Great Transition: Narratives

This article is a chapter in the e-book, Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead
The original publication can be found on the Great Transition Initiative website

Fortress World: A Narrative

By 2002, the market euphoria of the last decade of the twentieth-century seems like a naïve and giddy dream. A global economic recession chastens the irrational exuberance of dot-com investors, and the 9/11 terrorist attack awakens a sleepwalking global elite to deep fissures cutting across the geo-political landscape. The nations of the world, mobilized in a cooperative effort to fight terrorism, are offered an unexpected opportunity to redirect development strategy and commit to a form of globalization that is more inclusive, democratic and sustainable. But they do not seize it. The moment of unity and possibility is squandered, in a frenzy of militarism, suspicion and polarization. The empty rhetoric of Earth Summit 2002 is an obituary for the lost era of sustainable development.

Gradually, a coordinated campaign is able to control terrorism at “manageable” levels, although episodic attacks periodically invigorate the politics of fear. The mantra of economic growth, trade liberalization and structural adjustment continues to be heard in the halls of global governance organizations, such as the WTO, the boardrooms of transnational corporations and corridors of national governments. The old ideology of individualism and consumerism flourishes anew, but with a greater respect for the legitimacy of government—as the guarantor of national and individual security, in the first instance, and as an activist partner in enforcing a global market regime, in general.

But it is a bifurcated form of economic globalization limited largely to the so-called “20/20 club”—the 20 percent of nations that are rich and the 20 percent of the elite in nations that are not. The global economy spawns a new class of internationally connected affluent. But there is a counterpoint—the billions of desperately poor whose boats fail to rise with the general economic tide. Some international agencies and some governments continue to mount programs aimed at reducing poverty, promoting entrepreneurship and modernizing institutions. But with financial and political priorities oriented toward security and control, the efforts are woefully inadequate.

As the level of poverty increases and the gulf between rich and poor widens, development aid continues to decline. The remnants of the institutional capacity and moral commitment to global welfare are lost. Meanwhile, environmental conditions deteriorate. Multiple stresses—pollution, climate change, ecosystem degradation—interact and amplify the crisis. Disputes over scarce water resources feed conflict in regions with shared river basins. Environmental degradation, food insecurity and emergent diseases foster a vast health crisis.

Tantalized by media images of opulence and dreams of affluence, the excluded billions grow restive. Many seek emigration to affluent centers by any means necessary. Criminal activity thrives in the anarchic conditions, with some powerful global syndicates able to field fearsome fighting units in their battle against international policing activities. A new kind of militant—educated, excluded and angry—fans the flames of discontent. The poison of social polarization deepens. Terrorism resurges, escalating from waves of suicide attacks at popular gatherings and on symbols of globalism, to use of biological and nuclear weapons.

In this atmosphere of deepening social and environmental crisis, conflict feeds off old ethnic, religious and nationalist tensions. Poor countries begin to fragment as civil order collapses and various forms of criminal anarchy fill the vacuum. Even some of the more prosperous nations feel the sting as infrastructure decays and technology fails. The global economy sputters and international institutions weaken, while the bite of climate change and environmental devastation grows fiercer. The affluent minority fears it too will be engulfed by rampant migration, violence and disease. The global crisis spins out of control.

The forces of global order take action. International military, corporate, and governance bodies, supported by the most powerful national governments, form the self-styled Alliance for Global Salvation. Using a revamped United Nations as their platform, a state of planetary emergency is declared. A campaign of overwhelming force, rough justice and draconian police measures sweeps through hot spots of conflict and discontent. With as-needed military and reconstruction support from the Alliance, local forces nearly everywhere are able to subdue resistance and impose stability backed by international peacekeeping units.

A system of global dualism—some call it a Fortress World, others Planetary Apartheid—emerges from the crisis. The separate spheres of the haves and have-nots, the included and excluded, are codified in asymmetrical and authoritarian legal and institutional frameworks. The affluent live in protected enclaves in rich nations and in strongholds in poor nations—bubbles of privilege amidst oceans of misery. In the police state outside the fortress, the majority is mired in poverty and denied basic freedoms. The authorities use high-tech surveillance and old-fashioned brutality to control social unrest and migration, and to protect valued environmental resources. The elite have halted barbarism at their gates and enforced a kind of environmental management and uneasy stability.

Policy Reform: A Narrative

With the long view of history, globalization stands out as the major theme of the last decades of the twentieth century. Like all turning points, the onset of the planetary phase of world development carries contradictory phenomena in its wake. Superficially, it seems that the dominant engine for change is the rapid advance of a global market system, catalyzed by distance-shrinking transportation and information technology. But a second powerful force, reacting to the predations of heedless global markets, also quietly gestates—the movement for an environmentally sustainable and humane form of development.

The momentum for Policy Reform is traced through a series of UN initiatives—the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development and the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. While these had little immediate effect, in the fullness of time it is clear that they are essential precursors to the remarkable changes of the first decades of the twenty-first century. But it did not seem that way at the time.

Indeed, at the end of the twentieth century, the international momentum for a sustainable future seems squandered. The calls at global conferences for a cohesive agenda for sparing the environment and bringing development to the poor regions of the world appears rarely to go beyond rhetoric to effective action. Special interests squabble, powerful nations resist aligning their development with global environmental goals, and a fragmented system of global governance holds an unending series of topical conferences that offer inspiring but toothless edicts.

But after 2002 history has begun to swing toward sustainable development. A number of factors combine to tilt the balance. The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg in that year, is a hinge event. The political space for the reform agenda comes in part from the end of market euphoria, so triumphant in the 1990s. At the turn of the new century, a global recession is a reminder that the golden goose of the new prosperity is mortal and that e-commerce has not abolished economic uncertainties. Then the terrorist attacks of 9/11 rip the affluent world from its complacent slumber, at once kindling insecurity, anger and a sense that global development is not working.

Forged in the crucible of a war on terrorism, a new globalism offers an unprecedented opportunity for proactive and cooperative global engagement. The dose of reality persuades government that the internationalization of market opportunities and institutional modernization must proceed on an accelerated basis. The vision at first is confined to delivering on the promise of globalization to assimilate the disaffected and excluded of the earth in the nexus of Western modernism. Free trade institutions are expanded, global governance for the economy is strengthened and international assistance supports a new generation of business and political leaders. At first the vision of an inclusive market-driven world has a salutary effect on the global economy and international security. But the response is insufficient.

The environment continues to degrade. The scientific case strengthens that human activity is imperiling global environmental stability. The public grows increasingly impatient, seeing its own evidence in abrupt climate events and mounting reports of species loss. The global economy sputters, and a sense of crisis is amplified by ecological uncertainty and social polarization. In poorer regions, people bitter about the continued failure of globalization to reduce poverty and feeling the bite of climate change demand a new global deal. A combined social, economic and environmental crisis is brewing.

The search begins for a more inclusive, democratic and secure form of development. The world-wide coalition, which began in the fight against global terrorism, extends its mandate to include multilateral action on the environment, arms reduction, international justice and poverty reduction. The goals of international security and sustainable development become interlaced. The media responds and amplifies the mounting environmental and social concerns. NGOs acting through international networks expand their influence. The Internet fuels the global clamor for action. A growing segment of the multinational business community, alarmed at the uncertainties and threats to global stability, become advocates of global policies that reduce risks and provide a level playing field for business.

New political leaders committed to concerted action eventually heed these rising voices. A global consensus emerges on the urgent need for policies to secure environmental resilience and to sharply reduce poverty. The Policy Reform response seeks to balance the agendas of those who want no change—Market Forces advocates—and those seeking a more fundamental shift in development values—Great Transition advocates. The market remains the basic engine for economic growth, supported by trade liberalization, privatization and the global convergence toward the model of development of the rich countries. But globally negotiated targets for environment sustainability and poverty reduction are the basis for constraining and tempering the market. The United Nations is reorganized and its mission refocused on the Policy Reform agenda.

The allocation of regional and national responsibilities takes account of the need for rich countries to radically reduce their environmental footprint while assisting poor countries to reduce poverty, to build human capacity and to leapfrog to resource-sparing and environmentally sound technology. The mix of policy instruments for achieving goals—economic reform, regulation, voluntary action, social programs and technology development—varies among regions and nations. Progress toward the global targets is monitored carefully and adjusted periodically. Gradually, global environmental degradation moderates and extreme poverty declines.

A Distant Vision

Here is a civilization of unprecedented freedom, tolerance and decency. The pursuit of meaningful and fulfilling lives is a universal right, the bonds of human solidarity have never been stronger and an ecological sensibility infuses human values. Of course, this is not paradise. Real people live here. Conflict, discontent, mean-spiritedness and tragedy have not been abolished. But during the course of the twenty-first century the historic possibility was seized to redirected development toward a far more sustainable and liberatory world.

The fabric of global society is woven with diverse communities. Some are abuzz with cultural experimentation, political intensity and technical innovation. Others are slow-paced bastions of traditional culture, direct democracy and small-is-beautiful technology. A few combine reflection, craft skill and high esthetics into a kind of “sophisticated simplicity,” reminiscent of the Zen art of antiquity. Most are admixtures of countless subcultures. The plurality of ways is deeply cherished for the choice it offers individuals and the richness it offers social life.

The old polarizing dualities—cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, globalism versus nationalism and top-down versus bottom-up—have been transcended. Instead, people enjoy multiple levels of affiliation and loyalty—family, community, region and planetary society. Global communication networks connect the four corners of the world, and translation devices ease language barriers. A global culture of peace and mutual respect anchors social harmony.

The World Union (née the United Nations) unifies regions in a global federation for co-operation, security and sustainability. Governance is conducted through a decentralized web of government, civil society and business nodes, often acting in partnership. Social and environmental goals at each scale define the “boundary conditions” for those nested within it. Subject to these constraints, the freedom to fashion local solutions is considerable—but conditional. Human rights and the rights of other governance units must be respected. While sophisticated conflict resolution processes limit conflict, the World Union’s peace force is called on occasion to quell aggression and human rights abuse.

Preferred lifestyles combine material sufficiency and qualitative fulfillment. Conspicuous consumption and glitter are viewed as a vulgar throwback to an earlier era. The pursuit of the well-lived life turns to the quality of existence—creativity, ideas, culture, human relationships and a harmonious relationship with nature. Family life evolves into new extended relationships as population ages and the number of children decreases. People are enriched by voluntary activities that are socially useful and personally rewarding. The distribution of income is maintained within rather narrow bounds. Typically, the income of the wealthiest 20 percent is about two or three times the income of the poorest 20 percent. A minimum guaranteed income provides a comfortable but very basic standard of living. Community spirit is reinforced by heavy reliance on locally produced products, indigenous natural resources and environmental pride.

The economy is understood as the means to these ends, rather than an end in itself. Competitive markets promote production and allocation efficiency. But they are highly fettered markets tamed to conform to non-market goals. The polluter pay principle is applied universally, expressed through eco-taxes, tradable permits, standards and subsidies. Sustainable business practices are the norm, monitored and enforced by a vigilant public. Investment decisions weigh carefully the costs of indirect and long-term ecological impacts. Technology innovation is stimulated by price signals, public preferences, incentives and the creative impulse. The industrial ecology of the new economy is virtually a closed loop of recycled and re-used material, rather than the old throwaway society.

Some “zero growth” communities opt to maximize time for non-market activities. Others have growing economies, but with throughputs limited by sustainability criteria. In the formal economy, robotic production systems liberate people from repetitive, non-creative work. Most everywhere a labor-intensive craft economy rises alongside the high technology base. For the producer, it offers an outlet for creative expression; for the consumer, a breathtaking array of esthetic and useful goods; for all, a rich and diverse world.

Long commutes are a thing of the past. Integrated settlements place home, work, shops and leisure activity in convenient proximity. The town-within-the-city balances human scale community with cosmopolitan cultural intensity. Rural life offers a more serene and bucolic alternative, with digital links maintaining an immediate sense of connectedness to wider communities. Private automobiles are compact and pollution free. They are used in niche situations where walking, biking and public transport options are not available. Larger vehicles are leased for special occasions and touring. Advanced mass transportation systems link communities to local hubs, and those hubs to one another and to large cities.

The transition to a solar economy is complete. Solar cells, wind, modern biomass and flowing water generate power and heat buildings. Solar energy is converted to hydrogen, and used, along with direct electricity, for transportation. Advanced bio-technology is used cautiously for raw materials, agriculture and medicine. Clean production practices have eliminated toxic pollution. Ecological farming makes use of high inputs of knowledge, and low inputs of chemicals to keep yields high and sustainable. Population stabilization, low-meat diets and compact settlements reduce the human footprint, sparing land for nature. Global warming is abating as greenhouse gas emissions return to pre-industrial levels. Ecosystems are restored and endangered species are returning, although scars remain as reminders of past heedlessness.

This is not the end of history. In some sense, it is the beginning. For at last, people live with a deep awareness of their connection to one another, future generations and the web of life.

The Yin-Yang Movement

The youth of the world played a critical role throughout the long transition. Young people have always been the first to take to new ways and to dream new dreams. And so it was with communications technology and the exploration of the possibilities for a new global culture. The main manifestation in the first blush of market euphoria was, of course, the promotion of a consumerist youth culture. But other consequences of the digital information revolution were equally important. The pedagogic impacts of accelerated learning and information access had a great democratizing effect that empowered younger generations to participate fully in the economy and all aspects of society. By 2020, the vast majority of the world’s secondary and university students used the Internet as a matter of course, and websites and wireless portals in more than 200 languages catered to them.

The huge surge in Internet-ready young people graduating from schools in the developing world had some unexpected effects. To ease its chronic shortage of skilled workers and take advantage of lower salaries, the burgeoning digital industry increasingly moved its programming, web design, e-learning courseware and other software tasks to India, China and other centers of talent. Leadership of the industry began to follow. And this new leadership played a major role in providing digital services designed for poor communities.

Even more unexpected were the cultural and political changes that universal access set in motion. Internet-powered awareness of a wider world and access to unlimited information accounted for part of the change. Equally important were the proliferation of ways to communicate across cultures and even—with automatic translation—across language barriers through e-mail, mobile phones and messaging networks, and through swapping music, videos, underground political tracts and calls for protest demonstrations in huge informal networks.

The gradual coalescence of a discernable global youth culture is difficult to date. But certainly by 2010, two broad streams had emerged to challenge the prevailing market paradigm. The YIN (Youth International Network) was a cultural movement that advanced alternative lifestyles, liberatory values and non-materialistic paths to fulfillment. The YANG (Youth Action for a New Globalization) was a loose political coalition of activist NGOs that eventually were forged into a more cohesive network through a long series of global protests and actions.

Before 2015, there was some tension between the two strands. To many YANGs, the YINs seemed hedonistic, apolitical and complacent, the heirs to the legacy of 1960s hippies and Timothy Leary. For their part, the YINs saw the YANGs as humorless politicos, who were playing the power game. But the rhetoric of the spokespeople for the two tendencies was more polarized than the participants. In fact, the YIN global celebrations and festivals increasingly had a political tonality. At the same time, the huge YANG demonstrations and protests were as much cultural as political events.

During the Crisis of 2015, these distinctions evaporated entirely. The aspirations that each expressed—the search for more fulfilling lifestyles and the quest for a sustainable and just world—became understood as two aspects of a unitary project for a better future. The Yin-Yang Movement was born.

Many activists saw their movement as a global echo of the youth revolution of the 1960s, an explosion of youth culture, idealism and protest. But in truth, it was far more. The Movement was vastly larger and more diverse than its predecessor, and far more globally connected, organizationally adaptive and politically sophisticated. Without it, what would have emerged from the post-2015 world? Perhaps a descent into chaos; perhaps the authoritarian forces for world order, which were waiting anxiously in the wings, would have triumphed.

While counterfactuals are always speculative, it is certainly clear that in the absence of the Yin-Yangs history would have taken a different turn. The Movement was critical at two key moments in the transition. First it provided a base for the new political leadership that was able to fashion the Global Reform response to the Crisis. Later, throughout the 2020s, it carried forward the spirit of 2015, expressing the new values and activism of civil society, culminating in the landmark changes of 2025, and the consolidation of the Great Transition.

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Initiative, G., Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopín, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., & Swart, R. (2007). Great Transition: Narratives. Retrieved from


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