WE FACE A defining choice between two contrasting models for organising human affairs: Empire and Earth Community. Empire organises by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain institutions of domination.

Earth Community, by contrast, organises by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative co-operation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. We must make a choice to relearn how to live by its principles. Empire has now reached the limits of the exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm, born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change and an imbalanced US economy, is now poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. We have the power to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity.

ACCORDING TO CULTURAL historian Raine Eisler, early humans evolved within a cultural and institutional frame of Earth Community. They organised to meet their needs by co-operating with life rather than by dominating it. Then some 5,000 years ago, beginning in Mesopotamia, our ancestors made a tragic turn from Earth Community to Empire. They turned away from a reverence for the generative power of life – represented by female gods or nature spirits – to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword – represented by distant, usually male gods.

The primary institutional form of Empire has morphed from the city-state to the nation-state to the global corporation, but the underlying pattern of domination remains. The sexism, racism, economic injustice, violence and environmental destruction that have plagued most human societies for 5,000 years and have now brought us to the brink of a potential terminal crisis all flow from this common source.

Given that Empire has prevailed for 5,000 years, a turn from Empire to Earth Community might seem a hopeless fantasy if not for the evidence from values-surveys that a global awakening to the higher levels of human consciousness is already under way. This awakening is driven in part by a communications revolution that defies elite censorship.

The consequences of the awakening are manifest in the civil rights, women’s, environmental, peace and other social movements. These movements in turn gain energy from the growing leadership of women, communities of colour, and indigenous peoples, and from a shift in the demographic balance in the favour of older age groups more likely to have achieved the higher-order consciousness of the wise elder.

WE HUMANS LIVE by stories. The key to making a choice for Earth Community is recognising that the foundation of Empire’s power does not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire’s ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities.

The struggle to control the prevailing cultural stories largely defines contemporary cultural politics in the US. A far-right alliance of elitist corporate plutocrats and religious theocrats has gained control of much of the political discourse in the US by controlling the stories by which the prevailing culture defines the pathway to prosperity, security and meaning. In each instance, the far right’s favoured versions of these stories affirm the dominator relations of Empire:

• The ‘Imperial Prosperity’ story says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that create barriers to accumulating wealth.

• The ‘Imperial Security’ story tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists and enemies. The only way to insure our safety is through major expenditures on military and police to maintain order by physical force.

• The ‘Imperial Meaning’ story reinforces the other two, featuring a God who rewards the righteous with wealth and power and mandates that they rule over the poor, who justly suffer divine punishment for their sins.

It is not enough, as many in the US are doing, to debate the details of tax and education policies, budgets, war and trade agreements in search of a positive political agenda. To change our human future, we must change our defining stories. We must infuse mainstream culture with stories of Earth Community. Fortunately, the new communication technologies are making this possible.

Just as the stories of Empire nurture a culture of domination, the stories of Earth Community nurture a culture of partnership. They affirm the positive potentials of our human nature. Sharing the joyful news of our human possibilities through word and action is perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Work of our time.

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community is published by Berrett-Koehler at $27.95.

David C. Korten is President of the People-Centered Development Forum and author of When Corporations Rule the World.