The Great Transition

Where are we?

We start with the premise that we are in a great transition, where many systems and ideas that have been in place--some for decades, some for centuries, some even for millennia—are rapidly changing. Some are dissolving or disintegrating and some are emerging or being born. We are in the middle trying to make sense of the chaos of such profound change.

Here we explore the different names that some of the wisdom keepers of our time have come up with to try to describe this Great Transition from an overview perspective. We’ll look at the megatrends that are driving the changes we see happening all around us. Then we’ll examine different kinds of transition stories: those Great Stories about humanity’s relationship to itself and to Earth that are themselves in a process of change AND those stories from How Life Does Change that offer clues to successful life-affirming transformation.

Different Names for the Great Transition

People from diverse backgrounds and disciplines are seeing the potential for a global transition to a more promising future. Social visionaries and professional futurists, scientists and spiritual leaders, systems thinkers, biologists, cosmologists, and depth psychologists—all have begun to see the possibility of a shift to a workable and meaningful future that we can co-create together. In turn, many different phrases have been used to describe our pivotal times and a number of these are presented below. Importantly, the name given to each phrase embodies a positive view of the future and a promising pathway through these challenging times.

The Global Brain Awakens

Used by: Peter Russell, Duane Elgin

Peter Russell has popularized the phrase "the global brain" and its awakening. He describes how the human family has moved from a long history of geographic separation to, within a generation or two, nearly instantaneous global communication and connection. Humanity has developed tools that are supporting a quantum increase in our collective communication—and our collective consciousness—as a species.

In the following video, Peter talks about the origin of his thesis of a global brain, before the Internet even existed as such, discussing the parallels between our own brains and the growing interconnectivity of our computer networks. But will it be a sane or insane global brain? That depends upon the level of consciousness of us human beings, the neurons of the global brain. Can we free ourselves from our current ego-centric mode of consciousness so that we can use the global brain with wisdom?

Duane Elgin has described the awakening of the Earth in a book by that same name: Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (1993). In the following video, Peter Russell and Duane Elgin discuss the role of media and the Internet in our collective awakening in a half-hour program called "Take Back the Airwaves":

The Great Disruption

Used by: Paul Gilding

The Great Disruption is a book by the independent writer and activist for sustainability, Paul Gilding. Gilding writes:

"It’s time to stop just worrying about climate change. We need instead to brace for impact because global crisis is no longer avoidable. This Great Disruption started in 2008, with spiking food and oil prices and dramatic ecological changes, such as the melting ice caps. It is not simply about fossil fuels and carbon footprints. We have come to the end of Economic Growth, Version 1.0, a world economy based on consumption and waste, where we lived beyond the means of our planet’s ecosystems and resources. The Great Disruption offers a stark and unflinching look at the challenge humanity faces-yet also a deeply optimistic message. The coming decades will see loss, suffering, and conflict as our planetary overdraft is paid; however, they will also bring out the best humanity can offer: compassion, innovation, resilience, and adaptability. The crisis represents a rare chance to replace our addiction to growth with an ethic of sustainability, and it’s already happening. It’s also an unmatched business opportunity: Old industries will collapse while new companies will literally reshape our economy. In the aftermath of the Great Disruption, we will measure “growth” in a new way. It will mean not quantity of stuff but quality and happiness of life. Yes, there is life after shopping."

Here is a video where Paul Gilding describes, "The Great Disruption: How humankind can thrive in the 21st Century." Gilding argues that humanity's capacity for compassion, innovation and resilience will be required to meet the economic and environmental challenges facing us.

The Great Transformation

Used by: Karl Polanyi, George Leonard

The Great Transformation is the title of a well-known book by author Karl Polanyi. Published in 1944, he viewed the integrated rise of the market economy and society as a "great transformation." His book describes the shift from the world of the commons to that of the total market order. Polanyi argued that the coming of the market order swept aside all sorts of social arrangements that had prevailed for millennia of human history: the role of family, kinship, community and religion, the importance of moral order and other non-market principles. Using the same phrase, other authors see the prospect of an even greater transformation. One of the more well-known books describing the emergence of the 'human potential movement' and its cultural impact was written by George Leonard and published in 1987 with the title The Transformation.

Paul Hawken, author and businessman, speaks in the following way about the "New Great Transformation":

See the whole talk here:

The Great Transition

Used by: Paul Raskin, Duane Elgin

An important expression of this perspective is the Great Transition Initiative that is hosted by the Tellus Institute whose director is Paul Raskin. The Great Transition Initiative writes that:

"a future of enriched lives, human solidarity, and environmental sustainability is possible. This Initiative engages a growing international network of scholars and activists that analyzes alternative scenarios and charts a path to a hopeful future. At once rigorous and inspiring, the Great Transition story brings the message that we can create a better world if we shift our values and transform our institutions. Critical to this transition is growing public awareness of the dangers ahead and the need to revise our ways of living – and living together – on this planet. In this, our time of choice, we need a vast movement of global citizens to carry forward a Great Transition."

One of their key publications is The Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. Here is Paul Raskin speaking about "The Great Transition":

The descriptions of humanity's transitions through a series of stages of development is central to the work of Duane Elgin and can be found in his books and other writings. Duane also has a range of videos exploring themes relevant to our time of great transition. For example, the following video, "Humanity's Level of Maturity," is a mini-documentary that looks at the human species and asks, “What is our collective level of maturity? Toddler? Teenager? Adult? Elder?"

The Great Turning

Used by: Joanna Macy, David Korten, Duane Elgin

The Great Turning is a phrase that has come into widespread use to describe the overarching process that our society is going through that has the potential to take us to a world in which sustainability and cooperation will guide our way of life. As presented by David Korten, the core messages of 'The Great Turning' center on the human imperative to turn from organizing human relationships by dominator hierarchy, which he refers to generically as "Empire," to a partnership model he refers to as "Earth Community." Korten's underlying framework of the defining human choice between domination and hierarchy is based on Riane Eisler's book, The Chalice and the Blade. Drawing inspiration from Thomas Berry's book, Dream of the Earth, Korten makes a compelling case in The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (2007) that the defining work of the Great Turning is to change the stories that frame the culture.

This phrase came into more popular usage with the publication, in 1989, of a book by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid, The Great Turning: Personal Peace - Global Victory, with an endorsement from Joanna Macy who, with workshops and writing, has played a major role in acquainting the public with the term and its underlying concept of deep change. See, for example, her video on the importance of living on the knife edge of uncertainty as to whether we will accomplish "The Great Turning."

In 2006, David Korten, who picked up the term from Joanna, published The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (2007) to describe the dimensions of the current human crisis, its historical origin, and the crucial elements of the cultural and institutional transformation we must now navigate. Here he speaks about "The Great Turning":

In 2000, Duane Elgin used the phrase "the great turning" to describe our pivotal time in his book Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity's Future (2000).

The Great Work

Used by: Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme

Stephanie Kaza, professor of environmental studies, writes about awakening to our role in the Great Work, and the important role of Thomas Berry: Pioneering ecotheologian, Catholic priest, and cultural historian Thomas Berry put forth one of the earliest visions of spiritual ecology in The Dream of the Earth (1988). With his best-known book, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Berry extends his invitation for us to imagine and participate in the realizing of this dream. The title "The Great Work" derives from Berry's long-range perspective on cultural history. He sees history as "governed by those overarching movements that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe." (p. 1). The Great Work of a people or era is the creating of such an overarching movement. This generation's Great Work, he argues, is the transformative effort to change human-Earth relations from disruptive and destructive to mutually enhancing and beneficial.

See the following video on Berry's view of the 'Great Work' as seen by himself and others:

An Awakening Earth

Used by: Duane Elgin, Peter Russell

As humanity awakens, so does the Earth. Individually and collectively, we are vehicles of conscious knowing and reflection that have emerged from the Earth and Cosmos. Unfolding our capacity for reflective consciousness represents the flowering of nearly 14 billion years of evolution. Duane Elgin has written a book titled Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (1993). He views the co-evolution of culture and consciousness as a natural unfolding and describes a 'subtle intelligence' that patiently sustains our cosmos over billions of years and now invites our further development and awakening.

Peter Russell has written about the 'Awakening Earth' from the perspective of an exponential increase in the growth of computer-based intelligence and human interconnectivity, creating a global brain that can turn on and become self-reflective. See his website for extensive resources:

Below is a half-hour conversation between Peter Russell and Duane Elgin about the theme of an awakening Earth.

As further background, the phrase "Great Awakening" is sometimes used to refer to a period of religious revival in American religious history occurring in three or four waves between the early 18th century and the late 20th century. Each of these "great awakenings" was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. However, the current "awakening" is quite different. It is global in scope rather than confined to a particular country. In addition, this awakening is being pushed by global economic and ecological urgency, and is being pulled by the opportunity to create a more sustainable and meaningful future. Given its depth, breadth, and reach of impact, this awakening is truly "great."

A New Earth

Used by: Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle has popularized the phrase, A New Earth with his book of the same name. In his view, the current state of humanity is based on an erroneous identification with the egoic mind, and is one of dangerous insanity. He writes that there is an alternative to this potentially dire situation. Humanity now, perhaps more than in any previous time, has an opportunity to create a new, saner, more loving world. This will involve a radical inner leap from the current egoic consciousness to an entirely new consciousness. Here is Eckhart talking about a "new Earth."

Planetary Birth

Used by: Barbara Marx Hubbard, Charles Eisenstein, Duane Elgin

Here is Barbara Marx Hubbard speaking about her vision of the birth of a "universal human."

The theme of a "planetary birth" has been used by others. The following description of humanity’s birth process is taken from Charles Eisenstein's book, The Ascent of Humanity (2007), pp. 539 – 541:

"(Humanity feels) ... left alone in a dead, pitiless universe, doomed by nature and human nature to struggle pointlessly for survival in a world rendered ever more horrible by our efforts. Although we might try to soldier on, the once bountiful world-womb can no longer sustain the growth of fetal humanity. The effort to squeeze just a few more years out of what remains of the Mother’s resources—natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital—will only poison the womb still further. ... It is very simple. A fetus grows; the womb is finite. The limits of growth trigger a birth crisis. Unbearable though it is ... if the status quo did not become intolerable, there would nothing to impel change—birth into a new state of being. ... Then the enormous pressures on the fetus are revealed to have a purpose, a direction as the cervix opens and a light shines through, promising a new world. The physical distress of the fetus is even greater now than it was in [the womb]. She is subject to titanic pressures that slowly propel her through the birth canal, a life and death struggle occupying the whole of her being. At this point there is no going back to the womb of the familiar, for … the pressures of birth are too great to resist. While physically more difficult [this stage] ... is easier to bear, for the light ahead gives hope and direction. For the human species, it represents our growing knowledge that another way of living is possible. We can see a glimpse of it already, the light at the end of the tunnel—the new modes of technology, money, medicine, education, and so forth. ... Collectively, we humans have experienced only the beginnings of the birth pangs that will propel us into the new world we have glimpsed. We are still able to resist, still able to deceive ourselves into thinking that we can expropriate from nature endlessly ... In the Stage … of birth, the baby is born into a new and unimagined world, where he becomes an anatomically distinct individual. In any kind of birth process, the entity being born cannot imagine what lies beyond the mother’s body. In the case of humanity as well, the new society we are being born into is probably beyond imagining. Birth is a journey that starts with blissful oneness, proceeds through an increasingly unbearable confinement, climaxes in a heroic struggle, and ends with a return to the one, but at a new level of being. ... In the Age of Reunion that will follow the present birthing, we will gaze upon Mother Nature’s face with the adoring eyes of an infant."

Duane Elgin uses the planetary birth metaphor in describing our current time of transition in his book Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (1993), pp. 148 and 150:

"As we approach the turn of the century, we are already experiencing the labor pains that mark the birth of a more conscious species-civilization. We are enclosed within an ailing and traumatized ecosystem. There is no escape from critical problems ... In giving birth to a sustainable species-civilization, humanity will probably move back and forth through cycles of contraction and relaxation until we utterly exhaust ourselves and burn through the barriers that separate us from our wholeness as a human family. Eventually we will see that we have an unyielding choice between a badly injured (or even stillborn) species-civilization and the birth of a bruised, but relatively healthy, human family and biosphere."

Global Shift

Used by: Edmund Bourne

This is a phrase used by Edmund Bourne and is the title for his book, Global Shift: How A New Worldview Is Transforming Humanity (2008). Bourne writes that a remarkable change is taking place in the way we see ourselves and our world. The dominant materialistic, separatist worldview is giving way to a humanitarian-spiritual orientation. This shift will transform both the way humanity interacts on a global scale and how we live on a day-to-day basis. Global Shift explores the roots of such current planetary crises as climate change, diminishing resources, poverty, and disease, and explains how a new convergence of scientific research and spiritual insight is propelling us toward a more enlightened future. It also presents a call to actions we can implement now, such as voluntary simplicity, nonviolent communication, caring for our bodies, and inclusive global thinking, that can foster personal healing and bring our lives into alignment with the needs of the planet and a conscious universe.

World Shift

Used by: Ervin Laszlo, Barbara Marx Hubbard

From the bylaws of the Worldshift Foundation, 2007, is this statement:

Indisputably the world is undergoing a fundamental transformational process, a global change. Which trend the change will follow is in the hands of those, who have the decisive power to direct and design the change. Motivated by the impression that at the beginning of the 3rd millenium the trend of the change is dominated by forces, which in the past have contributed to turn our home planet into a life-threatening place for humanity as well as for vast parts of non-human nature, the undersigned are founding the WorldShift Network. As an initiative of the Club of Budapest the founders want to establish a worldwide network which traces, connects and encourages all those associations and individuals, who are working honestly and sustainably to shift the life-threatening trend of the global change into a life-fostering direction, and lead them to political effectiveness within civil society.


Here is Ervin Laszlo speaking about World Shift:

Here is Barbara Hubbard speaking about World Shift:

Jump Time

Used by: Jean Houston

The phrase "Jump Time" refers to a book by Jean Houston and to:

  • The shift in human nature that is moving people to discover and use dormant or little-known capacities.
  • How the breakthroughs in technological connection and the new ways of being in community in global society are repatterning human consciousness.
  • How a dramatic new awareness of our shared and intermingled ecology, culture, economy, and ethnicity are creating a different kind of human being for the twenty-first century.
  • How the uprising of spiritual yearning and cross-fertilization of the wisdom and practices of world spiritual tradition are newly uniting us to one another as well as to the universe.

Here is Jean Houston speaking about this new phase in history:

Humanity's Fire of Initiation

Initiation is a rite of passage ceremony marking entrance or acceptance into a group or society. It could also be a formal admission to adulthood in a community or one of its formal components. In an extended sense it can also signify a transformation in which the initiate is 'reborn' into a new role. Examples of initiation ceremonies might include Hindu diksha, Christian baptism or confirmation, Jewish bar or bat mitzvah, acceptance into a fraternal organization, secret society or religious order, or graduation from school or recruit training.


Humanity's Rite of Passage

A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person's progress from one status to another. It is a universal phenomenon which can show anthropologists what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures. Rites of passage are often ceremonies surrounding events such as other milestones within puberty, coming of age, marriage and death. Initiation ceremonies such as baptism, confirmation and Bar or Bat Mitzvah are considered important rites of passage for people of their respective religions.


Humanity's Supreme Test

The second major stage in the Hero's journey is that of a supreme test and profound initiation. To overcome, the hero must reach beyond the ego to a larger spiritual potential. Many people think that we have moved into the time of initiation for our human family. Buckminster Fuller said our times would test of the evolutionary intelligence of our species.

Trends Driving Transition

When multiple "adversity trends" interact with one another, the consequences can be devastating. For example, when climate disruption and energy shortages reduce global food production while population is still growing, it becomes painfully clear that humanity faces a systems crisis of global proportions. It is important to see the scope, severity, timing, and complexity of the challenges we face. Nearly all of these challenges are of our own making. The clearer our understanding, the greater the chance that this time of global crisis will become a time of opportunity to make dramatic changes and pull together for our common future. Yet, however promising the long-range future may seem, it is very demanding psychologically to consider the short-range breakdown and transformation of civilizations around the world. This is not an abstract process. We are the persons who are living through it. Our anxieties about the changes underway in the world are lessened when we see them as part of a natural and purposeful process--and that is one of the key gifts of Great Transition Stories. We are being pushed by necessity and pulled by enormous opportunity. Although rest of this website explores futures of great promise, here it is important to pause and recognize the powerful and unyielding nature of the trends that are pushing humanity to make this great transition. If we misjudge our situation, the results will be catastrophic. There are no “do-overs.” We cannot bring extinct species back to life. We cannot re-freeze the Arctic and recreate the climate of the past ten thousand years. We cannot refill oil wells that are pumped dry. We cannot refill ancient aquifers of water that are pumped empty. We cannot take back responsibility for caring for billions of people beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth. Therefore, our first requirement—as individuals, communities, nations, and a species—is to step back and take an unflinching look at what is happening with key trends such as climate change and running out of cheap oil. Once we have a working grasp of individual trends, we can see how they are interacting with one another in mutually reinforcing ways to produce a world in systems crisis—ecologically, economically, politically, culturally, and more. As we recognize the magnitude and the urgency of these challenges, we can mobilize ourselves appropriately. The first section below considers key individual trends and is followed by a section where these trends are considered as an interactive and mutually reinforcing system.

Individual Trends

There are dozens of critical trends that could be considered. Yet, the few considered here are sufficient to give us a clear picture of the magnitude and urgency of the challenges facing us. These trends have been researched for decades, and there is a growing scientific agreement concerning for each. These trends are:

Wide and Deep Poverty

Although there is a rapidly growing global middle class of roughly 2 billion persons, there is a much larger portion of humanity (in 2009, roughly 5 persons billion) living in varying degrees of poverty. For example, in 2009, 75 percent of humans are estimated to live on a real income of $4.00 per day or less. Sixty percent live on a real or effective income of $3.00 a day or less. The poorest of the poor—subsisting on the equivalent of $1.00 a day or less—are estimated to be a billion persons. The gap between rich and poor is a vast and growing chasm. In 2001, at the one hundredth anniversary of the Nobel Prize, one hundred prize winners came together to issue a “Nobel Warning” whose opening sentence reads: “The most profound danger to world peace in the coming years will stem not from the irrational acts of states or individuals but from the legitimate demands of the world’s dispossessed.” With the communications revolution, the gap between rich and poor is glaringly obvious. Even many of the poorest villages have a TV set, cell phone, and a computer that give them access to the world. A world that is wired and so profoundly divided cannot work as an integrated and healthy system.

Profound Climate Disruption

Human activities are destabilizing the climate we have enjoyed for the past ten thousand years. Long before glaciers and ice caps melt from global warming, disruption in climate patterns will severely impact the human community. I grew up on a farm and saw the dramatic consequences of modest weather changes. For example, if the rain continued a few weeks longer than usual into the spring, the fields would be too muddy for the farmers to plant their crops. That, in turn, could push harvesting until later in the fall. Then, if the frost came earlier than usual in the fall, crops could die or freeze in the ground. Farming and food production are far more vulnerable to climate disruption than many realize. Looking at the global picture, our world is slipping into a climate crisis much faster than expected. The pace of climate change is exceeding even the most pessimistic forecasts by global climate scientists. The world’s foremost authority on climate, scientist James Hansen, states that our situation is “more urgent than had been expected, even by those most attuned.” According to Hansen, allowing CO2 to rise from its pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm (parts per million) to its current level of 385 ppm is far outside its historical levels over millions of years and has already moved into a “dangerous range.” Hansen says that if we continue CO2 buildup into the range of 450 ppm and beyond, as many scientists anticipate, we will create a new planet with a climate unlike anything experienced in human history. The bottom line is that the people of the Earth must take immediate and dramatic action—including transforming consumerist lifestyles—to halt the build-up of CO2 and then to lower it to 350 ppm or less. If we do not immediately begin to stabilize and then reduce greenhouse gases, we can expect more powerful hurricanes and storms, more intense heat waves and droughts, the spread of diseases, a major shift in growing regions for agriculture, and eventually a large sea level rise that floods coastal regions and produces massive human migrations. For centuries to come, humanity will be coping with the climate changes set in motion at this time. Global climate destabilization will have such profound consequences that it alone will move humanity onto a new pathway into the future.

The End of Cheap Oil

Petroleum has given humanity a one-time spurt of growth. In rough numbers, we have pumped out roughly half of the oil in the Earth, and this is the “good half” that is relatively easy to reach and get out. The second half gets progressively more costly as these areas, such as the deep sea, are difficult to reach and expensive to drill. There is a growing consensus that global oil production has begun to plateau and that we may already have seen the peak in production. At the same time, demand is skyrocketing as countries such as China, India, and Brazil rapidly modernize. China, for example, could use up the world’s entire yearly production of oil if it were to modernize and purchase as many cars per capita as in the United States. Given intense demand for oil and a declining supply, we can expect a permanent and growing increase in the cost of oil and oil-based products. This, in turn, will bring profound changes to the structure of the global economy, forcing activities to become much more localized, energy efficient, and inventive in using renewable sources.

Global Water Shortages

Although we can get by without oil, we cannot live without water, and demand is soaring worldwide. Ironically, although we live on a “water planet,” only a small fraction is fresh water that we humans can drink, use for irrigation and growing food, and rely on for manufacturing purposes. More than 97 percent of all the water on the Earth is saltwater. Most fresh water is locked up in the ice sheets of Greenland and the Antarctic. Lack of potable water is blamed for millions of deaths each year from famine, malnutrition, and disease. Looking ahead, it is estimated that by the 2020s roughly 40 percent of the people on the Earth will not be able to get enough water to be self-sufficient in growing their own food. Many will be living in vast urban regions where land and water are scarce. The hardest hit areas are expected to be Northern China, western and southern India, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and much of Mexico. The United States will also be severely impacted as, for example, the enormous Ogallala aquifer that sustains the breadbasket of the Midwest is depleted. Looking ahead, the most fierce and protracted conflicts over resources may not be over oil but over fresh water, particularly in these highly water-stressed regions. Even if the energy crisis is solved, the water crisis will grow as global temperatures rise and, for example, cause mountain glaciers to melt, eventually depriving billions of people of a vital source of fresh water.

Unsustainable Population Growth

Global population has grown enormously in the past few generations. A few statistics tell the extraordinary story of our growth. In the early 1800s, we finally reached a billion persons on the planet. It took another century, until roughly 1930, to reach two billion humans. Over the next thirty years, we added another billion persons. The three billion humans alive in 1960 doubled to six billion people around the turn of the century. As I write this there are nearly seven billion people on the Earth. It is likely we will add another two billion persons to the planet before reaching stabilization at around nine billion people in mid-century. To give a feeling for the magnitude of these numbers, world population growth each month is roughly seven million persons—which is the equivalent of adding the population of a city the size of Chicago or Los Angeles to the Earth. In addition to enormous numbers of humans, we are very rapidly becoming an urbanized species, with nearly all of the growing world population occurring in the huge megalopolises of the developing world. Throughout human history, the majority of humans lived in rural and small village settings. It was only at the turn of the twenty-first century that we became a predominantly urban species. It is estimated that, by the 2020s, roughly two-thirds of humanity will live in urban settings. As we become an increasingly urbanized and interconnected world, it is creating a new culture and consciousness for humanity. When most people lived in rural environments, the human family was relatively self-sufficient in providing food. As we become an increasingly urbanized species, we also become less able to provide food for ourselves and more vulnerable to crop failures and famine—a precarious situation in a world of climate change and already experiencing food shortages. Overall, both the size and the distribution of global population are magnifying many other difficulties.

Massive Extinction of Plant and Animal Species

The overall health of the Earth depends directly upon the well being of the ecology of animals and plants that live together on the Earth. As we unthinkingly harm that web of life, it can reach a point of no return where it is impossible to repair and return to its former status. Currently, the Earth is experiencing one of the largest extinctions of plant and animals species in its four-billion-year history. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with between one-third and one-half of all plant and animal species at risk of disappearing with a few generations. This is the largest destruction of life on this Earth since the dinosaurs and other life-forms were killed by a meteorite roughly 65 million years ago. The fabric of the Earth’s ecology is already wounded and torn. We are irretrievably mutilating the biosphere and diminishing the quality of life for countless generations to come.

Unsustainable Global Footprint

Another window onto our collective situation is revealed in humanity’s global ecological footprint, which measures the impact of human activities upon the Earth relative to the Earth’s ability to restore itself. The bottom line is that, for several decades, we have already exceeded the Earth’s ability to replenish its renewable resources: the fish in the oceans, the fertility of farmland, the size and health of forests, and more. To illustrate, in 1961, it is estimated that the human community used roughly half of the world’s “bio-capacity,” or the regenerative capacity of the land, oceans, and air. However, by 1986, human demand began to exceed the regenerative capacity of the Earth. Since then, our relationship with the Earth has become increasingly unbalanced. Our material demands are overwhelming the Earth’s regenerative ability. Within a generation, the human community has become a crushing force impacting every aspect of our planet: overcutting forests, overgrazing pasture lands, overusing farm lands, overfishing oceans, overpolluting the air, and more. We are over the limits in many critical areas, and the growth curve is still headed upward on the path that has already created profound difficulties. The 2008 Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that humanity is overusing the Earth’s regenerative ability so that, if current trends and lifestyles continue, we will require the equivalent of two Earths by the mid-2030s. This is an impossibility. It will lead to the collapse of ocean fisheries, the ruin of topsoil, the overgrazing and desertification of land, and the depletion of groundwater aquifers—all of which are occurring. It has taken the entirety of human history to grow a global economy of the size it reached in 2008. Although our global economy is already exhausting the Earth with unsustainable consumption, if current trends continue, in just two decades the size of the economy will double. If the global economy is already over-consuming the Earth, then what will happen when rapidly developing countries with huge populations such as China, India, and Brazil seek to emulate their own version of the American, high-consumption lifestyle? Humanity is on a collision course with the Earth and the time of reckoning has arrived. The reckoning is to find a new ways of living that enable us to both maintain ourselves and to surpass ourselves as a species.

The Perfect Storm of a World In Systems Crisis

Any one of these trends could bring the human enterprise to grief. When they all converge at the same time, they constitute far more than an emergency—they represent an unequivocal catastrophe. In this generation we will either devastate or transform the human journey. We have no place to escape from our global predicament. Considered together, these trends represent a supreme test of the evolutionary intelligence and capacity of our species. They are of enormous scale (often involving millions or billions of people), complexity (of bewildering difficulty to comprehend), and severity (failure to cope with any one of them will result in monumental human suffering). We confront three types of challenges:

  • Technical problems (for example, coping with energy and resource shortages)
  • Normative problems (for example, discovering values beyond materialism that draw people together with a sense of shared purpose)
  • Process problems (for example, finding ways for millions of citizens to interact with massively complex institutions from the local to the global scale).

These problems comprise a tightly interdependent and intertwined system of problems that cannot be dealt with on a one-by-one basis. Instead they require a dramatic shift in our overall pattern of thinking and living. With economic breakdowns, resource depletion, and climate change already underway, some may argue that breakdown and collapse is also underway. However, there still seems to be considerable resilience or “stretch” left in the world system. We have not yet reached the breaking point. Although trends in climate and energy are awakening the people of the Earth to the magnitude of the challenges ahead, they are not yet sufficient to motivate the human community to come together in dialogue around hard choices about our collective approach to material growth. However, by the 2020s, these forces will mature into an unrelenting, world systems challenge. The window of opportunity for adaptation is narrowing quickly. Before hitting this evolutionary wall, it vital that we mobilize our tools of local to global communication to meet this challenge. With the push of necessity in alignment with the pull of evolutionary opportunity, it is impossible to imagine the bold and creative actions could emerge from the collective imagination of humanity as we prepare for our time of profound transition. We cannot say that we were not warned. Over the past several decades, a steady stream of global studies has come to the same conclusion: To avoid an ecological and human disaster, we must make dramatic changes in how we live now. Recall the “Warning to Humanity” issued by over 1,600 of the world’s senior scientists in 1992 alerted the world that we were in danger of “irretrievably mutilating” the biosphere. The United National Global Environmental Outlook Report for 2007, presented as “the final wake-up call to the international community,” concluded that the human community is living far beyond its means and inflicting damage on the environment that could soon pass a point of no return. Given these and other warnings, it should come as no surprise that the combined impact of adversity trends confronts the human community with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Despite the severity of our physical problems, our deepest challenge is to overcome an invisible crisis: a lack of collective consensus and cohesion around a compelling sense of story and purpose. What will it take to mobilize humanity’s collective efforts in building a green future? Without the beacon of a compelling sense of a common story and purpose, it seems likely that we will withdraw into smaller, more protected worlds. An overriding challenge is to find a new “common sense”—a new sense of reality, human identity, and social purpose that we can hold in common and that respects our radically changing global circumstances. Finding this new common sense in the middle of the turbulence and disarray of the breakdown of civilizations is likely to be a drawn-out, messy, and ambiguous process of social learning. How effectively we use our tools of local to global communication to achieve a new consensus will be critical in determining the ultimate outcome.


Welcome to the Anthropocene

In June 2012, this 3-minute film opened the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development.

Global Issues and the Future of Our Planet

Jeremy Rifkin describes the profound challenges facing humanity in the future.

Our World in Transition

A half-hour conversation with Duane Elgin and Peter Russell exploring our time of unprecedented transition and the perfect world storm that will develop as adversity trends converge into a mutually reinforcing system.

Paul Gilding: The Earth is Full

Have we used up all our resources? Have we filled up all the livable space on Earth? Paul Gilding suggests we have, and the possibility of devastating consequences, in a talk that’s equal parts terrifying and, oddly, hopeful.


The Crisis of Civilization

A documentary feature film investigating how global crises like ecological disaster, financial meltdown, dwindling oil reserves, terrorism and food shortages are converging symptoms of a single, failed global system.


Prophets of Doom

A History Channel production describing how we are facing many serious issue all at once, from climate change, energy shortages, and financial breakdowns to fresh water shortages and the prospect of nuclear terrorism:



Articles & Reports

There is a growing literature focusing on the dynamics of our world in transition. Listed here are a few of the most important and insightful articles that we have found. Check back in regularly as this is an ever changing and expanding list.