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.
A growing array of alternative ownership designs point to a fundamentally different kind of economy, where basic social architectures—the architectures of ownership—are designed to be life-supporting. This kind of economy may be more likely to create fair and just outcomes, to benefit the many rather than the few, and to enable an enduring human presence on a flourishing earth. Emerging ownership models represent the potential foundation for such an economy. They embody an emerging archetype that has yet to be recognized as a single phenomenon with a single name. This archetype provides an alternative to the dominant ownership archetype of today, which can be called “extractive,” for it aims at extracting maximum amounts of financial wealth. The emerging family of ownership designs can be called “generative,” for their aim is to generate the conditions for our common life to flourish.
In an ecologically constrained world, both the global North and the global South need to consider new obligations and limits. A basic commitment to social justice requires that the claims of the poor, chiefly residing in the South, take precedence over the claims of the rich, chiefly residing in the North. The North may have to accept an actual reduction in conventional measures of standard of living to create ecological space for Southern growth, but the costs of this could be modest if a new economy is organized to provide the economic basis of a good life based on precepts other than more, more, and still more. Recognition of a priority for the poor, however, cannot be a license for the South to replicate the wasteful disregard for ecosystem boundaries that has characterized growth in the North. Nor ought the South to countenance the wanton disregard for the claims of the disadvantaged that has allowed large islands of Northern poverty to continue to exist in oceans of Northern wealth.
Myriad Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are addressing the full range of environmental and social problems, including climate change, food insecurity, droughts, resource scarcity and poverty. Despite many successes, these perilous problems (and more) constitute a sustainability crisis that calls into question the efficacy of current CSO strategies. More transformative approaches, drawing on cutting-edge theory and practice, are required for CSOs to fulfill their role of helping humanity meet contemporary challenges. The Great Transition scenario offers a holistic framework for changing course.
The US political economy is failing across a broad front—environmental, social, economical, and political. Deep, systemic change is needed to transition to a new economy, one where the acknowledged priority is to sustain human and natural communities. Policies are available to effect this transformation and to temper economic growth and consumerism while simultaneously improving social well-being and quality of life, but a new politics involving a coalescence of progressive communities is needed to realize these policies. Yet, on the key issue of economic growth, differing positions among American liberals and environmentalists loom, a major barrier to progressive fusion. This Perspective proposes a starting point for forging a common platform and agenda around which both liberals and environmentalists can rally.
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 ascent of transnational corporations poses fundamental questions of accountability, regulation, and democratic process. Although their footprints cross continents, TNCs still operate under legal licenses granted by national or state authority. In order to rectify the incongruence between global impacts and state control, and to align corporate behavior with social and ecological purpose, we propose a World Corporate Charter Organization. By defining the obligations of TNCs, global charters would balance the current emphasis of international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, on TNC rights. With public concern about corporate power on the rise, the moment is propitious for establishing transnational governance of transnational corporations, a precondition for attaining just and sustainable societies.
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.
Global trade negotiations are moribund, with the World Trade Organization’s agenda stalled and the neoliberal ideology it serves confronted by a rising chorus of criticism. The trading system, built on the premise that promoting commercial interests necessarily advances the general interest, instead has fed a multifaceted planetary crisis. At this juncture, trade policy must find a new way forward. The key to this change lies in reversing the priority that in the past made free trade an end in itself, thereby consigning the larger goal of sustainable development to an afterthought. From now on, economic, social, and environmental sustainability goals should set the criteria for designing and applying multilateral trade rules. We suggest concrete steps to help transform the WTO from an agent of privilege and profit into a force for an equitable, peaceful, and resilient world.
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.
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.