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Think globally, write locally

Author David Korten founded the Positive Futures Network. - Julie Busch photo
Author David Korten founded the Positive Futures Network.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

When David Korten crafted his 1995 bestseller on the ills of corporate power, his writing desk was set deep in the belly of his book’s beast.

“It was properly inspiring to be living in the heart of Manhattan, just a few blocks from Wall Street,” the island author said.

After the publication of “When Corporations Rule the World” – which has sold upwards of 150,000 copies worldwide – Korten relocated to Bainbridge, where he now draws inspirational lifeblood from “the heart of ‘Ecotopia.’”

His latest book, “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” reflects a broader perspective that has “gone toward a more spiritual level” and points readers toward the positive “possibilities in our reach,” he said.

The book has already earned praise from progressive leaders, including Ohio congressman and former Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who calls the book a “clear blueprint for a powerful emerging majority” that will help “change America for the better.”

In “The Great Turning,” Korten argues that many global problems – from atmospheric warming to the growing divide between rich and poor – have roots deeper than the advent of multinational corporations.

It was the advent of “empire” some 5,000 years ago that sparked a “violent chauvinism” based on race, gender, religion, nationality and class, he writes.

After growing up with “conservative roots” in Longview, Wash., Korten’s views were gradually altered after service in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War; an academic career that included a Ph.D. from the Stanford Business School and a teaching assignment at Harvard; and years abroad as a U.S. Agency for International Development advisor.

Stationed in Southeast Asia for nearly 15 years, Korten became disillusioned with the ability of USAID and other large official aid donors to apply successful strategies common to nongovernmental agencies.

This revelation eventually led Korten to help establish the Positive Futures Network, an island-based nonprofit supporting a “just, sustainable, and compassionate world.”

The network is perhaps best known for publishing YES! magazine, a quarterly that now boasts a readership of about 50,000.

“When we founded YES!, there were lots of publications that talk about bad news,” Korten said. “We thought there was a significant need for a publication that was not ‘Pollyanna-ish,’ but very realistic about the scope of what we face (while) bringing the good news of the many ways we can become engaged.”

“The Great Turning” follows the same pattern, identifying social, environmental and economic challenges while offering unique models that Korten hopes will elicit a widespread “change in consciousness.”

Survival for all

One such model that certainly changed Korten’s conciousness was offered by microbiologist Mae-Wan Ho and evolution biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, who challenge the assumption that nature is geared toward the survival of the fittest.

Ho and Sahtouris contend that life is “a fundamentally cooperative, locally rooted, self-organizing enterprise” that aims for balance between group and individual interests.

Korten expands on this model while comparing it to what he defines as an imperialist model.

This political system, which Korten asserts still grips the world’s reins today, resembles the colonizing stage of a forest ecosystem, where development is dominated by aggressive, competitive and fast-growing weeds.

In nature, the colonizing stage eventually gives way to trees, mosses, lichens and other “patient, cooperative, settled, energy-efficient” species.

The United States and much of the global economy are still very much in the “weed” stage, according to Korten. Rather than reform this pernicious system, “The Great Turning” calls for a weed pull of global proportions.

“The key message of the book is that we can’t get to where we need to go with the institutions we have,” including national governments, corporations, large media outlets and other facets of “our imperial legacy.”

Replacing these institutions with regional economies based on cooperation, greater authority for local governments and more participation in community-based organizations will help foment the “great turning” he and others have caught hints of, particularly in the last two years.

“You see it in global warming – that more people recognize it is real and serious,” he said. “You can see it in more people who recognize the failures in Iraq and New Orleans that show how truly incompetent the federal government is.”

Island hotbed

Increasingly, individuals will have to assume many of the duties and responsibilities they’ve long surrendered to large institutions rooted in an imperial past, according to Korten.

Local governments and grassroots organizations are already taking leadership roles on global issues, Korten argues.

While the federal government balked at reforms to combat climate change, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has mobilized a coalition of mayors with common aims for reduced vehicle emissions and greater energy efficiency.

Korten also sees signs of the “great turning” on Bainbridge. He has witnessed citizens using city government to curb the growth of chain stores, preserve farmland and focus development in the Winslow core.

While Bainbridge exemplifies many of his book’s key concepts, Korten believes the tug-of-war between “empire” and “earth community” can still be witnessed on the island’s streets.

“You can see the basic contrast of the two different models on Bainbridge,” he said. “There’s Winslow Way, which is comprised almost entirely of locally owned businesses, feels like a neighborhood and is a nice place for people to be. Whereas High School Road is dominated by...many chain businesses that make it definitely not feel like a neighborhood.”

Nearly a decade on Bainbridge has also provided Korten with localized examples of the larger ills he discusses in his books.

“What the experience of living here has done for me is show how hard it is to stand up to the forces bearing down on us,” he said. “There is a transformation on Bainbridge to make it look and feel like every place else, of developers coming in and trashing the island, and a real challenge with half the people working off the island and half the people who work here coming from the peninsula. There’s a reality here of a class dynamic that’s very troubling.

“It shows Bainbridge is partly an island, but is also very un-islandlike,” he said. “I don’t think Bainbridge is disconnected from the world. For me, it’s a hotbed of global energy.”

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Island author David Korten will speak and answer questions on his new book, “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” Sunday at the Playhouse. The event begins at 7 p.m. Korten’s talk, which is sponsored by 15 community and church groups, is the first in a series of events focusing on the island’s future.

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