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
Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes
the human potential for creative co-operation, 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 make a choice to re-learn 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
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.
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 powerholders to lead
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 anti-democratic policies.
Wise choices necessarily rest on a foundation of truth. The Great
Turning depends on awakening to deep truths long denied.
Empire's true believers maintain that the inherent flaws in our
human nature lead to a natural propensity to greed, violence,
and lust for power. Social order and material progress depend,
therefore, on imposing elite rule and market discipline to channel
these dark tendencies to positive ends. Psychologists who study
the developmental pathways of the individual consciousness observe
a more complex reality. Just as we grow up in our physical capacities
and potential given proper physical nourishment and exercise,
we also grow up in the capacities and potential of our consciousness,
given proper social and emotional nourishment and exercise.
Over a lifetime, those who enjoy the requisite emotional support
traverse a pathway from the narcissistic, undifferentiated magical
consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive, and
multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder. The
lower, more narcissistic, orders of consciousness are perfectly
normal for young children, but become sociopathic in adults and
are easily encouraged and manipulated by advertisers and demagogues.
The higher orders of consciousness are a necessary foundation
of mature democracy. Perhaps Empire's greatest tragedy is that
its cultures and institutions systematically suppress our progress
to the higher orders of consciousness.
Given that Empire has prevailed for 5,000 years, a turn from
Empire to Earth Community might seem a hopeless fantasy if not
for the evidence from values surveys that a global awakening to
the higher levels of human consciousness is already underway.
This awakening is driven in part by a communications revolution
that defies elite censorship and is breaking down the geographical
barriers to intercultural exchange.
The consequences of the awakening are manifest in the civil rights,
women's, environmental, peace, and other social movements. These
movements in turn gain energy from the growing leadership of women,
communities of color, and indigenous peoples, and from a shift
in the demographic balance in favor of older age groups more likely
to have achieved the higher-order consciousness of the wise elder.
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 or-ganism
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.
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 in order 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.
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 struggle to define the prevailing cultural stories largely
defines contemporary cultural politics in the United States. A
far-right alliance of elitist corporate plutocrats and religious
theocrats has gained control of the political discourse in the
United States not by force of their numbers, which are relatively
small, but by controlling the stories by which the prevailing
culture defines the pathway to prosperity, security, and meaning.
In each instance, the far right's favored versions of these stories
affirm the dominator relations of Empire.
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 in order 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 insure
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
It is not enough, as many in the United States are doing, to
debate the details of tax and education policies, budgets, war,
and trade agreements in search of a positive political agenda.
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.
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.