by Cutler Cleveland
Two simple but important observations of human history are that transitions happen and that transitions matter. Transitions are those wide-ranging changes in human organization and well-being that can be convincingly attributed to a concerted set of choices that make the world that was significantly and recognizably different from the world that becomes. Of most interest to us are those grand transitions where the human fingerprint is clearly evident and which have the profound effect of, to use a cliché, “changing the world as we know it.” Transition scholars argue that history does not just stumble along a pre-determined path, but that human ingenuity and entrepreneurship have the ability to fundamentally alter its direction.
Transitions matter not only because they dramatically alter the human condition, but also because they reveal potentially identifiable motors of change and levers that can bring about such change. That is, there are key innovations and decisions that can dramatically affect everything else in such profound ways that we can claim a significant change in the direction of global human organization and well-being. Moreover, the claim that transitions matter is made on the trajectory of existing trends and arguing that business as usual will impose undesirable “transitions” on humanity unless concerted effort is made in moving toward desirable transitions. As one example, scholars who study human development warn of widespread system collapse—itself a type of transition— being triggered by widening economic disparities and the increasing number of people living in abject poverty, disease, and hunger.
A critical unanswered question is: Can transitions be made to happen? The “transitions community” suggests that this is possible, that we can “will” and determine the direction of the next transition. But this remains an open question. None of the previous grand transitions was “willed” in any systematic fashion, even though most had very recognizable human fingerprints. The desire for certain types of transitions is broadly shared across the globe. However, despite a number of good intentions and valiant efforts, our ability to “will” such transitions remains in doubt. These doubts cannot be removed and the central question cannot be answered until we have a better understanding of how transitions work.
This is a chapter from Making the Great Transformation (Conference).
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