Session One: What Are Great Transformations?
On the Well-being of Nations
by Robert Prescott-Allen
Presented by Adil Najam
Robert Prescott-Allen was scheduled to be our next speaker, but an unavoidable emergency made it impossible for him to attend. My talk is a summary of the paper he intended to deliver here today. Dr. Prescott-Allen has been an insightful and innovative consultant on development issues for a long time. He is the author of The World Conservation Strategy II, a publication of the World Conservation Union. His consuming interest is in measuring the well-being of nations, which has resulted in his book, The Well-being of Nations.
A central idea in Dr. Prescott-Allen’s thinking is that the ecosystem is like an egg. It surrounds and supports people the way the white of an egg does the yolk. Apart from some debate whether people live within the ecosystem or are an integral part of it, it is generally agreed that the system is good and running well if both ecosystem and human beings share an essential well-being. Historically, people once lived as integral parts of the ecosystem and depended on it for what they needed to survive. The prehistoric agricultural revolution was the first of the great transformations of this early, integrated system. The yolk began to exert a greater influence on the white, although both parts remained in a mutually synergistic relationship. With the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, the second great transformation, the two became detached and human beings began to overwhelm the ecosystem. This process of detachment continues today to widen the cognitive divorce between culture and nature. More and more energy and ingenuity are being devoted to the pursuit of wealth, while the production of real human well-being declines.
Part of the importance of Dr. Prescott-Allen’s work is his attempt to quantify these ideas, most notably in his measurement of human well-being and ecological sustainability. The fact that these two stand presently at odds is not historically inevitable, but represents the outcome of a series of decisions and trade-offs. It is important to emphasize that increasing human well-being does not necessarily compromise the quality of the environment. Dr. Prescott-Allen argues that today a third great transformation is needed in order to reestablish the union between culture, nature, and human well-being. According to the egg metaphor, high levels of human well-being are quite compatible with a healthily functioning ecosystem. Ecosystems support life.
Once the relation of human to ecological well-being is understood, we can develop the political and social motivation to optimize both. Regular assessments of these two factors are necessary in order to plan for the future, assess our present situation, and correct the course that society is presently taking. Dr. Prescott-Allen is using approximately 300 different indicators of well-being which relate to each other in complicated ways. But from these statistics, he argues that a clear and simple message should emerge that can be clearly understood by society and its decision makers. Arriving at such measures involves more than measuring wealth. It requires us to address such difficult and complex issues as culture, knowledge, values, and the ideas of happiness, community, and justice.
Such a statistical approach will allow us to assess our present situation and then think cogently about the progress we are making. We can then focus in on what is slowing the rate of progress. Such information would be extremely useful for policy makers.
Contours of the Possible: Global Scenarios and Great Transitions
The premise of this paper is that civilization is in the midst of a fundamental historical transformation whose outcome remains profoundly uncertain. Some form of planetary society will crystallize over the coming decades as a result of interacting global factors—economic globalization, cultural influence, information technology, geopolitical and social fissures, and alterations of critical biogeochemical cycles. But depending on how conflicts are resolved, global development can branch into dramatically different pathways. Possible scenarios include Market Forces, where social and environmental concerns remain secondary, Fortress World, with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside, and Policy Reform, with strong governmental intervention for social and environmental goals. All are problematic: Market Forces would risk socio-ecological crisis, Fortress World would signal the failure of inclusive global development, and Policy Reform would need to overcome great technological and political hurdles to deliver change at the required pace and scale.
Great Transition scenarios envision the emergence of a new global development paradigm that would challenge both the viability and desirability of conventional values, economic structures, and social arrangements. It would be rooted in the values that emphasize quality of life, human dignity, affinity with nature, and global solidarity. A Great Transition would involve multiple and synergistic sub-transformations in values, institutions, and technology. Various social agents would need to act in concert to drive such a transition, including global actors such as intergovernmental organizations, transnational corporations, and civil society. This shift would seem to require the emergence of a strong global polity of citizens engaged in a common project for a new planetary compact based on pluralism, tolerance, and global identification. To crystallize such a movement, the discourse on global sustainability and development would need to transcend the advocacy of better technologies, poverty alleviation, and incremental adjustments to market-driven development. It would need to bring the questions of human values, lifestyles, and institutions to the forefront of debate and action, and offer a positive vision of a civilized form of globalization for the whole human family.
Civilization is in the midst of a transformation as fundamental as the great prehistoric agricultural revolution and the later Industrial Revolution. A form of planetary society seems to be developing, but its ultimate character remains uncertain. Some predict a gloomy future of impoverished people, culture, and nature, but I remain optimistic about the possibilities. We create our own future, and it is possible for us to choose enriched lives, human solidarity, and a healthy planet. This argument is further developed in “Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead” by the Global Scenario Group (GSG.org).
Transitions and phase shifts, with their periods of gradual development, rapid transformation, and states of relative stability, can be found everywhere in nature. Cultural development, however, which is characteristic only of human history, causes these shifts to take on a different character. Human history was molded by two grand transformations: the development of Stone Age culture 100,000 years ago and the rise of the Modern Era, which took place over the last millennium. Over long periods of time society has become more complex across many dimensions. It moved from tribe to city-state and nation to planetary system, from hunting and gathering through settled agriculture to industrialization and the global economy, from the evolution of language through writing and printing to modern information technology.
The defining feature of the present transition to a planetary system is increased global connectivity. We see it in such developments as the formation of the United Nations, the revolution in information and communications technology, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the increasing hegemony of capitalism, economic globalization, a new awareness of planetary ecology, and the emergence of globally linked NGOs as an important force in world affairs. On the negative side, we note the emergence of globally connected terrorism.
Predicting the future is difficult because of three kinds of uncertainty. The first is our ignorance of current conditions and forces. Second, even if we knew everything we needed to make predictions, we live not in a deterministic system, but one that contains the potential for emergent behavior, novel phenomena, and unexpected events. Third, the future depends partly on choices that still have not been made. That is why we are trying to develop scenarios about the future that combine the richness of narrative with the rigor of quantitative modeling. As the global system becomes more connected, the fates of local regions and nations become more tightly coupled to that of the global system.
There are essentially three classes of scenarios for the future. The first I call Conventional Worlds. It envisions continued evolution of the present situation, with its dominant forces of globalization, economic interdependence, spreading dominant cultural values, and the gradual adoption by poor nations of the consumption and production patterns of rich ones. The Conventional Worlds scenario emphasizes the power of market forces and policy reform, which respond respectively to the exigencies of economic growth and to government initiatives to constrain and direct the global economy.
The second class of scenario is Barbarization, where social polarization, environmental deterioration, and economic instability lead to a general global crisis and an erosion of civilized norms. It can take the form of a Fortress World, where authority responds to the threat of a global crisis by establishing apartheid with its protected enclaves designed to keep impoverished masses under control. The other form Barbarization might take is Breakdown, where conflicts spiral out of control and social institutions collapse.
In the third class, Great Transitions, people respond to the problem of sustainability by developing a different set of fundamental values, which include a sense of human solidarity and a deep respect for nature. Two forms are possible. Eco-communalism is a form favored by local subcultures that favor anti-globalist, anarchist viewpoints. The second form, the New Sustainability, seeks to change the character of global civilization for the better rather than retreat into localism. It validates ideas of global solidarity, cultural cross-fertilization, and interdependence as it seeks to encourage humanistic and ecologically aware transitions.
These three visions of the future are rooted in the rich history of philosophical and political ideas. Although the debate among them continues, the real enemy of a decent future is the large number of unaware, unconvinced, and unconcerned people who entertain no ideas at all about the future. But for those who do care, the great question is whether we can find a non-traumatic transition to a sustainable and desirable future.
The utopian vision of a globally integrated free market may succumb to its own contradictions. In the future, environmental degradation may proceed despite technological advances, human desperation despite a growth in aggregate wealth, and cultural polarization despite increased global interdependence. The resulting environmental stress, inequity, resentment, conflict, and xenophobia would result in a Fortress World that denies the four great aspirations that have developed in the 20th century: peace, freedom, material well-being, and a healthy environment.
Analysis suggests that it is feasible in principle to achieve these goals. Necessary technologies and policy instruments are available, but the project of bending highly unsustainable trends would impose immense technical and managerial challenges. Even if we could resolve these issues, we still must ask if we presently possess a genuine vision of a desirable future. Would we want to live in a world where fewer people starve but human exploration and contentment have died out? It is important that we begin to place the quality of life before the quantity of things. There are multiple pathways to modernity, and many of them are based on local traditions and customs.
Conventional world strategies act on the proximate drivers that directly influence demographics, economics, technology, and social institutions. They themselves are responsive to short-term interventions. A Great Transition would have to deal with the ultimate drivers of society, which are subject to the large political and cultural processes that expand possibilities by changing the very basis for human choice. Specifically, a Great Transition would attempt to break the traditional link between well-being and consumption. In addition, it would encourage a reconsideration of such ideas as individualism, materialism, and the domination of nature.
Possible agents of change include intergovernmental organizations, civil society, and the private sector, but the most crucial factor is the awareness and engagement of the citizens of the world. The first wave of the attempt to achieve sustainability centered on technology, the alleviation of poverty, and incremental changes in market-driven development. We now require a more profound second wave that will spark a general debate on human values, lifestyles, and institutions. In other words, we require a new paradigm of global development that has at its center the vision of a better life.
^ 1. The paper is based on “Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead” (Raskin et al., 2002), an essay that grew out of the work of the Global Scenario Group, an international body convened by the Stockholm Environment Institute in 1995 to analyze the requirements for a transition to sustainability.
This is a chapter from Making the Great Transformation (Conference).
Previous: Keynote Address | Table of Contents | Next: Session Two