How do you go from a Wharton MBA, to high-level think tanks consulting to the government and largest corporations, to writing a book with Joseph Campbell, to becoming the spokesperson for a new view of our world as a “living universe”? If you’re Duane Elgin, it’s just a natural progression. Elgin is an internationally recognized speaker and social visionary. In 2006 he was awarded the prestigious Goi Foundation Peace Award in recognition of his contribution to a global vision of a more sustainable and spiritual culture, and his books—including Voluntary Simplicity (1981), Awakening Earth (1993) and his recent The Living Universe—are among the most respected works on the topic. We sat down with Duane to talk about his journey, his work, and the role business has to play in the developments he sees ahead. — J.D.M.

Where did this journey start for you? What drives you?

I grew up on a farm in Idaho, and that’s where it all really started. We lived a few miles outside a little town of 500 people. Up to the age of 23, I was still working on the farm with my dad. I’ve always had a very intimate relationship with the land, and I grew up with an agrarian mindset.

Then I moved into the world of business and government, and became immersed in the industrial era mindset. And after that, I moved into an exploration of the universe as a living system and how we relate to it, and this has awakened a further mindset.

I was asking myself: “What does it mean to be alive here?” This goes right to the theme of your issue, “live to give.” More and more, we’re seeing that the old view—that we’re here to consume and accumulate—is not satisfying. Increasingly, people are saying, “When I give, when I contribute, when I connect, when I build community, when I feel a sense of neighborliness, when I facilitate the health of another, then I feel happy. I feel the juice of life.”

In this economic downturn we’re experiencing, many people are hunkering down and looking for things to return to “normal”—but many others recognize that we’re in a global transition to a more relational, more community-oriented mindset, where we look out for one another.

That doesn’t mean we will all do so. There will still be plenty of folks pulling back and looking out just for themselves. But I do think a culture and consciousness of greater maturity is emerging.

This means a new relationship with the Earth that’s more sustainable, a new relationship with one another that’s more compassionate, and a new relationship with the universe that’s more aware or reverential. With that, we become new kinds of people living on the earth, not the adolescents that we have been.

You talk about nonlocality; what is nonlocality, and what does it say about our relationship with the world around us?

Nonlocality says that the world is deliciously paradoxical.

It says that every individual and every aspect of the universe is absolutely unique—and that it’s part of a unified whole. This means that our uniqueness is inseparable from the wholeness of the entire universe. It also means what happens on the other side of the universe is immediately and instantaneously connected with what happens here.

That is the paradox. Our participation in the unity of the entire universe does not diminish the uniqueness and the growing richness of who we are.

What we’re discovering is a universe that’s much richer, much more alive than we thought, and much more welcoming of our development, not simply as biological/physical beings but much more as psychological, cultural, spiritual beings.

The universe is holographic. Moment by moment, it’s emerging as a one single whole, a universe. But at the same time, it is also being expressed with growing richness and diversity.

You say science has discovered that 96 percent of the universe is invisible, but we’ve based our materialistic paradigm on the assumption that the 4 percent we can see is all of what is real.

If only 4 percent of the known universe is the material part, and 96 percent is the invisible part, then how much of yourself is part of that invisible 96 percent?

Focusing only on the material/visible part is what I call the 4 percent solution. It’s seeing ourselves as consumers of materials. Great: you’re handling that 4 percent. But what are you going to do about the other 96 percent?

That’s what’s emerging now in science, and what has been there in the world’s wisdom traditions for a long while. It’s to say that we are much bigger people than we thought, and we are part of a much larger aliveness, much larger than we thought.”

And that really transforms our sense of the human journey. We’re not here only to consume, we’re here to grow in that aliveness. And that asks us to grow in our contribution; in growing in our contribution, we find how big we are.

How does the idea of contribution fit into this new perspective of the living universe?

It goes back to the question to get or are we living to give?

In a consumer society, you say, “I’m here to get.” Increasingly, though, scientific surveys on what bring happiness are telling us that when we feel that our lives are making a contribution to the wellbeing of others, that is when we experience being most alive. When our relationships are strong and we feel we are growing inside, and we are giving our gifts to the world, that is generally when we are the happiest.

We drove consumerism for a couple of generations, and we saw that although we doubled our income, we did not budge our happiness at all.

So now we’re saying, “Maybe there are other sources of happiness.” Moving toward contribution and community is going to make us a happier, more fulfilled society.

There is also an economic revolution beginning here. There are at least four billion people living at the margins of existence, on a real income of $4 a day or less. Those people need all the basics.

What does this mean to us? Well, if we can restrain our excess here in our developed countries and open our vision, we can create a sustainable prosperity for everyone on the planet—and a sense of community.

There are a growing number of businesses that are learning to give, and build relationships, and in that process build a foundation for the long haul.

I think enduring into the future is going to be based not only on the quality of a company’s products, but to a greater extent on the company’s integrity and sense of purpose, and to what extent its values genuinely support building a sustainable world.

It’s almost as if we’ve just begun to realize that we are actually connected to those four billion disenfranchised people, that we’re all part of the same whole.

Absolutely. The whole notion of Gaia includes not only the living Earth but also the living human community. Now, with the Internet, we can actually see what is happening on the other side of the world in real time. So we are no longer disconnected by geography. The fact that we are part of one family is becoming real to us.

You mentioned that we are just now becoming genuinely aware of the rest of the Earth’s population as real people to whom we are connected. In your book, you say something about awareness and love.

That’s such a beautiful quote from a Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, who said, “I will tell you a secret—” Isn’t it wonderful how he starts it? “—awareness and love are the same thing. As you grow in awareness, you grow in love.”

We’re just growing up as a human family. We’re growing in awareness of the physical world, and growing in awareness of the emotional and spiritual dimensions of life. And as we grow in awareness, we grow in capacity for love.

This understanding is gaining real traction in the culture. Larry King and Oprah have people like Deepak Chopra on their shows, and the mainstream culture is becoming interested in consciousness, realizing that we are bigger beings, and that our happiness really grows from recognizing that.

In The Living Universe I use a wonderful quote from Thich Nhat Hanh about the idea of true gifts versus near gifts. He says we each have near gifts, things that we’re pretty good at, and true gifts, things that we’re soulfully gifted at contributing to the world.

What I see is that our world is in such peril, our near gifts are not going to be enough to get us through. Our world is now calling forth our true gifts.

Our world is calling for people to step up and step out—to be brave, don’t hunker down now. If there was ever a time in human history to step forth and freely give what we’ve got, this is it.

This is a pivotal time. We are a transitional generation. This is a time to step up and offer our true gifts to this great turning. And that doesn’t mean offering up a little bit of money, it means offering up the whole works.

I realize it’s different for everyone, but what might that look like?

It means everything, every aspect of life.

For example, the food we eat and how that relates to the larger web of life. That is a whole conversation, in and of itself.

Or the work we do—is it contributing to the Earth, or not? Does it realize our higher gifts, or not?

The way we raise our kids—are we raising them to be good consumers or good contributors?

It goes to our politics: are we supporting a politics of sustainability, or a free-market politics that’s consuming the Earth?

When you say true gifts, do you also mean a “find your passion, do what you love and the money will follow” sort of philosophy as well?

Sort of. For example, in my own life: I’ve never had a nest egg or any savings. I just saw a need out there in the world and I said, “I’m in the game here. Let’s dive in.”

No savings—don’t they take away your Wharton MBA if you say that?

[laughs] When I first started speaking to audiences, in the 1970s, I was introduced as “a Wharton MBA gone bad.”

Then almost thirty years went by—and now I’m introduced to business audiences as “a Wharton MBA gone green.” So I’ve gone from bad to green.

I haven’t really changed a whole lot. But the world has.

It’s okay—most of those nest eggs that all of your colleagues were storing up just disappeared last year!

Speaking about the poor around the world, it is important to recognize that the roots of terrorism are twofold—in poverty and hopelessness. First, in poverty, which fosters radical fundamentalism, and secondly, in hopelessness generated by a world that offers little promise of meaningful change. If you’re impoverished and hopeless, you’re ripe for some kind of unrest.

If we as a human community (including business) would extend support to the four billion folks on this Earth so that they have the basics covered, then they will have hope. And if they have that, we can have a world that works.

This would take perhaps 10 to 20 percent of what the world spends on weapons each year. It’s not like we can’t afford it, because we absolutely can. It’s simply a matter of awareness and collective intention. It’s a matter of mobilizing ourselves as a family, with purpose and intention, to say, “Come on! Let’s get together here and handle this.”

This is what you call a revolution in fairness.

The word economy means home management. Well, where’s home? That’s the Earth. So let’s be good businesspeople and manage this wisely.

That’s growing up.

In this revolution of fairness, what role do you see for home-based business?

I’ve been a home-based business for over thirty years. I am an ardent advocate of localization, that is, truly home-based business.

I think we are moving rapidly into an era of localization and decentralization. Small enterprise is on the cutting edge—it’s where a whole new wave of business is going.

Yet at the same time, look at the Internet. We’re also becoming globally connected.

Another delicious paradox.

That’s right. We’re going to see highly localized economies and services, eco-villages and local living economies—and at the same time, these local economies are also going to be connected throughout the world, for example, through “fair trade” networks.

This is all happening right now. It’s simultaneous localization—right down to the level of the household as an economic ecological unit—and globalization.

And at the same time, the area in between localization and globalization, the domain of nation states, is weakening.

That sounds like such a radical transformation that it would be easy to have it happen sloppily, if not cataclysmically.

So the folks on the ground—that’s us—need to handle this in a way that it’s not sloppy.

In the past you could be huge, or you could be local. And now suddenly you can do both at once, because they’ve become the same interconnected thing.

They are. I know authors, speakers and entrepreneurs who are one- or two-person businesses, and they are global.

You mention the diminishing power and role of nation states. Is the traditional corporation also a part of that dismantling middle ground?

It’s a part of it. Look at what’s happening right now: the dismantling of large sectors of corporate America, from the automobile industry to the financial industry. We are reconfiguring our economy. And it’s getting pushed down to the local scale, where people are learning how to recreate their livelihood.

I’m seeing people not with one job, but maybe three or four different kinds of jobs. A person might be a musician and a writer and a speaker and a marketer, all at the same time.

So are we looking at a future where we won’t have three big automakers but 3,000 small automakers?

I do think there will continue to be economies of scale that support large manufacturing industries and such. But I also think we’re going to see an in-fill, to put it in real estate terms, where we are filling in the local economy with new kinds of businesses.

I think where we’re going to see decentralization is where energy plays a big factor, like with flying fresh raspberries from Australia to stores in California. We are going to see a more rational configuration.

Someone once called our suburban areas the equivalent of small, underdeveloped countries, because they’re so isolated from one another. The suburbs are disconnected from agriculture, from the economic core, and from each other.

If that infrastructure can somehow be reconfigured and retrofitted in a way that it does connect, then we have a foundation for the future. But we’ve got some hard work ahead to do, to retrofit developed countries and rebuilding them in a way that’s sustainable, and at the same time supporting the developing process in a way that’s sustainable as well.

And doesn’t just create more belching power plants in China.

Right—because perpetuating what we’re already doing is not enough.

Simone de Beauvoir said something that has meant a lot to me: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.”

If we create a future that is only sustainable, then we are creating a future of “only not dying”—and that’s not going to work. It also has to surpass itself and draw us into a larger vision of human possibility.

So we have some very tough choices to make here. Where are we going? We need a vision of a bigger journey here.

What do you see as the key developmental fronts where this transformation is happening? In business? In government? Among individuals who are pioneering technology?

I see it in all of these. As Paul Hawken writes about in Blessed Unrest, there’s a leaderless revolution going on that involves millions of people saying, “Look, government and business aren’t handling this—we’re going to have to be the ones who figure out how to live more sustainably, and in a way that’s more just.”

This is a quiet revolution. It doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but it’s been growing and developing around the Earth for decades.

Everything you just said sounds like the definition of network marketing.

It is network marketing. The traditional media outlets are steeped in commercialism, and they’re not going to say, “Hey, here’s an emerging alternative to commercialism that is really satisfying for people.”

In your book you say, “The media is the most visible representation of our collective mind. And currently our collective mind is being programmed for commercial success and evolutionary failure.”

There are two taboos we need to address.

First is the idea of the American dream, which has now become the world’s nightmare: climate change, species extinction and so forth.

As Bob Dylan put it, “To dream, you still have to be asleep.” We don’t need a new American dream—we need a wide-awake vision of sustainable prosperity. And most politicians won’t even look at that.

The second taboo is the dream machine of television. We are more than consumers who want to be entertained; we are also citizens of an imperiled world who want to be informed and engaged. Traditional television is generating a view of ourselves and our future that’s out of touch with reality. It’s no longer serving us.

As the media goes, so goes the future. When the media starts talking about sustainability and our time of global transition, and about the drama of that and the comedy of that, then we will have a true revolution of consciousness that will germinate in our collective mind—and we will move rapidly in that direction.

I think the media is critical in the awakening, invigorating and alivening of the collective mind—for awakening a collective sense of direction and possibility.

And I’m delighted you’re there doing the work you’re doing.