Good news: there’s a startling degree of consensus on key issues. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe that as a society, the United States is focused on the wrong priorities. Supermajorities want to see greater priority given to children, family, community, and a healthy environment. Americans also want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of international domination


This article from the YES! Media archives was originally published in the Summer 2006 issue of YES! Magazine.

By what name will future generations know our time?

Will they speak in anger and frustration of the time of the Great Unraveling, when profligate consumption exceeded Earth’s capacity to sustain and led to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remained of the planet’s resources, and a dramatic dieback of the human population? Or will they look back in joyful celebration on the time of the Great Turning, when their forebears embraced the higher-order potential of their human nature, turned crisis into opportunity, and learned to live in creative partnership with one another and Earth?

A defining choice

We face a defining choice between two contrasting models for organizing human affairs. Give them the generic names Empire and Earth Community. Absent an understanding of the history and implications of this choice, we may squander valuable time and resources on efforts to preserve or mend cultures and institutions that cannot be fixed and must be replaced.

Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.

Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative cooperation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. Supporting evidence for the possibilities of Earth Community comes from the findings of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and religious mysticism. It was the human way before Empire; we must choose to relearn how to live by its principles.

Developments distinctive to our time are telling us that Empire has reached the limits of the exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and an imbalanced U.S. economy dependent on debts it can never repay is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. We have the power to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity. The Great Turning is not a prophecy. It is a possibility. 

A turn from life

According to cultural historian Riane Eisler, early humans evolved within a cultural and institutional frame of Earth Community. They organized to meet their needs by cooperating with life rather than by dominating it. Then some 5,000 years ago, beginning in Mesopotamia, our ancestors made a tragic turn from Earth Community to Empire. They turned away from a reverence for the generative power of life—represented by female gods or nature spirits—to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword—represented by distant, usually male, gods. The wisdom of the elder and the priestess gave way to the arbitrary rule of the powerful, often ruthless, king.  

Paying the price

The peoples of the dominant human societies lost their sense of attachment to the living earth, and societies became divided between the rulers and the ruled, exploiters and exploited. The brutal competition for power created a relentless play-or-die, rule-or-be-ruled dynamic of violence and oppression and served to elevate the most ruthless to the highest positions of power. Since the fateful turn, the major portion of the resources available to human societies has been diverted from meeting the needs of life to supporting the military forces, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage for retainers and propagandists on which the system of domination in turn depends. Great civilizations built by ambitious rulers fell to successive waves of corruption and conquest.

The primary institutional form of Empire has morphed from the city-state to the nation-state to the global corporation, but the underlying pattern of domination remains. It is axiomatic for a few to be on top, many must be on the bottom. The powerful control and institutionalize the processes by which it will be decided who enjoys the privilege and who pays the price, a choice that commonly results in arbitrarily excluding from power whole groups of persons based on race and gender. 

Troubling truths

Herein lies a crucial insight. If we look for the source of the social pathologies increasingly evident in our culture, we find they have a common origin in the dominator relations of Empire that have survived largely intact in spite of the democratic reforms of the past two centuries. The sexism, racism, economic injustice, violence, and environmental destruction that have plagued human societies for 5,000 years, and have now brought us to the brink of a potential terminal crisis, all flow from this common source. Freeing ourselves from these pathologies depends on a common solution—replacing the underlying dominator cultures and institutions of Empire with the partnership cultures and institutions of Earth Community. Unfortunately, we cannot look to imperial power-holders to lead the way.

Beyond denial

History shows that as empires crumble the ruling elites become ever more corrupt and ruthless in their drive to secure their own power—a dynamic now playing out in the United States. We Americans base our identity in large measure on the myth that our nation has always embodied the highest principles of democracy and is devoted to spreading peace and justice to the world.

But there has always been tension between America’s high ideals and its reality as a modern version of Empire. The freedom promised by the Bill of Rights contrasts starkly with the enshrinement of slavery elsewhere in the original articles of the Constitution. The protection of property, an idea central to the American dream, stands in contradiction to the fact that our nation was built on land taken by force from Native Americans. Although we consider the vote to be the hallmark of our democracy, it took nearly 200 years before that right was extended to all citizens.

Americans acculturated to the ideals of America find it difficult to comprehend what our rulers are doing, most of which is at odds with notions of egalitarianism, justice, and democracy. Within the frame of historical reality, it is perfectly clear: They are playing out the endgame of Empire, seeking to consolidate power through increasingly authoritarian and antidemocratic policies.

Wise choices necessarily rest on a foundation of truth. The Great Turning depends on awakening to deep truths long denied.

It is fortuitous that we humans have achieved the means to make a collective choice as a species to free ourselves from Empire’s seemingly inexorable compete-or-die logic at the precise moment we face the imperative to do so. The speed at which institutional and technological advances have created possibilities wholly new to the human experience is stunning.

Just over 60 years ago, we created the United Nations, which, for all its imperfections, made it possible for the first time for representatives of all the world’s nations and people to meet in a neutral space to resolve differences through dialogue rather than force of arms.

Less than 50 years ago, our species ventured into space to look back and see ourselves as one people sharing a common destiny on a living space ship.

In little more than 10 years, our communications technologies have given us the ability, should we choose to use it, to link every human on the planet into a seamless web of nearly costless communication and cooperation.Already our new technological capability has made possible the interconnection of the millions of people who are learning to work as a dynamic, self-directing social organism that transcends boundaries of race, class, religion, and nationality and functions as a shared conscience of the species. We call this social organism global civil society. On February 15, 2003, it brought more than 10 million people to the streets of the world’s cities, towns, and villages to call for peace in the face of the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They accomplished this monumental collective action without a central organization, budget, or charismatic leader through social processes never before possible on such a scale. This was but a foretaste of the possibilities for radically new forms of partnership organization now within our reach.

And last but not least, renewable energy – solar and wind — with batteries in many places  — are already cheaper than operating existing gas and coal plants.  Further investment in anything that takes fossil fuels is unwise as well as immoral. 

Break the silence, end the isolation, change the story

We humans live by stories. The key to making a choice for Earth Community is recognizing that the foundation of Empire’s power does not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire’s ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities to perpetuate the myths on which the legitimacy of the dominator relations of Empire depend. To change the human future, we must change our defining stories. 

Story power

For 5,000 years, the ruling class has cultivated, rewarded, and amplified the voices of those storytellers whose stories affirm the righteousness of Empire and deny the higher-order potentials of our nature that would allow us to live with one another in peace and cooperation. There have always been those among us who sense the possibilities of Earth Community, but their stories have been marginalized or silenced by Empire’s instruments of intimidation. The stories endlessly repeated by the scribes of Empire become the stories most believed. Stories of more hopeful possibilities go unheard or unheeded and those who discern the truth are unable to identify and support one another in the common cause of truth telling. Fortunately, the new communications technologies are breaking this pattern. As truth-tellers reach a wider audience, the myths of Empire become harder to maintain.

THE IMPERIAL PROSPERITY STORY says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that create barriers to accumulating wealth. We must also eliminate welfare programs to teach the poor the value of working hard at whatever wages the market offers.

THE IMPERIAL SECURITY STORY tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists, and enemies. The only way to ensure our safety is through major expenditures on the military and the police to maintain order by physical force.

THE IMPERIAL MEANING STORY reinforces the other two, featuring a God who rewards righteousness with wealth and power and mandates that they rule over the poor who justly suffer divine punishment for their sins.

These stories all serve to alienate us from the community of life and deny the positive potentials of our nature, while affirming the legitimacy of economic inequality, the use of physical force to maintain imperial order, and the special righteousness of those in power.

It is not enough to work on particular policies.  Nor is it enough to craft slogans with broad mass appeal aimed at winning the next election or policy debate. We must infuse the mainstream culture with stories of Earth Community. As the stories of Empire nurture a culture of domination, the stories of Earth Community nurture a culture of partnership. They affirm the positive potentials of our human nature and show that realizing true prosperity, security, and meaning depends on creating vibrant, caring, interlinked communities that support all persons in realizing their full humanity. Sharing the joyful news of our human possibilities through word and action is perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Work of our time.

Peak oil

Changing the prevailing stories in the United States may be easier to accomplish than we might think. The apparent political divisions notwithstanding, U.S. polling data reveal a startling degree of consensus on key issues. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe that as a society, the United States is focused on the wrong priorities. Supermajorities want to see greater priority given to children, family, community, and a healthy environment. Americans also want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of international domination. These Earth Community values are in fact widely shared by both conservatives and liberals.

Our nation is on the wrong course not because Americans have the wrong values. It is on the wrong course because of remnant imperial institutions that give unaccountable power to a small alliance of right-wing extremists who call themselves conservative and claim to support family and community values, but whose preferred economic and social policies constitute a ruthless war against children, families, communities, and the environment.

The distinctive human capacity for reflection and intentional choice carries a corresponding moral responsibility to care for one another and the planet. Indeed, our deepest desire is to live in loving relationships with one another. The hunger for loving families and communities is a powerful, but latent, unifying force and the potential foundation of a winning political coalition dedicated to creating societies that support every person in actualizing his or her highest potential.

In these turbulent and often frightening times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of the human experience. We have the opportunity to turn away from Empire and to embrace Earth Community as a conscious collective choice. We are the ones we have been waiting for. 

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network, publisher of YES! Magazine. This article draws from his newly released book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and was part of 5,000 Years of Empire, the Summer 2006 edition of YES! Magazine.

“The Story of Soil Is the Story of All of Us”

Annie Leonard and Tom Newmark on how they came to see soil as a solution to one of our biggest environmental problems—and as a tool to build more resilient communities.
1. HandsInSoil.jpg

But soil has a story to tell us, and we are all a part of it.

For as long as humans have engaged in agriculture, and even before, we’ve relied on healthy soil and the organisms it supports. And for most of that time, we’ve cultivated good soil. Early societies developed food production systems that actually enhanced soil fertility and food abundance, such as with “terra preta,” or Amazonian dark earth, and thefood forests of the Mayans. We planted, harvested, and consumed but also took care to nourish and regenerate.

What changed? At some point, humans started relating to the planet differently, and our emotional and spiritual connection to the earth was severed. Whether the shift happened during the Neolithic Revolution, when humans settled and established agriculture, or the Age of Enlightenment, when nature became viewed as an object to be observed and controlled, the result was a disconnect from nature. We became, in the words of Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael, “Takers” and not “Leavers.”

Thousands of years of taking have caught up with us—and our soil. Approximately 40 percent of agricultural soils worldwide are degraded or seriously degraded; we lose an estimated 36 billion tons of topsoil every year.

Scientists warn us that we only have about 60 years of productive soil left. What will happen when the Earth has lost all of its soil and can no longer produce food? While this is a dire future, it doesn’t have to be our destiny. It’s time to act. And the solution is under our feet.

The authors of this article work on projects that promote soil and community health for Greenpeace and other organizations. This is the story of how each of us came to see soil as a solution to one of our biggest environmental problems—and as a tool to build more resilient communities.

Meet Tom

As the co-owner of a farm and eco-lodge in Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, I’ve long been interested in ways to optimize agriculture. Years ago, I met Tim LaSalle, then CEO of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. From LaSalle, I first learned about the importance of carbon in soil health. Soil carbon comes from the interaction of photosynthesizing plants and the web of life in the soil. He said that if enough of the planet’s arable acreage were converted to what he described as “regenerative” agriculture, we could draw enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change. I saw his data, and the conclusion was undeniable: If we just farmed in a way that optimized photosynthesis and learned to leave carbon in the ground, we could repair damaged water cycles, capture greenhouse gases, and address one of humanity’s biggest challenges.

My world was rocked. I thought I was a pretty well-informed citizen scientist, and I was long in the camp of folks who advocated for non-GMO and organic agriculture, but I hadn’t made the key connection to carbon sequestration.

Several years later, my world was rocked again. At our farm in Costa Rica, we’d been farming under organic or biodynamic certifications. We composted, used teams of oxen and water buffalos pulling old-fashioned plows, employed biodynamic preparations for soil fertility and overall plant health and gave our fields years of rest. So we were shocked when we measured our soil’s carbon content and learned the soils at our farm held less carbon than the rainforest around it.

We integrated principles of regenerative agriculture into our farm, and everything changed.

Then I remembered Dr. LaSalle’s presentation and realized that organic practices don’t necessarily translate into greater soil health. While our oxen and water buffaloes were impressive and “old school,” it turns out they didn’t build soil. Ploughing fields—by any method—exposes decomposing microorganisms and sequestered carbon to oxygen and sunlight. This also meant that when it rained, all those good nutrients in the soil washed away.

I realized we weren’t using permanent ground cover where we were growing our crops, so we weren’t optimizing the natural process of photosynthesis. We were planting crops in monoculture plots with plants of uniform heights. If we wanted to be more aligned with natural systems that optimize solar cycles and carbon capture, we would need to think about how forests, prairies, and rainforests produce food—and that’s not in monoculture rows surrounded by bare earth.

Steven Farrell, co-owner of Finca Luna Nueva, giving a tour on regenerative agriculture in the food forest. Photo by Tom Newmark.

So we integrated principles of regenerative agriculture into our farm, and everything changed.

We’re still using organic and biodynamic practices, but since employing regenerative practices, our farm is performing a lot better, or so our fields seem to be telling us. Our fields and pastures are home to a greater diversity of ground cover and grasses, native creatures are coming onto our lands, and our fruit and nut trees are producing with ever greater abundance.

A key part of our journey was admitting that we didn’t know everything, and to humbly learn from how natural systems grow food.

Meet Annie

Ironically, my journey to realizing the importance of soil began in a city. As a student at Barnard College in Manhattan, I was disturbed to see mounds of garbage lining the sidewalks as I walked to class in the morning. Having been raised in the lush Pacific Northwest, where we take our recycling seriously, I was more accustomed to being surrounded by nature than piles of trash bags. What was in these bags and where was it going? I had to find out.

My curiosity about those piles of trash in New York City, led me to spend more than a decade of my life following waste around the globe, learning how our culture of material excess and planned obsolescence is trashing the planet. My first stop was New York’s Staten Island, home of the infamous Fresh Kills landfill—at the time, one of the largest dumps in the world. I had never seen anything like it. As far as I could see in every direction, there was rotting food, old furniture, discarded appliances, books, and clothes. I was stunned by the scale of the waste—and by how effectively this side of our consumer culture was hidden from view.

Sloths in the forest at Finca Luna Nueva. Photo by Tom Newmark.

After finishing college, I moved to Washington, D.C., to start working at Greenpeace. I was thrilled to land a job at an organization tackling the problem of waste.

My work with Greenpeace took me around the world to investigate and advocate for solutions to waste. Everywhere I visited, from Staten Island to the Philippines, Guatemala, and Bangladesh, there was one thing common: A lot of municipal waste was organic.

Food and yard scraps are full of nutrients, but what we do with them makes a big difference in how they interact with the earth once they’re discarded. Throw them in a landfill as we do in the U.S., and they convert to methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Leave them rotting in the streets, as happens in countries with irregular waste disposal, and they attract vermin and threaten public health.

Composting takes organic waste from individuals, mixes it together, and transforms it into a practice that benefits a community.

By throwing away our food, we’re missing out on a win-win solution to our trash problem.

When food scraps are used to fertilize crops as compost, they build soil health while reducing a major source of waste. What’s more, it can work on all scales, from backyard herb gardens to whole farms. And with such a significant portion of municipal waste being organic, composting makes a huge dent in the challenge of dealing with waste.

But what I love the most is this: composting can build community social and economic resilience. For example, in Manila’s barangays, or small neighborhoods, in the absence of regular waste collection, the Mother Earth Foundation organizes residents to compost organic material. There, neighborhood youth receive a small stipend for going door-to-door to collect the material, which is composted in street side bins and used in potted gardens. And building this community compost system requires neighbors to get to come together. In areas where garden pots are hard to come by, neighbors lined the path with old tires, filled with compost, and now bursting with flowers and herbs. The barangays that participate in these programs are colorful and lush compared to those that have piles of garbage rather than flower beds on the corners.

Spices and fruits from the farming fields at Finca Luna Nueva. Photo by Terry Newmark.

Composting isn’t limited to low-tech neighborhood approaches, although I admit those are my favorite. Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have curbside collection of organic material. Every resident gets a little green bucket to keep our food scraps in. San Francisco’s residents and businesses compost 650 tons of food scraps and other compostable material per day.

Regardless of the logistics involved, composting takes organic waste from individuals, mixes it together, and transforms it into a practice that benefits a community—and the planet—as a whole. Figuring out local composting systems requires us to come together to solve problems that affect us all, and we’re going to need a strong sense of community to guide us through our soil and climate crises.

We cannot continue to treat our land, air, and water like ATM machines hooked up to bottomless bank accounts; at some point they’re bound to run dry. Life comes from the soil and ultimately returns to it. The story of soil is the story of all of us and it spans eons. It tells us to adapt to nature, not to squeeze every last drop of value from it. It reminds us that our fate is inextricably bound to the soil’s, and that ultimately, we’re all in this together.