In April 2020, just as the Pandemic disrupted our lives, I interviewed a dozen visionaries to ask what possibilities they see. David Korten has been one of my favorite visionaries and guiding light for over 30 years, so I turned to him. His wisdom is so needed now, as you will see. My notes on the conversation are below, and a link to the whole CoVida series.
Author, Speaker, Engaged Citizen
Over the course of 30+ years, David Korten has crystallized the key code for changing civilizational tracks, for the pattern that must emerge if complex human societies will persist: a shift from returns to money and towards returns to life. Our civilization is designed around money making money. If a thing has no value in the marketplace, it has no value. Everything is transactional. Every transaction has a dollar sign attached to it. We are drawing down the wealth of the living earth, and feeding it into the furnace of a financial bottom line. What comes after this insanity must, through every exchange, increase the ability of life to flourish. What must grow is well-being for all life, not financial wealth for capitalists. We must go from an economy of things to living economies and living communities.
How? David says we learn from how nature self-organizes, the smallest microbes up to the largest organisms. No domination, only cooperation. No humans on the top of the heap, humans caring for creation as our dearest selves. Which makes community organizing a key foundation – bottom up.
But really how? How to translate the dead, destructive but oh so distracting economies we have to living economies? He gives us a hint: Re-purposing what we have. It’s sort of reduce reuse recycle at a civilizational scale. How do we repurpose existing infrastructure, institutions, patterns? Don’t kill them, but give them a different job to do based on what the virus is teaching us about what doesn’t work. Take education, as that is David’s prime example. Why have two homes for students – their parents’ and their dorm. How could education be better suited to our times, now that campuses are closing (and having trouble reopening)? Can we re-purpose war – teams taking on impossible problems that must be won? (Now, 6 months after this interview, we see that the US is not in a cooperative battle for a cure, but the question lingers.) Airports. Cities. Theaters. Parks. On and on, we can look around at the world as it is and ask how will Life use this in a living economy? For sure, nature will repurpose everything if/ when humans vacate – or are decimated in – every corner of the earth. We won’t create a new civilization out of sequins and gauze. We will repurpose what we have – give it a new job.
Transcript (+ 31 secs to time stamps)
Vicki Robin 0:01
Hi, we’re recording and here we are. I’m with David Korten, who is an author, a visionary and a distinguished elder in the field of an economy with returns to life, rather than returns to money. He could not have been more prescient about this time. David, the setup here is, I’m keying off this Milton Friedman quote about “only a crisis actual or perceived produces real change”. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas there are lying around. So in this time of solidarity and fluidity, this time of COVID, what glimmers of possibility do you see now and how can we anchor them? How can we have them be the good ideas that are lying around? And you know, you and I have both been sort of visionaries and sort of possibility thinkers and what I’m looking for now in myself and my friends is that sense of: here is a moment, an open door. What can we anchor, articulate, initiate now and make visible that really can be helpful as we go through this and we have no idea the timetable, etc. So take it away David.
David Korten 1:30
Well it’s great to be with you Vicki and you never have been one for small questions. This is a really big one and it’s always fun to try to cover everything in 20 minutes.
I think it’s amazing what’s happening. When it started out, and you know, Trump was talking about essentially returning to business as usual as quickly as possible. I figured our immediate message needed to be: No, this is not a time to return to business as usual. This is a time to move to the future that we have been dreaming of; the future that is essential to our well being, even our existence. Now, since that time, things have been changing on a daily basis to which, you know, that’s no longer an issue. I mean, hardly anybody in their right mind expects that we’re going to be returning to business as usual anytime, certainly not anytime soon. I think we’re going to be soon beyond where it’s even a discussion about over the long term. Because business as usual, absolutely is not working. It got us on a path essentially to human self extinction, and we need to change in the absolutely most fundamental ways.
Now, in terms of the messages at this particular moment in time that I think are essential to move us where we need to go is, first of all, recognize that the Coronavirus epidemic is an environmental disaster, is a consequence of the human assault on the environment. It’s just one of the many. It happens to be the one that gets our attention because it is very immediate. It’s not like, we’ll all be dead in so many decades, you know. I could be on my final breaths in the next few days. It really pushes us to ask the deepest of questions, and for me the question, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”, whatever time is left and it may be only in days, definitely not decades, of course. I’m 82. So one decade would be really good. But then, once you get clear on the human assault on a living planet, then that, of course, is part of the picture.
We exist only because we are on a planet in which life self organizes to create and maintain the conditions of its own existence. So we have to be partners with life, not the enemies of life. That’s kind of a starting point. The other is that we’ve developed societies – the economy is a major piece of it, but it goes way beyond the economy – around competition rather than cooperation. So we’re always looking for winners. Well, a very simple, straightforward message is there are no winners on a dead planet. This is a time to wake up on that we’ve got to pull together as a global species, as the global species that we now are, and the COVID virus creates the imperative that is easily recognized that we have to do that immediately. Now we’re also realizing that we are particularly at a disadvantage in the United States because we have probably the worst possible imaginable president at this point in time given the situation that we are in, so there is an additional challenge of trying to work around the devastation that his administration wrought.
Now getting to a deeper level. I’m often referred to as an economist and I often rebel at that, and say, “Don’t insult me”. But I’ve actually now decided that I need to be an economist because economics is supposed to be about household management. And we are currently facing the need to manage our role in the earth household in a whole new way. If you begin to look at it what we currently call and teach as economics is, as far as I can tell, of no help whatsoever in fulfilling that role. We need a wholly new economics that can. If there is anything useful in the current economics, fine, let’s draw on it. But we’ve really got to start out with a whole new foundation, building around life rather than money, and recognizing that if we were to have a future as living beings, we need to organize around living economies or living communities, rather than money maximizing corporations. All of these are very basic, but also very obvious concepts. Particularly if you haven’t taken a university economics course, they’re quite easy to understand.
So then you begin to think in terms of how we organize as a global species. And yet, we have to organize the way life organizes and life basically organizes everywhere at a local level. All the way down to the most minute level of tiny microbes that we can’t even see, and of course, the COVID-19 draws our attention to. Our immediate enemy is something that we cannot see, which is part of our dilemma. But you think about that and begin to understand microbes and understand even that most microbes are friendly and we absolutely depend on them as part of our own ability to live. And you see the buildup, the whole foundation of life, self-organizing from the smallest microbes, up to the largest of large organisms of which we are one.
We have yet to learn that we depend on that whole foundation and we cannot dominate it. We can only support it and nurture it and be caretakers of it and creative contributors to its continued unfolding, which is the continued unfolding of evolution. So, organize around communities from the bottom up; not a simple task, but a fairly straightforward concept. Then the thing that’s most current coming into the conversations I’m engaged in – and this includes being a member of The Club of Rome, which is some of the more interesting large new paradigm thinkers in the world, really trying to work together to sort out what is this larger new framing and what does it mean in terms of a new economics and a new finance, but ultimately around the frame of a new civilization. This of course goes back to the work on…
Most of the things that we have called civilizations for the last 5000 years are systems of domination and exploitation that we need to move beyond. So just in terms of language, part of the essence of what we now need to navigate is the path to a – you could say – to a new civilization or you could just say a path to a true civilization, a civil civilization.
Now, the very leading edge of that conversation, as I’m in it, is thinking about the repurposing of resources and institutions. How do we reallocate the resources that we have, the intellectual capacity, the physical resources and so forth, and even how we allocate money so that it’s all serving the purposes and outcomes that we actually want, rather than the ones that any sane human being should recognize we don’t want? This starts to get very interesting, the deepest conversations I’ve been in so far as about repurposing universities, just for example. I think we got all these university facilities sitting open. We’ve also got millions of homeless people who’ve got no place to live and no way to care for themselves in the midst of this emergency. What a great use for these university facilities that would be in the short term. That kind of thinking, and of course, we’re looking at the instruments of war, the hospital ships and the National Guard and all of that, and the ways that they could be repurposed in very damaging ways, but they can also be repurposed, potentially, in ways that really are essential to dealing with the crisis that we’re in; which of course, among other things, calls for ending war. The most ridiculous use of resources at this time, which the Coronavirus virus certainly emphasizes, is the last thing we should be doing is fighting wars with each other, when we need to come together and combine our resources, our intellect and so forth, to save each other or suffer the consequences. So that’s what I’m up to currently.
Vicki Robin 12:26
Wow, David, there’s so much in there, in terms of what ideas can we cause to be lying around? I love this idea of repurposing, and just to send that out. You know, I’m sort of the grassroots person. I like to talk to people who are sitting in their lives, meaning well, and completely confused about what to do about it. I don’t know if that’s the most important point of intervention, but it seems to be the one that I’m in and so I really like this idea of repurposing. And people could think about it, all the way down to their households; yeah, repurposing the guestroom. But I mean, that idea of repurposing a campus, when you think about it, probably the big campus greens are full of pesticides. Nonetheless, that grass, you have actually a town. You have a town with a restaurant, you have a cohousing community. And if we’re going to get accustomed to universities going online, education going online, then that’s an amazing idea.
David Korten 13:49
That’s exactly it. We’ve got our universities empty as we’re learning to do things online. That’s all part of rethinking the university. Why do we bring people in and put them in redundant living facilities to sit and take notes in an auditorium in front of a professor reading out of his book?
Vicki Robin 14:15
Yeah, it’s just topsy. It just grew. Yeah. So we democratize going away to college, which created incredible burdens on families. Incredible burdens. So this idea of repurposing, just to think that through and I hope you’re writing about that. And the other thing…
David Korten 14:37
Let me throw in another one. It forces you ask the question, What is education? And what education do we want to provide? Well, there’s certain things that you know, we need to learn rote learning. But a real education should be around how do you engage as a member of your community, to secure the well being of the community? That will be a very different kind of education, not one that you would get by sitting in isolation in some enclave cut off from the rest of society. Then that throws you into the whole thing, of the whole intellectual world, in which in a university we’ve disconnected and siloed everything, when you and I know all the important insights come from connecting the dots. Universities absolutely separate.
Vicki Robin 15:36
The other thing I’m talking about is basically that life self organizes around localities. In a way, in this crisis we’re seeing more clearly the design of the United States. The design is a federation of states. You know, we thought there was sort of this national government and it’s an expression of ourselves, but really, it’s a federation of states that current administration is putting in competition to one another; silly idea.
David Korten 16:05
And it should be supporting the states and cooperating to address this.
Vicki Robin 16:11
And so, I used to like to talk about succession as the way to think about anything. Basically being able… Succession. You know that we need to start thinking in smaller units that we actually can feel participatory in. So I really like the frame of local organizing. Local organizing doesn’t mean one smart person getting 50 people who are less informed to do something. It really is something quite different. And if we can find language for that so that people can… it’s like a figure ground shift; people can shift their perspective to see what’s going on. Part of the problem right now with this isolation is that our community weaves itself through contact in the grocery store and in the post office and on the streets and in the clubs. We’re shuttling around making a fabric at all times. Just one final thing because we could go on and on forever, but I want to do things that people could actually take some time and watch, and if it’s three hours, we can’t do that. So what are your ideas about creating and reinforcing that social weave, that co-intelligence that happens at the level of human connection? How do we do that now, if this pandemic lasts; if we sort of lose the civilizing habit of being connected? What ideas do you have?
David Korten 18:00
What you raised is that our whole system currently, the way it’s organized, way before the virus, has been separating people. Now the number of people living alone and running out to part time jobs and distant places and have no time for themselves or their neighbors. Families breaking apart, separating around the country and around the world. A recognition we need to come back together and in which you outlined earlier about the differences in work, where you and me, our attention is focused. I’m focused on the global meta frame, and you’re focused on the local organizing. I think I hope we’ve just demonstrated to those listening…
Vicki Robin 18:55
Excuse me, I’m getting rid of my cat!
David Korten 18:56
…Those can’t be separated. We are a global species and we have to begin to live like a global species. Yet our well-being absolutely depends on the health of our localities. So this gets into what we call in organization theory “subsidiarity”. Instead of the higher levels controlling and dictating to the local lower levels, the higher levels of organization need to be supporting the self reliance, the control of local resources, the ability of communities to self organize. And if one community gets into one of these things, where they’re trying to attack or steal or infiltrate or whatever on other communities, the system has to protect each community and its integrity, while also supporting all of us when one community has an emergency; bringing aid to that community from other communities. So again, it’s all very obvious. It’s very straightforward. And yet it’s a total flip of the way we are operating.
Vicki Robin 20:16
It’s nested realities, rather than hierarchies.
David Korten 20:21
Yeah. Well, it’s a wholearchy. There’s the term: wholearchy. There’s a whole of many parts and all interconnected.
Vicki Robin 20:31
So I think in this present moment, one of the things we can do is notice how the wholearchy is functioning, even down to the kindness in grocery stores. That’s what people are commenting on now, is “Oh, everybody’s being so helpful to one another.” I’m just one of millions that have figured out that I can publish immediately, and there’s this outpouring of comedy and dancing and yoga. Humanity wants to do this, and the systems prevent us from this outpouring of love. Maybe what we notice is that, when we are let out of our houses again, is that we want to be agents of this connectivity. From our house, all the way out to whatever, our businesses; that we will not tolerate, we will no longer tolerate separation as a modus operandi.
David Korten 21:37
It’s absolutely fascinating that it takes this extreme separation to awaken us to how interdependent we are and how much we really want to get together with each other.
Vicki Robin 21:52
So my friend, I think that’s probably a great stopping point for this little conversation. And I don’t know, maybe we circle back around in a month’s time and see what other great advice you can give from the perch of looking at systems to the people who are trying to make change.
David Korten 22:13
If I’m still around in a month, I so look forward to it.
Vicki Robin 22:15
Okay honey. I love you. Bye bye.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai