Many have come to recognize the need for a fundamental change in values. It’s been variously called the Great Transformation, the Great Transition, the Great Turning, and humanity’s Great Work. Like the two earlier great transitions of human history – agriculture and the Scientific/Industrial Revolution – it would encompass a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: our values, our goals, and our collective behavior.
A Great Transformation would need to be founded on a worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on the earth into the future. In place of root metaphors such as nature as a machine and conquering nature, the new worldview would be based on the emerging systems view of life, recognizing the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth, and seeing humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.
What values would arise from this worldview? Three core values emerge.
The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. In place of the global obsession with defining progress in terms of economic output and material wealth, we would begin to prioritize progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large.
Secondly, we would base political, social, and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group.
Finally, we would build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.
Envisioning a transformed world
What would the latter part of this century look like if our global civilization took the path of a Great Transformation? We can be sure it would contain much that’s currently unimagined. But there are some characteristics that experts recognize would be indispensable to that future.
It’s likely we’d see a reorganized United Nations, with powers to enforce a more responsible approach to our global commons, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, and the environment. When corporations and governments make investment decisions, they’d explicitly factor the externalities of the natural world into their cost/benefit analyses.
While there would still be massive income inequality between rich and poor nations, that gap would be decreasing as a result of economic structures based on fairness rather than untrammeled exploitation. And the flourishing of the natural world would be given a high priority in global decision making. There might even be an enforceable UN Declaration of the Rights of Nature, putting the natural world on the same legal standing as humanity.
This future, driven by an understanding of the interconnected nature of global systems, would embrace continued technological innovation in a form that enhances sustainable consumption and shared access for people around the world. The dramatic advances currently anticipated in computing power, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics could be welcomed and harnessed in the great project to give all humanity a prosperous and sustainable life on earth.
It’s a relay race against time in which every one of us is part of the team. It’s a race that humanity can win, if the two visions of progress – technological and moral – that underlie modern cognition can fuse into one vision of harnessing technology for the benefit of the collective human spirit.
Selected references: Paul Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2003). Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999). Joanna Macy, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012). Hans Joachim Schellnhuber et al., "World in Transition—a Social Contract for Sustainability," Berlin: German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU)(Flagship Report) (2011).