Great Transition: Where Are We Headed

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

In the past, new historical eras emerged organically and gradually out of the crises and opportunities presented by the dying epoch. In the planetary transition, reacting to historical circumstance is insufficient. With the knowledge that our actions can endanger the well-being of future generations, humanity faces an unprecedented challenge—to anticipate the unfolding crises, envision alternative futures and make appropriate choices. The question of the future, once a matter for dreamers and philosophers, has moved to the center of the development and scientific agendas.

Many Futures

How do scientific forecasters predict the future of a national economy, local weather or other systems? The key steps are description, analysis and modeling—data are gathered on current conditions, factors are identified that drive change, and future behavior is represented as a set of mathematical variables that evolves smoothly over time. This is a powerful approach when the system under study is well understood and the time horizon is limited. But predictive modeling is inadequate for illuminating the long-range future of our stunningly complex planetary system.

Global futures cannot be predicted due to three types of indeterminacy—ignorance, surprise and volition. First, incomplete information on the current state of the system and the forces governing its dynamics leads to a statistical dispersion over possible future states. Second, even if precise information were available, complex systems are known to exhibit turbulent behavior, extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and branching behaviors at critical thresholds—the possibilities for novelty and emergent phenomena render prediction impossible. Finally, the future is unknowable because it is subject to human choices that have not yet been made.

In the face of such indeterminacy, how can we think about the global future in an organized manner? Scenario analysis offers a means of exploring a variety of long-range alternatives. In the theater, a scenario is a summary of a play. Analogously, development scenarios are stories with a logical plot and narrative about how the future might play out. Scenarios include images of the future—snapshots of the major features of interest at various points in time—and an account of the flow of events leading to such future conditions. Global scenarios draw on both science—our understanding of historical patterns, current conditions and physical and social processes—and the imagination to articulate alternative pathways of development and the environment. While we cannot know what will be, we can tell plausible and interesting stories about what could be.

Rather than prediction, the goal of scenarios is to support informed and rational action by providing insight into the scope of the possible. They illuminate the links between issues, the relationship between global and regional development and the role of human actions in shaping the future. Scenarios can provide a broader perspective than model-based analyses, while at the same time making use of various quantitative tools. The qualitative scenario narrative gives voice to important non-quantifiable aspects such as values, behaviors and institutions. Where modeling offers structure, discipline and rigor, narrative offers texture, richness and insight. The art is in the balance.

Global Scenarios

What global futures could emerge from the turbulent changes shaping our world? To organize thinking, we must reduce the immense range of possibilities to a few stylized story lines that represent the main branches. To that end, we consider three classes of scenarios—Conventional Worlds, Barbarization and Great Transitions. These scenarios are distinguished by, respectively, essential continuity, fundamental but undesirable social change, and fundamental and favorable social transformation.

Conventional Worlds assume the global system in the twenty-first century evolves without major surprise, sharp discontinuity, or fundamental transformation in the basis of human civilization. The dominant forces and values currently driving globalization shape the future. Incremental market and policy adjustments are able to cope with social, economic and environmental problems as they arise. Barbarization foresees the possibilities that these problems are not managed. Instead, they cascade into self-amplifying crises that overwhelm the coping capacity of conventional institutions. Civilization descends into anarchy or tyranny. Great Transitions, the focus of this essay, envision profound historical transformations in the fundamental values and organizing principles of society. New values and development paradigms ascend that emphasize the quality of life and material sufficiency, human solidarity and global equity, and affinity with nature and environmental sustainability.

For each of these three scenario classes, we define two variants, for a total of six scenarios. In order to sharpen an important distinction in the contemporary debate, we divide the evolutionary Conventional Worlds into Market Forces and Policy Reform. In Market Forces, competitive, open and integrated global markets drive world development. Social and environmental concerns are secondary. By contrast, Policy Reform assumes that comprehensive and coordinated government action is initiated for poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. The pessimistic Barbarization perspective also is partitioned into two important variants, Breakdown and Fortress World. In Breakdown, conflict and crises spiral out of control and institutions collapse. Fortress World features an authoritarian response to the threat of breakdown, as the world divides into a kind of global apartheid with the elite in interconnected, protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside.

The two Great Transitions variants are referred to as Eco-communalism and New Sustainability Paradigm. Eco-communalism is a vision of bio-regionalism, localism, face-to-face democracy and economic autarky. While popular among some environmental and anarchistic subcultures, it is difficult to visualize a plausible path from the globalizing trends of today to Eco-communalism, that does not pass through some form of Barbarization. In this essay, Great Transition is identified with the New Sustainability Paradigm, which would change the character of global civilization rather than retreat into localism. It validates global solidarity, cultural cross-fertilization and economic connectedness while seeking a liberatory, humanistic and ecological transition. The six scenario variants are illustrated in Figure 4, which shows rough sketches of the time behavior of each for selected variables.

caption Figure 4. Scenario Structure with Illustrative Patterns. (Source: Gallopín et al. (1997)[1])

The scenarios are distinguished by distinct responses to the social and environmental challenges. Market Forces relies on the self-correcting logic of competitive markets. Policy Reform depends on government action to seek a sustainable future. In Fortress World it falls to the armed forces to impose order, protect the environment and prevent a collapse into Breakdown. Great Transitions envision a sustainable and desirable future emerging from new values, a revised model of development and the active engagement of civil society.

Table 2. Archetypal Worldviews
Worldview Antecedents Philosophy Motto
Conventional Worlds
-- Market

-- Policy Reform
Smith Market optimism; hidden & enlightened hand Don’t worry, be happy
Keynes; Brundtland Policy stewardship Growth, environment, equity through better technology & management
-- Breakdown

-- Fortress World
Malthus Existential gloom; population/resource catastrophe The end is coming
Hobbes Social chaos; nasty nature of man Order through strong leaders
Great Transitions
-- Eco-communalism

-- New Sustainability Paradigm
Morris & social utopians; Ghandhi Pastoral romance; human goodness; evil of industrialism Small is beautiful
Mill Sustainability as progressive global social evolution Human solidarity, new values, the art of living
Muddling Through Your brother-in-law (probably) No grand philosophies Que será, será

The premises, values and myths that define these social visions are rooted in the history of ideas (Table 2). The Market Forces bias is one of market optimism, the faith that the hidden hand of well-functioning markets is the key to resolving social, economic and environmental problems. An important philosophic antecedent is Adam Smith[2], while contemporary representatives include many neo-classical economists and free market enthusiasts. In Policy Reform, the belief is that markets require strong policy guidance to address inherent tendencies toward economic crisis, social conflict and environmental degradation. John Maynard Keynes, influenced by the Great Depression, is an important predecessor of those who hold that it is necessary to manage capitalism in order to temper its crises[3]. With the agenda expanded to include environmental sustainability and poverty reduction, this is the perspective that underlay the seminal Brundtland Commission report[4] and much of the official discourse since on environment and development.

The dark belief underlying the Breakdown variant is that the world faces an unprecedented calamity in which unbridled population and economic growth leads to ecological collapse, rampaging conflict and institutional disintegration. Thomas Malthus[5], who projected that geometrically increasing population growth would outstrip arithmetically increasing food production, is an influential forerunner of this grim prognosis. Variations on this worldview surface repeatedly in contemporary assessments of the global predicament [6]. The Fortress World mindset was foreshadowed by the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes[7], who held a pessimistic view of the nature of man and saw the need for powerful leadership. While it is rare to find modern Hobbesians, many people in their resignation and anguish believe that some kind of a Fortress World is the logical outcome of the unattended social polarization and environmental degradation they observe.

The forebears of the Eco-communalism belief system lie with the pastoral reaction to industrialization of William Morris and the nineteenth-century social utopians[8]; the small-is beautiful philosophy of Schumacher[9]; and the traditionalism of Gandhi[10]. This anarchistic vision animates many environmentalists and social visionaries today[11]. The worldview of New Sustainability Paradigm has few historical precedents, although John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century political economist, was prescient in theorizing a post-industrial and post-scarcity social arrangement based on human development rather than material acquisition[12]. Indeed, the explication of the new paradigm is the aim of the present treatise.

Another worldview—or more appropriately anti-worldview—is not captured by this typology. Many people, if not most, abjure speculation, subscribing instead to a Muddling Through bias, the last row of Table 2[13]. This is a diverse coterie, including the unaware, the unconcerned and the unconvinced. They are the passive majority on the grand question of the global future.

Driving Forces

While the global trajectory may branch in very different directions, the point of departure for all scenarios is a set of driving forces and trends that currently condition and change the system:


Populations are growing larger, more crowded and older. In typical projections, global population increases by about 50 percent by 2050, with most of the additional three billion people in developing countries. If urbanization trends continue, there will be nearly four billion new city dwellers, posing great challenges for infrastructure development, the environment and social cohesion. Lower fertility rates will lead gradually to an increase in average age and an increase in the pressure on productive populations to support the elderly. A Great Transition would accelerate population stabilization, moderate urbanization rates and seek more sustainable settlement patterns.


Product, financial and labor markets are becoming increasingly integrated and interconnected in a global economy. Advances in information technology and international agreements to liberalize trade have catalyzed the process of globalization. Huge transnational enterprises more and more dominate a planetary marketplace, posing challenges to the traditional prerogatives of the nation-state. Governments face greater difficulty forecasting or controlling financial and economic disruptions as they ripple through an interdependent world economy. This is seen directly in the knock-on effects of regional financial crises, but also indirectly in the impacts of terrorist attacks and health scares, such as mad cow disease in Europe. In a Great Transition, social and environmental concerns would be reflected in market-constraining policies, a vigilant civil society would foster more responsible corporate behavior and new values would change consumption and production patterns.

Social Issues

Increasing inequality and persistent poverty characterize the contemporary global scene. As the world grows more affluent for some, life becomes more desperate for those left behind by global economic growth. Economic inequality among nations and within many nations is growing. At the same time, the transition to market-driven development erodes traditional support systems and norms, leading to considerable social dislocation and scope for criminal activity. In some regions, infectious disease and drug-related criminal activity are important social factors affecting development. A central theme of a Great Transition is to make good on the commitments in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights to justice and a decent standard of living for all, in the context of a plural and equitable global development model.


Globalization, information technology and electronic media foster consumer culture in many societies. This process is both a result and a driver of economic globalization. Ironically, the advance toward a unified global marketplace also triggers nationalist and religious reaction. In their own ways, both globalization, which leaves important decisions affecting the environment and social issues to transnational market actors, and religious fundamentalist reaction to globalization pose challenges to democratic institutions[14]. The 9/11 attacks on the United States left no doubt that global terrorism has emerged as a significant driving force in world development. It appears to have contradictory causes—too much modernism and too little. Its hardcore militants seem energized by utopian dreams of a pan-Islamic rejection of Western-oriented global culture. Its mass sympathy seems rooted in the anger and despair of exclusion from opportunity and prosperity. In the clamor for consumerism or its negation, it is sometimes difficult to hear the voices for global solidarity, tolerance and diversity. Yet, they are the harbinger of the ethos that lies at the heart of a Great Transition.


Technology continues to transform the structure of production, the nature of work and the use of leisure time. The continued advance of computer and information technology is at the forefront of the current wave of technological innovation. Also, biotechnology could significantly affect agricultural practices, pharmaceuticals and disease prevention, while raising a host of ethical and environmental issues. Advances in miniaturized technologies could revolutionize medical practices, material science, computer performance and many other applications. A Great Transition would shape technological development to promote human fulfillment and environmental sustainability.


Global environmental degradation is another significant transnational driving force. International concern has grown about human impacts on the atmosphere, land and water resources, the bioaccumulation of toxic substances, species loss and the degradation of ecosystems. The realization that individual countries cannot insulate themselves from global environmental impacts is changing the basis of geo-politics and global governance. A core element of a new sustainability paradigm would be the understanding of humanity as part of the web of life with responsibility for the sustainability of nature.


There is a significant trend toward democratization and decentralization of authority. On an individual level, there is increased emphasis on “rights,” such as women’s rights, indigenous rights and human rights broadly conceived. In the private sector, it is reflected in “flatter” corporate structures and decentralized decision-making. Some entities, such as the Internet or NGO networks, have no formal authority structure. The emergence of civil society as an important voice in decision-making is a notable development. A Great Transition would see the emergence of a nested governance structure from the local to the global that balances the need to sustain global social and environmental values with the desire for diversity in cultures and strategies.

Market-driven Development and its Perils

In the Market Forces scenario, dominant forces and trends continue to shape the character of global development in the coming decades. The tendencies supporting a sustainability transition remain secondary forces. This is the tacit assumption of “business-as-usual” scenarios. But it should be underscored that, like all scenarios, Market Forces is a normative vision of the future. Its success requires policy activism, and it will not be easy. Comprehensive initiatives will be required to overcome market barriers, create enabling institutional frameworks and integrate the developing world into the global economic system. This is the program of the IMF, WTO and the so-called “Washington consensus”—we call it the conventional development paradigm.

An earlier study analyzed the Market Forces scenario in depth for each global region[15]. A thumbnail sketch of selected global indicators is shown in Figure 5. The use of energy, water and other natural resources grows far less rapidly than GDP. This “dematerialization” is due both to structural shifts in the economy—from industry to the less resource-intensive service sector—and to market-induced technological change. But despite such reductions, the pressures on resources and the environment increase as the growth in human activity overwhelms the improved efficiency per unit of activity. The “growth effect” outpaces the “efficiency effect.”

Among the projections in the Market Forces scenario:

caption Figure 5. Global Indicators in Market Forces Scenario. (Source: Great Transitions)
  • Between 1995 and 2050, world population increases by more than 50 percent, average income grows over 2.5 times and economic output more than quadruples.
  • Food requirements almost double, driven by growth in population and income.
  • Nearly a billion people remain hungry as growing populations and continuing inequity in the sharing of wealth counterbalance the poverty-reducing effects of general economic growth.
  • Developing region economies grow more rapidly than the average, but the absolute difference in incomes between industrialized and other countries increases from an average of about $20,000 per capita now to $55,000 in 2050, as incomes soar in rich countries.
  • Requirements for energy and water increase substantially.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow rapidly, further undermining global climate stability, and risking serious ecological, economic and human health impacts.
  • Forests are lost to the expansion of agriculture and human settlement areas and other land-use changes.

A Market Forces future would be a risky bequest to our twenty-first century descendants. Such a scenario is not likely to be either sustainable or desirable. Significant environmental and social obstacles lie along this path of development. The combined effects of growth in the number of people, the scale of the economy and the throughput of natural resources increase the pressure that human activity imposes on the environment. Rather than abating, the unsustainable process of environmental degradation that we observe in today’s world would intensify. The danger of crossing critical thresholds in global systems would increase, triggering events that could radically transform the planet’s climate and ecosystems.

The increasing pressure on natural resources is likely to cause disruption and conflict. Oil would become progressively scarcer in the next few decades, prices would rise and the geopolitics of oil would return as a major theme in international affairs. In many places, rising water demands would generate discord over the allocation of scarce fresh water both within and between countries—and between human uses and ecosystem needs. To feed a richer and larger population, forests and wetlands would continue to be converted to agriculture, and chemical pollution from unsustainable agro-industrial farming practices would pollute rivers and aquifers. Substantial expansion of built-up areas would contribute significantly to land cover changes. The expansion of irrigated farming would be constrained sharply by water shortage and lack of suitable sites. Precious ecosystems—coastal reefs, wetlands, forests and numerous others—would continue to degrade as a result of land change, water degradation and pollution. Increasing climate change is a wild card that could further complicate the provision of adequate water and food, and the preservation of ecosystem goods, services and amenities.

The social and economic stability of a Market Forces world would be compromised. A combination of factors—persistence of global poverty, continued inequity among and within nations and degradation of environmental resources—would undermine social cohesion, stimulate migration and weaken international security. Market Forces is a precarious basis for a transition to an environmentally sustainable future. It may also be an inconsistent one. The economic costs and social dislocation of increasing environmental impacts could undermine a fundamental premise of the scenario—perpetual global economic growth.

Fraught with such tensions and contradictions, the long-term stability of a Market Forces world is certainly not guaranteed. It could persist for many decades, reeling from one environmental, social and security crisis to the next. Perhaps its very instability would spawn powerful and progressive initiatives for a more sustainable and just development vision. But it is also possible that its crises would reinforce, amplify and spiral out of control.

Barbarization and the Abyss

Barbarization scenarios explore the alarming possibility that a Market Forces future veers toward a world of conflict in which the moral underpinnings of civilization erode. Such grim scenarios are plausible. For those who are pessimistic about the current drift of world development, they are probable. We explore them to be forewarned, to identify early warning signs and to motivate efforts that counteract the conditions that could initiate them.

The initial driving forces propelling this scenario are the same as for all scenarios. But the momentum for sustainability and a revised development agenda, which seemed so compelling at the close of the twentieth century, collapses. The warning bells—environmental degradation, climate change, social polarization and terrorism—are rung, but not heeded. The conventional paradigm gains ascendancy as the world enters the era of Market Forces. But instead of rectifying today’s environmental and socio-economic tensions, a multi-dimensional crisis ensues.

As the crisis unfolds, a key uncertainty is the reaction of the remaining powerful institutions—country alliances, transnational corporations, international organizations, armed forces. In the Breakdown variant, their response is fragmented as conflict and rivalry amongst them overwhelm all efforts to impose order. In Fortress World, powerful regional and international actors comprehend the perilous forces leading to Breakdown. They are able to muster a sufficiently organized response to protect their own interests and to create lasting alliances. The forces of order view this as a necessary intervention to prevent the corrosive erosion of wealth, resources and governance systems. The elite retreat to protected enclaves, mostly in historically rich nations, but in favored enclaves in poor nations, as well. A Fortress World story is summarized in this narrative.

The stability of the Fortress World depends on the organizational capacity of the privileged enclaves to maintain control over the disenfranchised. The scenario may contain the seeds of its own destruction, although it could last for decades. A general uprising of the excluded population could overturn the system, especially if rivalry opens fissures in the common front of the dominant strata. The collapse of the Fortress World might lead to a Breakdown trajectory or to the emergence of a new, more equitable world order.

On Utopianism and Pragmatism

The Market Forces worldview embraces both an ambitious vision and a cosmic gamble. The vision is to forge a globally integrated free market by eliminating trade barriers, building market-enabling institutions and spreading the Western model of development. The colossal gamble is that the global market will not succumb to its internal contradictions—planetary environmental degradation, economic instability, social polarization and cultural conflict.

As environments degrade, it is true that some automatic correction acts through the subtle guidance of the “hidden hand” of the market. Environmental scarcity will be reflected in higher prices that reduce demand, and in business opportunities that promote technological innovation and resource substitution. This is why environmental economics draws attention to the critical importance of “internalizing the externalities”—ensuring that the costs of the degradation of environmental resources are monetarized and borne by the producers and consumers who impose such costs. Will such self-correcting mechanisms provide adjustments of sufficient rapidity and scale? To believe so is a matter of faith and optimism with little foundation in scientific analysis or historical experience. There is simply no insurance that the Market Forces path would not compromise the future by courting major ecosystem changes and unwelcome surprises.

Another article of faith is that the Market Forces development strategy would deliver the social basis for sustainability. The hope is that general economic growth would reduce the ranks of the poor, improve international equity and reduce conflict. But again, the theoretical and empirical foundations for such a salutary expectation are weak. Rather, the national experience in industrial countries over the last two centuries suggests that directed social welfare programs are required to ameliorate the dislocation and impoverishment induced by market-driven development. In this scenario, global poverty would likely persist as population growth and skewed income distributions combine to negate the poverty-reducing effect of growth in average income.

Even if a Market Forces future were able to deliver a stable global economic system—itself a highly uncertain hypothesis—the scenario offers no compelling basis for concluding that it would meet the ethical imperatives to pass on a sustainable world to future generations and to sharply reduce human deprivation. Economic and social polarization could compromise social cohesion and make liberal democratic institutions more fragile. Resource and environmental degradation would magnify domestic and international tensions. The unfettered market is important for economic efficiency, but only a fettered market can deliver on sustainability. Environment, equity and development goals are supra-market issues that are best addressed through democratic political processes based on widely shared ethical values and informed by scientific knowledge.

The dream of a Market Forces world is the impulse behind the dominant development paradigm of recent years. As the tacit ideology of influential international institutions, politicians and thinkers, it often appears both reasonable and the only game in town. But drifting into the complexity of a global future by relying on such old mind-sets is the sanctuary for the complacent and the sanguine. Ensuring a transition to a sustainable global future requires an alternative constellation of policies, behaviors and values. “Business-as-usual” is a utopian fantasy—forging a new social vision is a pragmatic necessity.


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    – Kaplan, R. 2000. The Coming Anarchy. NY: Random House.
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    – Bossel, H. 1998. Earth at a Crossroads. Paths to a Sustainable Future. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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  14. ^ Barber, B. 1995. Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Random House.
  15. ^ Raskin, P., G. Gallopín, P. Gutman, A. Hammond and R. Swart 1998. Bending the Curve: Toward Global Sustainability. Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm Environment Institute. PoleStar Series Report No. 8.

This is a chapter from Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (e-book).
Previous: Where Are We?  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Where Do We Want To Go?



Initiative, G., Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopín, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., & Swart, R. (2008). Great Transition: Where Are We Headed. Retrieved from


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