Shaping a Great Transition Initiative–A MAHB Dialogue with Dr. Paul Raskin, Founder of the Tellus Institute

Geoffrey Holland | July 20, 2023 | Leave a Comment

Though perhaps improbable, a shift toward a planetary civilization of enriched lives, human solidarity, and environmental sustainability is still possible. — Paul Raskin


Geoffrey Holland–Paul, you say that “History has entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization”. What was the origin of this concept? What does it mean? 

Paul Raskin–The seeds lie with discussions in the 1980s among a few of us involved in the preparation of Our Common Future, the Brundtland Commission’s influential report that moved “sustainable development” to the center of the international policy agenda. We, dissidents, argued that the Commission framed the sustainability challenge too narrowly, essentially treating it as a technical problem requiring market adjustments and policies to promote green technology and alleviate poverty.

The Commission’s “tech fix” strategy became and remains, the mainstream approach. Yet it treats the symptoms, not the underlying disease. Left unexamined are such structural drivers of unsustainability as the growth imperative of capitalist economies, consumerist culture, the state-centric geopolitical order, and a model of “development” in which poor societies converge toward rich country patterns. A strategy that operates on proximate rather than ultimate causes might slow social-ecological descent but cannot quench it. Relying on incremental policy tweaks to counter these powerful forces is like trying to walk up a down escalator.

As the 1990s progressed, the world-historic scope of the new reality came into sharper focus. The sustainability problem was one expression of a profound macro-phenomenon: a historical phase shift, already underway, from the modern era to some yet-to-be-determined form of future civilization. The relentless crises we were witnessing—social, economic, environmental, cultural, technological, and demographic—could be understood as distinct manifestations of a holistic disruption in the structure and dynamics of social-ecological evolution.

In the past, the world could be reasonably represented as a set of quasi-independent entities—states, ecosystems, cultures—subject to external interactions. Now, far-flung threads of connectivity were pulling politics, ecologies, cultures, and species into an interdependent global vortex. As these threads multiplied, stretched, and thickened, this multitude became incorporated into a single community of fate of shared risks and a shared destiny. We had entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization. The global system is irreducible to its parts both ontologically and epistemologically.

Still, the legacy institutions of modernity, although ill-suited for governing one world, cling on tenaciously. In the gap between the “is” and the “ought,” global crises fester, notably, climate change, financial instability, conflict, pandemic, nuclear threat, migration, and the list goes on. From a Planetary Phase perspective, these are synergistic expressions of an overarching macro-crisis of the world system.

GH–How did this insight on the macro-crisis influence your work?

PR–My research team at the Tellus Institute (and Stockholm Environment Institute with which Tellus had a close partnership for nearly 20 years) had been working on resource and environmental projects all over the world. Our specialty was simulating alternative policy scenarios, working with decision-makers to envision sustainable and equitable futures, and identifying near-term actions for meeting long-term goals.

In 1990, I opened a new research front to explore the implications of the Planetary Phase framework. Building on the scenario techniques we had developed for sectoral, sub-global applications, we launched the PoleStar project to study the global social-ecological system as an integrated whole. In a series of reports, we reflected on the character of the historic moment, the state of the planet, the risks that lie in crossing various thresholds of instability, and alternative global futures. In particular, we explored favorable pathways that might become available if a “new sustainability paradigm” were to take hold.

With this global futures ground-work as the point of departure, in 1995, ecologist Gilberto Gallopín and I organized the Global Scenario Group, an international, interdisciplinary effort to further develop the Planetary Phase framework and alternative futures. The work centered on painting pictures in both words and numbers of contrasting twenty-first-century scenarios. The widely read 2002 valedictory essay of the Global Scenario Group project—Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead—became the jumping-off point for the Great Transition Initiative (GTI), an enlarged effort to advance a “transformative vision and praxis.” Twenty years on, the GTI includes a network of a thousand engaged scholars and thinking activists with a publication series that addresses key theoretical issues and practical strategies for change.

GH–GTI’s global scenarios tell a story about how history might unfold this century. Could you briefly describe these scenarios?

PR–The Global Scenario Group’s schema began with three archetypal visions: Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions. These broad streams consider, respectively, futures of structural continuity, disruptive devolution, and of progressive transformation. We then introduced variations within each category to reflect contrasting ideological streams.

Within Conventional Worlds scenarios, we focus on the neoliberal Market Forces variant and the Policy Reform variant (in general, the framework of the Brundtland Commission and UN efforts). Within Barbarization, we labeled one significant variant Fortress World scenarios, which entail authoritarian responses to Conventional Worlds crises (harbingers of this highly plausible outcome dot today’s political landscape). If crises spiral completely out of the control of both mainstream correctives and authoritarian interventions, Breakdown variants of Barbarization become all too plausible.

The Great Transitions category encompasses a spectrum of worldviews concerning the form a transformed civilization can and should take. In our work, we spotlight the New Paradigm variant, which envisions the widespread emergence of a sense of global citizenship, a shift in values toward solidarity, ecology, and well-being (in contrast to the conventional triad of individualism, domination of nature, and materialism), cooperative economies, and revised governance arrangements matched to Planetary Phase challenges. In this vision, balancing the pull toward global unity and the pull toward local diversity would remain an enduring source of political contestation. In my short book Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization, I paint a picture of what this future might look like late in the twenty-first century.

A second Great Transition variant we called Eco-communalism. This vision reflects the anarchistic stream that runs through environmental and social movements calling for radical decentralization. The sorry history of oppressive and jingoistic states certainly justifies a healthy suspicion of hierarchical authority. At the same time, it is difficult to discern a plausible pathway to Eco-communalism in the interdependent Planetary Phase other than it emerging in recovery from Breakdown. For now, the Great Transition vision is best conceived as nested identities, cultures, and democratic governance arrangements from local communities to a global community.

GH–What do you believe needs to happen to get on the path to a Great Transition?

PR–Collectively, the world has the technical and managerial know-how to forge a Great Transition. But the political will for leading the way to a revitalized civilization rooted in solidarity, ecology, and well-being is nowhere in sight. The fading order lacks the wherewithal to avert calamity (and seize opportunities!). As the erupting polycrisis outpaces Conventional World capacities to respond, the risk rises of crossing a threshold of historical discontinuity.

This leaves a burning question: what social actors might emerge to carry a Great Transition transformation forward? The denizens of Conventional Worlds—transnational corporations, intergovernmental organizations, and international NGOs—cannot be expected to lead the way. Rather, a systemic transformation awaits a movement aligned with the systemic imperatives of the Planetary Phase. This “global citizens movement” is still missing from the global stage but may be hovering in the wings.

The basis for hope is the staggering array of campaigns, movements, and organizations active across the full spectrum of issues, sectors, and geographic scales. They do the important work of resisting environmental depredations and social injustices. But battles won here and there are overwhelmed by larger processes of degradation. These efforts are too defensive and too fragmented to pose a coherent challenge and alternative to the dominant system. Hundreds of thousands of isolated change agents do not make a systemic movement.

The critical uncertainty is whether a more ambitious, overarching movement for a flourishing collective future can coalesce with sufficient speed and scale. I imagine this movement as a diverse ecology of countless movements, organizations, and associations operating within a broad umbrella of solidarity and common purpose. It would assert power culturally, by shaping ideas and behavior; tactically, through actions that confront the status quo; and strategically, by building institutions for sustained political influence.

The coalescence of a global citizens movement would be the critical social innovation on the path to a Great Transition. The signature feature of the Planetary Phase—a globalized community of fate—is the historical antecedent for such a meta-movement. The condition of the twenty-first century urges enlarged consciousness and inclusive unity. Of course, powerful barriers stand in the way, not the least being entrenched power structures, regressive ideologies, and cultural inertia. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the debilitating apocalyptic despair paralyzing many current and potential adherents.

Still, history teaches that at critical moments of social transition consciousness can shift and movements can coalesce rapidly. The game called “Which future?” is still on, but time grows short for doubling down. We urgently need new initiatives for nurturing trust and solidarity among diverse actors in pursuit of “another world.” Then, the latent potential for visionary collective action might come to life.


Paul Raskin’s grasp of ecological boundaries is all but unmatched in today’s avalanche of data. The Tellus Institute which he founded is clearly one of the most focused consortia of serious researchers throughout the world grappling intelligently with the most crucial philosophical and systems science conundrums facing all of us. How has humanity breached most biomes? What is it going to take to re-invent a pragmatic humility in the face of our species’ myriad trespasses? Can a coordinated approach to biological remediation invoke sufficient compassion to encompass a global simultaneity of focal points? Raskin believes it can, and his half-century of intense work in these crucial areas is proof that a great transition is indeed possible. —Michael Charles Tobias, President, Dancing Star Foundation


Paul Raskin is the founding president of the Tellus Institute. The overarching theme of Dr. Raskin’s work has been the development of visions and strategies for a transformation to more resilient and equitable forms of social development. Toward this larger aim, his research has spanned issues (energy, water, climate change, ecosystems, and sustainable development) and spatial scales (local, national, and global). He has conceived and built widely-used models for integrated scenario planning for energy (LEAP), freshwater (WEAP), and sustainability (PoleStar). Dr. Raskin has published widely, and served as a lead author for the U.S. National Academy of Science’s Board on Sustainability, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Earth Charter, and UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook. In 1995, he convened the Global Scenario Group to explore the requirements for a transition to a sustainable and just global civilization. The Group’s 2002 valedictory essay – Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead – became the point of departure for the Great Transition Initiative that Dr. Raskin launched in 2003 and continues to direct. Earlier in his career, Dr. Raskin received a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Columbia University in 1970.

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