It's a "Story Problem": What's Behind Our Messed-Up Economy
By David Korten /
May 7, 2014

The peoples of earlier times prospered from the guidance of simple stories that offered answers to their deepest questions. We need those now more than ever.

For people, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. ... The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation. 
—Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth

According to evolutionary biologists, the first living organisms appeared on Earth some 3.6 billion years ago. As the organisms increased in number and diversity, they organized themselves into a planetary-scale living system. Trillions upon trillions of individual organisms were constantly experimenting, testing, and learning. In the process, the living system evolved toward ever-greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility. In the course of this grand evolutionary journey, these organisms filtered excess carbon and a vast variety of toxins from Earth’s air, waters, and soils and sequestered them deep underground—thus creating environmental conditions suited to the needs of species with ever-greater capacities for conscious self-reflective choice.

We humans live by stories and have a particularly passionate need for stories that give our lives meaning and direction.

We humans pride ourselves on being the most intelligent of the species made possible by the supposedly lesser, mostly microscopic organisms that transformed Earth from a toxic dead rock into a living jewel. Now, in an insane fit of arrogance, we devote our best minds and most advanced technologies to accelerating the extraction and release of those sequestered carbons and toxins back into Earth’s atmosphere, waters, and soils. We do so in a foolhardy attempt to dominate and suppress the natural processes that maintain the conditions essential to our existence.

Our current life-destructive and climate-disruptive—but financially profitable—expansion of tar sands oil extraction, deep-sea oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and mountaintop removal for coal is a particularly visible current example.

It seems that despite all of our extraordinary scientific and economic advances, we humans are a species out of touch with reality.

Millions of people now ask, "Why do we get it so terribly wrong?"

I believe it’s a story problem.

Story awareness

We humans live by stories and have a particularly passionate need for stories that give our lives meaning and direction—sacred stories that serve as our guide to what is important and worthy of our respect and care. These are familiar examples:

  1. The story of a Distant Patriarch who by his will created all that is and rules it from afar. In this story, God is sacred and it is an article of faith that God is all-knowing and all-powerful.
  2. The story of a Grand Machine universe that mechanistically plays out its destiny as its spring unwinds. In this story, objective knowledge and the scientific method are sacred and it is an article of faith that a combination of mechanism and chance explain the dynamic processes of creation and that any form of intelligent agency is an illusion.
  3. The less public story of an Integral Spirit engaged in a sacred journey to discover and actualize its possibilities as it manifests in and through all the expressions of creation. In this story, the unifying spiritual field of love, life, and the living Earth that births and nurtures us are sacred. It is an article of faith that we achieve happiness and spiritual fulfillment through our service to the health and vibrancy of the community of life.

The Distant Patriarch and Grand Machine stories have a highly visible public presence and powerful institutional sponsorship. The Integral Spirit story, in its many variations, generally lacks institutional sponsorship and public presence.



I explore all three in greater depth in an essay, "Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time," and suggest the need for public conversations about their quite different implications for how we live. A foundational purpose of these conversations is to raise what Rev. Stephen Phelps, senior minister of New York’s historic Riverside Church, calls our "Story Awareness."

The essay has generated significant interest and discussion. Some readers suggest, correctly in my view, that many adherents to the Abrahamic religions identify more with a universal spirit than with the Distant Patriarch story and many scientists, perhaps even a majority, privately reject the narrow Grand Machine story. Most agree on the need for a conversation that transcends traditional cultural boundaries.

It seems that virtually everyone with whom I’ve discussed the essay holds in his or her heart some version of the story of a universal, unifying spirit. Only a few, however, probe the deeper questions at the core of the Integral Spirit story, specifically:

  • "What is the purpose of the illusion of separation?"
  • "How does the illusion relate to the expression of agency throughout creation?"
  • "In what ways might individuality and diversity be essential to creation’s extraordinary capacity for self-organization toward ever greater complexity, beauty, awareness, and possibility?"

I share my thoughts on the answers in the aforementioned essay, so we need not repeat that discussion here.

A story adequate to the needs of our time

The peoples of earlier times survived and often even prospered with the guidance of simple stories that offered easily understood answers to the deepest questions and simple prescriptive rules for personal behavior. Humans were sufficiently few in number and limited enough in their material expectations and technology that, although their actions sometimes wounded their Earth mother, she absorbed and recovered from the assaults and insults with relatively modest and localized distress.

Within human ranks, those who engaged in intentional brutality against their neighbor were few relative to the total human numbers, and the technological sophistication of the available instruments of violence were limited. Therefore, the self-inflicted losses were readily offset in most instances through rapid reproduction.

Our time of innocence has passed. We are too many. Our material appetites are too great. Our technologies are too powerful. Our demands on our living Earth mother grow, even as we deplete the living systems on which we depend to meet those demands.

Our future depends on our readiness to take a step toward species maturity. We must recognize and embrace our own agency and accept responsibility for our numbers, technologies, and material expectations. To save ourselves from ourselves, we must make full use of our gifts of intelligence and capacity for self-reflective choice to construct a shared story adequate to the needs of our time. As we learn to live as responsible contributing members of a Sacred Earth Community, we will bring ourselves into balance with the generative systems of a living Earth.

We are a self-reflective, storytelling, choice-making species gone astray for want of a sacred story adequate to the needs of our time.

To guide our path, we need a sacred story that is true to the totality of our human experience and understanding and to our nature as living beings that survive and thrive only as responsible members of a Sacred Earth Community.

Each of the prevailing sacred stories contains essential insights into a larger reality and contributes to the new story called for by our time. The Integral Spirit story, as described in "Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time," brings together the contributions of many wisdom traditions. These include the contributions of indigenous peoples who honor Earth as sacred mother, mystics who honor the oneness of creation, religious traditions that honor divine agency, and sciences that honor the complexity of creation and its extraordinary ability to self-organize.

In combining these contributions into an inclusive, multi-layered story of an Integral Spirit, we can recognize our role as creative beings in the ever-unfolding journey of a creative, evolving cosmos in which intelligent agency is pervasive. This story lends profound meaning to our lives, calls us to accept our responsibility to and for the whole, affirms the reality of Earth as a sacred living being entitled to reverence and respect, and provides a narrative system frame for a life-serving Sacred Earth economy that organizes in service to a Sacred Earth Community.

Such a story also compels us to acknowledge and accept the implications of what we do not know.

A time for humility

Perhaps the greatest threat to our common future is a combination of extreme individualism and extreme arrogance. It is time for a generous dose of humility as we deal with proposals to expand—through the genetic engineering of species and the geo-engineering of Earth’s climate—our domination of forces of nature of which we have only the most superficial understanding.

The most important findings at the current frontiers of science are those that expose the great gaps in our knowledge of the cosmos and most particularly of the living Earth Community to which we belong.

Be Part of the Solution; Engage the Conversation 

Invite a few friends to read "Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time." You might also suggest they read "The Personal Story Behind the Essay, 'Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time'" and this blog to provide context. 

Then meet and share your thoughts, perhaps using oursuggested questions as a guide. If they find it a positive experience, urge them to in turn do the same with a circle of their friends.

For example, we now know that the observable cosmos contains hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, which in their totality account for as little as 4 percent of what scientists calculate to be the mass of the universe. Beyond vague and untested theories, we have no idea what constitutes the other 96 percent—assuming the calculations based on our current limited understanding are correct.

With regard to the living Earth Community, science is discovering the extent of our human dependence on countless microorganisms essential to the fertility of our soils and the function of the digestive systems of our own bodies. We are only beginning to identify and develop the barest understanding of these organisms, their varied functions, and the methods of their self-organization and contribution to our well-being.

Until recently, scientists dismissed 90 percent of human DNA as junk. Now they are suggesting that the "extra" DNA may have essential functions that we have yet to discover—possibly including the preservation of ancestral memories.

I believe every human is born with a deep sense in his or her heart of the basic elements of the Integral Spirit story. Perhaps carrying that memory may be part of the function of the 90 percent of "junk" DNA.

One likely reason the Integral Spirit story lacks a coherent public presence and institutional sponsorship is that in its full expression it provides the framing narrative for a radically democratic society. It thus challenges the authority of imperial institutions that invoke variants of the Distant Patriarch and Grand Machine stories to affirm their legitimacy. The Integral Spirit story also has profound implications for how we think about the overall structure of the economy, individual economic institutions, and the distribution of economic power.

A life-serving sacred Earth economy

Once we acknowledge that we belong to a complex, evolving, self-organizing Earth Community within an evolving, self-organizing cosmos, we realize that we properly look to nature as our partner and teacher in life’s collective struggle to prevail over the dissipative physical forces of entropy. Rather than working in opposition to nature, we will transform our economic culture and institutions to align with the values, structure, and dynamics of a life-serving economy that aligns, integrates, and collaborates with the structure and dynamics of the biosphere.

Just as nature organizes by bioregions, so too will our planetary system of bioregional economies. The people of each bioregion will strive to live within the generative capacity of their bioregion’s self-organizing generative systems. They will allocate their resources with awareness that their well-being depends on the continuing health and natural generative vitality of the living system in their care. They will recognize that all beings have a right to contribute to and benefit from the bounty of the whole that they create and maintain together.

Creating a “new story economics” may be one of our defining intellectual challenges.

Self-reliant bioregions will exchange their surpluses in fair and balanced trade and they will freely share information, culture, knowledge, and beneficial technology. As each bioregional community comes into balance with its generative system, the human species will come into overall system balance with the generative capacity of Earth’s biosphere.

This new living economy will need a new economics. The current discipline of economics embraces and promotes its own sacred story in which money and markets are sacred; life is but a commodity freely exploited in whatever way yields the greatest financial return.

The sacred story of contemporary economics is a perverse and destructive one lacking legitimate intellectual and moral foundation—yet enjoys fawning support from the powers that be. We must put it behind us in favor of a true new story/new paradigm economics that embraces life as its defining value and the logic of living systems as its organizing principle. The new economics will draw from disciplines ranging from physics, biology, and ecology to psychology, anthropology, and theology. It will be trans-disciplinary, meaning that it will transcend the isolated old paradigm frames of the academy’s established disciplines.

The old story economics asks, "What will generate the greatest financial return?" The new story economics will ask, "What would nature do?"

Creating a “new story economics” may be one of the defining intellectual challenges of our time.

We face a similar challenge with respect to our old story legal system. By the reckoning of this system, corporations (legally protected pools of money) are the most sacred of institutions and corporate rights are the most sacred of rights. Nature is mere property to be freely exploited at the will of its owners.

By contrast, a Sacred Earth legal system will recognize that nature is the foundation of our human existence and that we survive and prosper only as members of a vibrant, living Earth Community. Therefore, life is sacred. Our Earth mother is sacred. The rights of sacred Earth Community— the rights of nature—are therefore the most sacred of rights. The corporation is simply a legal instrument useful for some limited functions.

We are a self-reflective, storytelling, choice-making species gone astray for want of a sacred story adequate to the needs of our time. The essential story lives in the human heart, but remains private and unacknowledged for want of a public conversation that weaves together the seemingly disparate narratives of indigenous wisdom, the teachings of the great spiritual teachers, the findings of science, and the lessons of history and daily experience.

The needed conversation is underway. As it expands and deepens, the possibilities it reveals offer hope that together we can and will take the step to species maturity and accept our responsibilities as members of a Sacred Earth Community before the economic, social, environmental, and political system failure wrought by inadequate stories becomes irreversible.

Dr. David Korten is the author of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real WealthThe Great Turning: From Empire to Earth CommunityThe Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalismand the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of theNew Economy Working Group, a founding board member emeritus of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, and a member of the Club of Rome. He earned MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He blogs for YES! Magazine.


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It's a "Story Problem": What's Behind Our Messed-Up Economy