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Personal Change With a Global Goal

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marty E. Coleman, a longtime member of All Saints Church in Pasadena, now grows her own vegetables, shops at Vroman’s independent bookstore instead of national chains and recycles her clothes. The transformation of her personal consumer habits started with a book that, at first glance, seems to have nothing to do with religion.

“When Corporations Rule the World,” by former Harvard business professor and international development official David C. Korten, argues that the global economic order has promoted deepening poverty, inequality, environmental devastation and social disintegration.

Those premises are hotly disputed by some, but they found a receptive audience in Coleman, the former social justice minister for All Saints, a liberal Episcopal congregation.

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“I thought, ‘Aha! That’s why things aren’t working,’” recalled Coleman, who has joined demonstrations for nuclear disarmament, an end to apartheid and higher wages for the poor.

Now Coleman and a core group of friends have launched a new ministry called Sustainable World to bring issues raised by Korten to a wider audience. They are part of a growing movement among people of faith to challenge corporate globalization, which some predict may eventually rival the impact of religious-based civil rights work more than three decades ago.

The ministry began last fall after Coleman and others organized 10 church reading groups on Korten’s book--which has provoked sometimes heated debate within All Saints.

This month, the ministry held its debut event: a weekend conference featuring Korten and other speakers that drew more than 300 people across the faith spectrum--from liberal Episcopalians to conservative evangelical Christians from the neighboring Fuller Theological Seminary. The forum drew nearly twice as many people as planners expected.

“We carry this banner that our faith is fundamentally about building a just and peaceful world,” said Max Miller, who helped organize the Korten reading circles as the All Saints coordinator of small groups. “The Korten book shared our moral perspective--that our society needs to be accountable to care for all.”

Coleman said the book helped connect the dots between the poverty and environmental problems they have cared about for so long and global corporate operations--how some corporate coffee growers have yanked out rain forests for massive coffee groves, for instance. Or how global trade agreements have helped powerful commercial interests put scores of local farmers out of business.

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Korten’s book also argues that a growing concentration of corporate power in the hands of fewer wealthy elites is threatening democracy here and abroad, and that the ethos of ever-increasing economic growth is overtaxing the world’s natural resources.

The author’s proposed solutions include the radical--an end to the publicly traded, limited liability corporation that values the bottom line above all else. But they also include more easily attainable steps, such as supporting local businesses--a call Coleman heeds in shopping at farmers’ markets and buying books at Vroman’s.

The dawning awareness of the darker consequences of corporate globalization--which has also lowered prices, created jobs and broken down cultural and communication barriers around the world--is beginning to galvanize what Korten calls the “most global social movement in human history.”

The 45,000 protesters who stunned the world with demonstrations against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 have ballooned to hundreds of thousands of dissidents at global economic meetings in Europe, Asia, and Latin and North America.

Just as they galvanized the civil-rights movement, churches are emerging as an increasingly important player in challenging corporate globalization.

Korten said that many of his invitations to speak today are coming from faith communities, which he says are driven by moral and ethical values capable of challenging the primacy of the bottom line.

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“If any institution of society can help liberate the mind from the hypnotic trance of the current system, it should be the church,” said Korten, a burly and bearded man who no longer identifies with the Christianity of his boyhood, but says his work today is motivated by a “universal spirit.”

Korten, who was raised as a Republican and groomed to take over the family business in Washington state, said he began to open his eyes to the problems of corporate globalization as an international development officer with the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development during the 1970s.

He said development projects often impoverished communities more than enriched them, citing examples he had seen: a Japanese-financed copper smelting plant in the Philippines that poisoned the local environment; the planned eviction of millions of rural people in Thailand to make room for commercial tree farms; the geothermal projects that destroyed farm and forest land to meet the energy demands of export-oriented industries.

After two decades in Asia, Korten returned to the U.S. in 1992 to work for change. To that end, he lectures, writes and helped launch the Positive Futures Network (www.futurenet.org), based on Bainbridge Island outside Seattle.

But the former Harvard professor’s views are controversial, and have caused debates even within All Saints--a wealthy congregation that includes top corporate leaders.

“Some people feel the book is off base, and think Korten’s ideas are threatening the American free-enterprise system,” Miller said.

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The USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture was also criticized by some for co-sponsoring the recent conference featuring Korten, according to Grace Dyrness, the center’s associate director. She said some people suggested that corporations should have been represented as well. Dyrness said the center and others might follow up with another gathering--perhaps a global conference--that will include their voices.

Dyrness said the USC center intends to launch a worldwide survey soon on how actively churches are mobilizing on the issue.

In her own travels, she said, she has encountered or heard of pastors in places as far-flung as Nigeria, Guyana and Italy intent on examining the impact of corporate globalization on their own communities.

“People of faith are saying, ‘This world isn’t working, and what can we do about it?’” Dyrness said. “For many of them, it is a mandate that comes out of their sacred scriptures to be a good steward and to love your neighbor.”

At All Saints, the Sustainable World ministry already has an ambitious list of projects planned. The group plans several educational events, including a May seminar on how to live more simply and a June lecture on the consequences of world trade agreements and organizations.

The ministry also plans to investigate globalization’s impact first-hand with visits to maquiladora plants at the Nogales border and the sweatshop district in Los Angeles.

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In addition, the group expects to join the growing move to support the purchase of “fair trade coffee” --organic coffee produced by local worker-owned cooperatives that guarantee decent wages.

In the last year, more than 500 Presbyterian and Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country have signed up for the program.

If the recent conference is any guide, the activities are likely to draw widespread interest.

On the conference’s last day, for an hour after Korten was supposed to end his remarks, more than 50 people stayed on, peppering him with questions. Coleman said it was the first time she had ever seen a speaker draw such response in her two decades at All Saints.

A refugee from Rwanda now studying at the Fuller seminary thanked Korten for “telling the story we don’t usually hear.” A Chinese immigrant from Thailand told him he was right on the money; the immigrant had witnessed how large development projects impoverished the rural people--money spent to erect golf courses instead of bringing people clean water, she said. An American horticulturist and her husband said the conference made them feel for the first time that they were not alone in their deep unease about society’s mounting problems.

“I’m disconnected with nature. People are hungry; there is no community,” said John Thurman, 27, a graduate student in psychology. “If we continue to live this way, the world can’t sustain us and we’ll collapse.

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“Now,” he said, “I have hope.”

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