Planetary phase of civilization

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The planetary phase of civilization is a speculative concept defined by the Global Scenario Group (GSG), an environmental organization that specialized in scenario analysis and forecasting. Proponents state that increasing global interdependence and risks, such as climate change, are binding the world into a unitary socio-ecological system. This unprecedented condition signals a historic shift from the period of modernity, characterized by sovereign states, perennial growth of population and economies, abundant resources, and disregard for environmental impacts. The Planetary Phase has many manifestations: economic globalization, biospheric destabilization, mass migration, new global institutions (like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization), the Internet, new forms of transboundary conflict, and shifts in culture and consciousness. Others consider each of these phenomena separately, but give little credence to the theory of a holistic shift in historical dynamics.


The notion of the planetary phase of civilization rests on extensive sociological and anthropological study done by the GSG. Convened in 1995 by Paul Raskin, President of Tellus Institute, the GSG examined alternative plausible futures by observing trends in societal change in various domains. Their scenarios, published in a series of essays, have been used in numerous regional, local, and global studies including the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)'s Global Environment Outlook Series (GEO). The Global Scenario Group synthesized its findings for a non-technical audience in the essay Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.[1] An October 2005 article in the Monthly Review entitled "Organizing Ecological Revolution" described the current "global environmental crisis" and the GSG's efforts as "the most ambitious attempt thus far to carry out such a broad assessment" of our current and future ecological situation.[2]

Historical transitions[edit]

In a historical perspective, the planetary phase of civilization is viewed by its proponents as the third significant transition in civilization. Though history is complex and difficult to divide into discrete eras, they argue that a broad panorama reveals two earlier macro-shifts in human society and culture: shifts from the Stone Age to Early Civilization and then from Early Civilization the Modern Era. Each transition brought a leap in the complexity of society, as seen in changes in social organization, economy, and communications. The Stone Age was characterized by tribes and villages, hunting and gathering economies, and spoken language as the means of communication. The shift into Early Civilization brought more structured city-states and kingdoms, settled agriculture, and writing. Correspondingly, the planetary phase sees social organization, the economy, and communications move to the global level. Moreover, unlike prior transitions, the planetary phase is understood to mark a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, in which human activity becomes the primary driver of changes to the Earth system.

In Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead, the GSG argues that historical transitions appear to be accelerating, with the longevity of each successive period less than the previous one. Thus, the duration of the Stone Age was on the order of 100,000 years; Early Civilization, 10,000; and Modernity, 1,000. It notes that if the planetary phase takes shape over 100 years, the pattern of acceleration would continue.

The GSG argues that, while history has entered the planetary phase, the ultimate shape of global civilization remains deeply uncertain. It explores alternative futures through scenario analysis, grouping the possibilities into three broad scenario types: Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions. Conventional Worlds assume the persistence of currently dominant institutions and cultural values, where the world attempts to address challenges through spontaneous market adaptations or incremental governmental policy changes. The GSG finds Conventional Worlds to be a highly risky path in the planetary phase, a path that could well segue into some form of social devolution ("Barbarization"). Thus, the GSG contends that the most desirable scenario would be a Great Transition that incorporates new institutions to promote environmental sustainability, social equity, and lifestyles, once a sufficient level of material prosperity is attained, that emphasize qualitative fulfillment rather than quantitative consumption. These changes would be rooted in the ascendance of a new suite of values – solidarity, ecology, well-being – that would gradually displace the modernist triad of individualism, domination of nature, and consumerism. The political and cultural shift envisioned in this scenario, however, depends on the emergence of a global citizens movement as a potential actor to counter the power of transnational corporations, state governments, and mainstream values.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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), See also its sequel: Paul Raskin, Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization. (Boston: Tellus Institute, 2016),
  2. ^ John Bellamy Foster, "Organizing Ecological Revolution," Monthly Review 57, no. 5 (October 2005),

Further reading[edit]

  • Raskin, Paul. Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization. Tellus Institute, 2016, ISBN 978-0-9978376-0-5
  • Ankerl, Guy. Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Geneva: INUPRESS, 2000. ISBN 2-88155-004-5
  • Kelly, Sean M. Coming Home: The Birth & Transformation of the Planetary Era. Aurora, CO: Lindisfarne Books, 2010. ISBN 1-58420-072-3
  • Mickey, Sam. On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: A Philosophy of Integral Ecology. 2014. ISBN 1-78348-136-6

External links[edit]