Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives"

Robert Paehlke

It is a challenge to respond to Richard Falk’s piece with more than agreement. I especially appreciated Falk’s phrasing regarding matters with which I have recently wrestled in my own writing. They include 1) achieving “soft transitions” within “a geo-centric reconfiguring of political community,” 2) going from “egoistic state-centrism” to “humane geo-centrism,” and 3) a new realism focused on “ecological challenges and the rejection of old realism’s notion of security through military capabilities and war-making.” That language captures things precisely and clearly.

Given the multi-dimension urgency humanity now faces, those soft transitions will not come easily. They may be especially challenging in North America given recent US Supreme Court decisions on election financing, America’s constitutionally reinforced political paralysis, and the entrenched political power of resource industries in Canada. Indeed, political and policy paths sometimes seem to have been all but foreclosed almost everywhere.

Power and wealth dominate the institutions of the political sphere. A transition, especially when it must be a rapid one, demands a citizens movement operating in the political and cultural realm. I think that that movement should also push global concerns, including climate change and rising inequality, within the economic realm through consumer and workplace action, and even through entrepreneurship that is mindful of concerns beyond the balance sheet. In effect, this would push global political concerns directly into the market realm.

Global citizens could use (even, if you will, occupy) the market in ways that run counter to the preferences of concentrated wealth. Falk does not exclude such possibilities though he does note (and I concur in broad terms) that the belief that technology and markets will always find timely solutions is largely mythological. Yet, I think there is some hope that it is not entirely mythological. Clearly, there are obstacles and limits to citizen action within markets, but given the urgency we face, we need to utilize even limited opportunities, if only to broaden our appeal and to buy the time needed to build our political strength. I am thinking here especially of market initiatives in renewable energy and local and organic foods.

Citizen action through markets might also include, of course, the development of citizen- and civil society-based media and media inputs. The discussion in which we are engaged here is in effect part of a media building effort. I was also recently impressed, to identify one other example, by the World Meteorological Organization’s creation of hypothetical, but realistic 2050 weather forecasts based in the IPCC climate models. This effort, to be broadcast by commercial outlets including the Weather Channel will help to contextualize climate change in relation to everyday experience.

Finally, let me offer an additional item for Falk’s list of challenges that governments “stuck in past modes of problem-solving” seem unable to address: the rising and increasingly excessive cost of hegemonic power. I believe the global system is not far from a criical moment on this matter. Since the start of the 2003 Iraq War, more Americans have come to understand these limits. Holding hegemonic power in today’s world all but assures greater domestic inequality, declining infrastructure, and, ultimately, economic decline.

Finding a way out of our global system of hegemonic dominance (or any system of great power rivalry as an alternative) requires a global solution. Are there not alternatives other than a new hegemon or yet another arms race? Might this be a moment when more would be open to global alternatives to distorted national priorities associated with excessive military spending? As Falk makes clear, the way out is a citizen-led shift from old realism to new realism.

Pursuing the new realism is a long quest that needs to be accomplished quickly. We pilgrims need whatever help we can get wherever we can find it. Grasping tenuous moments and limited routes may be the best opportunities available for now. We can, however, hope that small seeds will grow quickly.


Robert Paehlke
Robert Paehlke, a political scientist, is Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University and author of Hegemony and Global Citizenship: Transitional Governance for the 21st Century.

Cite as Robert Paehlke, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives," Great Transition Initiative (September 2014),

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