Paul Raskin is the founding President of the Tellus Institute. The overarching theme of Dr. Raskin’s work has been the development of visions and strategies for a transformation to more resilient and equitable forms of social development. Toward this larger aim, his research has spanned issues (energy, water, climate change, ecosystems, and sustainable development) and spatial scales (local, national, and global). He has conceived and built widely-used models for integrated scenario planning for energy (LEAP), freshwater (WEAP), and sustainability (PoleStar). Dr. Raskin has published widely, and served as a lead author for the U.S. National Academy of Science’s Board on Sustainability, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Earth Charter, and UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook. In 1995, he convened the Global Scenario Group to explore the requirements for a transition to a sustainable and just global civilization. The Group’s 2002 valedictory essay – Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead – became the point of departure for the Great Transition Initiative that Dr. Raskin launched in 2003 and continues to direct. Earlier in his career, Dr. Raskin received a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Columbia University in 1970.
Journey to Earthland
In our interdependent and dangerous century, an organic planetary civilization has become both a possibility and a necessity. This essay builds a conceptual framework for understanding the contemporary crisis, envisioning a desirable future, and acting collectively to get there.
A Great Transition? Where We Stand
October 2014Paul Raskin revisits the scenarios developed by the Global Scenario Group and asks, which future are we living in? Despite proliferating perils, he argues, a Great Transition remains plausible—if an emerging social actor moves to center stage.
Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead
The planetary phase of history has begun, but the future shape of global society remains profoundly uncertain. Though perhaps improbable, a shift toward a planetary civilization of enriched lives, human solidarity, and environmental sustainability is still possible. This treatise examines the historic roots of this fateful crossroads, analyzes alternative scenarios that can emerge from contemporary forces and contradictions, and points to strategies and choices for advancing a Great Transition. It synthesizes the insights of the Global Scenario Group, convened in 1995 by the Tellus Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute to explore the requirements for a sustainable and desirable future.
Game On: The Basis of Hope in a Time of Despair
In a world at risk, those attuned to the dangers can feel a powerful temptation to sound apocalyptic alarms to awaken the somnolent. Arousing fear, though, without offering a compelling vision of a better path, awakens only dispiriting anguish and despair. This pessimism is not so much wrong as disempowering. The basis for hope rests on two kinds of arguments, one scientific, the other historical. Quantitative simulation of alternative scenarios shows that sufficient environmental capacity and adequate technical means remain to reach a flourishing planetary civilization. Moreover, the precondition for this Great Transition is found in the shared risks and opportunities an interdependent global system now confronts. In our historical moment, the world has become a single community of fate, the foundation for cultural and institutional transformation. Although catastrophic premonitions cannot be logically refuted, they can be defied in spirit and negated in practice: pragmatic hope is the antidote to dystopian despair.
Scenes from the Great Transition
Mandela City, 2084 — The world today, a century after George Orwell’s nightmare year, stands as living refutation of the apocalyptic premonitions that once haunted dreams of the future. This dispatch from our awakened future surveys the contemporary moment, scenes in the unfolding drama we call the Great Transition.
Originally published in Solutions
Imagine All the People: Advancing a Global Citizens Movement
How to change the world? Those concerned about the dangerous drift of global development are asking this question with increasing urgency. Dominant institutions have proved too timorous or too venal for meeting the environmental and social challenges of our time. Instead, an adequate response requires us to imagine the awakening of a new social actor: a coordinated global citizens movement (GCM) struggling on all fronts toward a just and sustainable planetary civilization. Existing civil society campaigns remain fragmented and therefore powerless to leverage holistic transformation. To create an alternative vision and effective strategy for realizing it, consciousness and action must rise to the level of a GCM. We propose a new organizing campaign with the explicit aim of catalyzing this historic agency. This effort would expand and diversify in a “widening circle,” adapting to changing circumstances as it evolves. From the onset, such a project must foster a politics of trust, committed to balancing unity and pluralism on the road to our common future.
The Century Ahead: Searching for Sustainability
This study explores possible pathways to sustainability by considering, in quantitative form, four contrasting scenarios for the twenty-first century. The analysis reveals vividly the risks of conventional development approaches and the real danger of socio-ecological descent into a future of diminished human and ecological well-being. Nonetheless, the paper underscores that a Great Transition scenario—turning toward a civilization of enhanced human well-being and environmental resilience—remains an option, and it identifies a suite of changes in strategic policies and human values for getting there.
Originally published in Sustainability
We the People of Earth: Toward Global Democracy
We confront daunting twenty-first century challenges hobbled by twentieth century institutions. In a world ever more interdependent, deepening global-scale risks—climate change, financial instability, terrorism, to name a few—threaten the planetary commonweal, even the continuity of civilization. Yet coherent and timely responses lie beyond the grasp of our myopic and disputatious state-centric political order. Closing this perilous gap between obsolete geo-politics and emerging geo-realities delineates an urgent political endeavor: constructing a legitimate and effective system of world governance. Key steps on that path involve reforming the United Nations and nurturing new venues for the meaningful exercise of global citizenship.
Planetary Praxis: On Rhyming Hope and History
Amidst growing environmental, economic, and social instability, there remains hope for a transition to a tolerant, just, and ecologically resilient global civilization. However, such a transition is feasible only if human thought and action rise to embrace one human family on one integral planet. The search is on for a compelling planetary praxis, an evolving theory and practice to guide the journey and forge the path to our common future. This essay identifies a “global citizens movement” as the critical actor for the transition, arguing that the conditions of the twenty-first century will make such a cultural and political formation increasingly feasible and suggesting strategic actions for accelerating its crystallization.
Originally published in The Coming Transformation: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities, edited by Stephen R. Kellert and James Gustave Speth.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Overcoming the Impasse
The long-playing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spreads ripples of antagonism across the world stage. For the sake of the people of that troubled land and the larger project of creating a civilized global future, it must be resolved. Despite the legacy of violence and enmity, a vision of two independent and cooperative states remains feasible. A new process of negotiation and cooperation can establish the political foundations and encourage the mutual trust needed for reconciliation and sustained peace. Keys to success include sound strategic-principles, appropriate external actors, and a multi-pronged action agenda along the lines proposed here.
Nuclear Power: Should It Have a Role?
Adequate mitigation of the risks of climate change requires rapid displacement of fossil fuels with carbon-free energy sources. This imperative has prompted a growing chorus of energy analysts, policy makers, and industry advocates to press for a resurgence of nuclear energy. Even some environmentalists are urging reconsideration of the nuclear option, so long anathema to their own movement. Yet, with critical problems unsolved—safety and cost, waste storage, and nuclear weapons proliferation—nuclear power remains a deeply problematic response to the climate challenge, and to the wider challenge of global sustainability. Therefore, the transformative energy strategy of a Great Transition relies on three major prongs: renewable resources, deep efficiency, and a model of development based on environment-sparing consumption and production patterns.
World Lines: Pathways, Pivots, and the Global Future
Looking at the concurrence of global crises, Paul Raskin provides a theoretical framework for analyzing structural change in human-ecological systems. He explores the possible forms and interactions of two key uncertainties—the aforementioned crises and human intentionality—in the landscape of the future, as well as the various paths that could result. He concludes by highlighting prospects and strategies for the formation of a global movement rooted in a planetary ethos.
The Great Transition Today: A Report from the Future
Paul Raskin surveys the landscape of a Great Transition future from the perspective of an individual living in 2084. He emphasizes the preeminence of a triad of values—quality of life, human solidarity, and ecological sensibility—and shows how they, combined with a sense of world citizenship, have permeated political, social, and economic institutions.
This founding proposal of the Great Transition Initiative laid out GTI’s original aims: to involve an expanding group of engaged thinkers and thoughtful activists in an exploration of ways to envision and crystallize a transition to a future of hope. The document describes the motivation for GTI and proposes tasks for launching the process. It was shaped by the comments of scores of GTI endorsers worldwide, representing the concerns of North and South, environment and justice, peace and liberty, and reflecting the diversity that is the bedrock of the Initiative.
Bending the Curve: Toward Global Sustainability
This paper analyzes the prospects for sustainability within the confines of Conventional Worlds scenarios. The shift to more sustainable forms of development must at least begin at this level, although we will likely need more fundamental social changes to complete the transition to a sustainable global society. The paper introduces social and environmental targets as well as strategic policies for reaching them. It shows both the great potential for progress and the daunting challenges within a growth-driven development paradigm.
Branch Points: Global Scenarios and Human Choice
This paper introduces scenario methods and a framework for envisioning global futures. It depicts contrasting world development scenarios, all compatible with current patterns and trends, but with sharply different implications for the quest for sustainability in the twenty-first century. Three broad scenario classes are depicted—Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions—which are characterized by, respectively, essential continuity with current patterns, fundamental but degenerative social change, and fundamental and progressive social transformation.
The Sustainability Transition: Beyond Conventional Development
Conventional development wisdom generally assumes the long-term continuity of dominant institutions, along with the expansion of resource intensive consumption and production patterns in industrialized countries and their gradual extension to developing countries. However, the growth orientation of conventional development strategies and the resource-intensive lifestyles produce risks and unacceptable deterioration of the biosphere, as well as social and economic instability. The limitations of the conventional development paradigm suggest the beginnings of an outline for a strategic agenda for sustainability.