Back to the Future


Tellus Institute

Reviewing Journey to Earthland by Paul Raskin, Tellus Institute, 2016

Journey to Earthland by Paul Raskin is a short read but no less inspiring in its hopeful tone and stimulation of the imagination. In the words of the author it is, at the same time, “essay, narrative, and manifesto” (page iv).

The author will be no stranger to long-time readers of Solutions, having shared some of the themes and ideas in this book in the perspective piece “Scenes from the Great Transition” in Volume 3, Issue 4 from 2012.

To fully appreciate the content of Journey, it is necessary to know something about the arc of Raskin’s professional life and his ongoing evolution.

Raskin earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Columbia University and was subsequently a professor at the State University of New York, Albany. He left academe in the 1970s in order to play an active role in charting a positive course into the future and cofounded the Tellus Institute, which has conducted thousands of projects on environmental, resource, and social issues.

In 1990, Raskin organized the PoleStar Project to “imagine and model contrasting long-range futures for the global-ecological system” (page ii). Subsequently, Raskin co-organized the Global Scenario Group, which published the essay “Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead” in 2004. Underlying this essay was the conviction that the emerging era is one of “deepening interdependence binding humanity and Earth into a single community of fate” (page ii), the Planetary Phase of Civilization. “Great Transition” urged a “fundamental shift in the paradigm of development. A Great Transition would make solidarity, fulfillment, and resilience the heart and soul of the human endeavor” (page iii). Journey to Earthland revisits and updates the conceptual framework of “Great Transition.

Journey is divided into three parts. The first, “Departure: Into the Maelstrom,” describes a world simultaneously becoming more integrated and chaotic and brings us to a choice between several different futures. The second part, “Pathway: A Safe Passage,” makes the case that one of these futures, New Paradigm, is plausible, in the sense that it is technically and socially feasible. The last part, “Destination: Scenes From a Civilized Future,” is visionary: It describes in some detail what a New Paradigm future might look like and in this way makes such a future concrete and demonstrates its desirability. Below we flesh out with more detail just what Raskin’s arguments are.

Part I is itself divided into three sections: Long Prelude, The Planetary Phase, and Tomorrowlands. The Long Prelude is a succinct history of the planet and the development of human civilization. Though Journey is focused primarily “on the meaning of the present and anatomy of the future, not the past” (page 5) the purpose of this, in the words of the author, is to “better gauge where we are and where we might go” (page 5).

The second section, Planetary Phase, argues that “humanity has become a geological force, its once diminutive footprint grown to the scale of the planet. We are on the cusp of a new era, and its defining feature is that the globe itself is becoming the locus of social evolution and contending forms of consciousness” (page 13). Raskin refers to this development as the Planetary Phase of Civilization. “The Planetary Phase is entangling people and places in one global system with one shared destiny” (page 14). This interdependent system, encompassing geography, economics, environment, culture, and politics is the “Earthland” of the title.

That the emergence of Earthland is a positive or negative development remains to be seen. As Raskin put it, “An astute visitor, come to take the measure of the young nation, would find much to praise: magnificent natural beauty and bounty; a colossal economy transmuting mountains of resources into rivers of product flowing nonstop to her four corners; extraordinary scientific achievements; and rich, diverse cultures” (pages 20–21).  However, there is a “daunting inventory of liabilities” (page 21). In particular, “Earthland confronts twenty-first-century challenges hobbled by twentieth-century ideas and institutions” (page 21). These include territorial chauvinism, unbridled consumerism, and the illusion of endless growth. The inability to bridge the gap “between old ways and new realities threatens the planetary commonweal, even the very continuity of civilization” (page 21). Over the course of several pages, Raskin describes several systemic crises, from scandalous inequality, which confines half the world’s population to abject poverty, to climate change, which threaten the very stability of the planet’s ecosystems. Systemic crises require systemic responses, in particular, the emergence of a “Great Transition from a world of strangers to a commonwealth of citizens” (page 24).

The last section of Part I, Tomorrowlands, introduces three broad alternative possibilities for the future: “worlds of incremental adjustment (Conventional Worlds), worlds of calamitous discontinuity (Barbarization), and worlds of progressive transformation (Great Transitions)” (page 25). In turn, each of these comes in several variations.  

Two variants of Conventional Worlds are “Market Forces” and “Policy Reform.” A “Market Forces” variant would continue along the neoliberal path of extending the reach of free markets and deregulation to all corners of the globe, while “Policy Reform” would “feature comprehensive, coordinated government actions to rewire modern capitalism in order to alleviate poverty and spare the environment” (page 26).

Barbarization scenarios are characterized by systemic crises and instability.  These are perhaps best described by reference to dystopian films such as Blade Runner.  In one form, “Fortress Worlds” the elites would wall themselves off from the impoverished majority and use coercion to maintain order and limit the destruction of the environment. On the other hand, the well-to-do may not be able to marshal the forces necessary to maintain some order resulting in a general “Breakdown” in which institutions collapse and all the globe is engulfed in chaos.

On the positive side, the Planetary Phase creates opportunities for a Great Transition, characterized by a transformation in human consciousness away from individualism, consumerism, and domination of nature and towards human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility. Raskin describes two forms this can take: an Eco-communalism and A New Paradigm. The latter, the form of Great Transition embraced by Raskin, in contrast with the former “imagines a world at once plural and unified. It rejects the false polarity of bottom-up communalism and top–down hierarchy, inviting a search for ways to reconcile and balance them” (page 28).

Importantly, Raskin identifies the agent of this change: “a global citizen’s movement, a vast cultural and political rising, able to redirect policy, tame corporations, and unify civil society” (page 32).

In Part II, Raskin, makes the case against the Conventional World and Barbarization futures. Not much really has to be said about Barbariztion Worlds, and apart from a scenario describing a Fortress World, he leaves it as self-evident that very few people would choose such a future. On the other hand, he does make the case that some Conventional World futures are likely to be a path to Barbarization.

Thus he argues that the long-term path of the Market Forces variant of Conventional Worlds is “riddled with pitfalls and tipping points” (page 36). Further he says, “Capitalism’s tendencies to exploit people, concentrate wealth, and lay waste to nature drive the contemporary crisis, and prescribing more of the same will only further bleed the patient…Rather than a path to market utopia, this unfettered course would more plausibly be a shortcut to Barbarization” (page 36).

Raskin does accept that “A Policy Reform approach to shaping Earthland, if implemented rapidly and thoroughly, would be technically feasible” (page 37). More concretely, the means exist to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and avoid environmental collapse. “In principle, at least, a full-scale Policy Reform mobilization could bend the curve of history toward a just and sustainable future” (page 37). He even includes a sketch of a reform scenario but argues political polarization will be a hurdle too high to overcome, whence institutions will lose their legitimacy and coherence. “Then, absent strong countervailing social movements, conditions would favor a historical swerve toward Barbarization” (page 41).

The balance of Part II is devoted to the technical and social–political feasibility of a Great Transition. This is necessary “For the Great Transition to gain adherents, its central premise—that a cultural and political awakening can bring forth a flourishing planetary civilization—must be seen as at least plausible” (page 46).

Raskin begins by demonstrating the technical feasibility of a Great Transition. Under certain assumptions about the emergence of transformative cultural and political change, he draws on detailed computer simulations to compare a Great Transition (GT) future with a Market Forces (MF) future on a number of selected indicators. These include world population, Gross World Product, work-time (and therefore leisure), poverty, energy use, carbon emissions, land area devoted to food production, land preserved for natural habitats, and access to fresh water. On each of these, the GT future outperforms the MF future significantly. But even more significantly, the Market Forces scenario pushes beyond global planetary environmental boundaries. “The takeaway from the quantitative analysis is highly robust: the big if is not whether the numbers work out under Grand Transition cultural and political assumptions—it is whether those assumptions can be made valid” (page 57).

It is at this point that this essay becomes speculative and an extended exercise in envisioning, as contrasted with scenario building; as Raskin admits, “Addressing this question takes us beyond the comfort zone of technical analysis and into the terrain of cultural change and collective action” (page 57). The goal is to show how the notion of citizenship at the planetary level might be propagated and channeled into a Global Citizens Movement (GCM).

The author briefly discusses different forms of citizenship and when and how they came into being: Civil citizenship arose in the 18th century and conferred economic opportunity, individual freedoms, and property rights. The notion of Political citizenship developed in the 19th century, spreading democracy and the right to vote. Finally, in the 20th century, Social citizenship brought minimum standards of material welfare. These were all the result of social movements organized against the powers of the current time. Raskin now makes a case that the Planetary Phase creates the possibility of global citizenship.

Such a development would build on civil society networks and existing social movements. The author admits “the prospect for a global demos may seem remote, even far-fetched. But to dismiss the possibility out-of-hand would be a failure of historical imagination” (page 63).

An important precondition for the emergence of a GCM is present: the current system is unstable, its institutions losing credibility as they are increasingly unable to deliver security and benefits to its citizens. This, however, is insufficient. In particular, in order for GCM to emerge and flourish, it must overcome the main problem of collective action:  “Many sympathizers will hesitate to participate until they believe that the movement can make a difference, yet success depends on mass engagement” (page 66). Part II ends with a brief narrative of how this might be achieved.

The purpose of Part III, Destination: Scenes from a Civilized Future is, in part, a history of the future from the present time to the year 2084 as well as a depiction of what a Commonwealth of Earthland might look like. The history has five stages: Takeoff of the Planetary Phase (1980–2001), Rolling Crises (2001–2023), General Emergency (2023–2028), the Reform Era (2028–2048), and the Commonwealth of Earthland (2048–2084). Each of these are described briefly with believable narratives.

Raskin’s vision of a Commonwealth of Earthland is built on the concept of One World/Many Places. Since we all inhabit a single planet whose environment is the sole source for fulfilling our material needs, it had become a widely shared assumption that the globe is the natural political unit for managing common affairs. On the other hand, the commitment to One World does not require homogeneity but rather accepts and supports diversity. In fact, diversity is necessary: “the integrity of One World depends on vibrant regions of cultural innovation, community cohesion, and democratic renewal” (page 79).

Raskin describes with some detail many dimensions of his vision of a Commonwealth of Earthland. These include governing principles; the multiplicity of economies that have emerged at the local level with varying roles for markets and private enterprise; how the Earth’s people are divided between the different economies; the nature of trade between the different economies; education, especially higher education; spirituality; social justice; and the environment.

This book could not have come at a better time. Events across the globe can be dispiriting: The US has just elected an authoritarian narcissist who denies the existence of human-induced climate change and bereft of any sense of solidarity and empathy. Many European countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and many others are questioning their current policies of free movement of people and goods and appear to be turning inward. With its optimistic tone, concrete history of the future, and vivid description of a desirable future, it has the potential for inspiring legions of citizens across the globe to build the necessary movements in order to realize the potentiality of the Planetary Phase and begin a Great Transition to a thriving Commonwealth of Earthland.