Where is the bold vision to save the world from an exploitative economic system and myopic politics?
The following is an excerpt from Paul Raskin’s new book Journey to Earthland (Tellus Institute, 2016).
We are bound together on a precarious passage to a land unknown and unnamed. Even a stray dog, as Hannah Arendt once noted, has better odds of surviving when given a name.
Likewise, the global future—the place to which we are headed—needs an identity to encourage us to own and care for it. A suitable coinage ought to conjure the nature of the beast: a borderless community intertwining the destinies of all earthly creatures, living and unborn. Like a superordinate country, this incipient formation is encircling all existing countries in an integral sphere of land, sea, and sky. Let us call this proto-country Earthland.
Without flight plan or clear destination, we are winging through a blizzard of uncertainty to this different world. The shape of the new order off the bow is not yet visible, while the old one, along with its familiar disappointments and consolations, fades astern. Longing for the terra firma of the past persists, but there is no turning back or deplaning on a craft equipped with forward gears only and warning lights at each door that flash No Exit.
In this century, we confront an unprecedented moment of uncertainty and opportunity. Rapid-fire, far-flung developments ripple across space and linger over time, altering the very coordinates of history. The quickening pace of change binds the future more tightly to the present; the gravitational pull of connectivity shrinks social space, pulling distant places and people into the orbit of an integrated world system. Most profoundly, the Planetary Phase nurtures awareness of the interdependence of generations and species, along with the local and global. The world-as-a-whole becomes a primary arena for the contending forms of consciousness that will determine whether the Planetary Phase will be an era of social evolution or devolution, environmental restoration or degradation.
This globalized configuration by no means abolishes communities and nations, which endure as vital loci of identity and engagement. Rather, Earthland forms an outer circle, a de facto global place if not yet a de jure “country,” the site of great unfolding cultural and political struggles. Even as some countries have yet to undergo their modern revolution, history is moving at warp speed beyond modernity. The Planetary Phase has arrived as a discernible historical phenomenon.
In any age, the ephemera of passing affairs obscure from view deep, slow-moving historical developments. In our time, incessant pings and distractions make perceiving the Big Story of our moment particularly difficult. But imagine a newspaper—call it The Long Times—that published only at great intervals, say, every half-century. Only the most sweeping news would appear above the fold, while daily headlines that once seemed consequential would be confined to its back pages, or become the forgotten minutiae of history. Arguably, the banner headline for the millennial edition might be: World Enters the Planetary Phase of Civilization. The question that animates this inquiry: What might be the lead story of the 2050 edition?
A turbulent time
What kind of country is Earthland today? An astute visitor, come to take the measure of the young nation, would find much to praise: magnificent natural beauty and bounty; a colossal economy transmuting mountains of resources into rivers of products flowing nonstop to her four corners; extraordinary scientific achievements; and rich, diverse cultures. However, candor would compel this latter day Alexis de Tocqueville, having chronicled these assets, to catalog as well a daunting inventory of liabilities.
One cardinal defect would top the list: Earthland confronts twenty-first-century challenges hobbled by twentieth-century ideas and institutions. Zombie ideologies—territorial chauvinism, unbridled consumerism, and the illusion of endless growth—inhabit the brains of the living. Coherent responses to systemic risks of climate change, economic instability, population displacement, and global terrorism, to name only the most emblematic, lie beyond the grasp of a myopic and disputatious political order.
The disjuncture between old ways and new realities threatens the planetary commonweal, even the very continuity of civilization. A stable, flourishing Earthland, as with any country, depends on effectual governance supported by an informed polity. This foundation has not yet been laid. The consequences—rampant poverty, degradation of nature, hostile factions, absence of a legitimate constitutional authority—conjure images of other headless, dysfunctional countries. For now, Earthland resembles a failed state.
The resulting assaults on the tendrils of amity are many. A dog-eat-dog economy generates class chasms and lays nature to waste, undermining social cohesion and the integrity of the biosphere. The long tentacles of Hollywood and Madison Avenue spread unobtainable images of opulence, roiling traditional cultures and fanning hostility. Displaced masses move toward centers of affluence where xenophobes stoke a protectionist backlash. The Internet serves as a planetary mall lubricating consumerism, and as a crime scene where malefactors ply nefarious trades. The geopolitical struggle for control of diminishing natural resources intensifies as growing economies demand ever-more energy, land, minerals, and water.
The scandalous income inequality in Earthland makes a country like Brazil, an epitome of social disparity, seem relatively egalitarian. At the bottom of the economic pyramid, 800 million people live mired in chronic hunger, with 161 million children stunted as a result. Nearly half the world’s population subsists on less than $5 per day, the minimum reasonable income for an adequate standard of living. At the top, the richest 1% commands as much wealth as the other 99% combined—and the top 62 billionaires are as rich as the bottom 50%.
The transformation of the earth itself enacts Earthland’s most vivid crisis. The iconic issue is climate change, with its “inconvenient truths”: the great danger of disruptive impacts, the need for massive and rapid action, and the unprecedented international cooperation required. Another is the impoverishment of biological resources— ecosystems, habitats, species—victims of land conversion, over-exploitation, and, increasingly, climate change. Toxification, the expanding brew of chemical pollutants injected into the environment, poses a third major threat. When we were Lilliputians on a vast planet, a civilization that ravaged its environment endangered only itself. Today, we are giants in planet-sized boots trampling the land, plundering the sea, and altering the chemistry of the biosphere.
Much attention has focused on each of these and myriad other global ills, much less on the systemic disruption that underlies and links them. To adapt a venerable parable, experts illuminate various parts of the global elephant, but fail to apprehend the whole beast. The knowledge they generate on leg, tail, and trunk does not sum to the pachyderm. Correspondingly, partial and anodyne policy prescriptions may salve this or that symptom of the disease, but they leave the underlying pathology to fester.
The Planetary Phase, born of systemic crisis, urges a systemic response. Feedbacks are everywhere: environmental stress exacerbates poverty and incites conflict, thereby threatening economic stability; economic instability weakens efforts to protect nature and reduce poverty; desperate underclasses degrade the environment and seek access to affluent countries, exciting backlash that undercuts geo-economic cooperation. The mounting pressure embrittles the structure of the whole social-ecological system as its resilience—the capacity to recover from a disturbance—becomes compromised.
Under these increasingly vulnerable conditions, various triggers could induce a general, system-wide crisis. To wit, abrupt climate change could generate food shortages, economic instability, mass migration, and conflict. A pandemic, spread by the mobile affluent and uprooted poor, could ripple far and wide, overwhelming healthcare institutions. The mayhem induced by a macro-terrorist attack could segue into a degenerative cycle of violence and disorder. Absolute shortage of vital resources, such as water, oil, and arable land, could generate a tsunami of chaos. A collapse of the global financial system could ignite a cascade of knock-on disruption.
The world has become one interconnected place, but not yet one integral nation. Years of denial and drift have allowed the preconditions for cataclysm to strengthen. Still, it is not too late to turn toward system-wide solutions. An abundance of means are available for muting common risks and pursuing common goals, and new innovations are reported daily. But bending the curve of development toward a flourishing civilization will take a Great Transition from a world of strangers to a commonwealth of citizens. This worthier outcome, latent in the evolving historical matrix, awaits bold vision and collective action to bring it forth.
Paul Raskin is a co-founder and president of the Tellus Institute and the Great Transition Initiative and was a convener of the Global Scenarios Group. His work has focused on visions and strategies for a sustainable and just future, and he has pioneered widely-used models for integrated assessment and served as lead author on numerous international assessments.