Evolving Into an Ecologically Civilized State of Mind
An interview with YES! Magazine co-founder David Korten.
It was my pleasure to converse with YES! co-founder David Korten in our weekslong preparation for an interview that spans his 83 years on the planet and all the experiences and ideas that led him to co-found YES! Magazine 25 years ago.
David evolved from a self-described “conservative young Republican” who traveled the world hoping to “save” other cultures from communism, to a collaborative thought leader who calls out the outsized influence of corporations and passionately advocates for global societies to move toward an ecological civilization. On that subject, he is the author of many books, including When Corporations Rule the World. The way in which David has opened himself over the past several decades to unfolding, emerging, and relearning offers a model for us all.
—Zenobia Jeffries Warfield
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield: A lot of folks have referred to 2020 as an unprecedented time. But we can look back in recent history, and further back in our past history, and see that things that are happening now are not so unprecedented, right? There’s so much precedent for what is going on right now. There is this sort of convergence, where all the things are happening at once. How would you describe it?
David Korten: One of the things we need to get clear on is that for a long time, we have been going in a direction as a species that no sane person should want to be going. But we hide it under a lot of statistics, and basically a lot of media distortion coming from the system that is driving us actually in the direction of human self-extinction, but which doesn’t want anybody to see that because the system is working for a very few people who control most of our media and education and our conversations.
We have had these findings from science—massive consensus of the world’s brightest scientists calling attention particularly to the climate issue, [which is,] as you know, essentially terminally serious for the species. It’s very hard for the scientists to get everybody’s attention. But that little bug that we call the Coronavirus, man that’s got our attention. And it has exposed, certainly like nothing else in my experience of my 83 years, the failings of our system, of just how out of touch it is with our fundamental nature as living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth.
The fact that we’re all interconnected and all interdependent, and that the division of the world into identities of race and gender, etc., is a fabricated creation. Well, the gender’s definitely not fabricated, but the way it’s played out is totally fabricated, and it is fabricated to support a system in which a very few people benefit from the tremendous destruction that’s being played out.
And so we see that in the continuously growing inequality which tends to be divided by these identities. But definitely not totally, you know, some of the richest people I know have dark skin and are female.
Warfield: Yeah, they’re like, what, a 10th of the 1%, or a 100th of the 1%? Those darker complexion people.
Korten: Very small. Yes.
But the overall frame [is] that there’s very few people on the top, and most people are on the bottom, and that includes most White people, and most males, and the whole shebang. The Coronavirus has exposed that in a way like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime. And particularly, the way it exposes essential workers who we are most dependent on, [and who] tend to be the least-paid, the least-favored, [and most] exploited.
So that opens us up for discussion about why are we in this mess. How did we get here? And that, of course, does have deep historical roots, as you suggest. But then … where do you want to go as a species, in a way that it has to be consistent with our relationship to Earth? Because that’s the big kahuna, the Living Earth on which we all depend. So how do we get this right, so that our relationship with Earth is right? We do it in a way that meets the needs of all people. So we can actually experience and advance that which makes us most human, which is not our consumption. It is our spiritual being.
Warfield: You didn’t always think this way, though. When you started out in economics, in business, you believed the United States had and was the solution. That the U.S. had the answers to the world’s problems. And leaving college, you had this idea of what the world was, and how you were going to go out and help to fix it.
Korten: Yeah. Well, in a way it has to start with my childhood, growing up in a small middle-class town, downwardly middle-class, that was virtually all White. I sometimes refer to my aunt as the most exotic person I knew: She was Catholic; and she had red hair. I mean, that was, the extent of my experience [with someone who was or looked different].
My family had actually been very poor during World War II. But that was when I was a baby. So I wasn’t very aware of that. We had a business that thrived after the war, just because there was a tremendous surge in consumer demand for the things that our little store sold. So it became a very successful local business. It was very middle-class. And that’s how I grew up.
I was not aware that there was poverty in anything other than the middle-class in the United States until I went overseas and saw real poverty. It’s kind of amazing, when you go back to how isolated we can be. But that is, in a way, the way we humans have always grown up. [It’s how] we grow up in our particular tribe, and that’s what we learn. That’s how we adapt.
So I went to college totally with the idea that I would go to business school. I would study business and I would go back as the eldest son of my family, as the inheritor of the business, and that would be my life. But it was in my senior year, and we were required to take some little short course, outside of our major—a terrible thing to do to students [laughs]. I was a very conservative young Republican at that point, and terribly concerned about the threat that communist revolutions posed to our American way of life. I thought this course on modern revolution might be useful or interesting, mildly. But there, I learned that these revolutions were due to poverty. And this was … probably the most fundamental turning point in my life of all.
Warfield: Say a little more about that. What happened?
Korten: What if… instead of applying the secrets of business success in the family business, I devoted my life to going out into the world, particularly the world’s poor countries, and was part of the process of saving them from these communist revolutions by teaching them how to manage businesses. So that was the beginning. And that led to essentially 30 years working in development, most of that time as a member of establishment institutions. So, in a way, I never totally bought into the establishment framework. But I was working in establishment institutions.
And the interesting thing is, I never fully realized what the development we were supposedly bringing to underdeveloped countries was actually doing to the people of those countries until the day after I departed from my last establishment job.
That in itself is part of the insight, you know. It’s one I hadn’t remembered for a while, but it was quite clear to me at the time. What I realized was that most everything that we were doing in the name of economic development was essentially going into communities where people lived as communities, they were connected to the land, they lived from their land, and in many instances, essentially controlled their own assets. And this had been disrupted for a long time by the colonial dynamics.
Most people living on their land had at least some kind of claim to rights to its use. But what we were doing in the name of development was pushing them off of that land, separating them from controlling their own means of living, and putting them into service. I mean, essentially forcing them into lives as itinerant agriculture workers or sweatshop workers in some factory. So that, by the definitions of our contemporary economics, they were serving the economy. And suddenly it began to hit me that what we call “serving the economy” is essentially a kind of servitude in service to the rich people who control the real assets, but they do that by controlling our access to a means of living.
That was when I really broke establishment and began the work in civil society, of trying to raise general awareness of what this is about. Because eventually, it was not too long after that, that I realized these dynamics are not just playing out in what we call underdeveloped or poor countries.
Warfield: Exactly—that’s just where I wanted to go. Before, when we were talking, you said that you had a conversation with someone when you and Fran (David’s wife and former YES! executive director) were doing work overseas. That this one conversation had changed your life, where the person tells you something like, “We appreciate you all for being here. But you need to go back and help your own people.”
Korten: Yeah. I think that was the second-most powerful experience in my life. And it was a conversation that was probably no more than 30 minutes long. I was in India, and it was a meeting with Smitu Kothari, a man who, at that time, was a fairly distinguished Indian intellectual. Sort of like Gandhi, he was focused on living and working in the village. But he was also connected with the international circuits.
He’s, unfortunately, since died. But it was the conversation with him where he sort of sat me down and he said, “We appreciate what you did, David. We realize that you came over here to help us; we think you’re now beginning to understand what the real problem is. And, of course, that’s, you know, the United States. And so if you really want to help us, you need to go home and teach at home.”
My wife and I discussed it, and we decided, yeah, that’s right. And that brought us back to the U.S., and eventually led to our involvement in the founding of this magazine.
Warfield: This is in the late ’80s, early ’90s, right? And so you’re back here in the States. I want to start to tie these things together, because there’s an evolution that’s happening in your thinking about our systems, particularly around economics. And that’s part of the ecological civilization framework in which you’re now immersed, which is the theme of this issue.
Korten: At that time, I never heard of ecological civilization. The term probably didn’t even exist.
Warfield: Right. So you take this course in college that pretty much changes what would have been your life’s trajectory. Instead of going back to run the family business, you decide to travel to Africa, Asia, and Latin America to help so-called underdeveloped countries. Then you learn that the establishment, of which you were a part, is the problem, and so you come back home.
What was that, like, coming back home and finding the folks to connect with who were thinking along those same lines? Because at that time, there weren’t as many people as there are now who were outwardly thinking along those lines, or who were receptive to those ideologies.
Korten: Yeah, that was a very interesting piece of it. Because when I came back, my primary connections were still with the people that I had worked with in international development. So it was kind of a gradual transition back. But the thing that happened at that point in time is that I got invited into a group organized by a colleague named Jerry Mander, who headed a foundation particularly focused on environmental affairs. And it gave birth to a group called the International Forum on Globalization. It was the most prominent international group at that time. There are a lot international groups now, but certainly up to that time it was the most prominent. And it was people whose backgrounds were predominantly in the kind of international development that I had been in.
But it was a group of people who were all waking up to the contradictions, and sharing with each other our own experience in the countries where either we were working or had worked at that time. And it was through those discussions that we began to recognize the depth of the systemic nature of increased environmental destruction, increased inequality, and increased devastation in the lives of people. And that [this devastation] was a totally international phenomenon.
Some among us were beginning to connect that to the concentration of corporate power, and what was called the globalization of the economy. So it was actually out of that, that we began to formulate the common understanding, or the common analysis. And at the time, I was in the process of writing this book that became When Corporations Rule the World. And these discussions were an enormous source of larger insight into what was playing out.
And [at the same time] I’m recognizing the extent to which the United States, with its dominant impact on the world’s economic theory, is a major player. Then later on, coming to realize that that wasn’t just error, or just a mistake.
Warfield: Exactly. This was very intentional.
Korten: Of course, as I think about it now, there are all these different elements. Most of the people who were focused on concentrating economic power as such—what you might call confirmed racists—that was just a kind of an incidental part of it, which is different than what [was experienced] in the South where it was intentional suppression of anyone with dark skin.
All these dynamics in some ways are so complex, and yet they integrate together in some ways into a very simple frame—either what my colleague Riane Eisler calls the dominator society, with a few people on top and everybody on the bottom, or a partnership society in which we basically recognize we’re all human beings dependent on the health and vitality of living earth. And we all do better when we all do better, right?
Warfield: Which is the theory or framework of ecological civilization?
Korten: As I understand it. Now, as with all of these things, as you’ve probably seen, there are different versions of ecological civilization. China has it built into its constitution, but it’s real theory is really what we’d call sustainable development. They end up calling it the “two mountain theory”: Where we’re going to continue growing GDP and be the world leader in growing GDP. And we’re also going to be the world leader in protecting the environment, which is a fundamental contradiction. A friend often comments, “You can’t climb two mountains at the same time, you simply got to make a choice.”
Warfield: Exactly. And some of what I’m seeing, too, with ecological civilization, is it’s a framework that can be applied to Indigenous ways of being that have been happening across the planet for eons.
Korten: Yes. That’s our current challenge, [embracing] that basic framework and cooperative relationship with nature, where our deepest experiences come from Indigenous peoples, [while] at the same time, recognizing that we have these incredible advancements in technology that can be used either in extraordinarily harmful ways—which is the way we mostly do it now. Or they could be used in extraordinarily beneficial ways that work with Earth instead of against it, and that are about improving the lives and possibilities of all humans, rather than using it to concentrate power for the benefit of the few.
Warfield: Right. Can you give an example of that? When we first started talking about ecological civilization as a theme idea for one of our magazine issues, some of us on staff were like, “What the heck is an ecological civilization?” It sounds academic, not social, and maybe not something we could put in practice. But in fact, it’s something that many are already doing.
When I talked to John Cobb, who you connected me with a couple months back, I asked him for example, and he was like, “Well, for one, we could all be riding our bikes” to our destinations, you know, “living closer to our workplaces.” Is it that simple?
Korten: OK. Basically, [this is] a very big question. The reason I like the civilization piece is because it really pushes us to think, what would it mean to be civilized? And I think you’re probably very well aware what we humans have called “civilization” for a very long time is not really very civilized.
If you think about the majority of people, and you think about the living Earth—if we’re to be civilized, we’ve got to have a very different kind of framework for understanding that term. And it would seem it would need to involve peace, it would mean opportunity for all people. But as we now come to rediscover what Indigenous peoples always knew, that their well-being was dependent on the well-being of their place, you know, that is now true on a global scale.
We are now a global species. And we have to find ways to manage our numbers and our ways of living in ways that are in balance with the living Earth and its needs. Because if the needs of all of us living beings are essentially not being met, the Earth loses its capacity to sustain life. I mean, herein is a fundamental lesson of all of this: That life, as we have now come to understand it, can only exist in communities that self-organize, to create and maintain the conditions of their own existence.
Warfield: A big part of that, though is having to change your thinking. We have a piece in the issue on having an “ecological civilization psyche.” Your mind, your thinking has to change. It goes along with this conversation we’re having about your evolution and allowing yourself to change, right, because you have to change in order to adapt to these different ways of being. What do you think about that?
Korten: Yeah, it’s an amazing question because it goes right to the heart of what I’ve been focused on the last couple of days. This is our way of thinking. And this is very foundational to our current economics, which is all built around money. “Where’s the money going? How do I get more money? How do we create more money? And how do we spend our money, and so forth?”
Well, you don’t. If you’re an economist, it’s very hard to understand this, but most normal humans can get this immediately: The thing we call money is nothing but a number. Sometimes it’s on a coin. It’s more likely on a piece of paper, but most of it is on a computer hard drive that we can’t even see. And our whole economy is organized around growing those numbers, based on the assumption that somehow if we grow those numbers, we will have more food and more places to live and more transportation and so forth. You think about that and you realize that’s not just stupid, that’s crazy.
Warfield: Yeah, and it’s not true. Numbers of people who live in poverty, you know that these are some of the hardest working people. We’re told “you work hard, you make money.” And that’s not the reality.
Korten: Yeah, well, the reality is that we have organized society so that if you don’t have money, you can’t live. As a society, having more money does not produce more food, doesn’t purify the water, or cleanse the air, or stabilize climate. It does not provide more places to live.
And this is where you get at [understanding that] we need a whole different mental frame. The first point of focus has to center on the fact I am a living being; I am born dependent on the nurturance of a living Earth. How does that living Earth organize? And how do I need to relate to that living Earth in a way that meets my needs, while also maintaining Earth’s capacity and well-being itself as a living organism? Then you come back, you say, “Oh, there’s a thing called money. Oh, that’s interesting.” These numbers that have no existence outside the human mind.
Do they have any relevance here? Well, actually, yeah, we sometimes find they’re kind of a useful metric for facilitating certain kinds of exchanges between humans. We can use money in a way that facilitates these living processes and facilitate our movement to living in the ways we need to live.
Warfield: Yeah. Two things come to mind based on what you’re saying about money and changing our way about how we look at it, and what we need to live. The first is resources. Natural and otherwise, we have enough resources for everyone to have at least their basic needs met. We talked about this before, and you were like, “Well, do we really because of what we’re doing to the Earth,” right? But thinking of access to water, food, shelter, clothing, those types of things. Then there’s the other part as it relates to class and the American dream. It’s easy for some to say what we don’t need—especially for those who are middle- or upper-middle-class or have extreme levels of wealth—when we have access to it and others are struggling to gain just that. It’s like there are those who’ve experienced some modicum of wealth or wealthy living—traveling, big houses and cars, quality schools, nutritious food, green and blue spaces, etc.,—who’re saying (as if to those who’re still trying to experience it), “We don’t need that anymore,” when the message is mediated and otherwise telling us we do.
Korten: OK, you’re really getting down to the fundamentals now. And there are two very fundamental pieces here. When we talk about Earth’s resources, we need to make a clear distinction between things like minerals and carbon fuels, and things like water, oil, climate stability, and the things that are absolutely essential to our living.
Now, where those come from, is from the Earth’s organization of its regenerative systems. They’re not something that we have a finite stock of, they’re something that is continuously regenerated. We have to focus on the process of regeneration; how does that happen? That regeneration, as we begin to understand it at a deeper level, is a consequence of all of Earth’s living species interacting together in ways that create—actually that relate to Earth’s geological forces—but all together, they come together to create and maintain those conditions essential to advanced forms of life. It’s one of those things, again, that is absolutely obvious once you get your mind around it. And yet, it’s totally contrary to everything we’re taught. And of course, as you suggested, or as you know, our desire for these material goods is not an innate human desire. This is cultivated by experts in our media and in our education systems and just about everything we experience. So, again, as humans, we’re wired to grow up within our culture, and to live within the frames of the culture within which we grow up. And we’re still in that frame. But we’re being [raised] within this cultural frame, that is, in a sense, contaminating our humanity with things that are wholly contrary to our nature. And that’s what’s putting us at risk as a species.
Korten: Another one of the breakthrough insights that I’ve mentioned to you was, after getting caught up in the focus on corporations, and how the global economy and so forth drives us in a bad direction, I realized we need another framework. I realized early on that the framework we needed had to somehow relate to our understanding of life, of living systems, of living organisms, of nature. And it was when I was struggling with that, that I was approached in a conference in Spain, by this Asian woman who introduced herself as Dr. Mae-Wan Ho. She described herself as a new biologist, which is a term I had never heard. “So what’s a new biologist?” I said. “Well,” she says, “a conventional biologist will take a living cell, grind it up, study its chemical composition, and think they’ve learned something about life.” In other words, they kill it, right? And then think they’re gonna learn something from it about life. She says, “I study living cells, and how they exchange water, nutrients, energy, and information, to create and maintain the conditions essential to their own existence as living beings. … The most basic example of this is the human body. And just recognizing that it is comprised of tens of trillions of living cells that are constantly making decisions that relate to exchanges of water, energy, nutrients, and information to create and maintain. Now it’s two bodies sitting here talking to each other this way, which is the vessel of our consciousness and the instrument of our agency.”
Now, have you ever had anybody else present you with that?
Korten: It’s totally obvious once it’s pointed out. I mean, yeah—when those cells stop doing that we are dead.
Korten: And even with the COVID vaccines, what does the COVID vaccine do? It doesn’t protect our body from the Coronavirus. No, it energizes our own systems so that they become better able to fight that virus.
So, then the next step is recognizing that … of all the planets of which we have any knowledge, we have no reason to believe that any other planet has conditions on its surface that we require to live. This planet is extraordinarily unique. It may not be the only one, but it’s the only one we know. And we should take care of it.
So that’s the “living” piece that we have to get our minds around. And everything we do has to start with our recognition of life, and our dependence on the living organisms that are essential to Earth’s ability to sustain us.
I’m going to take you to another exercise. Say your goal was to take over and dominate all the humans on Earth? How would you go about it?
Warfield: Well, I have to think about that, because that’s something I’ve never conceived of doing.
Korten: Let me tell you how to do it. First thing you need to do is get control of the means of living—the sources of human food and water and places to live. You do that through ownership. Now, you focus on “How do I get control of ownership of these assets on which humans absolutely depend?”
Your next step is, “I need to get humans dependent on a thing I call money that I control. So I need to figure out- I mean, we’ve already got money. But if I can get control of the creation, and access to money, which would mean getting control over paid jobs. And the institutions that loan money, I can create a situation in which every human is dependent on me for their living. They have to do what I asked them to do, to get the money to then buy from me the things that are essential to their existence, like food, and water, and a place to live.”
Warfield: Which is the world that we live in now.
Warfield: And I’m thinking, “How do people even get to a point in their thinking, to want to dominate and control others?” Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop’s two cradle theory comes to mind. I think I mentioned that to you before. … It’s a whole mindset (based on our geographical locales: Africa vs. Europe) that, “I have plenty I want to share with you, or you don’t have and I want you to be OK, too,” versus this mindset of “I’m going to have what I have, and I’m gonna take all of what you have, and then sell it back to you, or keep it from you.”
It’s that mindset, that psyche, and I guess what we’re talking about the evolution of our mindsets.
I do want to get back to YES!, and how you all had the idea to use this platform to change mindsets, to get these ideas out about solutions, alternatives. What was it you said about resistance not being the only way?
Korten: Resistance alone is a losing strategy. You have to have a positive alternative, something that we move toward instead of away from.
Warfield: So I want to talk about how you all used YES! as that platform. You said before that the intention wasn’t to be this great media outlet. It was to have thinkers come together to discuss issues, and that was a platform to get those thoughts out.
Korten: Well, it was a very modest beginning. But the thing in my mind when we were founding YES!, it was a time when Margaret Thatcher’s framing was very prominent: the idea that there is no alternative. And the thing very strong in my own mind was: we absolutely have to keep alive the recognition that there is an alternative. So in a sense, we never give up, right?
Now, once we got into that, then it became more [about exploring] “what does that alternative look like?” That became increasingly our frame of telling the stories that exemplify the alternatives.
And as this keeps playing out in YES!, it’s also playing out in my own understanding and thinking… pushing us deeper and deeper, and bigger and bigger, in a way.
So you begin to get into these frameworks of living systems. You begin with Indigenous people … They understood in Africa—around Ubuntu, “I am because you are”—that there’s no way we as an individual can survive, that we are all interconnected. And the ones with a deeper understanding of that interconnection recognize it also as the interconnection with nature.
And our challenge now is coming back, embracing that knowledge, and understanding its implications. And from that, figuring out how we can organize as a global species. Finding what is our human role in this, because humans clearly are different from other species. We have a much greater capacity to conceptualize alternatives in our mind—new ways of being, abilities of studying the intricacy of these systems. But recognizing that in the larger frame, it’s really very egotistical to think that somewhere there was an old White guy in the sky with a gray beard, but [instead] recognizing that it is an emergent process. And there’s no reason to believe that the purpose of that emerging process was to create humans as the end-product or the purpose. But rather, humans are one of the many species, each of which has its distinctive characteristics, which ideally find their way to serving the whole.
So then you come to the question of “What is our human purpose within this larger unfolding of creation?” The thing you know, the thing I see here, is that if you look at how and what science is learning about the unfolding of not only evolution, but of the whole of creation—you know, it started out with the Big Bang, all dispersed energy particles.
The way I see it, it’s a continuous unfolding toward ever-greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. The possibilities [exist] for the continued evolution towards ever-greater complexity and beauty and awareness.
Warfield: So where do you see us going now, David? Humans (all over) working together with the Earth, we’re so far away from that now.
And it’s not happening at a great enough scale. You say often how we’re moving toward extinction. I don’t mean to sound superficial, but how do you give people hope?
Korten: We’re quite a long ways away. Yes.
We’re not going to be extinct in 10 years, but we may be crossing a critical point in 10 years from which it will be impossible to recover. And the trajectory that that leads us on is continued destruction of those aspects of Earth that are essential to our being.
Here’s the other piece of this: We are stretching Earth’s limits. So we’ve got to come to terms with that. But the reason we’re in trouble is totally a consequence of a misshapen culture and dysfunctional institutions.
If you think about human culture and institutions, they are both products of the human mind. And again, like money, they exist only in the human mind. There is nothing out there that prevents us from changing what’s in here (points to head). And that can happen very rapidly.
How do you make that happen very rapidly? I don’t know. I know it has happened in the human past, and in certain situations, at least institutionally. Two of the most extraordinary examples are South Africa, and the transition of from Apartheid, and the Soviet Union.
Now, what came out of those transitions was far from ideal. Visiting South Africa, it is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and it is racially divided, just incredibly, even though the Black people are theoretically in charge. But I think part of the problem in terms of both South Africa and the Soviet Union was they had too little vision of what they wanted, after they got rid of what they knew they didn’t want.
And that’s partly why it’s so important that we begin trying to envision, what would this ecological civilization look like? What would be the difference in the institutions and so forth? This gets you into things like ownership and how we think about how we use money… the nature of the family, and all the changes in how we think about family, and so forth, but still recognizing that family—however we define it—is essential, just as community is essential. And the core has to reside with the families, living families in the living communities, not with transnational corporations and banks that are totally delinked from life.
Warfield: I’m so glad you used South Africa as an example because we’re a lot like it, in the U.S. More people are starting to realize, though, all of the inequities that have existed historically. Part of it is, and as we started off talking about our own personal evolutions, opening our minds to a different way of thinking, because we’ve all been misinformed, miseducated. The institutions have really done their job on us.
And so we’re all learning (and relearning) at these different stages in our lives. But how do we get a consensus to make transformative change? A friend once told me you don’t need everybody, you just need a critical mass. What are your thoughts around the kind of work that needs to happen to get just that?
Korten: You need millions of conversations around exactly the questions we’re asking. So what might I do? Well, one possibility: you might start a communications organization, maybe you call it YES! (laughs). Maybe you put out a magazine that has an issue called ecological civilization that does a beautiful job of beginning to lay out some of the questions, which is exactly what I think you’re doing with this issue.
But then you also want to organize just endless conversations around the framing issues. It’s about people coming to understand their own aspirations. And what it is that that gives them their deepest satisfaction? And what would a world look like that supports all of us in fulfilling that satisfaction?
I was just thinking about it this morning, in preparation for this conversation. You know that one of the things we get great satisfaction from is creating beauty. Now, we do it through art, or we do it through music, and in so many different ways.
Beauty is usually about harmony. But it’s also diverse. And given the issues around race and color, I was thinking, do you have any great artworks that are all white? Just a blank white canvas, we just spent a lot to get one of those to put in our living room. The beauty is in the diversity of colors. What if we thought about human societies in that way?
Warfield: Yeah. When we first started having these conversations, one of the things I said to you about this ecological civilization space, in the U.S. in particular, is that it’s mostly White men. So it’s like, we’re moving from this one kind of civilization already that’s been created by mostly White men, into another where mostly White men are creating the framework.
This during a time where we do see more of an interconnectedness of people—globally, around the pandemic, around the uprisings following the police killing of George Floyd. Yet, still all existing in their own silos: climate activists, racial justice activists, etc. I’m starting to see and hear people talking about where is it that we all come together. So like, let’s say there are 10 things, and nine of them we don’t agree on. What’s that one thing that we do agree on? The one thing where we do come together? How do we organize and mobilize around it?
Korten: The starting point is recognizing that there are different clusters. Within the progressive movement, we have all these different clusters that you identified. To me, the key here is recognizing that these are not necessarily disagreements. I don’t think that most of the people concerned about racial justice would deny that we have an environmental problem.
So the first thing is recognizing the difference between treating symptoms. And each of these issues that these groups are working on, are essentially symptoms of a deeper systemic dysfunction, which is the system that concentrates power at the top within a society of living beings who have to organize from the bottom up, just the way life organizes. OK, so we’ve got that within the progressive movement, then we have the barriers between the progressives and the conservatives. And, of course, the conservatives are actually divided, in some ways more difficult than the progressives are.
Now, the conservatives have that same thing that, you know, a major element of the conservative bloc is really focused on localization and local community. But they’ve somehow gotten sucked into supporting this very establishment party. And when you get down on the bottom, an awful lot of young people who are living in rural areas and so forth are certainly very conscious of environmental issues. So it’s the people playing with their mind. So, you know, we absolutely need to bridge that and this is where hopefully our new president will be a positive factor, because he’s very focused on that, and is hopefully bringing in people who will recognize the need to expand that recession.
But then we have the recognition that we have a very small percentage of humans that cut across all races that are literal certifiable psychopaths, who, for whatever reason, are totally incompatible and incapable of compassion, and therefore incapable of cooperating on anything other than their immediate narrowly defined self-interest. So part of this is recognizing that, you know, you’re wasting your time trying to convert a psychopath, although it’s very hard to identify who is a psychopath among people who are maybe acting like psychopaths.
But the way I’ve always approached it during my life is to focus on the people that I am closest to, and who are most ready for what I’m ready for. And within a recognition that each of those people then needs to do the same within their own sphere of influence and interaction, working out through the webs of interconnection. And I guess, again, it brings us back to, you know, maybe we form a communications organization, call it YES! (laughs). We focus our attention on how do we engage those conversations.
Warfield: Yeah, and be ready for them and be intentional about them. We’ve learned a lot from each other over our series of conversations. I think I’ve talked to you more in the past few months than in the four years I’ve been at YES!
That’s just kind of how it works, right? It’s opening yourselves up to these conversations that may make you feel uncomfortable initially, or where you may feel intimidated initially.
I just appreciate and feel really grateful for the learning exchange.
Korten: Here’s what I appreciate about it, is that we clearly share in common our passion to learn.
Warfield: Yes, absolutely.
Korten: I think that’s taking place in some of the groups I work in. What’s taking place within those groups, in terms of beginning to put the ego aside and actually listen to each other, and then learn from each other. And figure out where are we, where do we converge? Where do we differ and how do we deal with that?
And it’s something that I think the Coronavirus has helped to trigger; it’s something absolutely essential to our time. And it’s a time when we, in my view, in a way we need to celebrate our identities as the diversity that is essential to creativity, which is very different than blaming identities different than our own.
Warfield: Yeah. I remember sharing with you a conversation I’d had with my dad where I asked him, I don’t know, 20 or more years ago, “Do you ever think racism will end?” And he said, “No, I think it’ll just evolve into something else.” There will be another way of being that separates us by hierarchy.
Korten: And that’s like trying to create a hierarchy of the cells in the body. I think our brain cells are actually black, aren’t they (laughs).
Warfield: That would make sense (laughs). It’s always great talking to you, David, and, I look forward to us talking again for the 25th anniversary. Thank you so much.
Thank you, David Korten, for your passion, guidance, and devotion to our organization and especially for sharing your vision of a better world.
Your YES! Family
If you’d like to send your own thank-you note to David, email [email protected].
CORRECTION: This article was edited at 9:55a.m. Pacific on Feb. 17, 2021, to correct the misprinted name of Dr. Mae-Wan Ho. It was amended again at 7:49 a.m. Pacific on Feb. 18, 2021, to correct a series of punctuation errors. Read our corrections policy here.