Good news: The changes we must make to avoid ultimate collapse are identical to the changes we must make to create the world of our common dream.
by David Korten
We know about the “red” (Republican) states, and the “blue” (Democratic) states. The story of “purple” America is part of a yet larger human story. For all the cultural differences reflected in our richly varied customs, languages, religions, and political ideologies, psychologically healthy humans share a number of core values and aspirations. Although we may differ in our idea of the “how,” we want healthy, happy children, loving families, and a caring community with a beautiful, healthy natural environment. We want a world of cooperation, justice and peace, and a say in the decisions that affect our lives. The shared values of purple America manifest this shared human dream. It is the true American dream undistorted by corporate media, advertisers and political demagogues—the dream we must now actualize if there is to be a human future.
For the past 5,000 years, we hu?mans have devoted much creative energy to perfecting our capacity for greed and violence—a practice that has been enormously costly for our children, families, communities and nature. Now, on the verge of environmental and social collapse, we face an imperative to bring the world of our dreams into being by cultivating our long-suppressed, even denied, capacity for sharing and compassion.
Despite the constant mantra that “there is no alternative” to greed and competition, daily exper?ience and a growing body of scientific evidence support the thesis that we humans are born to connect, learn and serve and that it is indeed within our means to do these things:
• Create family-friendly communities in which we get our satisfaction from caring relationships rather than material consumption
• Achieve the ideal, which traces back to Aristotle, of creating democratic middle-class societies without extremes of wealth and poverty
• Form a global community of nations committed to restoring the health of the planet and sharing Earth’s bounty to the long-term benefit of all.
The first step toward achieving the world we want is to acknowledge that there is an alternative to our current human course. We humans are not hopelessly divided and doomed to self-destruct by a genetic predisposition toward greed and violence.
Culture, the system of customary beliefs, values and perceptions that encodes our shared learning, gives humans an extraordinary capacity to choose our destiny. It does not assure that we will use this capacity wisely, but it does give us the means to change course by conscious collective choice.
The story in our heads
The primary barrier to achieving our common dream is in fact a story that endlessly loops in our heads telling us that a world of peace and sharing is contrary to our nature—a naïve fantasy forever beyond reach. There are many variations, but this is the essence: “It is our human nature to be competitive, individualistic, and materialistic. Our well-being depends on strong leaders with the will to use police and military powers to protect us from one another, and on the competitive forces of a free, unregulated market to channel our individual greed to constructive ends. The competition for survival and dominance—violent and destructive as it may be—is the driving force of evolution. It has been the key to human success since the beginning of time, assures that the most worthy rise to leadership, and ultimately works to the benefit of everyone.”
I call this our Empire story because it affirms the system of dominator hierarchy that has held sway for 5,000 years. Underlying the economic and scientific versions of this story is a religious story which promises that enduring violence and injustice in this life will be rewarded with eternal peace, harmony and bliss in the afterlife.
To reinforce the Empire myth, corporate media bombard us with reports of greed and violence, and celebrate as cultural heroes materially successful, but morally challenged, politicians and corporate CEOs who disregard the human and environmental consequences of their actions.
Never mind the story’s moral contradictions and its conflict with our own experience with caring and trustworthy friends, family and strangers. It serves to keep us confused, uncertain and dependent on establishment-sanctioned moral authorities to tell us what is right and true. It also supports policies and institutions that actively undermine development of the caring, sharing relationships essential to responsible citizenship in a functioning democratic society.
Fortunately, there is a more positive story that can put us on the road to recovery. It is supported by recent scientific findings, our daily experience, and the ageless teachings of the great religious prophets.
Wired to connect
Scientists who use advanced imaging technology to study brain function report that the human brain is wired to reward caring, cooperation and service. According to this research, merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in our brain as when a mother sees distress in her baby’s face. Conversely, the act of helping another triggers the brain’s pleasure center and benefits our health by boosting our immune system, reducing our heart rate and preparing us to approach and soothe. Positive emotions like compassion produce similar benefits. By contrast, negative emotions suppress our immune system, increase heart rate and prepare us to fight or flee.
These findings are consistent with the pleasure most of us experience from being a member of an effective team or extending an uncompensated helping hand to another human. It is entirely logical. If our brains were not wired for life in community, our species would have expired long ago. We have an instinctual desire to protect the group, including its weakest and most vulnerable members—its children. Behavior contrary to this positive norm is an indicator of serious social and psychological dysfunction.
Happiness is a caring community
These neurological findings are corroborated by social science findings that, beyond the minimum level of income essential to meet basic needs, membership in a cooperative, caring community is a far better predictor of happiness and emotional health than the size of one’s paycheck or bank account. Perhaps the most impressive evidence of this comes from studies conducted by University of Illinois professor Ed Diener, and others, comparing the life-satisfaction scores of groups of people of radically different financial means. Four groups with almost identical scores on a seven-point scale were clustered at the top.
Consistent with the Empire story that material consumption is the key to happiness, those on Forbes magazine’s list of richest Americans had an average score of 5.8. They were in a statistical tie, however, with three groups known for their modest lifestyles and strength of community: the Pennsylvania Amish (5.8) who favor horses over cars and tractors; the Inuit of Northern Greenland (5.9), an indigenous hunting and fishing people; and the Masai (5.7), a traditional herding people in East Africa who live without electricity or running water in huts fashioned from dried cow dung. Apparently, it takes a very great deal of money to produce the happiness that comes with being a member of a caring community with a strong sense of place. The evidence suggests we could all be a lot healthier and happier if we put less emphasis on making money and more on cultivating caring community.
The purple American desire to create a society of healthy children, families, communities and natural systems is no fluke. It is an expression of our deepest and most positive human impulses, a sign that we may overall be a healthier and less divisive society than our dysfunctional politics suggest.
Beyond the minimum level of income essential to meet basic needs, membership in a cooperative, caring community is a far better predictor of happiness and emotional health than the size of one’s paycheck or bank account.
Learning to be human
If the properly functioning human brain is wired for caring, cooperation and service, how do we account for the outrageous greed and violence that threaten our collective survival? Here we encounter our distinctive human capacity to suppress or facilitate the development of the higher order function of the human brain essential to responsible adult citizenship.
We humans have a complex three-part brain. The base is the “reptilian” brain that coordinates basic functions, such as breathing, hunting and eating, reproducing, protecting territory and engaging the fight-or-flight response. These functions are essential to survival and an authentic part of our hu?manity, but they express the most primitive and least-evolved part of our brain, which advertisers and political demagogues have learned to manipulate by playing to our basest fears and desires.
Layered on top of the reptilian brain is the limbic or “mammalian” brain, the center of the emotional intelligence that gives mammals their distinctive capacity to experience emotion, read the emotional state of other mammals, bond socially, care for their children, and form cooperative communities.
The third and, in humans, largest layer is the neocortical brain, the center of our capacity for cognitive reasoning, symbolic thought, aware?ness and self-aware volition. This layer distinguishes our species from other mammals. Its full, beneficial function depends, however, on the complementary functions of our reptilian and mammalian brains.
Most of the development of the limbic and neocortical brains essen?tial to actualizing the capacities that make us most distinctively human occurs after birth and depends on lifelong learning acquired through our interactions with family, community and nature. Developmental psychologists describe the healthy pathway to a fully formed human consciousness as a progression from the self-centered, undifferentiated magical consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive and multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder.
Realizing the fullness of our humanity depends on the balanced development of the empathetic limbic and cognitive neocortical brains to establish their primacy over the primitive unsocialized instincts of the reptilian brain. Tragically, most modern societies neglect or even suppress this development.
A depersonalized economic system with no attachment to place disrupts the bonds of community and family and makes it nearly impossible for parents to provide their children with the nurturing attention essential to the healthy development of their limbic brains. Educational systems that focus on rote learning organized by fragmented disciplines fail to develop our potential for critical holistic thinking. Leaving social learning to peer groups lacking the benefit of adult mentors limits development of a mature, morally grounded social intelligence. We are conducting an unintended evolutionary experiment in producing a line of highly intelligent but emotionally challenged reptiles wielding technologies capable of disrupting or even terminating the entire evolutionary enterprise.
The power of conversation
Getting out of our current mess begins with a conversation to change the shared cultural story about our essential nature. The women’s movement offers an instructive lesson.
In little more than a decade, a few courageous women changed the cultural story that the key to a woman’s happiness is to find the right man, marry him and devote her life to his service. As Cecile Andrews, author of “Circles of Simplicity,” relates, the transition to a new gender story began with discussion circles in which women came together in their living rooms to share their stories. Until then, a woman whose experience failed to conform to the prevailing story assumed that the problem was a deficiency in herself. As women shared their own stories each realized that the flaw was in the story. Millions of women were soon spreading a new gender story that has unleashed the feminine as a powerful force for global transformation.
The voluntary simplicity movement organizes similar opportunities for people to share their stories about what makes them truly happy. The fallacy of the story that material consumption is the path to happiness is quickly exposed and replaced with the fact that we truly come alive as we reduce material consumption and gain control of our time to nurture the relationships that bring true happiness.
We must now begin a similar pro?cess to affirm that those of us who choose to cooperate rather than compete are not fighting human nature. We are, instead, developing the part of our humanity that gives us the best chance, not merely for survival, but for happiness.
The process of changing the powerful stories that limit our lives begins with conversation in our living room, library, church, mosque or synagogue. By speaking and listening to each other, we begin to discover the true potentials of our human nature and our common vision of the world. It is not a new conversation. Isolated groups of humans have engaged in it for millennia. What is new is the fact that the communications technologies now in place create the possibility of ending the isolation and melding our local conversations into a global one that can break the self-replicating spiral of competitive violence of 5000 years of Empire.
As this conversation brings a critical mass of people to the realization that the Empire story is both false and devastatingly destructive, we can turn as a species from perfecting our capacity for exclusionary competition to perfecting our capacity for inclusionary cooperation. We can create a cultural story that says competition and polarization, whether the red-blue political divide or the rich-poor economic one, is not the inevitable result of being human. It is the result of suppressing the healthiest part of our humanity.
There are no trade-offs here. The institutional and cultural transformation required to avert environmental and social collapse is the same as the transformation required to nurture the development of the empathetic limbic brain, unleash the creative potentials of the human consciousness, and create the world we want. It is an extraordinary convergence between our reptilian interest in survival, our mammalian interest in bonding, and our human interest in cultivating the potentials of our self-reflective consciousness.
David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! His latest book is “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Commu?ni?ty.” He wrote this article as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. www.davidkorten.org.