Episode 18: David Korten
Dr. David Korten is an economist, author, and progressive activist with a background in international business. He is the president of the Living Economy Forum, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, co-founder of YES! Magazine, and a member of the Club of Rome. His books include When Corporations Rule the World and The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.
Our conversation covered a broad range of topics from economics to ecology, cultural myths to systems thinking. As you would expect, connections abound. I am especially happy that David brought our fundamental cultural stories (myths? narratives?) into the project and quite intrigued that he categorizes the Newtonian scientific narrative and the religious patriarch narrative into the same anthropocentric category. How do Cameron Whitten’s interest in advertising and Laura Musikanski’s focus on branding relate to David’s interest in changing our cultural myths? And speaking of Laura, David’s conversation further explores the question of “what is an economy for?” The list of connections could go on forever, but David seems to be working with an idea similar to Timothy Morton’s mesh and, though we don’t address this headlong, you’ll probably end up wondering about the philosophical difficulty of biocentrism that came up in Chris McKay‘s conversation. David’s conversation also raises questions about defining “waste” and the balance between technology and long-term sustainability.
Like Timothy Morton, I’m running this episode a little longer because it packs in a lot of ideas. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Artwork by Eleanor Davis.
Another great conversation! David Korten seeming to be a bit surprised why we still have large population growth reminds me of something I once heard. There was a theory that the more educated one becomes, the less kids people tend to have. Pretty taboo subject/theory to discuss. Yet it seemed to be a theory that had some merit. But in the last 10 years or so, it appears that college graduates are actually moving in the opposite direction and having more kids. Someone told me 3 kids is the new 2. Almost like the number of kids is becoming a status symbol like one of those dogs people put in their designer purses.
Another point he brought up was people owning 2 cars and the various impacts that has (environmental, etc.). One major reason Americans “need” 2 cars, copious amounts of gas and other resources is because of suburban sprawl. Americans have simply spread out much too far from cities and need more resources to sustain that lifestyle. Europe, NY, Tokyo and many other places don’t need a single car, gas, tons of electricity to heat/cool massive houses, etc. Apparently the recession has actually forced people to move into smaller spaces, get rid of a car (or at least downsize from the Hummer), etc. But once the economy rebounds, Americans are sure to slip back into using vast resources to be more “comfortable.”
It would have been a positive surprise, if somebody talking about Adam Smith and the idea of the invisible hand had actually read “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”. It’s trivially easy to get these days, and still everybody is merely talking about hear-say:
Adam Smith was about as far away from a laissez-faire economist as it gets. He merely pointed out that under very special circumstances, such as were met in the grain trade around the North Sea and the Baltics, the market itself acts as an instrument of regulation. As if an invisible hand had directed it.
Other than that, he advocated for all manner of government interventions. One of my favorite quotes (you can google it via “my favorite quote by adam smith”, it’s the second hit for me, YMMV … and yes, I should write some more for this blog one of these days) says:
“the rate of profit is[…] naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin.”
Just to give you an idea where Adam Smith is coming from.
Even worse is the notion that we should take an example from nature. It is in nature where we can observe the relentless growth of populations to fill every niece. It is in nature where we can observe that early photosynthesis, instead of producing toxic oxygen, produced iron oxides that precipitated on the ocean floors. Hundreds of meters thick (about half a mile). Today, those are our prime iron-ore resources. (And no, they won’t run out.)
They depleted the oceans of iron, even though iron is an essential part of any living organism. And after this, they started doing photosynthesis by producing a toxic by-product that would kill everyone including themselves at fairly low concentrations. (By modern standards.) They adapted, they themselves in their niece adapted to their way of life, locally … and forced every other living thing in the ocean to adapt as well or be killed.
Trust me on this, we are much closer to nature than your interview partner lets on. And this is our problem.
I never thought I’d say this in agreement with an economist, but I think that his idea about “changing the narrative” is a necessary idea, though I do not know if storytelling will come up again in the conversation, as much as I would like it to.