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Monday, 11 March 2013

Basis for Hope


The Basis for Hope in a Time of Despair
Great Transition Initiative

In a world at risk, those attuned to the dangers can feel a powerful temptation to sound apocalyptic alarms to awaken the somnolent. Arousing fear, though, without offering a compelling vision of a better path, awakens only dispiriting anguish and despair. This pessimism is not so much wrong as disempowering. The basis for hope rests on two kinds of arguments, one scientific, the other historical. Quantitative simulation of alternative scenarios shows that sufficient environmental capacity and adequate technical means remain to reach a flourishing planetary civilization. Moreover, the precondition for this Great Transition is found in the shared risks and opportunities an interdependent global system now confronts. In our historical moment, the world has become a single community of fate, the foundation for cultural and institutional transformation. Although catastrophic premonitions cannot be logically refuted, they can be defied in spirit and negated in practice: pragmatic hope is the antidote to dystopian despair.
The Great Transition Initiative is an international group working for a planetary civilization rooted in solidarity, sustainability, and human well-being. With this long-term goal as our frame of reference, GTI Perspectives assess pressing near-term issues. Cautionary fables warning of the hazards of social hysteria appear in many cultures.
In one oft-told version, Chicken Little is walking through the woods when a mere acorn falls from a tree onto her head. “The sky is falling!” she overreacts, spreading panic among the other animals. This blatant episode of herd mentality ends badly for the overwrought bird and his guileless friends (but splendidly for the hungry fox).
The moral of the story –stay cool, it may not be as bad as you think (and check your sources!)– has enduring relevance, for apocalyptic spirits have always walked among us, perhaps now more than ever.
These days, however, one need not be a Chicken Little to have a visceral sense that forces far more powerful than acorns pummel us. The steady stream of crises weave confronted in recent years is enough to disturb the equanimity of anyone, from the insouciant to the highly-strung. Further, alarm is spread by disquieting reports of future risks to the food, energy, financial, oceanic, climate, and other global systems. In a manner of speaking, the sky itself does seem to be falling, in the form of punishing storms and strange weather that strike with greater frequency and heightened intensity. Perhaps most unsettling is the apparent helplessness of the political order to act in the face of these gathering threats. Judging by the decades of inaction since the international community committed rhetorically to sustainability, the task of fostering a just and enduring mode of world development, the paramount challenge of our time, lies beyond the grasp of our political order.
The fragmented and myopic governance institutions we have inherited from the twentieth century are ill-suited for addressing the systemic and long-term predicament of the twenty-first. In turn, the doleful combination of deepening danger and feeble response feeds a rising Zeitgeist of despair. Fear for the future is globalizing along with the economy, communications, environmental disturbance, and much else. A burgeoning eschatological literature tracks and amplifies the darkening mood: Our Final Hour, The Coming Plague, The End of Food, and Countdown to Apocalypse, to name a few recent titles. The bearish outlook spreads in the freewheeling precincts of the Internet, while cocooned subcultures outside the mainstream spin wild tales of conspiracy and end-times. Although jeremiads penned by the incautious and tendentious proliferate, not only hyper-ventilators and scaremongers sound the alert. Even qualified scientists are warning “game over.”
Are these contemporary doomsayers akin to the overanxious little fowl of yore? Or like Cassandra, do they bear valid, unheeded auguries? Rigorous pessimists, scrutinizing world conditions and trends, can find considerable support for such bleak outlooks. “Not only hyper-ventilators and scaremongers sound the alert. Even qualified scientists are warning ‘game over.’”
Some manner of barbarized future would loom, perhaps in the form of an authoritarian Fortress World, in which the elite imposes order on an impoverished majority. Or, if crises spiral out of control, a Breakdown scenario could see institutional collapse and a descent into lawless anarchy. Focusing on these dire possibilities, pessimists can make a strong case, but this does not settle the matter. Not that their antitheses, the optimists (if any remain), can offer compelling refutation. Finding good tidings in the free market’s hidden hand, or human technological ingenuity, or individual transcendence, is comforting only to true believers. Sanguinity and despair, though superficial opposites, really are different facets of fatalism, one awaiting a fall, the other deliverance. Neither is adequate in a world adrift, longing for the kind of hopeful engagement that can bring a shift of direction. Potential leverage lies with us; as the cause of the crisis that befalls us, we can become the agents of its reversal.
Is despair for the future justified? We have arrived at a contingent verdict: if the world maintains a Conventional Development course, the coming decades indeed hold grave peril. Therefore, we introduce Great Transition scenarios to help delineate and clarify the possibility of more attractive futures. Such scenarios envision a major cultural shift along with a popular mobilization for fundamental change in the coming decades. A new suite of values – solidarity, quality of life, ecology – displaces the conventional triad of individualism, consumerism, and domination of nature. Correspondingly, institutional innovations promote social equity and individual fulfilment, redesigning economies to serve human needs and spare nature, not bloat profit for the few. Global citizenship becomes a strong aspect of human identity, the foundation for strengthening democratic global governance. We can gain quantitative insight into how such a transformation might play out through data-rich simulations under these conditions
Great Transitions have the same point of departure as all scenarios: the constellation of institutions, power structures, behaviours and mind-sets that govern current social-ecological patterns and trends. These conditioning factors are assumed persistent in Conventional Development, but malleable in Great Transition.
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