Paul Raskin on Making the Great Transition

Devra Ehrenberg

Dr. Paul Raskin, founding director of the Tellus Institute and founder of the Great Transition Initiative (, discusses alternative global futures and ways to transition to a sustainable and livable planetary civilization. The following is based on an interview conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, for Yale’s program, “Visions of a Sustainable World.”

What developments can shift society toward a Great Transition?

A critical development for reaching a planetary civilization worth living in would be a widening cultural shift and political mobilization among concerned citizens the world over. This Global Citizens Movement would be a central social actor in a Great Transition scenario, a global future of enhanced lives, environmental sustainability, and strong commitments to global citizenship and justice. The movement, were it to coalesce, would be a fitting answer to the poignant question now heard everywhere: “What can I do?” But to get there, I think, requires four conditions.

One is cultivating a politics of trust, learning to tolerate proximate differences in order to nurture the deeper basis for solidarity and systemic change. A second would be developing a unifying conceptual framework that links the many issues that concern people as expressions of a common challenge—a common challenge that requires a systemic solution. That challenge is navigating through the Planetary Phase of Civilization, as I call our time of deepening and thickening global interdependence, to a Great Transition future.

A third condition for an authentic Global Citizens Movement would be pragmatic visions of possible futures that are rigorous, legitimate, and inspiring. Articulating the broad contours of “another world” can help bring the hope and confidence that is necessary for attracting people who are increasingly uneasy about the global drift, but despair of finding an alternative and lack a means of engagement on the scale of the challenge. The fourth element for sustaining momentum is generating a sophisticated strategic orientation that can bring victories, and in their wake additional participants.

Does today’s civil society activism constitute the Global Citizens Movement?

We are seeing a Cambrian-like explosion of popular activism, an astonishing diversity of life forms among NGOs (non-governmental organizations), movements, and public associations. Civil society has released tremendous energy for a more just and sustainable world, but its possibilities are limited by organizational fragmentation that slices the global challenge into a thousand separate issues and turfs. Its dispersed victories do not scale up to an alternative path of development, because the painstaking progress achieved here and there is overwhelmed by the far more powerful forces of deterioration.

Most basically, civil society lacks philosophical coherence, a shared understanding of the challenge, and a coordinated vision of planetary solutions. A broad movement needs to mature beyond civil society’s politics of opposition to make “another world is possible” more than a slogan. To gain the confidence, and then the participation, of the world’s billions, such a movement would need to put forward a rigorous and inclusive global alternative and also provide an integrated program for fundamental change. The increase of peoples’ activities over the past two decades has both made a Global Citizens Movement possible and highlighted its necessity.

What would motivate people to engage in this project of transformation?

Complementary forces drive this shift—the push of necessity and the pull of desire. By the push of necessity, I mean that 20th-century institutions and mindsets are inadequate for addressing the looming environmental, social, and economic crises we face in the 21st century. The historical condition of the Planetary Phase—interdependent institutions, connectivity among people, a degraded and fragile ecosphere—demands transcending the limitations of the state-centric global political order and the growth-oriented logic of free-market capitalism.

The Global Citizens Movement would be the tangible, objective manifestation of the response to the uncertainties and crises of today’s world and would carry the hopes for a Great Transition into practice. But the possibility is rooted in a parallel, though intangible, transition underway in the subjective space of the human heart. People are increasingly posing the most fundamental questions about how we should live, about who we should be, about what matters. Amplifying this shift in values away from consumerism, individualism, and the domination of nature and toward an emphasis on the quality of life, human solidarity, and an ecological sensibility would be the foundation in human consciousness for a Great Transition shift.

So you’re saying that there’s an emergence of a global sense of identity?

Yes. As the Planetary Phase cultivates awareness of humanity and the world’s oneness—one people, one world, one community of fate—an organic world civilization becomes possible. Here, it is worth remembering that nation-states themselves, which now seem so inviolable, once crystallized out of the fractured identities of city-state, fiefdom, and tribe. Only a few hundred years ago, there were states and nations, but no nation-states to make the two congruent. Looking forward from that vantage point, a world map of some 200 nation-states, as we have today, would doubtless have seemed an unlikely scenario. Then, no doubt, the nationalist vision would have been widely viewed as dreamy, even delusional. Nonetheless, nationalism did prevail and, to this day, founding patriots are celebrated for their vision and courage.

The dream of an authentic world community has captivated the philosophical and social imagination at least since the 5th century BC, when Socrates proclaimed, “I am a citizen, not of Athens, or Greece, but of the world.” But the cosmopolitan sensibility evolved in a parallel universe of ideas largely detached from the material universe of actual history. Only now, in the young 21st century, can the ideal begin to resonate with historical reality. The Planetary Phase brings the cosmopolitan abstraction down to earth, embedding its ethos of solidarity in the bricks and mortar of shared risks and common futures.

People are confronted by all of the bad news that is out there, asking, “What could I do at this moment to help move the world toward that kind of positive future?”

Indeed, it is all too easy to envision a disaster ahead; a clear-eyed appraisal of the global drift offers much basis for apprehension. The truth is, though, no one is smart enough or can know enough to give odds about the future; the one certainty is surprise. Prophets of doom speak too soon, for the wheel of transformation is still in spin. Fatalistic attitudes are not so much wrong as disempowering—and thus self-fulfilling. If allowed to imprison the imagination, pessimism becomes an agent of its own bleak predictions. Ultimately, dystopian premonitions cannot be logically dismissed or refuted—only negated and defied in practice.

I think there are three key dimensions for moving forward: understanding, vision, and action. We all, scientists and citizens, need to deepen our grasp of the emergent global system. This means expanding our mental maps to traverse over space to embrace a global panorama, to span over time to consider alternative outcomes decades from now and our obligations to future generations. Also, we need to cultivate a systemic and integrated perspective that can, for example, illuminate the connections between the financial meltdown, climate change, the food problem, the question of poverty, the question of rights. So understanding is one of the great challenges that each one of us needs to take on.

The second is envisioning the kind of world we want and the pathways for getting there. Margaret Thatcher once said there is no alternative to a world driven forward by free-market thinking, by the Washington consensus of deregulation, trade liberalization, and small government. If it has done nothing else, the stream of crises we have experienced has revealed just how simplistic such market utopianism really is. This has triggered important corrective action, but action without vision is blind. Many devoted people, trying to make a change, burn out because they don’t have that sustaining vision. The phrase, “another world is possible,” of civil society activists, while evocative, is amorphous. It’s time to describe what that world is, make it plausible, legitimate, and inspiring. And we need to root the vision in analytic rigor, explaining how the lights will stay on, economies will function, and typical lives will improve. In making another world more vivid and concrete, people begin to imagine their place in it and are encouraged to take responsibility for getting there. Now more than ever, we need people to imagine other worlds and, in so doing, make them attainable.

The third area is action. Of course, there are many ways to plug into the various community groups working for change or the larger issue-oriented groups working on critical environmental and social problems. That’s necessary, but not sufficient. I think that perhaps the most important development would be what I spoke of earlier, beginning to coalesce a Global Citizens Movement, where people from all over the world can find their places under a broad umbrella that unifies various concerns into a broad-based process of awareness-building and political change.

I think this is what Margaret Mead may have meant by her famous dictum, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The caveat I would add is that the times must be right. In these unique times, the actions of an active minority can ripple though the cultural field, amplify, and bend the historical trajectory.

What do you think about all of this? Are you hopeful?

I’m reminded of Lewis Mumford’s words: “I’m a pessimist about probabilities; I’m an optimist about possibilities.” So for the reasons that I have tried to convey about the Planetary Phase—its openness, its uncertainty, its tendency to forge wider forms of collective association, broadened mindsets, and longer term perspectives—the possibility remains for a rather rapid turn toward a Great Transition future.

Excerpts from the original interview can be viewed online at