The World We Want: The Bad Story in Our Heads

By David Korten | Great Turning website

Read more posts in The World We Want series.

So what’s our problem? Why are we in such a mess? Why didn’t we long ago just get together to create the world we really want? What are the real barriers to creating the world in which we measure our progress against a national happiness index rather than by an index of how fast we are turning stuff into garbage?

Corrupt politicians and greedy corporate executives come to mind. These folks certainly demonstrate that there are some seriously morally and psychologically challenged people in the world. Part of our problem is that they are the ones who most often capture the headlines, because they are the one’s most inclined to engage in the ruthless competitive struggle required to claim positions of great power.

And then there are also those dysfunctional institutions we mentioned devoted to the concentration of wealth and power. These institutions tend to recruit ethically challenged leaders whose values are consistent with the institution’s priorities.

Our biggest problem, however, is neither bad people nor bad institutions. The problem way up there at the source of the stream is a bad story that keeps running on an endless loop in our heads telling us to get real, because the world of our dreams is nothing more than a naïve fantasy forever beyond our reach. You know the story. It’s probably been running in your head all the time you’ve been reading this.

It is our human nature to be fearful, violent, greedy, and individualistic. Our wellbeing in this life depends on strong leaders with the will to use their police and military power to protect us from the criminals, terrorists, and rogue dictators who threaten our way of life. We depend on the competitive forces of a free unregulated market to channel our individual greed to constructive ends. There is no alternative. It’s in our nature. Our only hope for salvation is the promise that if we obey those whom God has appointed to rule in this life, God will reward us with paradise in the afterlife in a place where people live in peace, harmony, and eternal bliss.

Now isn’t that interesting. Peace, harmony, and eternal bliss in the afterlife. But don’t even think about creating such a world here in this life. The story goes on.

The discipline and competition necessary to achieve order in this life may bring pain and hardship to some, but it is all for the good, because the brutal competition of war and the unrelenting pursuit of individual profit builds character, drives innovation, and leads to greatness. This competition, violent and destructive as it may sometimes be, has been the key to human success since the beginning of time and ultimately works to the benefit of everyone.

Have you ever heard this story? How often do elements of this story run in your head telling you that the world you long for really isn’t possible?

This debilitating story is self-affirming, because our media bombard us with stories of the violent, the greedy, and the individualistic—including many politicians and corporate CEOs celebrated for their political and financial success. We easily conclude that such people are representative of the best of our human nature, rather than pathological exceptions to the healthier human norm.

I call this story the Empire story, because it is the foundation of 5,000 years of organizing ourselves into hierarchies of domination and abuse. It legitimizes the oppression of Empire and denies the higher order potentials of our human nature—the potential, which if cultivated, that makes it possible for us to do things differently. The elements of this narrative are embedded in the stories most commonly heard from a great many economists, scientists, preachers, politicians, and historians—among others. We heard them in school. We hear them in church. We hear them on the media. Their constant repetition creates a kind of cultural trance from which we are now just beginning to awaken.

The trance isn’t new. It has held us captive to the most reptilian aspects of our nature for the past 5,000 years. It drives the endless imperial cycle in which one Empire vanquishes another and obliterates its accomplishments. The success of those who achieve imperial dominion over their neighbors gives rise to monumental hubris and material self-indulgence until the reigning empire is so weakened by its own excesses that the more disciplined warriors of another tribe or nation easily vanquish it.

Does anything here sound familiar? Where exactly is the United States in this cycle?

The fall of the American empire seems destined to come not from any military invasion across our borders but rather from our growing foreign debt and the purchase of our assets by the foreign sovereign wealth funds that hold that debt. It will be a rude awakening indeed when we one day wake up to realize that we, the democratic Christian capitalist rulers of the world, have been reduced by our own hand to an economic colony of the Chinese Communist Party and a group of Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East.

No one in power even seems to notice, perhaps because their attention is focused on promoting wars in the Middle East and bailing out the high rollers who had to sell one of their over-sized yachts to cover their gambling losses on sub-prime mortgages.

More next Tuesday…

 © 2008 David Korten. All rights reserved.