Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead
Paul Raskin, Tariq Banuri, Gilberto Gallopín, Pablo Gutman, Al Hammond, Robert Kates, Rob Swart
Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead examines the possibilities for a sustainable and desirable world. The essay describes the historic roots, future perils, and alternative pathways for world development and advances the Great Transition path as the preferred route, identifying strategies, global actors, and values for a new agenda.


“The future is always present, as a promise, a lure and a temptation.”

—Karl Popper

The global transition has begun—a planetary society will take shape over the coming decades. But its outcome is in question. Current trends set the direction of departure for the journey, not its destination. Depending on how environmental and social conflicts are resolved, global development can branch into dramatically different pathways. On the dark side, it is all too easy to envision a dismal future of impoverished people, cultures and nature. Indeed, to many, this ominous possibility seems the most likely. But it is not inevitable. Humanity has the power to foresee, to choose and to act. While it may seem improbable, a transition to a future of enriched lives, human solidarity and a healthy planet is possible.

This is the story elaborated in these pages. It is a work of analysis, imagination and engagement. As analysis, it describes the historic roots, current dynamics and future perils of world development. As imagination, it offers narrative accounts of alternative long-range global scenarios, and considers their implications. As engagement, it aims to advance one of these scenarios—Great Transition—by identifying strategies, agents for change and values for a new global agenda.

The essay is the culmination of the work of the Global Scenario Group, which was convened in 1995 by the Stockholm Environment Institute as a diverse and international body to examine the requirements for a transition to sustainability. Over the years, the years the GSG has contributed major scenario assessments for international organizations, and collaborated with colleagues throughout the world. As the third in a trilogy, Great Transition builds on the earlier Branch Points (Gallopín et al., 1997), which introduced the GSG’s scenario framework, and Bending the Curve (Raskin et al., 1998), which analyzed the long-term risks and prospects for sustainability within conventional development futures.

It has been two decades since the notion of “sustainable development” entered the lexicon of international jargon, inspiring countless international meetings and even some action. But it is our conviction that the first wave of sustainability activity, in progress since the Earth Summit of 1992, is insufficient to alter alarming global developments. A new wave must begin to transcend the palliatives and reforms that until now may have muted the symptoms of unsustainability, but cannot cure the disease. A new sustainability paradigm would challenge both the viability and desirability of conventional values, economic structures and social arrangements. It would offer a positive vision of a civilized form of globalization for the whole human family.

This will happen only if key sectors of world society come to understand the nature and the gravity of the challenge, and seize the opportunity to revise their agendas. Four major agents of change, acting synergistically, could drive a new sustainability paradigm. Three are global actors—intergovernmental organizations, transnational corporations and civil society acting through non-governmental organizations and spiritual communities. The fourth is less tangible, but is the critical underlying element—wide public awareness of the need for change and the spread of values that underscore quality of life, human solidarity and environmental sustainability.

Global change is accelerating and contradictions are deepening. New ways of thinking, acting and being are urgently needed. But as surely as necessity is the spur for a Great Transition, the historic opportunity to shape an equitable world of peace, freedom and sustainability is the magnet. This is the promise and lure of the twenty-first century.

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