Trends Driving Transition

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.

INDIVIDUAL TRENDS

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

Although there is a rapidly growing global middle class of roughly 2 billion persons, there is a much larger portion of humanity (in 2009, roughly 5 persons billion) living in varying degrees of poverty. For example, in 2009, 75 percent of humans are estimated to live on a real income of $4.00 per day or less. Sixty percent live on a real or effective income of $3.00 a day or less. The poorest of the poor—subsisting on the equivalent of $1.00 a day or less—are estimated to be a billion persons. The gap between rich and poor is a vast and growing chasm. In 2001, at the one hundredth anniversary of the Nobel Prize, one hundred prize winners came together to issue a “Nobel Warning” whose opening sentence reads: “The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world’s dispossessed.” With the communications revolution, the gap between rich and poor is glaringly obvious. Even many of the poorest villages have a TV set, cell phone, and a computer that give them access to the world. A world that is wired and so profoundly divided cannot work as an integrated and healthy system.
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Profound Climate Disruption

Human activities are destabilizing the climate we have enjoyed for the past ten thousand years. Long before glaciers and ice caps melt from global warming, disruption in climate patterns will severely impact the human community. I grew up on a farm and saw the dramatic consequences of modest weather changes. For example, if the rain continued a few weeks longer than usual into the spring, the fields would be too muddy for the farmers to plant their crops. That, in turn, could push harvesting until later in the fall. Then, if the frost came earlier than usual in the fall, crops could die or freeze in the ground. Farming and food production are far more vulnerable to climate disruption than many realize. Looking at the global picture, our world is slipping into a climate crisis much faster than expected. The pace of climate change is exceeding even the most pessimistic forecasts by global climate scientists. The world’s foremost authority on climate, scientist James Hansen, states that our situation is “more urgent than had been expected, even by those most attuned.” According to Hansen, allowing CO2 to rise from its pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm (parts per million) to its current level of 385 ppm is far outside its historical levels over millions of years and has already moved into a “dangerous range.” Hansen says that if we continue CO2 buildup into the range of 450 ppm and beyond, as many scientists anticipate, we will create a new planet with a climate unlike anything experienced in human history. The bottom line is that the people of the Earth must take immediate and dramatic action—including transforming consumerist lifestyles—to halt the build-up of CO2 and then to lower it to 350 ppm or less. If we do not immediately begin to stabilize and then reduce greenhouse gases, we can expect more powerful hurricanes and storms, more intense heat waves and droughts, the spread of diseases, a major shift in growing regions for agriculture, and eventually a large sea level rise that floods coastal regions and produces massive human migrations. For centuries to come, humanity will be coping with the climate changes set in motion at this time. Global climate destabilization will have such profound consequences that it alone will move humanity onto a new pathway into the future.
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The End of Cheap Oil

Petroleum has given humanity a one-time spurt of growth. In rough numbers, we have pumped out roughly half of the oil in the Earth, and this is the “good half” that is relatively easy to reach and get out. The second half gets progressively more costly as these areas, such as the deep sea, are difficult to reach and expensive to drill. There is a growing consensus that global oil production has begun to plateau and that we may already have seen the peak in production. At the same time, demand is skyrocketing as countries such as China, India, and Brazil rapidly modernize. China, for example, could use up the world’s entire yearly production of oil if it were to modernize and purchase as many cars per capita as in the United States. Given intense demand for oil and a declining supply, we can expect a permanent and growing increase in the cost of oil and oil-based products. This, in turn, will bring profound changes to the structure of the global economy, forcing activities to become much more localized, energy efficient, and inventive in using renewable sources.
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Global Water Shortages

Although we can get by without oil, we cannot live without water, and demand is soaring worldwide. Ironically, although we live on a “water planet,” only a small fraction is fresh water that we humans can drink, use for irrigation and growing food, and rely on for manufacturing purposes. More than 97 percent of all the water on the Earth is saltwater. Most fresh water is locked up in the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic. Lack of potable water is blamed for millions of deaths each year from famine, malnutrition, and disease. Looking ahead, it is estimated that by the 2020s roughly 40 percent of the people on the Earth will not be able to get enough water to be self-sufficient in growing their own food. Many will be living in vast urban regions where land and water are scarce. The hardest hit areas are expected to be Northern China, western and southern India, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and much of Mexico. The United States will also be severely impacted as, for example, the enormous Ogallala aquifer that sustains the breadbasket of the Midwest is depleted. Looking ahead, the most fierce and protracted conflicts over resources may not be over oil but over fresh water, particularly in these highly water-stressed regions. Even if the energy crisis is solved, the water crisis will grow as global temperatures rise and, for example, cause mountain glaciers to melt, eventually depriving billions of people of a vital source of fresh water.
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Unsustainable Population Growth

Global population has grown enormously in the past few generations. A few statistics tell the extraordinary story of our growth. In the early 1800s, we finally reached a billion persons on the planet. It took another century, until roughly 1930, to reach two billion humans. Over the next thirty years, we added another billion persons. The three billion humans alive in 1960 doubled to six billion people around the turn of the century. As I write this there are nearly seven billion people on the Earth. It is likely we will add another two billion persons to the planet before reaching stabilization at around nine billion people in mid-century. To give a feeling for the magnitude of these numbers, world population growth each month is roughly seven million persons—which is the equivalent of adding the population of a city the size of Chicago or Los Angeles to the Earth. In addition to enormous numbers of humans, we are very rapidly becoming an urbanized species, with nearly all of the growing world population occurring in the huge megalopolises of the developing world. Throughout human history, the majority of humans lived in rural and small village settings. It was only at the turn of the twenty-first century that we became a predominantly urban species. It is estimated that, by the 2020s, roughly two-thirds of humanity will live in urban settings. As we become an increasingly urbanized and interconnected world, it is creating a new culture and consciousness for humanity. When most people lived in rural environments, the human family was relatively self-sufficient in providing food. As we become an increasingly urbanized species, we also become less able to provide food for ourselves and more vulnerable to crop failures and famine—a precarious situation in a world of climate change and already experiencing food shortages. Overall, both the size and the distribution of global population are magnifying many other difficulties.
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Massive Extinction of Plant and Animal Species

The overall health of the Earth depends directly upon the well being of the ecology of animals and plants that live together on the Earth. As we unthinkingly harm that web of life, it can reach a point of no return wherre it is impossible to repair and return to its former status. Currently, the Earth is experiencing one of the largest extinctions of plant and animals species in its four-billion-year history. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with between one-third and one-half of all plant and animal species at risk of disappearing with a few generations. This is the largest destruction of life on this Earth since the dinosaurs and other life-forms were killed by a meteorite roughly 65 million years ago. The fabric of the Earth’s ecology is already wounded and torn. We are irretrievably mutilating the biosphere and diminishing the quality of life for countless generations to come.
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Unsustainable Global Footprint

Another window onto our collective situation is revealed in humanity’s global ecological footprint, which measures the impact of human activities upon the Earth relative to the Earth’s ability to restore itself. The bottom line is that, for several decades, we have already exceeded the Earth’s ability to replenish its renewable resources: the fish in the oceans, the fertility of farmland, the size and health of forests, and more. To illustrate, in 1961, it is estimated that the human community used roughly half of the world’s “bio-capacity,” or the regenerative capacity of the land, oceans, and air. However, by 1986, human demand began to exceed the regenerative capacity of the Earth. Since then, our relationship with the Earth has become increasingly unbalanced.

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.
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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.

Videos

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:

Resources

Books

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.

Websites