I am grateful for the opportunity to read Paul Raskin’s provocative and visionary Journey to Earthland. I found myself reading it with several different hats. First, I am reading it as a cultural and political sociologist who is very interested in the process by which people construct alternative futures—I am currently writing a book about different kinds of “futures work” in the global arena. Second, I am reading it as a scholar of social movements, who has written about citizens’ mobilization in Brazil and is very interested in the recent wave of global protest over the past decade. Third, I am reading it as the daughter of globally oriented peace and justice educators and activists of the 1970s–90s, who were concerned with similar themes related to the changing global order and the risks and possibilities involved in the transition to a “planetary civilization.” And finally, like the rest of us, I am writing as a citizen stressed and exhausted by an election season that at times seemed to jump off of Raskin’s more dire pages about the contemporary period. This is all in the mix in my observations.
(1) First, like the 2002 Great Transition document, Journey to Earthland stands as an exemplary use of scenarios as a tool for both short-term and long-term intervention towards the “future we want” on a global scale. During my recent research, I have been struck by how scenarios—as a cultural tool for futures visioning—steer a kind of “middle way” between positivist forecasting (what “will,” or “will probably,” happen) and the type of normative alternative futures visioning championed by peace educator Elise Boulding and others (focusing on what “should” happen or what we “want” to happen).1 As Raskin notes, scenarios focus attention on what “could” happen—based in the ontological claim that futures are multiple and flexible, with many possible branchings and turning points, while subject to human reflexivity and intervention. At the same time, this approach assumes that social, political, and ecological systems have predictable logics that make their complex mechanisms and interactions discernible to the thoughtful, intentional foresight work of groups and individuals. Foresight work is thus both an art and a science, but most of all is designed to trigger critical debate, long-term thinking, and flexible robust action in response to complex contemporary challenges. This new iteration of the GTI project accomplishes this with insight, lyricism, and an invitation for us to take the baton forward.
(2) Second, switching to my social movements hat, I was very happy to see the central role that social movements play in envisioning, demanding, and monitoring the changes laid out in the more hopeful scenarios that lead us toward a Great Transition. This gets us beyond an overly optimistic focus on either technological or institutional-technocratic solutions, especially those grounded in enthusiasm about new technological “connectivities” (which are the go-to focus of many other kinds of contemporary futures work I have seen). These are part of the story (and especially critical to the “Reform” scenario), but not the whole picture. It is essential that we combine “bottom up” and “top down” approaches and get past stale dichotomies in this regard (unfortunately, these dichotomies do still animate both activist and policy-oriented practice). At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that social movements work in advancing the cause of justice because they are disruptive—i.e., when they generate both voice (representation) and teeth (leverage)—so that just reiterates the point that there are bumpy and uncertain roads ahead.
(3) That said, I found myself wondering (especially in the midst of the tumultuous US election season), whether the scenarios pay sufficient attention to counter-movements, which are of critical concern to social movement analysts. Movements for civil rights, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, religious pluralism, immigrant rights, labor rights, etc., have all generated backlashes, sometimes powerful ones, sometimes taking populist expressions, and often supported by powerful economic and political interests that ride the fear of change and fear of others. This past decade started with excitement about the new wave of popular protests since 2008—including anti-austerity, pro-democracy, anti-corruption, climate justice, anti-racism, anti-police violence, and Occupy-style “right to the city” movements worldwide. However, currently we are seeing conservative victories and retrenchments and repression along with xenophobic, nationalist, sectarian and homophobic backlashes—think Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, India, the Philippines, and much of Europe, not to mention the US. While I love Raskin’s focus on popular mobilization, we should keep in mind that that the new “global citizens movements” will likely provoke (in fact, already are provoking) strong and sometimes violent backlashes worldwide, often aided by elite patronage, state repression, and authoritarian backsliding or retrenchment. We will need to find generative, steady, non-violent—but still disruptive and re-orienting—ways of responding to the provocation, intimidation, and repression generated by these counter-movements.
(4) I also found myself wondering how these scenarios might help to push us beyond what I think is a troubling anti-institutionalism in some sectors of the counter-hegemonic left. Raskin touches on this in the tension between the “eco-communalist” and “new paradigm” scenarios, but I think this tension goes deeper than this divide and affects current-day activism that would not necessarily recognize itself in the former mode. While I am deeply sympathetic with the radical autonomism and horizontalism of much of contemporary global justice activism, I am skeptical of approaches that imagine building up alternative sources of “people’s power” completely outside of the state and thereby removing ourselves from attempts to engage or reform or participate in electoral and policy-making processes. This self-exclusion risks leaving the state in the hands of the neoliberals and the populist demagogues—thus intensifying the Market Forces/Barbarization conjoined pathways. That is admirably not Raskin’s approach—he is explicitly advocating for the importance of combining cultural shifts with institutional shifts that have both top down and bottom up elements. Still, I think that in order to play these scenarios forward, we need to pay more attention to the combination of insider and outsider approaches in a social movement field that directly engages the state (among other actors). In fact, there is substantial evidence in the social movement literature that it is exactly this combination of insider and outsider approaches that generates durable change.
(5) Related to this, while Raskin’s vision of the values shift that will have to happen in these transitions comes across loud and clear, the contours of the institutional shifts needed to sustain it are (understandably) more sketchy and vague. There is a vibrant sociological literature right now about the dynamics of institutional innovation and change—much of it unfortunately not tied into a long-term, systemic view of political/civilizational/planetary transformation. I wonder if connecting Journey to Earthland and its scenarios to this literature might be useful in helping to imagine the details of the new political, economic and cultural institutions that will need to be (re-)created in order to generate and sustain the transition.
There is a certain tendency in some critical-emancipatory approaches to dismiss the reform of governance institutions as simply the development of “new forms of governmentality” aimed a social disciplining and (self-)control. There is certainly truth to this, but it can also be paralyzing to activism and social change efforts. My experience in teaching students from conflict-affected and economically marginalized regions (as a professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies) has made me acutely aware that some institutional arrangements are better than others, in terms of inclusion, accountability, conflict resolution, and effective and fairly distributed service provision. These differences in governance structures matter for both local and global futures. Deepening the institutional imaginary as a component of critical-emancipatory foresight is an important way to take this work forward.
Finally, I am grateful to Paul Raskin and Journey to Earthland for continuing to bend the arc forward—an arc I saw in previous “bendings” when as a teenager I tagged along at my parents’ workshops on peace, justice, and world order alternatives; when as young twenty-something living in Brazil, I translated for my parents at the “People’s Summit” of the Rio-92 UN conference; and when as a graduate student at the New School, I turned my attention to youth, social movements and democratization. As a child and a scholar of this earlier wave, who is now engaged in educating young leaders for the next wave, it is exciting to see so many of these threads pulled forward and pushed onward in such a compelling way—unnerving as it may be amidst the stress of the recent election (which steers us toward imagining all of the many ways in which these scenarios might go wrong).
1. Elise Boulding, “Image and Action in Peace Building,” Journal of Social Issues 44, no. 2 (July 1988): 17–37.