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Changing the Political Climate: A Transitional Imperative

Richard Falk

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future of the world depends.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

The state-centric world order has proven incapable of offering solutions that serve the human interest, as distinct from the totality of national interests, for global challenges such as nuclear weaponry and climate change. Indeed, the nationalization of political identity has become a liability to achieving a functional and humane world order for the twenty-first century. The idea of “world citizenship,” however, prematurely assumes the existence of a global political community when this is precisely what is absent. The concept of ‘citizen pilgrim’ posits that the most useful form of reimagining citizenship conceives of civic responsibility by reference to time as well as space. The citizen pilgrim is engaged in a struggle to create a global political community in the future that will have capabilities and an outlook that are attuned to human interests, including the need for long-term planning. Citizen pilgrims are dedicated to promoting a transition to a humane world order in which states likely remain the dominant actors on the global stage, whose priorities are subordinated as necessary to serve the interests of humanity as a whole.

Points of Departure

The most daunting challenge of adapting to the realities of the Anthropocene era is achieving a soft transition (that is, without major warfare, economic collapse, or global environmental crisis) from our state-centric world order to a geo-centric reconfiguring of political community that enables the emergence of effective and humane global governance. The dominant existing framework for transnational and global political action is still largely entrapped in old habits of thought and action wedded to the primacy of the territorial sovereign state and myopic time horizons that are too short to shape adequate responses to the deepest challenges to the human future.

Empowering state actors and educating publics to be more humanly and globally oriented and far-sighted in their pursuits would generate hopes for a brighter future.1 Such empowerment depends on a widespread reorientation of individual identities toward a new model of citizen, called here “a citizen pilgrim,” whose principal affinities are with the species and its natural surroundings rather than to any specific state, ethnicity, nationality, civilization, or religion. The hopes and expectations of citizen pilgrims rest on the quest for a spiritually fulfilling future for all in sustainable harmony with nature. In this respect, humanity is confronting, by a combination of unprecedented opportunity and danger, the practical and urgent imperative of fundamental change to meet existing threats and challenges and the prospect of catastrophic harm if a transition of sufficient magnitude does not occur in a timely fashion.

This inquiry presupposes that a Great Transition is necessary, possible, and desirable, even though, at present, it does not seem feasible. Proposing with all seriousness what is possible, yet not widely seen as feasible, is one way of “thinking outside the box.” This essay will explore two transitional paths to the future: (1) a revolutionary change in political consciousness and (2) statecraft that facilitates the pursuit of human and global interests. The first is actor-oriented, achieving transition without changing the structure of world order, whereas the second is system- or structure-oriented, insisting that needed behavioral changes will not happen without altering the institutional and ideational context within which policies and practices are currently shaped. These two paths are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, long-term success will depend on a substantial convergence, if not their synthesis.


Citizens and States

Our age is defined by the growing contrast between identities rooted in a state-centric conception of citizenship and the pressing need to address the main challenges confronting humanity as a whole. The horizons of citizenship for most persons on the planet generally coincide with the territorial boundaries of the state and reflect the related sovereignty-oriented ideology of nationalism. Security for societies and individuals is mainly understood to be the responsibility of the governing authorities of states. Efforts to entrust international institutions with some of this responsibility have not been successful, especially for problems of global scope such as war/peace and the management the world economy.2

The historical transition underway calls for a shift from structures and ideologies that serve the part to those that serve the whole, that is, humanity conceived of as a species. The political actors representing various parts include persons, corporations, NGOs, international institutions, religious organization, and states. Their outlook tends to be dominated by a fragmentary consciousness that seeks answers to various questions about “what is good for the part” while generally dismissing questions about “what is good for the whole” as meaninglessly abstract or piously sentimental. Granted, the forces driving the emergence of a global polity do not all consider the good of the whole, either; various forms of oppressive centralized governance are also seeking historical relevance.3

Most people do not want or expect the perspective of the whole to be the basis of policy and action by decision-makers that represent the state, but are insistent that those who decide do their best to protect and promote what will most help the part, whether it be country, corporation, religion, or group interests. Citizenship is conferred by the state, which in return expects and demands loyalty, even a readiness to sacrifice lives for the sake of the nation-state, and certainly the obligation to pay taxes and uphold laws. Citizenship, then, is very much bound up with ideas of a social contract between state and citizen, that is, an exchange of benefits and duties.

The citizen of a democratic state is a composite of juridical and psychological forms. The state confers citizenship through its laws, enabling participation in elections, issuing passports, and offering some protection abroad. Citizenship in this conventional sense is a status that varies from state to state in its particulars and, in its essence, separates those who are included and those who are excluded. There are also legally grounded expectations of loyalty, the radical deviation from which can be the occasion for accusations of the capital crime of “treason.” At the same time, the citizen of a constitutional democracy enjoys the right to dissent and to oppose unjust policies through the judicial process and through competitive elections. As such, the identity of a “citizen” contrasts with that of a “subject” of an absolute monarchy, in which obedience is the paramount political norm.4 A constitutional state struggles to maintain this delicate balance between the rights and duties of a citizen, especially in times of internal stress.5

The second face of citizenship is psycho-political, the sense of loyalty as an existential reality, not a juridical category. When Palestinian citizens of Israel oppose the policies of their government toward the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, they are reflecting a state of mind. Such sub-national identities and alienation from the nationality and orientation of the state is widespread in the world: the troubled realities of Kurds, Tamils, Basques, Kashmiris, and Western Saharans are illustrative, as are the numerous tribal loyalties throughout much of Africa or the marginalized identities of indigenous peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere. Many minorities feel alienated from the state of which they are citizens to varying degrees and collectively are, in effect, “captive nations” resident in states that do not command their loyalty.

Issues of treason and espionage vividly illustrate the contested nature of national loyalty in a globalizing world. When Edward Snowden violated American security regulations by releasing many documents of the National Security Agency and disclosed its surveillance operations, he claimed to be acting on the basis of conscience, whereas the official leaders of the state viewed his actions as a threat to national security. Another example is the plight of Mordecai Vanunu, a worker in the Israeli nuclear facility who many years ago confirmed the reality of Israel’s suspected arsenal of nuclear weaponry and has since been treated both as an enemy of the state and a hero of humanity, serving eighteen years in prison, and even after being released, placed under house arrest in Israel.

What is new in these struggles between dissent and loyalty is that the issues now have an agenda and context that may exist not only within national boundaries (the Catalans and Scots, for example) but beyond the borders of the state as well. Some political innovations have acknowledged the latter, especially the idea of European citizenship superimposed on the citizenship conferred by European Union member states. So far, there is little evidence that those living in Europe are more likely to be loyal to their regional than to the traditional state affiliations, but this idea of European citizenship at least illustrates the layering of citizenship, enabling a person to be a legal and psychological participant in polities bigger (and smaller) than the territorial state that alone qualifies for membership in the United Nations and most international institutions. The layering of regional identities seems beneficial from the perspective of encouraging the development of the European Union as an instrument of cooperation and participation more effective than traditional inter-governmental patterns, but it does not meet the most urgent challenges of a planet in crisis.


Global Citizenship: Not a Reality, but an Aspiration

Some years ago, I was chatting with a stranger on a long international flight. He was a businessman who traveled the world to find markets for his products. His home was in Copenhagen. He spoke very positively about the European Union’s ability to overcome boundaries and national antagonisms. I asked him at that point in our conversation, “Does that make you feel like a European citizen?” His response was “Oh no, I am a world citizen.” I asked him what he meant by that, and his reply was revealing: “Wherever I travel in the world I stay in the same kind of hotel. It makes no difference where I am, everywhere I go in the world seems the same to me.”

Such an apolitical conception of world citizenship is a direct consequence of economic globalization and franchise capitalism. It is true that if you choose to stay in Westin or Intercontinental hotels the world’s major cities, you can travel the globe without ever leaving home, but this is a rather sterile view of the hopes and fears associated with the transition from a world of bounded nation-states absorbed by territorial concerns to a new world without boundaries. It surely leads to a weakening of the bonds of traditional citizenship without generating any new and broader sense of solidarity and community. It confuses the realities of the market with the realities of political community.

At the other extreme is the more familiar image of the world citizen as the idealist who experiences and celebrates the oneness of the planet and of humanity, overriding fragmented identities associated with the privileging of particular nations, ethnicities, religions, and civilizations. Like the businessman, the idealist embraces an apolitical conception of citizenship, one which affirms identity on the basis of sentiment and evades the hard political work of transformation. For such a world citizen, all that needs to be created is presupposed. The struggles of transition, as if by magic wand, are waved out of existence.

These conceptions of what it means to be a “world citizen” possess an underdeveloped view of the nature and value of citizenship. Being a proper citizen implies being an active participant in a democratic political community; extending loyalty; exhibiting approval and disapproval; voting; paying taxes; resonating to cultural expressions of unity by way of song, dance, and poetry; and having certain entitlements relating to reasonable expectations of human security. There is no possibility of having any of these attributes of citizenship fulfilled on a global scale given how the world is currently governed. Prematurely proclaiming oneself a world citizen, if other than as an expression of aspiration, is an empty gesture that misleads more than it instructs.

To think of oneself as a European citizen is somewhat more meaningful, although still, on balance, more confusing than clarifying. To be sure, Europe has virtually abolished internal borders, war between European states verges on the unthinkable, the Euro acts a common currency for almost the entire continent, European institutions have broad authority to override national policies and laws under many circumstances, Europe has a regional framework setting forth binding human rights standards and a tribunal to resolve conflicts as to their interpretation, and finally, Europe has a parliament of its own that is now elected by direct votes of people. Yet Europe has still failed to establish a political community that elicits widespread loyalty or exhibits much unity under stress, except in relation to an external enemy. Most Europeans remain overwhelming nationalistic in their loyalties and want their national government to do what is best for their country, rather than what is best for Europe should the two clash. European citizenship, as conferred by the Maastricht Treaty, is at this point still an unfulfilled promise rather than a meaningful status in either a juridical or an existential sense.

The reality of citizenship is best displayed during periods of crisis, and the European recession has made people far more aware of the fragility of the regional experiment as it bears on the future of Europe. As the Mediterranean members of the EU succumbed to the economic crisis, the northern European states, especially Germany, began to exhibit discomfort and express condescension. Irritated Berliners bemoaned why hard-working and prudent Germans should be helping lazy, indulgent Greeks live a decadent life beyond their means. In their turn, offended Greeks asked why they should forfeit their autonomy and mortgage their future to an anal retentive German fiscal policy that has learned none of the lessons of economic recovery from the experience of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

In contrast, during the same experience of sharp recession in the United States, the debate centered on such issues as banks being too big to fail or why Wall Street rather than Main Street should receive bailout billions, rather than on the recklessness of Alabama as compared to, say, Connecticut. In the United States, despite its deep federal structure, there is an overriding sense of community at the national level. American citizenship is meaningful in ways that European citizenship falls short because of the abiding strength of national consciousness (despite the continuing divisiveness of American Civil War memories) as compared with the feeble bonds that bind Europeans together as Europeans. In this sense, despite the success of the EU, there was a greater sense of Europeanness during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was perceived as a common threat, leading to an unprecedented spirit of cooperation creating a community of fate in Europe.

In other words, although some of the political preconditions for European citizenship are present, the most vital are still absent, and the political preconditions for world citizenship are almost totally missing. There are some good reasons to be confused about this latter reality. After all, the United Nations was established to prevent war among nations, and we indulge language games that allow us to talk about “the world community” as if there was one. A closer look at the way the world works makes us realize that the United Nations, despite the rhetorical pretensions of its Charter, is much more an instrument of statecraft than an alternative to it. Indeed, almost all governments continue to be led by political realists who view their role as serving short-term national interests and are privately dismissive of any encroachment on these priorities that derive from notions of “world community,” even if based on international law and morality.

Within this framing of global policy, the UN, international law (even international criminal law), and moralizing rhetoric are all instrumentally and selectively useful in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. The selective application of supposedly global norms makes transparent the state-centric underpinning of world order. For instance, the double standards associated with the implementation of international criminal law suggest that there is accountability for the weak and vulnerable and impunity for the strong, a pattern described as “victors’ justice” after World War II. An International Criminal Court (ICC) has been established, which was a major achievement of its advocates, but a success tempered by the realization that the most dangerous political actors forego the option to join. The ICC pursues wrongdoers in Sudan and Libya, while turning a blind eye toward the United States, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom, and their closest allies. The ICC came into being despite the resistance of the largest and most dangerous states in the world. The fact that a tribunal has been established to assess the individual criminal responsibility of political and military leaders of sovereign states is still encouraging as a move toward creating a global rule of law in relation to war/peace and human rights issues even though its performance has so far been uneven and often disappointing.

This clarifies the situation of global citizenship in two key ways. First, there is no global enforcement of global norms relating to fundamental issues of human security, and therefore no bonds of community binding the individual to the world by way of citizenship based on a social contract. Second, major states manipulate the directives of the UN and international law to serve their own national interests, revealing the workings of a geopolitical regime of power rather than a global rule of law regime that would, above all, treat equals equally. Without a trusted system of laws, no resilient community can be brought into being, and hence no genuine bonds of citizenship can be established.

Such a critique expresses the dilemmas of citizenship in this time of transition. The most fundamental missing element in this premature projection of world citizenship is time. It is possible to wish for, and even affirm, human solidarity, and to highlight the commonalities of the human species under conditions of heightened interaction and interdependence. Yet such feelings by themselves are incapable of creating the basis for acting collectively in response to urgent challenges of global scope. Such behavior requires the emergence on grassroots and elite levels of a widespread recognition that the only viable governance process for the planet is one that greatly enhances capabilities to serve human and global interests. This emergence is more likely to occur in an interactive sequence in which transnational grassroots activism precedes governmental shifts in priorities. Bureaucratic entrenchment tends to resist fundamental changes of policy even when initially mandated by the citizenry. Only in the aftermath of a social movement that advances new demands are governing authorities likely to go along. The American civil rights movement is illustrative of these dynamics.

The transition is about moving from the here of egoistic state-centrism to the there of humane geo-centrism, which implies a journey and a struggle against institutionalized social forces that are threatened by or opposed to such a transformation. In this undertaking, the citizen pilgrim combines the identity of a participant in a community and the acknowledgement that the desired community does not presently exist, that its essential nature is to bond with a community that is in the midst of a birth process.6


Material Conditions of Urgency

Throughout human experience, there has always been a strong case for adopting the identity of “citizen pilgrim,” and many spiritually motivated individuals have done so in their own ways. What is historically unique about the present is that the challenge of transformation is rooted in fundamental material conditions caused by human activities: the outcomes of technological innovations and earlier progress are now threatening apocalyptic blowback. In other words, it has always been true from an ethical perspective that there are better ways for people to live together on the planet, especially under conditions of mutual respect, without collective violence, and in ways that reward achievement while caring for the poor and vulnerable. At times, the failure to adapt to challenges either from natural causes or from conflict has led to the collapse of communities or even entire civilizations, but never before has the species as such been confronted by challenges of global scale.7 There have always been risks of planetary events, such as collisions with giant meteors, that are beyond human agency, and could at some point doom the species. Today, however, we see the accumulation of dangerous material conditions that have been generated by human agency and could be addressed in a manner that is beneficial for the survival, well-being, and happiness of the species.

The two most dramatic examples of such realities are the dangers of nuclear war and climate change. These two sources of extreme danger both reflect the technological evolution of human society associated with modernity, scientific discovery, and the human search for wealth and dominion, and neither set of risks can be sufficiently reduced without significant progress with respect to the transition from state-centric to geo-centric world order. Addressing these threats requires a “new realism” informing the outlook of those with governing authority. Above all, this new realism involves a readiness to uphold commitments to serve human and global interests as necessary, even if it requires subordinating currently incompatible national and private sector interests.

This “new realism” can only be brought into being by drastic shifts in political consciousness that inform citizenship in such a manner that fosters the well-being of the species and restores collaborative relationship between human activities and the surrounding environment. Such a relationship existed to an impressive degree in many pre-modern societies where there existed a sense of mutual dependence in relations between human activities and natural surroundings, as well, as sensitivity to seven generations past and future, that is absent from the modernist sensibility that only values nature for its resources, as a sink for the free discharge of wastes, or as a retreat from the rigors of “civilization.”8 With resource scarcities, pollution, ecosystem degradation, and climate change has come the realization that without a comprehensive post-modern equilibrium between human activity and the natural surroundings, the future prospects of the species are rather grim.9 The fantasies of modernity persist in the form of utopian geo-engineering schemes that represent efforts by the old realism to find technological solutions for the problems generated by technology, which is itself is raising serious concern and posing severe additional risks of its own.10

The imperatives of a transition to a safer, more sustainable world are resisted by the embedded assumptions of the old realism: that military capabilities and war-making are the keys to security, that GDP growth is the indispensable foundation of political stability and economic contentment, that technology and market will find solutions for any challenges that arise before serious threats materialize, and that the correct role of governments of sovereign states is to manage this set of relationships on behalf of national political communities variously situated. Such an orientation is anachronistic and demands fundamental adjustment. Further, the preconditions for such adjustment are much more likely to exist in a non-traumatic situation, that is, before catastrophe becomes a reality rather than a mere possibility.

It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the obstacles that lie ahead and currently seem to lock societies into a civilizational orientation that falls far short of the bio-political potential and survival needs of the human species. At present, governments seem unable to address the practical challenges posed by nuclear weaponry, climate change, poverty, political violence, and human security. Existing governance structures and ideological worldviews dominant among both officials and society seem stuck in past modes of problem-solving and are failing to meet expectations of the citizenry. Such a failure is exhibited by widespread despair, denial, and alienation. Even when signs of active disaffection erupt unexpectedly as happened in the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, the embedded structures of governance and their societal allies have displayed an extraordinary capacity to resist such challenges and restore the status quo that was earlier repudiated.


Recreating Political Community

The calling of the citizen pilgrim is not meant to be a lonely journey toward a better future. It is intended as a call for an engaged citizenry responsive to the need and desire for a reconstituted future as well as a repaired present. Navigating transition will require infusing both political leadership and the electorate with the values and perceptions of the new realism. Transition can be achieved through a shift in governance structures from state-centric world order to a geo-centric world order—for example, by way of UN reform. Alternatively, a geo-centric world order could emerge as the self-conscious result of the establishment of a new framework for cooperative action capable of providing the world with the level of centralized governance that is required, while exhibiting sensitivity to ideas of subsidiarity, decentralization, dispersal of authority, checks and balances, and even philosophical anarchism.11

In this respect, the engaged citizen pilgrim is devoted to the here and now of political action (as well as the pursuit of a visionary future), whether by way of exhibiting empathy and solidarity with the sufferings of those most vulnerable or by working toward innovative steps serving human and global interests. Such steps should, to the extent possible, reflect the interpretations and understandings of the new realism. Illustrative projects include the establishment of a global peoples parliament with an assigned mission of articulating interests from the perspective of people rather than of governments.12 Another familiar proposal is a global tax of some kind, levied on currency transactions or international flights or casino and lottery profits, which could loosen the geopolitical and fiscal leash that now limits international institutions in their capacity to serve human and global interests. Along these lines would also be the establishment of an independent emergency force capable of quick reactions to natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes without being subject to funding by states or the veto power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. These initiatives are not new, but their active promotion alongside avowals of citizen pilgrimages would manifest modes of participation in political life whose aim was to achieve humane global governance in accordance with the precepts of the new realism.13

Because of the still dominant influence of old realism, such innovations are vulnerable to various degrees of what might be called geopolitical cooption. The United Nations itself is undoubtedly the best example of an institutional innovation with a geocentric mandate that has gone awry almost from its inception, with its deference to both sovereign states and hegemonic actors (via the Security Council veto). The UN has been geopolitically coopted over the period of its existence in such fundamental respects that its defining role has been stabilizing state-centric and hegemonic patterns of world order rather than preventing war and facilitating transition to a geo-centric future. This assessment is most evident in the double standards evident in the pattern of UN responses to emergency situations, for instance, in the diplomacy surrounding the application of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm or in relation to the management of nuclear weaponry as between the nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear states.

As mentioned earlier, the potentially valuable contributions of the ICC have so far been marred by the same double standards that infuse the entire edifice of state-centric world order, resulting in a pattern of impunity for the West and accountability for leaders in the South. As such, the ICC is ambivalent in its contributions to peace and justice; still, it may yet become more attuned to human and global interests. It is that attunement that distinguishes the citizen pilgrim from what might be called a "liberal internationalist" who favors stronger global governance capacity, but lives within a bubble of the old realism and its questionable reconciliation of global reform and geopolitics. In this gradualist view of global reform, state-centric logic and national interests are taken for granted as the prism through which foreign policy is shaped. The liberal internationalist favors more international cooperation, including greater funding for international institutions and more responsiveness to humanitarian concerns, but only within the bounds of what is deemed “feasible” from the perspectives of the leadership of sovereign states and their entourage of governing elites.


Citizen Pilgrims as Nonviolent Warriors of the Great Transition

Prospects for the future depend on altering the outlook and performance of governments representing states so that they truly align with broad-based citizen, not special, interests. This is particularly true for constitutional democracies with strong private sector interest groups. Authoritarian states, especially with control over the economic infrastructure, do not require the consent of the governed to nearly the same extent, and can act or not more freely for better and worse to take account of rapidly changing perceptions. In constitutional democracies, the relationship of leadership to the citizenry is very direct, though often muted or corrupted by the influence of powerful special interests. Lobbying, extensive secrecy and surveillance, and corporatized media all deflect government from a rational calculation of national interests and tend to obstruct policy deference to long-term human and global interests. The “military-industrial-think tank complex” has over the decades protected the nuclear weapons establishment from disarmament advocacy, and the campaigns of the fossil fuel industry have lent a measure of credibility to climate skepticism despite near unanimity among climate experts.

Experience confirms that government policy will not shift against such entrenched interests without a popular mobilization that alters the political climate sufficiently to allow deep change to happen. In the 1980s, this happened in the United States and the United Kingdom in relation to apartheid South Africa. In this case, the ethical repudiation of official racism provided the basis for altering the political climate to such an extent that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, both conservative leaders who valued strategic and economic cooperation with South Africa, were led to endorse sanctions that contributed significantly to the eventual success of the antiapartheid campaign.

Nuclear weaponry does pose an ethical challenge, but its main challenge is a prudential one of resting the security of major states and their friends on a conditional commitment to destroy tens of millions of innocent persons in a global setting (what was called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, during the Cold War) where conflict and irrational behavior have been recurrent features. Both ethics and rationality appear to favor phased and verified nuclear disarmament, which was legally stipulated by the nuclear weapons states in the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.14 This prudential case has been reformulated in a post-Cold War setting by research calling attention to the dire consequences for the whole earth due to the prospects of a “nuclear famine” in the event of any intermediate scale use of nuclear weaponry in a limited regional war.15

The global challenge of climate change is more complex and, in some ways, exposes more directly the limits of globally oriented problem-solving in a state-centric framework. Unlike with the case of disarmament, there is strong inter-governmental support for the scientific consensus on the need for mandatory regulations to reduce greenhouse gas (especially carbon) emissions so as to prevent further harmful climate disruption. For the past twenty years, the UN has sponsored conferences that bring together annually most governments in the world to move toward implementing the scientific consensus, and yet little happens. Rationality gives way to special interests, and short-term calculations of advantage are given precedence in the policy arenas of government, producing inevitable and intractable stalemates. The state system seems stuck, and the old realism seems set to shape human destiny in adverse ways for the foreseeable future.

In such settings, the citizen pilgrim offers society a voice of sanity that speaks from the liberated isolation of the wilderness. It envisions a future responsive to the longterm survival of the human species and the goals of maximizing its wellbeing and pursuing global justice. Some citizen pilgrims may be seeking a drastic revision of the worldview of the national leadership cadres of society in the form of the embrace of the new realism of human and global interests, pursued within an enlarged sphere of temporal accountability. Other citizen pilgrims may be thinking of a political community that is planetary in scope that organizes its activities to serve all peoples on the basis of individual and collective human dignity and envisions the replacement of a world of sovereign states with a democratically constituted geocentric framework of governance—norms, institutions, procedures, and actors.

The citizen pilgrim is not primarily motivated by averting danger and mitigating injustice on a global scale, although such concerns occupy the foreground of her political consciousness. The most basic drive is spiritual, to pursue the unattainable, to affirm the perfection of the human experience within the diverse settings present in the world. As Goethe said, “him who strives he we may save.” By striving, the sense of time comes alive in citizenship and political participation, as it must, if the Mount Everest challenges of the Great Transition are to be successfully traversed.



1. I rely upon a distinction between “human” and “global” to underscore the interactive duality of human and earth interests, that is, what is beneficial for the human species and what is beneficial for nature and the environment, and the necessity of achieving their collaboration and reconciliation. Such an ideological posture can be described as eco-humanism. See Robert C. Johansen’s breakthrough contribution seeking to overcome the tension and destructive dualism between the national interest and the human interest: The National and the Human Interest: An Analysis of U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980).
2. For one view of how the state is “disaggregating” in ways that enable it to cope with the challenges of an increasingly interactive world, see Anne-Marie Slaughter, The New World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). There are also many instances of cooperation among states for the sake of mutual benefit, especially in relation to the management of the global commons.
3. I would include here various anti-democratic forms of imperial and hegemonic governance. See, among others, Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Reality and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) and especially Michael Mandelbaum’s Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-first century (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).
4. For a wide-ranging defense of democracy along these lines, see Daniele Archibugi, Global Commonwealth of Citizens: Toward Cosmopolitan Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
5. Such a struggle has been evident in the United States in the period since the 9/11 attacks. For a critical account of the mismanagement of the balance, see David Cole and Jules Lobel, Less Secure, Less Free: Why America is Losing the War on Terror (New York: New Press, 2007).
6. The idea of “citizen pilgrim” is inspired by Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews in which he talks of the pilgrim as someone animated by faith in that which is not seen, and does not exist as yet, and yet embarks on a journey dedicated to a better future in which that vision will be realized, not as an earthly city but as a heavenly city.
7. The issue of civilizational collapse, and its avoidance, has been influentially explored in Jared Diamond, Collapse or How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005). The question of the risks to the species arising from human activities is addressed in Clive Hamilton, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (London: Pluto, 2004). See also Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).
8. See Richard Falk, This Endangered Planet: Prospects and Proposals for Human Survival (New York: Random House, 1972). On the orientation of indigenous peoples, see Maivan Lam, At the Edge of the State: Indigenous Peoples and Self- Determination (Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 2000)
9. Sensitive interpretations of the approaching limits of modernity as a legacy of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution can be found in in Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) and Weiming Tu, The Global Significance of Concrete Humanity (New Delhi: Munshrivam Manoharial Publishers, 2010).
10. Clive Hamilton critically explores this search for a technological escape via geo-engineering from the dilemmas posed by adherence to “the iron law of growth,” population increase, and continuously rising living standards. See Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
11. Some suggestions along these lines are contained in Falk, “Anarchism without ‘Anarchism,’: Searching for Progressive Politics in the Early 21st Century,” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 39, no. 2 (December 2010): 381-398,
12. See Richard Falk and Andrew Strauss, A Global Parliament: Essays and Articles (Berlin: Committee for a Democratic UN, 2011).
13. For elaboration, see Falk, On Humane Global Governance (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995).
14. See Falk and David Krieger, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012). For the contrary view, see Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Nuclear Ethics (New York: Free Press, 1986).
15. For important research on the devastating effects upon the entire planet of even a limited nuclear war, see the report of research in the “nuclear famine” project of Michael Mills and others, pubs/2014_EarthsFuture_Mills_et_al.pdf.


Richard Falk
Richard Falk Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Fellow of the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and author of Power Shift: On the New Global Order.

Cite as Richard Falk, "Changing the Political Climate: A Transitional Imperative,'" Great Transition Initiative (September 2014),

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