What is the Great Transition?

In the lingua franca of GTI, “great transition” refers to a set of core concepts for understanding the contemporary world and shaping its future. The overarching framework is summarized below as responses to four iconic questions. The terms we favor are italicized, but cognates abound and are welcome. So, of course, is dissent.

Where are we? History has entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization, a profound shift in the condition of society and the dynamics driving change. In our time, multiple threads of interdependence – economic globalization, communications technology, and climate change are among the most salient – are binding people, places, and the wider community of life into a single social-ecological system. A new era emerges, yet the worldviews and institutions of the past persist, a disjuncture where crises incubate and a zeitgeist of apprehension spreads. At the same time, counter-tendencies – local initiatives, post-consumerist subcultures, sustainability and justice campaigns, public awareness and concern, visions of another world – may portend a rising social force for addressing the systemic challenge of the Planetary Phase.

Where are we going? Our common destiny remains indeterminate and contested. From the branch point of the present, contrasting paths into the future are possible, distinguished by the ways social-ecological crises and our collective response to them play out. These global scenarios fall broadly into three types: evolution, degeneration, and transformation. Evolutionary scenarios, which we refer to as Conventional Worlds, envision incremental responses to twenty-first century challenges, with Market Forces variants stressing free market solutions and Policy Reform variants underscoring strong political will and international cooperation for sustainable development. However, the efficacy of market and policy adaptations is sharply constrained. A state-centric geopolitical order undercuts global imperatives, while the dominant development paradigm privileges profits over needs and economic growth over ecological resilience. Quite plausibly, Conventional Worlds could veer rather abruptly toward some form of Barbarization scenario, perhaps a polarized Fortress World, even a catastrophic Breakdown. The risk of evolutionary drift followed by catastrophic descent is all too real, yet by no means inevitable.

Where do we want to go? Transformative scenarios, which we term Great Transitions, envision the advent of a new development paradigm redirecting the global trajectory toward a socially equitable, culturally enriched, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization. This possibility rests on the ascent of a constellation of values – human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility – to moderate the conventional triad of individualism, consumerism, and domination of nature. Upon this normative foundation, governance and economic institutions can be redesigned to balance the imperatives for unity and diversity, to nurture social cohesion and eradicate destitution, and to support human well-being and a vibrant natural world. Far from the end of history, a Great Transition would be alive with peaceful political contestation, cultural expression, and scientific exploration. Even as it opened a new and hopeful chapter in the story of civilization, a Great Transition would face the lingering scars and instabilities of a fading past and the unfathomable struggles of a distant future.

How do we get there? A viable Great Transition strategy entails actions that address a vast matrix of issues at local, regional, and global levels. The very complexity of the social-ecological system urges an ecumenical change strategy that validates plural points of leverage as it seeks synergy and builds trust. The meta-challenge is to weave an integrated praxis from these many threads. A massive and coherent global citizens movement seems the essential systemic change agent for the Great Transition project. By forging a globalized community of fate with shared risks and opportunities, the Planetary Phase makes a broad cultural and political rising conceivable. Indeed, although still largely latent, such a movement is already visible in diffuse nascent forms. The core question then becomes how to bring it fully to life.