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From Empire to Earth Community

We can choose a path of patient and compassionate justice that respects life, the rights of the innocent, and the rule of law, as we simultaneously work to bring justice to the world by creating a world that works for all.

David Korten's keynote to the Earth Charter Community Summit, Seattle September 28, 2002:

Greetings from Seattle to our friends and neighbors across America. We gather at this second annual Earth Charter Community Summit to rededicate ourselves to the vision and principles of the Earth Charter and to share our plans and the lessons of our experience as we work to create a world—a new human civilization—that honors the Charter's profound vision of the Earth Community that can be.

The Earth Charter opens with these prophetic words:

 "We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future."

This truth has been burned deeply into our consciousness by the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. We met for the first Earth Charter Community Summit one year ago on September 29, 2001 still stunned by the initial shock of the tragedy and trying to comprehend its meaning. Our attention was focused on the choice then before our nation as to whether we would invade Afghanistan to kill or apprehend a terrorist leader named Osama Bin Laden.  In my keynote address to that gathering I described that choice in these words:

“Succumbing to the dark forces of fear and vengeance, we could choose to respond in kind to this horrific and unconscionable act. …Or, we can choose a path of patient and compassionate justice that respects life, the rights of the innocent, and the rule of law in a cooperative international effort to bring the guilty to justice, as we simultaneously work to bring justice to the world by creating a world that works for all.”

Our country, America, chose to invade Afghanistan at the cost of many thousands of innocent lives and many billions of dollars that could have been devoted to so many essential purposes. The result? We have no idea whether Bin Laden is dead or alive or where he might be hiding and there is no indication that we are any safer today from terrorist attack than we were on September 10, 2001.

We are now being told that America's national security depends on launching a military invasion of Iraq to eliminate an evil leader named Saddam Hussein. Not even the most ardent advocates of war against Iraq suggest that this will contribute in any way to finding and dismantling the terrorist networks that actually endanger us. It will, however, surely swell their ranks with new recruits.

Our government recently announced its intention to launch a unilateral first strike, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, against any nation that in its judgment poses a potential threat to America. Pundits, intellectuals, and politicians now debate the merits of a new American imperial order on radio and TV with a sense of pride and national purpose. Yes, indeed:

"We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future."

Empire or Earth Community? That is the choice before us. It is a choice defined by an epic struggle with deep roots in the human psyche that extends back to the earliest human experience. It is embedded in sharply contrasting world views. And it leads to dramatically different visions of the human possible. To understand this struggle is to understand the profound significance of the Earth Charter.

To the forces of empire, the world is an inherently hostile and competitive place filled with human and natural enemies that must be controlled or destroyed by physical force. In the world of empire the only choice life offers is to be a winner or be a loser, rule or be ruled. So be a winner and go for the gold. Trust, compassion, and cooperation are for fools and cowards. Life is a competition in which the smartest, toughest, and most rational players seize and hold power by whatever means available to impose peace and order on the unruly—and it is just and proper that they be rewarded with wealth and privilege for their service. The values and worldview of empire find expression in the forces of corporate globalization and in the policies and military doctrine of the administration that currently commands military and police power in America—and that tragically poses a far greater threat to world freedom and democracy than any terrorist network.

To the forces of community, the world is inherently nurturing, compassionate, and overflowing with creative abundance and opportunity. In the world of community we consider violence and conflict to be irrational, because they are self-destructive—a violation against the sacred spiritual unity that is the source of life and the ground of all being. Meaning and purpose are found in equitably sharing power and resources to secure the well-being of all as we engage in a cooperative exploration of life's infinite creative possibilities. The values and worldview of community find eloquent expression in the Earth Charter and in the extraordinary social movement we know as global civil society.

Individuals and societies differ as to which one of the competing tendencies—empire or community—is more dominant in their lives, but both tendencies reside in each of us. So we ask: Where lies truth? Is the world inherently hostile and dangerous or inherently caring and compassionate? The answer is—it depends on us—on we the people of planet Earth—because we have the knowledge, technology, and organizational capacity to create the world we choose. We need only the vision to see the possibility of a caring and compassionate Earth Community and choose to live it into being. This is an extraordinary insight—the insight that led thousands of us from all around the world to join in crafting the Earth Charter as a statement of our shared vision and commitment. 

Empire has prevailed for thousands of years as the dominant model for organizing human societies. It has been a long journey and we give credit to Empire for many positive contributions to human progress, including melding us into a single planetary society faced with the imperative to bring the Era of Empire to a close as we live into being a new Era of Earth community.

The underlying dynamics of empire compel it to continuously expand its dominion through conquest and exploitation. With few remaining frontiers left to conquer and  economic, social, and environmental breakdown accelerating beyond the limits of social and environmental tolerance, we have reached the End of Empire. The futile and self-defeating effort to use American military power to restore order will only accelerate the collapse. This confrontation with the limits of our finite living planet is more than historic. It is an evolutionary event, because it compels us to develop a new relationship with one another and the planet. The further along we are with getting the foundations of the new world order of Earth community in place before the final fall of Empire the less tragic the consequences will be.

The scandals of corporate accounting fraud unfolding around us and the announcement by our political leaders that the projection of U.S. imperial power is the new centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy and national purpose send a clear message that we cannot look to the institutions of Empire to lead the way to Earth community. Leadership, by default and necessity, falls to We the People.

Another extraordinary evolutionary development new to the human experience is the emergence of a new planetary social organism we call global civil society. It is the largest, most international, and potentially powerful social movement in human history, yet it is not identified with an individual leader. It is a mutually empowering movement in which every one of the millions of participants is a leader in his or her own right. Rather than mobilizing around an ideology, it is converging around the emergent values consensus articulated in the Earth Charter. It gains its power from the fact that it is an expression of deeply authentic values that flow from the awakening of a new cultural and spiritual consciousness deep within our being. It points the way to the human possibilities that lie ahead.

Global civil society also manifests a previously unknown human capacity to self-organize on a planetary-scale with an unprecedented inclusiveness, respect for diversity, shared leadership, individual initiative, and a deep sense of responsibility for the whole of life. It's rapidly expanding capacity for mutual learning, consensus convergence, and global coherence suggests the qualities of an emergent planetary consciousness or brain. It manifests a human capacity for democratic self-governance beyond anything previously known. We are only at the beginning of understanding its nature, let alone its full implications and potential.

This social organism is living into being a spiritually grounded, values based planetary culture. Millions of carriers of the new culture are forming local alliances to create thousands of cultural zones of freedom within which people are growing into being the new living economies and living democracies of Earth Community.

On the economic front our goal is to replace the corporate dominated global suicide economy that destroys life to make money for the already wealthy, with a planetary system of life-serving local living economies devoted to meeting the basic needs of people, strengthening community, and healing the earth. Local living economies are comprised of human-scale enterprises locally owned by the people who have a direct stake in their life-serving function. I urge you to take a look at the current issue of YES! magazine, which is filled with stories of living economy initiatives. You can find it at www.yesmagazine.org.  A new national organization, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, is forming chapters around the country, including in Seattle. Find it at www.livingeconomies.org.  

Politically our goal is to replace the dead democracy of money with living democracies of engaged citizens. In a democracy, sovereignty resides in the people. When politicians lead we call it dictatorship. When private economic interests lead we call it corruption. When dictatorship merges with private economic interests in pursuit of imperial expansion we call it Fascism. In a living democracy the politicians do not lead “We the people.” It is “We the people” who lead the politicians.

The work of politics is negotiation and compromise to achieve the possible within the context of an existing political reality. The work of civil society is to create new possibilities by changing the political context. For democracy to come alive, We the Peoples of the Earth community must organize ourselves to provide this leadership, which is what the Earth Charter and emergent global civil society are about.

These insights have especially important implications for we who enjoy the extraordinary privilege and responsibility of being American citizens. Our country has been taken over by forces not of our choosing for ends contrary to the great ideals of liberty and justice for all on which it was founded—founded I might note in an armed rebellion against empire and a king named George. We take justified pride in America as a beacon of freedom and democracy to the world. We can shine that beacon bright and clear as a source of hope and inspiration for all. Or we can expand and consolidate the global dominion of the new American empire by military force. Empire or Earth community? That choice is now very much before us.

Democracy is an unfinished project, as is the America of liberty and justice for all. It falls to we the people at this extraordinary historical moment to carry these projects forward.

There are many possibilities. Here in America it may begin with something as simple as good conversation, because it is only through engaging one another in conversation on the things that matter that we truly come to know our own minds and those of our neighbors—an essential step toward bringing democracy alive.

Vicki Robin, who introduced this session, is organizing Conversation Cafes across America to create a new web of conversation. In a country that has replaced meaningful conversation with television watching, this is a revolutionary activity. Consider the possibility of organizing discussion groups around the Earth Charter with your neighbors, in your church, Rotary Club, or local school to engage the process of values inquiry that is an essential foundation of the work ahead.

I believe the Earth Charter expresses values that are both authentic and shared by the vast majority of people in America and the world. Yet here in America there is no way for us to really know, because so few of us have had the opportunity to engage in a serious values inquiry that might lead to a grounded visioning of the kind of America and world we truly want. If indeed the values of the Earth Charter are shared by the majority of Americans—a New American Majority—we have the foundation of the New American Politics we and the world so desperately need.

Those of us who are engaged in the active practice of progressive citizenship have for too long thought of ourselves as representatives of an embattled fringe minority. It is time we begin to think and act like members of the new majority we are—an Earth community majority.

These are turbulent and frightening times. There is good reason to feel despair. Therefore it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of human history. For this is the moment when we are being called by the deep forces of creation to awaken to a new consciousness of our own possibilities and to embrace the responsibilities that go with our collective presence on the living jewel of life called Earth. We have the need and the means to create a true Earth community. The choice is ours. The time is now. We're the one's we've been waiting for.


David Korten is board chair of the Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES! Magazine, president of the People-Centered Development Forum, and author of the best selling When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism.

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