Civilizational Transformation is Wilder Than Industrial or Market Transitions
A summary of the argument of early chapters in The Emerging Planetary Wisdom Culture
We are at the cusp of a new era, the planetary phase of civilization. As traditional geographic and cultural boundaries erode, people and places entwine across one global system with one shared destiny. In the intangible space of human consciousness, this expanding nexus of connectivity enlarges our awareness and identities. The global arena is emerging as a supranational layer of social evolution, political struggle, and contending forms of consciousness. The planetary phase is transforming both the earth and we who live on it.
From the perspective of systems theory, the defining feature of the planetary phase is that the causal dynamics operating at global scales increasingly influence the dynamics of subsystems. Heretofore, the world could be reasonably approximated as a set of separate entities – independent states, autonomous ecosystems, and distinct cultures – subject to external interactions. Such disaggregation into quasi-independent parts is becoming less useful: the global system is irreducible both ontologically and epistemologically. The system and its components shape one another in a complex and reciprocal dialectic that changes the planet and its parts. In this dynamic of planetary transition, the catchphrase “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” takes on fresh meaning: the emerging global system cannot be reduced to its components. The global social-ecological system is something new on the face of the earth.
Paul Raskin, “Planetary Praxis: On Rhyming Hope and History” In Kellert and Speth, (eds.) The Coming Transformation, p. 115
I argue that we are now in a period of history that can best be described as an era of a cascade of planetary crises. Most connect to the climate crisis, which is already here. Today’s collection of crises is worse than anyone predicted: food and drinking water crises; droughts, floods and extreme weather; rising sea levels, drowning most seaports and coastal areas; peak oil; melting arctic permafrost, releasing huge amounts of methane and accelerating climate change; massive climate refugee problems; a very unstable global financial system; religious terrorism and ethnic conflicts worsening; and likely climate-caused wars from all the above.
In a dynamic systems model of our situation, a fork in our historical road results: we can fall into a death spiral, or we can rebound to a higher level than the pit of the crises, and quite possibly to a higher level than before the crises. If that’s all that was going on, it’s still dangerous. But when we add that we’re going into a planetary integration process such as Paul Raskin describes, the human system gets more complex. We’ll have a bunch of new dimensions emerging that describe potential paths our planetary system can take. This creates both dangers and opportunities as our emerging system wanders far from equilibrium. Still, it’s innovation that creates new system dimensions and new strategic opportunities. If the opportunities are fulfilled, we’re in for a glorious transition.
All of humanity is confronted with major strategic choices, and to seize the unique opportunities of our time, we have to act together on all of them at once. Our centuries-old nation states are no longer adequate to deal with what is emerging in our time. We’ve outgrown them, and you can easily see that by looking at the Internet, or at the impotence of nations facing multinational corporations, global financial markets, and global commodities markets, or at Asian countries leasing the agricultural land in Africa to feed hungry populations in Asia (never mind the Africans) and even at planetary social movements, especially of the youth population.
Many people appear paralyzed with fear by the dangers before us, or in flat out denial. Yet in our era in history, powerful trends are now occurring worldwide that point upward. Some of them, like new technologies, are already being applied to the climate crisis. It’s just that some of the richest vested interests–the fossil fuels industries of oil, coal and gas–hate and fear the newest emerging solar, wind and geothermal power industries. But a process of planetary integration is also powerfully under way, creating a new era, the planetary phase of civilization. It’s just that a boatload of nationalists, militarists, and career politicians hate and fear that too.
Two key strategic questions of our era are:
• How can we aid a ‘next’ civilization emerging rather than suffer a collapse?
• What helps a rebound from our cascade of crises to a higher level civilization?
We now can see a bright new answer emerging from the gloom: It works if we see it as an emerging planetary civilization and a planetary wisdom culture. Basically, we need to work our way back, back-casting from a positive vision of the future, and work our way forward from our present trends. And some branches of those two trees of possibility will meet in the middle, to form the core of how our strategy unfolds over time. That will allow humanity to develop a shared, collective macro-strategy with thousands of facets in it, and room for diverse explorations and experimentation on what works. We can link rigorous realism from a shared systems perspective to on-the-ground shared information about what does turn out to work.
But no, it won’t work if we look at our crises through hundreds of disconnected lenses on macro-developments, and conflicting national interests—each crisis seen as a silo independent from the rest, laid out by specialized experts in business, government, the media or academe. Nor does it work if we keep seeing it as somebody else’s problem, one that has nothing to do with us, in an uncaring response. Our youth already know it. It’s time our experts and leaders did too.
So we need to see our whole planetary climate crisis as ours, and one of many things we all share in. We’re all in the same boat. Planet Earth has a common destiny, and it can be a very good one, or a terrible one. That means we must have a common macro-vision and a common strategy. It is at once ecological, meteorological, agricultural, industrial, financial, political, military, social, and economic. All our unfolding crises are intertwined and shared, and so must be our solutions.
And no, it doesn’t work if we’re in denial about the horrible seriousness of the planetary climate crisis, or in the grip of the foolish conspiracy theories about world government or a world empire. No one can afford the collective idiocies and far-out fantasies of the radical right. And neither can any of our children and grandchildren. We must protect future generations.
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