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 we are going—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.
All the disruption and upheaval we now confront are the birth pangs of this global entity. A long view of the broad contours of the human experience reveals two sweeping macro-transformations. The first occurred roughly 10,000 years ago when Stone Age culture gave rise to Early Civilization. The second saw Early Civilization yield to the Modern Era over the last millennium. Now, the Modern Era itself confronts a deep structural crisis induced by its contradictions and limitations: perpetual growth on a finite planet, political fragmentation in an interdependent world, widening chasms between the privileged and the excluded, and a stifling culture of consumerism. In our time, an exhausted modernity is relinquishing the stage. A third macro-shift in the human condition is underway with implications as far-reaching as those of previous great transformations.
History has entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization, and its defining feature is that the globe itself is becoming the locus of social evolution and contending forms of consciousness. The Planetary Phase is entangling people and places in one integrated social-ecological system with one shared destiny. Looking through specialized windows, economists see “globalization,” technologists spotlight digital connectivity, environmentalists foreground the transformation of nature by human action, and geologists proclaim the arrival of the Anthropocene, a new geological age. Rather than independent phenomena, these are varied manifestations of a unitary transformation process.
The nascent Planetary Phase elicits contradictory responses as some resist and others celebrate increasing interdependence. Antagonistic reaction to cosmopolitan intrusion has many faces: fundamentalism, nativism, isolationism, and anti-globalization. These powerful centrifugal forces could carry the day.
Still, the enlargement of the human project presses, as well, for a corresponding enlargement of human identity. The intertwined destinies of people, generations, and all creatures stretch the arms of empathic embrace across space, time, and the natural world. The Planetary Phase has unleashed a mighty dialectic of chaos and order that drives, at once, toward splintered and integral futures. The fundamental quandary of the journey ahead is how to navigate these powerful cross-currents to a civilized Earthland.
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.
A failed state
What kind of country is Earthland today? An astute visitor, come to take the measure of the young nation, would find much to praise 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 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.
The Planetary Phase, born of systemic crisis, urges a systemic response. The world has become one interconnected place, but not yet one integral nation. 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. For now, Earthland resembles a failed state.
Predicting the ultimate shape of Earthland is a fool’s errand beyond the ken of scientific projection and social prophecy. Three broad channels fan out from the unsettled present into the imagined future: worlds of incremental adjustment (Conventional Worlds), worlds of calamitous discontinuity (Barbarization), and worlds of progressive transformation (Great Transitions). This archetypal triad—evolution, decline, and progression—recurs throughout the history of ideas, finding new expression in the contemporary scenario literature.
Conventional Worlds evolve without a fundamental shift in the prevailing social paradigm or structure of the world system. Barbarization scenarios, the evil cousins of Conventional Worlds, feed on its unattended crises—social polarization, geopolitical conflict, environmental degradation, economic failure, and the rampaging macro-crisis of climate change—that swamp the corrective mechanisms of markets and policy.
Great Transition scenarios imagine how the powerful exigencies and novel opportunities of the Planetary Phase might advance more enlightened aspirations. An ascendant suite of values—human solidarity, quality of life, and an ecological sensibility—counters the conventional triad of individualism, consumerism, and domination of nature. This shift in consciousness underpins a corresponding shift in institutions, toward democratic global governance, economies geared to the well-being of all, and sound environmental stewardship.
The Great Transition vision imagines a world at once plural and unified. It rejects the false polarity of bottom-up communalism and top-down hierarchy, inviting a search for ways to reconcile and balance them. It thus celebrates flourishing places in a nested system of communities from the local to the global, while nourishing a world polity as a surrounding layer of community and identity. Utopian no more, this vision has become anchored in the objective conditions of history: the intertwined destinies of people and Earth.
Who will speak for Earthland?
We can hardly expect the entrenched institutions of the current order—corporations, governments, civil society organizations—to be at the forefront of efforts to supersede it. With deep stakes in maintaining the status quo, they are too timorous and too venal to address profound environmental and social problems. They would be as miscast for a revolutionary role as would have been the feudal aristocracy in leading the charge to modernity. We need to look elsewhere for a leading actor.
Is the crisis of modernity nurturing a protagonist capable of galvanizing the progressive potential of our epoch? The signature feature of the Planetary Phase—the enmeshment of all in an overarching proto-country—suggests an answer. As modernity once birthed national movements, the Planetary Phase clamors for a global movement: an encompassing cultural and political awakening united under the banner of Earthland.
Hence, the natural change agent for a Great Transition would be a global citizens movement, a vast cultural and political rising, able to redirect policy, tame corporations, and unify civil society. The contemporary world stage is missing this critical actor, but it is stirring on a planet bubbling with intensifying crises and shifting consciousness. A harbinger is the army of engaged people working on a thousand fronts for justice, peace, and sustainability.
For now though, without a systemic movement to unify and inspire, activists are left to address epiphenomena, rather than underlying causes. In the absence of a coherent strategy, systemic deterioration outpaces fragmentary gains. Exhausted and frustrated, many activists burn out, while many more concerned citizens never find a meaningful way to engage a crisis so amorphous and overwhelming. A global movement, were it to develop, would speak especially to this growing band of the disempowered: to their minds, with a unifying perspective; to their hearts, with a vision of a better world; and to their feet, with an organizational context for action.
Will we denizens of Earthland awaken as citizens of a planetary community? Hope rests with the cosmopolitan taproots sprouting in the crumbling foundations of the Modern Era. Most notably for the politics of transition, a thickening web of connectivity fosters the idea of global citizenship.
Philosophers have long dreamed of a time when the ring of community would encircle the entire human family. From this ancient font, the cosmopolitan idea mutated and evolved through the millennia, as visionaries pondered its meaning and world-changers pursued its promise. The lofty dream refused to die even as the sorry saga of the disputatious human species made One World seem a mere pipe dream. Now, the Planetary Phase brings the once quixotic dream into the practical realm, anchoring the ethos of human solidarity in the logic of the contemporary condition.
From the vantage point of the antagonistic present, the prospects for a global demos may seem remote, even far-fetched. But to dismiss the possibility out-of-hand would be a failure of historical imagination, rather like an eighteenth-century skeptic dismissing the possibility of sovereign nations as an implausible dream. In the Planetary Phase, the integral earth offers a basis for an imagined planetary community more grounded in social and ecological realities than did the arbitrary boundaries of fledgling national communities. As national citizenship once dissolved barriers within states, global citizenship could reduce divisions between them, and thereby bridge the chasm between obsolete twentieth-century structures and stark twenty-first-century realities.
Can a “global citizens movement” take shape at the requisite speed, scale, and coherence? The race for the soul of Earthland is on. Spreading awareness and broadening engagement hint that a systemic movement may be gestating. The question becomes how to help bring it into the world and give it life.
The challenge is no less than creating the basis for collective action across the great cultural and spatial distances that a global movement must circumscribe. Even as the Planetary Phase strengthens the gravitational pull toward unity, and the Internet shrinks psychic distance, barriers of language and tradition remain, and suspicions and resentment persist.
Still, the fledgling global movement can build legitimacy and draw adherents by articulating a rigorous and inspiring vision of planetary civilization. It can create a magnetic community of people by embodying its visionary goals in their pursuit. Thus, like the Earthland it envisions, it would nurture a culture of nonviolence, tolerance, respect, and democracy, adhering unflinchingly to the core values of quality of life, human solidarity, and ecological resilience.
Building and maintaining normative solidarity in a movement of such diversity would be the greatest barrier to success. It would face the daunting hurdle of building unity in an era of strong identity politics, cultural schism, and skepticism about leadership. A movement up to the task of global transformation would have to discover ways to balance the need for coherence and the desire for pluralism. It cannot eliminate ideological conflict, regional antagonism, and organizational turf battles. Indeed, this very diversity would be a source of the movement’s richness and vitality.
Nonetheless, finding common purpose will take a global vision and movement culture that understands variety in perspectives and initiatives as different expressions of a common project. Unity and diversity are both essential and complementary. A viable global citizens movement, like the Earthland it seeks, would be as global as need be and as local as can be, a polycentric ecology of formal and informal associations under an umbrella of shared identity and purpose.
The times cry out, the need overdue, for building large-scale campaigns with the explicit purpose of catalyzing such a comprehensive movement. The frontline project now is to weave disparate grievances and actions into a citizens movement of and for Earthland, a collective quest for a civilization worthy of the name. We may never reach that distant shore, but what matters most is imagining its contours and traveling in its direction. The quest for a civilized Earthland beckons us, the journey its own reward and privilege.
*Paul Raskin is the founding President of the Tellus Institute and founding Director of the Great Transition Initiative (GTI). Tellus has conducted thousands of projects throughout the world since 1976; GTI publishes an online journal and mobilizes a distinguished international network to explore visions and strategies for a civilized future. In 1995, Dr. Raskin co-organized the Global Scenario Group, the forerunner of GTI, and served as lead author on its influential 2002 essay, Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.
Acknowledgement: Scholar and visionary Tariq Banuri coined the term Earthland for a world becoming like a single country.
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