The Great Transition: A Foundational Concept for an Emerging Global Culture

David P. Turner / October 11, 2020

Given the gathering storm of global environmental change, our world is in dire need of new ways of thinking.  Culture is, in part, the set of beliefs, customs, and knowledge shared by a society; and cultural evolution happens when new ideas or concepts are generated by individuals and spread by way of social learning.  If a concept is successfully replicated in the minds of most of the people in a society, it could be said to become part of the culture of that society.  Here, I examine the concept of the “Great Transition”, an idea that may help a nascent global society grapple with planetary scale environmental change issues.

The “Great Transition” is a theme employed by authors from a variety of disciplines to characterize how humanity must change in the coming decades. 

We can begin with Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993).  He was an academic economist who published The Great Transition in 1964.  Boulding was an expansive thinker and an early advocate of the spaceship Earth metaphor.  Because he was publishing in the middle of the Cold War era, he was concerned about human self-destructive tendencies associated with both the global geopolitical situation and the global environment. 

Boulding’s Great Transition called for a gradual augmentation or replacement of “folk knowledge” with scientific knowledge.  Both are honed by cultural evolution, i.e. specific beliefs are generated, spread, and retained as part of the cultural heritage within specific social groups.  Faith in folk beliefs is based on tradition rather than on an understanding of underlying mechanisms.  Folk knowledge sometimes serves mainly to foster group identity (e.g. creation myths that build a shared sense of destiny) but other folk beliefs may have practical significance (e.g. knowledge of medicinal plants). 

Various alternative ways of knowing (epistemologies) operate quite differently from folk knowledge.  In the scientific epistemology, a consensus model of how the world is structured, and how it functions, is built up over time by way of hypothesis formation and testing.  One great virtue of the scientific epistemology is that the consensus model of reality can change based on new observations, ideas, and experiments.  Specifically, regarding global environmental change, the scientific community has discovered anthropogenically-driven trends in the global environment and has suggested that they pose a threat to human civilization.  As is evident in today’s political battles over climate change, scientific discoveries and science-based mitigation strategies are not always consistent with folk knowledge.

Boulding advocated a more consistent reflexivity in human thinking, i.e. a questioning attitude and an openness to changing beliefs.  This thinking strategy was something he wanted all humans to share, even though they might be supporting different ideologies. 

Another economist (Mauro Bonaiuti) also wrote a book entitled The Great Transition.  For Bonaiuti, a global economic crisis is imminent driven by 1) limits on natural resources such as fossil fuels, and 2) an overshoot in societal complexity. 

Bonaiuti focused on a trend in growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for developed countries in recent decades.  He found a long-term decline in GDP growth (% per year) across a wide range of developed countries.  The driving mechanism was Diminishing Marginal Returns (DMR) on investments associated with reaching the biophysical limits of natural resources (e.g. land available for agricultural expansion). He feared this economic trend portended eventual collapse of capitalism and the ascendancy of autocratic regimes.

Bonaiuti’s Great Transition away from that trajectory was characterized by degrowth − reduction in the importance of market exchange, reduced production and consumption, and transitioning towards forms of property and company ownership that feature local communities, small shareholders, and public institutions.     

As an Earth system scientist, I agree with Bonaiuti about the human enterprise on Earth hitting the biophysical limits of the Earth system.  Regarding complexity though, I am more sanguine.  A transition to global sustainability is likely to require more complexity, especially in the form of a more elaborate set of global governance institutions. The energy costs could be paid by an expanded renewable energy infrastructure (hopefully without the expansion hitting its DMR).

Physicist Paul Raskin developed another version of the “Great Transition”, this one aimed more directly at addressing the problems of biophysical limits.  The Tellus Institute, with which he is affiliated, produced a broad program of policy prescriptions designed to foster societal change towards sustainability.  One of their prescriptions is a renewable energy revolution (which, not surprisingly is also the subject of a recent book by Lester Brown called The Great Transition).  The Tellus Institute published Journey to Earthland in 2016, with Earthland here referring to an emerging “country” that includes all nations on Earth (hence a planetary civilization). 

For Raskin, the key factor that could unify humanity is the systemic environmental crises that are rapidly engulfing the world (e.g. climate change).  People will be forced to work together to address these crises.  He sees the needed change as a bottom-up driven process, i.e. a “global citizens movement” with strong participation of civil society.

Considering this convergence by earlier authors on the theme of transition, I adopted the “Great Transition” label for a phase in what I call A Positive Narrative for the Anthropocene.  From an Earth system science perspective on the Earth’s history, I developed this six-phase story of humanity’s relationship to the rest of the Earth system.  The Anthropocene Epoch alludes to the recognition by geoscientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars that humanity (by way of the technosphere) has become the equivalent of a geologic force.  My Great Transition phase comes between a Great Acceleration phase (1945 – 2020) and an idealized future of global sustainability.

An essential aspect of my Great Transition usage is that a new social entity is born – a collective humanity working together to manage (or at least avoid wrecking) the Earth system as we know it.  The coalescence of the United Nations − and its successes such as the Montreal Protocol −  hints at the possibilities. 

The great inequality in wealth at all scales, the differential responsibility for causing the current global environmental problems, and the differences among people regarding their vulnerability to anthropogenic environmental change, makes it fair enough to question whether there even can be a global “we”.  However, a majority of humans (5.2 billion out of 7.7 billion) now have a cell phone.  Almost all contemporary humans aspire to use energy and natural resources to achieve and maintain a reasonably high standard of living.  That striving is, of course, causing global environmental change.  So, indeed, there is a global “we”.  And a transition to global sustainability is impossible unless most people on the planet acknowledge membership in that “we”.

The Great Transition must be a global scale phenomenon.  However, the actual changes required will be made across a range of scales from individuals (decisions as consumers and voters), to nation-states (e.g. subsidies for renewable energy), to global (e.g. resolutions of the United Nations).  Let’s consider several of the important dimensions of the Great Transition.

The Biophysical Dimension

Earth system scientists have identified a set of nine planetary boundaries (e.g. the atmospheric CO2 concentration), and the Great Transition will mean regulating human impacts on the environment enough to stay within those boundaries.  At present, the quantitative estimates for those boundaries have significant uncertainties and a robust commitment to continued research is needed.  The research will include continued improvement in our capability to monitor and model the Earth system.  Model simulations are needed to evaluate the consequences of overshooting the planetary boundaries, as well as possible mitigation strategies (e.g. a carbon tax) that could prevent the overshoot.

The Technological Dimension

The technological dimension of the Great Transition is concerned with discovering and implementing the changes to the technosphere that are needed to achieve global sustainability.  As noted, a key requirement will be a new renewable energy infrastructure.  Pervasive advances are also needed in transportation technology, life cycle analysis, and in closed loop manufacturing.  Technological fixes must be carefully scaled up since unintended impacts may emerge in the process.  The field of Science and Technology Studies is beginning to systematically address the relevant issues.  I have previously characterized the product of integrating the technosphere and biosphere as the sustainable technobiosphere (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A stylized rendering of the integration of biosphere and technosphere. Image credit: Original Graphic.

The Psychological Dimension

We all have a personal identity.  It begins with the self-awareness that we grow into during childhood; and it evolves over the course of our life.  We typically identify ourselves as members of various groups and there is often a psychological tension within a human being between independence and group membership. 

These groups may include family, ethic group, professional group, and religious affiliation, as well as citizenship in a city, a state, and a nation.  Membership in a group is recognized as conveying rights and responsibilities. 

As noted, an essential feature of the Great Transition will be that individuals augment their multiple existing group memberships with membership in new groups focused on addressing human-induced environmental change. 

The Education Dimension

One of humanity’s most important evolved traits is the capacity to transfer knowledge by way of social learning.  Language is a tool for efficient communication of information horizontally (within a generation) and vertically (across generations).  The Great Transition will require a global society with citizens who understand enough Earth system science to appreciate the need for humanity to manage its impact on the biosphere and the rest of the Earth system.  They must generally be literate, so as to assimilate basic information about what is going on in the world, and to some degree be scientifically literate so they can understand the underlying mechanisms that explain what is going on.   

The Geopolitical Dimension

Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, what happens within national borders is in principle largely left to the inhabitants of the nation.  Nations have subsequently become protective of their national sovereignty.

Issues of global environmental change now disrupt and challenge that principle.  National emissions of greenhouse gases sum up to a major global scale impact on the environment.  National sovereignty is thus not sacrosanct; nations must cooperate, or they will all suffer.  The current global wave of nationalism, especially the push back against commitments to international negotiations and agreements, is inhibiting movement towards a Great Transition.  A significant step forward would be formation of a new global environmental governance institution, such as the proposed World Environment Organization.

The Great Transition concept has thus far spread rather thinly across humanity.  But as a global society forms in response to global environmental change, it should become foundational.

Can Humanity be a “We”?

David P. Turner / February 16, 2020

The peer-reviewed literature and the popular media today abound with concern about human-induced global environmental change.  Articles often argue that global scale problems require global scale solutions: humanity is causing the problem and “we” must rapidly implement solutions.  Environmental psychologists have found that people who sympathize with or identify with a group are energized to support its cause.  Can a majority of human beings identify with humanity in a way that motivates collective change towards global sustainability?      

Let’s consider several key constraining factors and unifying factors relevant to making humanity a “we” with respect to global environmental change.

Constraining Factors

Notable sociopolitical factors that impede global solidarity include the following.

1.  Climate Injustice among Nations 

In the process of their development, the most developed countries burned through a vast amount of fossil fuel and harvested a large proportion of their primary forests, hence causing most of the observed rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration.  But these countries are now asking the developing countries to share equally in the effort to curtail global fossil fuel emissions and deforestation to prevent further climate change.  At the same time, the impacts of climate change will tend to fall most heavily on the developing countries because of their lower capacity for adaptation.  The developing countries are pushing back on the basis of fairness, e.g. the outcome of the Kyoto protocol (albeit now obsolete) was that only the developed countries made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Rising Nationalism

Economists generally agree that economic globalization has spurred the global economy and helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty.  However, globalization of the labor market beginning around 1990 has also meant a large transfer of manufacturing from the developed to the developing world – and with it many jobs.

Likewise, immigration is helping millions of people a year find a better life by leaving behind political corruption, resource scarcity, and environmental disasters. 

Unfortunately, one effect of economic globalization and mass immigration has been political backlash within developed countries in the form of populism and nationalism.  Hypersensitivity to loss of national sovereignty is not conducive to international agreements to address global environmental change issues.

3.  Climate Science Skeptics

Although the global scientific community is broadly in consensus about the human causes of climate warming and other global environmental change problems, the rest of the world is more divided.  Most people in the U.S. accept that the global climate is changing, but only about half accept the scientific consensus that climate warming is caused by human actions.  Sources of skepticism about climate science include religious beliefs and vested interests. 

4.  Economic Inequality

Wealth inequality, both within nations and among them, is a pervasive feature of the global economy.  The rich end of the wealth distribution contributes to the vested interests problem as just noted.  At the poor end of the wealth distribution, the hierarchy of needs discourages concern for the environment; solidarity with the fight against climate change is a luxury when you are starving.

These four constraining factors are deeply rooted and are only the head of a list that would also include competition for limited natural resources and geopolitical conflict.  It is daunting to think about overcoming these obstacles to a “we” that includes all of humanity.  There are substantive ongoing research and applied efforts (not documented here) to overcome them, but in a general way let’s consider some equally significant factors that may help foster a global “we”.

Unifying Factors

The following rather disparate set of factors supply some hope for human unification under the banner of environmental concern.

1.  Our Genetic Heritage

Humans are social creatures.  Sociobiologists, such as Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson, have argued that many of our social impulses are genetically based.  We have an instinctual propensity to identify with a particular social group, and to draw a distinction between that group (us) and outsiders (them).  The average ingroup size during the hunter/gatherer phase of human evolution, which largely shaped our social instincts, is believed to have been about 30 people.  Remarkably, the size of the social group that humans identify with has vastly expanded over historical time − from the level of tribe, to the level of village, empire, and the modern nation-state.  Conceivably, that capacity could be extended to the global scale:  we might all eventually consider ourselves citizens of a planetary civilization.

The historical expansion of social group size was driven in part by military considerations  − the need to have a larger army than your neighbor.  Obviously, this rationale breaks down at the global scale, but a distinct possibility for inspiring global solidarity is the looming threat of global environmental change. 

Note that being a citizen of the world does not require rejecting one’s local or national culture.  Multiple sources of identity could include being an autonomous individual, being a member of various ingroups, and being a member of humanity in its entirety.

2.  The Advance of Earth System Science

A conspicuous general trend favorable to achieving a collective sense of responsibility for managing human impacts on the Earth system is growth in our scientific understanding of the Earth system.  From studies of the geologic record, scientists know that Earth’s climate has varied widely, from cool “snowball” Earth phases to relatively warm “hothouse” Earth phases.  Greenhouse gas concentrations have consistently been an important driver of global climate change, which gives scientists confidence that as greenhouse gas concentrations rise, Earth’s climate will warm. 

The scientific community also has expansive monitoring networks that reveal the exponentially rising curves for metrics such as the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Earth system models that simulate Earth’s future show the dangers of Business-as-Usual scenarios of resource use, as well as the benefits of specific mitigation measures.  At the request of the United Nations, the global scientific community periodically assembles the most recent research about climate change, the prospects for mitigation (i.e. reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations), and the possibilities for adaptation. 

If improved understanding of the human environmental predicament can filter down to the global billions, we might hope for a strengthening support for collective action.

3.  The Evolution of the Technosphere

The technosphere is a new global-scale part of the Earth system.  It joins the pre-existing geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.  However, just as the evolution of the biosphere was a major disturbance to the early Earth system, the evolution of the technosphere is proving to be disruptive to the contemporary Earth system.  

Around 2.3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria evolved that could split water molecules (H2O) in the process of photosynthesis.  The resulting oxygen (O2) began to accumulate in the atmosphere, radically changing atmospheric chemistry.  Oxygen was toxic to many existing life forms, but eventually micro-organisms capable of using oxygen in the process of respiration evolved, which in time led to the evolution of multicellular organisms (and eventually to us). 

In the case of technosphere evolution, a process that emits excessive amounts of CO2 (combustion of fossil fuels) has arisen, which is altering the global climate and ocean chemistry in a way than may be toxic to many existing life forms.  One potential solution is that the technosphere can further evolve (by way of cultural evolution) to subsist on renewable energy rather than combustion of fossil fuels, thus moderating its influence on the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.

A characteristic feature of technosphere evolution is ever more elaborate means of transportation and telecommunications.  These capabilities – especially the on-going buildout of the Internet – allow for increased integration across the technosphere and tighter coupling of the technosphere with the rest of the Earth system.  Sharing results of environmental monitoring in its many dimensions over the telecommunications network can help with creating and maintaining sustainable natural resource management schemes.   

Through the popular news and social media, nearly everyone in the world can learn about events such as regional droughts and catastrophic forest fires that are associated with climate change.  It is thus becoming easier to have a common frame of reference among all humans about the state of the planet.

There is not yet anything like a global consciousness that coordinates across the whole technosphere.  However, the Internet is facilitating the emergence of a global brain type entity.  One indication of what the nascent global brain is thinking about is the relative frequencies of different search terms on Google.  Interestingly, in the algorithms that determine the response to search engine queries, a high frequency of previous usage for a relevant web site makes that site more likely to reach the top of the response list.  That process is evocative of learning, i.e. reinforcement through repetition.  Similarly, the Amygdala Project monitors Twitter hashtags.  They are classified according to emotional tone, and a running visual summation gives a sense of the collective emotional state (of the Twitterers).  Advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing may soon improve the module in the global brain that simulates the future of the Earth system.

4.  The Expanding Domain of Human Moral Concern

In “The Slow Creation of Humanity”, psychologist Sam McFarland recounts the history of the human rights movement.  Writer H.G. Wells, humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt, and others have helped develop the rationale and legal basis for including all human beings in our “circles of compassion” (Einstein’s term).  The concept of rights has now begun to be legally extended to Nature (in Ecuador) and specifically to Earth (in Bolivia).  Since protecting the rights of Earth (e.g. to be free of pollution) clearly requires that humans work collectively, we come to an incentive for global human solidarity.

Again, these four unifying factors are only the start of a list that might also include global improvements in education, as well as growth in the activities of global non-governmental environmental organizations. 

Conclusions

The field of Earth system science is producing an increasingly clear understanding of the human predicament with respect to global environmental change.  Scientist know what is happening to the global environment, what is likely to happen in the future under Business-as-Usual assumptions, and to some degree, what must change to avert an environmental catastrophe.

The process of changing the trajectory of the Earth system cannot be done unilaterally.  From the top down, an important step will be genesis or reform of the institutions of global governance – including institutions concerned with the political, economic, and environmental dimensions of governance.  This is a task for a generation of researchers, political leaders, and diplomats.  From the bottom up, individuals must be brought around as adults, and brought up as children, to adopt an identity that includes global citizenship and associated responsibilities for the global environment.  This is a task for a generation of educators, religious leaders, and business leaders.

If “we” human dwellers on Earth don’t gain a collective identity and begin to better manage the course of technosphere evolution, then we may no longer thrive on this planet.

Recommended Audio/Video, Mother Earth, Neil Young