakening of my consciousness to our own real nature and possibilities. And the question is can we marry modern technology with those deeper beliefs so that we’re not being ruled by technology, or driven by profit, but using the most beneficial aspects of it to create a wholly new civilization that works with nature, helps Earth heal these systems, but ultimately actually increases the regenerative capacities of Earth in support of life – in support of all life”.

“And that is a part of our human contribution. Again, I share your despair and nobody can get more cynical than I can. But, we have to touch the center of possibility in our core. And the more we recognize the true nature, the true nature of the unfolding of creation and where we fit into that, the more I have a sense of possibility”.

“And I just think that the vast majority of humans are ready to hear that message. But of course, in the place you’re talking about nobody’s even talking about that message. That’s what we need to encourage”. 


(Thank you to Todd Boyle at YouTube) 

20 thoughts on “David Korten: Capitalism, Socialism… Or A New Story?

    1. Rosaliene,
      After listening to his talk, it became impossible not to share. 🙂 David Korten is a wise man with a very impressive, admirable vision to share, and it’s hard to argue against his concepts’ potential for creating a new world. Just think he’s a good and fine person whose message is highly profound – one of the most profound on Earth at this time.


      1. Yes Korten is a good man. I’m keeping well, though really busy with my carpentry work. Not complaining though. This is the first time in a four or five days I’ve been ‘online’ and I’m just catching up. Thanks for being here, Jerry.


        1. Bruce,
          Don’t know if you’re familiar with this website, but thought the project would be of interest to you, plus it’ll be available for others who pass this way:


          Easy on the carpentry, leave a few trees for future generations. 🙂 Just discovered Solar Warriors, so haven’t spent much time on the site, but there’s information there on a neat building material.
          Thanks – take it easy,


          1. 🙂 Yea – I gotta stop and smell the roses. Thanks for the tip on solar warriors.org. … love the title. I hear that blue brothers tune in my head and it goes,…I’ m a soooolar man, do do do I’m a sooolar man… I’m going to head right over to solar warriors Jerry. Thanks!


          2. Yes … a real inspiration, the group of people behind solar warriors. Especially close to my heart, knowing the history of Pine Ridge. Modern day swords to ploughshares. Thanks again Jerry.


  1. As with Chomsky, I have had misgivings about his commitment to empowering the 99% ever since he and his wife refused to support a Washington State initiative to create a state-run system of universal health care (like the one recently created in Vermont). It also troubles me that he’s a long time member of the elitist round table group The Club of Rome: http://www.clubofrome.org/?p=3941

    It’s always been my impression that his allegiances lie with the elite, not with the 99%.


    1. Stuart,
      Your comment makes my head spin, because David Korten came across to me as a 100% genuine man with the highest noble purpose driving his actions. This presents a quandary of trying to reconcile Korten’s (who I’ve never made contact with) apparent anti-elite statements throughout the talk – and aspects of Korten’s lifethat I was unaware of offered by someone I’ve had contact with and whose discernment I’ve come to trust. When he said “Individualistic greed, ruthless competition and violence against life are indicators of serious psychological and societal dysfunction. They are characteristics of the psychopath, and yet we set it up as the ideal for economiuc behavior. Wow!” or “Corporations that seek to monopolize resources and decision-making power in the pursuit of purely financial ends have no place in a healthy society”, it seems those sentiments are anti-elite. He praised those who demonstrated in Seattle against the World Trade Organization for creating an “enormous, enormous impact” and “which literally shut down the negotiations, shut down the meeting..”; and after 9/11: “..our government at that time, they were talking about ‘Pax Americana’, about American empire imposing democracy by military force, if you can imagine anything more contradictory”.

      Is it possible David Korten, since Washington and refusing to support a universal health care system, and despite his membership in the Club of Rome (going there, will comment, but would have to re-enter this), has experienced an epiphany of sorts?


      1. My sense of my contacts with Korten and going to visit his wife who runs Yes! magazine (especially the way she treats her staff) is that they are very much privileged (and wealthy – clearly in the 1%) elites who advocate for change – but not quite so much change that they sacrifice their wealth, status and personal prestige. In my experience there are lots of liberals who straddle both worlds. If it comes to pass that we set up a truly egalitarian society where we do away with millionaires and working people run things themselves, I have a strong sense the Kortens would be on the other side. Though I could be wrong.

        I find it curious that he praised us for being in the streets in Seattle during the WTO protests – but he didn’t join us (Bainbridge Island is only a 45 minute ferry ride away). Nor did he offer to help us clear the 1 million debt we were were left with.


        1. Stuart,
          One thing that comes up is that Mr. Korten seems to remain in a “safe dissenter zone” or reluctant, determined not to dissent to the point where his safety becomes at risk. Almost like he’s made a firm committment, while “safely” rocking the boat, to not cross certain boundaries where possible serious, end-of-the-line retribution comes into play. While appreciative of his philosophical view on a new story encouraging life-affirming, sharing changes in societies, the “jaw-drop” factor, or extent to which the talk motivates persons hearing it to determinedly go out into the world and take strong action, was somewhat low. On issues which affect the human race as a whole, this talk was focused in its near entirety on philosophical views, which philosophy professors around the world expound upon for years for a living (sometimes exasperatingly never getting to the point 🙂 ). Perhaps the only way one could find out what makes Mr. Korten really tick would be to sit down face-to-face for an hours-long discussion. Thanks for the interesting and revealing back and forth.


            1. Certainly an interesting study of people, organizations and their motives. At Club of Rome one finds a group with many connected insiders following an agenda, and at Yes magazine people like Danny Glover, Vandana Shiva, Winona LaDuke as contributors.

              Not much biographical information on the Club’s executive committee members, who give the thumbs up or down to new members…


    2. Stuart,
      Haven’t done any research whatsoever on the Club of Rome but it seems like a group of men and women “radical elites” or such. Polite, sophisticated, well-educated radicals, (to various extents, arrogant) perhaps?… Queen Beatrix on the honorary member list, so that’s worrisome, along with at least one women who had a high-level position in the World Bank. Ivory Tower radical-chic group living in an isolated, comfortable upscale culture/world unable to express righteous indignation, perhaps? Thoughts?


      1. Here’s a list of their current members: http://www.clubofrome.org/?cat=51

        It’s my impression that it’s strongly weighted towards banking, investment, insurance and corporate elites. You can only become a member by being referred by an existing member. From their website, I get the sense that they want to keep capitalism – but make it greener and more sustainable. I don’t happen to believe this is possible. If there’s going to be any chance of saving the planet, in my view capitalism has got to go.


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