When multiple “adversity trends” interact with one another, the consequences can be devastating. For example, when climate disruption and energy shortages reduce global food production while population is still growing, it becomes painfully clear that humanity faces a systems crisis of global proportions. It is important to see the scope, severity, timing, and complexity of the challenges we face. Nearly all of these challenges are of our own making. The clearer our understanding, the greater the chance that this time of global crisis will become a time of opportunity to make dramatic changes and pull together for our common future.
Yet, however promising the long-range future may seem, it is very demanding psychologically to consider the short-range breakdown and transformation of civilizations around the world. This is not an abstract process. We are the persons who are living through it. Our anxieties about the changes underway in the world are lessened when we see them as part of a natural and purposeful process–and that is one of the key gifts of Great Transition Stories. We are being pushed by necessity and pulled by enormous opportunity. Although rest of this website explores futures of great promise, here it is important to pause and recognize the powerful and unyielding nature of the trends that are pushing humanity to make this great transition.
If we misjudge our situation, the results will be catastrophic. There are no “do-overs.” We cannot bring extinct species back to life. We cannot re-freeze the Arctic and recreate the climate of the past ten thousand years. We cannot refill oil wells that are pumped dry. We cannot refill ancient aquifers of water that are pumped empty. We cannot take back responsibility for caring for billions of people beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth. Therefore, our first requirement—as individuals, communities, nations, and a species—is to step back and take an unflinching look at what is happening with key trends such as climate change and running out of cheap oil. Once we have a working grasp of individual trends, we can see how they are interacting with one another in mutually reinforcing ways to produce a world in systems crisis—ecologically, economically, politically, culturally, and more. As we recognize the magnitude and the urgency of these challenges, we can mobilize ourselves appropriately.
The first section below considers key individual trends and is followed by a section where these trends are considered as an interactive and mutually reinforcing system.
There are dozens of critical trends that could be considered. Yet, the few considered here are sufficient to give us a clear picture of the magnitude and urgency of the challenges facing us. These trends have been researched for decades, and there is a growing scientific agreement concerning for each. These trends are:
Wide and Deep Poverty
Profound Climate Disruption
The End of Cheap Oil
Global Water Shortages
Unsustainable Population Growth
Massive Extinction of Plant and Animal Species
Unsustainable Global Footprint
Our material demands are overwhelming the Earth’s regenerative ability. Within a generation, the human community has become a crushing force impacting every aspect of our planet: overcutting forests, overgrazing pasture lands, overusing farm lands, overfishing oceans, overpolluting the air, and more. We are over the limits in many critical areas, and the growth curve is still headed upward on the path that has already created profound difficulties.
The 2008 Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that humanity is overusing the Earth’s regenerative ability so that, if current trends and lifestyles continue, we will require the equivalent of two Earths by the mid-2030s. This is an impossibility. It will lead to the collapse of ocean fisheries, the ruin of topsoil, the overgrazing and desertification of land, and the depletion of groundwater aquifers—all of which are occurring. It has taken the entirety of human history to grow a global economy of the size it reached in 2008. Although our global economy is already exhausting the Earth with unsustainable consumption, if current trends continue, in just two decades the size of the economy will double. If the global economy is already over-consuming the Earth, then what will happen when rapidly developing countries with huge populations such as China, India, and Brazil seek to emulate their own version of the American, high-consumption lifestyle? Humanity is on a collision course with the Earth and the time of reckoning has arrived. The reckoning is to find a new ways of living that enable us to both maintain ourselves and to surpass ourselves as a species.
THE PERFECT STORM OF A WORLD IN SYSTEMS CRISIS
Any one of these trends could bring the human enterprise to grief. When they all converge at the same time, they constitute far more than an emergency—they represent an unequivocal catastrophe. In this generation we will either devastate or transform the human journey. We have no place to escape from our global predicament. Considered together, these trends represent a supreme test of the evolutionary intelligence and capacity of our species. They are of enormous scale (often involving millions or billions of people), complexity (of bewildering difficulty to comprehend), and severity (failure to cope with any one of them will result in monumental human suffering). We confront three types of challenges:
- Technical problems (for example, coping with energy and resource shortages)
- Normative problems (for example, discovering values beyond materialism that draw people together with a sense of shared purpose)
- Process problems (for example, finding ways for millions of citizens to interact with massively complex institutions from the local to the global scale).
These problems comprise a tightly interdependent and intertwined system of problems that cannot be dealt with on a one-by-one basis. Instead they require a dramatic shift in our overall pattern of thinking and living.
With economic breakdowns, resource depletion, and climate change already underway, some may argue that breakdown and collapse is also underway. However, there still seems to be considerable resilience or “stretch” left in the world system. We have not yet reached the breaking point. Although trends in climate and energy are awakening the people of the Earth to the magnitude of the challenges ahead, they are not yet sufficient to motivate the human community to come together in dialogue around hard choices about our collective approach to material growth. However, by the 2020s, these forces will mature into an unrelenting, world systems challenge. The window of opportunity for adaptation is narrowing quickly. Before hitting this evolutionary wall, it vital that we mobilize our tools of local to global communication to meet this challenge. With the push of necessity in alignment with the pull of evolutionary opportunity, it is impossible to imagine the bold and creative actions could emerge from the collective imagination of humanity as we prepare for our time of profound transition.
We cannot say that we were not warned. Over the past several decades, a steady stream of global studies has come to the same conclusion: To avoid an ecological and human disaster, we must make dramatic changes in how we live now. Recall the “Warning to Humanity” issued by over 1,600 of the world’s senior scientists in 1992 alerted the world that we were in danger of “irretrievably mutilating” the biosphere. The United National Global Environmental Outlook Report for 2007, presented as “the final wake-up call to the international community,” concluded that the human community is living far beyond its means and inflicting damage on the environment that could soon pass a point of no return. Given these and other warnings, it should come as no surprise that the combined impact of adversity trends confronts the human community with a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
Despite the severity of our physical problems, our deepest challenge is to overcome an invisible crisis: a lack of collective consensus and cohesion around a compelling sense of story and purpose. What will it take to mobilize humanity’s collective efforts in building a green future? Without the beacon of a compelling sense of a common story and purpose, it seems likely that we will withdraw into smaller, more protected worlds. An overriding challenge is to find a new “common sense”—a new sense of reality, human identity, and social purpose that we can hold in common and that respects our radically changing global circumstances. Finding this new common sense in the middle of the turbulence and disarray of the breakdown of civilizations is likely to be a drawn-out, messy, and ambiguous process of social learning. How effectively we use our tools of local to global communication to achieve a new consensus will be critical in determining the ultimate outcome.
Welcome to the Anthropocene
In June 2012, this 3-minute film opened the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development.
Global Issues and the Future of Our Planet
Jeremy Rifkin describes the profound challenges facing humanity in the future.
Our World in Transition
A half-hour conversation with Duane Elgin and Peter Russell exploring our time of unprecedented transition and the perfect world storm that will develop as adversity trends converge into a mutually reinforcing system.
Paul Gilding: The Earth is Full
Have we used up all our resources? Have we filled up all the livable space on Earth? Paul Gilding suggests we have, and the possibility of devastating consequences, in a talk that’s equal parts terrifying and, oddly, hopeful.
The Crisis of Civilization
A documentary feature film investigating how global crises like ecological disaster, financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages are converging symptoms of a single, failed global system.
Prophets of Doom
A History Channel production describing how we are facing many serious issue all at once, from climate change, energy shortages, and financial breakdowns to fresh water shortages and the prospect of nuclear terrorism:
- Lester Russell Brown, State of The World 2000 (2000)
- The Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet (2011)
- The Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity (2012)
- Duane Elgin, Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future (2000)
- Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (1981, 1993, 2010)
- David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (2007)
- James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2006)
- Donella H. Meadows, et al., Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future (1993)
- Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010)
- James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2008)
Articles & Reports
There is a growing literature focusing on the dynamics of our world in transition. Listed here are a few of the most important and insightful articles that we have found. Check back in regularly as this is an ever changing and expanding list.
- Madhusree Mukerjee, Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?, Scientific American (May 23, 2012)
- State of the Planet Declaration (March, 2012)
- Joe Brewer, Toward the Global Transition — 2012 and Beyond (January 2012)
- Anthony C. Revkin, Disruption on the Path to Transformation (October 2011)
- Four Degrees Hotter (February, 2011)
- Gus Speth, American Prospect: Decline and Rebirth (July 2011)
- Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption Has Arrived (February 2011)
- Conditions for Survival (April, 2010)
- Anthony C. Revkin, Puberty on the Scale of a Planet (August 2009)
- Edmund Bourne, A World In Transition (2008)
- Global Trends 2025: The National Intelligence Council’s 2025 Project (2008)
- Ervin Laszlo, WorldShift: The Quest for a Quantum Leap in Human Affairs (January 2008)
- Duncan Taylor and Graeme Taylor, The Collapse and Transformation of Our World (2007)
- Joanna Macy, The Great Turning as Compass and Lens (May 2006)
- Paul Raskin, et al., The Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (2002)
- Duane Elgin, Turning Tide Report (2001)
- Duane Elgin with Coleen LeDrew, Global Consciousness Change: Indicators of an Emerging Pardigm (1997)