Dialogue: Sarah van Gelder

Dear David:

I think the fundamental approach is just right on your living economy piece, and I am very excited to see you moving in that direction. It is just what I think needs to be next on the agenda exploring the dynamics of the new economy and melding in a greater awareness of ourselves as part of a living planet. And I think there is a lot of fear that if we let go of our current economic approach, there wouldn't be anything to take its place and we'd be in free fall. So a practical and compelling vision is just what we need, and I think this makes a good start.

Other comments:

1) I think it is important to not characterize any one age as "bad" and another as "good." I think people in every age act from a combination of motivations and have a combination of results positive and negative. And I feel the dialectic approach is a useful one contradictions in one era provide the tensions and openings that make possible a new era. (I think there may be some evolution as described by Ken Wilber, but there can also be devolution.)

So I agree with how you characterized our age in your description of the era of empire. However, if you want to really describe an "era," I think it is both more accurate and more convincing if you show something about how it got that way, how it provided some of the positive qualities we see today as well as the negative ones, but how it has outlived its usefulness. To use the living systems metaphor, the early pioneer ecosystem is not "bad," and the mature system is not superior. Both are necessary. The pioneer ecosystem in fact sets up the conditions that allow the later ecosystems to thrive. Its contributions are indispensable. Each makes a contribution. The flaw we make as a society is if we hold on to the pioneer approach when it is past its time.

If you take this approach, you would need to clarify some of the contributions made by the earlier system (e. g. medicine, communications, cultural interchanges) then show that some attributes are now dysfunctional and the time has come to transcend this dying era AND integrate the positive attributes.

This acknowledgement I think not only reflects reality (I don't think we actually want to go back to a time when 90% of us were farmers) but it also acknowledges the contribution of many people today, most of whom we hope will see that their next evolutionary step is to move forward into the next era. We want them to see a place for themselves so they can move ahead with us.

I agree with the notion that we are after a whole new approach the emergent self-organizing system. I don't think we are looking at starting over, though. I assume we will build on, modify, and integrate modern medicine within a broader spiritual and cultural construct, not throw it out, for example. In terms of the economy, I assume we will encourage small business, within constraints of community and natural systems, as well as other forms of stakeholder owned enterprises. There are institutional forms that are so intrinsically contrary to what we need to thrive (like the publicly traded corporation, perhaps interest-based money creation) that they will have to go.

Korten Response: This is where the analogy to the process of ecosystem succession may break down. The species of the colonizing stage in a healthy ecosystem are enhancing the conditions for other living species. The dominant institutions of the suicide economy are pathologically destructive of life and are preparing the way not only for their own destruction, but potentially the destruction of human life and of countless other species. So the analogy between a Type I ecosystem and the suicide economy is imperfect in this regard. Even so, I believe it is instructive.

That being said, I do agree with you that much of the work that needs to be done is in building new institutions and especially, building new, mutually supportive links among them (and among the old but not destructive institutions) so that they can thrive and so that the more life-centered values can be reinforced instead of undermined as they are now.

2) I remain uneasy with the labeling of people as Cultural Creative. I believe people are far more complex, that many people are partially Cultural Creatives or in the process of becoming Cultural Creatives. But I believe the term is too black and white. I believe there are some really important insights about CCs, but that using the term to label people creates an unnecessary and inaccurate sense of "us" and "them."

Korten Response: I agree it is perhaps too black and white, because we are dealing with continua. This may also, however, be an area in which we have some disagreement. I gave up on cultural relativism many years ago as my international experience sensitized me to the extent to which some cultural patterns are inherently far more dysfunctional and self-destructive than others. I believe we are experiencing the consequences of such differences within our own context. I find this issue becomes even more salient as I come to understand the deeper implications of the Cultural Creatives phenomenon as not simply the emergence of a new pattern of values, but more fundamentally as the consequence of an evolutionary awakening of a new cultural and planetary consciousness. I believe that understanding the nature of this awakening as the basis of an evolutionary jump in human consciousness and potential is key to the possibilities of creating a new human civilization. As much as I share your discomfort with dividing the world between us and them, I believe the awakening is real and important and is unevenly spread throughout the population. We need a language. To speak of the "awakened" seems rather more awkward than speaking of Cultural Creatives, so I find myself using the term Cultural Creatives both for lack of any other and because it is backed by research and has achieved remarkable currency. 

3) I have felt for a long time that separating the economy from society is a conceptual mistake. I think economics is profoundly interconnected with worldview and values, with politics, family life, community, status, the built environment, and so on. So when you talk about building the living economy, I wonder if you aren't actually talking about building living communities. In that case, I think there is a far richer pool to draw from. For example, how do we incorporate the energy and curiosity of youth? the wisdom and experience of elders? how do we link the needs of young families with children with the needs of elders to have a role and be needed? How do we restore degraded natural systems? How do we create an emotional/spiritual link between a community and its surrounding ecosystem? Think of the role of stream monitoring for example. It has the multiple functions of helping to create an intimate knowing of a watershed; it provides information that can help monitor ecosystem health and thereby define appropriate and inappropriate usages of resources; it can help with the planning of various waste disposal systems; it can help provide a sense of community among those involved and those who receive the information. This multitude of benefits have some economic aspects but some other important aspects inseparable. This is what the one-dimensional economic model helped to destroy, and I think will be crucial to redefining our economic/community life.

Another way of saying that is I think part of what the living community will be about is reversing the transfer from the love economy to the cash economy. That means enriching the web you spoke about with interchanges that might be considered "non-economic."

Korten Response: Ultimately I agree with you, but I'm writing an essay -- not a book -- in which I've made a conscious choice to focus attention on the culture and institutions of the economic system, why they must be replaced with life serving cultures and institutions and how this might be accomplished. Perhaps I need to be more explicit that to me an economic system is the system by which people produce and exchange those goods and services essential to their living -- not simply the system of cash exchange that concerns most economists.  By the larger definition of an economy, the love economy is also an economy, as its name properly suggests. The exchanges may be non-financial, but that does not mean they are non-economic in the larger sense. 

4) Finally, I wonder how far you want to take the living system model. There may be some other really interesting insights to be mined from Janine's work and from other ecologists. For example, is there an analogy to the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, water cycles that are part of how natural systems function? An analogy to the fact that some systems are extremely slow, taking hundreds or thousands of years to cycle through, while others, like the life of a fruit fly, cycle through very rapidly. Are there social/economic systems that should go "fast" while others go very slow? (See Steward Brand's book, the Clock of the Long Now. )

Korten Response: These are good questions that must ultimately be addressed and they do have implications for institutional design. It may be several years, however, before we are ready to deal with them.  

Your final chapter on Culture is interesting in that respect. Humans have the capacity for reflective consciousness, awareness of the greater story of the universe, and free will. This takes us in some way beyond the living system model. Human consciousness can be far ahead of a social structure, and when that happens, the creative tension can help to pull society into the future. So perhaps you are talking about the evolution of consciousness well beyond the capacities of living systems, but that more evolved consciousness could help bring society beyond its very backward state to one that is further along the evolutionary ladder.

Korten Response: The evolution of consciousness, as I noted above in my response to your comment on Cultural Creatives. You may want to take a look at the supporting essay on "Culture." I believe that is one of the critical insights that we must bring to bear in thinking about social change. It is the special capacity of an evolved human consciousness that makes possible the kind of deep change we must now negotiate. This may well take us beyond the established biological models. But I wouldn't speak of it as beyond the capacities of living systems, because I believe consciousness is an aspect of all life -- perhaps even of what we consider non-life. But we may most to more highly evolved living systems in which human consciousness plays a conscious life-serving role -- rather than life destructive -- role. Indeed, this is basic to discovering our species' place of service to the whole of planetary life. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments.

Sarah van Gelder, Executive Editor
YES! magazine
PO Box 10818
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110
206/842-5009 ext. 214
www.yesmagazine.org

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Posted August 30, 2001