Whither Earthland? The only certainty about the future is surprise, the one constant change: indeterminacy and dynamism are woven into the fabric of reality from quantum to global scales. Complex systems of many stripes can cross critical thresholds of instability where old structures crumble and new structures form, with the outcome inherently uncertain and sensitive to small deflections.
In particular, social evolution, a highly complex process, twists and turns through a tangled tree of possibilities, where major branching points mark the transformation from one epoch to another. The form of the successor society is not predetermined—nor is it unrestricted. As Marx quipped, people make their own history, but not as they please. Historical necessity curbs human freedom, while the interplay of intention and circumstance loosens the grip of necessity, opening a bandwidth of possible futures. The path actually taken becomes etched onto the timeline of history, while the foregone alternatives are lost to memory, or serve as fodder for the “what-if” scenarios of counterfactual histories.
Thus, predicting the ultimate shape of the twenty-first-century world is a fool’s errand. The destiny of our no-analog century lies beyond the ken of scientific projection and social prophecy. Although the conceit of prediction must be abandoned, we still can explore alternative possibilities, not to forecast what will be, but to envision what could be. Scenarios are prostheses for the imagination, giving breadth and specificity to our longer-term outlooks. Rich visions, when they influence consciousness and action, inject a teleological dimension into the dynamics of social change, drawing history toward desirable outcomes.
A simple “taxonomy of the future” helps organize the branching menagerie of possibilities. At the highest level, 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. To add texture, we expand the typology with two variations for each category, as indicated in the following figure.
Conventional Worlds evolve without a fundamental shift in the prevailing social paradigm or structure of the world system. Episodic setbacks notwithstanding, persistent tendencies—corporate globalization, the spread of dominant values, and poor-country emulation of rich-country production and consumption patterns—drive the regnant model forward. Needless to say, we could spin endless variations on this theme by adjusting technological, environmental, and geopolitical assumptions, among many other variables. To underscore a central ideological divide within the mainstream discourse, we highlight two subclasses within Conventional Worlds. Market Forces variants envision globalized free markets and deregulation as paramount drivers of development. By contrast, Policy Reform variants, rooted in social democratic rather than neoliberal sensibilities, feature comprehensive, coordinated government actions to rewire modern capitalism in order to alleviate poverty and spare the environment.
However, all the while, Barbarization scenarios, the evil cousins of Conventional Worlds, lurk, feeding on unattended crises. In these dark visions, a deluge of instability—social polarization, geopolitical conflict, environmental degradation, economic failure, and the rampaging macro-crisis of climate change—swamps the corrective mechanisms of free markets and government policy. A systemic global crisis thereby spirals out of control as civilized norms dissolve. Barbarized futures, too, could take many forms (enough to inspire multitudinous apocalyptic novels and screenplays), but two idealized types—Fortress Worlds and Breakdown—capture the main lines. In Fortress Worlds variants, elites retreat to protected enclaves, leaving an impoverished majority outside, as powerful global forces mobilize to impose order and environmental controls. In Breakdown variants, such a coherent authoritarian intervention fails to materialize (or proves inadequate), chaos intensifies, and institutions collapse. A new Dark Age descends.
Great Transitions 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. Two kinds of Great Transition scenarios—Eco-communalism and New Paradigm—highlight a key distinction within the contemporary radical imagination.
Eco-communalism reflects the ardent localism that is a strong philosophical and political current within environmental, social justice, and anti-globalization subcultures. Certainly, the vision it champions of autarkic communities and small-scale enterprises guided by face-to-face democracy will remain a vital element in any Great Transition project. (Indeed, it is a prominent element in the “destination” we imagine for Earthland in Part III.) But so must the cosmopolitan sensibility that welcomes global identity and citizenship as desirable and necessary: the foundation for a true planetary civilization and a counterforce to parochial bigotries. At any rate, in an increasingly interdependent world, it is difficult to identify a plausible path to a thoroughgoing Eco-communal Earthland, except perhaps via one that first passes through the shattered world of Breakdown.
The New Paradigm—the Great Transition vision embraced in this essay—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. Rather than retreat to radical localism, this kind of Great Transition seeks to reshape and guide the character of planetary civilization. Utopian no more, this vision has become anchored in the objective conditions of history: the intertwined destinies of people and Earth.
ReferencesPaul Raskin, “World Lines: A Framework for Exploring Global Pathways,” Ecological Economics 65, no. 3 (April 2008): 451–470. First articulated by the Global Scenario Group (and summarized in Raskin et al., Great Transition), this scenario structure has been widely utilized in integrated futures studies, and has served as an organizing template for synthesizing a range of global scenario exercises. See Dexter Hunt et al., “Scenario Archetypes: Converging Rather than Diverging Themes,” Sustainability 4, no. 4 (2012): 740–772, http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/4/4/740/htm, and Paul Raskin, “Global Scenarios: Background Review for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,” Ecosystems 8 (2005): 133–142.