Does Your Psyche Embrace Flourishing?

Which worldview do you gravitate toward—the destructive or life-supporting?

In a report to the Club of Rome (a global think tank), David Korten argues that mainstream society has gotten its cultural story wrong and hence humanity is heading in a suicidal direction.

Korten contrasts two stories.

One story we hear everyday in the media and from experts in multiple fields: the Sacred Money and Markets story. All of us have been lured and caged by this made-up story that touts the central value of money over everything else.

This story has been exported to all parts and places of the earth. In his work with societies around the world, Korten noticed that economic development was “a process of monetizing relationships that had once been based on a sense of mutual caring and obligation between people, and between people and the land” (p. 11). But, it turned out that economic development was a method of “alienating people from the lands and waters from which they make their living” (p. 12).

He found that in actuality, “the more [Gross Domestic Product grows], the more brutal life [becomes] for the majority of people, the faster environmental devastation [spreads], and the faster Western media-driven cultures of individualistic violence, greed and consumer excess [displaces] once-rich living cultures” (p. 7).

In other words, financial growth parallels the depletion of life.  “Money prospers. Life withers.” (p. 22)

The political and economic structures guided by the SMM take no note of the accelerating decline of the earth’s systems. “Seduced by a fabricated Sacred Money and Markets story, we live in indentured service to money-seeking corporate robots and relate to Earth as if it were a dead rock for sale” (p. 1).

In the Sacred Money and Markets story, each “thing” in the world is priced, then privatized, commodified and securitized.

Those who advocate the Sacred Money and Markets story use rhetoric that taps into the preferred worldview of the listener. For example:

  • For those who hold what he calls a Distant Patriarch cosmology (God is in heaven, whom the faithful will join after death), the advocates use arguments like “God wants you to be rich,” “wealth is a sign of divine favor,”  “lack of wealth is a sign of poor character.” As a result, alternatives to the SMM seem misguided (e.g., frugality, moderation).
  • Those who hold a Grand Machine cosmology (everything is ruled by impersonal laws and random chance) are presented with arguments like “the universe is a purposeless machine,” “humans are controlled by selfish genes,” “competition drives progress” “individuals are naturally selfish and aggressive.” As a result, focusing on purposeful cooperation seems like an impossible ideal.

Thus, these two worldviews/cosmologies, Distant Patriarch and Grand Machine, are used to support implicitly and explicitly a divisive individualism, a utilitarian attitude toward life, and the concentration of power in global finance and multinational corporations—all of which lead to a decline in meaning and morality.

The Sacred Money and Markets story is one of limitation and inevitability, a combination of short-term optimism (‘you can get yours now’) and long-term pessimism (‘let someone else clean up the mess’). The consequences of a Sacred Money and Markets story are that wealthiest monopolize and exploit whatever they wish.

Perhaps the most dangerous assumption within the Sacred Money and Markets story is that money and technology will eventually free us from a dependence on nature—as if humans are not of the earth and reliant on the earth for survival.

The Sacred Money and Markets story is “based on bad ethics, bad science, and bad economics” (p. 25), creating a self-destructive system.

The alternative story, Korten calls the Sacred Life and Living Earth story, is emerging in developed nations around the world (and has been part of first nation peoples’ views from the beginning).

The Sacred Life and Living Earth story focuses on households as the basic unit of economic concern (instead of firms or corporations). Households have a concern for the wellbeing of their members, the community and the living earth, now and into the future. With a deep sense of interconnection, the Sacred Life and Living Earth story considers wealth to be about maintaining life and maintaining living across earth systems. The Sacred Life and Living Earth story focuses on minimizing economic cost and maximizing the wellbeing of living systems, the opposite of the Sacred Money and Markets story.

One can see the Sacred Life and Living Earth story in the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth (World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 22, 2010):

Article 1

(1)  Mother Earth is a living being.

(2)  Mother Earth is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.

(3)  Each being is defined by its relationships as an integral part of Mother Earth.

(4)  The inherent rights of Mother Earth are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence.

(5)  Mother Earth and all beings are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as may be made between organic and inorganic beings, species, origin, use to human beings, or any other status.

(6)  Just as human beings have human rights, all other beings also have rights which are specific to their species or kind and appropriate for their role and function within the communities within which they exist.

(7)  The rights of each being are limited by the rights of other beings and any conflict between their rights must be resolved in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth.

Korten contends that a cultural narrative or guiding story accomplishes four things: (1) Gives our lives meaning and purpose; (2) gives reasons to believe that necessary changes are possible despite obstacles; (3) addresses the nature of human nature; (4) points the way to a credible, possible future.  “A shared story is the basis of the ability of any people to live together as an organized society” (Korten, 2015, p. 22). Cultural stories or narratives shape attitudes and behaviors, influencing everyday psychological functioning.

Which story does the field of psychology support? Depends.

  • Hobbesian and neo-Darwinian views implicitly infuse psychological theories, research and assumptions with a negative view of human nature (selfish, aggressive) that supports the Sacred Money and Markets story.
  • The atheistic, mechanistic branch aims to desacralize and depersonalize all explanations, even though there is no (possible) proof for a purposeless, unagentic world.
  • The strand that seeks to be a hard science is still gripped by static notions such as genetics instead of epigenetics, nature versus nurture instead of constant dynamic interaction, mechanistic instead of dynamic systems metaphors. All this despite the fact that physics has long ago abandoned mechanistic notions.
  • Psychology tends to be individualistically focused, not addressing the interaction between an individual’s behavior and attitudes and the political-economic-communal level of narrative. That is why truth must be garnered through interdisciplinary methods and understanding.
  • Developmental systems theories (in biology and in what might be termed embodied psychology) integrate ongoing dynamism in development and behavior.  They acknowledge the self-organizing nature of an organism in response to built-in features interacting with experience. This is the branch that most promisingly embraces a Sacred Life and Living Earth story.

In essence we are under the enchantment of the wrong story and have created a “wrong” future (one that leads to species suicide).  I agree and discuss how we have fostered the wrong imagination (Narvaez, 2014). We have learned an incorrect story about who humans are.

A psychology interested in flourishing will take up the Sacred Life and Living Earth story, the one that has guided sustainable societies for eons.

In my recent book (Narvaez, 2014), I argue for a new story that fits with the Sacred Life and Living Earth story. Here I fit it into Korten’s four guiding principles:

Cooperation infuses Nature including human development. Humans are cooperative and virtuous when raised as intended (with loving support). When we learn to unstress ourselves, we can build receptive intelligence and prosocial capacities that facilitate cooperation. Humans can foster and encourage communal imagination and relational attunement with humans and nonhumans. Together we can rebuild ecological wisdom that preserves and enhances life on earth. Read more.

*Note: in this sense “sacred” refers to what is most valued and essential to community members and thereby worthy of respect and care.


David Korten (2015) Change the story, change the future. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Darcia Narvaez (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.


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