The Great Transition is a term used by the Global Scenario Group (GSG) to describe a vision of a just and sustainable global future. The term was originally used by Kenneth E. Boulding in The Meaning of the 20th Century – The Great Transition (1964), considered a hallmark conception of systems thinking and the shift from pre-modern to post-modern culture and the four possible courses of action that will allow humanity to successful journey the Great Transition. The elements of the Great Transition vision include egalitarian social and ecological values, increased human interconnectedness, improved quality of life, and a healthy planet, as well as an absence of poverty, war, and environmental destruction. The Great Transition concept has been adopted by numerous individuals and organizations in the sustainability sphere, most notably by Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Thinley, the New Economics Foundation, and the Capital Institute, and it was used as a major theme for the 2011 SmartCSOs conference on strategies for Civil Society Organisations in London.
The term Great Transition was first introduced by the Global Scenario Group (GSG), a faculty international body of scientists convened in 1995 by the Tellus Institute and Stockholm Environment Institute to examine the requirements for a transition to a sustainable global society. The GSG set out to describe and analyze scenarios for the future of the earth as it entered a Planetary phase of civilization. The GSG's scenario analysis resulted in a series of reports, and its findings were summarized for a non-technical audience in the essay Great Transition: the Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.
Since its introduction, the term "Great Transition" has often been used by organizations or individuals in the environmental/sustainability domain to describe a paradigmatic shift of civilization towards the behaviors and values that would be necessary for a sustainable global civilization to flourish.
The Global Scenario Group organized its scenarios into three categories: Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions.
Conventional Worlds are futures that evolve gradually from today’s dominant forces of capitalism and globalization: economic interdependence deepens, dominant values spread, and developing regions converge toward rich-country patterns of production and consumption. Two variations of Conventional Worlds are Market Forces, a neoliberal vision in which powerful global actors advance the priority of economic growth, and Policy Reform, in which governments are able to harmonize economic growth with sustainable development objectives, such as the Millennium Development Goals.
Another alternative future, called Barbarization by the GSG, could emerge if market and policy adaptations are not sufficient to blunt social polarization, environmental degradation, and economic instability. In these scenarios, environmental destruction leads to an overall social collapse. One form this future could take is an authoritarian Fortress World scenario, a kind of global apartheid with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside. Another is Breakdown, where conflicts and crises spiral out of control, waves of disorder spread across countries and regions, and institutions collapse.
Great Transition scenarios are transformative scenarios. Their defining feature is the ascendancy of a new suite of values – human solidarity, quality of life, and respect for nature. These scenarios have two variants: Eco-Communalism and New Sustainability Paradigm.
Eco-communalism, a highly localist vision of a lifestyle that turns to non-material dimensions of fulfillment (the quality of life, the quality of human solidarity, and the quality of the earth), is favored by some environmental subcultures, particularly the anti-globalization movement.
New Sustainability Paradigm, by contrast, sees globalization not as a threat to be resisted, but as an opportunity for forging a new category of consciousness – a global citizenship that understands humanity's place in the web of life and its link to the fate of the earth.
The New Sustainability Paradigm encompasses many of the ideals of Eco-Communalism, rejecting rampant consumerism and seeking improved human well-being through material sufficiency rather than continuous economic growth. However, it also seeks to shape the character of global civilization. It sees the planetary phase of civilization as an opportunity. Rather than retreat into localism, it validates global solidarity, cultural cross-fertilization, and economic interdependence.
Great Transition Initiative
Further development of the Great Transition scenarios is carried on by the Great Transition Initiative (GTI). Launched in 2003, GTI is a global network of several hundred scholars, intellectuals, civil society leaders, and activists working to develop visions and pathways for a “Great Transition" to a future of equity, solidarity and ecological sustainability. The Initiative was relaunched as an online journal and discussion network in 2014.
- Kenneth E. Boulding, The Meaning of the 20th Century - The Great Transition (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964).
- Jigme Thinley, "Address by the Prime Minister on Well Being and Happiness," UN Headquarters, New York, April 2, 2012, http://www.cabinet.gov.bt/?page_id=207.
- Josh Ryan-Collins, Great Transition (London: New Economics Foundation, 2009), http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/the-great-transition
- The Capital Institute Symposium: "Beyond Sustainability: The Road to Regenerative Capitalism," New York, June 20–21, 2013, http://www.cisymposium.com/
- SmartCSOs, Effective Change Strategies for the Great Transition: Five Leverage Points for Civil Society Organisations (Berlin: Smart CSOs, 2011), http://www.veblen-institute.org/Effective-change-strategies-for.
- See http://www.gsg.org/gsgpub.html.
- Paul Raskin, Tariq Banuri, Gilberto Gallopín, Pablo Gutman, Al Hammond, Robert Kates, and Rob Swart, Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2002), http://www.greattransition.org/gt-essay.
- Raski, Paul. GT Today: A Report from the Future. Boston: Tellus Institute, 2006. Available at http://www.tellus.org/tellus/publication/the-great-transition-today-a-report-from-the-future.
- Rajan, Chella, Global Politics and Institutions. Boston: Tellus Institute, 2006. Available at http://www.tellus.org/pub/Global%20Politics%20and%20Institutions.pdf.
- White, Allen. Transforming the Corporation. Boston: Tellus Institute, 2006. Available at http://www.tellus.org/tellus/publication/transforming-the-corporation.
- Stutz, John. The Role of Well-Being in a Great Transition. Boston: Tellus Institute, 2006. Available at http://www.tellus.org/pub/The%20Role%20of%20Well-being%20in%20a%20Great%20Transition.pdf.
- Revkin, Andy. "Human Impact on the Earth - How Do We Soften It?" International Herald Tribune. September 4, 2002. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/09/0904_020904_wirimpact.html.
- Parris, Thomas. "Bytes of Note: A Crystal Ball for Sustainability." Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. 44, no. 7 (2002): 3-4. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00139150209605799#.VZmxB0bLdyE.
- Great Transition Initiative
- Global Scenario Group
- Popular Science - Four Futures - an article in Popular Science about the Great Transition and three other GSG scenarios, with infographics
- Video - Visions of a Sustainable World - a YouTube video with highlights from an interview with Dr. Paul Raskin of GSG and the Tellus Institute (from a speaker series at Yale University)